Monday, August 31, 2009

You can't fight city hall (but you can befriend it)

Nearly any architect I've ever spoken with has complaints and even horror stories about dealing with regulatory agencies--the building inspector that prevents the building from opening on time because of one minor infraction that wouldn't actually prevent the building from functioning properly, the plans examiner that takes six weeks to look at a seven-page set of drawings for a one-room renovation project, the health inspector that interprets an arcane piece of code differently from everyone else and creates a $100,000 headache, and so on. While these may be extreme cases of bureaucracy gone wild, it's important to remember that these folks have a real purpose. They make sure that buildings are built to code and will protect the health, safety, and welfare of their occupants and users. Having a third party to do that is one more set of eyes to catch things that sometimes even you can't check (or forget to check, which happens). A building inspector can call out a contractor on a poorly-constructed detail if you've missed it (or aren't familiar with it), and a plans examiner can catch little mistakes that you never thought about because you've been staring at your drawings for so long that everything looks right to you.

As it is with everyone you meet in work and in life, begin with the end in mind. As you begin a project, figure out the group or groups that will be inspecting your building and reviewing the plans. Often, a trip to the city or county's website to get the name of whoever runs the building department will tell you everything you need to know. Review the jurisdiction's process and find out what kind of drawings and information they want and when they want it and how long it's going to take them to get back to you. After this, you may not be sure that the building department (or fire marshall, or whoever) will even need to see your plans or inspect your project. If you're still not sure, give the building department a call and ask someone about it--you're doing an x or y project that this big; will they need to review it the plans? can you send them a PDF of the demo and new work plans and get their take on it?

Getting a cordial, professional relationship established with someone in charge at the building department so that you can ask questions and get timely answers generally smooths out the entire process. Not only can you avoid some pitfalls up front because you have the "inside scoop" on what plans examiners and building inspectors are looking for, but you also have broken down a barrier between two entities that usually end up on conflict. You are no longer "that damn architect" and "that stupid guy at the building department"; you are instead "Carrie-Ann" and "Marcus". Anytime you can make a working relationship work, based on clear and respectful communication, you make life a little easier for everyone involved.

Got a question you want answered or topic you'd like to see discussed here? Email me in the sidebar or tell me about it in the comments--thanks!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Win, lose, or draw(ing)

Way back in the day, e.g. 1996, when I was in undergrad, I took a mandatory course in college on computer drawing, in which we used AutoCAD v12 as well as a couple of other types of software such as Adobe Photoshop and 3D Studio. The next year, I realized I was so uncomfortable with CAD that I took another class, this time in AutoCAD v13. They kept teaching us CAD in this isolated classroom, but we were all hand drawing in our studios for hours upon hours every semester. When we complained about how this hurt our chances of summer employment, one of our professors retorted, "I can teach anyone to use CAD in a month, but I can't teach you how to think once you get in an office--that's what we're doing here." Even in graduate school, we were all hand drawing, and I only got familiar with AutoCAD v14 (the first Windows-based version) because I got a copy of it to go on my laptop.

After years of using AutoCAD and ADT, I finally began using Revit about a year ago, and it's way way better than AutoCAD. After you get used to the different commands and where those commands are located on the screen, which takes about a month overall, it gets easier to use. I find that it's easier to troubleshoot your own software problems too.

So sound off in the comments: what software are you using right now? Are you using it in an office or a school setting? What kind of drawing did you do/are you doing in school?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Existing conditions: everything deserves a second look

When there's work to be done verifying existing conditions of something--say a couple of rooms or even an entire building that you'll be remodeling or adding onto--most firms send interns, and for obvious reasons. You're cheap, so you bill less to the client and use up less fee, and you're young, so you should be able to crawl over desks and plumbing pipes to take measurements and pictures without slipping a disk. Verifying existing conditions can feel like a thankless task, but it's a great opportunity to learn more about buildings and especially about how complex and difficult renovation projects can be.

The best things to take on a site visit for verifying existing conditions are at least two copies of the plans of the building in question (you'll have a spare if you totally mess up the dimensions you write down, drop it in the mud, or have so many notes written on it that you can't see what you've written), a 25' tape measure (for measuring most interior distances), a 100' tape measure (for measuring exterior distances and some large interior distances), and a digital camera with a backup battery and a backup memory card (you never know). And if you can, bring a colleague--not only can they help you hold the tape measure, but two heads are just better than one when taking field measurements.I find that it's helpful to measure each room, then take a picture of each wall in the room. If the room has a door sign with a room name on it, take a picture of that first so that you know what room you're about to see the walls of. Later, as you're going through your plans and trying to figure out what that window sill is made of or is there exposed electrical conduit in that room, you'll be able to see it. Also, taking that many photos of a room should give you some decent shots of the ceiling and floor. This will help if you have to indicate existing materials in a plan or if you have to draw existing ceiling tile, lights, and diffusers in a ceiling plan.

