Monday, December 20, 2010

And now, for a break...

I managed to get two weeks off here at the end of the year. It occurred to me that I really needed a break, and as all my projects got nice and quiet at the end of the year, I figured it was as good a time as any to not be in the office. I also realized that I hadn't taken a lot of time off in the previous eleven months, which I why I had so much time left to burn. And I needed to take it now mostly because I was so burned out.

Recent studies have shown that taking vacations are good for you, even if the positive effects are short-lived afterwards. Part of what helps you, some researchers surmise, is that people get positive benefits from anticipating the vacation as well as going on the vacation itself. Therefore, it's better to take smaller, more frequent vacations than one or two big vacations. I did take a couple of vacations this year, but each of them involved work in some way, like a presentation or teaching gig. I needed was to completely get away, which I'm about to do.

The next two weeks will be spent doing anything but architecture, which will be refreshing and I think will actually amp me up to come back and do architecture again in January. So posting will be pretty light for the next two weeks, but I hope you all find some time to take a break and rest this holiday season. Cheers and see you in 2011!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is becoming an architect worth it?

Today's question comes from B in Australia (wow!):

I am currently studying architecture in Melbourne, Australia and have just completed my first year, with another four to go :(.
I feel that you might have the best advice for me. I'm starting to consider a drafting course as I have been hearing that it is a 3 year course and obviously less stressfull than archtiecture.
My question is, is becoming an architect worth another 4 years of hard work? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Or are the long hours even worse in the work force?

Alas, B, this is the million-dollar question: is any profession worth the effort and schooling and stress and time? I have friends who went into architecture and, after having been laid off a couple of times, are now pursuing other jobs and even other careers: government work, teaching architecture, not teaching architecture, managing a small business, construction management, and so on. Others have stayed as close to architecture as possible, even if they weren't able to actively work in the field. After spending six years in school and ten and a half years in the profession, I can honestly say that I really like architecture and enjoy practicing it, though there are some aspects of it that annoy and sometimes even infuriate me.

I'm sure that the 3-year drafting degree will lead you to a job that is less stressful than architecture, but will it be as satisfying and interesting as the career and jobs you get with the five-year degree? It depends first on why you started the architectural program in the first place. Do you have a passion for design, for thinking creatively, for making and shaping space, for having a positive effect on people and the built environment? If so, then stay with the 5-year program. If you just want to draw buildings, then maybe the drafting program is the way to go. Neither approach is "right" or "wrong"--it's about what your ultimate goal is, whether you want to just row the boat, or if you'd like to help steer it as well. Some people are totally happy to just row, and that's excellent. Some people want to help steer, and that's great, too. I know plenty of people who went through the trouble of architecture school, and they have become glorified drafters and refuse to get licensed, even thought they're pushing fifty years old. But the position they have makes them happy, and who am I to tell them their choices are bad?

And that brings me to a third option, B: with the five-year degree, you can be an architect or a really well-educated draftsperson who can think beyond the average drafter, but if you just get the three-year degree, then a drafter is all you'll ever be. That three-year degree may make it harder to move up and ahead into architecture, if you ever decide that you want to do so. (Now, granted, I'm giving you all of this from an American point of view. Here in the U.S., there are very, very few architectural drafters--we architects do our own drafting. Engineers (mechanical, electrical, etc.) are more likely to hire drafters, people who simply put into software what an engineer has hand sketched for them.) With a five-year degree, the extra years of training can open more employment doors and opportunities for you.

And that can be good news. When you get out of school in four more years, the economy will very, very likely have rebounded and recovered, and there will be more jobs for you to do and places for you to work, both in Australia and here in the U.S. if you'd like to move. If architects are using pure drafters, they're going to use people in India or China, not in Australia or the U.S. Having the extra two years of thinking will only help.

I realize I'm handing you advice without really corresponding with you on this, B, but that's my superficial two cents' worth. If you (or any of the readers) have more questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments here or send me another email.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: How do I make my engineers do their jobs?!

I got a great question from C, who writes:

When I started here (at my firm) I was told to start compiling Navisworks clash reports and models so we could coordinate the models on this project. Simple enough – combine the models – run the clash – sort through 30,000 clashes to find the legit clashes – export viewpoints – export report – email off. Rinse and repeat on a weekly basis and track the progress of the clash numbers.

This starts simple enough – any time I’ve done this in the past on other projects, that’s all we had to do – give the engineers a Navis model and let them work through their clashes on their own, help them with the difficult ones and assist them when they clash with architectural. Which is what I’ve done. Am I crazy to assume that they should be able to be grown professionals and work through their own clashes on their own (ie. Pipe hits duct, someone please move something)?

Well, fast forward to today – we're 2 weeks from the finish and clashes still exists – roughly 100 or so legit ones. I’ve gone as far in recent weeks as to take a set of drawings and literally highlight and redline where the clash is and who it involves. Scanned those in and sent those off to them, basically providing a roadmap to the clash. They don’t even need to open the Navis model for this – yet still they ignore the clashes. We hold bi-weekly BIM meetings where I walk through clashes with them – they’re in the same room together they can talk through the clash – and they always say “ok, I’ll move X to here and you move that to there and boom we're good” - next week come along and that same clash STILL EXISTS!

I’ve literally drawn them a picture and walked them through the fix. Short of going to their office and holding their hands and fixing it for them I’m not sure what to do. I shouldn’t have to be the one that fixes their clashes for them – considering MEP is all in the same office they should be able to walk to the other cubicle and talk it out like grown adults.

I’m at wits end dude. I’ve done everything I know to aid in the clash resolution process just to be ignored essentially for 5 months by the MEP guys.

