Monday, June 25, 2012

Specializing and generalizing, Part 2 of 2

I wrote last week about looking for places to excel in the architecture profession and going after those tasks and skills. I advocate this path in architecture for a couple of reasons.  One is that this is bound to be a long and arduous career for many of us, and getting good at the parts you enjoy can make the trip a little more pleasant.  If you're good at something you also happen to enjoy, you may actually be (*gasp!*) paid to do something  you really like to do for a living, which is about as close to nirvana as many of us will ever get.  

The other reason I advocate for this is due to trends I see in our profession: it's as if we're finally acknowledging that all architects are not all things to all people.  It's not because we're bad architects or bad professionals--it's just that it's not human (or often possible) to be really good at everything.  And in a professional and economic climate where so much is at stake, a firm cannot afford to have anything less than the best on each aspect of the project.  You don't want the space planner trying to figure out where the vapor barrier goes in the exterior wall, and you don't want the specs guru trying to figure out the best arrangement of the materials and parti for the building. That being said, we're all architects. We care about the way the building looks and how it works inside and if it's affordable to build and efficient to operate.  We all still deserve and need a say in each of these aspects.  But the conversation needs to be led or at least started by someone who really knows what they're doing.

And yet, I've seen the architectural specialist take a hit in the past five years.  Architects who were CA experts, spec experts, or building envelope experts, are the ones I saw get laid off the most.  First off, if there's no work to get and do, then there's no specs to write or CA to perform, so there's nothing for these souls to work on.  But second and almost more importantly, these specialists were often too specialized; their skills could not or would not translate over to another aspect of architecture.  The best example I've seen of this was a senior architect who was a whiz at exterior building detailing and CA, but he was so cantankerous that he couldn't be brought to a schematic design or space planning meeting.  As soon as someone proposed rethinking or redoing everything they had been thinking and sketching on for the past twenty minutes, the architect dug in his heels and refused to revisit a concept or site location or whatever was up for debate.  The strictness that dictated his primary skill set (and ensured success in that arena) foiled any success at any part of architecture that required nonstructured thinking and flexibility.  He was laid off less than a year after the recession started.

I advocate specialization, but I don't advocate utter and complete specialization.  To paraphrase the saying about closed-mind thinking: if all you have is a hammer, then you can only deal with nails--pounding them in and pulling them out.  If you have one of those neato rechargeable drills, you can drill screws with various head types, or you can attach or remove nuts and bolts with various heads and sizes by interchanging the heads.  No, you can't pound anything into a surface like a hammer, but you're definitely more useful.  To take this analogy further, if you have a shovel, you can mostly use it to dig into the dirt and move dirt around, but you can also use it to cut roots and hack at weeds and smooth out a dirt surface and even whomp something on the head with it.  You know how to use a tool--and your skills--successfully for something other than the intended purpose.

Last week, I mentioned the skills at which I have excelled, am okay, or am not so good.  It's the okay-skills that I feel best about, oddly enough.  I'm really good at designing how healthcare departments should be laid out and can work best, but I also am decent enough at Revit that I can go into a model, put in walls and doors, and move things around to get the plan just how it needs to be.  I'm glad to rely on others who are faster and better for this work, but I can do the work myself if need be.  I'm excellent at healthcare codes and guidelines, but I also know enough about regular ol' building codes to know that there might be something in there that will throw a wrench in the amazing floor plan I'm trying to achieve. Being really good at one thing at the expense of all others isn't talent--it's being a savant, and a savant isn't nearly as helpful as someone who is really good at one thing and pretty good at a few others.

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