Life Decisions In Architecture


As admirable as it would be to say that I loved architecture from the bottom of my heart and dreamed about studying it since I was a child, it’s not quite accurate. My forte as well as my interests lay in graphic design ever since high school. However, be that as it may, there were no graphic programs for a Canadian university at the time so the choice naturally resulted in architecture.

On the same day, you had to write the Précis test which involved summarizing a piece of literature.

Selection & Entry

Entry into the architecture program at University of Waterloo was slightly different from regular majors. Other than the grades you submitted from high school, there was also a portfolio interview as well as a Précis test. From the 1000+ applicants about 500 were selected from school grades and were offered the interview. On the same day, you had to write the Précis test which involved summarizing a piece of literature. The Précis and the interview were weighed about half and half. Of the 500 students about 70 were offered the program.

In my case, I had a huge advantage in terms of the portfolio interview. From grade 7 through 12, I was in a certain program that specialized in both traditional and digital arts called CyberARTS. In that program, not only was I exposed to many different forms of art and design, but I also had to upkeep a portfolio. My portfolio included a large variety of styles such as paintings and life drawings as well as magazine layouts and even some film and 3D animation. Although some people were inclined to bring work related to architecture in their interview, I personally felt that the large variety I had helped my case despite my serious lack of knowledge in the field.

School of Architecture

As many people might already know, many programs at the University of Waterloo are mandatory co-op programs. Architecture is not an exception. The program is a full 5-year program that awards an Honors BAS degree. As it’s a co-op program, the schedule is a little rigid but the work experience you come out with in the end makes it all worth it.

In the first year, you’ll have two 4-month study terms back to back and the only summer term you will get off in your 5 years of study. After that it’s a constant exchange from 4 months of study period to 4 months of internship until right before your 4th year when you get 8 months of internship in a row. The study term that follows this longer co-op term is held in the School of Architecture’s Rome studio. Then provided there are no mishaps, 8 months after that you will have finished your 5 years.

By and large, the experience you get at the school will be divided into two parts -the ideal, textbook learning style from the study terms and the more hands-on experience from the co-op terms. Of course that is not to say that study terms are only taught from textbooks. Almost every single project you have in Studio (core design course) will require you to not only have detailed design drawings but physical models as well. The scale will start out small such as residential houses and wood design, and with each passing study term it will scale upwards to concrete and steel high rises and even to urban city design.

That is why in my personal opinion, the most important experience is actually the co-op experience.

However, no matter how realistic a design you produce for your projects, it’s still very different from the real thing. What you don’t have to worry about so much in school, like exact beam size, material, and cost, you get to see in your co-op terms. That is why in my personal opinion, the most important experience is actually the co-op experience. When you can see the amount of effort and the process it takes to actually build one thing, that’s when you can really appreciate the field of architecture. You also have the chance to look at all different kinds of architecture firms and their styles and at the same time start building up your career while you are still in school. Although it’s completely possible to keep going back to one architecture firm, most students like to try out as many companies they can. In my case I have interned not only in Toronto but as well as in Vancouver and in Los Angeles. In addition, other than the valuable knowledge you gain, the connections you set up during co-op can lead to possible job offers in the future. Not much to complain about there I think.

The architecture program also has many field trips. Almost every study term there are a few day trips as well as one long trip of around 5 days. These long trips are generally to cities in Canada and the US, and include visits to well known architectural sites. The most anticipated field trips however, are probably the two long trips during the Rome study term in 4th year where you have the chance to see many examples of historical architecture up close.

The majority of the designing you do is in the Studio course which is 1.5 credits (a regular class is 0.5 credits). In the first two years, you also have to take 4 other courses on top of Studio. There is always one math/physics related course, as well as one culture/history related course. Nonetheless, the class that will take up the most time is Studio. From second year you are able to take some electives as well. Now, it has to be noted that at U of W, the School of Architecture is not actually in the City of Waterloo, but in Cambridge – the next city over. Public transportation is available but it does take 1 hour by express bus one way, and so on top of the course’s tight schedule, we don’t really get to experience electives, clubs, or general campus life at the main campus.

In terms of facilities though, the School of Architecture is well equipped. We have a fairly large library which specializes in architecture books as well as large scale printers and a wood workshop at our disposal. The computer lab’s horrifyingly small with twenty some Macs but most people have their own computer anyway. For this kind of school, the tuition is fairly normal – around $3500 per term – but expect to spend a good $1000 (or more in some cases) on top of that for books, supplies, printing costs, and field trips.

Next Steps

Due to the fact that by the time you graduate you more or less have 2 years of actual work experience at actual firms and you’ve already created a basic network, the chances of you getting employment when or shortly after you graduate are very high. Some people choose to go work for a company right away, while others try to go into the Masters program. If you take the Masters at U of W, instead of the 3 years it might take anywhere else, you can shorten that time greatly as a graduate from the U of W undergrad program. For those people who want to aim higher and have the good grades, portfolio and excellent references, you can also try for the prestigious schools like Harvard.

That all having been said, not everyone aims to become a licensed architect, so I think it’s important to take some time after graduation to really see where you want to go or what you want to specialize in. You might even realize that this profession is not for you after going through the program. I, myself also have not decided whether I want to pursue becoming a licensed architect or not, but after graduation, I’m going to go to Japan (where my interests lie) in hopes that I can gain experience at a Japanese architecture firm.

After all, doing what you enjoy is the best choice.

The Verdict

I am not the type of person to say one choice is definitely better than the next. It all comes down to each individual, the decisions that they make and what they want the eventual outcome to be. Personally speaking, if I started over again, I might have chosen to go to a different school altogether – outside of Canada. However, this is my choice and mine alone. If you are ready to spend the time and effort and stay dedicated, I say attend Architecture at Waterloo. It can teach people a lot of things. If you are only half serious about it, I think it will probably be a difficult program to finish and you may want to reconsider. After all, doing what you enjoy is the best choice.