Hey Architect, You’re the Problem (Part 2)

Architects like to complain about being undervalued.  We compare ourselves to doctors and lawyers, as though all professionals are the same, but the simple truth is that we are not. When you need a doctor, you NEED a doctor. When you need a lawyer, you NEED a lawyer. Clients rarely feel they need an architect, and are often hiring one because they are required to by code. We then squander this opportunity to prove our value by competing in a bidding war and placing too little emphasis on the technical expertise, not design sense, which we bring to our clients’ projects (see Part 1). This is a second installment exploring the role architects play in diminishing the value of our services. 

Sometimes less is just less
We compete for work in a low bidder system. Most people would agree that cheap is not equivalent to best, yet to obtain architectural services many institutions solicit bids for design work. Rather than finding the best qualified to do the work, or even the architect whose service is of the greatest value (the best service available at a certain cost) this process makes cost the most important factor in choosing an architect. The client risks accepting a bid from an unqualified architect, perhaps someone who is inexperienced with no real idea of what it will cost them to do the job effectively. If this architect is awarded the work they will surely lose money performing it or underperform and ultimately cost the client more in additional work. This system doesn’t serve anyone well.
Architects are tasked with protecting the health safety and welfare of building occupants and the public. We like to compare ourselves to Doctors and Lawyers, but unlike them, we don’t have standard rates for our services. How can clients be expected to compare architects based on their qualifications when there is no professional fee standard?
On a recent bid I overheard architects comparing their bids, discussing how low they’d been willing to sell their services in order to win a commission. What was not being discussed was obvious. How will the winning architect perform the work required with so little fee? Will they be ever diligent in their work and perform at a loss; professional standards and liability dictates they must. How does this serve them or their profession? They’ve told the client they can perform the work for less fee than it truly requires, they’ve overextended their staff to complete the project. Can you be sure you’re giving the client your best under these circumstances? It’s doubtful.

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Hey Architect, You’re the Problem

Architects like to complain about being undervalued.  When we get together it is not long before someone is complaining their clients don’t appreciate their expertise and are unwilling to pay for good design. I don’t disagree, we are undervalued, but let’s not put the blame on our clients, we do it to ourselves. This is a first installment exploring the role architects play in diminishing the value of our services.

I’m your savior, don’t you know?
We are practicing at a time when there are an unprecedented number of programs and retailers marketing design to the public. The public has a more sophisticated understanding of design concepts because of these programs and they have an appreciation for the work of celebrity designers. As architects we should be eager to make the missing connection between ‘design’ and architects, to clarify what our role is in design. When a house goes up in a week people don’t have a sense of the work it takes to make that happen. Were there drawings? A plan review? A code inspection?
The problem created is that people assume that if they can paint their bedroom or ‘supervise’ the construction of their home, that they can design anything. Truly, they probably can, but that doesn’t mean they should or that they couldn’t use the knowledge and experience working with a design professional brings to a project.
An illustration:
I once worked on a project where a client handed us a plan and told us they needed 2000sqft. They were coming to an architect because they had to, not because they saw value in the services offered. In fact, they had completed the construction of their own homes and considered themselves experienced enough to complete this project on their own as well. When I laid out their plan in CAD the flaws in their design were obvious. Their plan, informed by actual clearances and other spatial requirements, was much larger than their 2000sqft estimate. As their architects, if we had taken this opportunity to show them the flaws in their plan they might have had a better appreciation for what we brought to the table. Instead we told them their plans didn’t work and offered them our better alternatives. We shouldn’t have been surprised that when the bids came in they didn’t understand why we had made their project cost so much. They assumed they were getting things they did not need, instead of understanding that the changes made to their plan were necessary to make them functional. 
I hope this illustrates my point: architects diminish their value in the eyes of clients by assuming their clients understand what they are doing and why, rather than illustrating the design principles that make architecture function and discussing the safety and welfare considerations that inform design decisions. As design professionals we have a unique knowledge set and group of skills and it is by sharing these with our clients that we improve their projects and confirm the value of our service.