Thoroughness also comes into play when looking at or using old drawings for an existing building. First of all, you might marvel at how few sheets it took in 1970 to get a building built, and yet they managed to build a three-story hospital with fifty sheets instead of 200, like today. But don't let the thinness of that set fool you--there's a lot of information packed into those old sets. When hand drawing on vellum or mylar (which was and is a lot more expensive than printing or drawing on plain old bond paper), draftsmen and architects wanted to make sure they used every bit of a sheet that they could, so you'll find useful details and tidbits on every sheet. That can make it hard to sift through and find what you need ("just tell me how you built the parapet already!"), but more often than not, the info is there. If at first you don't find the detail you want, keep digging and looking. Scour the plans as well as the roof plans and the exterior elevations for a section marker that's near the area you're trying to understand. Is it on an enlarged plan or elevation instead? Take a breath and take your time. Old drawings will reveal their secrets to those who are patient and careful. If all else fails, ask someone to look at the set with you and see if they can find the detail you're looking for. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh eye on the set, or maybe someone old enough to know where the draftsmen of yore hid the detail you need.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ask and ye shall receive (mostly)

Walking into an architecture firm with little to no experience can be pretty frustrating and intimidating. I have no problem saying that part of this is the fault of your schooling. For four to six years, you've been told that you're a designer, you're brilliant, and you have all the answers. Suddenly, you end up in the workplace and you have zero answers, but you're supposed to have those answers because you just spent four to six years in college. And college is suppsed to prepare you for the real world, right?

Well, not exactly, not in terms of architecture. Nearly everyone ahead of you at your office recalls that same feeling, however faint, of being confused and freaked out because you don't know what any of the acronyms mean or how to detail a window. You know how to think and how to design, but you're going to need some time to learn the nuts and bolts of the profession. We licensed architects know that. And because we know that, we're expecting your questions. We're more surprised when you don't ask us for help or advice than when you do. It makes us wonder what you're doing over there at your desk when we know that you're right out of college or only have a year or two of experience.

So if we know you don't know a lot, why don't we just explain everything to you when we first tell you to do it? Well, a few reasons: we're in a hurry, if you have a little bit of experience then we're not sure what you know or don't know, but most of all it's that the things that we need to tell you are second-nature to us by this stage in our professional lives. We have no problem explaining things to you, it's just that what we do is so second nature that we forget the reality of your situation.

So, ask. Ask, ask, and ask. It helps to get a few questions together at once if you're having to interrupt a busy boss, but ask. Ask your boss who you can ask when s/he's not available. Ask your boss if they're comfortable with you asking the contractor about details and for input, and then ask the contractor. Sometimes, you'll meet with some attitude from a manager regarding your questions, but that's their problem. Either you can ask and get the info you need, no matter how basic or self-evident, or you can not ask and mess something up big time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pulling details out of not-so-thin air

I recently got an email from an intern asking if working at a construction company before working as an architect is a good idea. The intern asked this because he didn't know how a building went together or how to draw a wall section--was working in construction first the way to learn that? The short answer is: not really. Let me say that if you wanted to work at a construction site at some point before taking on an architectural job, then go right ahead. Using your hands to assemble things that someone else drew gives you the perspective of being on the receiving end of some crappy drawings. There's a lot to be learned by doing the job as opposed to watching it get done.

However, the same could be said for architecture. While you all probably took more than one materials-and-methods courses in college (do you still have your copy of Francis Ching's Building Construction Illustrated?), it's hard to remember how to detail wall sections and casework and stone pilasters and so on when you don't do it every day. You'll be doing a lot of detailing during your time as an intern architect, and you'll learn it through a variety of sources. The first is the Ching book I just mentioned. If you already sold yours back after college, shame! SHAME! Go get another copy, now! Other than Ching, I recommend Architectural Graphic Standards. Some offices will buy an office copy or two for everyone to share, but I guarantee you if you splurge on a personal copy, you will have lots of friends in your office. It's more thorough than Ching, and it covers a lot more topics, everything from the turning radii for a variety of vehicles to designing angled theater seating to basic anthropometric standards for nearly anything. It's really, really handy.

The second source is using details from previous projects in your office. This is generally a good thing, but it can occasionally backfire when you copy a detail that's been wrong for a long time and just keeps getting copied into projects. It's also not a good thing when some recent change to codes or building science makes a detail obsolete all of a sudden. That's often something that interns aren't going to know about and architects should know about but sometimes don't (or they know but they forget to tell you). However, these details are usually already drawn somewhere and can be copied and pasted or brought in and traced over (i.e., if it was drawn in CAD originally and brought into Revit). After bringing it in and/or tracing over it, someone needs to review the detail and make sure it applies as it is or if it needs to be revised. When you start working on details, ask your project manager or job captain if there is a project from which you should pull details to start this process.

A third source is, naturally, the internet, but be careful what sites you surf through. One of the best sites is the one kept up by the Building Science Corporation, which has some pretty good reports that sometimes include drawings of the details you may be seeking. Other good sources are websites sponsored by industry and trade associations, which will sometimes offer to review your details and/or specs for you. Three examples of industry and trade associations are:
A fourth source is a product's vendor. If the product is something very specific and somewhat unusual, like a metal panel or insulated glass block, it's worth emailing the company and finding a local rep to provide you with some typical details or even to meet with you and review your details (as well as review the application of their product--if you're specifying a metal panel as a roof when it should only be used as a wall, it's good to have a rep look at it and throw up a red flag before you go too far). You can also use a product rep for help with checking your details, but be forewarned that s/he may try to design a system for you (or edit your specs for you) in such a way that it is prescriptive and only allows for the contractor to use their product. This can jack up the cost of a project unnecessarily.

