Monday, November 28, 2011

What is architecture?, or, if I didn't laugh I'd cry

Someone recently sent me a page from, in which one of their writers defined architecture in a variety of ways, all of them a little cynical and to me quite funny.  A few of the comments on the post/article tried to take on author Jody Brown for his snark, but those comments appear to have been overwhelmed by those who truly find the article funny.  While I can see where the "You're being negative about this profession and you're not as funny as you think with your cynicism" comments are coming from, I think they're missing the point.

Architecture as a profession is a long-ass trail ride.  Projects go on for years, not weeks like they did in school, and when you experience all the steps it takes to get something built in the real world, it can be downright frustrating.  Funding, construction loans, value engineering, bond initiatives, zoning laws, code review/enforcement entities, more value engineering, neighborhood associations...these are just a few of the tings that can make taking a building from paper to bricks-and-mortar reality so painful that you'd rather pull your own arm off, freeze it, and then beat yourself to death with it rather than deal with all this nonsense.  However, the process isn't completely sucky.  I've had user group meetings where we're all laughing so hard that we can barely sit upright, I've been on teams that managed to salvage a great design through two rounds of VE, and I've watched people's faces as they walked through a building I designed and helped bring to life.  There's a lot of reward to go with that pain.

So when I'm in the middle of that pain, I think of things like Jody Brown's article.  And I laugh my ass off.  Then I go design and tweak and work some more to get to the good part of a project.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a holiday, so go celebrate!

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and I encourage everyone to take the day and even the day after off to rest and be with loved ones.  It gets easy to think, "oh, I could get so much done Thursday morning without the phone ringing", but I beg of you to resist the temptation.  You have to defend your time off and hold your ground, whether it's not checking email during a three-day weekend or not coming in on a holiday just because no one will be in the Revit model but you.  Go enjoy the time off!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: My boss treats me differently now that I'm full time--what gives?

I received a chilling email from C. regarding how her firm's attitude towards her changed after she went from being part time to full time:

I started an internship in June and got glowing reviews.  Now that I have been hired full time still as an intern, I have been making small mistakes and my nice boss has turned a cold shoulder to me.  I realize this is part of the learning process.  But here are some of the examples:  I was doing a quote before it was sent to the client and I had missed a line.  It wasn’t a small quote…but I sent it to the lead designer to look it over to let me know if it was alright and they told me they went and fixed it instead of me fixing it.
This got back to my boss and I have never made a mistake that I did not want to fix…everyone makes them.  I took over some of the duties of a person that was released for lying.  But before that he came in late, talked all the time…but she never talked to him about it or looked down on him.  But for me as the intern I feel slighted and I need some advice on what to do.  This is not a conventional design firm.  Not how I was taught in school.  There are some “personalities” there also who have also marked their territory and the boss have sided with them also.  When others make mistakes even huge ones, it’s okay…..but for me not so much.  I know I need to improve to survive, but what do I do if I am thrown under a bus and made to feel less?

(in a second email to Lulu)  There is some other stuff to say as well. I think I mentioned my boss won't speak to me and they hired 2 girls to replace me. (younger thinner) I was an unpaid intern and things were perfect; then I got hired and people were much meaner including people telling me f*** you and this is MY area and if i didn't like how things were run, get out.  When I found solutions to some problems, they said you have to do it MY way...which until now "this is the way" wasn't presented to me until Monday which I am sure they cleaned it up for the person taking my place.

Oh, C.  Oh oh oh.  There's so much to say here.  Mistakes are part of the learning process.  Being shut down and shut out by your boss and other architects in the office for any error whatsoever isn't part of the learning process. That's being obnoxious at best and bullying at worst.  But I almost don't need more details beyond the ones you provided in our second email exchange: you were treated great when you weren't being paid, but now that you cost them money, they're giving you grief for small mistakes and even hiring younger people with the apparent intent of replacing you.  This. Speaks. Volumes.

It tells me that this firm is bad, bad news.  Not only is it unethical not to pay people who work on billable work, it's also illegal.  Your firm (hopefully soon to be former firm) has no problem breaking the law and disrespecting skilled architectural labor, so why should they also have a problem being generally uncivil?  To me, the problem is clearly the not being paid--as an unpaid intern, your mistakes were only kinda costly, but now they have to pay you and fix the mistakes.  Please leave this firm as soon as you can, and if you're feeling froggy, get in contact with Pimping Architects about your firm.

