Being an Architect

July 10, 2014 — 23 Comments

I frequently get a lot of the same questions and if you are in a creative field – and a visible member of that field – I’m quite sure you get these same sorts of questions. In an effort to fill the void, I have collected a new list of most commonly asked questions and put them together in one place. I am also going to reach out to a few other architects I know to get them to answer the same questions. Hopefully I can get a fair number to respond and I will link to all that participate at the bottom of this post.

Half Size Sets of Architectural Drawings


What kind of projects were you doing when you first started as an architect?

When I first graduated, the firm I worked for specialized in retail store prototyping and (to a certain extent) roll-out of that prototype. The year was 1992 and the economy wasn’t particularly good so I took the first job I was offered. I was conflicted at the time because a) I was really happy to have found a job right out of school when so many others could not, and b) I had one studio in school that I hated, and we mostly focused on retail design. YIKES! As it turns out, it was a great job for me and I am really glad that luck favored me enough to put me in a position where I got this job. It was a small firm – I was the first employee hired – but from day one, I was going to client meetings, getting design ownership of projects, producing construction drawings … I literally got to do it all. I remember my boss at the time telling that designing retail was a bit like eating candy; the packaging matters, they don’t take that long, and if you get a project you don’t like, you’ll be on to the next project before you know it. It was an apt description.

At what point did you see the company you work/ed for trusting you with more responsibilities in the company?

Immediately. Working at a small firm that did work around the country meant that my boss traveled quite a bit. I was left on my own several days a week and through necessity, I was taking meetings with local clients and making presentations on my own. It wasn’t too much later that I started helping with the billing and managing some of the proposal writing duties (even if it was little more than swapping out names and addresses onto an existing contract.) The one downside to this was that when I left my first job, I remember going into a job interview with a larger firm and telling them that I had project management experience, and even helped my last firm out with billing and proposals. The partner interviewing me kind of chuckled a bit and said “You won’t be doing that here, that’s what the partners do.” Turns out that I had a skill set far advanced for my years in some regards that was of no value to me at the time, but on the flip side, I had spent 3 years designing millwork and gyp board soffits but didn’t know how to detail an exterior wall section – I was technically behind most of the people at my age and experience.

How many projects can you expect to be working on at once?

When I was younger, the number wasn’t very high – maybe two or three at most – and this was when I was working in small firm. The brief amount of time I spent in a large firm, I basically worked on 1 project at a time. Now that I’m in my mid-forties and my role has changed within the office, I work on 6 to 10 different projects every day. Our office is made up of 6 full-time employees (4 licensed and 2 seeking licensure) and 2 summer interns; and I probably work on 80% of all the jobs that are in our office – which could be as high as 20 – during the span of a single week.

How often did/do you work in a team?

Everybody in our office is part of a team. EVERYBODY. Normally we have 2 or 3 people to a team, and everybody has access to the same people and information. Our teams are really determined by the skill set of the individual team members and people tend to roll on and off projects as they move through the process. There is a senior level person who remains on a project throughout the entire process and is the point of contact, but we like to let people find their own roles on projects and pursue the things that interest them – this allows us (the senior folks) to benefit from the best parts of everyone’s individual skill sets.

Marker Pens from my desk

How important is an innovative mind to the company?

Incredibly important … but that should be the obvious answer. The real question to be thinking about is how is that mind innovative? Our practice is fairly traditional in many aspects but since we are small, we really need everyone in the office to be superstars. It’s a difficult environment for some people to work in because we give everyone the opportunity to take ownership of the process – which means we don’t hold their hand along the way. We require our employees to be able to solve their own problems using the resources available to them, which translates roughly into asking questions of their coworkers, looking at past project and interpolating the solution to different problem and developing a new solution based on the same principles. We are able to give our staff a point in space to work towards and they need to be clever enough to figure out how best to get there. That requires a certain type of mind to achieve – and I’d call that innovative.

What key things do you look for in potential new hires?

The things I notice above all others is their vocabulary, their ability to speak articulately, and their outside interests. More times than not, I’m not all that focused in on the projects they designed in school … hard to tell who was actually responsible for that work. What was the role of their professor in the end product? I look at their graphic skills and their ability to frame a story and explain their project just by the manner in which they package up the work. (read more here: Architectural Job Starter Kit)

How important is diversity to your company?

