Monday, June 29, 2009

Getting hired in a down economy: good ideas and sneaky ones (?)

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal section of the 6/28/09 Sunday Denver Post regarding how to get a job in a down economy and a market flooded with applicants. One of the interviewee's comments sounds like a good idea to me, but the other left me feeling a bit like I needed to wash my hands.

The suggestion that made a lot of sense to me is that if you post your resume on a website, don't just wait for people to call you. It makes a lot of sense in a job market flooded with applicants (many of them very qualified) to tailor your application, resume, and cover letter to go after more specific positions if you have some kind of focus that others might not have. It's a way to set you apart from the pack. Let's say you have tons of experience with 3D modeling and/or graphic design--look for job openings that mention those qualities, or send your resume to firms that appear to be able to benefit from that.

The tip that felt creepy to me was to type keywords (especially if they don't explicitly come up in your resume) in white print at the bottom of your resume if you post it online so that your resume will pop up in a wider range of searches. For some reason this feels creepy to me, perhaps because the interviewee states that you type the keywords in white text so that it won't show up when someone views or prints the resume. It feels a little sneaky to me, but maybe that's easy for me to say since I'm not engaged in a job search right now.

What concerns me about interns in the workforce right now is that neither of these tips fully helps. Architecture, as I have described in previous posts, pays for experience and knowledge, not education. They want the best bang for their buck, and the right intern can give them that. To set onself apart on a resume search, it would more likely behoove an architectural intern to emphasize not just technical ability with software but also project type experience (schools, healthcare, commercial) and project phase (construction documents, construction administration).

Friday, June 26, 2009

Communication in architecture and the case against BS

I had a question earlier about BS in this profession. The exact question was this:

This job requires the ability to BS some.Can you describe some etiquette for when to BS and when not to? How much BS is too much? When is humility more beneficial? And when to call people on their BS, contractors, subs, city staff, consultants, project designers, etc.

Here's the short answer: BS is never okay. Here's why: there are generally three types of statements with regards to facts: true, partly true, and not true. Those are easy enough to understand. But bullshit (or BS as we're politely calling it here) is another whole breed of statement. BS isn't even concerned with truth: it doesn't care what's true, it doesn't know what's true, and it doesn't care enough to find out what's true, it's just about smoothing things over and making themselves look good. Moreover, it's lazy communication. The ultimate goal of all professional communication is to be clear, respectful, timely, and appropriate. BS is none of these. That's why there's no place in your job or career for it. Not to sound like your mother, but if you don't want to receive it, then don't give it out.

Some people confuse tact and diplomacy with BS--it's a common misconception, but they're two different animals. Tact is about speaking respectfully. If the contractor hasn't finished picking up all their punchlist items and it's going on 90 days after the owner has moved in and started using the building, then you need to remind the contractor of this:

Wrong: "You people need to go fix that crap. You haven't been doing your job and you'r making us all look stupid. I don't care what the problem is, just finish the damn punchlist."*
Right: "The owner has mentioned that there are still some outstanding punchlist items to be picked up. When are you planning to wrap those up?"

Diplomacy is being mindful that there are two (or more) sides to every situation and being able to problem-solve when you're hearing all these sides:

Contractor: "Well, we've been out there for two weeks straight. I dunno what else they want us to fix. Man, they are such a bunch of whiners."
Architect: "Dude, I can completely understand how frustrating this is, 'cuz you feel like you've fixed everything and we're all ready to move on. What they've mentioned to me is that the sink in the break room barely has any water pressure, and there are still a bunch of dings and scratches in the halls on the north end of the building. And I know we just wanna be done with this project, but they did pay for a nice, new, complete building, and we owe it to them to do that."

Sometimes, people will say things that you may not have the authority to handle, or they may say things that can't be verified easily or that will take some work to verify. When this happens, you call them on it with tact and diplomacy in the service of the job.

