New Year, New Business

New year, new beginnings. I am excited to announce the launch of my own architecture practice in Austin, Texas.  Watch this webspace - Architecture By George is officially open for business! I have submitted my resignation at work and I am wrapping things up in the chapter of my life titled 'employee architect'.  Over the last 16 years, I've had many titles - Intern, Architectural Intern, Intern Architect, Project Manager, Project Architect, Lead Architect, Senior Architect, Director of Architecture, in that order.

As fancy as the title "Director of Architecture" sounds and is, and as many opportunities, responsibilities, and authority it has given me, I slowly realized that it came with a price.  The stress of directing so many projects and so many people was sapping all my energy.  And my time!  As I've written before in another #Architalks post Work=1/3 Life, my work was consuming me.

I recognized that this was not a sustainable situation.  Or a very enjoyable one.  I was at the top of the ladder and the horizon looked grim.  The forecast was 'overcast with a 100% chance of burn-out'.

Worse, I was missing out on my kids.

After some extrospection of the architecture profession, a lot of introspection, conversations with encouraging friends and family, I came to a conclusion.

That, if I want* to practice architecture for the next 25 years, do all the things I want to do, and live my life to my fullest potential, I would have to launch my own architecture firm.  That would give me the freedom to pursue my interests; have control over my time, to be involved in my kid's day-to-day lives; and wake up each morning with purpose.

*Read this #ArchiTalks post to see why

What now? I want to reignite my passion for architecture; shed the husk that developed through being the good employee; put all my talents and skills to use (not just the ones that an employer wants to use); find inspiration and joy in the work; connect and share with my community; learn and grow, always.

I have worked in the custom residential market for a long time.  I have always found great pleasure in meeting new people (especially those who are different from me), and learning about them.  Being able to design solutions for their ideal way of living and define their sense of home is an incredible honor and an opportunity.  It's also a favorable time to discuss and impact their future health, comfort, energy-use, life-style, and their legacy.

I have titled myself Principal Architect at Architecture By George.  But that's a joke, because my role will be that of Business Development Manager, Social Media Administrator, Marketing Director, Office Manager, Web Designer, Graphics Designer, Blogger, Content Creator, Designer, Chief Building Scientist, Energy Analyst, BIM Manager, Render Artist, Project Lead, Intern, Production Team, Spec Writer, etc.  At least, for a while.

Is there a title that covers all that?  "Small Business Owner wearing multiple hats" just does not have a zing to it.

The B word  Notice how I said "New Year, New Business"!  If I was doing this a few years ago, I would have said "New Year, New Firm".  Subtle? No!

I owe thanks to the preachings of my friends Enoch Sears at Business of Architecture and Mark R. LePage at EntreArchitect, who emphasize the things that are significant for success as an architecture business.  They have posted numerous free resources, shared their knowledge, connected people, and started important conversations - things that will strengthen our profession as a whole.

I also found Eric Reinholdt's book, Architect and Entrepreneur: A Field Guide to Building, Branding, and Marketing Your Start-Up Design Business (Volume 1), to be incredibly helpful. These resources have been great for mental preparation, as well as creating the long list of things that need to be considered, in order to launch an architecture business.

I've been fortunate to work at architecture firms that were run well, by owners who were mindful of the business side of the practice.  I fully recognize that that allowed me, as an employee, to do what I love to do (practice architecture), get paid, and stay employed during the recession.  But I also realize that grounding will ensure that I will never get paid like a lawyer or an engineer.

As I crunch the numbers for launching my own business, I understand the low salaries, why there was an emphasis on efficiency over creativity, production over creation, and all those long hours, in these firms.  The margins are slim, the work is tedious, the profession is undervalued.  I sincerely hope that I don't fall prey to that mode of operation.



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Work = 1/3 Life #Architalks

Three-day weekends with no particular plans are the best!  I didn’t clean out the garage like I planned. But I feel refreshed and revived. Burnout averted!

Note: The following is how (the-about-to-burnout) I was going to start this post about work/life.

Whoever came up with a 40-hour workweek, or particularly an 8-5 work schedule, had no responsibilities other than to one’s self, no kids nor a commute, but was a single-minded workaholic who was cutting the rest of us a lot of slack! There are, after all, 168 hours in a week, and man only needs 8 hours a day to be fully functional, which gives you a whopping 72 hours to live the rest of your life! Put yourselves to some use people! Now, if you want to start talking about US GDP in comparison to France’s (35 hour work week), talk to the hand.

