Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Getting licensed: the basics of the ARE

Regardless of how you gain your hours and experience as an intern (through IDP or through whatever process your state allows), at some point you’ll be ready to take the ARE.  When you have all your hours ready, you’ll submit your record to NCARB or the architectural registration board of your state of residence.  If you go through NCARB, they’ll submit your record to your state of residence, and then you’ll be sent a testing number that allows you to schedule exams.  In the U.S., the ARE is administered at Thomson Prometric learning centers, where tests can be scheduled during business hours and even on Saturdays (call and check on this kind of availability). 

With the advent of ARE 4.0, which I’m about 99.999% certain you’ll be taking if you’re reading this, there are seven sections to the ARE, compared to the nine that have comprised the ARE for the past umpteen years (and which I took not that long ago—yes, I know, I’ll tell you all about it sometime while leaning on my walker and drinking an Ensure).  The previous ARE format split up the multiple-choice tests and the graphic tests, but now each of the seven tests has a multiple-choice (or as I call it, multiple guess) section and a graphics section.  The sections are:

o        Building Design & Construction Systems

o        Construction Documents & Services

o        Structural Systems (used to be two separate tests under ARE 3.1 and previous AREs)

o        Building Systems (involves mechanical, electrical, and plumbing)

o        Programming, Planning, & Practice

o        Schematic Design

o        Site Planning & Design

The old ARE also had Building Technology as a graphics section; its subject material has been absorbed into four of the new tests.

You can schedule the tests in any order and at any time, but if you fail a section, you cannot take it again for six months.  When you take the ARE, you also have to agree not to tell others what exact questions were on the tests.  You can describe general topics, as I recall, but you can’t say, “There’s this one question where you have X joists and Y floor and the contractor says Z….”  Also, remember that once you pass your first test, you have five years to complete them all before the first ones you passed are voided and have to be taken again.  Five years sounds like a long time, but I know of people who have taken that long to do it.  To be fair, it also allows for a couple of dramatic things to happen to you, like having a baby, surviving a terrible illness, enduring a military deployment, or losing a close family member.  For some of these instances, I believe you can get a forbearance of your five-year clock—check NCARB’s website to be sure.

Once you pass all the tests, you may still have to take additional tests depending on your state of initial licensure.  Colorado used to require an open-book ethics test, but it was recently discontinued.  I had to take it in the summer of 2006, but a colleague did not have to do so in early 2007—when my colleague told me about this, I nearly spit out my Ensure.  When you have passed all the required tests and possibly paid some additional fee to your state licensing board, they’ll send you your official architect’s license.  Congratulations—you’ve made it.

But back to the mechanics of the ARE: it’s expensive, and chances are you’ll have to miss some work to take at least some of if not all the tests.  Ask your employer if they provide any financial assistance with taking the exam.  Examples of financial help would be interest-free loans to pay for the tests, copies of study materials that you can borrow, or even paid time off to take it.  Some firms will flat out pay for you to take the ARE—yes, they exist.  For most firms (or in my opinion any firm who has their priorities in order), having licensed architects in the firm is valuable, so it behooves them to help you get licensed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Procrastination is your enemy

I heard an intern in my office complaining about the ARE 4.0 last week.  She's been taking her tests for three or four years now, and she was complaining to a younger intern about how she had to find a testing facility in our state to take the old ARE Building Technology test before July 1st before the old version goes defunct, otherwise she's going to have to take five sections of ARE 4.0 in order to make up that one test.  The younger intern bemoaned this fact and commented that there ought to be some kind of exception for her.  The fact is that NCARB started warning us about ARE 4.0 in the fall of 2006 (my husband recalls hearing about it when he started at a new firm then).  Testing facilities have been offering both versions of the test for well over a year now.  Interns in the process of taking the old ARE have had plenty of warning and exceptions.  If you procrastinate and/or let your job get in the way of your career, you only have yourself to blame.