Contractor: "Look, they gave us our retainage, so we're done, y'know? And frankly, that place looks frickin' perfect. The subs were just up there fixing that drywall and that sink; they're just being picky."
Architect: "You were just up there? Did any of your sus meet with the facilities manager before they started their repairs to check what needed to be done?"
Contractor: "Uhh, awww they had the punchlist, so that's what they followed!"
Architect: "And you're sure they followed the punchlist? Because sometimes there can be a miscommunication if someone from your office wasn't right there and able to say, 'no, this is the part that needs to be fixed--'"
Contractor: "Naw naw naw, they followed the punchlist. Ricky's a sharp guy--he does good drywall, that's why we use him!"
Architect: "Hm. Well, how about this: before either of us drives an hour and a half to the jobsite again, I'll have them email us some photos and maybe a video of the problems they're still having, and them we can see how bad it really is. Sound good?"

At this point, if the contractor likes the idea, you can follow through with the owner and make certain whether the owner's being picky or if the contractor's shirking his job. If the contractor balks at your suggestion, then you know you just threw the BS flag and you've caught him. Mostly you can cut through BS by probing some: how do you know what you're telling me? How are you so sure? Might there have been some confounding factors that would have given you a bad answer? The parts of the above exchange that you might not have authority to deal with is the money thing, the bit about "we have our retainage so we've been cut loose." Run that by your boss to see if that's an acceptable excuse (it's usually not--mostly it's bad business for a contractor). If you're ever not sure, just say you'll run the situation past your boss and see if you two can come up with a solution.

I suppose you can use humility in the workplace mostly in terms of simply being aware that you too are a fallible human being. That's why you want to speak respectfully when you ask someone "hm, that's interesting, how do you know that?" You never know how they know what they know--either you'll bust them for some nonsense or you'll learn something new. Calling people on BS doesn't have to be a verbal arm-wrestling match. It actually works better if you're respectful about it, especially if there are witnesses. Ideally, you give a BS'er enough rope to hang himself or herself with in front of others.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Possible relief for school loans

According to an article in the Sunday, June 21, 2009 Wall Street Journal section of the Denver Post, some folks will be eligible for lower loan payments on their student loans. If a college graduate has any of the following loans:
  • Stafford
  • Graduate PLUS
  • Consolidation loan made under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program
  • Consolidation loan made under the Federal Family Education Loan program
they will be able to get lower loan payments starting on July 1st as part of the Income Based Repayment Plan. Any loans in default, parent PLUS loans, or consolidation loans including a parent PLUS loan do not qualify. Under this plan, the annual loan payments will be 15% of the borrower's gross income and 150% of the federal poverty income level (which depends on family size and state of residence). The IBRP will take that 15% amount, divide it by 12, and that'll be your monthly loan payment. If you make less than 150% of the federal poverty income level, you pay nothing until your salary increases. While this plan does extend the life of your student loan, at least it keeps you in good standing. To enroll in the plan, contact your loan lender.

Also of note is that after 25 years of qualifying payments, the principal loan balance may be forgiven. I know that might sound useless, but that'd be a nice payment not to have to make if you're also trying to support a family or care for elderly loved ones.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Contracts and relationships, Part 2 of 2

We've discussed some of the basic contracts and the relationships of owner, architect, and contractor in the last post, but these relationships in general merit further discussion. Understanding the roles of each party and the complications that arise from carrying out those roles and responsibilities can help you figure out what you should be saying to whom when you work on a project.

First, let's differentiate between owner and client--the owner is the entity who will hold ownership of the building or project and may also be providing the funding, while the client is who will actually be using the building or project. Sometimes, they're one and the same--a small-but-growing shoe company needs to expand its operations, so it hires an architect to design a new manufacturing facility and corporate headquarters. Sometimes, however, they're different--an HMO needs a new outpatient clinic facility for its Houston outpost, so the HMO is the owner but the medical and administrative staff of those who will work in the clinic are the client. The owner and client relationship can get fuzzy when the government is involved. Because having the funds to produce a new building that the government will own literally takes an act of Congress, a governmental agency will sometimes contract with a private developer to build a building to their exact standards in exchange for a 99-year lease. In this case, the owner will be XYZ Development, Inc, while the client will be the U.S. Department of the Interior or the Census Bureau, etc.

The reason that the owner versus client differentiation is important because the client (or users) will likely ask for something in a user group design meeting that the owner will strike down. This is where the architect comes in. We architects generally act as the client's advocate. It is our job to do what is right for the client and to design a building that meets their needs and their budget. Sometimes in that role, we have to save a client/owner from themselves. Sometimes, they will ask us to do something that is against code or against best practices--when that happens, it's up to us to say, "Wow, you really really really don't want to do that."

