The thinking behind Practical Architecture for Beginners


Its pretty simple really. I’ve been involved in training architects in the early stages of their careers for quite a few years now. Like most architects, I don’t have any training in how to train, but I do want to get better at it. And I do want the graduate architects that I work with to become proficient as quickly as possible.

This blog is one step towards achieving those objectives.

Learning from experience

When I started work, I wanted to get close to people with real expertise. My aim was to work with anyone who was a master of their trade. I wanted to absorb what they knew and acquire the strategies that they used to do what they did.

Some people I worked with were good and generous teachers. Others were not that interested in bringing on the inexperienced. And some saw their expertise as a source of power and were consequently reluctant to share it.

Sometimes the environment and culture within which the work was done were conducive to personal development, sometimes it wasn’t. A large amount of luck was involved in obtaining the right project opportunities. And there was an inevitable tension between the time available to learn and the time available to produce.

Becoming proficient in an office environment can be a hit and miss affair. It takes effort on all sides to create a healthy culture of learning through doing. Reflecting on experiences and writing things down so that they can be shared, seemed like a good starting point to me.

‘We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience’.

John Dewey

Getting started

Not everything can be covered in architecture school, and when starting work for the first time, it can be surprising how much new knowledge is required and how many new skills need to be developed.

Learning in the early stages is hampered by the fact that those who know how to do things, don’t necessarily know how best to pass that knowledge on to the inexperienced. And there is a further paradox, in that most skills can only be explained in terms understandable to those already versed in those skills.

For the beginner, there comes a point when you have to put any feelings of inadequacy to one side, and just have a go.

You give your first attempt everything you’ve got only to find that, maybe, it’s not quite as good as you wanted it to be. But you start to discover what you don’t know and what you need to work on. And you start to see things differently.

It takes time, patience and considerable resilience to develop new knowledge and new skills across a broad front. And it requires the right opportunities at the right time, with access to help and support when needed and the internal motivation to keep wanting more.

'How do you know all that? He said… It’s obvious… Well then, why didn’t I see it?… You have to have some familiarity… Then it’s not obvious, is it?’

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Getting to intermediate level in any subject is an achievement, but it is not without risk. Having some knowledge is a good thing, but it can also lead to complacency. You get so far, and then your abilities begin to plateau.

Attitude is all important. Curiosity, openness to learning and humility are all key.

Can those attributes be acquired or is it down to the story of the individual? What role does the business play in motivating people to do better? I think it’s a two-way street. A team effort.

In the early days, you’re happy to absorb whatever comes your way. But over time you need to develop a sense of where you’re heading. Without this, it becomes difficult to set goals, and you can’t draw the route map for getting there.

The best practices that I worked for were clear in where they were going, but they were also capable of asking the question, what do you want to do? And they had the flexibility to accommodate people when things felt right.

Over time, the ambitions of the individual increasingly need to be aligned with the ambitions of the practice within which the work is being done. The objectives of one should complement those of the other.

Both need to learn how to learn. And, surprisingly quickly, there comes a point in time when those being coached, become the coaches.

‘You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best’.

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy.


When I was a graduate, I thought I’d be joining a profession that had figured out what it was doing. I thought it would have fixed processes and strategies that could be relied upon. All I had to do was learn them.

I soon became aware that I was joining a moving train.

I realised that the practice that I’d joined was changing because it was a developing business. And I understood that the profession that I’d entered was changing in response to political, societal and technological developments. The future seemed exciting and there were clearly some massive challenges to overcome. The role of the architect really seemed to matter.

Meanwhile, as a novice, I recognised that I needed to concentrate on the basics. This meant that it felt as though the interesting stuff was out of reach for the time being. I wondered how a graduate architect could ever make an impact?

I was impatient.

As we know, the rate of change has accelerated over the years, the challenges have grown more substantial, and the opportunities for architects to make a difference have expanded.

None of which is much help to architects who are just starting out. Although exciting, the future is increasingly complicated and uncertain. The latest technological advance is soon superseded by the one after that. The regulatory environment within which our work is done is not static long enough for people to figure out what it means. Authors have stopped writing books because they’re out of date as soon as they’re published. Someone keeps moving the goal posts.

It is within this context that we are left to train the next generation of architects. As a consequence, I think we have to try harder; become more disciplined; look at other models; try new things; discuss; reflect; feedback; and share. This is where, in my small corner of the architectural world, I hope to do that.

'Confidering the Number of Books on the Theory and Practice of Architecture already publifhed, any further Effort to Illuftrate and familiarize this MOST NOBLE ART, may feem fuperfluos and unneceffary'.

William Pain, The Practical Builder, 1774.

Note: My use of the word ‘beginners’ in Practical Architecture for Beginners, is intended as a reference to those with a ‘beginner’s mind’ and is not necessarily a reference to anyone who is a beginner.

Andy FosterComment