The path to becoming an architect is quite stringent. But whilst many take a direct route to qualifying, others choose to take a longer journey and qualify later in life. One of our Senior Architectural Assistants, Leighton Williams, is a great example of taking the route less travelled and gaining some valuable skills and experience along the way.

Leighton’s journey to becoming an architect has been unique and non-linear, with various circumstances influencing a change of direction, as we will learn in this discussion. Eventually, though, his long-established interest in architecture triumphed and he is now just months away from qualifying as a fully chartered architect.

Leighton’s journey shows that there is not just one way into a career. Each person’s path can look different, and this is what shapes an individual’s unique skillset. Read on for an insight into how Leighton arrived where he is today.

Leighton's journey to becoming an architect - CMS Architects Ltd

What inspired you to pursue a career as an architect?

I was very into model making from the age of 8 or 9. I used to have a Subbuteo, a type of table football game, and would build stadiums around it. I built hamster runs for my hamsters out of toilet roll holders with towers for it to run up, and all sorts! Then at school, I talked to a careers officer about how I enjoyed model making (3D CAD modelling wasn’t around then!) and that conversation was the catalyst for exploring architecture as a career.

My uncle is an architect in the Caribbean island of Grenada, so I spent a summer observing his work which was at great learning opportunity. He took me round the island to visit projects and building sites – seeing how they build out there on such mountainous terrain, often on stilts on the side of cliffs, was amazing!

When did you decide you wanted to be an architect?

Probably when I did my first work experience placement in an architects practice at the age of 15. It was at the top of a Georgian townhouse in Bath in the height of summer, so it was very hot! But just being there was brilliant – I learnt a lot from listening to phone calls, seeing how they worked as a team and soaking up the environment.

I was set up with a drawing board and had the opportunity to get to grips with various drawing pens, rulers, and paper. I was then given the task of designing my own dream house using drawing paper – there was a lot of rubbing out!

Did you do any other placements?

After A-Levels, I spent a year out working in an architects practice to gain more experience before going to university. Whilst there, I got to work on developing a street in Easton, Bristol, a council-led programme intended to inject some culture and interest into the street.

I spoke to locals, redesigned spaces for some of the shop owners, and picked out street furniture such as benches and bins. I didn’t realise the price of street furniture until then! I really enjoyed improving the facilities and seeing a project increase security and enjoyment for pedestrians.

Architecture work experience in Bath, Somerset

What has your journey to becoming an architect looked like?

It’s been a bit stop-start! Not as smooth running as originally planned, but this was partly by choice.

I first did my undergraduate degree, then did three years of practice in Frome. Whilst I enjoyed the work, as part of a large organisation I felt like a very small cog. Working in a narrow area meant I didn’t fully understand the architectural process and how much is involved. I felt I had lost the connection between the work I was doing and the impact it was having, and wanted to do work that gave a more tangible sense of meaning and purpose.

I went back to university to do my postgraduate degree in Leeds, but after a year decided I wasn’t ready to continue with the course. At this point, I went to work in practice in Sheffield for a year, but unfortunately the 2008 recession affected a lot of the practice’s contracts and led to me being made redundant.

It was then that I took a break from architecture and changed direction to work for independent care provider Arch Care, supporting young adults with mental health conditions and implementing care plans for them. This was a challenging but very rewarding role. Particularly getting to help someone directly, and I think this was what I had missed in architecture. 

I had planned to be in this role for a year, but ended up qualifying with an NVQ in Health and Social Care and staying for eight years! Not only was I helping other people, but it also helped me personally in overcoming some challenges.

So, you must have reached a point where you decided to change direction again. How did that come about?

Even after those eight years, architecture was still a huge interest of mine. Once you have your degree, you think differently and look at buildings differently, so I’ve always had that inquisitive mind. Everywhere I go I look at buildings! Eventually I decided I wanted to go back to architecture.

Architectural design using 3D CAD

How did you find the transition back into architecture?

