Thoughts on Taking a Gap Year to Work

After completing the Bachelor of Design (majoring in Architecture and Landscape Architecture) in 2019, I decided to take a gap year in 2020 to work full-time and travel overseas. Obviously, everyone’s international travel plans in 2020 (and for the near future) have been thrown out of the window. I ended up cancelling my backpacking trip to Europe in July and working throughout the year.

This year was the first time working on a full-time basis – during the bachelor degree, I could only work one day a week, which meant the type of work I could undertake was limited. Having five days a week at work provided me with greater exposure and a broader perspective on various tasks involved.

As Student of Architecture at a small residential firm developing its design identity and the most efficient working system, my experience would be quite different from working at a firm of varying scale, sector and position in the industry. Here are some of the things I learnt this year:

1. Interpersonal relationships with stakeholders

While ‘architecture’ tends to remind people of design or ‘creative job’, I found that it is essentially a people-oriented work. 

Whether I’m looking for product specifications, engaging with consultants, or explaining to clients, it is often the communication skill that matters the most. It includes being aware of what information they’re seeking and respecting how they work. Usually, I look totally ignorant, and I’m aware of it. Still, I feel that showing an understanding of their expectations on architects and trying to make their lives easier helps build a positive relationship with various stakeholders.

2. Spending time polishing up works

When working on multiple projects under time pressure, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of markups and own responsibility to pick up mistakes before having it reviewed by senior architects. But as I’m putting my initials on drawings and schedules more often, I found checking my own work constantly with fresh eyes crucial. I have a greater sense of responsibility to get them right since whatever issued to consultants and clients represent the firm. I believe presenting well-polished work contribute to a better relationship and increased trust.

3. Reviewing, questioning and improving how we work

Sometimes projects go sour, and I can’t help feeling incapable. Or, sometimes I find myself not good enough. But I’m grateful that I have a relationship with my colleagues and boss who are open to constructive discussions.

This year, we started having weekly workshops to discuss design considerations for using particular materials, detailing, heritage architecture and more. I have a list of items I would like to discuss next year, including how to improve the documentation standards, what to look for at site inspection, communication with a client, etc.

I’m also happy that I’m encouraged to ask questions all the time. Whether it’s about procedures, standard details, or how we work, I feel comfortable questioning and learn why we do something in specific ways.

I understand that depending on the firm you work at, you get a varying degree of autonomy and structured support. I found my experience very much oriented around independence and learning from doing (often learning from mistakes). I’m very much involved in setting office standards, for example, creating a new schedule template. Therefore sometimes I feel that the existing working style is not optimal, that there’s still space for improvement. The routine of evaluating how we work and looking for a better solution has been challenging but a fantastic learning opportunity. I feel lucky that this spirit of try and error exists at my office.

Working at a small firm means my own incompetency and lack of sophistication are exposed and significantly impact projects as they progress. I’m sure I’d have a better sense of security in a more structured workplace. Still, I’m rather grateful for having opportunities to learn my own weaknesses and inexperience and to deal with them.

4. A new perspective on the university design projects

As I spent more time working on ‘real’ projects, I started seeing university design studios as a luxury. Being able to set own design brief, site and the design direction now seems like great flexibility. When working on projects at work, it’s difficult not to be caught in the mindset of ‘cost-efficient typical details for projects with this tight budget’. So I’m now looking forward to starting the master’s degree and having an opportunity to further push my own design philosophy.

I’m glad that I took a gap year to work more. Although this year disrupted my original plan to travel, I’ve been lucky to continue working throughout the year. Taking a gap year before going back to study was, after all, a fruitful decision I made.

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