C, the short answer is this: if your manager is aware of this constant struggle on your part, then you've done all you can. If you're at the point with a consultant that you're having to go over to their office, put your hand on their mouse hand, and do the clicking for them, then the problem is pretty much theirs. It's time to get the managers involved, or at least aware: email the engineers and copy your boss(es) and their boss(es) and ask what's going on: "I've sent you the Navis report on X/XX/2010 and I gave you a marked up plan locating the clashes on X/XX/2010, and I see in the latest model that over 100 clashes still have not been picked up. I'm concerned that we're about to issue a project that has unresolved clashes that could adversely affect this project's construction. We really need to get these clashes resolved--what do you need from me/us to make that happen?"

Working with consultants is usually an enjoyable and educational experience, but that experience goes sour fast when basic issues go unresolved. You can't make people do their jobs per se, but if all of your efforts to gain compliance and cooperation go ignored, then it's time to let managers know what's going on.

Monday, December 6, 2010

'Tis the season to (still) act professionally

December heralds the season of Christmas trees, singing carols, fake snow, Secret Santas...and holiday office parties. These parties elicit a number of reactions from employees, ranging from joy at free food and adult beverages being offered to dread and annoyance at the notion of spending an evening with your effing boss and your effing coworkers. In my opinion, office parties are generally worth going to as long as you keep a few things in mind:

  1. You're still at work. No matter what everyone's wearing, no matter how much alcohol is being served, no matter if your boss is dancing around with a lampshade on his/her head, remember: it's still a work function. Resist the urge to overimbibe at the open bar or freakdance with the cute new hire--you're still going to have to be on your best behavior (or at least on your work behavior). If anyone in charge sees you acting a fool at the office party on Saturday night, it will be remembered on Monday morning.
  2. Take the opportunity to talk to people in a non-structured environment. While you are still kinda at work, you're not on the clock. So an office party is a good time to chat with your colleagues about non-work stuff: what do they like to do on the weekends? What are their kids into? Where did they go on vacation this year? What are they doing for the holidays? You likely already know that office parties are a good time to chat up the boss, but it's a good time to chat up other managers in the office, as you never know when you may end up working with them. Further, chatting with coworkers--whether you work with them or not--is a great chance just to get to know them better and develop a better working relationship with them.
  3. Have fun or go home. Having zero fun at a party is just about as bad as having way too much fun--they're both inappropriate reactions to the festivities. If your office party has a ridiculous theme--hey everybody, we're doing Hee Haw!--don't feel like you have to play it to the hilt. Just wear a nice outfit that's not formal but doesn't involve khakis. If you don't really want to go but feel like you need to make an appearance, get there right at the beginning, not fashionably late. Stay for a couple of hours and chat up a few people that you really like, then use whatever excuse you feel comfortable with in order to leave--I'm double-booked for parties, I have a migraine, the cat's having kittens, whatever. Say some pleasant goodbyes, go home, and relax, knowing that you're not going to have a hangover tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Burnout: the unspoken bane of emerging professionals

I haven’t been very good about posting regularly lately—I’ve struggled with keeping up with Intern 101, trying to come up with good topics to discuss and eagerly pouncing on a topic when someone emails me a question. Really, I’ve struggled with posting anything at all at least once a week. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m fighting some kind of burnout.

I don’t usually post about what’s personally happening to me, but I feel like mentioning it might be worthwhile, as I imagine I can’t be the only one. If you’ve managed to stay employed through the recession, you might be feeling this way yourself. You come into work and sit down at your desk, and suddenly all the energy drains from your body. You can’t even pick up a pen, and you can’t bring yourself to answer the urgent emails filling your inbox or to complete the rather simple redlines sitting on your desk. All you want to do is surf the internet or go home and do laundry. It’s a different feeling from spring fever or holiday restlessness; it’s a feeling that is a sudden draining of energy and focus at best, and at worst it’s what one of my colleagues once described as “the day is ruined the moment you turn the key in the ignition to drive to work.”

After months—if not years—of trying to do more with less and watching your coworkers get laid off in waves and struggling to keep your job and do the jobs of those who were let go and accomplishing all of this with a brave face, it’s no surprise that you’d be feeling burnout by now. Or perhaps the work has come back with a vengeance, and you’re working like hell with a paycheck that reflects your 2008 skills while doing a 2011 job (yours and someone else’s because no one’s hired extra help just yet, just in case there’s a double dip recession). Myself, I’ve just spent the past few months working at a breakneck pace, leaping from deadline to deadline after nearly wearing myself out with projects plus preparing and giving a presentation at the national AIA convention. I spend my days frenetically jumping from phone call to department layout to email to QC of a set of drawings to—oh, wait, have I eaten lunch yet? And of course, because the economy has been so bad for so long, it seems like sacrilege to complain. But the weariness, the anger, the anxiety are all there, and the passion for what we do—for what I do—is gone. I come home from work, bone tired and drained, and I can barely even flip through a catalog or magazine, let alone put together coherent thoughts for a well-meaning blog providing so-called professional advice.

Burnout is a weird feeling for me, because I’m one of the most motivated people I know. Burnout is what other people deal with, what people who don’t really like architecture feel, I think to myself. But I’m finding that even the most committed amongst us, the most devoted to this art and craft and profession and obsession that we call architecture, even we the truly dedicated feel some annoyance with this field and wish for a break to do anything, anything other than this. I don’t yet have any answers for working through my burnout, but I do know that the only way out is through. I also know that I have to find a way to get some breaks in before Christmas, and I have to make sure that those breaks don’t get used up by holiday shopping or filling out greeting cards or the like. My goal is to post on Intern 101 at least once a week. Any questions, observations, comments, gripes, etc. are welcome, as they help me get ideas for post topics. In the meantime, I do hope that all of you got to enjoy your holiday and are finding better days coming at your firms (or in acquiring a job), and I beg your patience in the coming month or so while I work through this exhaustion.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is doing a competition like cheating on your employer?

I know, I know, more Mailbag. But why not? We've had some great questions lately, including this one from R, who hasn't been able to get a job yet in the economy...

