Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"I've been doing this a long time."

In your job and career, you'll ask generally honest questions about how something looks or why it's being done the way it's being done, and the response you'll get ranges from straightforward and curt to pleasant and pensive--someone may realize that you've brought up a good point that they've never considered. Occasionally, though, you'll get today's post title as a response to your questioning or challenging of an idea or method for doing or designing something. And I'm here to tell you: don't take "I've been doing this for a long time--trust me, this way is right" as an acceptable answer.

I'm sure some if not most people mean well when they tell you that sentence. They want to reassure you that the project and/or detail is not going to hell in a handbasket. They want you to know that whatever this decision is to be made, it's been thought through before now so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel on every project. So good on them. But while it's meant to reassure you, the intern, the newbie (as it were), it's not a very educational or informative answer, is it? Understanding why we do what we do--why we put the vapor barrier on this or that side of the insulation, why we show the doors swinging like this or that into the exam rooms, why we indicate control joints in the brick exterior every X or Y feet--is one of the vital essences of being an architect. It does no one in any profession any good to simply copy details and methods as rote gospel. The understanding of what we're doing and why makes it easier to remember what to do next time, and it gives us an understanding that helps us deal with unusual situations (the doors swing like this in the exam rooms for privacy, but it can't because of the column here, so perhaps this should be an office instead).

So instead of shrugging and mumbling, "oh, okay" when someone feeds you this line, ask "Why is it right? Can you explain it to me? If you can't, then who should I ask?" Or, if you think they very well could be wrong, ask "Well, I found this thing in the code/facility standards/meeting notes/whatever, and it seems to contradict that--can we go over this together for a few minutes? If you can't, who should I review it with? Can you look at it with me later?" If you're still getting pushback, then push right back (I'm officially giving you permission to be a pain, if only for a moment): "Perhaps it is right, but I'm not seeing how that's possible given what I've found here...would you mind explaining it to me?" Or even "I'm sure you're right about this, but I need to understand what the reasoning is behind this detail--this isn't the only detail I'll be doing on this project."

Questioning the reasons for doing things they way someone tells to do it is important, because they may not realize--innocently enough--that they're wrong. They may have been following some superbasic rule of thumb ("the vapor barrier always goes on the warm side of the insulation!!!!") without realizing that the correct answer is either different or more complicated that they originally thought. Asking them to explain the reasoning behind their response gives everyone one more chance to check their assumptions and see if they're still correct. A corollary to this is that people may do things the way they've always done it and not realized that technology has made their way of doing things obsolete or more trouble than they're worth. For example, a lot of our interns are having to confront the older project managers in my office with how Revit changes the old way of setting up a set of drawings and indeed a project. Because we're building in 3D, there's no more fudging details and just saying, "oh, we'll fix it later." 3D software platforms like Revit and ArchiCAD tend to require longer SD and DD phases and a shorter CD phase, and we who deal with the software are having to challenge our bosses' assertion that "we've been doing this a long time and it works" still applies (when it doesn't). So challenge someone when you have done the research and really believe you've found a better way.

I'm giving you permission to push on this because there are a few people who use the above sentence as a way to shut you up. By asking them why something is the way it is or by disagreeing with their decision or direction, they view this as some iPod-wearing, text-message-sending, baggy-pants-wearing whipper-snapper punk challenging their authority. How dare you insinuate that they're wrong? You're an intern, for crying out loud! And they're an architect/ engineer/interior designer/whatever! These are the people you especially need to push back on, because they're wrong at least half the time, and all you're really doing is saving them from themselves.

About a year ago, I was helping an interior designer in my office by checking her floor plans for compliance with various codes, including ADA and ANSI (the two major codes that govern disabled accessibility). I noticed in the code that a clear space of 36" wide by 48" long was required at all 3' by 3' transfer showers, instead of the usual 30" x 48" clear space required just about anywhere and everywhere else in ANSI. I brought it to her attention, almost in passing, and she corrected me, "Oh no, it's 30" by 48"." I disagreed politely, saying that it was 30x48 everywhere but at 3' by 3' showers, where the code pretty clearly said 36" by 48", but I would check one more time. (After all, I too could be wrong.) She asked me to do that to be sure. When I checked again, sure enough--36" by 48" at all transfer showers. I mentioned it to her again when she walked by my desk to talk to someone sitting near me, and she said, "I've been doing this a long time, and it's always 30-by-48."

That threw up a red flag for me, knowing that the code was very clear on this. It further threw up a red flag because of her tone of voice and body language--all that was missing was a Beyonce-style Z-snap when she finished her sentence. She was about ten to fifteen years older than me, and I know that interior designers catch heat sometimes from architects because they may not always understand all the ins and outs of building and accessibility codes. Perhaps some of her attitude was coming from a feeling of being challenged by someone younger, or by someone who thought she was "smarter" than this interior designer. However, some of my fellow architects in the office had bumped heads with her on code issues before, and I felt this was no different.

"Here, let me show you the piece of code; perhaps I'm reading it wrong and you can help me," I said. I had already marked the page in the code book, and I showed it to her. She read it...and was beside herself.

"Well," she said, putting on an air of sophistication, "what made you judge this shower room as a 'Type A' residence?"

"I didn't," I replied calmly and pointed to the section number by the code paragraph. "This is in section 6, which is just plain old plumbing fixtures."

She was stunned for a response, and it took her a moment to recover and then thank me for finding this bit of code for her. I checked the rest of her floor plan, fixed anything that was noncompliant, and went on my way. I was polite and considerate as I showed this interior designer the error in her understanding, which is important. No one wants to be told they're wrong, then be proved wrong, then get made fun of. I was clear, nonaccusatory, and civil. But I didn't buy her excuse of "doing this a long time." That's a lazy and condescending excuse, and there's no reason you should ever accept that as a good reason.

On Friday, we'll talk about estimating the time it takes to get work done. In the meantime, if you have something you'd like to see discussed or a question to ask, feel free to do so in the comments or via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

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