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Coming up green

I’ve been in Wheeling since 2005 and have heard many people say you can’t ‘go green’ here because of our dependence on coal, or because of increased building costs to build green, but there’s increasing evidence of green optimism in Wheeling as things all over the valley are coming up green!
To be competitive in a profession increasingly concerned with the environmental impacts of the building industry, my former employer encouraged and supported me to achieve LEED accreditation, a certification that I have a thorough understanding of the widely used LEED building system. I had an expectation that when I was LEED accredited, clients would flock to us for our green building expertise. That simply was not the case and truly, we had no expertise.
Hoping to capture our share of this emerging market I began to consider forming a local group of design professionals who would meet to organize, share green knowledge and offer community outreach. The group that met never truly took off, but with the leadership of several colleagues existing community outreach programs became stronger, an environmentally focused festival took off, and a book club was started. Subsequently, another group of building professionals organized state wide to create the West Virgina chapter of USGBC, and a group organized locally to create a green dream team, OnlineGreenDesign. Beyond this evidence of a growing green building market, the continued success of Oglebay Institute’s Living Green Lecture Series, and their newly launched Farm to Table series are indications that a local community of people interested in living green in all aspects of their life exists and is flourishing.
As a new mother raising a son with a green attitude, and a professional believing that green building should and will be the new status quo I am encouraged that these examples of green living abound, that environmentally friendly products are readily available, and that I’ve got the opportunity to learn from their examples and to be a part of the valley’s greener future. I think things are looking up and I am excited about the possibilities.

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You come from a long line of breastfeeders

A friend I was talking to about being a nursing mother said to me, “Women don’t breastfeed to make a statement.” And I agree, we do it for our children, but more and more I am realizing, I am willing to make a statement if that’s what it takes to assure that I can feed my child the best food I can offer whenever he’s hungry. This is not about encouraging women to bare their breasts in public to feed their children or forcing breastfeeding on women who don’t want to do it or can’t. I hope this blog will reach you if you are trying to breastfeed and you’re feeling discouraged. I am proof, you can do it!
Breastfeeding can really suck. I was frantic and depressed for the first eight weeks of Gregory’s life. I wanted so badly to feed him, but all he wanted to do was sleep. Gregory had to be persuaded to latch on and constantly agitated to get him to nurse. I was worried I wasn’t making enough milk and didn’t know how to ‘get it right’. Everyone had advice, my mother had no problems breastfeeding and thought the measures we were going through were hilarious; I had friends who had given it up altogether, and others who were pure pumpers. Our pediatrician and lactation consultant were giving us conflicting advice. My husband was trying to be supportive and help, but just wasn’t on board – why was this such a big deal? I wanted so badly to give Gregory the best start with breast milk, but I was losing my sanity.
By supplementing nursing with formula we kept Gregory from wasting away, but also kept my milk supply from coming in fully. Worst yet we got SO comfortable juggling nursing and formula that when we were told it was time to pull the training wheels – no more bottles – I flew into a panic! We struggled again and I was fighting unimaginable depression and anxiety. I was an absolute crazy person, but we persisted. I promised myself I would quit if we hadn’t mastered it at 6 weeks; we’d made enough progress by the deadline so I would push quitting out further. We eventually got off the formula, but I was pumping at least once a day to allow my husband to feed and bond with the Gregory…for us, this was unsustainable, Hubs didn’t seem to understand this was inconvenient for me and the baby and a privilege for him…
I could whine about it forever, but the point is really this: When I stopped watching the clock and started watching Gregory; when I stopped substituting the judgment of doctors, friends, and specialists and started to follow my own instincts Gregory and I got it. We stopped pumping, except as necessary, we stopped trying to force a schedule on an infant who has no consideration for timetables and dinner dates and we just sat down and practiced until we got it. Breastfeeding is messy business, but Gregory is a happy eater and a happy baby and I’m happy to feed him. If you truly want to breastfeed, but can’t seem to make it work, maybe give it some more time and ‘try’ a little less. I was feeling defeated, depressed and ready to quit, when we got it!

