Thursday, June 30, 2011

Down Detour Road -- sound familiar?

A friend recently loaned me Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice by Eric Cesal.  In his early 30s and getting out of architectural grad school just as the economy tanks, Cesal makes some interesting observations about our jobs and our profession.  One of his first observation is how come architects seemed to get laid off and/or be unemployed at much higher rates than any other profession in the U.S., even more than contractors, whose employment would seemingly depend on us.  By discussing starchitects, the economy, and many other factors, he makes the point that we as a profession do a great job of defending our necessity and worthiness to other architects, but not the rest of the world.

To be fair, I'm only about a third through the book.  (Two deadlines have curtailed much of my pleasure reading down to mostly flipping through a Crate & Barrel catalog while waiting for the white wine to chill.)  But so far, it's quite interesting and has actually made me laugh a time or two, which is hard to do.  So, have any of you read this book yet?  If so, what were your thoughts?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: Starting up and over as in intern

I received an email recently from an intern who graduated from architecture school just as the economy tanked.  The intern managed to find a position working in marketing at an architecture firm, in which she worked with project managers who were licensed architects and help them create project proposals and other marketing materials.  She wondered what would be the best way to transition from being the marketing person to being a project manager.  After all, it seemed as if the project managers don't do a lot of CAD or Revit now, mostly Microsoft Office and various graphics programs (though they all started out as drafters, CAD jockeys, and interns back in the day).  Since she had been working with them for three years, and she had joined them on so many walkthroughs of buildings and projects and had worked on so many of these presentations and proposals with them, she has a good idea of how to do a PM's job, right? So what's the best way to become a PM?

My response: become an intern first.

I'm pretty sure this isn't the response she wanted to hear, and I don't blame her a bit.  It's hard as hell to be told that all the architecturally-related stuff you've been doing for the past two to three years isn't enough to help you get the job you want, and now you basically have to start over as if you just got out of school yesterday.  But the truth is twofold: 1) there's a lot of very necessary skills and information to be learned by working on projects as an architectural intern; and 2) not everything you just did is a waste, both in terms of architectural and IDP experience.

Let's take the first point first.  If you are two to three years out of school and haven't been doing redlines or CAD/Revit or researching products or figuring out details or doing code reviews for projects, then no one is going to make you a project manager.  The reason that project managers don't do a lot of drawing and CAD work but rather do more directing, managing, and even marketing is because in general, they've spent a lot of time doing the code studies and CAD drawing and product and detail research already.  They've worked side by side with engineers (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and civil to name a few) and followed multiple projects from early SD through to turnover to the owner, and they've learned a lot along the way.  These PMs now have years of experience understanding what it takes to put a building together, therefore they know what it takes to put a project together, and therefore they know what it takes to put a proposal for a project together.  PMs understand some aspects of marketing because they understand so much of what makes a project happen and how to make it happen.  And they learned first by doing.

Going from marketing (or a contractor's laborer or carpenter, or architectural product sales, or admin staff at an AIA office, or any related field) to a project manager position without first getting some good, solid experience as an intern/coordinator--doing redlines, research, code studies, flashing details, working with consultants to understand how the mechanical systems work in the building, etc.--is practically impossible without having serious repercussions for you and your firm.  Promoting you to a PM position without you having been an intern/designer first would put you in a position of having to walk around an existing building and look up at walls and ceilings and ducts and doors and so on without really knowing what you're looking at.  

That lack of construction knowledge would eventually show, and it would put your job/career and your firm in a bad position.  Furthermore, it would put you in a bad position with your colleagues: "Look at this green kid who went straight from marketing to being a project manager, never did a redline in his life.  What the hell does he know?  Whose nephew is he?"  Or worse (of which usually women are victims):  "Who did she [insert obscene activity here] to get that promotion?"  I've seen this happen, and it's ugly and demoralizing for everyone in the firm, regardless of the gender of the person, by the way.

