On architecture internships: an essential guide to the first steps into the world of architecture practices

ARCHITECTURE. INTERNSHIP. Two moderately long words which, once put together, define an essential stage in any architecture students’ studies, career, and life. So much so that ‘Intern Architect’ has its own Wikipedia page, an undoubtable proof of importance in the digital age. It is recognised by the profession as the best way to gain experience (some even saying that your time in practice is four times more beneficial than that of your studies). Indeed, those few months will help develop your interests in architecture, expand your skillset and knowledge, and explore new ways to work and produce material, while ultimately making you a more compelling candidate in the job market. When planning what would be my first experience in the office, I was surprised by the low number of guides existing online to help one prepare for one’s first look at what an architecture practice from the inside usually consists of. Through discussions and research, I have noticed that architecture interns will have a very different experience based on multiple factors: the size of the firm, the projects it tends to develop, the country it is based in, your own aptitudes and experiences, and, most of all, the project(s) you will be assigned to and in which phases they are at. Some interns will work on 6 different projects that change every month. Some maybe on 2 or even a single project, carried through the different stages of its development. The subsequent work – and therefore the acquired knowledge – can then be very different. 


The guide you are about to read is based on my first personal experience as an architecture intern in a large-scale international practice. It will help you get a sense of what an architecture internship constitutes, but it cannot tell you the exact conditions in which yours will occur. I can’t assure you if your situation as an intern will be better or worse than mine. The guide is based entirely on my experience working in the Netherlands for a large international firm. It will not focus on the ‘how’ of getting an internship, but rather on the ‘what’ was my role as an intern, as the subject of getting an internship would constitute a huge article in itself.


Getting ready

The first crucial stage you will need to focus on is getting ready for your internship before it starts.

  • Get money

This point is possibly the most controversial and taboo when it comes to architecture internships, especially early ones. The law varies according to the specific country you will be working in. Europe has a much stronger take on free labour than Asia or the US. This guide isn’t there to debate about the issue of unpaid internships, and I highly suggest an article published by Ryan Scavnicky in Archinect to understand the moral and social problems unpaid internship creates but also the dilemma when deciding not to do one. In his words: “Unpaid internships are a systemic issue, not an architectural one. They are a symptom of the relationship between markets, labor, and value. Calling for an erasure of unpaid internships is calling for ethics inside a system that rewards exploitation.”.

  • Know your Softwares

The main concern that students have is often related to architecture software. With so many of them existing and so little personal time to learn by yourself, knowing which ones to prioritise is key and will save you a great deal of time,which is always precious in architecture. From personal experience, some programs are necessary to master. You should be able to use Photoshop and InDesign at a professional level, with Illustrator being a helpful (but less needed) tool which can be required to do diagrams and linework. You should also be familiar with AutoCAD and Rhino (Grasshopper being a well-regarded but not mandatory additional skill). While mastering 3DS Max can be asked, I personally never used it in the office, but rather as a 3D modelling software, Rhino was prioritized. When it comes down to BIM programs and the elephant in the room known as Revit, in my own experience, it was not a looked-after skill where I worked – but I know that most architecture practices ask interns to master it. People with years of experiences in the field told me they had never used Revit professionally, and the firm employed BIM experts for complicated tasks and to teach Revit to the architects when necessary (which depended on the clients and the projects). Indeed, none of the architects and interns where I worked were asked to know Revit. But once again, BIM programs are used in a majority of practices, so learning the basics is probably worth your time, although I would ask during your interview to what level you should know it and to show you would be ready to learn it if needed. This can apply to other programs as well: Vectorworks, Archicad, Microstation, etc…

  • Dress Right

Don’t be too focused on the dress code. Justifiably so, one can ask themselves how to dress for a job which is always in balance between artistic and corporate, especially when the only indications you’re getting from HR is ‘casual-smart’. I’ll reassure you that most firms give you the freedom to dress as you want. The “dress up better than your colleague but never better than your boss” rule absolutely does not apply when your boss is wearing shorts and espadrilles. Wear what you are used to or what goes with the image you want to project. Do not even consider wearing a suit. You are working in a field heavily linked with art, creativity and design, and not at a bank or insurance company. Make sure to ask the recruitment team a maximum amount of questions in advance in case anything is not clear. 

First Days

Now that you’ve made the best of your time before your internship, let’s introduce the first days.

  • The Introduction  

When I arrived at the office, I was given the traditional tour, a desk and a computer. And time. Lots of it. I was told I would receive a message instructing me which team and project I would be first assigned to, but not when. The first day was long. And so was the second day. And the third one. I spent three days doing walks around the office, discreetly spying on the vast variety of projects and teams, seeing how people worked, talking over the coffee machine, etc… Use the first days to get to know people, as with big offices, the large number of employees (120+ in my case) can sometimes be overwhelming and it can be difficult to introduce oneself once work kicks in. Also use this time to get lost in the archives folders and to get familiar with past, present and future projects, as you will realise how much a firm talks in reference to them , as a quick way to explain sometimes complex visual ideas. References to artists, architects, but mostly their own projects. The archive is also a great way to get familiar with the working process of a firm. After three days of unbearable boredom with the end of the tunnel consistently being pushed to the following day, I was finally, (after letting HR to know about my situation multiple times) given a team and a project. I was later told that some interns stay a week without doing anything. Use your first few days well and make sure to make your eagerness to work visible by not sitting at your desk without a goal, seemingly being observed by everyone else in the open space, like a new kid who just arrived to  a new school in the middle of the year.