Allow me to explain.  After observing younger interns as well as my still-unlicensed contemporaries with regards to this issue, the primary reason for putting off completing the ARE is the time + energy factor.  Everyone has a cover version of the same song; work gets busy and has crazy deadline after crazy deadline, or something major happened in their personal life, and the intern cannot find the time or the energy to study for and take tests for some amount of time.  Fair enough--life gets busy and work can get tough.  But consider this: there will always be something in your way.  Work will get hectic, you or your partner will be expecting a child, a parent will get sick, you will get sick, you will get married, you will get divorced, life will be hard.  Yes, sometimes you have to take a break, but at some point, you will decide--you must decide--that you are going to take and finish the ARE.  

If work is a constant onslaught of deadlines, it is up to you to take your boss(es) aside and explain that you need some time to finish the ARE and that your passing the tests will benefit everyone.  Most managers can respect this and will work with you to get you the space and time you need.  If you have managers that cannot respect this, then you need to change managers or jobs.  If you cannot change managers or jobs, ask yourself if that's really true.  If it's really true, then you have to figure something out.  This same advice goes for personal issues.  If you have a new baby or child, work out some arrangements to get help with child care so that you have the time to a) rest and b) study and take the tests.  If you or a loved one is having health issues, talk with their/your healthcare providers to assess what's realistic and to find support systems that can help you meet your goals.  If it seems impossible, look at it again.  If it's still impossible, you can get a forebearance on your five-year rule, depending on the reason.  If your reason for putting off the ARE isn't covered by NCARB's allowable forebearance reasons, then figure something out.

Full disclosure: my husband, also an architect, and I started taking the ARE at the same time, just as I started a big project.  Our plan was to take two every two months; this worked out to one test a month, but if we did two every two months, we could better share our one copy of all the study materials.  We took two of the tests, and my project busted wide open with no one to help me on a regular basis.  I considered postponing the tests, but I also knew that if I stopped, it might be hard to start again.  Hence, I worked sixty-hour weeks while taking the ARE.  I worked no less than seven eight-hour days a week for eight months straight while taking and passing one ARE section test per month.  While this was insane and took three months for me to recover, I got it done.  

Another colleague of mine had just started taking the ARE when his wife informed him that she was expecting a baby.  He knew that having a new little one in the house was going to be exhausting and that his wife would need his support, especially in the first months afterwards.  He accelerated his schedule of test taking and managed to have taken all of them by a few weeks before the baby arrived.  He managed to fail the last test, but he wasn't worried about it; since he couldn't take the failed test for another six months, he might as well enjoy his new daughter now and take the test again later.  Eight months after he took the failed test, he took it again and passed.

If you want it bad enough, you will take and finish the ARE.

Next post: what's up with the ARE, anyway?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Saving us from ourselves: a clarification, an explanation, and an observation

I got another email from an NCARB representative this week that shed some light on IDP, NCARB, and the infernal late application fee:

For further clarification, you can only pursue an NCARB certificate after you have received your initial license and if you meet the requirements of certification;  If you keep your record active between IDP/ARE and initial licensure and then pursue NCARB certification, the application fee is waived ($675) and you’ll receive ½ price renewals for the first three years (the current annual renewal for certification is $190).


The “late application” fee is actually intended to reduce retroactive reporting for the IDP and to encourage timely reporting of experience.  This fee is being eliminated on July 1st of this year as the new six month rule will require regular reporting.  Thanks!

This explanation for the late application fee makes sense to me only if interns actually check the schedule of fees on NCARB's website.  Many of them probably don't, and they pay for it.  So what's the problem with retroactively reporting a few years' worth of hours?  The NCARB rep explains:

Once the six month rule is in place, no retroactive reporting beyond the 6 month rule windows will be allowed.  We have done our best to broadcast these changes over the past 15 months.  We fully believe that timely report will benefit the intern, the supervisor, and will ensure that NCARB Records runs smoothly.  A common complaint that we receive involves frustrated interns that cannot get past employers to verify their work because the supervisors simply don’t remember what work was accomplished and hesitate to provide a blanket sign-off.  The timely reporting should enhance the experience and actually reduce issues and delays associated with the process… but interns will be responsible to get these reports in within the appropriate reporting windows (within two months of the end date of the reporting period).