So in the meantime I've been working with another unemployed from my graduate classes to do a couple of competitions. We haven't won/place/show/honorable mentioned in anything yet and are now starting to think we need to seek out ways for our participation to be known. It seems like competitions are a bit light on publication of entries and we might be the only ones who have seen what we've put together (aside from new pages in our portfolios). How do we get our images out there? Any thoughts?
Secondly, although we're not architects yet, we appreciate the ability, and freedom, of making our own designs. We are hoping to continue doing competitions in some manner when we do land jobs. Any thoughts on this sort of competition moonlighting? (Really, it doesn't feel like cheating-the-employer type of moonlighting yet, although that might change when we do win something!)

There are two questions here from R. One is how to we publicize our involvement in competitions, and two is how acceptable is it to do competitions while working. Let's address these in order:

First, it's a little tough to drum up interest in your competition work if you haven't won anything yet. Winning makes it easier to toot your own horn. That being said, there are other ways to broadcast your efforts. The obvious first way is to create a blog or website that allows you and your pals to showcase your work. Then, any potential employer can surf on over and have a look at your efforts. The second is through the print media. First, you can write a press release to a local architectural publication or even your local paper about how you and your pals are making the best of a down economy by gong after design competitions. This might also allow you to get featured in the paper or some other publication as a human interest story: look how these kids aren't just sitting around at their parents' houses, waiting for a phone call--they're out doing cool stuff! There are books and online articles about how to write a press release. However, I have to say that I wrote up press releases for the seminar I did at the national AIA convention this year, and no one picked it up. Here's hoping you have better luck than I did.

Second, the competitions and work: overall, it's a good thing. Firms know that you don't get much creative control in your first few years in the business for a variety of reasons, and there's nothing wrong (and many things right) with entering competitions. However, if the competition is to do an actual project that could be built, you might want to talk with your manager(s) and/or firm owner(s). If you win a competition to do a building that will actually be built, you're going to need a licensed architect on board to oversee the design. That's where your firm would come in handy--suddenly, you'd have built-in support to get a project done, plus you'd actually be bringing in work for the firm. When you talk to the firm owners, be sure your group is all in agreement on how the work would be done. Explain that you're happy to do all the work and design on the front end, and that if you win the project that you'd like to be on the project team. If the firm insists on putting someone else on the competition team with you and your buds, be willing to either work with that person or stand your ground about it just being you and your friends...and know that standing your ground might leave a bad taste in the firm owner's mouth. (Remember, just because we're all old and cranky doesn't mean we might not be interested in doing a cool competition with you--your enthusiasm gets us excited!)

Got a question for Lulu or a topic you'd like to see discussed here? Tell me in the comments or via email in the sidebar, and thanks again for all your support and comments!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: How to toot my own horn on a competition design?

More Lulu's Mailbag again! I really appreciate folks sending me questions, by the way--it makes for a more interesting blog. I can tell you what I think is interesting, but I'd rather hear your questions. Today's question is from J, a return reader/Mailbag Writer, who says:

I graduated in December 2009 from IIT and one of my last Studio's I worked on was a Design/Build studio(spring 2008, summer 2008). Designing during the spring semester a small field chapel in Germany and building the design over the summer. The project went extremely well, an amazing time, an incredible experience professionally and definitely the high point of my B. Arch. Two years have passed and we've received some great attention. [links to various websites and magazine publications here] The Chicago AIA Chapter gave us a Distinguished building - Honor award [for this project].

I'm wondering how to call attention the project, outside of everything I can present in my portfolio. Do I mention the project being published in a book? I know the internet article is only of little importance, as anyone can publish something on the Internet, I'm just wondering if there is a way to mention the book gracefully. Outside of just calling out the Award on my resume is their a better way?

Wow! This is great news indeed, and I don't know why you wouldn't walk into an interview with this news on a t-shirt that you not only wear but also shoot into the potential office with a t-shirt cannon. Okay, I'm kidding (kind of), but I think you can make this more apparent in your cover letter as well as your resume. If you have a section on your resume called "Honors and Awards" or "Competitions", you can describe the project briefly and then list the Chicago award and then say "Featured in Awesome Architecture 2010 (Little, Brown Publishers, 2010)". You should use that section of your resume to describe all the places that the project has been featured as well as any and all awards it has received. Further, you can mention the award and publication in your cover letter or introductory email to a potential firm: "I would be excited to bring my design skills to your firm; my senior studio design team's work received the Chicago AIA's Distinguished Building Honor Award for 2010 and was featured in a recent architectural publication." Furthermore, you can use this project as a way to discuss your usefulness as an architect trying to detail something--after all, having actually had to build something you drew, you have a unique perspective on design and construction. Be sure that you describe the "I built it too!" part on your resume. Do you have any pictures of you and your group actually working on it? Arrange those on a page in your resume, or even better you could provide a link to a blog or website that shows everyone the project. The website might be dedicated to your work alone, or it might be dedicated to the project alone (sketches, final boards, in process construction photos, final product, list of and links to awards).

And speaking of online presence, I'd still mention the internet article about the project. Yes, any fruitcake can publish something online (I'm "Exhibit A"), but it might be on a website with which a firm is familiar, and they might go, "Oh, cool! I saw that building! That was this guy? Get him in here!" It also might excite a not-so-into-design firm: "Neat! This guy's a good designer; maybe he can help us class up our strip malls!" However, bear in mind that if you send your resume to a firm that's more about production than awesome design, your honors may not have as much impact. That's okay--keep tooting your own horn, and don't sweat it.

If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here, or a burning question about the architectural profession, feel free to ask me in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks, and have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is a posh grad school worth it?

Today's letter comes from a fellow Gator (that is, attendee of the University of Florida), who writes:

I was curious as to how significant the grad school I attend is....Like if I get into say Harvard (which would be fantastic), is it worth it to attend there considering the loans i might have to take out. Will I be getting a significantly better paying job if I graduate from Harvard than say the University of Florida (i graduated from there and if i go there it would probably be free) or University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania...(other schools i'm applying to are Wash U, UVA, M.I.T.).....

