Time Management

My mother forwarded me this Dezeen article from a week ago. It was oddly coincidental, because at an office happy hour just a week before we had talked about the tricky balance, which all architects strive to find, between being productive and being creative. In fact, it is famously sensitive and controversial, especially when discussed between colleagues or professional peers. Imagine how easy it is to get competitive with each other about who works hardest in the office. Imagine how treacherous it could be for a CEO to discuss a firm’s compensation structure with a competing firm’s CEO.

What left me scratching my head was that in spite of having heard so many smart, successful people chime in on a well-trodden subject, there are still a couple of inner contradictions which haven’t been reconciled. So I’m going to try something new, and risky, for this post. I am going to express my frustrations with these contradictions.

The first contradiction: architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.

Image via blogarredamento.

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about architects is that they are in the creative field. This is a misconception carried by architects themselves. We are often mythologized as kin to the plastic arts: siblings of sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, and dancers. But these relationships are most often collaborative flights of fancy, theoretical at their root, often a financial loss if developed, and vastly over-represented compared to the professions that architecture truly does engage with. Those professions include finance, macroeconomics, civil engineering, transportation engineering, real estate law, community activism, project management, logistics, etc. In my view, the moment you include gravity, money, or politics, you lose the ability to call yourself a sculptor. When there are concrete things at stake, there is naturally less time and space to be creative. You must spend much more time being organized, going to meetings, calling consultants and manufacturers, putting drawings and specifications together, all the rest of it. Schedules, budgets, expectations in general are almost always the first things established in at the outset of any architectural project (or any transaction, really). Looking at your average NAAB-accredited curriculum, however, these basic skills are largely absent. What, instead, do undergraduate curricula spend their time and resources training aspiring architects in? From my experiences at The Cooper Union, most of this time is spent alone in the studio, struggling to teach yourself how to compose meaningful project narratives and draw meaningful drawings. Many a late night I left the studio to wander the other rooms of the Foundation Building, and visited my artist friends, whom I discovered to be doing exactly the same thing. What’s wrong with that picture?

Here’s the list of accredited architecture programs in the united States, according to The National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). Follow some of the links for curricular information, and you get an idea of the paucity of management training in your typical undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program.

What would I rather have been doing at times when my creativity (on which my education as an architect hung) was unresponsive? I would rather have been putting together a simple Gantt Chart visualizing my priorities from now until finals, or speaking with a professor about job prospects, or collaborating with classmates on political activities. These other things focus not on creativity, but skills which require you to be organized, especially with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in offices spending most of my time on the phone, sending emails, and attending meetings. This the second contradiction which haunts architecture: the absence of “soft skills.”

The need for soft skills is painfully under-emphasized in the profession. Partially because they are difficult to represent in a drawing by a 20-year-old student. So, the seeds of ignorance are sown in school, and harvested in offices. If most of an architect’s daily work involves communication and management, this becomes a recipe for failure. The “starchitect problem,” when seen in this context, is kind of a natural result: architects found themselves under-equipped in the office environment, so they grasped at a set of “skills” which would set them apart from the engineers and cost estimators. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on vague, subjective, or false notions about creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the professionals sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.” You still get a lot of that these days.

You might say, “Hey, Ivan. Ease off. Management isn’t something you can just teach. It’s a life skill. You learn it through experience.” Sure. But then, you can say the same exact thing about writing. We certainly don’t tell students, “We’re not going to teach you to write, because it’s a life skill. You’ll just pick it up by doing other things.” This laissez-faire attitude masquerading as liberal education is one of the root causes of late-night culture.

One day, I left the office and called my mother (SAFA, ABRA). It was 6PM. Her immediate reaction upon getting my call was “What, you’re not in the office?” We quibbled. I said I was proud that I managed to leave work in a timely manner. She said “Be careful, they will fire you.” She was only being overly cautious, of course, but she couldn’t grasp the notion that I would finish my work by 6 and leave by 6. To her, design should not have a timer attached to it. It stunts it, it prevents the best design decision from being reached. Personally, I cease to be creative after lunchtime. Most of my creative work happens in the morning when I feel fresh, and afternoons are spend organizing, scanning, and documenting the quick ideas I threw down. But aside from that fact, I had to say some words to my mother that I hadn’t ever said before. “Design is never finished…. my life is more important.”

My mother also suffers from the classical notion of architecture-as-art, or proto-starchitectitis. She is always telling herself: “I need to stay to finish this design problem. When I figure it out, I can go home.” I have news: nothing is ever finished. This is the contradiction I don’t understand. The people that stay late are typically the ones who defend architecture-as-art dogma. But the late-night mantra, which calls it a “design problem” implies that design has a concrete answer. It isn’t. In that sense alone, architecture is like an art: it is never finished. A design is finished only when a person decides it is. Whether that decision is made at 6PM or 12AM is entirely their choice. And I know there are exceptions to this rule, but most people become weary after dark, and the later they stay, the more energy they have to spend to just stay sharp, and the slimmer chance they have to be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.

