I do not know what I expected when I chose architecture. I started the program on a bit of a whim. I had convinced myself that I would become a fashion designer, fully prepared to use my two years of vocational training towards a degree. But I was growing tired of designing clothes; it felt meaningless and wasteful to me. 

Very few people in very niche design circles were actively talking about making the field more sustainable. There was not enough discourse for me, not to mention action. So, I began to look at other design alternatives to pursue, specifically ones that focused on sustainability. I have always been interested in housing, so I picked architecture, believing on some level that I could finally design something meaningful.

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©Nia Smith

I Didn’t Want To Care

The very day I chose architecture, I got introduced to the field. My school was hosting a hempcrete event on campus. After expressing interest in the program, my professor took me to get hands-on experience. I remember thinking how refreshing it was to hear about sustainability in architecture on Day One. I figured that a core tenant of architectural design had to be sustainability. I have since discovered that critics, students, and many big architecture firms are, at least, performatively supporting environmental justice. Smaller local firms often can not emphasize their eco-conscious efforts; sustainability is expensive.

That does not stop local firms from often being the vanguards of unique designs. Lots of my favorite buildings are the houses I found around my neighborhood, often overlooked by the layman. I have learned that big firms do not have all the creativity — you do not have to take their word as gospel just because they say so. 

A sense of rebellion, especially against authority, is so necessary as an architect. How do we make systematic changes if we belong to a system that does not work? We have to be willing to be mavericks and make discoveries. To test out new techniques and theories that big firms are not trying because they want to keep the project cheaper.

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©Nia Smith

I Didn’t Know

The only way to learn more about these concepts, or which firm you might fit with, or even how to be a better practicing architect requires hours and hours of research. I love reading. I felt like fashion did not have enough reference material for me. But architecture? 

Everything in architecture has been documented, researched, analyzed, taught, reassessed, argued, and recorded and continues to be. The research process feels like a growing intangible cloud, a contorting blob of thoughts and ideas with evidence and proof. Nothing feels better than pulling a concept from that cloud to use on your next project. Staying well-researched keeps you creative and well-informed.

Waiting For The Day 

Interestingly, the parallels in architecture and society have shown me how incredibly political architecture, in general, can be. Art imitates life. As architects, our responsibility is to design, not just for those who are directly impacted by our work, but those who are indirectly affected. What will our design add to the community? What are the consequences of it being built in this way with these materials? 

This responsibility is taught to students at every stage of architecture school. It is a responsibility that I will not quickly forget. Every class emphasized how important our job is, how it is not to be taken lightly. We have to think about what precedents we set. What is the purpose of our design? How do we plan for its future? 

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©Nia Smith

Just Like We Do

The big lessons everyone knows is time management and how to work with others, but they are crucial lessons to learn. Nothing holds up a team or project more than people who cannot get on the same page. A 6-week project where the first three weeks get spent just trying to set up a meeting bodes very poorly for the team’s clients. Especially if your team has entered a competition. 

Some architecture competitions will accept all skill levels, so students are often already at a disadvantage. If you cannot communicate effectively, you will be very disappointed.

I Got A Little Bit Longer

I still have a lot to learn in terms of technical architecture work. There is a lot more I want to know about details and drafting. But I currently see architecture as a field to impact change. It is science, art, and activism, all rolled into one big CAD file. I am optimistic about this field because everyone else is. The community of architects, future and practicing, is such a welcoming one. I’ve found that people who design are always so excited to learn new concepts and share. 

Architecture is driven by purpose. People need places to live, but they also need places to do all the other activities that make life worth living. I have learned how fulfilling designing for people and knowing that they will use that space can be.

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©Nia Smith

Nia Smith is an architecture student at Howard University. She uses her background in fashion to design spaces that are useful and beautiful. As an environmental advocate, Nia focuses on low-income housing made sustainably with circular design theories.