The Project

  • The First Weeks

And so, my project started. A small team, a project leader, a junior architect, and a brief. I was asked to produce the conventional early site model which would serve as the experimentation table for the weeks to come, and blue-foamed massing to start brainstorming on what approach to take. Some site study and further research had to be done as well to get as much information as we could from a site that no one had ever been to and existed only as a masterplan on paper. Even as an intern, I was considered whenever an idea was developed and I did not restrain on questions, suggestions and troubles. I was working between Rhino, the wire cutter and the laser cutter, producing tens of geometries which were then analysed and either interrupted or expanded upon. While visually appearing to be rushed in the beginning, I learned to produce clean and complex shapes easily and quickly. They had to be presentable to partners and possibly shown to the clients, so some required a considerable amount of time and precision. These first steps into the project were quite calm and I was working decent hours, comfortable 9.30am to 6.00pm days on good weeks, a timetable I would learn to appreciate.

  • The Ever-Important Filing System

Once the flow of ideas about the general massing was good and the team was gaining members, it was time for Rhino to take over my working hours. Experiment with the shape, detail it, render it, present it to the clients, with which we had meetings once every two weeks. The project leader was taking care of the InDesign presentation documents – making sure every work produced was coherent and part of the same narrative thread. Therefore, to make it clear for him and the rest of the team, I quickly learned the value of properly filing and working on documents. This skill is very appreciated when working in teams. On a photoshop file, get used to naming layers, grouping them and deleting the ones which aren’t used. A nice added touch is to colour your layers (right click on layer/group and select a colour), which creates instant identification – having blue sky layers, red ground layers, orange figure groups can be incredibly time-saving. Indeed, you will need to learn to gain time and work fast. You don’t want to be the one dragging down the team. Bonus tips for maximum efficiency on Photoshop: “Ctrl-click” shifts the auto-selection on, to select a layer rapidly, while right-clicking with the selection tool shows a box with each layer which is on the clicked zone, and if they have a clear name, selecting them takes a fraction of a second. You’re welcome.


  • Working in a Team

Working full time in teams under one’s supervision really changes your perspective and teaches you the importance of external and critical advice and feedback. Where uni helps to develop your own style and create a situation where you are the only responsible for the quality and amount of work you produce, in an office, your workflow will be based on this idea of group work. Indeed, if you have a strong stylistic approach to you work, you will most expected to adapt it, especially if you work in a company with a pre-existing style. If you are usually sure about the quality of the work you produce, be ready to accept criticism and attenuate your style, as your project leader is the driver of the project’s vision and his experience shapes the whole project. You will also work with people far more experienced than you, and therefore people working faster and better. However, don’t perceive yourself just as a workforce, but embrace the creativity and ideas you can bring to the project. Suggestions are always appreciated and concerns welcomed – don’t be the person who complains in silence. Indeed, never feel like you don’t have the right to propose ideas or express your concerns about one. Remember that for the firm, you’re not a spectator, but a potential future architect who was taught to be creative and curious. Even people with years in the field enjoy learning about unique artists or lesser-known buildings which you can show them. If you ever feel stuck, ask a colleague. They might have a trick which could save you hours of work. Make yourself present and motivated and always keep yourself busy. Only when everything you were tasked with is done should you call your project leader, so he avoids doing multiple trips to your desk every time a single task is accomplished. I had the chance of assisting every client and partners’ meetings but if you aren’t as lucky, ask. Even if the answer is no, you will simply be seen as someone curious and avid of experience, while a positive answer will give you a unique insight into the inner workings of a big international firm. 

  • Presentation and Deadlines

Throughout the projects’ 10 weeks I was asked to produce a wide array of studies and presentation pieces. Some render on Photoshop, some axos on Illustrator, some conceptual visuals. For the collages and renders, it mostly went in a consistent set of steps: model in Rhino with very few materials, find and save the good views, render with V-Ray, make sure to save all in the correct file, and then bring them to life with Photoshop. While the main final renders would be done by a professional rendering company, in-house renders and collages are produced every week throughout the project’s development as presentation material and design experimentation. As the deadline was getting closer, I volunteered to work on a video presentation of the project (a client’s demand), as no one in the team had ever used Premiere Pro before, a program which can be quickly self-taught in a matter of hours. And on deadlines, as one can expect, more work is required than usual. I was working late, sometimes on weekends, but I was always free to go whenever I felt like it. It was a group effort, and knowing that your whole team is working overtime with you makes it way more bearable. Some firms condemn overtime work, and justifiably so, however, mine did not, with the regrettable tradition deeply rooted in the practice’s workflow. Indeed, overtime work is very present in any creative job (video editing, fashion, etc…) but studios deal with them differently. In its core, overtime work creates social issues for people with families or obligations and is still unfair exploitation. You will be doing overtime work, especially on tight deadlines (like during a competition) and you should normally be given compensation time for that, as your unpaid overtime hours are most likely illegal. And once the deadline is behind you, make sure you celebrate with your colleagues and get some well-deserved rest time, hopefully, offered to you by the studio.


The Take-Home Message

  • The Exit

Towards the end of your internship, your way of working will have undoubtedly changed. You will see the results of all these weeks spent learning the values of  group working on your personal work. Make sure to keep in touch with colleagues whom you were the closest to. Ask information about the ‘exit paperwork’ (such as recommendation letter) at least a week before you leave, to make sure everything goes well and no one has to rush the final steps. Once again, I can’t assure you that your internship will go the same way as mine, ultimately based on the size and specific project of the firm which will welcome you. If you feel like you are not being used as you should be, make your voice heard. If like me, you manage to do a wide array of tasks and gain a maximum of experience in all kinds of different fields, while still learning about projects, workflows, practices… you will really have squeezed all the juice out of your architecture internship, and hopefully really enjoyed it.