Now, I don’t want this to become just a criticism of my mentors and peers, I want to offer an encouraging suggestion. If you suffer from late-night syndrome, why not make yourself a plan, every day? When you come in to the office, spend 15 minutes writing out a to-do list. You can do this on Microsoft Word or Outlook or Excel or Wordpad or whatever you wish (I prefer creating a calendar item in Outlook, then setting reminders so it pops up later). Then, sometime between lunch and 3PM, go back to that list. If you haven’t completed anything, single out one that you can realistically finish before 6PM, then do it. To help you choose, consider what your supervisor or client will be most focused on (higher-ups are always weighing priorities, so it’s best to address the top priorities first). Lastly, when you finish that thing, don’t forget to go home! Don’t stay on your computer clicking away groping around for problems to solve and drawings to make more perfect. Go home. Even if it’s 5:30. Enjoy your life. Get some sleep. Come to work on time tomorrow and set another plan for that day.

Most importantly, give yourself honest standards, when working on things alone, or when preparing for interactions with others. I believe that the benefits of high-caliber collaboration are also paid internally, to an individual’s expectations of their own abilities.

Also remember that I’m pinning this on everyone: the leadership and the juniors, the managers and the designers. We have to do better to both manage our own time and set an example for others. I am confident that no “stagnation” will happen as Patrik Schumacher fears, because hours worked is not always correlated with productivity and innovation. There is a point of diminishing returns. We have to start earlier in teaching architects that their profession involves incessant interaction with other trades and professionals, and make sure that they are using that interaction as an opportunity to manage their own time. We have to stop giving empty validation to those who stay late, and stop judging those who leave early. I am NOT endorsing a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), all I am saying is that I would love to see people meet short-term personal goals more effectively. If more architects can reliably deliver projects at optimal (not maximum) productivity, it should allay clients’ and investors’ fears, cultivate a healthier work environment, and force starchitects and the offices they run to go exinct. The result will be both high-quality work and an empty office at 6PM. And the best part: neither of those will be a compromise.

I’m calling on deans around the country and NAAB to expand professional practice and management in their curricula. Or perhaps I should start my own Academy of Architectural Practice & Management: AAPM.

Wait. Something like this already exists. Vonz’s Law holds. God bless Michael Riscica.

“Intern Architects” and the trouble with titles

Yes, change is good. But wait, no, standards are better. No hang on, we have to let things evolve. On the other hand, consistency and tradition are better values….
Where between these two poles does architecture situate itself? The answer should be: right in the goddamn middle. There should be no noticeable creep to one side or the other, and the profession should maintain a steady adaptability in tandem with certain fundamental principles that we decide are the foundation of the profession, and of nature, as long as the name for it exists.
Notice how I stress the latter? That’s because I’ve noticed an increased amount of “revamps” and “streamlines” and “realignments” that the powers-that-architecture-be are haphazardly imposing on its practitioners. Inasmuch as our words shape our reality, the latest one speaks to a broader crisis of identity.
“…doctors, lawyers, and architects…” This triad, perched on a gleaming tier of the pyramid of professions, has become almost a maxim uttered by admiring citizens. It represents professions that require a lot of knowledge, contain strong codes of ethics, breed responsible individuals and role model citizens, have high prices of admission, are easily dramatized (with the exception of architects), get to wear suits (with the exception of doctors), and can be trusted (with the exception of lawyers). It used to be that simply calling oneself a registered “professional” in any discipline immediately connoted these standards, and it was heavily policed. But the situation has changed– much has been written on the standard of “professionalism” and why it has become diluted and meaningless, with occupations like massage therapy, cosmetology (hairdressing) and interior design (sorry guys) on the official NY State list, and others like bartending in states like NV & TX. Are states capitulating to individuals seeking some kind of special documentation that gives them an edge in the competitive market, or added legal protection? Are the states being too fearful of discrimination? Is there any honesty coming out of this friction, or simply people unwilling to give up rights? The dilution makes sense economically: like currency, if there are more licenses being given out, then the value of each one decreases. But it doesn’t have to be so. The core standards must be upheld, while allowing the total numbers to increase.
Sadly, architecture has felt the effects of this, by association and by Great Recession. As NCARB’s annual report shows, there was a huge post-recession downturn in the number of candidates passing exams and completing training. In response to that, they instituted a series of “streamlines,” which is really a euphemism for “lowering the standards.” This categorized-hours and computerized-examination approach is another step in the search for a lowest common denominator. The irony is that according to that same report, the number of candidates passing the architecture registration hurdles is back on the upswing the past couple of years. So why continue changing the standards?

Is it weird that I wish I had taken the ARE like this?

