The First Step To A Successful Architecture Portfolio

The first step in preparing your architecture portfolio has nothing to do with formatting or page layouts. By far the most important thing is ARCHIVING ALL YOUR WORK.

While this may seem very straightforward and intuitive it is something often overlooked by both junior and senior architects alike. 

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Make it a habit

Archiving and backing up all of your work should become a habit throughout your career. Regardless if you think you will need it in the future, make a copy. One helpful method is to set up a reoccurring calendar event to remind you every month or so to back up your work. 

Copying and pasting takes only a few seconds, certainly worth it for peace of mind. This includes documenting any work you have created in physical form: models, artwork, photos and/or drawings.

In architecture school it tends to be much more of a habit to back up your work, photograph models and scan documents. Why is this?

I believe this is party due to the fact that in architecture school your project is your project. You have personally invested a lot of time and effort into it so taking care of your work in the form of proper documentation is obvious.

However once we get into the "real world" we tend to be slightly more removed from our office projects. Perhaps it is a team project and your role is constantly evolving so you don't feel a sense ownership. 

The situation is similar to renting a car. How many people pose for photos with their rental car and wash it before returning it? None. 

Whether you feel more of less connected to your work project is irrelevant. In architecture keeping track of the work you have done throughout your career is essential. This is not only true for finding employment in the future but also for annual reviews and charting your career path. It is hard to know where you are going without knowing where you are.

Don't have all your eggs in one basket.

I recall one of my former classmates during her thesis had her laptop stolen along with all of her work from the semester. She lost months of work. 

I recommend having three methods of archiving for the same data. This may seem excessive but once the information is lost it is gone forever.

1. Computer hard drive.

This is the default storage method. Merely saving files on the computer the work was created, or transferred to, in the case of physical documentation. As I experienced personally, as you probably have, computers have a way of losing information, crashing, becoming corrupt, being dropped or any number of ways you can lose data.

NOTE: It even turns out that safes aren't, well, safe. In a fire the temperature inside the safe can easily exceed the maximum hard drive temperature. Paper will be fine, but not electronic hardware. 

2. External hard drives

The storage capabilities of hard drives increases every year while the cost decreases. A 2TB hard drive can be picked up for the same price as a 1TB last year. For this reason you should treat your hard drives almost as books on a shelf.

Buy a new, larger storage device every year. Copy all of the previous years information onto this new drive, while retaining the old as an archive. This way, absolute worst case scenario, you never lose more than 12 months of data.

Keep the drives in different locations, a fire or flood could wipe out your entire work history. Store one at work or a family member's house. As the saying goes, "Nothing is backed up until it exists at two distinct geographic locations".

I recommend the Seagate Expansion 1TB Portable External Hard Drive:

3. Cloud-based storage

Privacy issues aside, cloud based storage is an excellent option. Backing up your information on the cloud is a great third line of defense.

This is certainly not perfect, servers can go down and information can still be lost, even with backup systems. However, having access to your information anytime, anywhere is extremely valuable.

How NOT to backup your information:

1. SD cards or similar devices used with cameras

SD cards are notorious for losing information. Without getting overly technical, the robustness of an SD card to retain and replace information is not the same as traditional hard drives. Not to mention it can easily be lost.

2. Only hard copies

This is becoming less of a concern today. However, any work you may have created in an office or studio that only exists as a hard copy needs to be photographed and/or scanned. 

Any number of things can lead to the demise of hard copy information including water damage, fire, deterioration, mold, etc. For large format hard copies take them to your local print shop to be scanned.

3. Just archive the final product

As with any design field, architecture is as much about the process as it is about the final result. Make sure you are archiving your work at regular milestones throughout the design process.
In a typical office project this would be at the Conceptual, Schematic Design, Design Development, and Construction Document phases.

Keeping track of any sketches and diagrams you have produced along the way is also important. One of the biggest mistakes when presenting a portfolio is not showing the thought behind the work.

How did you reach the design conclusions?

Don't explain that the core is on the North side of the building. Explain WHY it is there through environmental diagrams and circulation information. This is a powerful tool when presenting your portfolio in an interview and can't be done if you don't have the work to back it up.

Document your work when it is "fresh"

Make a habit of recording and archiving your work as soon as it is done. Don't wait a month to photograph a model, it will always looks its best when recently completed.

If you complete a set of construction documents, print and/or archive a set for own records. This does bring up an important point, however, depending on your office policy you may or may not be able to keep certain file types. Check with the appropriate person in the office to see what material is suitable to be kept for your records.

"Well, I will just copy it anyway to show my next employer."

Be careful with this assumption. Your next employer may not approve of your ability to copy every piece of information from your previous company.

As they could [correctly] assume you will do the same for them. CAD and Revit files are the most sensitive information for an office, as it represents the bulk of their intellectual property.

"I have the CAD model so I'm good"

Don't assume that having the CAD files will necessarily translate to having everything you need. Down the road older files can be problematic opening on newer software. Links, borders pen tables, etc. can become a mess that takes a lot of time to clean up just to print. Also, don't forget to date your work. Keeping track of when you produced something helps to organize your portfolio months or years later.

I hope this has been a helpful reminder to keep track of your most valuable resource: your experience. Creating an architecture portfolio is challenging, but becomes impossible without your information. Now go back up your files!

Want to find your dream architecture job?
Check out The Architect's Guide Resources.

To help you with your architecture job search, I've created a mega-pack of free resources that includes architecture resumes, cover letters, and an extensive collection of application documents. Click for a free download

Thanks for reading, see also my posts on:

The Two Page Architecture Portfolio

Where To Apply For Architecture Jobs Online

25 Things To Consider When Choosing An Architecture Job Offer

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.