There are probably more ways in addition to these four, including just asking someone in your office how to do a detail or how to lay something out, but these are the main four I can think of.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Time is on your side

When I started my architectural career back in the summer of 2000, I marveled at my more-experienced colleagues who seemd to be able to pull a detail out of thin air. The design team of which I was part would need to come up with a way to build some oddly-shaped piece of casework or provide flashing at a weird corner where some lumpy-faced stone and a window came together, and suddenly someone who only seemed to be a couple of years older than me would sketch something believable and doable in just a few minutes. It blew my mind. How did s/he know how to do that? How long does it take to get that way? Man, I just didn't learn enough in college. I didn't even feel useful.

Turns out I just needed patience. Well, patience and the ability to keep my eyes open and really notice what I was drawing. When I would draw up the redlines I was given, I would try to figure out why I was putting the flashing there and the sealant here--wouldn't I need sealant on both sides of the window? I'd ask questions about what I was drawing, and sometimes I'd find out that my hunch was right, while other times I discovered the method to the madness I was putting into CAD. Later as I did the CA on my drawings, I would find out how right or wrong I was when I detailed soffits and casework and light coves and wall/door frame connections and so on. A good contractor will ask before s/he changes your drawings on you (and they're supposed to ask, really--it's called an RFI), and they'll explain why they want to change the drawing. You learn from each other.

Now I'm about 9 years into my career, and while that's not long in architect years, I'm amazed when I can suddenly pull a detail out of thin air when I'm drawing something. I can, more often than not, explain to a colleague how I think something should be done and also explain the reasoning behind my point of view. Sometimes my way is the best, and sometimes my colleague has the right idea. Either way, I'm still learning. It's just that now, the things I learn are more complex than what the interns on my projects are learning. Humorist Garrison Keillor once said, "Intelligence is like four-wheel drive; it just gets you stuck in more remote places." Learning about architecture and building is kind of the same thing.

What I want you to take away from this is the knowledge that you will eventually learn how to design and detail a building. The time you spend taking pictures of and measuring existing buildings, looking at old drawing sets and stealing details, and burning through redlines as if your life depended on it is well spent if you're taking a moment to really look at what you're drawing and what each line is doing. Ask questions, look over the drawings, read the specs; at some point, things will begin to make sense when you see how all the pieces work together. The point of this blog is to help explain some of these things and to answer some questions as best as I can based on my experience, and hopefully some of the things I explain here will help you understand what you're drawing and doing.

I have some topics I'm going to blog on over the next couple of weeks regarding details, specs, and drawings, but I want to hear from you: is there a question that you'd like answered or a topic you haven't seen covered here yet? Let me know in the comments or drop me an email in the sidebar of the blog. Thanks to everyone who has sent in comments and questions so far, and keep it up--I need to hear from you to make this blog useful!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Who are these people, and what are they doing on my project?

(Note: I had a recent request regarding what's involved in each of the phases of a project. My first post on phases is here. What I've discussed so far may not cover all your questions, so feel free to ask more after reading that post.)

It's easy to imagine that architects do an entire building by themselves. After all, we rarely if ever deal with consultants in school, and no one really mentions them even in the mechanical and electrical/building systems classes you have to take. But no architect is an island, and we do a lot of systems coordination along with the design that we're actually allowed to do by training and by law.

On any project larger than a single-family home, you'll likely come into contact with a lot of different consultants. So what do these engineers do? Let's discuss the typical ones first.

Civil engineers. These consultants are different from landscape architects in that they deal in great part with keeping water away from the building and getting it off the site and into the ground or the city stormwater and waste water system (so they work a fair amount with the plumbing engineers). A good rule of thumb is that if it's more than five feet away from the building's exterior, civil is dealing with it. Civil engineers will help locate the building on the site after acquiring lots of legal drawings and surveys. amd they can help you get vehicular traffic on and off your site. Civil engineers work hand in hand with...

Landscape architects. Landscape architects work up close to the building as well as all over the site, and they deal with selecting planting and hard surface materials for the site. They design parking lots and drive lanes (sometimes with input from the civil engineer), and they design and figure out biking paths as well as sidewalks and walking paths to get people from their cars to the building. The planting materials they select have to work with the climate as well as the building's operator capacity--if a school has only one facility guy, and he has only one helper, they don't need a fancy design that is going to require lots of weeding, watering, and upkeep. However, a building on a college campus might be able to cope with that same design just fine. Landscape architects may also select and locate trees on the site to provide shade for people using the site as well as for the building itself. A shady tree growing by a window knocks the summer sun off and helps keep the building cool, which make the mechanical system have to work less, which is appreciated by the...

