Grand designs: building a career in architecture

15 Aug 2023

profile image of Farra Zaed with indoor plant and white wall in background

Farra Zaed

Graduate Architect, DJRD Architects, Sydney
Bachelor of Design in Architecture/Master of Architecture, UTS
Graduated in 2017/2020

You might expect an architect to have natural drawing abilities, but graduate Farra Zaed admits it’s something she’s had to work on.

‘My family is blessed with amazing artistic skills, but not me – those skills seem to have skipped a generation!’ she says. ‘It was scary going into an architecture degree and not knowing how to draw, but you do drawing workshops and they teach you. And the more you draw, the more you improve.’

Although architecture wasn’t top of Farra’s mind in Year 12, she knew she wanted to pursue something in the field of design. Completing a diploma through UTS Insearch (now known as UTS College), which also acted as a prep course and pathway to university, enabled her to try out different varieties of design and see what tickled her fancy.

Studying architecture, she saw, would allow her to embrace both her problem-solving and creative skills. ‘Also, as time progressed I realised that architecture is not just an industry – the skills you attain through your degree and work can be applied globally.’

The challenges and highlights of university

As she transitioned into a Bachelor of Design in Architecture at UTS, Farra at first found it hard to adjust to the freedom and choice that university provided compared to school.

‘The nature of undergraduate study is so different to high school,’ she explains. ‘You’re given lots of creative opportunities for your assignments and they don’t restrict you or limit your ways of thinking – they say okay, just do it however works for you and push the boundaries.’

The long hours of study outside of class were also a challenge, but Farra quickly found her footing as she learned the course basics and explored the different principles of architecture. She also began to make the most of the exciting travel opportunities and electives, including a four-week visit to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where she met iconic designer and architect Frank Gehry at his firm.

‘Meeting Frank Gehry when I was just a baby student architect was amazing – I wanted to ask him everything but nothing at the same time,’ Farra says. ‘I’m still fangirling now, almost 10 years after it happened!’

Networking started to come more naturally to Farra as she progressed towards her masters. Design students took part in end-of-semester exhibitions where architects and designers from all around Sydney and Australia came to review their work.

‘It was a highlight to be able to network with people who already had 20, 30 or 40 years of experience and talk to them about a project that I’d been working on for months,’ she says. This networking would also help her land her first job in the field.

A day in the life of an architecture grad

Farra graduated from her Master of Architecture in 2020 while the world was in COVID lockdown, unsure of the impact the situation would have on her career prospects.

‘I didn’t find a job straightaway, but my current employer, who I met during uni, contacted me and asked me if I would like to come in for an interview,’ she says. ‘It was very lucky that there was an opening, and I was able to start work four or five months after I finished studying.’

In her graduate role at DJRD Architects, Sydney, Farra now works primarily on education and healthcare projects, enabling her to explore her passion for sustainable and community-based design.

On a typical day in the office or working from home, Farra will meet with her team first thing for a daily briefing then get to work on her individual tasks. She is generally working on multiple projects at one time and will meet with clients, project managers and consultants throughout the day, checking in with her senior associate with any questions along the way. Site visits typically occur during the master-planning stage of a project, or during the schematic and construction stages.

The sheer variety of Farra’s work means her role is often challenging and occasionally stressful; however, it also ensures she is always gaining new skills and valuable experiences. ‘There’s so much to take in that you feel like you never know anything fully, but it’s exciting because the learning on the job just never ends.’

She is particularly proud of a rural hospital the firm is currently working on, something she has been involved with since the very beginning.

‘It’s really nice to see the evolution of a project and watch how things come together from the start, to have a meaningful input and really wrap your head around how a project is done,’ she says. ‘Often you jump into a project when things are already happening, but this hospital is my baby!’

Looking ahead, Farra is aiming to be registered as an architect in the next few years. In the long term, she would like to put her skills to work overseas in a country like the UK, where there are similar industry systems as Australia. She is also hoping to one day get back to her school or alma mater to contribute to course studies or work as a tutor.

‘There are so many different streams of architecture now, so I’m curious to see where I end up,’ she says. ‘But I definitely know I will be an architect, it has to be something to do with sustainability and health care, and I want to use the skills and industry knowledge I gain to give back to the places that taught me.’

Advice for Year 12 applicants

  • Be present in your university studies. ‘Don’t just do things to get things done: be there to learn and improve. You’re so busy when you’re studying that you tend to forget the most important thing is to take things slow, take a breather, and learn as you go.’
  • Make the most of networking opportunities. ‘Networking is often underrated but I think it’s one of the most crucial things to connect you with the industry, not just for design but for every single degree.’
  • Don’t be afraid to try, and always ask for help. ‘You don’t have to start a project knowing exactly what the result will look like. It’s more about the journey, learning new skills, and gaining understanding and knowledge along the way – this is what will shape the end product.’
  • It’s okay to make mistakes. ‘Remember that everyone else makes mistakes as well. Any mistake you make now is one less you’ll make in the future.’