Friday, July 31, 2009

Interviewing in a crappy economy

If you're coming out of school or have been laid off for awhile and you're able to get an interview in this economy, go for it, even if you're not terribly interested in the job. First of all, if you haven't interviewed for a lot of jobs, it's good practice. If you need a job and you get it, it's something to get some cash in your pocket until you can get a better gig.

If you're trying to get a job, especially out of college, remember that you have a lot more company out there right now. You'll need to bring your A-game for sure. First off, do as much research on the firm as you can. Thanks heavens for Google--it's easy to look up a firm's website and see their work or find out if they've been in the news lately or mentioned on any client's website or press releases. Take notes on this, as it will help you ask questions and show that you're not coming into the interview completely cold.

I've mentioned attire before on this site, and I'm going to harp on it again--dress sharply. Again, you're up against a lot more people for a job right now, and the less experience you have as an intern means you have less room for error in going after a job. Wear a good suit, press your shirt/blouse and pants or skirt, clean (and shine up, if applicable) your shoes, get a haircut the week before (not the day before--if the cut turns out bad, you have no time to fix it). We do indeed work in a fairly creative field, but that doesn't mean you show up in cargo pants, jeans (no, not even the really dark ones that make your butt look awesome and you paid $110 for), a hippie skirt, or Birkenstocks or any footwear that looks even remotely sneaker-like. Save your creativity for an interesting pattern on your dress shirt or a neat piece of jewelry. And ladies, no one wants to see you boobs. Ever. Not even a hint of cleavage. Please. If you are large busted, trust me--people will see them no matter what you wear, but let's not be obvious. Wearing clothes that fit is rule number one for both men and women--go for fit, then color. Also, if you walk into an office and see that the dress code is really, really casual, then feel free to take off your jacket and maybe unbutton and roll or push your sleeves up a bit when you get into the interviewing room.

Be early for the interview. I once heard a contractor say that he'd rather be thirty minutes early than one minute late. Have the same attitude. If you get there more than ten minutes early, then sit in your car a bit, go to a quickie mart and get some mints, but then be there in the lobby by ten minutes before your interview time. Breathe.

During the interview, breathe some more, and it's okay to pause before answering a question. The interviewer will likely ask a lot of questions about what you're looking for in a job, what you've learned from previous jobs or experiences, or how you've solved a problem at a previous job (or volunteer activity, etc). Even if you sent the firm your resume and cover letter and portfolio, bring another three copies. Sometimes, you'll be interviewed by more than one person, and it'll be nice to have another copy for each of them to look at. Even if they forgot to bring copies of your stuff, you did--and guess who looks professional and prepared now?

Every interviewer gives you a chance to ask questions, so come up with a few before you step through the firm's door. Mention that you noticed the work of theirs that you found through your research, and ask about their design philosophy or how they staff and arrange their design teams. Ask how the firm might help you reach your goals--you enjoy and are good at 3D rendering, you're about a year away from completing IDP, etc.

And finally, thank the interviewers for their time, and send a thank you note immediately. Drop it by in person the next day or later that day, or mail it as soon as you leave the interview. Mention something that came up in the interview: "Your approach to mixing and matching project teams so that everyone gets exposure to different kinds of work is very appealing to me, and I'd love to be a part of one of those teams." And yes, I said mail, not email. Anyone can pop off an email, but a handwritten note is a nice, special touch.

If you've got a topic you'd like to see discussed or have a question you'd like answered, drop me a line inthe comments or send me an email (see sidebar). Thanks!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Measure twice, cut once

Life is not made up of big moments so much as it is little moments that happen day after day after day. Consider the fellow who angers his wife by never filling or running or emptying the dishwasher. Week in and week out, it makes her crazy: why can't he just put stuff in it? Why does he leave it in the sink for her to rinse off and put in the dishwasher? And he can't empty it either? He doesn't see that it's done running, that little light is on and it's warm and quiet? Really? Maybe he buys his wife a pair of nice earrings for their anniversary, and that buys him some good karma for a little bit, but at some point it wears off and she's annoyed to no end about the dishwasher. That big moment with the earrings was nice, but it's the daily stuff--trash, dishwasher, asking how someone's day went--that makes the difference.