This is a good question, and I'm surprised I haven't been asked this yet: if I go to a more prestigious graduate school, will I make more money coming out of it? And the answer is no, not really. You may be more highly sought after for having a more prestigious name on your diploma, but it's not really going to affect your pay out of school. The architectural profession pays you more for your experience than for your education. If you want to make more money coming out of graduate school, your best bet is to get a summer or part time job during school so that you have some familiarity with the practice before you start.

Myself, I graduated from the University of Florida in 2000, and my starting pay out of grad school with no experience was $14.50/hr. You might expect kind of around that much out of graduate school in 2012, but maybe perhaps more like $15-$17/hr starting pay. My husband graduated from Kansas State University with a 5-year B.Arch in 1998, and his starting pay was less than my starting pay. The M.Arch is still being paid slightly more than the 4-year degree or the B.Arch, even though it's really just an extra year of school. But ultimately, you're being paid for experience, not the school.

I've met architects from Montana State University who could draw and detail circles around people who went to Harvard, and I've met University of Colorado students who could draw and detail circles around people who went to a 2-year college and have been working in architecture for fifteen years. The point is that the school does not make you a good architect; YOU make you a good architect, and your own skills make you worth hiring, paying, and paying more. (By the way, I've met good people from Wash U in St. Louis and from UVA, and they're good, though they could tell you stories of not so good graduates as well. Every school has some winners and some losers. :-p )

That being said, going to Harvard, Cooper Union, SCI-ARC, and the like are a good move if you're really interested in teaching at some point (like during or after you get licensed). If teaching architecture (especially teaching design) is your ultimate professional goal, then Harvard and its cohorts will be more worth the loans.

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here? Drop me a line via the comments or in an email at my address in the sidebar. Thanks!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tales from the crypt, um, email inbox

I know it's after Halloween, but I had to share a recent spooky occurrence that happened to me via email. I was looking for a set of PDFs of a project that was similar to one that was just in SD. I wanted to send this set of PDFs to my cost estimator so he would have a good idea of what this new project would be like (in terms of casework, finishes, mechanical and plumbing standards, etc.). I knew that a colleague of mine had worked on a similar project to mine, which we'll call the Winburn Building. I sent my colleague the following email:

Hi Xxxxx,

Are there PDFs of the drawings (CDs, as-builts, whatever) for the Winburn Building? I’d like to upload them to our FTP site to send the cost estimator for the Crestridge Building.

This was the response I got back:

Sure are


So I sent this:

Excellent! Where’s the best place in the project files drive to find those? I see [project number] and [different project number] under the [Winburn Building's Client Name] folder...would you recommend sending the PDFs in [long file path name and number] to my cost estimator for Crestridge? I want to give him something that’s as complete as we can get it for Winburn, and that looks like what I want but it also says “Initial Pricing Package” on the front sheet…?

And I got back this:

[project number] is what you should use

Good luck This is feeling really unhelpful and dare I say a little schmucky. So I finally wrote back:

Oh, derp! What I was trying to do is ask if you had CDs of Windburn [project number], or is the Initial Pricing as far as the project has gotten?

And I finally got back:

[project name and short path to the correct folder]

Try these… might be better

Now then, was that so painful? If you had sent me that three emails ago, we could have been done by now. Perhaps my colleague was annoyed because the folder, once he sent the link for it, was pretty obvious. But for some reason, I just had not been able to find it and was looking for direction from him. Furthermore, there were two project numbers that could have been the project I needed. Ah, but I promised you a spooky event, didn't I? Yes indeed, and here is the scary part...

...this colleague is a licensed architect with more years of experience than I have! AAAHHHHHGGH!!! [running away from the campfire]

Okay, okay, that was a little dramatic. But it's still a little scary--this architect (whose poor email skills I've written about before) sends emails to clients and consultants all the time, and some of the things he sends out on which I've been copied are downright horrifying. More than once, I've read his emails and thought "If I hadn't been in that same meeting, I'd have no idea what he was talking about right now."

Your consultants, clients, and colleagues all have jobs to do on a project, tasks that intersect with your tasks and that make the project run smoothly. Sometimes they need something from you, and sometimes you need something from them--fair enough. However, it's not fair to make them a) work hard to understand you and b) work hard to get what they need from you. Email is a communication medium that is rife with opportunity for misunderstanding, so a well-written email saves everyone a lot of time and energy (energy spent either figuring out what you want from someone, or energy spent getting furious with a misinterpreted comment).