Now that that is out of my system, let’s engage in some productive talk.

Busy bees My husband and I both have full-time jobs and we have 2 young kids.  Weekdays are long and hectic; weekends are filled with play-dates, kid's birthday parties, gymnastics classes, laundry, grocery shopping, tidying house, ... you know, stuff of life, just like everybody else.  Did I mention, I write a blog and pursue some other interests that can eat up as much time as I give it.   Needless to say, we have very busy lives.

That's a good week.  When one of us is out of town or someone falls sick, all hell breaks lose.

I've been feeling more and more overwhelmed lately.  There are things on my to-do-list that I just can't seem to cross off.  It's September already, for Christ's sake.  Some things have been on the list since January.  I tell my husband it's because I am super-busy while I am at work. You know, normal business hours when you call to make a doctor’s appointment, or take your car in for service!

I lead the architecture department at an architect-led design-build company.  We have 7 projects in various stages of construction and 5 projects in different phases of architecture.  60% of my time is spent doing CA (Construction Administration – responding to RFI's (request for information) from builders, reviewing shop drawings, project schedule meetings, change orders, etc.), 40% managing the architectural team and our deliverables, including writing specifications.

By the end of the day, I suffer from “decision fatigue”. When my husband asks me what we should do about dinner, it’s often “I don’t care - anything”.

Is it really that bad? For this post, I did a little exercise.  I chalked down my week.  (I had a little help from my 5 year old.)  Sure, each work day is pretty intense.  But, it’s not so bad when you consider the week as a whole.   There's some semblance of a balance between work, sleep, and rest of life.

Work life tally, and by The Perfect Day I mean a day when everything goes according to plan

Then why does it feel so overwhelming?

Because, the truth is there are very few perfect days, when everything goes according to plan.   My kids spend an exorbitant 10 hours each work day away from home.  Theyeat more crap than I care to admit.  We recently moved and are yet to meet our neighbors. I ignore my health.  My relationships hang by a thread.

This is the reality of my modern-day work-life, and it sucks.

Like it or not, work spills over into life. If not literally, then figuratively. If you had a bad day at work, it spoils your evening.  Stress is tangible. For better or for worse, my work affects my being.

Work-life integration    Increasingly the concept of work-life integration is taking over the traditional idea of a balance between the two.  Many industries and companies recognize that work and life are not two separate things. Not in a globalized economy, not in this day of smart phones and wi-fi connectivity.

Certainly, for most architects, work is life and it’s our life’s work.

For example: I visit starchitect designed buildings that are up to 2 hours away from my vacation destination.  I take pictures of interesting architectural details while I'm not at work.  I jot down project to-do lists at 3am when I wake up for no apparent reason.  I agonize over small things that only perfectionists care about.

So I have to ask - Why have architecture firms not embraced a flexible work schedule to allow work life integration?

Every architecture office I have worked at has had a very defined work schedule; right down to the specific time that employees are allowed to take their lunch break!  It is not just in the employee manual, it is strictly enforced.  8-5pm; 12-1pm lunch.  And while the 5pm often blurs to 6 or 8pm, the other time stamps are sacred!

I say this to my friends who work for tech companies and other businesses and they laugh.  They say "I could never work like that". I have worked like that for so many years now, to me, it is normal. They think I’m too industrious. They don’t get into work till 10am. S l a c k e r s ! To be fair, I know these folks work 50-80 hours a week – just not at their office desk.

My husband has a pretty flexible work schedule.  Thankfully!  He picks up a lot of my slack. I think it’s safe to say he does more than his share of the household and parental duties. (Thank you dear!)

If our son gets sick at daycare and needs to be taken to the doctor in the middle of the day, he does not have to be apologetic about it to his boss.  If our daughter's class has a parent reading session, he can make himself available from 8:40-9:00am. Me? I have to calculate - If I volunteer for next week's reading, I will get to work by 9:15am, which means I am -1.25 hours for the day; I can work through lunch and stay till 5:15 and it'll be fine; as long as I don't have a project meeting; I should email everyone; and hope to God there's not bad traffic in the evening or else I'll be late to pick up my son.

U n n e c e s s a r y   s t r e s s !