Let's say for the sake of others out there that both the part time internship and the now-full time internship were paid, and an intern was receiving this sort of suddenly-poor treatment from formerly-warm colleagues. A good way to solve this--as well as almost any other problem in an office--is to approach it politely but directly.  For example, C's example above might warrant someone going to the lead designer who fixed the mistake and saying, "Hi, Vicki, I heard you fixed an error I made in that quote I sent you yesterday, and I wanted to thank you for for doing that.  But y'know, I really do want to do a good job and learn from my mistakes, so please don't hesitate to send something back to me to fix."  (This can also be good as an email in which you can copy your big boss, so you have a paper trail of trying to fix your mistakes.)  You may also decide, especially if you feel like you have nothing else to lose, to confront your boss on the cold-shoulder stuff directly: "Everett, I really appreciate you hiring me on full time; it makes me feel like you like my work and can trust me.  But it feels like something's changed since I came on full time--every small mistake I make gets a major stink-eye from Vicki.  Has something happened that I should be aware of?"  Again, this could be sent as an email just to Everett so you have a trail of an important conversation.

Got a question or topic you'd like to see discussed here?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar!  Thanks, and remember that this blog works best with your feedback and questions!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Center for Emerging Professionals Webinar: Talent and Culture

Mad props once again to the AIA's Center for Emerging Professionals for putting on this series of webinars open to all levels of folks in the architectural profession.  The fourth in the four-part series, is on Talent and Culture, which will be broadcast in December 1st.  It's $15, and I've heard from others on this blog that the seminars are really good and worth it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dress code interpretations, or "wtf is dressy casual?"

Holiday party season is fast approaching, my peeps, and it seems to be a field of landmines sometimes, what with all the various dress codes for parties and open houses and so forth.  Often, the dress codes for these events has some version of casual in them: dressy casual, business casual, festive casual, etc.  Casual may be one of the most abused words in the English language these days.  I want to rescue the word casual and throw a cashmere blanket around its little shoulders and tell the work world to go put on a tie and leave casual alone.  Why must everything be casual?  What's wrong with occasionally putting on a shirt that needs ironing (or at least looks like it would be ironed, if it wasn't made of some wrinkle-free material) and some nice slacks?  What's wrong with looking sharp for our colleagues, thereby showing them a little respect?  I'm not talking about a three-piece suit for even the most mundane office meetings, I just mean not looking like you work as a lifeguard.  But I digress....

I found a great resource online for translations of what various types of "casual" attire means.  This might come in handy if you're asked to be "dressy casual" at an office party or professional organization mixer.  Remember, you work in a field that puts a great deal of thought into aesthetics and assemblies of materials and colors, so put some thought into your own facade when you hit the door at these events.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: I feel like I'm a good designer, but am I wasting my time?

I recently received this email from G., who is probably not the Lone Ranger in terms of what s/he's experiencing right now:

I graduated in May and have been searching for a job (more on this in a bit), but since starting graduate school I have been nursing a slightly growing inkling that perhaps architecture is not the right profession for me. I originally wanted to become an architect because I like most things related to design and drawing and was always being pulled toward the architecture section at the local library. Of course there are several things about architecture that I dislike—mainly the low pay coupled with the long hours. Knowing that perhaps my love of architecture would hopefully outweigh these two negatives, I continued along the linear path that seemed so defined and ready for me. I studied architecture at my undergraduate college on a full ride and graduated summa cum laude and with an AIA medal; I took a gap year between degrees to work for a forensic architecture firm; I was accepted into grad school with a full fellowship and have won several design competitions. I did all that was required and gave it my all, but now I am starting to wonder if I am doing it for reasons that truly appeal to me. Perhaps these feelings are now surfacing because I have not had much “real-life” design experience at a traditional firm?
Which brings me to my question/point. I graduated in May and have been searching for the ideal position that would allow me to have a second chance with Ms. Architecture. I declined a job offer upon graduation because I really wanted something closer to family and friends where I would be able to save money. I did this assuming there would be more offers. One month later I was offered a position with a startup company based in China that was looking to expand to the US. I took the job and absolutely detested it. It was a two person closet-sized office (me and a jaded, older design architect who had next to no experience dealing with interns), and most of my time, including unpaid overtime, was spent working on non-billable work that would not count toward IDP. After two weeks I knew that this experience was completely the opposite of my structured, professional internship with the forensic firm; I quit with the hope that I would find something more suitable. Is this internship experience typical of a design firm? After five months of searching for the right job, I am starting to wonder if I am being too picky and should just settle for some horridly similar CAD jockey position at a less-than-average design firm just so I can get experience. The alternative, to go back to school for an MBA in real estate, might be a possible alternative, but I feel like I just need to get out there and give architecture another shot. After all, I did just spend seven years of my life for this career and I know I could be a great designer.