The same applies to your job. How you do your daily tasks may seem like a small detail, but your work life is made up of many little well-done (or poorly-done) details that build your colleagues' and boss' opinion of you and your work. I've written before about the boss' paradox, but it's a topic worth repeating and elaborating on with regards to quality. It's easy to let your day or your boss rush you, and it's understandable. There's a lot to do and not enough time to do it, and if you're employed right now then you're probably doing more with less in that not-enough-time. The first step, naturally, to doing a good job is to make sure you understand what is being asked of you with a task. What does your boss want you to do? When is it due? What resources (people, websites, previous drawings or projects) can you use to do it? Does your boss want to see this before you send it out? Asking these questions sometimes feels like a waste of time, but I'm sure you've noticed that even when there's not enough time to do it right the first time, there always seems to be time to do it over.

In terms of drawings, remember that your boss, if he or she ever worked in CAD, may have worked in an older DOS-based version, like v9 through v13 (and I worked in v12 and v13 in college--I'll tell you about it sometime over an Ensure-and-vodka shooter). Drawing was slllloooowww back in their day, and while they know that the software and hardware is much faster and better now, they also don't realize that there are still just as many, if not more, opportunities for mistakes in those drawings. So, checking what you draw before you print or email it to anyone is absolutely vital. Just as you're ready to print...look. Look everything over once more. A good way to make sure that you pick up all the redlines you've been given is to use a highlighter to mark out the note or redline right after you make the change. Highlight the entire change, not just a word or two--highlight the leader line or arrow your manager drew to the change, highlight all the words and marks associated with it, all of it. It's a good second check before you move on to the next redline.

When writing, remember that SpellCheck is not your friend but an acquaintance. Write your document or email, then go to the bathroom. Take a moment, wash your hands, get some water, then come back and read it again. Slowly. Catch any mistakes? It's easier to proofread your own stuff after a 48-hour break, but even a few minutes of a break from what you just typed can make a difference. Read what you're asking of or explaining to the other party. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if what you've written makes sense. Pause and think, "would what I've written offend me? Is any of it mean-spirited? Is there any double entrendre?" Sometimes it's helpful to have someone else read what you've written before you send it out. Completely fresh eyes will see things that your eyes won't.

One less obvious facet of details in your job is not about the micro but the macro. Being able to prioritize and schedule your tasks affects everyone on the team. You probably do some of this already if you work in Revit. You need to work in a drawing and send an email? Get Revit started while you type the email, because you know it's going to take a few minutes to start, and then it can take several more minutes to open your project. You can take this further by looking at your list of tasks and think about who needs what when. The owner needs to know some rentable and useable square footages of the office building you're working on, and you have some floor plan changes from the last meeting with the owner. While you can do the square footages somewhat quickly, the engineers need the revised drawings so they can make their changes, so you do the changes first and then the square footages for the owner. Weigh your deadlines against who needs info from you in order to keep moving and to meet their deadlines (which are often your deadlines too).

Another facet of making the details count is one that takes a little practice, and that is being able to think and follow a change all the way through the drawings. For example, you're asked to move a wall one foot in such a way to make an office ten feet wide instead of nine feet wide. Sounds small and easy enough, right? But let's think about it: when you move the wall in the floor plan, you also have to consider what other drawings will be affected. If the wall moves in the floor plan, then it also moves in the ceiling plan. Is there some casework running perpendicular to it? Then that changes the interior elevation in that room. Look at the rest of your plans, such as equipment, finishes, and furniture. Is there a piece of equipment that needs to have a water pipe and drain pipe attached to it? Well, look at the structure compared to that new wall location--are the pipes to that piece of equipment now getting awfully near (or running into) a beam? Ah. See how "easy" moving that wall one foot turned out to be?