I completely understand how what PMs do looks like just a bunch of marketing, and I thought the same thing in my first three or four years of working: "What the hell does s/he do anyway?  Crap, I could type all day on a Word document!"  However, the reason their job looks so easy is because they've done lots of hard work before this moment that makes all the right answers sit on the tips of their tongues.  The things they learned during their years as architectural designers and CAD monkeys makes those marketing and project walk decisions easy because they learned those answers the hard way.  The only way there is through.  You don't need an architecture degree or architectural experience to do marketing for an architectural firm (or be an architectural product/material rep, or work in the field with a contractor), but you do need it to be a project manager.

Now, let's address the second point, which has some good news.  As I've said here recently before, NCARB is changing the rules on IDP to allow for some less-than-traditional conduits for gaining credits in order to help the many interns whose employment paths and prospects have been derailed and detoured due to the economy.  Review the new requirements for IDP 4.0, and you might find that some if not all of the time you've spent working in an allied field may count for IDP credits.  But there is a deeper core to the experience you've gained in your related-but-not-exactly-architecture gig: everything helps.  

For example, if you are working in marketing for an architecture/engineering/construction firm, ask questions like "why did we ask for a 9% fee on this project but only a 7% fee on that other one?", and even "what do you consider when you're putting one of these together--schedule, complexity, the building's function, etc.?"  Those are great questions that you can learn from and apply as you advance in your career.  If you're working with a product or material rep or a contractor, ask questions there: what makes this hard/easy/fun/frustrating?  Which of these products/materials is best for what application?  What if you used this product/material in a spa/kitchen/hospital/prison?  

So few interns ever get to deal with the front end work of getting a project, and just as many have a hard time getting the chance to pick materials and fixtures or even do on-site CA (which is the best way to learn), so that gives you an additional advantage when working on projects (or applying to other firms to be an intern/designer there).  So learn from whatever your present workplace is and bring that knowledge to a firm once hiring starts up again.  Been working at a restaurant?  Look for firms that do food service and hospitality.  Been working at a clothing store or a bookstore?  Look for those that do retail and commercial.  The best education you could get would be to work on a project from the real beginning (marketing) to the real end (punchlist and closeout), and all the skills you've learned at other jobs and other places can put you ahead of the pack.  You can use those skills to excel as an intern, then get licensed as an architect and eventually be a PM.  

But you have to do the architectural work first.

Have a topic you'd like to see discussed or a question you'd like answered here on Intern 101?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks, and remember: this blog works best with your feedback!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I have a deadline next Tuesday, but my firm's servers are going to be shut down for replacing, revamping, and reawesoming this weekend, so my team and I are working hellbent for leather before we lose two days to IT concerns.  There's plenty to blog about, but I'm going to need a nap and some time away from a computer before I can sit down at the old laptop and come up with something even remotely useful or interesting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: How do you find a mentor?

I101 reader Trevor commented on a recent post about the changes to the IDP:

As an intern in architecture at the moment, i've found that the most difficult thing for me is finding an architect to be my mentor (as opposed to my supervisor). Finding an architect from outside my office who's willing to spend time with me ever week or two is an awful imposition. It was hard enough finding someone who would take me on in exchange for 8 hours a day of work, but asking for help from outside the office is even harder.
I don't live very close to my University anymore either, so having a professor mentor me would be impractical. Do you have any suggestions for finding a mentor under the new guidelines?
My course of action has been to start a new blog over at as a sort of cover letter for myself.

This is a great question, Trevor, and one that all interns (and dare I say even architects) should consider: how do you find a good mentor, especially when the whole mentorship process seems like such a burden?  First of all, let's consider the point of a mentor.  A mentor can provide guidance and advice on matters small and large regarding your job and your career.  Small things might be "I did this and my boss said that and I said this and I think I've messed up--what should I have done instead and what should I do now?"  A large matter might be "should I change firms/go back to grad school/quit the profession?"  A mentor, quite frankly, should also be something of a friend. Not a drinking buddy/loan you money to pay off a credit card/bail you out of jail friend (though you should totally have at least two of those, no joke), but someone who will speak with you honestly but kindly, someone who will listen to you patiently and ask questions without judging you, but also be willing to call you on your bullshit.  

