Architecture students tend to be a forward-looking bunch: you may know your history, but you focus on innovating sustainable new ideas that will reach into the future. All the same, the built environment stretches in two directions, and a building’s past is directly connected to what’s to come, whether that means conservation, redevelopment, or a starring role in the heritage, tourism, or entertainment industry.

Indeed, architecture students must engage deeply with built heritage if they are to develop a full understanding of our relationship to space, materials, and building design. It’s no wonder that many such scholars find themselves falling in love with heritage studies as it connects to architectural history and its place in the urban landscape.

Graduates who pursue their interest in architectural heritage may find themselves working as advisors on a particular building or environment, researchers of building methods and materials, or in areas more aligned with art history or archaeology. Heritage studies, when applied to the idealistic realm of architecture, expand what we know not only about how we have lived, but how we have wished to live and organize society.

Thinking laterally

Of course, when you think about built heritage you are just as likely to be conjured away to the Egyptian pyramids, the signature architecture of Barcelona or Rome, or the groundbreaking modernism of the United States as you are to your local town hall, historic workers houses, or brutalist car park.

Great architecture doesn’t live alone. Even when designed in isolation, such as the treehouses of the Korowai tribe of Papua, buildings and other constructed spaces play a part in how we understand our species and our place on this planet. Historic structures feed into our ideas of how to conserve and build in the future.

While sensitivity towards a structure’s immediate local culture remains paramount (and should be learned and studied rather than assumed), architectural history requires geographic as well as temporal context: “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world,” as UNESCO puts it, “irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

Living together, learning together

It is likely that you will specialize when pursuing a career in the multidisciplinary field of architectural heritage, but it is impossible to make progress without a working understanding of a number of other perspectives.

Professionals in this field demonstrate expertise in the science, culture, and history of architecture, as well as an overview of world history in general – quite possibly with a concentration on a specific historical niche. An engagement with contemporary issues and events in city planning, politics, and urbanism provides a working hub between the past and the future.

Conservators may specialize in a particular material, technique, or artistic facet of building design. A healthy knowledge of arts and crafts is essential for this job, as it is if you are to become an advisor, historian, or guide.

Whatever your role, you’ll meet, work, and learn with specialists in each of these disciplines and more, as well as with politicians, investors, and members of the public who may have passionate, valuable, but less-informed opinions on the past and destiny of the buildings with which you are involved. Diplomacy, tact, and empathy can prove just as useful as your technical skills and expert knowledge.

Your expertise and ability will flourish with experience. A degree or graduate program provides a sturdy foundation and furnishes the tools with which to operate, but years of hands-on experience, local testimony, and an ever-greater knowledge of the endless history and culture of the built environment will qualify you for roles of greater responsibility, depth, and scope. Management, advisory, and research prospects expand with time and as you pick up further skills and competencies (such as the use of new mapping and 3D modeling software) along the way.

Architectural heritage career options

Naturally, such a complex sector offers a wide variety of career options. You may be surprised by the changing directions your evolving knowledge and experience take you as you move from opportunity to opportunity.

Historic buildings inspectors and conservation officers divide their time between the office and visits to built heritage sites to assess and report back on what work needs to be done. They may advise on planning applications and arbitrate between different interest groups, manage conservation projects, and lobby for greater protection for at-risk buildings of historical importance. Salaries start at around $30,000 and grow with experience and added responsibility: senior professionals may command around double the graduate figure.

More technical trades often command higher figures than those in conservation or education. But professionals in these fields report that the opportunity to travel, explore, learn, and to protect unique properties, is the real reward for devoting your career to work like this.

Other graduate career prospects vary from roles such as historian or archaeologist to architect or structural engineer. Specialist craft-oriented jobs include carpentering, plastering, roofing, thatching, ironwork, and glazing -- all of which benefit from a thorough grounding in the history and science of the built environment.

Organizations that offer work for talented architects with a solid understanding of built heritage can include private and public bodies, schools, governments, institutes, architectural firms, and of course the national and international names such as UNESCO and The National Trust. Beyond graduate study, a number of training bodies offer further specialization, while many countries have industry-related professional organizations such as the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. Volunteering is another great way to flesh out a graduate degree in an architectural history-related subject.

There’s no architecture without heritage, and a background in heritage studies enriches the experience, knowledge, and prospects of those pursuing a career related to the built environment.