The contractor works for the owner/client, just as we do. In that way, we both must answer to the owner/client and we both must look out for their best interests. The contractor builds what we draw and describe in our specs, of course, but our drawings don't relieve them of professional liability. If they see something in our drawings or specs that don't make sense, is unsafe, is unbuildable, or doesn't meet at least the standard of care, it is incumbent upon them to ask a question about it (usually by asking during a preconstruction meeting or in the form of an RFI out in the field). By that same token, it is incumbent upon us as architects to provide good, clear, coordinated drawings and specs to the contractor so they don't have to waste time asking for basic or semi-basic information. It is also incumbent upon us to ensure that our consultants (engineers, equipment planners, landscape architects, interior designers, and the like) do the same.

Our role as client advocate becomes muddy when we work in a design-build environment with a contractor who is a separate entity from us. Having the architect and contractor as separate entities usually provides a set of checks and balances that ultimately protects the owner/client. But under a design-build agreement, the architect works for the contractor. This can be a problem if the contractor makes changes to the architect's drawings that create an unsafe situation or undermines the standard of care in a building (i.e., substitutes a lower-quality type of insulation in an exterior wall, causing the building to be colder than it should be; or uses duct supports that are less stout than what the mechanical engineer specifies, causing the ducts to fall and crash through the ceiling). While the design-build contractor should in theory take the blame for the change, they can pass the blame to the architect by saying "well, you approved the change". To which the architect replies, "You were in charge! I didn't have a choice, did I?" This argument is being played out in courtrooms across the U.S.; it will be interesting to see how this ends up.

So, the architect produces good drawings and specs and then reviews submittals and shop drawings and performs periodic site walks to ensure that the contractor is building the project to a high-quality standard. Meanwhile, the contractor reviews the architect's drawings and specs and finds and fixes mistakes to ensure, again, that the project is built to a high-quality standard. So who protects the architect and contractor from a crappy owner/client? Well, the short answer is both of you and no one. I do know of architects who have refused to work with clients on future projects because of their inability to make timely decisions and/or inability to pay their bills. What happens more often, though, is that the contractor and architect may get together and figure out how to save the owner from themselves. If an owner/client is unable to make timely decisions, then the architect and contractor sit down together to come up with the best way to explain to them with hard numbers and facts how they're hurting themselves. Sometimes, they'll work together to help frame a discussion so that the owner will understand why a certain decision will benefit the owner in the long run. Occasionally, architect will recommend that a client engage an owner's representative. An ideal owner's rep knows enough about construction as well as the project type to be able to make recommendations to a client about what they should do. This is handy for owner/clients that rarely build new buildings, like a rural hospital or school system. For example, a good owner's rep can help a hospital board make good decisions on what to spend money on so that it won't hamstring the new hospital building's operation or its future growth.

Of course, there are down sides to all these relationships. The architect will whisper in the owner's ear about how the contractor is trying to dumb down his beautiful vision for the owner, which then causes the owner to put undue pressure on the contractor to build something for an unbuildable price. Likewise, the contractor may frame everything for the owner as dollars instead of features, function, and program, which encourages the owner to cut useful stuff out of the project. This leaves the contractor looking like a saint when they return a nice little construction budget refund to the owner at the end of the project while leaving the owner with an undersized parking lot and not enough VAV boxes to properly control the temperature in their building. If the architect and contractor decide to unfairly gang up on the owner/client, they may push them into decisions that they will regret later in the construction project, which will force the owner to pay additional services to the contractor and architect while they "fix" the problem. "You had the chance to put this in the project, and you said no," said the architect and contractor. "But you said I wouldn't need it!" said the owner. "Tough noogies," the architect and contractor retort. "You know what you need--it's up to you to tell us what you need; we work for you." Mmhmm. Sure you do, Frank Lloyd Spite.

Ultimately as an architect, your job is to defend the owner's wants and needs, but not in a way that it will undermine their project's success or future growth. You are a second set of eyes on the contractor's work as well as your consultants' work, but you aren't their mama and daddy, per se. And you need to be willing to speak up when you see something awry, regardless of who needs to hear it and whether they'd like to hear it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Contracts and relationships, Part 1 of 2

Another good question from an anonymous commentor regarded the difference in contracts and delivery methods and the relationship of contractor, owner, and architect to each other. First, let's parse out the differences in the types of contracts; that will make the relationships make a little more sense in the next part of this discussion.