Some of what I've described here is pretty obvious, and some of it is a learned skill. Your boss generally doesn't have the time (or even the ability) to teach you all these things, which is why you need more than one point of contact to learn how to do things or to ask for help.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The details make the difference

When we walk into a building, the people we're with all say "ooh, it's so pretty!" while we instantly hone in on small things: "They're gonna get water in that window mullion...they didn't even match the coursing of the new brick to the old...that's just a Berridge panel on some 6-inch studs--brilliant!" We walk outside and notice that the path from the curb to the door isn't straight and the curb cut doesn't have the code-required orange-red truncated domes required for ADA by local authorities. We look at the discolored arcs on the exterior of the building and know that the lawn sprinklers have been spraying on the building, and that never ends well. Myself, I can't stop mentally sizing up toilet rooms to see if they're ADA-compliant and ANSI-compliant. Just because it has grab bars doesn't make it compliant. And just because the goo around a pipe through a wall is red, that doesn't mean that the goo is fire-rated.

We're architects; we notice details. It's our existence. Dozens of pages in a set of construction documents are dedicated to details. Yards of blue painter's tape have given their lives in our punchlists in order to note details that must be fixed. Mies said that God is in the details, and an old saying is that the devil is in the details. We live and breathe details. Our knowledge makes the observation of details so important. And if details weren't important, any run-down schmuck with a copy of Francis Ching's complete works could hang out a shingle as an architect.

And yet, countless interns fly through the redlines they've been given and print out a new copy of the sheet, then throw it on their bosses' desks for them to check. They write up an email asking for some information or explaining a procedure and hit "Send" without a second thought. They show up to work late, take long lunches, email and IM constantly, and dress like the 99-cent bin at the thrift store. And then they wonder why they get laid off, passed over for promotions or cooler jobs or responsibilities, or even barely acknowledged.

It's the details.

We'll discuss some of these details in the next few posts. In the meantime, if you've got a topic you'd like to see discussed or have a question you'd like answered, pop me a line in the comments or via email from this site. Thanks!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Going with the flow versus a need for speed

How can you get ahead at work when you're at the bottom of the list or the end of the line? How can you get better assignments, more interesting work, or even a little bit of job security? I've watched more than a handful of interns become frustrated at how they're treated in the architectural workplace, and some of their complaints are certainly valid. However, they make some errors of judgment that are worth addressing.

If you've worked in a firm for more than three months and are paying attention, you can reasonably judge what is required of you and most everyone else. X many drawings take Y amount of time. We prepare A, B, and C for meetings with the client. Right? The first way to set yourself apart from others at your level is to do the work you've been assigned correctly each and every time. That shows your boss(es) that you know what you're doing and that your level of quality isn't a fluke but a given. Bear in mind that doing what's expected of you no longer earns a gold star, especially in a tight economy. Doing more than just what's expected or required is the second, more vital way to move forward and up. This means a) asking for and finding new things to do before your finish your given tasks and setting up for that work, and b) finding ways to add value to whatever you're doing.

Simply asking your boss "What would you like for me to work on after I complete this?" shows your initiative and lets them know that you want to contribute and stay productive. If you complete a task and then say, "Hey, I'm all done--what do you want me to do now?" they suddenly have to drop what they were doing and find you something to do. If they send you back to your desk while they figure that out, they know that you're treading water and are killing time on the company dime while they find you a new task. Simply getting more than one task lined up at a time allows you to reduce that down time. Let me say that occasionally, we all need to kill some time--we have an off day, we're thinking about our sick pet or family member, we feel sick ourselves, we're excited about an upcoming vacation and have Shiny Object Syndrome, whatever. By being proactive and asking for the next task before the first one is complete 90%-95% of the time, you earn the right (yes, I said right, not privilege) to goof off now and then and turn a six-hour task into an eight-hour task. But you have to earn it.

Adding value involves a wide range of tasks. When given a task, ask questions: who will see this--owners or contractors? How precise does this need to be and how much detail does it require? There is a lot going on in this plan; should we do three plans that show each phase of work? I'm sure I've said this before, but always ask questions. Never fear asking questions. Many managers know that if you're not asking questions, you're probably trying to figure out stuff you don't know and that they could solve for you in ten to sixty seconds. We appreciate you trying to figure it out, but if you're still beating your head against a wall after five to fifteen minutes of struggling, just ask. Ask your boss, and if your boss can't help you, ask them who they should go to if he or she isn't available. Also, volunteering to take on a tough task really helps. By volunteering to figure out the hard stuff, you eventually earn the right (and reputation) to take on the tasks you want, not the lame tasks given to you. Those who go with the flow will eventually find themselves still doing section detail redlines and dimensioning enlarged toilet room plans while those with a need for speed will find themselves meeting with clients and working through questions in the field with contractors...the kinds of things that architects do.