Mechanical and plumbing engineers. Some engineering firms have one person who handles both mechanical and plumbing, and some firms have separate people who handle mechanical and plumbing separately. Either way, these are the people who figure out the mechanical system, which includes the air handling units, chillers, boilers, duct work, fans, and so on. If it involves heating, cooling, moving, or filtering air, then mechanical engineers deal with it. Plumbing engineers deal with heating, cooling, and moving water around the building. They also deal with getting waste water and sewage out of the building, and they deal with getting water off of the building's roof and away from the building so that it doesn't affect the foundation or wash away the ground around the building. Plumbing engineers have to work with local municipalities to make sure that the city or county has enough water pressure in their public water supply to support the building you're designing, and they have to make sure that the city or county's stormwater and wastewater systems can handle all the toilets flushing and water pouring out of your roof drains and gutters. These engineers will also deal with gases, like natural gas or propane that powers equipment (like AHUs and boilers) as well as medical gases (like oxygen, medical air, nitrogen, and vacuum/suction, all found in a hospital). Finally, plumbing engineers will also select what kind of sinks, toilets, faucets, and the like are used in a building. Mechanical and plumbing consultants work almost constantly with...

Electrical engineers and lighting designers. Sometimes, the electrical engineer is also the person who helps you pick your light fixtures, but in some firms (and some projects, if they're really big) one electrical engineer figures out the lighting systems and another electrical engineer figures out the power systems, which provide power to all the equipment, electrical outlets, and light fixtures. The electrical engineer needs to know all the equipment going into a building so that s/he can make sure enough power is coming into the building to support it. They make sure that the panelboards and electrical equipment is there to handle the power coming and and route it to where it needs to go in the building and on the site (like to exterior lights in a parking lot or along sidewalks). Electrical engineers also have to make sure that there's enough power for lots of unseen but critical systems, like the fire alarm system, paging or intercom systems, or even emergency power systems (in important buildings like police stations, fire stations, and hospitals). All these engineers and the architect have to deal with...

Structural engineers. Oh yeah, this building has to stand up, doesn't it? Architects will often consult with a structural engineer on single-family homes to have someone make sure that the home will stand up, but a structural engineer has a very prime role in every building. S/he designs the structure for the building based on drawings that the architect provides, and s/he also can recommend a structural system (steel, heavy timber, cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, etc.) based on the building shape, size, and type. The structural engineer also has to know where this building is going to be built so that s/he can design the structural connections for certain kinds of wind loads and seismic (earthquake) loads. By knowing what's going on each floor or area of a building and on its roof(s), s/he can design the floors, roofs, and structural members to hold up to certain live loads (people, carts, cars, moveable shelving) and dead loads (fixed shelving, stationary equipment, casework, some furniture). Some of those equipment loads are passed on to the design team by...

Equipment consultants. Some equipment consultants do anything that plugs into the wall and makes a whirring noise, and some specialize: medical equipment, laundry equipment, food service equipment, etc. These consultants are usually on larger, more complex projects or on projects that have special needs. The equipment consultant will work with the client to help them select equipment, or s/he may just help the client figure out what equipment is going where, and the s/he finds out information about each piece of equipment, such as size, weight, required clear space around the equipment, and what it needs in terms of power, plumbing, and heating or cooling. S/he passes that information onto the rest of the design team, who then accommodates each piece of equipment in their drawings. This equipment has to fit into rooms and next to casework and spaces that are also designed by...

Interior designers. Architects will draw floors, walls, and casework (cabinets), but it's just stuff until the interior designer gets involved. S/he will specify what kind of plastic laminate or solid surface or whatever material covers the countertops and casework fronts (and insides and undersides!) as well as what color and kind of paint or wallcovering goes where, what kind of flooring and in what patterns, etc. This sounds like a bunch of color-picking, but it goes beyond that. Interior designers are trained to know what's appropriate to use where. For example, a nice real cherry wood chair rail might be pretty in a small doctor's office, but in a larger clinic in a city, it will get beat up quickly because of the number of patients coming in, sitting down, and whacking their chairs against the rail. So, the interior designer will specify a thick plastic chair rail that looks like cherry wood instead. But what good is this nice looking building if it burns down? That's why many projects have...

Fire protection consultants. Every now and then, a plumbing engineer might design the sprinkler system, but usually this is done by a different consultant. More often than not, the firm who designs the sprinkler systems (based on drawings that architects and engineers provide for them) also install the sprinkler systems and work in tandem with the plumbing engineer to make sure that the building has enough water pressure, etc. to make the system function. Even if the plumbing engineer doesn't design the sprinkler system, s/he may want to review the fire protection consultant's shop/installation drawings. Never hurts to have one more pair of eyes on them.