I think this is an interesting question but to be honest, I don’t think about it. It doesn’t matter to me what your sex, creed, or nationality is – I still look for the same traits in an employee. Since we require that all employees participate in communications with the clients, they need to have a mastery of the English language, they need to be articulate, expressive – and my personal favorite – they need to be able to construct a narrative that is relative to the experiences of our clients. About 1/3 of our office is female, and that same percentage holds through at the principle and partnership levels. (for more, read Women in Architecture)

How big of a role does HR play in your company?

None. We are a small office and on any given day, everyone plays the role of HR. As I sit here answering these questions, I am within 8′ of five other people. We all get along pretty well and despite the personal boundaries we seem to cross daily, I’ve witnessed that any issues with behavior get dealt with in real-time between the concerned parties. In the last year, I’ve had maybe two closed meetings regarding what I would consider “HR” issues but it had more to do with the perceived involvement and skill set of individuals. In fact, I have a series of posts that I have shared on the site here that gives examples of the things that get said, you can read them all here (Heard Around the Architectural Studio)

 

Roll of architectural drawings

Would you say Architecture is a field for everyone?

No … maybe? I think it takes a certain type of brain to practice architecture but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone can’t find a place. While most people don’t go into architectural school thinking that they are going to be anything other than the world’s next great designer, the truth of the matter is that it takes a small army of roles and people to take on some of the projects being built these days. The design side of practicing architecture seems to benefit from someone who thinks radially, rather than linearly. Architectural design is about finding a balance between many things – some at complete odds with one another. The skill in being a terrific designer lies in your ability to effectively set priorities that push and pull on one another until there is some sort of equilibrium in the result. This means that all variables are in play at the same time, and for those people who solve one problem and then move on to the next one, they will experience some frustration. At the same time, thinking linearly works exceedingly well for people who will control the flow of information, oversee process, and organize and maintain procedure – things that the architectural process desperately need. I’m not saying that a person can’t be both radial and linear thinkers, but I think I could successfully argue that they will be better suited and experience greater success in one area over the other. (for more, read The Not-So-Sexy Side of Architecture and The Ethereal Decision Making Process of the Creative Mind)

What is the best asset in your company?

Employees. (Who wouldn’t say that?) Maybe “resource” is a better word for it but without the specific individuals doing what they do, I’m not sure our office would be able to function in the manner in which it does. Sure, we could replace them with other exceptional and talented people, but with each person comes a specific skill set and I’d like to think that our practice prospers and flourishes with the right balance of skill sets. For example; I’m the good-looking one in the office so everyone else can be plain looking. Make sense?

Once you find the right people with the right skill set, you don’t want to let them go, and if they are willing to go get donuts? … they would be the greatest employee ever.

Describe your best employee in one word

Consistent.

What style architecture do you love most?

Asking an architect this question is a bit like asking a parent which child they love the most … I think if we’re being honest, we have our favorite even though we love them all – we just don’t want to actually say that out loud. Maybe that’s why I only have one child. If I’m forced to pick my favorite style, I’d have to say modernism simply because it suits my lifestyle so well. I like to look at really clean spaces with perfectly executed details, although I don’t think I would actually like living in one of those types of house. I love the Farnsworth house but I would never live in it. I have stuff, I want closets … I want to have a space look right without it having to be perfectly staged. Life happens in my house, as it does in my clients houses, and if their living gets in the way of the architecture, that just doesn’t seem right to me.


pencil tip black and whiteThis was the first post in what I am trying to organize into a series of posts called “ArchiTalks” (which might just be the working title, we’re still trying that name on for size). There are a few other architects who maintain blogs that are going to answer these same questions and we’ve all agreed to publish our responses on the same day – that way none of our answers will influence somebody else. If you would like to see how other architects answered these questions, just follow the links below. As the links get sent to me, I will come back and add them to the list. I would recommend you check them out and see just how differently a group of similar people can answer the same question.


Marica McKeel – Studio MM (twitter @ArchitectMM)  “Q+A with a Small Firm Architect”


Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design (twitter @modarchitect “Ask the Architect”


 Enoch Sears – Business of Architecture (twitter @enochsears) “Life as an Architect”


Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect (twitter @EntreArchitect) “My Answers to 11 Big Questions About Architecture” 


Jeff Echols – Architect of the Internet (twitter @Jeff_Echols) “11 Frequently Asked Questions About Being an Architect”


Nicholas Renard – Cote Renard Architecture (twitter @coterenard) “Answers from this Architect”

Evan Troxel – Evan Troxel (twitter @etroxel) “Eleven Questions about Architecture” 


Andrew Hawkins – Hawkins Architecture (twitter @HawkinsArch) “Being an Architect: Questions Answered”


 

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  • Francis H

    What a great simultaneous shotgun blast! Love the power of the community.
    Got me thinking how I might answer these. But it probably wouldn’t be fair to everyone else who the requests were sent to as I just read all of them.