It makes you more desirable to all management personnel, not just your boss. They'll actually fight for your help on a job, knowing that they'll get high-quality work out of you. This gives you the chance to work on more varied tasks and different kinds of projects in general, which leads to more responsibility and the advantages that go with those responsibilities. When managers fight for your services, that tells the people that hand out raises that you're a hot commodity, or at least one worth keeping. You've earned the extra cash in your raise or the right to keep your job through the next round of layoffs.

Thanks to Anthony Knoppe at HDR for today's post suggestion. Got a topic you'd like to see discussed? Got a question you'd like answered? Let me know in the comments or in an email!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Alphabet Soup

(Note: please forgive the lack of recent posting--I have family visiting from out of town, and while I'm pleasantly busy with them, I'm being terribly remiss in posting. I'll return to a more regular schedule next week.)

Architecture and construction are rife with acronyms, which are rarely if ever taught in school. Not knowing what these acronyms mean can be frustrating, confusing, and embarrassing for interns. Here are a few that you'll encounter during CA.

RFI: Request For Information. Sometimes also called an RFC (Request For Clarification), this is an official question (like an "on the record" question) from the contractor in the field asking about how to do something in the drawings, a discrepancy/conflict between drawings or drawings and specs, or asking how to do something when field conditions prevent it from being done the way the architect designed it. The architect generally has seven days to answer the question, but sometimes the contractor will ask that it be answered faster because it's holding up construction. Sometimes the RFI is for an engineer. In that case, the RFI still should go through the architect on its way to the consultant and back to the contractor to make sure that the architect has a chance to check that whatever decision is being made will not affect architecture or anything other discipline.

PR: Proposal Request. A PR is a set of drawings, specs, writted direction, or a combination of those three to the contractor from the design team to indicate a change to the project. The PR is for pricing, though, not for building per se.

CO: Change Order. Once the PR is priced and its ramifications to the schedule are understood by the contractor, he/she writes up a CO to show the owner what's being done, why it needs to be done, and how much it costs. Once the owner approves the CO, the contractor can then build what the architect drew/indicated in the PR.

CCD: Construction Change Directive. I have to admit that I've never done one of these, and there's probably a good reason. A CCD is like a combination of a PR and a CO--it's the sketch/direction part of the PR and the go-build-it of the CO. The CCD doesn't go through the owner to get approved before it gets built, which leaves some architects (including those who trained me) a little queasy because it doesn't seem right to just go spend the owner's money.

ASI: Architect's Supplemental Instruction. It's like an RFI, but it's minor stuff that (supposedly) doesn't have any cost or schedule implication whatsoever. For example, the architect forgot to dimension a room on the plan or didn't mention what color plastic laminate should go on the countertops.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ph-ph-ph-phases (with apologies to David Bowie)

One of the comments on the last post reminded me about all the acronyms we use in architecture and how mystifying they must be to anyone new to the business. Project phases can be especially confusing; they come with their own set of acronyms, and they're not really part of the studio process so you might only touch on them briefly in that one professional practice class you had to take. So let's discuss these phases with a specific project in mind: a small library.

Phase 1: Pre-Design/Programming
This phase has a few different names, but pre-design and programming are the two mainly used names for it. After contracts are signed between the architect and owner, the architect meets with the owner, usually more than once, to figure out what kinds of spaces are needed. Architects ask what kind of services will they be providing? What functions will be going on? In the case of this library, the staff might say that they want some space for computers to be used, and they'd like a computer lab as well as some community meeting space that can be rented or checked out. The architects develop a program from these meetings, and they also check the program and space requirements against codes and past projects:
Check-Out/Reference Desk: 300 sf
Nonfiction Stacks: 1,000 sf
Fiction Stacks: 1,000 sf
Public Computer Desks: 150 sf
Private Study Rooms: 50 sf x 3
Mechanical/Electrical Space 10% of net sf
Circulation Space 15% of net sf

The architect takes this total area and uses it to help establish or confirm/validate a budget. They also use this square footage to help the owner select a site or decide if the site the owner already has is the right site for the project.