Indeed, that one more pair of eyes for the entire project is you, the architect. When you receive drawings and updates from your engineers, you need to look at what they're doing. Does the mechanical engineer have a 48" deep duct main going down a hall with a 10'-0" ceiling? Does it actually fit in there, what with the beams in that areas being 24" deep (according to the structural engineer's drawings)? Are you able to hide the structural engineer's columns in your walls, or at least line up your walls with the columns so that you don't have columns standing in the way everywhere? Is the electrical engineer showing convenience outlets in the hallways so that the cleaning crew can run a vacuum cleaner in a reasonable manner? Your ceiling plans show recessed can lights in the waiting room; does the engineer/lighting designer's plan match? If not, why not? You also have to coordinate the engineers and consultants with each other. If a mechanical engineer is showing an air diffuser in the same ceiling space as the electrical engineer is showing a light fixture, they need to talk. Yes, the guys who install this stuff are going to figure something out, but one would presume that those people put their stuff in that one place in the ceiling because it was ideal. It's not just your job to make sure that everyone's stuff jives with yours, but it's also your job to make sure they're talking to each other. Sometimes you have to say, "Work it out, kids."

There are a myriad of other consultants--special equipment vendors, furniture consultants, art consultants, even feng shui consultants. These are the basic ones that you'll more than likely deal with on a regular basis.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What makes a good intern?

Some colleagues and I were recently discussing what makes a good intern, what makes you finagle to get certain people on your team and try really hard to get rid of other people (or make sure they never come close to your team in the first place). We came up with several qualities at first: a self starter, but not afraid to ask questions; good at writing and speaking, but not a chatterbox, but also not mute; able to take instructions but not rely solely on them; able to think on their feet but also willing to check with their boss first; able to learn from criticism but not internalize it...the list went on.

Then we began comparing our experiences as interns. We compared crazy bosses, some of whom were downright abusive and others who simply did illegal and/or unethical things. We compared great bosses, some of whom left us to our own devices and others who were explicit about every little thing they wanted and thereby got great results. The conversation got complicated as we described what it was like to go from boss to boss, manager to manager. For example, I usually work for a very detail-oriented managerwho surveys every bit of information that goes in and out of the office regarding his projects, and who thinks nothing of having me revise a memo or project program spreadsheet five or six times over the course of two days before we ever show it to the owner. However, last year I spent some time working for another manager in our office who is the complete opposite--just get it done and let him know if anything comes up. Working for Mr. Nonchalant left me adrift at first and wondering if he was going to suddenly lose his mind when he saw what I'd done in his physical and mental absence (a flashback to my first boss, who was bipolar), but ultimately I got used to working with him. When I started working for Mr. Nth Degree again this spring, I had culture shock all over again--I had to remember to run everything past him and copy him on every single email.

It was then that our group realized the one thing that made a good intern: adaptability. Can you learn how to deal with each manager and how to get the feedback and support you need from him or her? Can you figure out which of the consultants you should contact to get them them the information they need, and what's the best way to do it? Can you learn when is the best time to talk to your boss and how to deal with them (i.e., do they prefer to have you come over as soon as you have a question, or do they prefer that you only talk to them in the mornings and ask all your questions at one time?). Can you adapt to the quantity of work and detail required for various projects? Can you adapt to the level of quality that each project (and manager) requires? Can you adapt?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Benjamins 101: time is on your side

Investment advice, especially in terms of retirement investing, probably sounds like a low priority at best and a ridiculous idea at worst right now. Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially if you're under 30. Tthe single biggest factor involved in playing the stock market is one that's in your favor: time. There was a fad in the late 1990s where people day traded, or they'd buy and sell stocks on a near-daily basis in an effort to buy low and sell high, and many unsavvy or unlucky people lost a great deal of hard-earned money trying to play that game. The truth is that time is your ally when it comes to making money in the stock market, and if you're 25 now and will be needing that money when you're 70...well, guess who benefits from a few early investments?

We discussed on Monday how little interns make, and I realize that for me to suggest that you take even a small amount from that almost-nothing that you're being paid and put it in the Great Crapshoot that is the stock market sounds like madness, but hear me out. The market is at almost record lows (yes, I know it just hit 9,000 for the first time in a long time, but trust me, that's low--and I remember it hitting 2,000 back in the 1980s), and by investing in some kind of retirement fund vehicle right now, you are indeed buying low with a strong, strong possibility of selling high many years down the road. Financial advice guru Suze Orman made the case for early investing in one of her earlier, and I opine her best, book The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom*, with this example: If you're 45 and start putting $100/month into an account that averages a 10% return, you'll have $71,880 by the time you're 65. If you start doing that same investment at age 35, you'll have $206,440 when you're 65. And if you start doing that same investment when you're 25 years old--$100/month in an account that averages 10% return, you'll have $555,454 when you're 65. Nice.

Investing in an employer-sponsored 401(k) is a good deal because of the time factor, but it's even better if your employer tosses a little in the kitty for you too. If your employer matches your contributions up to a certain percentage, that's free money. If you contribute 2% of your income, and they match up to that 2%, that means that even if the stock market reeks you still doubled your investment. You can't even get results that good in Vegas. Another benefit of contributing to a 401(k) is that the contribution is taken right off the top, before taxes are applied. That actually helps you because it decreases your taxable income, possibly knocking you into a lower tax bracket and reducing what you pay in taxes overall. Talk about sticking it to The Man.