I could check email before the reading, which is what I do when I get into work anyway! But, negotiating a flexible work schedule for myself would be unfair to the rest of the company.

Work-life separation But the status quo is not fair to my husband. His flexible work schedule comes at a price.  He has to work some evenings after the kids go to bed or when he is on-call, he gets paged in the middle of the night.  He may not work 8-5pm, but he works more than 40 hours a week.  There is little work-life separation.

On the other hand, I do. Whatever doesn’t get done by the end of the work day will have to wait till the next day. There is an inordinate number of emails to read and respond to, each requiring me to open up at least 4 different drawings. The definition of “getting your work done” is very vague.

You have to Choose: And therein lies the conundrum. Would you rather work on a schedule and not have to think about work when you are out of the office, or would you prefer that work hours are flexible but be on email alert?

But before you choose the former, consider this: Peak hour urban grid-lock Are we going to keep building more 10 lane highways to accommodate millions of urbanites who all have to be at work at 8am and leave at 5pm.  If you think that you just need to live closer to your work, consider that every time you change jobs or your office location changes, you will be uprooting your kids from their school/friends/environment, not to mention upsetting your partner’s commute to work. Living close to work is a reality for few and luxury for many.

Or are we going to embrace a flexible work schedule and integrate work and life?

Choose to be the architect of your own life and design it to be the best life it can be.



This post is part of the #Architalks series.  Aptly, for labor day, the topic was Work/Life. Read about how other architects handle work and life - click links below.

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch) Work Life

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) Work | Life - Different Letters, Same Word

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch) Work / Life : Life / Work

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) Work/Life...What an Architect Does

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) The One Secret to Work - Life Balance

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) work | life :: dance

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect) Living an Integrated Life as a Small Firm Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) #ArchiTalks: Work/life...attempts

Collier Ward - Thousand Story Studio (@collier1960) Work/Life

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect) what makes you giggle? #architalks

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design (@modarchitect) Turning Work Off

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) Work/Life -- A Merger

Rosa Sheng - Equity by Design / The Missing 32% Project (@miss32percent) Work Life Fit: A New Focus for Blurred Lines

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) Work Life

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA) Architalks: Imbalanced and uninterrupted

Amy Kalar - ArchiMom (@AmyKalar) ArchiTalks #12: Balance is a Verb.

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) I Just Can’t Do This Anymore

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC) An Architect's House

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) Brady Ernst - Family Man Since 08/01/2015

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz) Father, Husband, Architect - typically in that order

Tara Imani - Tara Imani Designs, LLC (@Parthenon1) On Work: Life Balance – Cattywampus is as Good as it Gets

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w) midnight in the garden of [life] and [work]

Daniel Beck - The Architect's Checklist (@archchecklist) Work Life Balance: Architecture and Babies - 5 Hints for Expecting Parents

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Work is Life

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent) studio / life

Lindsey Rhoden - SPARC Design (@sparcdesignpc) Work Life Balance: A Photo Essay

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) Work / Life

Check your bias blind spot #EQxDGetReal

It starts at the very beginning – girls vs. boysThe societal problem became crystal clear to me when I had my first child.  All the pink toys, princess dolls, and kitchen sets screamed - GENDER BIAS.  At first, it was just an interesting observation, harmless really, compared to some other egregious offenses.  But it's not so benign, is it?  

A year after my epiphany, Sheryl Sandberg gave her popular TED talk about women leaders.  A few years later, I discovered Equity By Design [EQxD].  I am glad there is open dialogue about the challenges facing professional women.  If there was such conversation and solidarity when I joined the workforce, I was not aware of it, and perhaps, I would have had better tools to deal with bias in the workplace.  As it was, I had a very lonely journey.

Growing up with bias and privilege As a female raised in India, gender bias is not a strange concept to me.  It is widely prevalent and deeply rooted in the patriarchal society.  On the bright side, I grew up in a large city, my parents are well educated, forward thinking, and middle class.  My biggest privilege was access to education and freedom to pursue my career goals.  (Millions in India, especially girls, do not have such opportunities.)  Moreover, I had the means to accomplish my dreams of higher education in the United States.

Bias in America     I thought I would be escaping old-fashioned ideas of gender norms when I moved to America.  After all, isn’t America a progressive melting pot, where social reform took place over a century ago, and women walk with their head held high?