This would seem a tall order indeed, and yet...we all have many people around us who are willing to do this.  Consider every friend you've ever had in your life or have now: did you walk up to them and say, "I'm looking for a good friend who will listen to my crap and laugh with me at Farrelly Brothers movies and make sure I get home after one too many Jager bombs.  Can I interest you in such an arrangement with me?"  Probably not--it just happened.  So, the first thing to remember about mentorship is that it doesn't have to be necessarily formal.  Some mentorship programs (often sponsored by colleges) have an essence of formality to them, and that's fine.  However, asking someone formally to be your mentor might suddenly trigger in them a response of oh God now I have to add yet one more appointment to my planner and come up with something to talk about with this person I barely know and so on.  Sometimes, first getting to know some architects, whether in your office or outside your firm, can smooth the way for a further, better, deeper mentorship relationship.  (Interestingly, my recent survey of interns showed that a majority have an informal relationship with their mentor, and the majority also felt comfortable asking their mentor for advice on things other than work/professional stuff.)

Second, consider how often contact needs to take place.  Maybe it's exchanging emails every couple of week and then actually meeting face to face once every month or every other month.  Truth be told, I've had mentors that I've literally never seen--I've met them through my blog and I've never spoken to them in person or even on the phone.  But they have provided me with immeasurable advice and insight, and frankly some kindness in there to boot.  Contact in general would ideally be regular so that neither of you forgets about the other, which would kind of undo the whole point of mentorship anyway.  

But the bigger question we have yet to discuss is why mentorship is such a burden, or at least seems that way.  I think it's because mentorship has been seen as such a one-way street.  It's often viewed through the lens of "here's a young kid just starting out, and now I've got to download my thrity years of exprience to him/her during what precious little free time I have."  No wonder so many people say "no thanks" to the arrangement.  Too bad--mentorship really is a two-way street.  I can't tell you the number of times I've emailed, called, and talked/met with my interns, past and present to ask for their advice or ideas on everything from the best way to set up a website (including this blog) and how to best use Revit and even what's the best new music coming out these days. (This last one is especially important for someone who grew up listening to Paula Abdul and Huey Lewis and still thinks that Def Leppard is the best band in history.  I'm sure there are some Killers/Muse/Conor Oberst fans out there begging to differ with me. Bring it.)  Part of making your mentorship relationship work by starting out informally is that it can allow you to show your mentor(s) what you can do for them.  I say that not in a business transaction-type of way, but in a friendship kind of way.  If your friendships were a one-way exchange, you'd quit being friends with that person, right?  Same thing applies here.

And yes, I did say "mentor(s)" just then.  It might be that the best way to get good advice is to have more than one informal mentor.  I have more than one mentor, and it serves two purposes: one, it lightens the load of any one person (see above about the "burden" of mentorship); and two, it gives me more viewpoints and allows me a little more data collecting before I make decisions.  Remeber: everyone you deal with, work with, live with, interact with brings all of their mental illnesses to the table every day.  If I have only one mentor and s/he has a real bug in his/her hair about, say, the AIA, and I ask him/her a question about doing some event for the AIA, I might get a really strong negative reaction to something that is actually a good idea.

Finding a good mentor (or multiple mentors) can be a challenge, but by relaxing the formality of the situation and thinking of it as a two-way interaction can help the process along.  If nothing else, maybe you can convince a 35-year-old hair metal enthusiast to put Meaghan Smith and Li'l Wayne on her iPod.

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see covered here?  Got a band or musician I should be listening to instead of Warrant?  Drop me a line in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Holla!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Using your skillz to pay the billz

I went to lunch with an intern at my office recently to find out how things were going for him, both project-wise and firm-wise.  The intern has only been at out firm for about three months, and he was put on my project about a month ago and really thrown into the fire.  Between bites of empanada, he told me that things were going well, but he was a little disappointed--he wasn't doing what he thought he'd be doing, the reason he thought we'd hired him in the first place.  When he interviewed at our firm, he explained that he was really good at working through a design into how it actually worked and got built.  He was great at Sketch-Up and used it as a design tool to then explain how to build something, then carry that design through to CDs.  However, for just about the whole three months he'd been with our firm, he was all Revit all the time.