Not so fast. The Man gets his share when you cash in your 401(k) in several decades. Since those bucks were invested pre-tax, Uncle Sam wants his when you take it out to use it. However, a Roth IRA is an investment vehicle in which you put up to $2,000 a year, all of it post-tax (you can contribute more depending on your age). Then, after the money in that Roth IRA has grown and grown over the next few decades, it can't be taxed when you cash it in after the age of 59 1/2. Another nice thing about a Roth IRA is that, unlike a regular IRA and a 401(k), generally with only a few exceptions you can withdraw the contributions you make to a Roth IRA if you suddenly need the cash without being penalized. My husband and I (who are 40 and 33, respectively) have hedged our bets against future tax issues by investing in both a Roth IRA and our employer-sponsored 401(k) programs.

When you invest in your 401(k) program, the choices of the funds may be overwhelming. Don't feel bad about going with index funds (i.e., a fund that invests a little in each of the stocks on the NASDAQ, or the Dow Jones 20, or the S&P 500), nor should you hide your face in shame if you go with a simple lifestyle fund. A lifestyle fund is a mix of funds based on your age; for example, if you're in your 20s, your lifestyle fund will be heavy on aggressive or high-risk stocks and low on mutual funds, bonds, and government investments like T-bills. When you invest in a Roth IRA, be sure to get one that's a no-load fund, meaning that there's no commission on buying it.

Investing can seem daunting right now, what with the market in such flux, but time is really on your side. Even small investments now make a huge difference in the future and will give you a lot more financial freedom that you ever thought.

*I know not everyone's a fan of Suze Orman, and I certainly don't agree with everything she says, but I do think that 9 Steps to Financial Freedom does an excellent job of explaining a lot of financial stuff to those who don't know much about saving, investing, money management, and getting rid of debt.

Is there something you'd like to see discussed here on Intern 101, or do you have a question you'd like answered? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email from the site. Thanks!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Benjamins 101: the high cost of being cheap

There are plenty of books and magazine and online articles out there meant to provide financial advice to those just starting out, and I won't pretend to be an expert on investments and savings. However, having lived through the lean days of my early architectural career and managed to come out of it with a stellar credit rating, I'd like to pass on my observations and yes, a little advice. It bears repeating that, out of college and up to a couple of years of experience, architectural interns don't get paid a whole heck of a lot, especially compared to graduates of other professional degrees with similar requirements for becoming licensed/made/official. It gets better as you get more experience, but it's not like you're going to be making six figures in ten years. The best way to get a substantial raise, as I've discussed here before, is to a) get licensed, and b) change firms. While things are still slow (as I write this in August of 2009), not very many firms may be hiring, so jumping firms is at least another six to twelve months off (and if you have a job at all right now, just be thankful and patient).

So, you're right out of school or maybe only a year or two out, and you're working for peanuts. Looking at your paycheck leaves you with a simultaneous lift (sweet! I'm finally getting paid to do what I wanted to do!) and gut punch (Mary, Joseph, and Calatrava, how am I supposed to make the rent on this?). I hate to tell you this, but paying interns poorly is the way architecture is. Remember, firms pay you for your experience, not your education. Everyone who sets foot in the door has at least four years of education, so that factor doesn't set you apart anymore like it did your parents. If you don't have a lot of experience, you're not going to be paid well, end of story. In order to get experience, you'll have to work, and it looks better to a potential employer if you can stay somewhere for more than a year at a time. (Loyalty to a firm before you change jobs is another way to get a raise. Firms are more willing to take a chance on you and invest in you if you look like you're in it for the long haul.)

But what do you do in the meantime? When I started in architecture in the summer of 2000, I lived in a loft in downtown Denver and had to use some savings to make ends meet. A colleague convinced me to look into buying a condo in the summer of 2001, as a mortgage payment at that time was cheaper than my loft's rent. I bought a condo on the edge of downtown and got three times the square footage for less than my old rent, plus my colleague moved in with me and helped pay the bills. Having a roommate is not ideal for some (I certainly didn't want one when I moved to Denver from the Southeast in 2000), but it's often a reality for architectural interns. By the end of 2001, a majority of my intern colleagues had roommates of some sort--friends from college, someone they met through a roommate matching program, or significant others. (I should note in the interest of full disclosure that I was dating the colleague that suggested I buy rather than rent--we've been married for nearly five years now.)

In the fall of 2001, I also managed to get a gig helping a retired professor write and edit a book she was preparing to publish, and I also helped her prepare for seminars that she taught at a local adult education center. She paid me hourly and matched her wage to a little less than what I made hourly at my architectural job. I later realized that, by the end of 2002, nearly half of my intern colleagues had second jobs as waitstaff or bartenders, ski shop attendants, and even freelance architects doing small residential projects for friends of friends. Having two jobs is definitely not for everyone, and it may not even be feasible in some areas of the country right now depending on what havoc the economy has wrought there. I managed to make it work, and my colleagues did as well, for the most part.

