Like many professions, the field of architecture can be splintered into different specialities, allowing a variety of possibilities for career growth. In such a multi-faceted field, architects are generally known and taught to be “jacks of all trades”. Many graduates go on to work on projects spanning various briefs and scales. Such architects are known as generalist architects. On the other hand, some professionals choose to completely zero in on a niche and build their expertise in one particular area. They are called hyper-specialist architects. Because these are two distinct types, the way they work, come up with a concept, or collaborate can be quite different. How do you know which one is right for you? In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of both.
Hyper-Specialist or Generalist: Which Architect Should You Be?
Thet Hnin Su Aung
Writer at Oneistox
● 9 mins read
The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test.
The ten books on Architecture by Vitruvius (translated)
Hyper-specialist: Master of One
Hyper-specialists tend to focus on a niche – for example Wallmakers, who specialise in designing with mud, waste, and natural materials. Working in one specific area for a prolonged period inevitably enhances your knowledge and makes that niche your ‘core competence’. As a result, you become adept at conjuring systematic approaches to design work in that area. Having your own systematic process to design means greater efficiency, not just in projects but also in dealing with clients. Hyper-specialist architects also tend to have a more focussed approach to design solutions owing to the depth of their knowledge. Over time, working and excelling in a particular niche can help hyper-specialist architects clearly define their personal brand. This comes in handy when reaching out for new job opportunities or finding clients.
On the other hand, a hyper-specialist may end up being less experimental with design, preferring to cling to a set and established process. This could result in a lack of creativity and stagnation of skills, leading to difficulties in taking on projects that may involve delving into unfamiliar territory. There will also be less exposure to the other niches in architecture, resulting in less awareness in those fields. This can potentially become a drawback when your clients want well-rounded advice across multiple areas.
It is rare for architecture graduates to become hyper-specialists right after school. This is because architecture schools do not train their students to specialise in a single building typology. Professionals typically pick a specialization after spending considerable time working in the industry and understanding which type of work they naturally gravitate towards.
[Read: Top 8 Emerging Trends in Architecture: Shaping the Future]
Generalist: Jack of all trades
Generalist architects are more common than hyper-specialists since architecture schools prepare graduates to have a fair amount of knowledge in a variety of subjects, and it is generally easier as a career. According to Forbes, being a jack of all trades may actually lead to better success. As a generalist architect works across many areas, the knowledge gained can help one to be an all-round expert. This quality, combined with industry experience, allows the generalists to adapt to different environments and take on challenging projects easily. In addition, they are also able to adjust to new shifts – cultural, social and more – in the market. Being able to come up with fresh ideas for solving various design problems and advising clients across multiple areas of focus enhances a generalist’s value. The skills accumulated over the years are also transferable, allowing ease in securing jobs.
The downside, however, is that a generalist architect might struggle to follow a systematic design process. Or they may not follow one at all! When extensive knowledge of a specific area becomes necessary, it gets rather challenging for a generalist. In such a case, clients tend to consult with an expert instead. This also means that a generalist architect can be at a disadvantage in competition within a specialized market. For example, some building typologies require diverse functions and intricate planning due to their design requirements, and a hyper-specialist architect who has well-honed skills in the area could be favoured for the project.
Why the different categorisations?
Why does the hyper-specialist/generalist dichotomy exist in the field of architecture? Unlike in the past, projects in the current age are larger in scope and far more complex in both design requirements and functions. Building technology is rapidly developing, which, in turn, creates pressure for faster completion of the projects. Overall, the profession is slowly but surely splitting into different specialisations to cater to various demands. Most firms typically employ a greater number of generalists than hyper-specialists, and most firms themselves are generalist. However, some do employ a good mix of both for a smoother experience with clients.
Which one are you?
What’s the verdict?
There is no clear cut winner in the hyper-specialist versus generalist debate. It greatly depends on the person and the nature of the job. First, gauge your interests. Are they extensive and spreading across different fields? Do you have and value transferable skills? If the answer to both is ‘yes’, and you like working with dissimilar projects and collaborating with different professionals, then being a generalist might just be for you.
If being a specialist interests you, ask yourself if you have the dedication and inclination to follow a single career path in the future. Commitment and subject-area expertise are both key for becoming a hyper-specialist. You like digging deeper into a particular domain, letting your curiosity take you down a rabbit hole, then you will enjoy specializing.
How do I start specializing?
While the training to become a generalist is usually taken care of by architecture school itself, becoming a hyper-specialist involves extra effort. There are now numerous online courses offering in-depth study of various niches. For example, you can get a certification on computational design specifically or opt for a growing field like Building Information Modelling (BIM). These certifications are based on skills, not just knowledge, and may pay off better in the job market. Of course, continuing the education with a master’s degree is another popular option, though it will take longer. Most universities offer a broad choice of courses in post-graduate studies, allowing you to choose from many career options.
[Read: 8 Reasons Why Designers Choose to Upskill with Oneistox]
For more career insights, check out Oneistox’s Resources page.
Thet Hnin Su Aung
Thet Hnin graduated in architecture and is a passionate language lover. She is enthusiastic to combine her passions in both architecture and writing to tell stories, especially those that our built environment has to offer.
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