I had to laugh a bit, mostly because I think our profession is a lot of "this is not what I thought I was going to be doing."  But I also tried to comfort him by revealing a bit of the Big Picture.  He may have wanted to do some design stuff in Sketch-Up, but the fact is that right now, when he was interviewing, we need people to draw designs that have already been partly- to mostly-thought out. But his skills aren't going to waste the way he might think.  Thing is, firms hear about plenty of interns (and architects, mind you) who want to design pretty stuff, but some of these folks will have a nervous breakdown if you  ask them to actually detail and figure out how to build it, how to make it so.  When my intern stated that he enjoys and is good at taking a design in Sketch-Up into the how-and-where, that's a great skill that transcends software platform.  That kind of thinking and problem-solving is useful and important in all areas of a design and construction project.  Further, the opportunity to use the exact skills and software he described will come.  He can remind people that he can do that (and he should remind them), but the chance to do what he enjoys will come.  It's just that we don't have the exact need right now...but we will.

When you tell potential or present employers about your strengths and skills, dn't just think about the exact situation and platform on which you're trying to do the work.  Think about the overall skills that you use when doing those tasks to which you feel particularly suited.  That intern of mine is now designing and coordinating the ceilings in a 250,000-sf medical building--he's working through design intent and ideas with one architect and the interior designers on one hand, and he's making it work with the mechanical and structural engineers on the other hand, all using Revit.  It may not be exactly what he hoped to do, but it uses the same skills.  Those are skills that firm managers can use now and in the future, which is how they make hiring decisions.

Monday, June 6, 2011

YAF Mentoring Series: Operating Profitably Webinar

The Young Architects Forum (YAF) is sponsoring another webinar (with which you can gain 1.5 LUs!) regarding operating profitably.  Now, while this webinar may discuss general issues regarding the topic (as opposed to training you on the topic itself), it's still very useful stuff to know.  It's the kind of thing that I encourage firms to do with their interns in my AIA seminars and hopefully on this blog.

You can learn more and sign up by going here.  I hear from those who have seen a previous webinar in this series that they're really informative and worth the $15 or so.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

IDP 2.0: Changes even an architect can love

While in New Orleans, I had the good fortune to sit in on a seminar with Nick Serfass and Rachel Kros of NCARB, who outlined some of the finer points of the changes being installed by IDP 2.0.  Usually it seems like governing boards and bureaucracies tend to obfuscate in their attempts to clarify, though their aim is usually the opposite.  However, the various changes to IDP to be rolled out anytime between now and Spring of 2012 are doing some really good things that I can get behind, even as a licensed architect.  As Kros and Serfass explained in the seminar, IDP was created back in the 1970s, and some of its requirements no longer reflect the way architecture is done anymore, especially with respect to technology.

Its biggest changes evolve from a change in NCARB philosophy.  In order to get licensed, you need three things: a degree, the experience, and the passing of the ARE.  So who's to say in what order those things need to happen?  So, the first big change I can get behind is that you're eligible to join NCARB and start racking up IDP credits as soon as you're enrolled in an NAAB- or CACB-accredited degree program--no more waiting until after your junior year to start working!

It used to be that, in order for your hours to count, you had to work at least 32 (or 35?) hours a week for 8 weeks straight to get credit for IDP.  Under IDP 2.0, you only have to work 15 hours a week for 8 weeks straight (minimum).  This change does two things: one, if you're working in an area still affected by the economy and no one can hire you full-time during a summer or while you're working and in school, you're not hosed out of credits; and two, it acknowledges that we no longer hand-draw and can actually learn a decent amount of stuff in 15 hours a week (e.g., in 1975, you worked with an architect for an hour, then went and hand-drafted the changes into the plan for 6 or 8 hours).

Another great change is that IDP now allows for some of your experience time to be virtual--a portion of your direct supervision time can be achieved through a mix of personal contact and remote, electronic communication, such as email, teleconferencing, and Skype.  This is great if you end up working onsite of a big project, or if your project is far away and you have to do some of your project meetings or OAC meetings via teleconference or videoconference.  Another great change in the experience setting category is that you can get credits for not just working through supplemental education courses (such as those supplied and produced by NCARB), but you can also get credits for passing the LEED exam or working on a design competition.

You can read more about the changes here, and I encourage you to do so.  Even as a licensed architect who no longer has to worry about IDP, I think these changes acknowledge the wide array of experiences from which interns learn and benefit.