Up until the last couple of decades, the main form of construction delivery process was design-bid-build. In this process, the architect designs the project all the way through the end of construction documents, but sometimes the architect takes the drawings and specs through about 90% CDs and calls them bid documents. Then, contractors are invited to bid on the project, and the architect gets them copies of the drawings and specs. The contractors have a set amount of time, anywhere from one to three weeks, to review the drawings and figure out a set amount for which they think they can build the project. The bids are written down and placed into sealed envelopes and given to either the client or the architect, and the bids are opened in front of witnesses. The client picks which bid they want, and the contractor is hired. If all of the bids are higher than the client's budget, then the client may select a contractor or independent cost estimator to help them get costs out of the project. Another option is that they may decide to go get more funding or reassess what they're asking the architect to design--maybe they shell out part of the space, or maybe they literally shrink the size of the building.

CM/GC is a form of project delivery that is used often on really large projects, like college or hospital buildings (and the one I happen to be most familiar with). Those letters stand for Construction Manager/General Contractor. A CM/GC contractor is brought on during schematic design or even early design development. Their role isn't just limited to building the project and hiring the subcontractors, but it also involves reviewing the drawings and specs periodically for cost and constructability issues. The idea is to keep costs manageable and avoid the "uh-ohs" of a project going over budget and to solve "what's the best way to build this" problems before you start actually building something. It costs less to fix problems on paper than in 3D.

Design-build showed up in the past twenty-five years. Usually, the contractor and the architect both work for the client/owner. However, in design-build, the architect works for the contractor. It's kind of like CM/GC on steroids. The architect and the contractor show up on the client's doorstep as a package deal. The idea behind design-build is that it reduces coordination issues in the field and again, keeps costs under control throughout the project process. Occasionally, design-build firms also have a developer as part of the firm. This means that if a business needs a building, the client can go to a developer-design-builder and find someone who has the initial capital to build a building, design it, and construct it, and the developer-design-builder can rent the building to the client or set up some kind of mortgage or financing option for that client.

Next time: the relationships between clients, owners, architects, and contractors.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Portfolios: showin' off your mad skillz

Thanks for the suggestions for future posts, folks, and please feel free to keep contributing post ideas.  Anytime you have a question, I'm glad to answer it.

Commenter 2H had a good question regarding portfolios.  First of all, a portfolio is a graphic or visual record of the projects you've worked on.  A portfolio is supplemental to a resume for architects; it works with it to illustrate what you've done and what those projects were like (fancy? small? large? an addition to a really icky looking existing building?).  Second of all, the portfolio is done best when you work on it regularly.  At least once a year (preferably everytime after you finish working on a project), get the following information on all the projects you worked on:
  • Name and address of client (for example, "Weathersby County Hospital, 1234 East Main Street, Lowland, Kansas 75309")
  • Name of project ("Clinic Addition and Imaging Remodel")
  • Square footages of work ("9,000 sf addition; 5,400 sf phased remodel")
  • Your role on the project ("team member", usually if you're an intern, but you can elaborate: "created design and construction documents, generated renderings and publicity materials for client's fundraising efforts")
  • The phases you worked on ("SD, DD, CD")
  • PDFs of plans and elevations
  • PDFs or JPGs/TIFs/image files of any renderings
  • JPGs/TIFs/image files of any photos of the finished project
  • A half-size set of the record drawings if you did a substantial amount of work on the CDs and construction administration on the project
You can keep all this info in a folder until you have a chance to work on your portfolio.  When you do work on it, simplicity is key.  Keep your graphics simple, and make sure people can read the graphics and text.  The plans, renderings, and photos (along with any text on the images) need to be clear and legible when printed as a PDF. Bear in mind that you may have to fax or email your resume and portfolio to potential employers, so be sure that the file size isn't too big and the portfolio sheets are of a size that's printable (11"x17" or 8.5"x11").  The challenge is to be clean but a bit creative as well.