Phase 2: Schematic Design (also called SD)
This is the phase you usually get through in Studio. More meetings are held with the owner to confirm how all those spaces listed above should be laid out in relation to each other. Layouts and relationships of rooms to each other are figured out, and exterior elevations are designed as well. All the drawing set consists of is plans and exterior elevations--it's enough to show the owner how everything's related and generally how it's going to look. SD drawings are sometimes used by contractors or cost estimators to figure out some initial costs and budgeting for the project, even if some guesstimates were provided in programming. Sometimes, a building gets larger in SD, so it's good to have someone price the project after some design has been done. Materials are generally established: brick and stone exterior with 1" insulated glazing units for the exterior; carpet, paint, and 2'x4' ACT for most of the library, VCT floors in the storage room and employee break areas, and wall covering in the community meeting room. Code research is performed at this time and that information begins to be integrated into the project.

Phase 3: Design Development (also called DDs)
Now we're getting serious. With a few more meeetings with the owner, the architect finally gets the building layout fixed. The architect lays out casework (that's what we call cabinets) in the rooms and draws interior elevations of all the casework, unique wall conditions, etc. Schedules are created based on the stuff that's in the project. For example, finish schedules that show what materials go in what rooms and on what walls as well with a finish legend that more fully describes what's used where (VCT is now Mannington Essentials 12"x12", carpet is now Shaw New Day in color 34, ACT is Armstrong Fine Fissured 1701, casework plastic laminate is now WilsonArt Dark Cherry and the countertops are WilsonArt Washed Stone). They also create door schedules that list each and every door in the project, how big it is, what it's made of, what the rating on it is, etc. A window schedule is made as well that documents and describes interior and exterior windows. A wall schedule shows what kinds of interior walls are to be used, how they're built, and what their fire rating is. They also begin integrating any technology, like computers, electrically-operated projector screens, and/or mobile shelves. Basic construction information is included at this point, like building sections as well as a couple of exterior wall sections and roof section/details. Code information is fully integrated into the project through plans showing what rooms and walls are rated and how people get out of the building in case of fire. Specifications, or specs, are made at DD as well. For example, the wall section may show that the exterior wall is a stone base (up to 3'-4" AFF) and then brick up to the roof with an airspace and exterior sheathing on 6" metals studs with a layer of drywall to the interior side. The specs will tell what kind of products are to be used and what standards are required (metal studs: must comply with standards of ASTM C345, minimum thickness 20 gauge, available products are (but not limited to) Dietrich Industries). The mechanical and electrical engineers are also putting their systems into the project and providing drawings.

Phase 4: Construction Documents (also called CDs)
The plan is set at this point, and now the architect has to make sure that the project is fully detailed. Final coordination of materials and equipment happens at this point. It's a lot of final checking and coordination with all the consultants and systems: landscape, civil, interior design, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, furniture consultant (if you have one), etc.

Phase 5: Construction Administration (also called CA)
This is the toughest part of the project. While the project gets built, the architect answers questions from the field and makes periodic visits to the site to observe construction and solve problems. This is where you find out if everything you've drawn it actually buildable, but it's also a chance to learn how things are actually built. CA is the best learning experience...if you actually get to do it, and if you can stand finding out how wrong you are on occasion.

Phase 6: As-Builts/Record Drawings
As the project gets built, you keep records of what you've changed in the project. So does the contractor. When the project is finished, you check your records against the contractor's and print a final set of drawings that show the building (to the best of everyone's knowledge) as it was built. Some architects call this set of final drawings and specs "as-builts", because it shows the project as it was built. They consider "record drawings" something that you file with a city or county authority. Other architects call these final drawings "record drawings" because no one really knows what got built, so calling them "as-builts" is to assume knowledge that you as the architect don't really have.

