Entering Architecture as a “mature” student

Isabelle LaLiberte, Architect

Life as an architect, as a “mature” entry

 We all know the story: You enter university, you have a ball for a few years, you exit and start working in your dream career. There or thereabouts right?! 

But what if you change your mind when you have tried that dream career? What if you realise at a slightly more “mature” age that your new dream career requires a hefty seven years of training? Would you be brave enough to do it? Are you brave enough to not do it? 

Isabelle LaLiberte did exactly this. She packed in her well paid job as a trader to pursue her long standing dream of becoming an architect. As she could not afford to quit her job whilst studying she did the actually impossible and worked full time whilst also studying full time. This did in hindsight break her in many ways, but it did also mean that she could graduate along with her cohort and become a qualified architect in the usual seven years it takes to become a qualified architect. 

Q: Talk us through the process you went through in order to reach the perhaps inevitable, answer that I need to train as an architect? 

A: I have always, always been creative, and have always loved exploring spaces. I know it sounds slightly pretentious but I just had a fascination with how to make a room or a building more practical or more user-friendly. Sadly I didn’t pursue this dream when I was younger as we were pushed into more scientific subjects and careers. So when I reached a point in my trading career where I felt it was completely unfeasible to continue, for a variety of reasons, I did a whole lot of research. I did all the internet research that you can do, I then literally leeched on to a friend who is an architect and asked him about a gazillion questions. He lent me books and was generally an absolutely amazing source of knowledge. When I had reached the level of “Yes, I want to really see what it’s like inside an architecture firm I asked another friend if I could intern at his firm. The answer was initially no, but I managed to convince him to let me just “hang around” his office for a day or so. It was fantastic to get a real insight into what a day as an architect might actually truly be like. And that is what made me decide to go for the degree.                                                        

Q: Firstly, what is the major difference, do you think, in entering the architecture world as a slightly older graduate? 

A: There is definitely a sense of not quite belonging. You are not straight out of school and out of university age wise, but you are in terms of your architectural experience, but you have 20 odd years experience as an adult in another profession. It does make you stand out, which can be good of course, but it can also make you feel like you just don’t fit in anywhere. Maybe it was good for me in hindsight because it really made me look long and hard at all the different routes you can take as an architect, not just the straight in to an architect firm. Also, because it was so hard, working full time and studying full time, it made you really question your sanity and your question your dream, which again just makes you that more sure of what the end goal is. 

Q: Now that the dream is reality, is it all it’s cracked up to be?

A: I so genuinely wish I could say 100% yes, but truly, it has been quite the eye opener. What anyone thinking about going into architecture needs to know is that for seven years of training you could become almost anything. A surgeon, a pilot, certainly a banker… and they would all pay more than an architect. Because I nearly broke myself with working and studying at the same time, I now have no student debt, but if you didn’t and you don’t have the Bank of Mum and Dad, it is going to be a hard slog when you finish. There is also the culture of working exceedingly long hours. That starts at university with coursework that is simply impossible to do in the time set. Some students got around that by simply not doing it all, but as a diligent older student I just couldn’t bring myself to do that so I worked literally day and night to finish off the coursework. It is a cultural thing, I do not believe it has to be this way at all, it’s just how it’s always been. 

Another worrying statistic is the general lack of women in the industry. Plenty of female interior designers for example, but relatively few female architects, and I would hazard a guess at that being due to the long hours and lack of flexibility. It is a shame that the money has to be a part of deciding whether you should pursue your dream or not, and I think if you are aware of the reality it might be better than going into it with eyes closed as it were. 

Q: In hindsight, would you do it all again? 

A: I think me being me, I probably would. I like the credibility it gives me. Having said that there are definitely ways of getting into architecture without the title. The title is protected but the function isn’t, which is why you can have a builder essentially doing the work of an architect, but without all of the fine points that we have, after all, spent more than half a decade learning and refining. When you hear people brag about building a house without the help of an architect, as an architect, you can normally tell. 

Q: What do you find the best parts of your job and what are the most boring? 

A: I absolutely love refurbishing. To take a building that looks old and dreary from the outside and turning into something practical, useful and beautiful is just dreamy to me. The stuff that makes me roll my eyes slightly is construction drawings about where the carpet meets the tile? Extremely important of course, but oh so dull. 

What I would say to anyone thinking about making the jump and doing a degree in architecture is this: Only make the jump if you genuinely cannot see yourself in your current situation any longer. There are other ways in to architecture, but they may take longer, and you will not receive the title. If you are ok with that, maybe try that.