Ah, that's why.  It's partially a problem of NCARB being able to get an intern's record complied and approved in a timely manner once they receive a huge pile of an intern's hours, and it's also that they're having to save interns from themselves.  I have also seen interns scrambling time and again to get former employers to approve hours and sign off on their records when the intern finally opens their NCARB record after working for four years and being gone from that employer for three of them.  NCARB's Six Month rule, which requires that an intern report their hours of experience every six months through the online recordkeeping system (e-EVR), will prevent these sorts of delays.

What's notable here is that NCARB's three most recent changes are designed ultimately to stop interns from procrastinating.  The Five-Year rule, instituted in the last couple of years, mandates that from the date of an intern's first test, s/he only has five years to finish passing the tests.  When the Five-Year rule was passed, there were nine tests in the ARE.  Starting in 2007 (I think, but maybe it was early 2008), there are only seven tests in the latest version of the ARE, known as ARE 4.0.  This means that now you have five years to pass seven tests, not nine.  Added to all this is the Six-Month rule, which kicks in for all interns not yet taking the ARE as of July 1 of this year.  All these changes require that an intern open their record with NCARB in a timely fashion (if they do indeed plan to go through NCARB and IDP), report their hours on a regular basis, and then finish taking their tests in an expedient manner once they've started.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Some clarification and a thank you

I recently received an unprompted email from someone who works at NCARB, who had the following clarification:

Only the individual states (member boards) are members of NCARB (The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards); other individuals are record holders or is some cases certificate holders.

So what this means is that when you see NCARB after an architect's name, that means that they have a record with NCARB, which means that if a client does work in more than one state or in a state different from the one in which the architect lives, it won't be that hard for the architect to be or get licensed in the client's state.

I also would like to say thank you to the NCARB person for emailing me.  I want to emphasize to my readers that I intend to provide my observations as I see fit on this blog, but I hope that I can do so without bashing people or institutions.  Likewise, I appreciate comments and emails from readers that are clear but civil.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

IDP, NCARB, and (mostly) necessary evils, Part 2 of 2

To recap, IDP was created by NCARB to give folks a uniform standard for acquiring and recording/accounting for architectural training experience, which once complete qualifies you to take the Architectural Registration Exams (ARE).  Many states require participating in IDP to get licensed, though not all do.  Joining IDP and NCARB makes it easier to transfer your internship record and/or your license from one state to the next.  As you might expect, joining NCARB costs money, $285 to be exact.  Yes, that's a lot of cash, but if it's any consolation, it hasn't gone up since I got out of graduate school in 2000.

The initial $285 opens your IDP/NCARB record and pays for them to maintain your record for three years.  After that, it costs $60 a year to keep the record open and maintained.  (That has gone up; it was $50 a year when I graduated in 2000.)  Technically, it takes three years of full-time work to gain all the hours prescribed in IDP, but the reality is that it usually takes four or five years for many interns.  Some firms won't properly mentor their interns for whatever reason.  Sometimes an office designs a lot of projects but none of them get built, thereby inadvertently denying the interns on those projects the chance to gain their construction administration hours.  The current economic climate means that a lot of interns are out of work, so gaining any hours towards their IDP is impossible for a while.  I needed a shade over four years to get my hours and probably another nine months to procrastinate submitting my final record to NCARB to start taking the exam, so I paid an extra $120.  However, NCARB allows you to open your record with them for only $100 if you're in school up until about six or so months after graduating.  They're going to ask for the final $185 when you submit your record for the ARE, so have it ready.  After you pass the ARE, you can still pay NCARB a certain amount each year to keep your record active so you can have them transfer it as required for reciprocity purposes.

I have spoken with many architects and interns over the past few years regarding NCARB, and it appears that a lot of people have had less-than-delightful experiences with them.  In NCARB's most recent issue of their publication Direct Connection (2009 Vol 12 Issue 1), they have a four-page article about how they are making improvements to their customer service.  They write: "In 2008, backlogs and response times became a major priority.  While we are not yet where we plan to be, significant improvements have been realized by reorganizing the Records directorate.  Several new staff members were added, and all Records staff were cross-trained to consolidate functions, which eliminated the need for handoffs and rework."