Next time: more fun with acronyms.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Professional practice: what did you learn (or what do you remember?)

I took my one professional practice class the last semester of grad school, spring of 2000. It only met once a week for two or three hours on a Wednesday night. We'd all sit in a classroom with this old retired architect fellow for a couple of hours; at least half of the classes had guest speakers talking about different aspects of architecture and different jobs that you can do as a licensed architect. Then, we'd all go to the local watering hole for the pitchers and wings. Perhaps that's why I didn't remember that much.

Here's what I recall us talking about.
  • The phases of a project: what kind of info is included in each phase, the decisions that have to be made in each phase, etc.
  • Marketing: we made booklets of our pretend firms, including "sample projects" and firm info.
  • Interns: when we come fresh out of college, we're mostly to completely useless because school can't teach you what you need to know about working on projects in a firm.
So what do you remember, if anything, from your professional practice class? Did you have to take one, or have you even taken it yet? What did you want to know? Were you told anything that made you want to punch the professor or guest lecturer?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Portfolios for grad school: some like a little, some like a lot

I got a question about tips for assembling a portfolio for grad school applications, and I must say that this is one place where it's kind of a crapshoot. I don't know what it's like these days, but whatever you send to them needs to be really legible and comprehensible. Therefore, lots of formatting and putting extra graphics on your images when you send them to potential grad schools. In terms of formatting and sizes of images, grad schools generally tell applicants what they want and how they want it. Some schools will limit you to 12 or so 8.5" x 11" color images, and some will accept any kind of creative submission. When I applied to University of Virginia back in 1998, they allowed you to submit paintings and even poetry and creative writing samples. Their guidelines also indicated that the portfolio should be about half an inch thick. That sounded ridiculous to me, as between keeping up with all my classes and projects in four years of college, I hadn't produced enough work to make a 1/4"-high stack. I had to pad my application with some paintings and things I'd written back in high school. Needless to say, I didn't get in.

But what to submit? Start with really good, recent college projects. Get good photos or scans of your sheets/boards at a high resolution so that they read well on whatever small-format sheet they limit you to. Color images are generally better than black and white, of course, unless for some reason your images look better in black and white. If you're really good at models, include a couple shots of your good models. If there's a way to describe in a few sentences or explain each of the projects you include, either on a cover sheet or on a page with a plan, then do so. As for the rest of the content, the school will uaully tell you what they want in the portfolio. Some colleges will also accept images of paintings, sculpture, or other visual arts work. They may also accept drawings and photos of anything you've actually built, like a deck or a shed or furniture.

If anything, edit wisely. What images of what projects make you look like you're a good designer and that you understand how a building goes together? Usually, you're better off submitting 15 pages of good images of three projects and one painting than 40 pages of all the projects you've done since sophomore year and several paintings and sculptures. Quality over quantity.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Five words you should use in the field

Going to the field to do site visits and punch lists is an important part of an architectural intern's career development. One of the top five (if not number one) best ways to learn in this profession is to do CA (construction administration) on the drawings that you drew. You have to learn how what you draw gets built; how you draw something isn't always the best way to build it, and sometimes a detail that looks great on paper and even in your head looks cruddy in real life. Going to the field allows interns to learn from the contractor, the people that actually have to build the stuff you draw. Much of what I know about how buildings go together I have learned from good superintendents who would show me things in the field, compare them to my drawings, and then explain the problem as they understood it. We could work through issues and solve problems, and it really has made a difference in my professional experience and abilities. I still learn from them, even as a licensed architect.

Answering questions in the field can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, you can solve a contractor's problem quickly and keep the project moving. On the other hand, you can make decisions that sound good at the time but actually are a bad idea, once you've had time to think about them (if you had a second thought on them at all). Some if not most questions asked in the field need to be thought about twice, but having a contractor (who obviously has more experience in the field than you do) staring you in the face and waiting for a response, tools and personnel at the ready, can be intimidating. No matter how much a contractor stresses the need to have an answer "right here right now", resist the pressure. If you have to choose between a fast answer and a right answer, go for the right answer. A fast but wrong answer means everybody gets to do it twice...and if the wrong answer is your fault, guess whose pocket it comes out of?