Some basic tips for writing good project-related emails:
  1. Take your time. Email does make it easy to dash off a quick note to someone, but really take a moment to reread what you've read, or even read it aloud (a trick I learned from some of my English-major friends in grad school). This is good practice even with the smallest emails. Perhaps you want to send a layout of some outdoor mechanical equipment to your engineer, and you need him to confirm if the layout will work. You could just say, "Eddie, here's my pass at the mechanical yard. Will this work for you?" However, a little more thought makes this a much more useful email and can help them think through your request: "Eddie, here's my pass at a layout for the mechanical yard equipment. Do we have all the clearances correct around the equipment, and will these locations work for now as well as the Phase 2 buildout?" Also, composing your email with a little time allows you to prevent from sending out something with sentence fragments (where you began to type something, then changed your mind but forgot to erase the first half of the abandoned sentence).
  2. SpellCheck is your acquaintance, not your friend. There are plenty of words that pass SpellCheck because they really are words, but they're not the right word for your email. One of my English-major pals tends to accidentally start many emails with "Dear family and fiends..." Fortunately, he checks the email again (see tip #1 above) and catches it before it goes out. While most typos and grammatic snafus aren't that big of a deal (e.g., "form" instead of "from"), it does make it look like you're not paying attention.
  3. Ditch the slang and (most of) the jokes and funny references. Email is an medium in which it's easy to misinterpret what was typed, because many of us do dash off an email quickly in the same voice and words that we might say aloud. Since that written form is missing our tone of voice and inflection, a joke might come off as a snidey slap in the face. Also, you're working with people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ages, generations, cultures, etc. Slang doesn't always translate even amongst people who speak the same language. I think about a fellow grad student who was born in Spain and moved to the U.S. when he was ten. His parents hired a tutor to teach him English, so while my friend spoke impeccable European Spanish, his English was so perfect that he actually had slightly adopted the Brooklyn-inflected accent of his tutor. The only thing that would give him away as a naturalized citizen instead of native-born is that he didn't understand a lot of American childhood cultural references and older slang sayings, like "the early bird catches the worm".
  4. Always use a good, clear subject for the email. A good habit to develop with project-related emails is to first type the name of the project and then the primary topic or topics of the email. In my case above, I might use this as my email subject: "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Yard Layout." If my email had a variety of topics involving mechanical stuff, I might write "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Issues." (Notice I did not say "stuff"; I didn't go to grad school and pass the ARE to write emails with the word "stuff" in them like I was starring in Dude Where's My Car?.) A good clear subject line not only allows someone to quickly know what information you're looking for or problem you're trying to resolve, it also can help them (and you) search for the email later in their inbox.
  5. Make sure the point of your email is clear. Even if you have to write a bunch of introductory information, or perhaps you have to clearly spell out the three or four problems going on in a project, you want to be able to make the intent of the email clear. What do you want this email to do after the recipient(s) has/have read it? Do you want someone to make a decision? Do you want someone to get you a drawing? And if there are multiple recipients, is it clear which of them should be making the decision, getting you the drawing, etc.? One of my favorite sentence structures for being clear is this: "I want/need/would like __________ by __________ because __________." And that "because" is not an apology. but rather a courteous explanation of what's going on that requires that we do-this-by-this-time.
  6. And finally, when you get an email asking for something, either give the person what they need or ask for more information. It was pretty clear what I wanted in the email at the beginning of this post, and had my colleague given me the file path at that point instead of waiting for the third email, we could have been done. If my colleague was really busy and couldn't help me, at that moment, he could have emailed back that he was on a deadline and would get me a link later that morning, or he was on a deadline and I should ask So-and-So for more prompt help, or he could have said "here's the project number, and I'm pretty sure I have a folder in there called _____ that should have what you need." Taking your time with emails refers to reading them as well as writing them. What is this person looking for? What are they needing? Instead of just firing back a "here you go" when you're not sure, ask. It might even be helpful to call the person and talk through their request, then use a reply email to recap the discussion and give them what they have asked for (or explain why you can't do that at that time).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

'Tis the season to give...and give.......and give.....

If you've been at a firm of more than five people since perhaps August, then you know what I mean by "giving at the office": once school is back in, colleagues with children bring in order forms for fundraisers, hitting up everyone from the firm partner to the copy room guy for cookie dough, candles, wrapping paper, and the like. This kind of fundraising is so prevalent that some companies forbid it. That seems a little extreme, but I can't say as I blame them. It gets to the point that almost every other week, there's an order form for something or other taped to a cabinet door in the office break room, and I'm practically praying for my property taxes to skyrocket so that we can fund these schools well enough that they don't have to resort to organized panhandling in order to support field trips and art supplies. That being said, I also like to support my colleagues, especially if it's something that I'm actually going to use--like cookie dough or wrapping paper. And school fundraisers aren't the only sort of giving that you see at an office; sometimes it's a colleague asking for donations as they participate in a charity event.

Charitable solicitations and sales in the workplace can be a great way to make up your sales fast--I've got twenty people in one place, and if ten of those people buy a container of cookie dough or donate $10 each to my 5K run for trichotillomania awareness, then everybody wins. But the process leaves your coworkers in an uncomfortable spot, especially in a smaller office: either I say yes to everybody's solicitations and find my pockets empty by the end of the month, or I say no to everybody and look like a total Scrooge, or worst of all, I say yes to some but not all the solicitations and look like I'm playing favorites. So, what to do?

The first thing I do is this: I actually have picked a few charities that I really like, that champion causes that I support and that are efficient with their funds, and then I support those charities by having them bill a manageable monthly amount to my credit card every month. They get regular support, I get to help a cause that I like, and I also get the cash back points by using the card. What this also does for me is it allows me to budget my charitable donations--I want to give x percent to charity each month, and I've done so. As cold-hearted as it sounds, this process can allow you to give to worthy causes and then legitimately say to your colleagues, "I wish I could help, but I've already spent my charitable donation allowance for the month." That will allow you to graciously bow out of at-work giving without looking like a jerk.

But not all giving at work is bad. Because I work in a large office and don't work with everybody all the time, I generally only buy from those people I know and work with on a regular basis. I'll look for something that isn't too pricey, for example, or even better I'll just make a donation. Some school fundraisers allow you to donate to send cookies to overseas military, and some allow you to simply donate an amount without having to accept any wrapping paper or whatever from them. I like both of these options because they sometimes allow you to name your price (which is handy if the stuff they're selling is out of an intern's price range), plus you don't have anything cluttering up your house when it's all said and done. (Just remember--if you say you'll donate and the money is due later and not now, don't back out on the person/cause.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Not exactly uplifting, but funny

There's some adult language in here, but it's hilarious. The truth of the architectural profession lies somewhere between these two points of view. I had to post it, though, because it actually made me laugh out loud.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Resisting the pull of tunnel vision

Longtime Intern 101 readers know that both my husband and I are architects. I hear couples say that they don't talk about work at home, but I think they're full of it: how do you spend a third of your life somewhere and never talk about it at some point during the other two-thirds? He and I do share about what's going on at our workplaces, and I generally like it because I learn from him and occasionally he learns from me. (It might make for boring pillow talk, but at least we understand the severity of each others' work problems without the other having to go into a long, drawn out explanation of the problem.) Recently, he came home absolutely furious, having spent all day trying to solve a problem. It turns out that the problem was the locations of some exterior windows in his building. The windows were located such that they worked (kinda) for the exterior, but they made wall placement and ceiling layout and soffit locations really problematic in the interior finish of the project. "Someone," he fumed, "spent a lot of time during DDs and CDs trying to make those windows and ceilings work, and they never said one thing about how it wasn't really working. And now I discover the problem in the field, now that the windows are literally set in stone."