I wonder if the article was published in response to some recent hiccups in customer service and record processing.  In late 2008 and early 2009, my interns are waiting upwards of four months to have someone a) confirm that their record has been transmitted to their state and they are cleared to start the ARE and b) that they have no outstanding bills they have to pay.  I imagine that there may be some uptick in interns applying to take the ARE while they have been laid off and have the time to study, but four months is still pretty extreme.  When my interns call NCARB and finally get through to a live person after spending half their lunch break on hold, they cannot get clear answers as to what is going on with their records and why nothing has happened and what's this extra fee for and so on.

Even worse is a new little situation that one of my interns discovered recently regarding opening your NCARB record and then immediately filing to take the ARE.  Some interns do this because they didn't know the bit about the early-application-for-$100 thing, and they can't afford the $285 once they realize they need to join NCARB.  After three or four years and a couple of raises in the profession, they plan for and save up the $285 and open their NCARB accounts.  They then fill out all the paperwork and have all their old employers fill out and sign the appropriate forms and send them in, finally submitting their records for approval to take the ARE.  Interns used to be able to do all this in a couple of months, and they still can.  However, now it costs an extra $570.  That's not a misprint.  An intern in my office discovered that if an intern submits their record to start testing within twelve months of opening their NCARB account, they must pay an extra $570 on top of the $285.  It's called a "Late Application Fee."  When my intern told me about this, he showed me the Schedule of Fees on NCARB's website.  I was so blown away that I called them myself, sat on hold for about 15 minutes, and finally left a message.  When a customer service rep called me back the next day, I confirmed this fee with him; yes, $570 "Late Application Fee" on top of the $285.  However, I could not get a straight, clear answer out of this gentleman regarding why the fee and why so much.  What exactly was the $570 doing for NCARB?  Is it because a "late" application requires more manpower to be processed?  Is it a different kind of record?  Does it have electrolytes?  He could not tell me much of anything except that "it's the fee you pay for submitting your record late."  I have since emailed someone higher up at NCARB (who was very polite, I might add) for some insight on what the $570 is for--stay tuned for details.

If you want to make it easy on yourself to move and/or get licensed in other states, NCARB is the only game in town for having national acceptance of your licensing process.  And if you want to do IDP in order to maintain that portability as an intern, NCARB is again the only place to register for it.  Note that many architects let their membership in NCARB lapse after they become licensed.  This is totally okay as long as they never have a need for that reciprocity again.  However, if they need to reactivate their NCARB record, that architect in question will have to pay back fees for every year that the license was lapsed.  I have to admit that this makes zero sense to me.  I could see some kind of fee, but not $285+$570 for the record that generally costs $285+$60+$60, and not six years of back fees for a licensed architect (which I don't even want to think about right now).  Bottom line: being a member of IDP and NCARB may be necessary depending on your career path and goals as well as the state in which you start your career.  

Note: When I say (mostly) necessary evils, I mean that they're mostly necessary, not mostly evil.  I know dealing with NCARB can be frustrating as sin, but the point of this blog is not to blame, slam, and talk smack.  I'd rather be helpful than snarky.  And believe me, those who know me know what a snarkoleptic I am; however, sarcasm and bashing doesn't really help anyone and doesn't solve anything.

Monday, April 20, 2009

IDP, NCARB, and (mostly) necessary evils, Part 1 of 2

Through the past few years of mentoring the interns in my office, I've been asked a lot about IDP and NCARB. The questions are generally some form of "What’s the big deal, anyway?  What's the point of IDP and NCARB and all that junk?"  Good question--I sometimes wonder what the point of them is myself.  First though, let's consider the original purpose of their existence. 

