A Day in the Life of an Architect

Berkeley Connect Architecture students get the inside scoop

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At “A Day in the Life of an Architect,” Berkeley Connect Architecture students got a chance to step into the shoes of practicing architects, as a panel of local practitioners (most of whom graduated from UC Berkeley) described a typical day in their professional lives.

“There is a whole range of ways that architects can work outside a design firm,” Assistant Vice Chancellor Emily Marthinsen said. Marthinsen, who received her Masters in Architecture from UC Berkeley, has been a planner here on campus for over a decade. “I get to work with all kinds of architects and do a little of everything. When people ask what I do, I always say it’s all politics, and it’s definitely important. I am also constantly involved in design advocacy, because I have to translate design language to non-architects.” She also said that her role required her to think both on a macro and micro level all the time. “Deciding where to place a bike rack is just as important as the stadium project,” she noted. Current projects she is working on include the Lower Sproul development, the replacement of Tolman Hall, and preservation planning. “The campus is not a museum,” she said of preservation planning. “So the question to answer is ‘How do we combine contemporary designs with historic resources?’ Being a public architect requires balancing conflicting needs and opinions and navigating a challenging environment.” Marthinsen also participates in design review, evaluating proposed buildings and projects.

Morten Jensen started his presentation with a video.  “I wanted you to feel like you are walking into our office, so I made a video of a full day at JRDV Urban International.” Jensen too is a Cal grad (class of ’81). “I remember sitting in your seats, and I had no idea what I’d be doing after I graduated.” He admitted it was a panel like this one that got him thinking. Jensen worked in a very large office in San Francisco before starting his own firm in 2003. “We are a relatively small office, and part of why we are small is to create an integrative environment. This is a social activity! We talk a lot.” In order to promote integrative design, Jensen said that architects at JRDV tend not to specialize, as they often do in larger firms. JRDV takes on a variety of projects (including everything from a market hall in the Bay Area to international economic development projects) and works with many international architects. One international architect who worked with the firm even converted a part of the office into a miniature apartment, complete with a bed! “It’s really interesting to work in other countries,” Jensen commented. The most important part for him? “Keeping everyone excited.”

In comparison, David Lee (class of ’95) is a senior architect at TranSystem, a very large architectural engineering firm that focuses on transportation projects nationwide. Although the firm is largely made up of engineers focused on building transportation infrastructure, a small group of architects, like Lee, work on designing hubs. In a typical day, Lee spends about 50% of his time doing design work. “Architects don’t just draw blueprints,” he said. “Much of my work is working on specifications, writing reports, and preparing LEED documentation. I often work with other architects on construction documents, like floor plans, as well as with the fire department to secure permits.” But it’s also 25% understanding the work, which includes a lot of client meetings, site visits, and conference calls. “Part of understanding the work is actually being there,” Lee said. “For me, that is one of the most enjoyable parts.” The rest of his time is spent planning how new projects will be executed, including timelines and budgets, and attracting new clients, which includes marketing.

David has been working at TranSystem for over 20 years, but Bonnie Miller is just starting out. Having graduated from Cal Poly just six years ago, Miller works as a job captain at MBH Architects. “I wear a lot of different hats,” she said. A large part of her work is team coordination. “There is a lot of information gathering and talking to clients and other team members and going over codes. We look to help each other.” Miller is also involved in some interior design (selecting custom furniture, floors, and other finishes for office spaces) and project management. “As job captain, I make sure that the end result looks like the drawings,” she said. “This includes a lot of back-and-forth and asking questions like, ‘What fabrics? What lighting?'” For new architects like Miller, all this needs to be balanced with pursuing licensure. “It’s definitely challenging to balance with work, but you get so much experience in your daily work life that prepares you for the test,” Miller said. She also emphasized the importance of seeking both out leadership roles and good mentors. “Taking leadership in anything you do is a big part of being an architect.”

Finally, Dennis Dorman, Senior Associate at Perkins + Will (the firm that designed the addition to the Haas Business school currently under construction), shared his experiences. “What I love about my job is that no two days are the same,” he said. “So it’s impossible for me to give you a slideshow of a day, but instead I can show you slides on what could happen.” A part of the day, Dorman said, is spent at the computer, writing reports and emails. There are also a lot of meetings to go over projects and review schedules. “Everyone is usually juggling several projects at once,” he said. Teams often meet in team rooms to go over designs and coordinate their work, and architects also have a lot of client meetings. “We usually go to where we need to be for 2-3 days,” Dorman said. “It’s intense because we need to learn everything we can in that time.” Especially when working on public projects, architects also need to present before city councils and community members. In community meetings, community members are given a space to provide feedback, an important part of the process. For a project in Buffalo, NY, the firm invited residents to demonstrate their own ideas, providing a model on which people could move the pieces to show the layout they desired. The “game” was played 24 times, and team members created heat maps to figure out what people wanted most and where. “Our architects work on projects from Fremont to Brazil, and our SF team is one of our largest,” he said.

As clearly shown by these presentations, aspiring architects have many choices of career directions to pursue. “I think when I was an undergraduate, I didn’t realize how diverse the field was. What I wanted to do wasn’t what I ended up doing, but I found a job that I’m much more suited for,” Marthinsen said. Dorman added, “There are a lot of directions you can take with your degree, and you don’t have to decide now.”


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant