The not-so-sexy side to Architecture

Bob Borson —  April 19, 2012 — 39 Comments

There is a reality check waiting for most graduating architects … Practicing architecture for 99.9% of the architects out there means something other than designing – at least what you think design means. The practice of architecture is more than sketching on trace paper, parti diagrams, deciding what pens to draw with, groupies, and last-minute trips to Vegas. It means solving problems – sometimes incredibly mundane and uninspired – yet very important problems to the people who retain your services. .

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Architect Bob Borson's office

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If I sat down with college aged architecture students, maybe even recently graduated architecture students, and told them what I do most days, they would think I have it pretty good. I get to design interesting houses that have very respectable budgets while working with clients that are almost always interesting. When I do my job properly, they tend think I’m awesome and that I’ve changed their lives through the process. While that might be a little bit of an overstatement, it’s generally not too far off. Who wouldn’t want that? You get to do a job you like, your clients respect your opinion, and you go home at the end of the day getting to point to something real and say “I did that”. You know, it is cool – and I love what I do for a living. However, there is a not so sexy side to what I do and it takes up a majority of my time – I just don’t talk about it much because, well … it’s kind of boring.

My job requires certain personality skills in order to be successful and even routine days can be stressful. Every day I run through about 20 deadlines and to someone, their deadline is the most important deadline in the world. Long gone are the days when I came in the office and worked on one project. Now I typically juggle 5 or 6 each day and I generally don’t do much drafting anymore. Most of my time is spent using a calculator, writing documents, processing pay applications, sending a million emails that only have three sentences in them, and talking on the telephone. If you look at the picture above of my office you can see that I have two monitors – one is for whatever I’m working on and the other is for Twitter or Facebook my calendar so I can keep track of what’s going on and those 20 deadlines that can’t be forgotten.

Another not-so-sexy side to practicing architecture is that you also need to be able to take a lot of crap from other people regardless of whether or not you deserve it or had anything (however remote) to do with creating the “situation” (we don’t call them problems). All anybody cares about is that you are expected to solve it immediately because most assuredly there are people sitting around waiting on an answer. For every time I actually say “that’s not what you said”, I have probably thought it 1,000 times. Frequently I notice that I’m the only person writing things down … but you know what? It doesn’t matter – results matter – and the quicker and easier you get there, the happier everyone else tends to be.

Make no mistake, despite all the preceding evidence to the contrary, I’m not actually complaining. I know how things work, I know my role, and I have found a balance between the job of being an architect and what I thought practicing architecture meant. A real big part of it means getting the work built … everyone who matters knows it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built. .

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IM Pei press conference for JFK Museum

I am reminded of a story that I heard when I was younger – I don’t know if it’s true or not but I like it and it suits what I am talking about here. When I. M. Pei was interviewing with Jacqueline Kennedy for the JFK Presidential Library, before she came in for the interview, he had the entire office painted white and spread white lilies around the office because white was supposedly her favorite color. Fast forward a bit and you know that he received the commission. I don’t know if it was his gamesmanship that led to him winning the project – he’s a pretty good architect as it stands. What this tale conveys is the lengths an architect will go to get a job beyond simply being a world-class architect. It was about putting the wishes of the client ahead of his personal predilections. There is a quote in the book I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture authored by Carter Wiseman that reads:

Ultimately, however, Kennedy made her choice based on her personal connection with Pei. Calling it “really an emotional decision”, she explained: “He was so full of promise, like Jack; they were born in the same year. I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him.”

To be a good architect you have to be a lot more than a good designer. You have to be a good communicator, a good listener and good at making other people’s problems your own and then solving them. In the end, that’s why clients will like working with you, because you care about them and take ownership of the problems. Once you figure this out and put it into practice, your world will be a lot better – and probably a lot busier.

I am going to climb down off this soapbox before someone decides to push me off.

Cheers

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  • bsayers71

    Love this.

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  • KAT

    Your desk is way too clean! My 5 or 6 projects always seem to find each other’s piles.

  • Lea

    Never a truer word spoken! I feel like buying a good old drawing board just to prove I still design from time to time!! And you are right, you have to care, take ownership and unfortunately take on everyone elses ‘oversights’. But it is worth it, in the long run. ( I write this after doing a FRA for something NOT in a flood zone – so I must love my job!).

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  • Geo

    I enjoy reading this specially the last part , i will be finishing my carreer in 1 year as an architect and it was nice to have this info ,thanks 4 sharing this :) .

  • Gr Vakilzadeh

    Really useful insight. Thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/Piyush.incubis Piyush Chandra

    Dear Bob
    That was summing up things wonderfully. I am a mechanical engineer and have been working in an architectural firm for 12 years. I saw the firm born and participated in the growth.

    The point that you made was figured out several years back and thats where professionals like us come in. We do participate in the overall design process and get closely associated with the going-ons BUT, we dont design. We take caare of all the communicating, BOQs, Documentation, strategies etc etc aand let the designers and creative minds focus on what they do best..It seems to work :-)

  • Nalleli

    Great article Bob.

  • N Wang

    I love the color of your office walls. May I know the color and manufacturer? Thanks.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks

      Sherwin Williams – 7036 ‘Accessible Beige’

  • ar.faisu

    Good Article!

  • Michael Vallen

    Nice article, too bad the linkedin discussion had to devolve into madness. I’m glad it posted there though as I’d have never found your interesting perspectives. Thanks.

  • KR

    Bob, I put a link at the base of the LI thread to try to help get everyone re-routed over here. Or perhaps you might want to delete that thread, and repost it with a new link to this location? That would work even better.

    Great Article! Keep the Spirit and the Energies High!

  • architectrunnerguy

    Sorry. Been out of the loop for a week but great article Bob! As it turns out architecture’s a lot like running: alternativity easy and hard, good and bad, exciting and boring, made up of long periods of dreadful sameness interupted by brief moments of pure exilaration.

    Doug

  • http://www.hawkinsarch.com/ Andrew Hawkins

    Nice post my friend. I think this get more to the heart of our profession. Its a lot like normal life. 10% sexy 95% work. (I give 105%) But we (architects) usually like to hide our not so sexy side form the general public. I understand this to a certain extent. But the problem really lies in the fact that we do not expose this side to our younger incoming colleagues early in their education. This is a mulch-faceted problem that begins during the college years of education and often is carried over into the professional education system in some firms. I really think there is often a lack of realization portrayed. I could go on and on…but I will stop. Its a whole can of something for me…. (my soapbox on this one is pretty big).

    Again…solid post based on the reality of what we do as architects.  

  • http://twitter.com/architectjohn John Hubb

    Good work! On a side note, if you ever get the chance to visit my fair city, you have to stop by the Kennedy Library, an amazing space and building.

  • D.

    Thanks – a timely post for me as well…
    … after a week of nothing but “situations”, I felt a bit abused, disheartened and under appreciated.  ;) There are definitely moments during a highly emotional and demanding construction process when we’re the only ones who can see what’s at the end of the tunnel. It just happend that over the weekend I ran into some newly moved-in clients and we had the opportunity to talk about the design and construction process over the past two years.  Out of the WHOLE thing (and there were some *genius ;) moments) the part that stood out in their minds and truly meant the most was “when we went crazy and you stayed so positive, organized and level headed…” [and there were a few of those moments...]It’s our job to help them get through that tunnel – and when they do, the mundane is far outweighed by the accomplishment of seeing your ideas make somebody’s life that much better… and THAT is why I’ll push through this pile of paperwork on my desk and continue to do what I do.

    Thanks for posting Bob!

  • Ollie

    Im starting architecture school as of this september, and after reading admitedly the good and the bad of whats to come ahead on your blog, i can still say im as eager as ever.