IDP is the Intern Development Program, and it's a well-defined process for accounting for your professional experience.  IDP delineates for any architectural intern how much experience s/he needs in a variety of fields (schematic design, bidding and negotiation, construction administration, etc.).  IDP was created because there was no clear standard for what interns should learn in the years before they take their exams.  For example, the advent of CADD meant that many new interns out of college would end up being CAD jockeys for three or four years and suddenly take the exam with little practical experience.  This process hardly produces good professionals and eventually kills a profession.  Enter IDP: suddenly, the nation has a standard for what interns should be learning during their early professional careers, and some (but not all) states made following and being a part of IDP a required part of gaining licensure.  NCARB, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is the entity that created IDP and it manages the IDP process.  They also manage and control the content of the ARE (Architect Registration Exam).  

While an architect-to-be has to spend a certain number of hours/years working before s/he can take the ARE and get licensed, each state has its own rules in addition to NCARB’s rules (states are the entities that issue the actual license). Some states, like Colorado and Arizona, don't require that an intern follow IDP but do have their own standards that closely resemble IDP and will accept the fulfillment of either process as a means of qualifying to take the ARE.  Some states require that an intern follow IDP and have a record with NCARB, and no other path is acceptable.  So if you live in a state that doesn't require IDP, then what's the point?  Why even join NCARB and go through the hassle?

The short answer is that IDP and NCARB provide accountability and portability of your experience and your eventual license.  If you open an IDP account and keep track of your hours with them, and then for some reason you have to move to a different state (job market is better, have to move back home to care for an ailing relative, have to move for a spouse or partner's job), IDP allows you to take all your experiences with you to your new state in a uniform manner; you have the hours you have once your former employer signed off on them and you're not starting from zero.  Participating in IDP also makes it easier to start in one state and get licensed in another; if either of the states requires IDP to sit for the exam, then you're covered.  

Bear in mind that when you participate in IDP, you're participating in NCARB.  Once an intern earns their license, being a member of NCARB (that is, maintaining your record with them) makes it easier to transfer your qualifications and receive a license in another state.  This process is known as reciprocity; you may have heard architects mention it when going after work in other states.  NCARB can transfer your "okay" to other states and confirm that you have met the minimum national requirements for being an architect.  Some states, most notably California, have extra tests an architect must pass in order to receive a reciprocal license, but at least the big part is done when NCARB sends the word. This is helpful even if you don't ever move out of your state.  If you ever run your own firm and get a job in another state, then getting another license is much easier.

So, joining NCARB and enrolling in IDP are generally good ideas in terms of the portability of your qualifications.  However, there is a dark financial side to being a member of this process, which we'll discuss in Wednesday's post.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Psst. Hey buddy, wanna raise?

   While now isn't the time in the economy to ask for a raise, it never hurts to have a primer on it, espeically since we were just discussing the wherefores of how poorly paid we all are.  So, here’s the deal with pay raises: at most firms, the senior project managers get together, look over the firm’s financials, discuss and compare the performance and present pay rates of the office’s employees, and then figure out who gets how much of a raise that year.  Hence, if these managers and powers-that-be look at your experience level, performance, and pay, and compare it to everyone else around your experience level, and they decide that you’re getting a 5% raise that year, then 5% it is.  Having said that, you get 0% of the raises you ask for, so if you feel like you should get more than what you’re offered, then ask about the criteria for how raises are decided, and maybe you’ll have the ammo you need to make a counteroffer.

            Having the ammo is a different matter.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: bring your A-game every day that it’s possible—consistently high-quality performance will help you make a case, if need be, for a pay increase.  You have to be able to point to something specific: you completed the drawings for the X Project on your own, you co-chaired the office picnic and brought it in under budget, you passed the LEED exam, whatever.  A few ways to bring your A-game:

  • Be diligent about getting your hours for IDP or whatever internship accounting system you use.  Let project managers know what hours you still need (more often than once a year) so you can get done as fast as possible.
  • Pursue knowledge and accreditations whenever and wherever possible.  Study for, take, and pass the LEED exam.  Learn about and improve your skills on certain types of software, especially drawing and modeling software.  Look into classes on environmental concerns, building/project types, codes, etc.
  • Get active and volunteer where you can.  Serve on a studio jury for a nearby design school.  Offer to mentor high school interns in your office.  Work with Girl or Boy Scouts.  Serve on a local committee regarding some aspect of your profession which you find interesting.  Or start your own at your office—anything from a recycling or green program to a brown-bag lunch seminar series on hand-rendering or using a certain kind of software or a softball or bowling league.  Find ways to bring something extra to your firm.
  • View each task you’re assigned as a chance to learn something, anything.  Ask questions: what’s the purpose of this?  Who’s going to see this drawing, document, image?  What do we use this for?  Then, do the task right.
  • Always be on the lookout for things to do.  After your first few months in a workplace, you get a feel for how quickly you can do most things.  Make sure you ask for something else to do before you run out of things to do: “I have some flat files to clean out this morning, but I should be done with that by the end of lunch.  What can I help you with this afternoon?”


