Cramming It All In

IMG_2877Mid-January is unquestionably wintertime. No matter where we are in the northern hemisphere, the long hours of darkness tell our bodies to slow down and hibernate. The cold weather and the piles of snow here in Denver magnify that desire for dormancy.

We have as little daylight now as we had in early December, but every year, all through that crazy month of December, no matter what our bodies tell us to do, our calendars tell us there’s a holiday lunch for work, holiday parties with friends, a holiday program at the kids’ school, we should bring a holiday dish for our December board meeting… everyone wants to celebrate. There are gifts to send, cards to mail, cookies to bake, and get-togethers with family to travel to.

All of this activity is on top of our already full schedules – work and school and laundry and kids’ basketball practices don’t stop to make room for the holiday season, or for extra sleep during the darkness.

I know our world has been this way for a long time – we cram a lot into December, without taking anything out of our already busy lives to make it all fit neatly. Some of the benefits of the holiday season are lost to exhaustion. We can’t actually get to all the parties without physically wearing ourselves out. If we try to fit everything in, the celebrating becomes more work than fun, which certainly defeats its purpose.

Wouldn’t it be nice if work stopped to make room for this extra activity? I think it used to at least slow down for everyone, long, long ago, at the end of the year. Maybe that’s just me, looking back, through rose-colored glasses, at my family’s life when I was an elementary school student.

At the start of this past holiday season, I heard a young emerging professional, an intern architect, talk about not being a very good project manager. She was actually doing a great job of managing her project – always keeping team members in the loop, always following up on things, asking and answering all the right questions. In my eyes, she was just overwhelmed because she was doing everything – she was her firm’s contact person for the owner, contractor, and consultants, she was doing all the production on the drawings for the project, and she was making design and technical decisions, but she doesn’t yet know a whole lot about how a building gets put together. She didn’t realize that she’s actually really good at project management, but there is other architecture stuff that she’s still learning.

All architects should be lifelong learners, but at her firm, and at many small firms these past couple of decades, emerging professionals get thrust into project management positions before knowing much about how buildings get built and how to draw them so someone can build them. Baptism by fire is one way to learn, but it’s best to just focus on one thing at a time while in the fray. Figuring out how to draw construction documents without much input from a supervisor, and being a project manager for the first time at the same time, while also doing all the production on a project, is cramming too much into the job. Some of the benefits of learning fast by taking on a lot of responsibility early are lost… because there’s no time for some important things to be learned at all. But the project goes on anyway, whether or not the project manager ever learns enough about building technology to draw details that are weatherproof.

I may be looking through rose-colored glasses again, but from the stories I’ve heard about the olden days, it seems to me that architecture firms used to have interns just drawing and learning – working under licensed architects who were also working on the drawings regularly. Those architects who were managing the interns were not managing the project – someone else was managing the project (handling communication with consultants and the owner.) So there are three different jobs – the manager managing the overall project, an architect in charge of the drawings but not doing all the drawings single-handedly, and the interns learning and helping out a licensed architect with the drawings.

I suspect that things changed with the introduction of CAD, when the older architects no longer understood exactly how the interns were producing the drawings. A production team disconnect began at the same time that production could be carried out more quickly on computers. More production work could be done by fewer people, smaller production teams were required, so less-experienced people were being promoted to project manager. This disconnect pattern has been continued, perhaps magnified, with BIM, as more information gets input into the model by less-experienced people. The person reviewing and stamping the drawings may not quite like how they look, but accepts the explanation “That’s how the program generates the drawings.”

I think that in the distant past (before CAD, and before my own internship), intern architects were better prepared before being thrust into project management. They knew more about how a building gets built before they had to go walk the site with the owner as the only representative of their firm, or answer the contractor’s question about something on the drawings on the spot while standing in the trailer, or communicate with the structural engineer about the building department’s latest amendments to the International Building Code. In the quest for staffing efficiency, firms give recent grads more responsibility, and emerging professionals take it, and cram it all into the job, in the quest for experience, more autonomy, and higher pay. At the same time, for new grads overall, the time period between graduation from architecture school and achievement of licensure has lengthened.

During the holiday season every December, we juggle our already-full daily lives, plus the seasonal urge to slow down, plus holiday celebrations and traditions. The price we pay for this juggling is that a few of these balls get dropped every year. But that probably just means losing a bit of sleep, showing up at the meeting late and with baked goods from a store instead of from your own oven, and skipping a few parties.