The first step in answering questions from the field is having a clear, agreed-upon process for answering them. Usually, this means an RFC (Request For Clarification) or an RFI (Request For Information) gets sent from the field to the architect in his or her warm, dry office. The architect usually has seven or so days to answer the question (or get the question to the engineers or other consultants and back, then check their answer against any other concerns), but occasionally the contractor needs an answer in fewer days. If you get asked something or work out a solution in the field, make sure with the contractor that any and all of those questions get a follow-up RFI or RFC, saying something like "Per discussion between Architect and Contractor on xx/xx/xx in the field...." The follow-up RFI/RFC will allow you one more chance to check the answer, plus it provides a record of the decision that can become a part of the contract documents and leave less room for ambiguity.

If you're working with a general contractor who will be managing subcontractors, make sure you have a clear understanding with the GC on how, if, and when you can talk to the subs. Conversations with the subs without a GC present another good reason to use follow-up RFIs/RFCs; it keeps the GC in the loop and gives them a chance to voice an opinion if there's a problem with a solution that you and the sub figured out. It has been my experience that subs more often than GCs will press you for an answer "right here right now"; again, don't fall for it. Commit the following five words to memory: Let me check on that. Write down some notes, take pictures (you did bring a digital camera, right?) and formulate some kind of question in writing that you can go back to the office and check on. Then, tell the other party that you'll check on it and get them a response by noon/5pm/3pm/Tuesday. If they press with the old "I really need to know right now! This is holding up everything!", do the old broken record: "I understand, man, but I need to check the code/run this by my boss/look at the plan in CAD before I tell you something. I don't want to give you a bad answer, man." The contractor or sub may lean on you six times; lean back seven.

If you are ever uncomfortable answering something in the field, err on the side of caution and say, "Let me check on that." Some contractors and subcontractors will throw up their hands in disgust or talk smack about you, call you names like you're the goofy wet-behind-the-ears architect that your firm sent out to the site because everyone else was too busy, blah blah blah. Again, don't fall for it. If you take the question back to your boss and express why you were reluctant to answer the question in the field, he or she will generally appreciate it and may also give you some feedback that will help you better decide what you can decide in the field and what should come back to the office for closer inspection. Most contractors and subs will respect you for wanting to check before you give them an answer--you're witholding immediate answers in the service of the job. You'd rather give them the right answer than the fast answer. And your boss will repsect you for that too. Your bad answers come back to haunt your boss and the firm at which you both work, so he or she will be glad that you're watching out for everyone with a bit of caution.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

I'm taking a three-day weekend, as I hope all of you are. Whenever your firm gives you time off, TAKE IT! You need a break from your work in order to do it well, so take the time, go get some sun and water and fireworks and fun and rest for a few days.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Four great words for disagreeing without being disagreeable

There are times when dealing with others—coworkers, consultants, contractors, even bosses—when you have to disagree in full or in part. This can be difficult when you’re dealing with a) someone who outranks you, b) someone who is partially right, or worse, c) someone who gets easily offended if they’re not always right. This is when you use a verbal concept known as fogging. The four most obvious words used in fogging are: “You could be right.”
You’ve probably fogged before in conversation and didn’t realize it, but there’s sound reasoning behind using it. By acknowledging that the other person has a) spoken and b) has an opinion, you’re able to get to your point or opinion without shutting them down. It allows you to introduce new information or opinion while keeping things civil:

Boss: See, this layout allows people to get a clear shot from the front of the store to the back, and they can see more of the merchandise. It’ll increase their sales.
You: Well, I see what you mean. You may be onto something. However, this layout also leaves the dressing room unmonitored by the staff at the main desk.
Boss: Hm. Yeah, well…
You: If we make the main desk an L shape instead of an H, the staff can see the dressing rooms better. [sketching] See?

Bear in mind that when you disagree with someone, it can give your opinion a little more weight if you have a possible solution to a problem. Even if they don’t use your solution, you’re not just being Dr. No about everything.

Other good fogging phrases:
You may be right.
That certainly could work.
That’s one option (and it could work).
That’s an idea/That’s a pretty good idea.