I was five years old the last time the economy was even close to being this bad in 1980. I remember our house being really cold, and it always felt a little dark, but my dad did an excellent job as single parent making ends meet as best he could and sheltering us from how bad it was. He did such a good job that I didn't realize until many years later that he had taken a few hundred dollars out of my and my sister's college funds in order to pay the bills and buy Christmas presents. Later, when the economy slumped a bit around 1996 and 1997, I was still an undergraduate and planning to go straight to graduate school. When I emerged from academia in the summer of 2000, the economy was churning full steam ahead. My point is this: I have never truly known and internalized hard times. Many of you have likely experienced something similar, and your parents did a good job not showing you how bad things were. While this meant that you grew up without that particular kind of gnawing stress, you missed out on learning some good coping skills. How do you make do with making nothing for a living when you have so little practice at it?

When I started my first architecture job in June of 2000, my starting gross income was $14.50 an hour. What about yours? How are you making it work, especially these days?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Get your learn on

MIT has a website here dedicated to providing open and free architecture courses for the public to take. These courses range from simple undergrad courses on freehand sketching and perspective drawing to various graduate studio programs. I found the the open course on portfolios particularly interesting. While the formats shown on the webpage for that course aren't fax- and email-friendly, they were an interesting foray into marketing for the students. If you had your own firm or were responsible for making the publicity materials for your firm, how would you go about doing that? how would you package and present yourself, your work, your mindset or approach to design?

What is a course that you wish was taught or presented online, architectural or non-architectural?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Left behind

If any of you reading this have jobs right now, chances are you've survived one or more rounds of layoffs. Congratulations--welcome to survivor's guilt. You feel bad for those who went home with their coffee mugs and family photos in a copier paper box, and then you feel even worse for feeling relieved that it was you watching them leave and not the other way around. When you go home that evening, you feel a little guilty again that you're buying dinner on the way instead of cooking at home, and you know you can do such a thing because you're not about to go file for unemployment. You tell your former colleagues to stay in touch, but you're afraid to ask them to go out and hang out because a) that usually involves spending money, and b) it's hard to think of something to talk about when you have somethign extra keeping you busy for eight or so hours a day.

I know it can be hard, but drop the guilt if you haven't already. It's unproductive and helps no one. Instead, be grateful for not just your job but also your health, your friends, and a variety of other blessings. Then, when you get a colleague's new email account, actually stay in touch. A "how you doin'?" email the week after they've been let go, just to let them know you're thinking of them, is perfectly acceptable. If you'd like to hang out with them, there are plenty of free or super-cheap things to do out there, especially in this economy. One of my laid-off friends and I will go to dinner or happy hour on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, when restaurants and bars are less crowded and offer better deals to get people in the door. (Did someone say $1 PBR?) Other former colleagues of mine have organized hikes that end in a picnic lunch.

Meanwhile, back at work, the first priority is to make sure that your firm's service doesn't lag because of a sudden personnel change. Did you work with the newly-laid-off person on any projects? If they haven't sent out the "I no longer work at XYZ Architects" email, then someone needs to do so. Find out from managers or from your colleague(s) if there's anyone that needs to be contacted regarding a project that they might have been working on before they were let go. At the very least, your firm's front desk should have a list of laid-off names, the projects those folks worked on, and the names of those now answering questions and handling those projects. That way, when anyone calls regarding a project, they will be met with a smooth transition of power, not chaos.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Constructive confrontation: a real-life example

I was recently sent the following situation and email exchange by an intern and reader of this blog, whom we'll call T. What happened to him, how he handled it, and how it turned out was interesting and professional.

Our intern, along with a licensed architect and job captain, had performed some field verification of an existing area to be remodeled and was using the field dimensions along with an old CAD plan and some paper drawings of the building's original construction documents to build the existing conditions in Revit. After drawing everything in, he found some busts between existing conditions and the dimensions shown on the existing drawings. He and the job captain discussed the difference (about 10" over a 120'-0" span!) and decided to bring the situtation up with their project manager. However, the problem never came up until about three hours before a meeting with the job's contractor, in which T. would be giving them a copy of the Revit model to use in pricing the remodeling project. The job captain's other projects had distracted her, and T.'s work on the model was constantly interrupted by people asking for help with Revit. T's office switched over to Revit in the past year, and there were only a few people who knew how to use it well enough to provide tech support, and T. was one of those few. Because of his expertise, he had been roped into helping work the bugs out of the new computer images and installation of Revit 2010 in his office.

So there T was, with three hours before a big meeting and a 10" bust in dimensions. Needless to say, his project manager was furious and he and his job captain were embarrassed. His manager made the two recheck their math on the asbuilt dimensions and criticized the way they had taken the dimensions in the first place. Their boss was visibly angry but trying to stay calm (to his credit), but the damage was done--neither T. nor his job captain could think clearly, they were so rattled. They barely got out the door on time to the meeting.

While the meeting went well and was productive, and the car ride to the contractor's office proved to calm T.'s boss down quite a bit, T. knew the score--he'd missed checking a basic detail. "I should have rechecked my asbuilt dimensions before that moment, it's so obvious," he emailed me. "But my workday is spent so frickin' distracted and I keep getting interrupted, that it gets easy to miss stuff like that!" T. sat down that evening and wrote the following email to his project manager and copied his job captain. The email is below, and T. has graciously given me permission to reprint it here:

[Project Manager] -

I wanted to first off apologize for the mistake on the as-built model today - you were right and the match-up should’ve been caught prior to this morning. I take full responsibility for the mistake, as I should’ve been more meticulous about the dimensions when laying everything out. In the future I’ll make sure to, as they say “measure twice, cut once,” and catch these things to avoid the last-minute fixes.