Depending on what kind of work you do, you may have more or fewer sheets in your portfolio.  For example, healthcare and educational-sector interns might use only one or two sheets while museum and residential-sector interns might use two to four.  Having talked to some architects who have done hiring in my office, the fewer pages there are in an intern's resume and portfolio, the better.  If you've been working for less than four years, there's only so much you've done in your career.  Those hiring managers, who are also architects, have also told me that it's better for interns if they don't overplay or puff up their roles on projects.  One architect told me, "Anytime an intern's resume says that they were a 'project manager,' I'm really tempted to put it in the trash.  I know different offices call project management roles different things, but if you're not licensed, don't bill yourself as anything higher than 'job captain'."

Making a good portfolio takes an eye for graphics and editing, which oddly enough most architects don't have.  Editing and graphics are more related to marketing, which is ultimately what a portfolio and its resume do for you--they market you to potential employers.  Check out books from the library about marketing and graphics to get some ideas.  Look for portfolio and marketing workshops--if you're still in college, your school may have some portfolio and resume reviewing services available at their student services center, and you should take the opportunity to ask a professor or two to review your stuff.  Some professors practice outside of school, and they've likely done some hiring before.  Having someone at a portfolio review session (like the ones AIA sometimes sponsors) can be extremely helpful, because many if not all of the reviewers there are experienced architects who have seen their fair share of portfolios.

A word here for those getting out of school: using images from your school projects are just fine for your portfolio, especially if you did a thesis project.  Freehand sketches, renderings, and paintings are also acceptable, but the longer you've been out of school, the less you want to include these.  The exception would be if you work in a particular sector that lends itself to lots of hand rendering, like perhaps residential work or working at a smaller firm that might not have much in the way of computer rendering resources.

Questions?  Comments?  Let me know--this is a good topic for discussion and there's always more to say on it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What's useful to you? An Intern 101 poll

I have lots of stuff I'm glad to comment and expound upon here, but I'd like to hear from you, the readers.  What do you want to know?  What do your friends working in offices talk about?  What are your concerns, worries, observations?  I can talk for days and weeks about topics, but it's only useful if it helps you.  Feel free to email me directly or post a comment here.  And please don't feel like whatever you're thinking is a dumb question--there are very few dumb questions when it comes to the architectural workplace, especially when you're jumping into it for the first time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Small firm or large firm?

When it comes time to interview for jobs (whenever they come back), some wonder whether to interview with a large or small firm.  My response to the question of large versus small firms is this: it depends.

Large firms
Large firms generally have more resources.  They have more (legal) licenses of various types of software, which can make your job easier when someone wants a rendering or some high-quality presentation graphics.  They have better hardware, too; because larger firms lease more computers and servers, they have more updated equipment, which makes running the aforementioned software much easier.  They have better copiers, printers, and plotters as part of that excellent hardware.  Among the resources larger firms have is manpower and support staff.  There are administrative assistants that can type memos and fix the redlines on specs while you draw and render, IT and CAD staff that can help you troubleshoot problems and keep email organized, and HR/accounting staff that can help you figure out how many vacation days do you have left or help you figure out your 401(k) contributions. Speaking of such amenities, large firms are more in the financial position to offer employees nice financial perks like 401(k)s, paid sick time and vacation, tuition assistance for schooling or ARE testing, health care plans, and extra funds for help with parking or public transit passes.  To have the funds to have all these amenities, large firms generally get large projects, which are often high-profile proejcts.  Instead of working on a house or small office building, you're more likely to work on something that changes the skyline of a city or something that looks really cool on a resume, like a museum, multifamily housing/mixed use development, hospital, or school.  

However, the downside of a large firm is often lack of opportunity.  Because there are usually enough people around to help do the work, it's easy to get pigeonholed into doing only certain things--construction documents, exterior detailing, code studies, etc.  You have to work harder to be noticed, and you have to step up and ask for opportunities rather than wait for someone to notice.  It's also harder to get people to take a chance on something or try something new.  There's a lot more "this is how we've always done it" in larger firms, and it can be a losing battle to push against that sometimes, especially if the large firm is a national firm that has nationwide standards and procedures.