  • leeCALISTI

    Bob, thanks this was timely. I had a not-so-nice meeting today with an important client where a problem occured because of haste on their part. However, the contractor and I were hung out to dry. Looking back I can see how I could have been more of a superhero to thwart the issue, but that’s the 20-20 hindsight thing. I have a chance to make things better, so that’s hopeful. However, today I am feeling down for not being the hero.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      you’re probably a hero to someone all those other days so feel free to take a day off every now and then. Besides, I would think that if you always play both sides (could go either way) people might think you weren’t always being genuine with them.

      Cheers

  • http://www.architangent.com Brinn Miracle

    I think part of the root issue is two-fold: First that schools and ‘the public’ over-emphasize design, and second, many firms tend to minimize it while promoting a culture of ‘paying dues’. 

    The issue is really that neither is correct when accurately depicting architecture. Construction drawing creation and construction administration (including payment applications and punch list write ups) are all completely integral to architecture. These parts of the process are not a diabolical plan to haze newbies, nor do these tasks go away once you’ve put in 5-10 years of experience at a job. Likewise, design is not the most glamorous part of the process, as it is grueling, time consuming and exhausting to think creatively for long periods of time (schematic design on a deadline, anyone?). It may seem fun to draw pictures, but design is often much more rigorous than a doodle. Once we can reconcile that every aspect, from initial conversation to final ribbon cutting is important, maybe our profession (schools, firms, etc.) will begin to tell it like it is: every job and every task is important.

    I’d like to see schools teach more about how the ‘mundane’ tasks influence how we design. I’d like to see firms encourage ‘design’ within the mundane, and give more opportunity for everyone to take part in the entire process. Understanding is the best way to combat misconception, and it comes by doing. 

    Cheers!

    • leeCALISTI

      Brinn, I try to inject these things into the studio I teach. I’m not sure 19-year-olds hear me when I share stories. Maybe they’ll remember them later. However, I think you’ve distilled it down accurately. These are the tasks that need to get done. Someone has to do them; they’re important.

    • shtrum

      In addition to teaching the more mundane tasks, schools should emphasize the value of cross-platforming with other professions.  A good example being design-build.  For decades there was an artificial chasm between architecture and construction, which some firms are now slowly bridging like Onion Flats (Philadelphia) and El Dorado (Kansas City).  But telling architects to draw but not build . . . like telling a mechanic to use tools with his feet so his fingernails won’t get dirty.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      what your are introducing is really at the heart of the process – it all counts, from beginning to end, that how a project gets detailed contributes to the design. Many young people haven’t come to terms with this yet and if they aren’t working on the front end, they think they aren’t part of the design process.

      I tried introducing that idea in a post I wrote back in January of 2011 – ‘What makes you a designer?’ I thought that was a good post…
      http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/what-makes-you-a-designer/ 

      Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation

  • Cathy Svercl RA

    thanks for your reflection today.  i like Jackie’s comment about taking the leap of faith.  i have a very successful project just wrapping up – great clients, great project, great contractor – and i think it all came to be because my clients decided to take the leap with me.  now i compare every potential client to them, and it helps me decide who to work with.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Cathy,

      Sometimes the personal connection is the most important one. More times than not, that “unearned” faith is rewarded because there is something to prove. Good clients are more important than good projects (or maybe you can’t have one without the other…)

  • http://www.qualitydoor.com/ Quality Door & Hardware

    I think this comes with many different professions. You have to pay your dues in the early days and eventually you get to conduct the really juice work that makes creativity flow. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7EP6UOMMRWPK3JQHTB6QKJXHAQ Joe

    I’ll go on a limb here and ask a question. Do architects think these kinds of situations are really that much different than other professions? In my experience they are not.

    In my former profession two monitors on the desk has been standard for years. (i.e. software engineering.) The issues that are discussed that involve work process are not that much different but the terminology is different. I find it interesting that my former profession (and others I might add) has a habit of borrowing general ideas from architecture but I don’t see architects doing it as often. 