So, when I hear comments or see behavior that exhibit patronizing attitudes towards my age, race, skin color, gender, or intelligence, I am taken aback.

I have been making excuses for people who treat me with prejudice - that it was an isolated incident, or the one person’s attitude, or their social ineptitude, or their insensitivity.  Things got better as I got older, but looking back on 15 years of excuses reveals a sad and fundamental truth: Sexism is alive and well in America.

Bias in the professional world When I was a young college student, I had the courage to snuff out prejudice.  But when I entered the professional world, I was at a loss.  I was a foreigner in the early stages of culture shock, with family 10,000 miles away and friends that I could count on one hand, searching for my place in a not-very inclusive community of professional cliques.

How do you build relationships in the proverbial boy’s club, when only the male employees are invited to lunch, golf, and conferences?  How do you ask for equity when only the male architects are given the high-revenue, complex, prestigious projects?  I had no answers and no support, and had lost all courage, confidence, and verve.

‘To a certain extent, all architects struggle to survive in a profession where the educational preparation is long, the registration process is rigorous, the hours grueling, and the pay is incredibly low.  Yet, many underrepresented architects face additional hardships, such as isolation, marginalization, stereotyping, and discrimination.’

Designing for Diversity, Kathryn H. Anthony

Overt Vs. Implicit Bias I came across the Implicit Association Test a few years ago when I read Ask For It.  Most people are not sexist or racist or discriminatory.  But everyone has subconscious bias.  And that is the silent killer of equity in professional settings.

I did say most people – I have personally experienced blatant sexism and racism.  I’ve had an employer ask me in an interview when I plan to get pregnant; if, as a mother, I can focus on work and be productive; I’ve had a colleague ignore me for 3 years; etc.

But more often, I am a victim of implicit bias.  It is so subtle that you feel awkward about raising a flag – maybe’s it’s just your my head, right?  It is body language!  The male intern who sits in my project-team-meeting is treated to more eye-to-eye contact and a respectful handshake.  The white project manager at my construction-site-tour is assumed to be my superior and gets all the questions.  I am invisible!

The core issue - intelligence bias My husband and I talk about these issues often.  We compare our cultures, professions, and the 'bias baggage' we carry.  He is an American, a computer engineer and a self-proclaimed geek.  One day, he showed me this xkcd comic and said, there is this notion in America that girls are bad at math.  As someone who excelled in math and science, I was fuming.  Despite all the gender bias that is prevalent in India, I had never before heard that sentiment.

But that is how it works, isn’t it?   The unwritten memo says:                 Women are incompetent, until proven otherwise                 Men are competent, until proven otherwise

Competence and Knowledge: I think the ridiculous notion that ‘women are not as smart as men’ speaks volumes.  And it strikes at the heart of the issue facing women professionals in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Mathematics) fields.

People are very comfortable with women in an Interior Designer role.  Furthermore, people are comfortable with me as an Architect talking design related issues.  No offense to designers, but somehow, seeing a woman as the Project/Principal Architect is a big leap?

Is it because conversations about architecture typically include technical and practical discussions about construction, specifications, energy analyses, structural engineering, that I cannot worry my pretty little head with?  Is that why I have to ‘prove myself’ over and over again, every time I meet a new builder/ structural engineer/ lighting consultant/ energy rater?

A young designer on my team recently asked me, what she can do to make her colleagues take her seriously.  As her manager, my immediate answer was ‘be really good at what you do’.  I was simply repeating what I told myself when I was starting out - work hard, dig deep, and earn respect.  Nothing wrong with that except….do young men have this problem?  I would like to have a better answer.

It seems like the conversation about equity in the workplace is coming to a head.  Recognizing what discrimination looks like and knowing that it’s not just happening to me, but to many like me, is powerful knowledge that tips the balance towards action.

Active action may be speaking up, spreading awareness, sharing stories, opening dialogue, checking your own biases, etc.  There are numerous organizations, all over the world, demanding women’s rights through active action.  I have listed a few of my favorites below.

Some people are more comfortable with passive action.  They listen, take their talents elsewhere, look for alternate careers, or set up their own workplace and their own rules.  But no one is an island - sooner or later you have to collaborate with others.  

I constantly have to check my attitudes and revisit my beliefs.  Not just for my own sake, but for my son and daughter.  I am sure that I have unconscious biases too.  I better get unpacking.