Small firms
Small firms generally lack a lot of the amenities that large firms can offer.  If they do offer them, it may only be in limited amounts--only paid holidays and one week of vacation, a 401(k) with no match, etc.  A small firm sometimes pay interns more in general in lieu of offering these sorts of perks.  Small firms generally take on smaller jobs, and though they generally have lower overhead than large firms, they often are not as recession-resistant as larger firms are.  The same low overhead that allows small firms to cost their clients less can also prevent them from having any savings to help them through the lean times.  Small firms also suffer more if you have bad management.  A large firm can absorb the stupid behavior of one of many managers, but if the one manager (or worse, the owner) in a small firm is irrational or a bad businessperson, there's no room for error and the firm goes under much more easily.

The flip side, though, is opportunity.  Because there aren't a lot of folks around, you get to wear a lot of hats and get a lot of experience.  You get to do the code study, go to client meetings, do all the drawings, perform the construction administration and see how what you drew got built for better or worse, deal with permitting and local officials, and so on.  You also have to know more about the software, hardware, and other parts of a business that other staff members take care of in a larger firm.  So you learn more, but remember that there's a learning curve that makes things harder before they get easier.  The good news is that all that you learn makes you that much more valuable in the future, whether you stay put or go elsewhere.

So, when the economy picks up, where you eventually try your luck is up to you. There are pros and cons to both sizes of firms, and ultimately any workplace is what you make of it. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Update on NCARB fees, the Six-Month Rule, and ways to earn IDP credits while unemployed

One of my interns recently sent me a notice that the $570 penalty is waived as of July 1st of this year.  NCARB's Six-Month Rule also begins officially for everyone as of July 1st, so that makes sense.  (Some interns were going to have to wait until one year after they opened their account with NCARB, which meant they might not get to start testing until late 2009 or early 2010, even though their hours were done.)

The official start of the Six-Month Rule means two things:
  1. All hours have to be submitted via the e-EVR (online) submission forms.  If you send them a paper form for submitting your hours on or after July 1st, they'll send it back and tell you to do it online.  Everyone, regardless of when you opened your NCARB record, has to submit their hours online.
  2. If you open your NCARB record on or after July 1st, you can only submit hours that are eight months old.  That is, you have until the end of August to submit your hours for January 1st - May 31st.  Basically, you have to submit hours every six months.  Hence, the name of the rule.
  3. If you opened your record before June 30th, 2009, the Six-Month Rule won't fully kick in for you until July 1st, 2010.  However, it's a really good idea to get in the habit now of obeying the Six-Month rule.
In a recent email bulletin from NCARB, I also got some info about ways you can earn hours (as of July 1st) even if you're unemployed (which I bet some of you are).

Community Service
Work Setting FF (Performing professional or community service when it isn't applicable to any other work setting)
Training Category D Professional and Community Service 
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 10
The program director of the activity can sign off on your training units.

AIA Continuing Education
Training Categories A-D
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 235 (.25 training units equal one learning unit.)
A copy of the AIA transcript must be submitted to NCARB to receive credit.

CSI Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) Certification
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 5
A copy of your certificate must be submitted to NCARB to receive credit.

CSI Construction Specifier (CCS) Certification
Training Category A - Specifications and Materials Research
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 5 
A copy of your certificate must be submitted to NCARB to receive credit.
(Note: this cannot be combined with EPC activities for satisfaction of minimum training units in this area.)

CSI Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA) Certification
Training Category B - Construction Phase—Office
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 5
A copy of your certificate must be submitted to NCARB to receive credit.
(Note: this cannot be combined with EPC activities for satisfaction of minimum training units in this area.)

LEED Accreditation
Training Category D - Related Activities
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 5 
A copy of your certificate must be submitted to NCARB to receive credit.
(Note: to earn supplementary education training units for LEED Accreditation between 1 July 2008 and 1 July 2009, interns must have been employed in an IDP work setting.)

NCARB Professional Conduct Monograph and Quiz
Training Category C - Office Management
Maximum Training Units Allowed: 2 
NCARB will enter your passing score into your Record.
(Note: this can be combined with three EPC activities for satisfaction of minimum training units in this area.)