            There are two ways to see a significant jump in your salary from an architectural job: get licensed or change jobs.  I don’t know why the latter works so well in my profession, but it does.  I’ve seen people increase their salary anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 by changing jobs.  But what helps you increase your pay whether you stay or go is the first option: getting licensed.

            I got licensed just as I reached the six-year mark in my profession, all at one firm.  As of that year, half of the increase in my salary since I started working in architecture could be attributed to getting licensed.  Allow me to repeat that: if you looked at the difference in my salary between when I started and at the end of the year in which I got licensed, half of the difference in pay was because I got licensed.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that ten months elapsed from the time I signed up for my first exam (of nine) to the moment I passed my last one; at the time I took the ARE, the average intern took about 23 months to pass all nine sections of the ARE.  Also, I was taking the exams during a really busy time at my office, in which I was working fifty to sixty hours a week during eight of the ten months that I was testing.  Hence, some of my huge jump in income was likely due not only to the fact that I got licensed, but that I did it so quickly and was able to balance work and testing.  When I tell other licensed architects how I got licensed, they usually spit out whatever they’re drinking and look at me like I must have been crazy.  Maybe I was, but I knew I just wanted to get done with it, work schedule be damned.

            Youngish, licensed architects are coveted in the relative scheme of things in the architectural profession.  Their relative newness to the profession means that they’re proficient in one or more types of drawing and modeling software as well as some other graphics software, like Photoshop.  Their licensure means that they’ve worked a certain number of years in the profession and jumped through some tough hoops, so they’re skilled enough to know how a building goes together, how to run a project in all its phases, and how to deal with clients and contractors.  A firm’s owners or top staff members feel more comfortable sending a licensed architect out to meet with owners and contractors than an intern, even if the architect and intern in question are the same age and have the same amount of professional experience.  Also, I should mention briefly here that being licensed allows you to start your own firm, if you’re into that sort of thing.

            It’s worth mentioning that there are older people, in their 40s and 50s, who are, shall we say, terminal interns.  Usually these people have been practicing for most of their lives and never took or finished the tests, or they’ve taken the tests but they keep failing some of them and get frustrated.  Ultimately, being a terminal intern is their only choice if they want to stay in their position and profession, but beware if this sounds like a pretty good deal to you: terminal interns hit an income ceiling.  It’s hard for an office to pay an unlicensed person more than a licensed person, as it devalues the hard work put into taking and passing the ARE.  So you hit an income limit, so what?  Going to another firm is how you get a raise, right?  Not if you’re over the age of 40 and unlicensed.  Again, it’s a better deal for most firms to pay a 35-year-old licensed architect the same (or even a little less) than what they’d pay a 50-year-old unlicensed intern.  Being unlicensed severely limits your employment options.  Being licensed opens a lot more doors for you.  This lesson is especially important for nontraditional architectural interns—those who changed majors or went to college after time spent in another career or being in the military.  Getting your hours, filing your paperwork, and diligently taking and passing the ARE is especially important for those folks.  Whether you’ve passed only one test or all but one test, good luck finding a job as a 45-year-old intern.

            Bottom lines here:

  • The two best ways to dramatically increase your income as an architect is to get licensed and/or change jobs.
  • Getting licensed makes changing jobs easier.
  • Getting licensed opens doors that are otherwise shut to you. Either get licensed or resolve yourself to the fact that those doors will shut as you age.  Ageism exists in architecture, sad but true.

Monday, April 13, 2009

News flash: You’re underpaid. In other news, the sky is blue.