Taking Active Action:

Note: This post was written as a contribution to the EQxD Get Real Challenge series, on the topic "Bias and Privilege".  Head over to their blog to see other contributions to the topic.

Continuing Education as an Architect

I spent the last 2 days at the AIA Austin Summer Conference, which was chock full of a wide variety of topics.  It was unlike some other conferences I have attended that are filled with fluffy topics (sometimes too academic) that cater to 'the theme' of the conference and make you feel like you are on a professional vacation (or worse, back in architecture school).  Thankfully, this one was very education-oriented, relevant, tangible, with many practical ideas and take-aways.  The only unifying theme was that it was all related to local happenings and people. I attended sessions that discussed the City's initiatives to address our unprecedented growth through Imagine Austin; new building code updates (sigh!); perfect wall, insulated concrete wall, healthy construction; also, business development and legalities of professional practice.  It was encouraging to see what some others are doing with Building Information Modeling (BIM), which I have been using since 2007.

I thought it was worth my time (and money).  There was just one afternoon session that was a waste of my time - but, that was simply poor choice on my part.  It would help if the 'brief description' was more accurate to help us make better choices.  Bonus - I was able to meet a good chunk of my continuing education requirements.  If you missed it, check it out next summer.

Continuing Education Requirements: As a licensed/registered Architect in Texas, I have to meet the continuing education (CE) requirements set by the state licensing board.  These change over the years and are different for each state.


I am also a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a national professional association for architects in the USA.  AIA also has continuing education requirements, that are different from the state.


The things that Architects need to know, and pay attention to, are vast and complex.  But, that's what makes the architecture profession so fulfilling.  It feeds your curiosity.  Some professionals choose to reach far and wide, others choose a deep and narrow focus.  Either way, you've got to keep your antennae up and stay involved in the conversation.  This was always true, but even more important today, when things are changing and evolving at a rapid pace.  The challenge is to keep up with it all and still be present in your day to day goals and accomplishments.



Why I am an Architect, when I could have been a Mathematician #ArchiTalks

The short answer:- I am good at math and I like to draw!*

To draw, draw, raw, aw…. Not only do I like to draw, I can draw well, a talent I inherited from my father.  That skill came in handy when I had to draw a still life, to prove that I was worthy of attending the College of Architecture.  I remember sitting at a drawing board in a studio, alongside a batch of other applicants, sketching the objects that were carefully arranged on the table in front of us.  That was 21 years ago, so I don’t know if they do that anymore, but it sure set the crowd apart right at the outset.  I should mention that this was before we had personal computers!!!  (If you’re trying to do the math and it doesn’t make any sense, it might help if you knew that all this happened in India, in the middle of the dark ages!)  So if you cannot draw and you made it into architecture school (dumb luck or reservation politics), you were screwed i.e. you would repeat first year architecture for a long time!  But as it was, it was a class filled with kids who were well endowed with artistic talents.

Good at math, at math, math, ath, th.… Before architecture, I spent a semester dawdling in mathematics.  That’s right!  I wasn’t kidding when I said I am** good at math.  But being good wasn’t enough.  I had no passion for it.  While going from trigonometry to algebra to calculus to analytical math all day long was all fun and games, I had no idea what I was going to do with a B.S. in Math.  Does anyone?!  I was no math prodigy and I had no intention to be the next Ramanujan. (Dad - let’s not go there again!)

** I should correct that to was good at math. Those brain cells have long since atrophied.

Say what?! I spent most of my schooling secretly hating the abstract concepts and intangible theories of the sciences.  I could not wait to go to college to focus on real life learning!  Things I could touch and feel and see.  (No disrespect to my physicist friends.)  Perhaps, I forgot that part when I signed up for being a math major, because by definition, math is an abstract science.  Architecture, on the other hand…except for that one class I had in grad school that was so academic, we were reading Marx and Engels.  Worst.  Class.  Ever.

I preferred applied math to pure math anyway.  And now, I'm just looking at the problems from the other side of the lens.  These 10 amazing examples of architecture inspired by mathematics showcase what I mean.

Why I enjoy doing architecture: I am one of those people who use their right and left brain almost equally.*** The practice of architecture fans the flames of my artistic/creative side and feeds my analytical/logical mind.