It can be hard sometimes to bring up a problem to a project manager, especially when that problem feels like it should be something that you should be able to handle. After all, it's just a ceiling layout, or a pipe going through an exterior wall, or whatever, and you've been working in architecture for two, three, five, seven years. So if you kill a tree and print out the problematic area in question to ask for help in solving it, you look like you don't know how to do your job, right?


Asking for help with something in the drawings is very rarely a bad idea. First of all, if you've been struggling with something for a while and can't make it work, it's possible that all you need are some fresh eyes on the problem. I've wrestled for two hours with making rooms fit into an existing space (since space layout is something I do a lot as a licensed architect), and suddenly one of my bosses looks at my layout and scribbles in the solution in five minutes. I feel like a goober, but it's only because I've been too close to the problem for too long. Furthermore, by showing your project manager/architect/job captain the problem you're dealing with, it may jog his/her memory regarding something super-important: we removed this area from our scope, so you really don't need to try to work it out; oh yeah, there was something important going on in this area that I need to call the engineers about; wow, you're right, we can't specify this or that product because it won't work in that area; and so on. Sharing the problem allows it 1) to be solved sooner or 2) to get the team to realize that something big is happening, or is wrong.

That second scenario is what happened on my husband's job. The project was so big that there were two groups on the team: one worked on the core and shell, and the other worked on the interior tenant finish. The problem is that each group (including its interns) got tunnel vision and forgot that their scope has to work with the other team's scope. Core-and-shell and tenant-infill have to work together, and it's easy to forget that and just plug away at whatever problem comes up, thinking "well, the other group has to have what it has here, and I just have to make do." As long as nothing is built yet, most things can change, at least a little. And in the case of my husband's building, had someone printed out the clunky, weird-looking ceiling plan and showed it to him, he could have called together the infill group and the core-and-shell group and found a solution...when it didn't cost any money to do so.

It's easy to get focused on your role in architecture, both as a problem-solving architect-in-training and as the intern-who-documents-everything-having-to-do-with-this-part-of-the-building. Just because it's your job to work out the exterior walls or the vertical circulation or whatever doesn't mean that you work in a vacuum, and just because you do know something about how buildings go together doesn't mean that you know everything or even have to know everything. Pulling back and remembering how your work fits into the overall project--and then looking at that overall project--helps reduce that tunnel vision that can happen when you work on a smaller piece of a bigger project. Reaching out of your role and your scope and asking questions or for help to solve a problem reduces it even more. It's almost symbolic of how we do what we do: all the parts and pieces of a building make it what it is, and all the people involved in designing and documenting that building allow it to be built smoothly and solidly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Saving for a rainy day, part 2 of 2

If you have a job right now or have managed to get a job this year, first let me say WOOHOO!!! Things are very slowly turning around economy-wise in my area, and hopefully they are doing the same in yours. I'm always heartened when I hear of someone getting a job these days or when I see job postings on job boards, whether it's the AIA or someone else's listings. If you've managed to score or keep a job as an intern, it's probably a relief to you to finally have some cash coming in so you can move out of your parents' house, or get a better apartment, pay off some credit card bills and student loans, and maybe finally splurge on that new iPhone you've been craving since you got out of college last year and couldn't have because you could barely afford to put gas in the car. And good on you--enjoy that financial relief (and new iPhone), but spare a moment's thought for your future, both short-term and long-term.

Over the past two years, my office cut my (and all my remaining coworkers') hours and pay by 10%, and we lost some other benefits as well (though our healthcare coverage remained, the costs went up). Making ends meet was a struggle, but my husband and I got through in pretty good shape and with fewer bouts of insomnia than many others in this economy. When the economy first started sliding big-time in early September of 2008 and the first round of layoffs hit my office, the hubby and I immediately cut back on our 401(k) contributions for several months so that we could stockpile easily-accessible cash into online savings accounts (which tend to have better interest rates than bricks-and-mortar banks). After we stockpiled between us six months' worth of mortgage payments on our condo, we went back to our normal levels of 401(k) contributions. At the same time, we figured out ways to cut our expenses and decided to forego a few of our usual trips and splurges. Now on the seemingly-other side of the Great Recession, we find ourselves with a nice chunk of savings to build on or use, but had one of us been laid off, we could have paid the mortgage for six months without ever having to use our unemployment to do so.

When I first began my architectural career in 2000, it used to annoy me to no end to have someone tell me to put money into my 401(k) and to chuck a little of my meager paycheck each month into an emergency savings account. Hell, I wasn't making that much in the first place, and now you want me to not have access to even more of it?! But thinking through the rainy-day point of view began to make more sense. First of all, saving for retirement was really easy for three reasons:

a) they take the money out of my paycheck before it ever gets to me, so it's not like I ever had it to miss in the first place;

b) my company matches up to a certain percent, so even if the market is crap, I put in that percentage that they match and doubled my money (and everything I put in over that matching percentage helps too, because;

c) the younger you are when you start to save for retirement, the better off you are because overall, time is on your side (investments with Bernie Madoff notwithstanding).

But saving for the short term, the rainy-day/emergency fund, is a really good idea for those just starting out. It is precisely because you don't have a lot of extra cash lying around that makes the emergency fund so important. A couple of years ago, I sprained my ankle really badly and had to go to the emergency room. Even though I had good health insurance that paid for everything I had done that day, there was still a $100 copay to get in the door of the ED. That's a big chunk of cash to drop, especially if you're just starting out and aren't making a lot. Having a little saved up can make surprise expenses--car repair, emergency room visit, trip home for a funeral, vet bill for a pet--easier to swallow.

