Monday, September 28, 2009

"We can't afford for interns to go to meetings."

I thought I might take this week to talk about a few sayings I've heard time and again in the architectural profession, and this is one of them that I've heard recently (and about which I asked in a past last week). I've heard it said more than once that a firm cannot afford to have interns at meetings, and I cannot entirely agree nor disagree.

Why aren't you being taken to meetings with clients, consultants, and contractors? There may be many reasons, but ultimately it boils down to a relationship between money and skill. Drawing takes a long time, and interns are not only good at it but also don't cost a lot in the eyes of the owner/client, the folks paying the bill. If the hypothetical architect of an earlier post charges the owner $85/hr for an intern's time and $100/hr for a licensed architect's time, and drawing takes a lot of time, then it makes sense to have the intern do the drawings while the architect does the meetings. And not to diminish what you do with a mouse, but my own mother went back to college and gained an associate's degree in computer drafting and design at the age of 51. I mention that because a professor of mine once said that he could teach anyone to use CAD, but he can't teach just anyone to think architecturally. Hence, you only need a certain amount of experience and skill to do the drawings.

The architect has generally spent more time working on projects than an intern, and s/he generally has more experience with projects and will know the kind of information to gather, questions to ask, red flags to raise, etc. in a meeting. She will know enough about construction administration to discuss RFI procedures with the job superintendent; he will know enough to ask a client about workflow and staffing in a department that's being renovated; she will know enough to push back on the engineer who insists that the electrical room "just can't get any smaller" (or to know when the engineer is telling the honest truth about that room size).

But how is that architect's experience gained? By doing, of course. And sometimes that doing involves going to meetings. I learned some about what it takes to put together a hospital by doing the redlines that were brought back to me from meetings, and I filled in that knowledge by reading the AIA's healthcare guidelines, but what really solidified my education was going to client meetings with my boss and watching and listening to him ask questions and pull information out of these nurses and doctors and administrators, who knew plenty about replacing a hip or administering chemotherapy but who had a hard time understanding what our 2D plans and elevations meant in terms of real space.

The biggest thing you learn by going to meetings is a skill that college really has a hard time teaching you (if it does at all) and that is how to (and how not to) communicate. There is a science and an art to listening, to reading people's verbal and nonverbal cues, to saying 'no' to a client when they're asking for something that they'll hate in less then a year and then helping them understand why you're saying 'no' to them when they're paying your fee. I recently got the chance to lead one of these user group meetings with a hospital, and while I was a bit clumsy at first, I got better as I went. When the conversation got off track and the users started wondering about things that would have no real effect on the project, my boss was able to pull the conversation back to the plans and elevations that I was trying to walk them through. I filed his words and approach in my head, knowing that it was okay for me to use such words to guide folks back to the task at hand without offending my clients. That sort of skill must be modeled, not dictated. While I try to outline those skills here, it's really more helpful if you see someone do it in real life--it really makes a difference.

On the one hand, it seems indulgent that architects would budget in time for a "lowly" intern to go to meetings, but to me it makes sense, at least a couple of times. I know that when I've been present at meetings and looked back at my boss' notes or at the redlines generated from those meetings, they make way more sense. By hearing the conversations that led to the decisions that have been transcribed or redlines, I also had an overarching idea of why we're doing what we're doing and how to solve problems in the future on this project. If you're in a meeting with some user groups, and the head of accounting bristles at the idea of having his department near plant operations, then you know in the future not to locate those departments near each other under any circumstances. Furthermore, you've internalized that knowledge in a way that no meeting note saying "Accounting should not be near plant ops" ever could convey. If I ran the zoo, I'd make time for interns to make at least two meetings on a decently-sized project. And they'd get at least two site visits after construction commenced, if not more. Interns need to see who they're working for and how the things they draw get built. It makes your work more concrete and make sense. And you deserve to learn on the job--that's the whole point of internship.

On Wednesday, we'll be talking about one of my least favorite phrases ever, which is mostly used by lazy people. In the meantime, if you have a phrase you've heard over and over and love or hate it, mention it in the comments or via an email to me from the sidebar. Thanks!


  1. thanks for fresh insight on the profession. it's good to read the thoughts of a person your age and it reinforces what i've been taught and try to teach co-workers for the last 34 years. i've been going nuts dealing with an non-responsive intern the last twelve months and after reading your blog, i've got a better grasp and understanding of how to deal with him. i look forward to reading wednesdays blog

  2. I worked on a multi-million dollar project for 3 years straight ... and was only allowed to attend maybe 5 meetings and only got 1 site visit out of it. Granted it was in another state, I was a brand new intern fresh outta grad school. Usually the meetings were held on site, 3 states away, so I understand I couldn't attend everyone of those. Usually if the meetings were held at our office I was "Johnny on the Spot" with prints/information/files/models/etc.

    I really wish I couldve been given more opportunity to visit the site especially during the construction of the two buildings I worked the most on. The time I did get the visit was an invaluable experience and really put all those hours upon hours fretting over the drawings into perspective.

    Thanks again for your input on all of this - look forward to every new post :)