AIA Continuing Education credits can be earned through doing self-reporting tests in Architectural Record (the magazine of the AIA); I'm sure lots of AIA members would be happy to give you their copy once they're done with it.  You can also earn credits through Ron Blank's free online seminars.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How to interview in a down economy

If you're just getting out of college right now, the job market looks pretty dim for you.  You may be looking for any job right now, anything that will pay some bills.  Be that as it may, it hurts nothing to contact a firm and ask for an informational interview.  An informational interview is simply that--looking for information about what a firm does and how they do it.  Ask the firm's head of HR (or whoever you reach via phone or email) if there's anyone there you could meet for lunch or coffee or even at the end of the workday just to chat.  Tell them that you're new to the architectural workplace and while you understand they and many others may not be hiring now, you'd like to know more about the work world that you'll eventually enter.  Let them know that you have lots of questions about architecture firms, as you know they're quite different than architecture schools.  Remember: people like to talk about themselves and be asked questions, so you may indeed get a bite on this.

If and or when you get a chance to meet with someone, polish up your resume and project/image portfolio and bring it along so that the person you talk to can make suggestions.  After the meeting, mail them a cover letter that serves as a thank-you note along with a hard copy of your amended resume and portfolio.  During the meeting, dress like it's a job interview, because it ultimately is.  If you don't have a lot of contacts in the architecture work world, then this is your first one; make it count.  Ask lots of questions, but do a little research beforehand if you can.  Look at their firm's website so that you get a general idea of what kind of work they do.  After seeing what they do, you can ask them about how they put together project teams, how do they pick the projects they go after, what do they find valuable in their employees and team members, and so on.  As the person how they themselves got into architecture and what path their professional career took.  Again, people love to talk about themselves, so let them.  However, don't forget to take an opportunity to tell the person about your strengths and interests, especially things that might make you a good fit for their firm later on when they decide to start hiring again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Every boss is crazy 'bout a sharp dressed intern

Summer is upon us, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the office.  Sleeves are shorter, pants go from wool to cotton, skirt hemlines are higher, boots have been traded in for sandals, and hair goes up into ponytails.  But it's summertime that highlights the importance of dressing well in the office because it's the time most interns (and office employees in general) show too much skin and make regular attire faux pas.  With a few exceptions, the workplace in general has become less formal with regards to dress code.  It's something of a carryover from making our office discourse less formal; when "Mr. Swenson" becomes "Dave", it seems odd for him to still be wearing a tie, cotton/wool slacks, and super-shined shoes.  However, less formal does not mean casual or even schleppy.  First, here is a list of things that should never be worn in an office.  Like, ever.
  • Camisoles and tank tops: ladies, if there isn't at least a cap sleeve on it, save it for after work.  And fellas, if I hear of any of you wearing a tank top outside of the gym, you will answer to my wrath.
  • Flip-flops and hiking sandals: if it's a shoe you wear while doing summer water sports, save it for those water sports.
  • Shorts: a couple of years ago, women's fashion magazines were flogging "formal" shorts to go along with those lacy camisoles-as-shirts I mentioned above.  Shorts are shorts, ladies.  No one needs to see that much of your leg.  If you wouldn't wear a skirt that short, then don't wear a pair of shorts of the same length.  And fellas, there's no reason to ever wear shorts to work unless you're only going to be there for a couple of hours, and then you're going hiking/camping/golfing, in which case just go have fun and quit rubbing it in our faces.
  • Bare tummies and cleavage: regardless of gender and physical condition, no one wants to see your bare midsection, not even a one-inch sliver of it as you walk to the copier.  And with the low-cut shirts and low-cut pants (for both genders), it's really important to think about your frontside and backside cleavage.  When you sit down, can anyone see that much of your behind?  It's not just women with the low-cut shirts, though; fellas, button every button on that shirt except for the top one or two.
The list above doesn't put that much off limits, so what should you wear? First, let's review what business casual means.  It generally indicates that you wear at least khakis or nondenim pants or skirts, shirts that usually have some kind of collar like a polo or tailored-looking shirt (mostly this rule is for men), skirts that at least touch the top of the knee when standing (that goes for women). and polished or clean shoes.  Obviously there are exceptions to these admittedly broad rules.  Here in Colorado, the combination of cold and snowy weather with an outdoorsy culture makes fleece tops and closed-toe hiking shoes acceptable workplace attire.  And granted, as architects and design professionals, we have some creative leeway with our clothing.  It's almost expected that we'll dress a little more daring or interestingly, but there's still plenty of room for creativity to coexist with some professional modesty.  It's also possible to wear jeans in a way that they look professional, or at least grown-up.  Get some that fit well and don't look like you've been working in the yard in them.  In general, whatever you wear should be clean, ironed if it looks like it even remotely needs it, and with no holes or rips or major stains.