So how much to save? I've seen different estimates on this, depending on the financial guru. The supposed "rule" is that you should have three to six months' worth of living expenses saved, but depending on your situation you could get by with more or less. I'd say aim for one month's worth of expenses saved up and go from there. And if you're paying off student loans and credit cards while all this is going on? Just get into the habit--even putting aside $20 per paycheck can help. Think about it: if you get paid every two weeks, you can save up $100--my emergency room copay--in two and a half months. That might seem like a long time, but it's a longer time if you have to put yet another surprise expense on a credit card and then pay it off at 19%.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Saving for a rainy day, part 1 of 2

During this most recent summer, I consulted on a reality construction TV show for a production company. I was excited to get the chance to work on a TV show, and I really enjoyed learning how those reality construction & remodeling shows go together. I have to say that the extra cash I earned from it was nice, too; they gave me two checks for my work, totaling a little under a grand. During a time when my entire office's pay had been cut, a little extra in the pocket sure helped. It was even invigorating, until I looked a little closer at the check.

The receipt-accounting-stub-thingy attached to the check showed that it was straight pay--no taxes or anything had been withheld. Hmm...suddenly things got sticky. If you earn money during the year, you have to claim it. And if you earn money and claim it, you'll have to pay taxes on it, especially if it wasn't taxed before. What this meant for me is that even if I wanted (or needed) to spend that money somewhere, I'm still going to have to account for having to pay taxes on it at some point in the spring of 2011. So even if I need to use that money now or in the near future, I need to set aside at least a third (probably more like 40%) in case I have to pay taxes on it. The same thing occurred to me (well, it occurred to my husband first) when I recently returned from a speaking engagement. I had been given a handsome check to cover my travel expenses and my speaker's fee, and as I looked at the check I realized the same thing had happened here--there was no sign that the non-profit had withheld any taxes on my pay. I realized that, at least for now, I was going to have to set aside my actual speaker's fee for now in case I was going to owe major taxes on this.

It would be tempting not to claim any of this income. However, each of these companies and organizations that has cut me a check and paid me for my efforts is going to claim that expense on their taxes in the spring of 2011, and that money is going to have to turn up somewhere else. While I didn't fill out a W2 for the speaking engagement, I did fill out one for the TV production company, so I'm definitely going to show up on their books. They may very well mention my social security number in their taxes, so what happens when I act like I never received anything from them? Quite possibly an audit of my and my husband's taxes, that's what. And before anyone tries to get political here, let me say that I've never seen any difference in this situation regardless of what political party is in the White House or is in charge of the national or state Congress--taxes on this kind of income is 30% to 40%, give or take a few.

I mention this on Intern 101 because I imagine that some of you have taken on extra or side jobs in order to make ends meet in this economy, much as I have. Depending on how that income was given to you, it will behoove you to consider the tax consequences of that income. Putting aside at least 30% of that windfall for a while does two things for you: one, it allows you to build up a little interest on it, depending on the kind of account you save it in; and two, it allows you not to be blindsided by the Tax Man come April.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Can (and should) interns work for free?

I found an interesting (and informative) article on the AIA's website regarding the AIA's rules regarding the circumstances under which an intern can work at a firm for free. The whole article is worth reading, but here are the six criteria that determine if an internship does not qualify for governance/protection under the Fair Labor and Standards Act:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Fair enough, but I think there's a bigger question at stake here. As one of my friends used to say in Studio, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should--consider the consequences." Working for free tells a firm--and a profession--just exactly how much you'll work for. Furthermore, I've noticed when interns have been super-underpaid or have worked for free, it does something to their souls, even their notion of self-worth. And yes, I know interns don't make a lot, but there are some interns who are getting paid even more poorly than the average intern, and that scars you. And I know that the present intern generation is supposed to be entitled and self-centered, but a) I've yet to meet any interns that are really all that entitled and self centered (six years of studio will beat the "entitled" right out of you), and b) if you go to school for six years and work your butt off, you have earned the right to be paid a fair wage for the work you're about to do, especially if the organization for which you toil is about to profit or otherwise benefit from the work you're doing. So I do strongly urge interns to think twice--nay, thrice--before accepting an unpaid internship at a firm--never sell yourself short.

The NCARB expiration date and the start of the 6-Month Rule

I got a question from a reader which I sent on to my contact M at NCARB. Here are the intern's questions and the responses:

Intern Question part 1: I just got my NCARB record going, and I see there is an expiration date - 3 years. Does that mean I only have three years to get all my hours done? Is there a way to extend this period?

NCARB says: When an intern creates an NCARB record, they currently receive three years of service and one transmittal of their record with the application fee of $350. *They can also use a tool in their online record to request a Record Summary to support their application for Early Eligibility to the ARE in participating states. For each additional year of service, there is an annual renewal fee of $75.

Intern Question part 2: Next, the 6-month rule. I understand the diagram, but I'm not sure when my 6 months start. Since I'm unemployed, I can only earn supplementary hours. I'm curious if my clock has started. The three year thing is somewhat discouraging only because I'm unemployed and wonder if I started it too early.

NCARB says: The Six Month Reporting rule now applies to all experience submissions. An intern could not submit experience that has a start date that is older than eight months from today’s current date. An applicant’s three years of service does start on their application date and does not alter due to periods of unemployment. NCARB has made a significant effort to develop new supplementary education opportunities that can be used outside of a traditional work setting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Applying for a job? Think about your online presence

My recent post about applying for jobs reminded me of an important tip point about scoring the interview: if your online presence reflects negatively on you, your resume may only go as far File 13. More and more, employers are Googling potential interview candidates, checking out their names on Facebook, MySpace (I know! people are still on that site!) Twitter, and blogging sites such as Blogger (where this site is hosted) and Wordpress. And if they find anything they dislike on your social networking sites, it's bye-bye interview.