What price does the architecture profession pay for having its emerging professionals try to learn too much on the job, in too short a time period, with too little guidance? What balls get dropped when we try to cram too much into the internship all at once?


8 thoughts on “Cramming It All In

  1. Liz,
    I hear you. Although we sold our firm pre-crash, we are still deeply involved in construction. From my 30 + year career, I am able to see the results of cramming it all in. Our firm provides document management services for the precise concerns you expressed.
    And might I add, preparation for the profession is still lagging behind reality. Academic architects actually believe what many schools still teach. That is, you are all going to be world renowned designers. Little or no management or leadership skills are taught. That has not changed. So the debt-ridden newbie have never been told that they are there to make money for their employer. The employer has not the time nor interest in contributing to the intern and the profession by providing the guidance the intern needs to develop into a fully rounded architect. It seems every one is trying to just get by.
    My little bleak rant should not be taken as a grumbie old architect. I am rather inspired by a young person entering the profession I have found so rewarding. I hand wonderful mentors. I returned the favor to my employees over the years. There is hope in those coming up in the profession.
    I am inspired. Thom

    • Thanks for commenting, Thom. I am lucky to work with a lot of great young people who want to do everything right, and have the ability to do it, if not the time.
      The difference between the experience of today’s emerging professionals and mine is the easy accessibility to manufacturer’s details and trade organization publications on the internet.
      I thought I was supposed to ask my bosses all my questions. They didn’t have time for answering all interns’ questions, and also didn’t have good places to direct us to in most cases.

  2. Thom Schwetye and I are both grumpy old architects who have had a number of conversations about this topic at Greater St. Louis CSI meetings, and elsewhere. Both of us have seen a pattern during our careers: once a decade there is a recession in the building industry, and architects leave the profession in droves. This group usually is heaviest in the critical center cut of our industry – more experienced than interns but not yet grumpy old guys and gals – the folks in their most important earning years, and in the best position to teach younger professionals. Because many of them have left never to return, when the recovery happens all that are left in many firms are interns and senior managers or owners. There is a void in the middle, and the youngest and least experienced jump or are pushed into assuming more responsibility than they are ready for.

    I can speak from the “distant past” and “olden times” – pre-CAD and pre-social media, and I disagree that we were better prepared than you. I entered the workforce in the early 1970’s recession and was thrown into the fire with very little guidance, resulting in varying degrees of benefit and detriment to my career development. Those who entered the workforce a half generation after me, or in the boom times of the late 80’s and 90’s, did get training and had a more reasonable career path, at least in my experience.

    So it is cyclical – firm owners are more prone to educate and mentor when times are good, and more prone to cram in bad times. Cramming during tight times and in the early recovery does come at a price. The price is inferior documentation resulting from not knowing how to put a building together. As the a/e’s begin to pay that price in rfi’s, change orders, and e&o claims, they begin to look again at better educating their workforce [Insert huge plug for CDT and certification here]

    It’s cyclical, but also evolutionary. Your points about evolving technologies and delivery methods are valid. Each time we leave the down part of the cycle, things have changed, so MY recession experience is not a perfect analogue for yours, of for the most recent one. Another attribute of age, besides grumpiness and nostalgia, is being less prone to panic. Like my friend Thom, I am optimistic and inspired. We’ve seen these general patterns before, five or six times in our careers, and each time a better and more proficient generation of practitioners develops and moves the profession forward again.

    • George, I was hoping that a “grumpy old architect” or two would weigh in on whether or not I was looking at past architectural internships through rose-colored glasses. I value your input about the cyclic nature of good preparation/education/mentoring. Thank you!

    • I believe that some states allow this. It certainly should be increasing the percentage of people who actually bother to take the tests. I wonder if there’s data on that yet.
      When I took the ARE, it was 9 individual tests on the computer. I think more people bothered to take the exams when they were on paper, and offered only once a year – there was an element of peer pressure that helped people get it done.

  3. housearchitect brings up an interesting idea. Certain sections of the exam may be appropriate to take closer to school. Think the bar exam for lawyers. Likewise, getting certain CSI credentials prior to graduation would give an emerging architect a much fuller view of the profession. The practice involves more than design.

    • The farther away from regular studying one is, the harder studying for the exams is.
      On the other hand, experience also informs the studying process – the more you know, the more you can learn. I took CSI’s CDT exam after I was already a licensed architect. Some stuff I studied for the CDT was review, but a lot of it filled in some gaps in my experience, and this was valuable stuff that I wouldn’t have really picked up on if I had had little or no work experience as an architect during the construction phase.

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