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Joe,

      I agree that this process is similar in other professions - most of them actually. The difference I think with architecture is that the reality of the profession is quite different than how it is portrayed to the public and to students while they are in school. Everybody thinks it’s all about design, that’s where the glory and glamour (and last minute trips to Vegas) reside … but it’s the nuts and bolts – along with the process of design – that actually result in a successful project, and most likely, a successful career.

      Thanks,
      Bob

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7EP6UOMMRWPK3JQHTB6QKJXHAQ Joe

        “The difference I think with architecture is that the reality of the profession is quite different than how it is portrayed to the public and to students while they are in school.”

        This is where my original comments come from. Many technical fields  ascribe the idea of “design” into a higher plateau than warranted.

        Just Google “software design patterns.” The idea of a software “design pattern” is borrowed from Alexander’s “A Pattern Language.” Now it dominates software engineering thinking and is beat into the heads of younger software engineers and developers. 

        I was around before this latest fashionable trend (ahem.. old man ahem…) and we used various formations of entities but we didn’t call them “design patterns.” 

        So I get the question, “Have you ever used the  [insert pattern name] pattern.”

        “I don’t know? what is it,” I say to incredulous looks that the old man doesn’t automatically know what arbitrary name has been assigned to the practice. Then they explain it.

        “Oh. Sure I have used it.”

        “Which library did you use?” This translates to, “Which pre-programmed set of code, that expresses the pattern, did you actually use .”

        “None of them,” I say to the further incredulous stares back at me.

        “O.K. We programmed our own set of objects that just happened to express the same pattern,” I say.

        The stares back say to me, “You can actually do that?”

        So in other words, I might say something like, “Everybody thinks it’s all about design, that’s where the glory and glamour (and last minute trips to Vegas) reside … but it’s the nuts and bolts – along with the process of design – that actually result in a successful project.”

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7EP6UOMMRWPK3JQHTB6QKJXHAQ Joe

        I almost forgot. Speaking to your point that nuts and bolts matter here is a reference:
        Foutse Khomh, Yann-Gael Gueheneuc, Do Design Patterns Impact Software Quality Positively? Proceedings of the 12th European Conference on Software Maintenance and Reengineering (CSMR), du 1-4 April 2008, Athens, Greece. IEEE Computer Society Press.  

        Quote: “We show that, contrary to popular beliefs, design patterns in practice impact negatively several quality attributes, thus providing concrete evidence against common lore.”

        I guess my point is that these professions have a lot to learn from each other and caveat emptor when they do!

  • Rick Nelson

    Well said, Bob – most of my days are filled with solving ‘situations’, or working out ways to make it buildable and/or/cost effective…

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      so are mine … except for the cost effective. Most of the time if comes down to whether people want it badly enough so it’s either in or out, no degrees of grey.

      Thanks Rick

  • http://twitter.com/remarchitect Robert Moore

    I like your emphasis on the way to treat clients, the people that hire us to come up with solutions(design). Sometimes I try to think of how to turn the more mundane part of practice (writing documents, processing pay applications, sending a million emails that only have three sentences in them, and talking on the telephone) into design solutions.

    • http://twitter.com/archy_type Cormac Phalen

      Robert (and Bob), you’re right about how we tend de-emphasize the non-glamorous side of our profession to make it just a bit more than bearable. After many years at this I simply realized that even our more mundane of tasks are part of the “design” process and that without our mundane (sometimes referred to as monotony) then we really wouldn’t have the glamorous side of our job to deal with.  So with that even as hard as it can be sometimes I grin and carry on with all aspects of the “design” process. 

      Great post Bob.

      • Paul

        This is exactly why movies and tv shows about or with architects in the lead role can tend to be rather boring.  If they aren’t creating some masterpiece it all can seem dull.  They have to be in the throws of some life changing work that affects everyone around them. Or they need to be some undiscovered talent that is about to explode on to the scene and blow everyone out of the water.  Truth is the day to day stuff is not all that exicting to anyone except the architect. 

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Robert, I always like when you leave a comment – you are always so positive!