Professionals weigh graduate skills, weaknesses

November 15, 2003 · by DesignIntelligence

The Skill Assessment Survey indicates a need for the design studios in architecture schools to further promote the values of respect, optimism, sharing, innovation and engagement.

We at ArchVoices applaud the continued efforts of DesignIntelligence to establish benchmarks and measure trends regarding the effectiveness of architectural education and training. If these were unprecedented findings or if individual schools, firms or our national organizations were already conducting longitudinal studies to measure their progress in these areas, we would have no reason to worry. We know, however, that’s rarely the case. A 1980 study by the ACSA, Tracking Study of Architecture Graduates, revealed almost identical concerns, as did the 1996 Building Community report as well as others before and after. None of these studies concluded that education is hopelessly flawed, but instead, that there is ample room for improvement on all fronts—if we do, in fact, agree that these are crucial skill sets needed to operate in the design and construction industries.

Any study of this type must also gauge the skill sets that architecture school graduates are effectively bringing to the table; what skill sets firms focus on in their hiring processes; whether or not graduates’ core skills are being utilized by their firm; how firms contribute to honing new skills; how the profession enables graduates to gauge their competence throughout their internship; etc. After all, the one-size-fits-all system that our profession uses to license and thereby determine its members places nearly equal emphasis on post-graduation work experience and learning. Considering this, the survey that DesignIntelligence generously administered is essentially a mid-term exam; seeing that even the final registration exams don’t cover many of these same areas, we need a truly commensurate final exam as well.

John Cary Jr., executive director
ArchVoices

The common theme here to me is integration—the ability to integrate and communicate design, practice and technical ideas coherently. The academy can create context, establish basic skills, and set expectations, and that’s what the best schools try to do—certainly we attempt it at Yale. But the ability to fully synthesize the multiple sides of practice can only come from experience, properly prepared. Thus the desire in offices for “tiny, fully formed architects,” is not a realistic expectation.

Sketching skills = analytical, synthetic and evaluation abilities (vs. mechanical delineation)

Practical business/practice = lack of insight to connect discrete design activities to the larger context of practice, from the beginning of internship (vs. business planning or contract skills, for example, which no principal would ask an intern to do in practice)

Oral and written communication skills = see sketching above, combine
with inability to articulate issues verbally (no “vs.” here, architects classically don’t write or speak well, but it’s tough to communicate incomplete ideas)

Detailing knowledge = lack of insight about how buildings go together, i.e., “technical synthesis.” (vs. ability to draw details, or, lately, paste them into CAD documents).

Firm leaders should be asking “what do recent graduates need to successfully start their careers” vs. “How much stuff should they know right out of school to be maximally useful.”

Phil Bernstein, vice president
Autodesk, Building Solutions
Lecturer in Professional Practice, Yale

The Skill Assessment Survey indicates a need for the design studios in architecture schools to further promote the values of respect, optimism, sharing, innovation and engagement. With sketching skills and oral and written communication skills both so high on the list, it is clear that architecture students need to be taught how to better share their ideas with clients, users and the general public. Students need to be encouraged to innovate during their architectural education in order to decrease problems in the areas of detailing knowledge, building/structural knowledge and relationship between design and technology. Too often, this type of practical knowledge is glossed over because the culture of the design studio lacks an optimistic view of real-world constraints as opportunities for creativity. Finally, in order to gain practical business and practice knowledge and a clearer understanding of project management, architecture students need to be better engaged with the profession and other disciplines. Students can and should be encouraged to respect and learn from both practicing architects and those in disciplines that traditionally lie outside of the walls of the design studio.

Katherine A. Bojsza, vice president
The American Institute of Architecture Students

Several of the skills listed in the survey are not abilities we expect young people recently graduating to have. Project management, manual drafting, and construction experience are examples of these skills. The top five of the survey, on the other hand, are skills they should have gotten in school or from internships, but I would agree they are lacking and that is a big problem. Knowledge of practice and detailing, we know we will have to continue to develop in young people but inability to write or draw is not excusable.

If more schools were requiring internships and participation in the IDP program we would be doing much better in several of the items on the survey. Certainly someone completing a masters of architecture should have IDP practical experience. Now that IDP is tied to state license testing, schools should consider structuring their education to fit the IDP categories. That way students will know what is going to be expected of them after graduation.

Some items on the survey, like common sense or work ethic, I am not sure I would consider to be skills one might gain in school, but more character traits of an individual. At NBBJ we have established relationships with about two dozen schools, and each year we send ambassadors like myself to meet with interested students. It has been a good way to balance individual relationships with expectations of their institutions. We rely on interns from our firm returning to their schools to communicate both the character of our firm as well as the expectations we have of graduates.

Patrick Mays, principal
NBBJ

The fact that the DesignIntelligence survey discovered that sketching, practical business skills, detailing and communication skills were the top deficiencies of graduating students is consistent with our experience and speaks to the nature of the practice of architecture itself. Architecture is a synthesis of design, problem solving, business, interpersonal communication and collaboration among other things. Individuals who are successful in this practice generally have the facility to nimbly move between these modes of thought. Sketching, in particular, synthesizes design, communication, and problem solving in a seemingly simple and direct activity. It is more than simply capturing a gesture, though it does this as well. It is the very simplicity and directness of sketching that requires the nimbleness of thought that characterizes the synthetic intellect of the talented architect.

In our experience, architecture schools have a tendency to teach design in a more iterative, less interactive process that is characterized by a series of charettes and design presentations. This process emphasizes presentation skills and personal performance rather than interactive problem solving and collaborative design. Architects rarely have the chance to communicate in formal individual presentations in practice. Being able to communicate design ideas and solutions to problems via the spoken word and the sketch are hallmarks of a successful design professional.

Phil Harrison, principal
Perkins & Will

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