I also wanted to bring to your attention the distractions during a typical day at work that I fear can lead to mistakes if people aren’t careful, including myself. Before [the recent layoffs, in which many overhead people were let go], we had a “cad-manager” person that would take care of any CAD problems we had during a project, and he could drop what he was doing to help out. With this, our office had a good knowledge base among the actual users (architects, interns, landscape) that could answer questions and fix problems through the [old peer-to-peer support group] CAD Helpline. As the office has moved more towards Revit only, this knowledge base hasn’t kept pace. There are very few people in the office that know Revit really well, and as a member of the CAD Helpline I can’t remember the last time that email address received a question or a request for help. This leads into the few people around the office that know Revit well to field questions and fix problems. To my knowledge these people are primarily [one intern in the office], who is the “king of Revit;” after him it falls off to a few others including myself to answer Revit questions. To make a long story short - I fear that these distractions during a course of a day, ranging from requests to fix something to “can you teach me this,” can lead to mistakes because of the interruptions. Only speaking for myself here - but I really enjoy helping and teaching others how to use Revit and how to make it work for them, and I wouldn’t want to drop that task. I simply need to find a way to make these requests for help work around my tasks and avoid mistakes at the same time.

In the past few weeks I’ve also been helping [the guys in the IT department] roll out a new image to the design staff. Along with a few others we’ve been testing the new software to catch any problems before the image gets sent out to the rest of the staff. I feel this is an important task; as IT doesn’t use these programs on a daily basis, we can more easily find the problems.

I don’t want to only point out a problem but also provide a potential way to solve it. If we could re-configure the CAD Helpline by adding more people to it that know Revit, I think that would really help. These additional people could lead to a larger knowledge base, so more people in the office know they can go to different people to solve problems. It could spread the help out so to speak, give the current helpers a huge relief, and allow them to concentrate on their tasks more easily.

Thanks for the time in this email and for allowing me to accompany [the job captain] and you today to the BIM meeting. It was a great learning experience, and after the talk with [the contractor], our model is on the right track. I also discussed with [the contractor's Revit experts] some ways to make the model work even better for them, and allow us to get accurate material take offs from the model.

Thanks again,

T.'s email got this response from the project manager:

No worries on the mistake T., we all share in the responsibility. I understand the distractions and appreciate your helping others in the office. Many of us are all pulled from our efforts in many ways all day long every day. Those that can come back after this distraction and re-focus on the detail and the thoroughness are in short supply. It is very difficult to do. I know you are one of the greats that will master this ability.

Keep up your good work T.


T's email, while lengthy, was a good one to send. He first took ownership of the part of the problem that was his responsibility--it was indeed part of his job to check his math on the as-built measurements--but he also described a part of his daily work environment that, if fixed or alleviated in some way, would help him to do his job better. He explained the situation well and without blaming or name-calling, and he refrained from whining about the fact that he's helping people. He wants to help, as it helps him learn as well, but not at the cost of his own job tasks. He frames his request in the service of the job. He also ends on a positive note, thanking the manager for the chance to meet with contractors (which for many interns is a rare occurrence) and assuring him that "the model is on the right track": the problem is being solved if not completely solved already.

T.'s manager's response is reassuring and yet a bit unnerving. On the one hand, he acknowledges that T. is being pulled away, and he understands if not empathizes. He thanks T. for helping folks and appreciates his good work and doesn't ask that he turn their backs on those who need help, which is also good )what kind of "team player" would that make T. if he did?). Overall, the manager doesn't seem to think unfavorably of T. after this incident. Where I become concerned is that the response seems to end with a polite "getting distracted is part of the workday, so you'll just have to learn to get used to it and be able to refocus."

Fair enough, Captain Obvious: distractions are part of everyday worklife, if not everyday life in general. But in light of mounds of evidence that task-switching (which is the actual word for what we've been calling "multitasking") is counterproductive, there's nothing wrong with being able to set limits and close an office door, turn off your phone, or put up a sign in your cubicle saying that you're working on something and won't be available for an hour. It disturbs me that T.'s project manager didn't offer to make that suggestion about the "CAD Helpline" at the next manager's meeting, but perhaps he didn't go there because T. wasn't direct about it. T. could have taken his problem-solving to the next level by writing, "Is a rearrangement of the CAD Helpine something you can bring up at the next Monday manager's meeting? I'd be glad to write something up for you or speak to the other managers regarding this, if you like." Regardless, it was overall a good exchange that acknowledged responsibility, described a problem, presented a solution, and then thanked everyone involved for their time. There's so rarely enough of either of those--time or thanks--so it's nice to acknowledge both.

If you have a question, need some advice, or would like to see a topic discussed here, drop me a line in the comments or send me an email from this site. Thanks!