            Remember how I mentioned that you’re replaceable up to about three years out of school? Okay, good.  That explains in some part why you’re underpaid.  There are so many people out there who are comparable to you in experience level, so no one’s going to shell out mad cash for the same skills they can find elsewhere, many elsewheres.  Now, please note that I never said you weren’t important.  Important is different from irreplaceable.  Think about everything under the hood of a car: most of what’s under there—serpentine belt, oil filter, fuel injectors, spark plugs, O2 sensor—is important.  But it’s all also replaceable.  You replace the oil filter every time you get an oil change.  You replace the serpentine belt and the brake pads when they wear thin or even break.  Same thing with interns.  No offence.

            Another part of being underpaid involves architects being bad businesspeople.  How many business classes were required when you were in college and grad school?  I bet the answer is none.  Maybe a little bit about meeting payroll and finding an office in the one professional practice class you took for one quarter or semester, but that’s about it, huh?  Indeed, architecture firms are run by architects, who as a profession have lots of design experience and technical experience but little to no business management experience.  All architects want to do is draw pretty buildings and get them built in a way that is safe, sound, and meets the client’s needs. 

This lack of business savvy plays into legal issues involving antitrust legislation against architects.  The Justice Department has used antitrust laws against architects in 1972 regarding price quotes on bids, and then again in 1990 against the AIA, alleging that its Chicago chapter issued a memo to its members regarding prohibiting members from engaging in competitive bidding for a job or even providing free services.  The DOJ labeled this as price fixing and in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, and the matter was settled out of court.  So, when a client wants to build a building of some sort or another, part of the presentation and interview process can involve the architects saying how much they will charge for their work (a fixed fee of X? a percentage of the construction costs?).  The DOJ’s actions state that architects cannot get together (as the AIA, that is) and say, “Okay, on new projects we’re charging 7% and on renovations we’re charging 9%, and that’s that.”  Architects have to assess their overhead costs, processes, and past experience to figure out what they’ll charge a client.  And because any run-down schmuck with an architect’s license and a few copies of CAD in his garage can make a bid, everyone has to be competitive with their proposals.  Hence, a lot of architects tend to undercharge for their services.  (Even I do it occasionally when someone asks me how long I think it will take me to do something—I tend to give them the amount of time it will take for me to do it if I’m completely left alone and get all the info I need right when I need it.  When I give a manager my number for a proposal, he or she usually doubles it.  Smart of them.)

            So, how do you make your employer peel off the cabbage roll you deserve?  I have no foolproof way to make this happen.  Each firm works a little differently from the others, but I can tell you some generalities that seem to help.  First off, there are plenty of websites out there that allow you to see what people at your level should be making.  When you see your salary ranges, be sure to convert those salaries to an hourly rate, as some firms pay their interns hourly.  When you go into a job interview and finally get a job offer, let them make an offer first and know what you’re willing to accept (versus what you might want to counteroffer with).

            Once you have a job, getting pay increases are important but are only somewhat within your area of control.  Most firms deal with raises during a performance review, usually once a year.  Some firms do their pay reviews in a separate meeting from the performance review. To-may-to, to-mah-to.  If your firm doesn’t do regular reviews at a set time each year, ask for one.  Mention that you’d like to discuss your performance and salary, and ask for the review to happen a few weeks after the date you mention it.  If you keep getting blown off for this review, it’s time to look for a new job.  A firm that doesn’t take your development seriously is not one at which you want to be for long.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The difference between school and work

Much ado is made about the difference between architecture school and the architectural workplace, or the practice of architecture.  Much of this noise is about the chasm of knowledge between the two: why so vast?  Is there no way to teach at least some of this workplace stuff in college?

            The short answer is no. 

            I myself wondered if it was possible to teach some “work stuff” when I was in college and even grad school, and I’ve come to find in the past eight-and-a-half years of practice that there is no way I could teach someone in any meaningful way about what I do at the office or in the field.  The reason you don’t see a lot of construction administration classes in architecture school is that you need a real project on which to learn, and few architecture firms feel like leaving CA to chance with some college kids.  Even harder to understand is that there are some processes—such as CA, again, or even bidding and negotiation—that one must go through before they even learn how to do it.  The only way out, it could be said, is through.