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Who is running this rodeo?

Truly, I am someone who is happy working for someone else. When I was laid off I continued working for my former employer as a consultant, and eventually I started working for contractors and other architects, and took interviews with potential clients. As I was doing my taxes at the first of this year it became apparent, whether I intended to or not, I had started a business.
I have continued to look for the traditional job I’ve always had, working as an employee, but as a new mother I cannot deny my current situation is ideal. With enjoying and caring for my son at the top of my priorities I am coming into a new appreciation for my time and professional skills. Where before I was happy to accept most any opportunity that came my way, I am now considering what opportunities I am giving up to accept work that doesn’t further me professionally. I am not willing to work on the weekends or in the middle of the night to meet the deadlines. I don’t want to be someone’s workhorse at the peril of my mental health or relationships.
I have taken meetings with a few clients which have yet to lead to any work, but I am starting to believe this is where I need to go. Although I don’t enjoy keeping track of accounts and the idea of marketing makes me nauseous, I need to learn to convert the opportunities that come to me into work and to create ideal opportunities for myself.  If I am lucky my hard work and stellar output will help the people for whom I work swallow my new attitude and priorities. My lay off brought me professionally to a place where I make my own schedule, work from home independently and directly with consultants and clients. It also brought the realization that I don’t need so much cash to be happy and live a good life. Being laid off has been a shortcut to the responsibility I desired as an employee, but was rarely given. Taking on entrepreneurship in a real way is how I can sustain this independence I love. So, note to self: Nina, when you get around to it, it’s time to take the reins.

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Long time, no blog

After we returned from Spain we planned on starting a family. I am a relentless information seeker and with the help of google, we set out on a plan to optimize our chances of conception. We were nevertheless surprised to find we were expecting right away! I googled a baby.
Pregnancy was mostly pleasant and February 20, 2011 my life changed in the most remarkable way. My son was born and he is amazing. Gregory is now a little over 5 months old and I am consumed with the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
I am still ‘unemployed’ though I have continued to work for myself as a consultant to
architects and contractors on a contract basis. This is the best way I know to stay active in the profession I love. At some point, I’ll be moving back into the profession with force, either as an employee or an entrepreneur.
So, this blog is still about me, what I want, what I am doing and what I hope to do…but a lot of living has happened while I was ‘away’, so the flavor may have changed a bit.

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Three lessons from the trenches…

…what I have learned while I continue seeking employment.

If it’s not the job you’re dreaming of, don’t apply for it!
Earlier this year I had an offer to move half way across the county and I was ready to accept it. The job was strictly for production and my friend who provided me the lead warned me of this. The principals were very gracious and friendly and were upfront in the requirements for the open position. They were responsible for design work and were looking for an architect who could progress their ideas through documentation and construction. The work of an architect is more than design, but for me, it should include design. Designing is part of what makes the process rewarding and I was willing to take a job where I wouldn’t do any designing? This poor fit for my goals was a warning I did not heed and I applied for the job. The application and interview process was easy and before I knew it I was excited about the prospect of moving. The firm’s principals were direct and put me at ease and I have no doubt they are the type of leaders I would enjoy working with. When the firm sent me an offer in my eagerness to get back into the workforce, working for a good firm with a steady workflow, I was jumping over hurdles and dismissing more warning signs that this was not the position for me. Not only did the job not fit my goals, it did not fit my life! In retrospect I know that taking that position would have lead to disappointment, but once the ball was rolling, after I sent in my resume, the hiring process left little time for reflection and made it more difficult to see that I was not a good fit for the position. Ultimately, the firm’s principals saw the signs I did not and withdrew their offer; a move I’m now thankful for. I have since resolved that if the description of a job posting isn’t a fit for my goals, habits and strengths, or if the prospect doesn’t excite me, I won’t apply for the job.