Some interns might say, "who cares?  I never see clients, and I should be comfortable while I'm working."  Fair enough, but you can be comfortable without looking like you just rolled out of bed.  Allow me to sound a bit like your parents for a moment: you're not in college anymore.  You're a grown-up and a professional, so dress like it.  Remember, you're working with a lot of people (some of whom you're working for) who came up in a time in which you dressed nicely to go to the store, much less to go to work.  There are plenty of affordable clothing options that aren't a scruffy-looking t-shirt and jeans.  It's called Old Navy.   And regarding the I-never-go-to-meetings excuse, never say never.  One day when I was an intern about two years out of school, a mechanical consultant came to our office for a meeting that my boss had canceled and had forgotten to tell this fellow.  My boss was gone, and so I was called to the reception desk to deal with this fellow, with whom I'd spoken on the phone several times but had never met.  I was wearing a nice silk skirt and dressy shirt and heels that day, and after I informed him that the meeting had been canceled, he asked, "Well, can we meet?  You might be the person I needed to talk to about these duct layouts anyway."  Another time, I was working along when I heard a familiar voice near my desk.  Turns out that a client I had met with a couple of times was in the office to meet regarding another project, and he had stopped by my desk to say hi.  These are just two of many small and large run-ins I've had with consultants and clients for which I was fortunately prepared appearance-wise.  You never know.

But even more than this, remember what it is you do for a living.  You're an architect in an office with a bunch of other architects.  You spend eight or more hours a day in a roomful of people who have an extremely refined sense of sight.  We are a very particular bunch about how things look, about color and texture and proportion.  Add this observation to the fact that sight is thesense that takes up more of the human brain than any other sense, and you begin to understand how much your appearance matters.  Your bosses are looking.  Your colleagues are looking.  They notice if you look like you're always hung over or that you put thought into where you're going in the morning.  

(Also, because architects are good at looking at a building's exterior and postulating correctly on its interior contents and structure, this means that you don't have to dress in tight or revealing clothing in order to attract positive attention from a potential date.  He or she can already tell what you look like.  But that brings up a good topic: interoffice dating.  We'll discuss that next time.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

One thing that will make your job (and life) better

I just returned from a long weekend across the country, where I visited my family and gave a guest lecture for a longtime friend and colleague.  My colleague is a college English professor with a deep interest in architecture, and every spring she teaches a class on the connections between art, architecture, and literature.  And every spring, I fly to her town and give a slide show and talk even more about architecture and culture and how they influence each other.  It's nice to put on a resume, sure, but moreover, it's just fun to teach.  It's fun to talk about the things that interest me and answer questions and explain things that I take for granted but others might not understand.

Architecture is an insular profession.  We spend most of our time with other architecture majors in college because our classes, especially studio, are so time consuming that we have to make friends with the other folks in our major and classes.  By the time we get to the workplace, the habit has been ingrained--we work with almost nothing but other architects, so we seek out and hang out with more architects and do architecty things with them.  We talk about how hard we work and how little sleep we get and how do you make CAD/Revit/MicroStation do this or that or how crazy our bosses or contractors are and so on.

Do me and yourselves a favor: stop.

The best thing you can do for your mental health as an architect is to get outside of architecture.  Join some clubs, talk to your neighbors, find a volunteer activity, just do whatever it takes to do things that don't involve architecture.  Go meet people that aren't architects, that aren't even interior designers or landscape architects.  In the past nine years, my circle of friends has expanded to include a psychologist, a cardiac nurse, a physical therapist, a TSA security screener/agent, a librarian, a truck driver, a special education teacher, and two English professors.  While the majority of my friends are still in the design and construction industry, I get to hang out with people that talk about other things and broaden my horizons.  By hanging out with the psychologist, I now co-teach a communication class with her.  By hanging out with the English teacher, I started volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter.  By taking some classes several years ago, I got into stand-up and improv comedy.  Even though I occasionally lecture on architecture and I still work in architecture every day, I carve out time for non-architectural pursuits.  It does two things for me: one, it keeps me from being utterly boring (who wants to hang out with someone who only talks about one subject?); and two, it gives me a break from my passion and profession that leaves me more refreshed and motivated to get back into it.