Wow, G., you've certainly been through it, but the short answer is: yes, you still have a place in architecture.  Now let me give you a longer, more thorough (if also boring) answer.

First of all, I can see how any work experience would be a letdown after having won so many awards and scholarships.  You've been given every indication over and over that your skills and interests are perfect for this profession, so why should it be so hard to find a good firm?  Well, the economy is a huge reason right now.  Like many of your colleagues just getting out of school, there aren't a lot of jobs available right now, so you take what you can get.  The corollary to that fact is that if there are very few places interviewing and hiring, you don't have a chance to compare potential firms against each other or even jump ship in three months when you figure out you've stepped into a firm that's more like Thunderdome with Revit on the workstations and your boss has an Axis II personality disorder.  Furthermore, while starting intern pay is pretty low (as is the starting pay for a lot of college graduates, regardless of their major), it's even more depressed right now because the economy is keeping wages across the board either stagnated or increasing at a lower rate than usual.  No wonder you (and I'm sure many other interns out there) feel so demoralized.

And yet, you had a great experience at the forensic architecture firm that showed you how good it could be--well-structured, respectable and respectful, and educational.  That, my friend, is what a real firm can do for you.  In this economy, I think it's hard to judge the profession on one crappy firm that abused your skills simply because they could.  Yes, there are other crappy firms out there, but there are also so many good and even great firms out there that want to use your skills while also helping you grow as an architect and a professional.  You may have to move away from your family to find those jobs and firms, but it can be so worth it.  It may take you longer than five months to find that job and firm, but it will happen.  (Remember that you're looking for a job during the worst economy since the Great Depression, so it could take some time.)  If you're hankering for that MBA because you can and it's really what you want to do, then do so.  But it sounds to me like you're not done with architecture, and I don't think architecture's done with you.  It needs your badass design skills that won you those awards and fellowships, and there's a good firm out there that needs those skills.  In return, that firm will teach you how to make those amazing designs come to life in real concrete and steel and drywall and glass and aluminum.  And that is so worth it.

Got a question or topic for this blog?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading a job ad, or how to make your cover letter work for you

An article in the Sunday Wall Street Journal section of the 9/18/11 Denver Post on how to read a job ad reminded me of some good tips on answering job ads, especially unusual ones.  The article began with a portion of a company whose help-wanted ad included the sentence "Wanted: Sales agents who are able to stare intently into client eyes while describing what they are looking for."  The point of the ad copy was to help potential job candidates understand that the company needed people who could listen and really understand what the clients needed.  A management consultant suggested that if someone were applying for this job, they should use their cover letter to deal with and respond to this strange comment from the ad.

I've seen cover letters fall a little out of favor these days, but I think even a short cover letter is still handy because it allows you to be conversational with your potential employer.  It also allows you a less-structured way to address the job ad which you're answering.  By writing a cover letter, you can include key words from the job ad and even from a firm's website in your lexicon--as if they were coming from your own mouth--which shows them that you understand what they're looking for.  It's like using active listening, but with the written word instead of the spoken word.

You can also use a cover letter to highlight things that might get lost on your resume.  By calling out in writing a recent award or achievement or successfully-completed project that mirrors and jives with the firm's focuses or interests, you can reinforce that you have what it takes to contribute to a firm and help them achieve their goals.  The cover letter can also be a way to address areas in which you may quite fit the hard requirements from the ad.  For example, if you have eight years of retail architecture experience and the ad asks for a minimum of ten years' worth, you can address that the projects on which you worked were rigorous (international and located on top of a Superfund site!) and would allow you to be a highly-useful and highly-valuable member of their retail architecture team.