***Of course, this is not a requirement.  Take this test to see where you stand.  And read my post architects come in all shapes and sizes, to identify your architect avatar.

Actually, these are reasons why I became an architect and why it’s a good fit for me.  They are not why I continue to be an Architect.  And that brings me to…

The long answer:- You see, at several points in my life I’ve taken the opportunity to question whether this is the right career path for me.

  1. Right after I graduated. 85% of my friends who graduated with a B.Arch degree branched out into other fields – advertising, industrial design, graphic design, landscape architecture, construction management, business, engineering, etc.  5 years in architecture school and they had had enough.  I did the opposite and decided to spend another 2 years in (grad) school!
  2. Right after I decided to pursue licensure. I found out that my undergraduate degree was not recognized by NCARB (if you don’t know, you don’t need to know), and my graduate degree (from UT!) was not accredited, so I had to accrue 8 years of work experience before I could start the ARE (Architect Registration Exams, i.e. the licensing test).  @#*$!!!  I waited patiently (silently plotting) and then took 9 exams in 9 months (one during every month of my pregnancy) and got licensed.
  3. Right after I had my first child. I realized that the firm I was working at was not very family friendly and I either needed a new job or a new career.  I had just got my license!  So I got a new job.
  4. Right after every dreaded “salary talk”. Ugh.
  5. Right about now! Hind-sight IS 20/20.

I have, on a couple of occasions, talked about changing careers - that usually lasts until I get over my funk.  I am either too persistent or too stupid.

Or I found my real reason WHY.

THE BIG WHY? If you’ve heard Simon Sinek’s TED Talk Start with WHY, you know that the core reason WHY you do something is a very elusive thing.

I like to think of architecture as ideation.  Architects create ideas.  Small ideas and big ideas.  Ideas that can change our energy consumption, enhance our quality of life, stimulate our senses, connect us to our family, friends, and neighbors, beautify our surroundings, solve our mundane and most gruesome problems, and in so doing, change our lives and our future.

The end: Architecture is a tough profession.  You don’t make much money, you have to work really hard (it takes a toll on your body too), and there are no fast results - much like anything worth pursuing in life.  It’s the long game.

I like being an Architect. I love the practice of architecture. It's my craft.



* Read Bob Borson's post on Life of an Architect, Architecture and Math (it'll shed some light on that reference)

This post is my contribution to #ArchiTalks series organized by Architect Bob Borson, who writes Life of an Architect. To see other architect blogger’s musings on "Why I am an Architect", click on links provided below.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect @bobborson Why I am an Architect (and not an Astronaut)

Marica McKeel - Studio MM @ArchitectMM Why I am an Architect

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect @LeeCalisti Why I am an Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC @L2DesignLLC Why I am an Architect

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design @modarchitect Purpose in the Profession

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect @mghottel Why I am an Architect

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC @MeghanaIRA Why I am an Architect

Michael Riscica - Young Architect @YoungArchitxPDX Why did you become an Architect

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL @sramos_BAC I like to make and create

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect @bradyernstAIA The Agrarian Pantheon

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect @bpaletz I am what I am

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - @egraia Why I am an Architect

Replacing the "I" in "FIRM" with "WE" - acknowledging the team

I struggled with this post, not just because I am expressing a personal frustration, but because it goes against the grain of the way of things in the architecture profession (and all creative fields), as revealed by my survey of 100 architecture firms websites.  Is that worth writing/reading about? The trigger: Last week I came across an online posting showcasing a project that I had worked on a few years ago.  It was a custom residence for a retired couple, empty-nesters, expatriates.

As their Project Architect, I got to know them pretty well over the course of the year that I worked with them, and deliberated over all the details of their dream home.  Naturally, when I saw the finished photographs of the house, I had an awesome sense of pride and achievement.  They had really made it their home - with carefully arranged furniture, pictures, and accessories.  I could "see" the clients using these spaces - kicking back in her reading nook, the two of them enjoying a home cooked meal on the deck, their family huddling together by the fire on the covered porch, etc.  It felt good.

The post was all praise for the house and “the firm”, with a glowing testimony from the client about how the design process was enjoyable and how their home is everything they wanted and more.  But, as I finished reading, an uneasy feeling started setting in.  I could not put my finger on it.  I went about my day, and after a while, it occurred to me.