            So, when an architecture student becomes an architecture school graduate, and then an architectural intern (or just an intern, depending on your state’s rules about the use of the word architect), s/he has to work at least three years and collect hours upon hours of experience in IDP or a similar training program in order to sit for the exam.  Yes, a few states will allow a student to begin taking sections of the ARE before they have completed their training units (no word yet on how that’s been affected by the change in the exam format), but overall it’s a long, hard road.

            I mentioned that the short answer to my question was no.  The long answer involves considering the point of architecture school and architecture work.  Architecture school is about you.  It’s about what you like aesthetically and philosophically.  It’s about finding your place in this profession: what are your strengths?  Your weaknesses?  Your interests?  Your goals?  Think about all the crits you stood through and presentations you prepared for and rehearsed in college and grad school: a majority of the sentences and explanations began with the word “I”.  Even if you are given a program and maybe even get to talk to a hypothetical client as part of developing your design, every form and void you imagine is completely yours.  Architecture school helps you develop your voice, your style, and your strengths as a designer and philosopher.  But then, those crits.  Every school has that guy or that gal whom no one wants to see on their jury.  That juror (or jurors, if you should be so unlucky) will eviscerate your design and even sometimes your personality and identity until you wonder why you didn’t just go to Sally Struthers’ International Correspondence School and get a certificate in TV & VCR Repair.  But frankly, a respectable jury will call you out on sloppy designs and weak motivations in your project and let you know where you fell short of your and the project’s goals.  So architecture school is also about building endurance, courage, and the ability to protect your core ideas and beliefs such that you can filter nonsense from the criticism that actually helps improve your work.

And you will need that endurance, courage, and ability to protect yourself when you enter the architectural workforce because architecture work is not about you.  It is about everyone and everything else.  You no longer sit at your drafting board and parallel bar and work alone, night and day.  You’re part of a team, for better or for worse, and your efforts have to be in the service of your job and that team.  Your team consists of engineers, owners (who are paying the bills), and contractors, and it feels like everyone is speaking a different language.  Then there's the reality element: the project you're working on is actually going to get built, so every line you draw counts for a lot more.  And you draw a lot more lines for a lot longer, too: a semester in college goes for 14-16 weeks, while the design and documentation process for a typical commercial project is at least four months long.  More complex projects, like college buildings or hospitals, can range 6-12 months in these stages.  You have to keep up your enthusiasm for a project for much longer than before.  And the details?  Lawdy, at all the details.  Presentations in school were 4-10 artfully drawn 30”x42” sheets hung on a wall for everyone to discuss while using words like “architectonic” and “parti”.  Drawing sets are now a bound stack of 30”x42” sheets at least half an inch thick, over which contractors and cost estimators pore and curse while using words like “value engineering” and “dammit.”  Budgets are now involved, and the bloodletting begins as soon as the contractors sharpen their pencils.  And then…it has to get built.  Construction takes anywhere from four more months for a small commercial building to three or four years for a large hospital or college building complex.  While construction proceeds, the architect is answering questions from the field and finding out just how inaccurate and unclear his/her drawings are, and/or how incompetent the contractor or subcontractors are, and/or capricious and annoying the client is. 

            At this point, the work is very much about everything but you, and yet it is about you in a roundabout way.  Adversity not only builds character; it reveals it.  How you handle recalcitrant contractors, weary consultants, and panicky clients tells everyone, including your boss and your boss’ boss, the stuff of which you’re made.  Hopefully, you’ve developed some skills during your four to six years of college—organization, communication, prioritizing, problem-solving, working in teams, and behaving with a modicum of decency and humility—and those skills will be some of that stuff.

            While the focuses of architecture school and work are different, they have certain things in common and certain skills that will make either easier.  The plus side is that many skills that make someone a successful architect also make them a successful writer, teacher, event planner, physical therapist…whatever.  If you decide not to pursue architecture, you haven’t fully wasted your time.