Career change program cultivates successful ‘architects with a twist’

J. Craig Babe

Marcel Erminy

You don’t have to earn an undergraduate design degree to excel as an architect. For several decades, the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University has successfully trained aspiring architects who hail from a wide range of disciplines through its rigorous Master of Architecture Career Change program.

The current cadre of 13 career change students includes English, biology and business majors, as well as students who earned customized undergraduate degrees through the College of Architecture’s university studies option. Now wrapping up three semesters of intensive study in design basics, this fall the group will begin collaborating with fellow master’s students who have the advantage of four years of undergraduate training in architecture.

“I had never sketched a building in my life,” said Shelby Dittrich, an English major from Hamilton, Texas who applied to the program with a portfolio of marketing work. “I thought I would be wildly underprepared and was skeptical about working at the level of the students with four-year design degrees.”

But a year spent immersed in architectural design, she said, has eased those fears and given her courage to join the fray.

A crash course

Bachelor of Environmental Design students at Texas A&M complete about 120 credit hours in four years to earn a degree, all the while learning architectural design basics such as drawing, foundation design, tectonics, context and architectural history. They complete eight studio classes and spend one long semester studying abroad.

One of the most rigorous degrees, architecture requires students to spend more study time out of class than all other majors, including engineering, nursing and neuroscience, according to an Indiana University [study] ( .

It’s even harder for M.Arch career change students.

“We’re teaching these students four years’ worth of education in three semesters,” said Marcel Erminy, associate professor of practice, and coordinator of the Master of Architecture program. “It’s very intense and architecture-driven.”

Focused exclusively on architecture — all day, every class for three semesters — career change students agree they spend more than 60 hours per week in class, studying, and working on their projects.

“It’s a much steeper hill,” said J. Craig Babe, the associate professor of practice leading this summer’s final career change session. “But, when you do something in a more focused way, you can learn more quickly.”

Viewed as a source of pride by career change veteran Bill Poole ’94, the academic ordeal, he said, is “not for the faint of heart.”

“Trying to approximate four years of undergrad education in one year of career change was a wild, completely exhausting test of mind and body,” said Poole, who now owns and operates Poolehaus Residential Design, an award-winning Kansas City-based design firm. “Four hours of sleep was a crazy luxury. I think only two or three of us made it through on schedule.”

The current stalwart crop of career change students, the largest cohort yet, is fairing better. Not a single student has dropped out.

The fruits of labor

Career change students often finish the master’s degree program with better projects than their non-career-change peers, said Erminy, and they are consistently among the honorees at the department’s year-culminating Celebration of Excellence competition and awards ceremony.

“These students bring an unparalleled level of energy to how they do their work,” Erminy said. Their undergraduate experiences equip them with skill sets that differ from traditional M.Arch students and alter their approach to design thinking.

Among previous career change students, Erminy counted a harp player who’s sensitivity influenced her building designs, a mathematician who designed amazing structures by calculating weight and balance to a very advanced level, and a psychology major who created the most beautiful equine center project he’s ever seen because she understood of how it should “feel” when people walked through it.

“You end up with architects with a twist of whatever they were before,” he said. “There’s a richness to that.”

Certainty in action

Because they choose architecture over their previous career path, instructors noted that students in the career change program tend to have a unique focus and surety of purpose.

“There’s no problem with them being unmotivated because they’ve made the choice to take on this career,” Babe said.

Before entering the career change program, marketing graduate Shelly Damo Sullivan was unable to tear herself away from the design lab at the firm where she worked.

“I knew I needed to be doing this,” said the 30-year-old from Killeen, Texas about her passion for the design process. “I was ready to do whatever it took.”

Maturity and experience also aid resolve, said classmate Andres Vela of McAllen, Texas, whose undergrad bioenvironmental science studies, he said, lacked the zeal that fuels his new trajectory.

“If I had done architecture at 18, I wouldn’t have been as focused,” the 24-year-old reflected. “Now, I put more emphasis on the study and the work ethic.”

Measuring up

Studios, the time-tested cornerstone of architectural education, are the most critical component of modern design pedagogy. Given that career change students complete three studios before entering the M.Arch program, compared to the eight studio projects accomplished by their more traditional counterparts, the career changers still have some catching up to do.

“The challenge they face is doing everything for the first time and not having repetition,” said Babe. “Every single thing they do has to count and they don’t have time or distance to learn from their mistakes.”

But because career change students are accustomed to learning at an accelerated pace, Erminy said they catch up quickly.

“It all clicks into place once they work with people from the four-and-five year degree programs,” he said. “By the second year it’s nearly impossible to tell which students are from where.”

Putting it all together

Now in their final weeks of their prerequisite studies, Babe said the career change students have come a long way since last fall, when many of them had never held a T-square. Creating a final portfolio project to be presented in August, the students are applying a year’s worth of acquired skills and knowledge in an integrated capstone studio identical to those undertaken by fourth-year environmental design students.

“This pivotal, final studio is meant to take everything they’ve already learned and move it ahead with more complexity,” said Babe. “It’s also crafted to make them more autonomous with design ideas and more independent. The designs have a higher level of plausibility.”

Working independently, the students are putting finishing touches on their design concepts for a 30,000 sq. ft. multipurpose educational pavilion to be located on the quad, just south of Building A of the Langford Architecture Center on the Texas A&M campus. Designed with sustainability in mind to complement the surrounding architecture and green space, the facility is to include studio space, workshops for ceramics, printmaking and robotics, classroom space, faculty offices, a library annex and a coffee shop.

“They’ll be ready,” said Babe. “They’ve done good work. And in two year’s time when they graduate, they’ll be qualified to design real buildings.”

Sarah Wilson

posted July 27, 2017