The transition back into architecture was very difficult – it had moved on a lot in eight years!

When I did my undergrad, we had A1 drawing boards and used carboard to make models. When I returned to do my postgrad, there were no drawing boards. The whole environment had changed into a more flexible, collaborative space where you could not only draw but also interact with peers more and built models using different materials such as wood.

Everyone was producing these amazing 3D graphics and images of concept buildings, too – CAD didn’t exist when I last practiced architecture, so it was a steep learning curve catching up with that! At the end of my Part II, I’d caught up graphically but still had some learning to do. Spending the next five years in practice in Cirencester really helped to iron out those cracks.

What was it like joining CMS?

Coming to CMS, I was at my peak of confidence and had full understanding that I was going to become an architect. Joining CMS was the change I needed in terms of furthering my skills, as I’ve been able to bring my skills to the table but also learn a lot from all the talented people around me in the office. I’ve particularly enjoyed working on a residential barn stable conversion project that has had a lot of design elements to it – it’s been very relevant to where I’ve come from and my experience pre-CMS.

What aspect of architecture interests you most, and why?

It sounds obvious, but probably design and space planning. My favourite stage to work on is RIBA Stage 2, which involves developing a design from the initial concept into a fully scaled developed design. Closely followed by detailing at Stage 4, the post-planning stage where you zoom in on elements of the building and focus on how it will look visually on a detailed level.

For example, I had the opportunity to design a nursery school from scratch, taking the concept from a 3D model to a balsa wood model and presenting it to the client. It was then a case of converting the model into a developed design and progressing it to completion. This project involved a lot of Stage 2 space planning and really understanding what the client wanted. I observed them using their space, and from there we could understand the level of accommodation they needed and how to make it comfortable.

Architecture - CMS Architects Ltd

What’s been the biggest challenge for you through your career so far?

The biggest challenge is probably right now, working towards my Part III! I’m working full time, undertaking my Part III architect qualification, and also managing family life with a young son. I have more going on now than I ever have before!

But I’ve come to realise that everything sorts itself out in the end, and everything will get done if tackled in small doses, little and often. For me, the key to maintaining a sense of work life balance is listing out the things you have to do and approaching them in manageable chunks.

What’s the most important skill you’ve learnt during your time at CMS?

I’d say learning the software. Vectorworks is a very powerful piece of software, but it was relatively new to me so it took some time to get to grips with it. Mastering Vectorworks to a level that makes me efficient with every task I’m given has been my biggest challenge, but very worthwhile. I find it much easier to use now than when I started at CMS.

How do you see your role at CMS progressing?

My first checkpoint is to become a chartered architect, which I’m on track to achieve by the end of this year. Following this I’d like to become an established architect within CMS, with the ability to be more autonomous in taking a project from start to finish. Becoming a good mentor for junior architectural staff would also be great.

Leighton's journey to becoming an architect - CMS Architects Ltd

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming an architect?

Don’t do it! No, not really. Everyone knows architecture is hard work, but it’s also highly rewarding. You’ve got to have the right motive though, so I’d encourage doing it for the love of the job, not for the money. 

Choosing relevant A-Level subjects is helpful. I chose Physics, Design Technology and Art with becoming an architect in mind and I found them to be an advantage, especially Art. The more artistic flair you have, the better. 

It’s also a great idea to practice using software such as Revit, AutoCAD, SketchUp, Vectorworks, Photoshop, and InDesign. The more knowledge and skill you have on these programmes, the easier the learning process will be! My year out before university was invaluable for this, as it meant I already knew how to use CAD when I started university.

But above all, enjoy the process. Architecture really does take you on a journey, and you can become so excited about the projects you work on, especially if you’re well matched with a client and embrace what you each bring to the table. The rewards far outweigh the challenges!

Describe your career as an architect in three words.

Captivating, challenging, and addictive!

If you would like architectural support on a project, please get in touch to explore how we might be able to work with you. We would be delighted to hear from you.