Your resume is an opportunity to introduce your strengths and experience, do not gloss over the details!
Having rewritten and tweaked my resume several times over the past year I’ve finally come to a format I think serves me well. Another of the warning signs for that ‘almost job’ was that they were looking for someone who could work on larger projects than I had in the past. I was confident that I could perform the work and took some time during our interview to highlight my past experiences. My resume at the time only showed the time I had spent with previous employers, my title while I was there, and a description of my general responsibilities. Now my resume contains detailed information in an effort to clarify my experience and get me the interviews for which I am a good fit. For the position I held last I include a description of some of the projects I have worked on and the roles I performed.  This gives a potential employer more in-depth knowledge of my past experience and the flexible role I played within my previous firm. I also list what I’m doing now (drafting and rendering for architects and contractors as an independent consultant)and I  think this truth gives a better impression than its omission, which makes it seem like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs since I was laid off in May.

The items in your portfolio should illustrate the skills that qualify you for the open position – Keep your process work!
At my last position I got into the habit of turning my process work (sketches and models) over to my employer or tossing it. While the first steps of design work often include quick scribbled sketches, I am quick to jump into the computer to create a presentation in CAD, Photoshop, or Sketch UP, and often these gestures are not seen by anyone. For my most recent interview I was asked to bring some process work, ‘not just finished products’. This sent me into a fine frenzy – I have a small portfolio highlighting finished work – it showcases my ability to create renderings, detail a project, and create construction documents; there are no sketches or models. I contacted my former employer who agreed to look for anything they had saved – this was unproductive. I scoured through my sketchbooks and I was able to find stellar examples of my drawing ability but very few examples of design work. I was able to bring some examples to the interview, but it was disappointing to not be able to show the entire design process for a single project. I now know, especially if you want a design position, you should be able demonstrate your ability to work through the entire process and problem solve. Keep your own file of your work process; it’s your responsibility. If you’re going to be giving your process work to your employer or a client, then copy it, scan it, or photograph it; you owe this to yourself and your future.

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As an architect you can not avoid it. The industry is selling BIM (Building Information Modeling) as the next coming. If you believe the hype, its going to revolutionize the industry by replacing computer drawing with information modeling. An information model, loaded with data, will increase efficiency, ease coordination within and between disciplines, aid in specification writing and has the ability to generate schedules and renderings.

With a waning construction climate, many architects and architecture firms are using the slow period to retool and BIM has the potential to improve efficiency and further our goals to green the industry. Last week I took the opportunity to attend Revit Architecture training (Revit is Autodesk’s BIM application) at CAD Research in Pittsburgh, PA. The three day training sessions follow the course designed by Autodesk to give a thorough introduction to the features and functions of the software. The instructor, Tom Swisher, warns, “If you approach Revit from a CAD perspective, you are in for trouble. The programs are different, and require a different approach.”

With Revit, a single project file is created to contain the entire project. Because a single model is created, moving a wall in one view, such as the plan, moves it in all the views, elevations, sections, etc. Because the objects that create the model are intelligent, the software is able to generate the typical schedules used by designers (door, room, and fixture schedules), and schedules useful to contractors preparing estimates. Companion products can be used to analyze the effectiveness of efforts in sustainability, including material choices and building orientation. To take full advantage of its features, all disciplines that create the project team should be using BIM. This will allow you to automate coordination and correct conflicts within/between the various building systems.

The features and capabilities of BIM are impressive. What is apparent from my experience is that it is going to take working with Revit to become comfortable with it. To know what it is capable of and how to use it efficiently and effectively will simply take practice and good references. While there are similarities, the tools and functions of Revit are essentially different from those of AutoCAD.  After the learning pains, I think it truly has the ability to improve production and coordination, and its use will ultimately improve the service we deliver to our clients.