According to an article in the Sunday 10/3/2010 Wall Street Journal insert in the Denver Post, some new professionals are only allowing a close circle of family and friends to have access to your personal networking sites but then have a professional, public site that anyone can see. The article described signing up for Google alerts to "keep track of where and how your name is mentioned." Meanwhile, as you create your public, professional presence online, be sure to friend or connect with others in your field--former colleagues from college as well as previous jobs (well, people that you would admit to hanging out with, anyway).

Interestingly, the article also states the following:

You can take [your web presence] a step further by creating your own blog. Write about the new developments in your career and industry. Post links to articles of interest. Offer a space for reader feedback so you can build an audience. It's okay to be critical of something or someone--you want to establish your voice. Keep it professional.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How can I get a job with no experience?

Ahhhh, fall. A lovely time of year when football season starts, the weather gets cooler, and everyone's sending out their resumes after either taking a summer break or finishing up their degree during summer semester. A couple of months ago, I got a great question from Caitlin, and I'd like to a) apologize for taking so long to get to this, and b) answer it in some semi-coherent way (which is why it took me so long to get to the question).

Caitlin asked:

I have a bit of a personal dilemma involving my job search... I have no architectural experience!
It puts me at a huge disadvantage... I just graduated, no honors or awards to speak of, and a handful of odd-jobs (I only included a couple on my resume itself, I was laughed at by a job fair recruiter once for putting "bartender" on my resume). Any personal connections I've utilized have lead nowhere, which I feel is also a disadvantage.

Caitlin's ultimate question is how to respond to a potential interviewer regarding her lack of experience. That's a great question, and here's the short answer to it: honestly and eloquently.

It does depend on why you haven't gotten an architectural job during college. When I went job hunting (back in the halcyon days of 2000, when the economy was awesome and our money wasn't on fire), I didn't have any real working-at-an-architectural-firm experience. The closest I had was working for one summer in the design & construction department of a resort/nature preserve almost an hour form my hometown, and i worked a couple of summers and Christmases at a local hospital in the medical records department. If someone had asked me why I didn't have any actual firm experience, I would have answered them thus: I was told that all the nearby firms were of poor quality, and all the good firms (in Atlanta) were a 90-minute commute for me. And that was the truth--family friends who had met and worked with architects in our nearby area (within 45 minutes of my hometown) universally panned the local architects as hacks who didn't know how to put a house together, and no one would recommend working with any of the few that were nearby. The firms that might be worth working at, in Atlanta, were at least a 90-minute commute each way for me, living in rural Georgia as I did in college. Furthermore, trying to live in Atlanta or anywhere closer to Atlanta to shorten the drive would have been cost-prohibitive in the mid- to late-1990s. Therefore, I worked a job closer to home that would allow me to be challenged in an unusual way and still learn something. Given the fact that I was now interested in working on healthcare architecture, it would appear that my experience at the hospital might have weighed just as well in my favor as would have working in a firm.

So the truth generally works, as long as it's a reasonable truth. For example, if you just graduated or graduated in the past year, it might be reasonable to say that you haven't worked at a firm because no one has been hiring in the past 12-24 months in your area, so you worked wherever you could, be it bartending, waiting tables, mowing lawns, answering phones for a nonprofit, whatever. (And don't let anyone laugh at you for any job experience--work is work, and you learn something useful in every job that you can use in architecture.)

But let me step back and address Caitlin's bigger concern, that having no experience can hurt you. It really depends on the firm and the economic climate. For example, if you just graduated in the past couple of years, firms likely weren't hiring during the time in which a) you would know enough about architecture to be worth hiring and b) your work hours would count towards IDP. In that case, it's hard to hold your lack of architectural experience against you. Furthermore, there are firms that in whole or in part don't mind taking on interns that have no experience. One of the partners at the firm for which I work prefers taking on fairly inexperienced interns because they tend to have lots of enthusiasm and are willing to work like crazy (within some reason, of course) in order to learn about their profession, plus he and his managers don't have to untrain them of bad habits and practices that they might have picked up at a lesser firm. Also, interns with less experience are cheaper to hire, so it can be worth a firm's time to spend the time to train you because, depending on the project and its schedule, it may still be cheaper than hiring someone with five years' experience. So while not having a lot of experience can feel like a disadvantage, it can be an advantage at certain firms. Ultimately, in a down economy or during the long, slow recovery thereof, a lack of experience isn't exactly a deal breaker, again depending on the firm.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Managing up: even your boss likes the idea

My apologies for the lack of posts--between traveling, a doubling of my workload, and internet problems at home (from whence I write my posts), I haven't been able to rub two brain cells together to make a coherent post. However, I did want to pass on some good news from the mentoring front. I recently gave a guest lecture/seminar/discussion for the AIA East Tennessee chapter, and the roomfull of partners, firm VPs, and project managers showed me that there are some folks out there who are actually concerned with how well we train and mentor the future of our profession.

There were a lot of great comments and discussion during the seminar, due in no small part to the interns and college students who were also present. I wanted to share one comment here briefly as a helpful pointer in managing your boss:

At one point in the seminar, I asked the crowd how they would respond to an intern if it was 5pm and the manager still wasn't done with something they wanted the intern to plot for them. One of the firm partners in the crowd piped up, "You know, it's really all about communication. Interns should understand that it's okay for them to come up to us before that 5pm deadline and ask how it's going or say 'hey, it's 3 o'clock already, are you going to be ready soon' or whatever. And they can ask about the deadline, ask if it's okay to come in at 6am instead of wait around until I'm done at 6pm."

Essentially, this firm owner said that it was okay for interns to manage their bosses, to manage up. It's helpful for everyone in a firm--interns all the way up to partners-- to be reminded occasionally of a deadline or checked up on. The entire team has to be accountable to each other, in both directions, and knowing that you can check up on your boss to make sure that his/her work is on time and provides the information you need is pretty motivating...and probably a relief when you're at the bottom of the pecking order.