  • Anthony Silva

    Do you think the university you attend matters to employers? I was given admission to a small university called Woodbury… Now I know it’s not the most prestigious or most well known of schools, but do you think employers will look down on this? Please let me know what you think. 🙂

    • Barabbas

      Bob may have a different opinion, but In my experience, most employers do not really care what school you went to as long as it has an accredited program. After all, the whole reason accreditation exists is to uphold standards of education within our industry.

      Your portfolio and experience are really what count most of the time. Sure, there are some firms that screen their applicants through HR to weed out those who probably won’t make the cut. In such cases, I’d be lying to claim a degree from the GSD is valued the same as one from CUA (my alma-mater). That being said, I don’t really want to work in an environment in which I am just another expendable number, so maybe that’s for the best.

      Now, that is not to say school reputations are not important, but it is location that matters more than anything else. For example: If you go to a small school in Seattle, you may have a hard time finding a job in New York. Often times, employers have established relationships with local schools who they have hired applicants from before. As such, applicants from those schools may be considered before those with degrees from relatively unknown universities.

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  • Kurt Flechtner

    This is an interesting topic to me, because I have lived so many lives in my career. Early on, I rode scaffolds on the facade of Macy’s Herald Square. Then I did residences in eastern North Carolina, and moved on to working on the Olympic Village in Salt Lake City. Now I find myself at the Public Works Department on a Navy Base. I don’t know how an education system prepares somebody for a “career” like that, but somehow I have succeeded in all these disparate stops. Kudos to our architecture schools for sending us out into the world ready for the myriad ways in which architects work.

    • maybe* the best comment ever

      (* I said “maybe” … don’t go crazy on me)

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  • Marc Doerig

    Great post. The questions are answered (obviously) from the point of view of someone who’s an employer. It would be interesting to hear how architects (and also interns, unlicensed architects, etc) who are employees would answer some of the questions. For example, what does/did an employee look for in a potential boss?

  • AlmostJane

    Two thoughts. 1 – I’ve often wondered if most architects have a favorite style and then if they do, how difficult is it to design when the client wants traditional, for example, and you lean along contemporary lines? 2 – Along the same lines, I’m fairly confident saying that I think most parents do have a favorite child, because I know as a teacher I’ve definitely had many favorites of my own over the years. It’s just plain human nature. The tricky parts of this are A – treating everyone in the group the same regardless of how they “rank” with you and B – being sure no one else can identify who your favorites are.

    • Kerry Hogue

      my younger brother and I always argue, claiming the other is the favorite. so it is not obvious to the children if that is indeed the case. I know each of my 3 sons are very different, with different interests, abilities, and each relate to their parents differently. they each are my favorite for different reasons and in different ways.
      for me on favorite architecture, I could never design Victorian Romanesque for a client, but those buildings are magnificent.

    • Being an architect, gives a person, an edge to slip through, most apparent problems, from different backgrounds, by being able to see hidden details, not easily seen, by others. Be it music, art, fashion, religion…just name it. Architecture, I think, it’s a profession, most dearly loved, by God. lol.

  • Kerry Hogue

    Interesting questions Bob.
    my best employee in one word would be passionate. An employee should always exhibit a high degree of passion in what they do. Those with passion will be higher performers and self motivated.

    • not bad … but passion ebbs and flows a bit doesn’t it? I would prefer someone who takes the same workman-like attitude towards any task they set to – whether it’s something exciting, or something mundane. You show me that person, and I’ll show you someone who leads by example.

  • Kate

    I’m really enjoying your blog. I’ve been an interior designer for 14 years but have not been very ambitious (busy raising kids) about my career. Your site has inspired me to get out there – much of what you write is applicable to the interior design field. Thank you!

    • Thanks Kate – glad to hear your coming back into the field! Hopefully we’ll see you on site here more often – having perspectives from all sorts of people really helps this site achieve it’s goal of introducing transparency into the profession.

      Cheers

  • Tina Ryan

    I think I’m about to OD on architecture – but that’s okay!

    • hopefully not … but there are worse ways to go!

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