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Where do you see yourself in five years?


Where do we go from here?
I was at an interview more than a month ago and the question was asked, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” As an architect, up until this point in my career the answer was easy, my path was prescribed by the profession: you finish school, you work as an intern, you take registration exams and become an architect….

At the time I was unprepared for the question; I had reached the end of the prescribed professional path.
What I love about architecture is learning and interacting with clients and bringing their vision and goals to usable space. I think I believed the only acceptable answer to the question is, “I want to be you, to be the boss, to share ownership in the firm.” What I knew, know, is that I don’t want to be enthralled in the business side of architecture. I don’t have a natural entrepreneurial spirit or a desire to be the boss. Further, experience has shown that being the boss and creating a successful business can mean losing the architect. Knowing I want the bulk of my working time to be spent practicing architecture doesn’t tell the full story of my desires and hopes.

Where do I see myself in five years?
I see myself working for a ‘small’ firm. I am actively involved in my future and the success of the firm. I have an understanding of how architects engender work, and retain clients. I am an active component in our marketing efforts and within my community. I have another five years of experience managing projects and administering construction. I have my hands in the bits of the projects I am working on – carrying the design intent throughout the stages of design and construction. I am managing a project team and perhaps overseeing the work of other architects. I am confident. I am a collaborator. I continue to be driven and an active learner and mentor to interns and other young architects. Sustainable features and practices are the basis of all that I do, and I serve my clients and community well by designing architecture in harmony with the environment.

 So how do I see myself in five years? Better.

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Is there room in your moral/spiritual code to accept cultural rituals? I recently had a conversation with a friend about bullfighting which left me wondering, ‘does accepting cultural differences mean I lack conviction?’

Before traveling to Spain we considered attending a bullfight in Madrid. Ultimately, we decided not to attend the spectacle after learning the climax of the ‘fight’ includes killing a bull. I know without having had the experience that watching an animal die is not for me, but I didn’t question the art of the matador, or the spectator’s desire to witness the fight.

I recognize that people who torture/kill animals may pose a future threat to people, but I do not apply this axiom to hunters or fishers, who ritually stalk and kill for sport, or to ranchers who raise animals for consumption.  I do not hunt. I do not fish. I do eat meat and I do enjoy it. I don’t think having someone else do the dirty work makes any difference to my steak or lessens my responsibility. Certainly the different goals/intentions of the future serial killer and the hunter are lost on their prey.

As I learned more about bullfighting I recognized the spectacle was torture for the bull, but I aligned the practice with those of the hunter and rancher, not with the crimes of deviants, and aligned the matador with myself – someone who is responsible, but not criminal.

I come from a family with rich traditions that my friends might find strange and I practice a religion that glories in ritual. My husband cannot understand my need to cross myself before and after praying or that I genuflect during religous services. I can explain what these gestures mean to me, but ultimately they are my ritual and my traditions; they are my facts. He does not have to adopt them, but he does have to accept that I do.

I don’t see the practice of bullfighting as being any different. Although bullfighting is practiced around the world, for many people, both Spanish and foreign, it is uniquely Spanish.  Furthermore, when your tradition includes bullfighting, “there’s no way out,” Francisco Rivera Ordonez, a matador, explains his involvement as part of an interview with 60 Minutes, “We have it in blood.” I simply accept that bullfighting is fact, it simply is, without excuses and with tradition as its primary explination.

Spain is a modern and progressive country which is also enriched by is cultural traditions and colorful past. Matadors are Spanish heroes who we could cast as tortuous villains, but for many, attending a bullfight is as Spanish as baseball is American. Is there an obvious moral or spiritual dilemma here? If the fight is torture for the bull does its practice necessarily corrupt its audience and participants or do cultural traditions and exceptions elevate what could be termed torture into ritual and art? For me bullfighting is a tradition that should be continued as long as it lives in the hearts of the Spanish people and so long as it lives in their hearts there is no dilemma.

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