The issue: There was no mention of me - The Project Architect!  The one who did 87% of the work*, the one who was as invested in the project as the client, who lived in the trenches, who sweated the little stuff and the big.

*The work - what Project Architects do: A Project Architect oversees the entirety of the project and works closely with the client from start to finish.  Depending on the size and structure of the firm, as well as the size and scope of the project, the Project Architect might be the only one doing all the work or will direct a team of architectural staff.  As in many small firms, I was solely responsible for all aspects of the project - developing the design; educating the client and coordinating their needs with what their budget can deliver; making sure that it can be built as drawn; that it complies with building codes, land development codes, and neighborhood guidelines; producing clear construction drawings and specifications that a builder can use to do his job (bid and build); managing outside consultants (structural engineer, interior designer, lighting consultant, landscape designer); conducting all meetings; and while the project is under construction, site visits, respond to RFI's (request for information), approve shop drawings, etc.  The whole shebang.

For that matter, there was no mention of any of the other professionals who were instrumental in bringing the project to life - the interior designer, the landscape architect, the builder, etc.  Instead, it was as if "the firm" had waved a magic wand with an invisible hand and the project came to fruition.

Project Timeline - Project Architect involvement

The story ends the same way for all projects that I have put my time and expertise into.  So, I wondered.  Is this an isolated phenomenon, specific to "the firm" or is it common practice?  After all, my name is not on the door.  I do not pay the bills/ worry about making payroll/ shoulder the liability.  I get that.  But, I do my part!

Is this just my ego talking?  Perhaps.

Am I the only one who has the audacity to want more?  Probably not.

What do architecture firms showcase? I did a quick survey to see how many firms explicitly acknowledge their (project) team members.  And by quick, I mean I looked at 100 websites of architecture firms that I am familiar with, mostly local, mostly small.

Architecture websites - a survey

Every firm has an online portfolio, of course; displaying professionally photographed pictures of the project, painstakingly listing awards and publications; but not one identified project team members.  And even if this is not a true reflection of the firm’s day-to-day work culture and how they treat their employees, it sure sets the bar pretty low.

Why would publications and the general public care who comprises the "we"?  They are the invisible minions who are not talked about.  This is the formula that gives rise to the "starhitects" and "starchitecture firms".

The reasoning is probably what everyone I talked to suggested - the client hired "the firm", and the work was done under the purview of "the firm", who paid the project architect and the architectural staff to do the needful, and therefore the credit goes to "the firm", not the individuals who did the work.

Well, isn't that just a cop out?!

Acknowledging the work of your collaborators does not take away from the firm's accomplishments.  For a profession that is obsessed with “errors and omissions”, this seems like a big omission.  If you are an architect or have ever worked with an architect, you know that a fantastic design is only one piece of the puzzle.  The execution of said design is just as critical for the success of the final product.

Sharing the spotlight: I was most impressed, and encouraged, by the following unique acknowledgements of individual contributions.

1) Mel Lawrence Architects lists former employees.  Because really, the fact that a team member has moved on does not negate the value they added to the team or project.  Also, read their note of thanks to all the people who usually go unmentioned.

2) MF Architecture lists outside collaborators, who have contributed to the success of their projects.


But that’s it. 2% that went above and beyond.

“I strongly believe in a collaborative design process. I think pure, singular, and original authorship is not only unobtainable, but not an interesting way to go about making new things. Our rule is everyone brings their differing talents, voices, and opinions into whatever project they are working on. We have small, intensely creative teams that work on projects from beginning to end.”

Architect Michael Hsu

I’m sure you are familiar with the long list of credits at the end of a movie.  Or heard Oscar award winners thank a number of people, including their inspiration, spouse, and children, until the music starts to play and they are escorted off the stage.  "I couldn't have done it without you," is a common statement.  It’s not that they can’t thank their spouses and kids for their support when they kiss them goodnight.  They do it on stage, in front of the whole world.

So, here’s my plea. As architects, we take great pride in our creations, and we make sure we showcase them, wherever possible, in the best possible light.  Take as much pride in your people.  (If you don’t, maybe you need a different team!).  But if you do, showcase them.  Give them credit.  Acknowledge their hard work and their tireless efforts.  Thank them for their dedication.  Not just at their yearly performance review.  Do it in front of everyone.

Share the glory.  Pay it forward.  And your team will take you to new heights.