The crisis of identity crystallized with the latest and strangest step: NCARB’s decision, announced at the 2015 AIA National Convention, to change naming standards for not-yet-architects. They were responding to data that showed discomfort with the term “intern architect.” There will soon no longer be “interns”… but what will we be? The proposal provides no alternative. This is equally good and bad.
Another irony: very few people in the actual profession use “intern” the same way NCARB does. The term is reserved for only the youngest entry-level employees fresh out of school. Once you begin leading, managing, or designing projects yourself, the name shifts to something like “designer” or “junior architect” or “associate”. And truth be told, even these terms come up seldom– mostly when they’re solicited, like in interviews and resumes. There is also a difference between a business-related job title and a profession-related job title: “partner,” “associate,” “principal,” “staff ___,” or “trainee” reflect your role in the firm from a staffing perspective, while “architect,” or an archaic title like “apprentice” speak more to your standing in the community of professionals. But even these terms bleed into one another. Is a “staff writer” at the New York Times on the same rung as a “staff architect” at SOM? Use of job titles is still mostly a nominal practice, meaning the usage or definition in actual practice is different. And herein lies the crux of the governing bodies’ oversight: they’re disengaged from reality. Allowing actual usage rather than data to shape reality would help us all admit that names are names, but what really matters is the attitude of its bearer.
A slightly related thought: there have been times when the definitions of certain words have decided court cases. Sometimes the court rules in favor of the dictionary definition. But more often than one would think, it sides with the colloquial, more commonly used definition of the word. Lexicon Valley, Slate’s excellent podcast on language, has done such an episode.
NCARB is responding to the fact that most people find the term “intern” to be derogatory, and that it’s unfair to lump fresh trainees with almost-licensed architects working at prestigious firms with a decade of experience who just haven’t passed the Structures exam. But maybe it is fair. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure architects are becoming Architects not for the name in itself, but for the connotations it bears. We want Registered Architects to be conscientious, responsible, diplomatic, intelligent members of a huge web of other professionals, all collaborating to improve the built environment. And we want the name to truly correspond to those things. We have to work more on strengthening the code of ethics and sense of camaraderie among architects, rather than dilly-dallying with words. My sense is that the best way to keep that standard up is through my peers, not through governing bodies. If I gain licensure at the age of 28 but truly feel unprepared to lead my own projects, I should wait and feel the pressure from colleagues to keep improving until I feel ready. Conversely, if I am 55 years old and cannot legally sign a drawing, I should feel the same pressure every time I call myself an architect.
Noah put it brilliantly: The title “intern” should stay, and stay derogatory, because it’s incentive for people to surpass it.I highly recommend listening to Archinect Sessions’ episode 30. In the episode the hosts travel to the AIA National Convention in Atlanta– and discuss this very decision. Donna Sink and Ken Koense, the token architects of the show, get really into the nitty-gritty and it is an interesting listen. Ken’s calling it “verbal gymnastics” is on point. Donna even suggests calling “interns” “architects” and registered architects “registered architects.” Ken also reminds us that the states individually are responsible for legislating standards, and that the AIA has no power except that of endorsement (hence, why all the hubbub over this naming thing when states haven’t made any moves?)
The discussion starts at 15:20.
This all draws attention to the European standards, which generally set a lower bar in terms of time and money– in fact, a lot of the time you can call yourself an architect immediately upon graduating from an accredited school (there is an exam at the end). With “architect” as a minimum, other titles are added to it or modify it as you gain more and more experience.

Saying everything and nothing at the same time. “Project Designer” is the “it is what it is” of job titles.

I need to fully disclose that I myself am an Intern or Architect In Training, and should be licensed by the end of 2015. But there is also another lifelong architect who is very dear to me who will probably never get licensed in the US. She is my mother.
Through various life circumstances, not least of which include living and working in three countries between the ages of 28 and 35, having a child, and most recently being laid off during the recession, my mother has had to make the most of unforgiving circumstances. Since 2008 she slowly clawed her way back to busybody solvency, and now has established a tiny humming architectural practice renovating townhouses, doing one-off energy and zoning analyses, and has assembled a team of local expeditors, engineers, and registered architects. She works 18 hour days and is happy. She has said she plans never to retire– to work as long as she lives.
Obviously she has completed the required hours, but she never got around to taking the exams. She feels she may never muster the energy to take them. But she doesn’t really need to– she is happy asking someone else to sign the drawings. But the fact bugs her that her Architect of Record, who only reviews the projects and hasn’t designed a single part of them, is taking home 50% of the fees. It is almost silly how someone so dedicated, hardworking, and knowledgeable as my mother is unable to add “RA” to the end of her name (she is, however, a SAFA, or registered architect in Finland…). Her case is marginal, but nonetheless elicits empathy.
I have invented a title for her. It is borrowed from a frequently used term in academic parlance: ABD, or, All-But-Dissertation, describing the final years of a PhD where coursework and required reading are complete, and all that’s left is the darned thesis.
My mother shall be Marina Himanen, ABRA (All-But-Registered-Architect).

Marina Himanen, ABRA, at her desk.