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Professional Practice Makes Perfect May 27, 2013

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.
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I was asked recently to teach Professional Practice to first year architecture grad students.

This would be in addition to the architecture technology courses I normally teach.

Despite its reputation for being at best a necessary evil and at worse a bore, I enjoy teaching ProPrac – as it is affectionately known.

The standard course content includes an overview of contracts, delivery methods, finances, marketing, business development, communication, people skills.

All add up in most students’ minds to equate with “not design.”

For some, the course might as well be called “ARCH 501: Not Design.”

In fact, it is a well-known assumption in architecture education that once undergraduates are indoctrinated into their first courses of architecture studies, having tasted the sweet nectar of design studio, they hence split their courses into two categories: design and everything else i.e. not design.

While I do teach design studio, the bigger part of my academic attention – teaching and research– is in architectural technology, construction, fabrication, building science, construction management, digital technology.

In other words: not design.

And yet, in order to keep the content in these courses engaging, I’ll try as often as possible to filter the topics through my 25 years of experience as a designer.

And so, wherever practical, I will talk about ProPrac in terms of design. This at least gets student’s attention.

Ideally, Professional Practice wouldn’t need its own course. The course content would be covered in design studio and the “everything else” courses: building technology, structures, history and so on.

These course instructors would walk over to the white board to illustrate a practice point.

They’d have a ProPrac corner for a ProPrac moment or perhaps even ProPrac break-out sessions.

May You Practice in Interesting Times

I have a sense of what sticks and what doesn’t stick from having previously taught ProPrac for many years to architecture grad students at UIC in Chicago.

And yet, this time around will be different, because I’ll be teaching the course at an interesting time.

A time marked by the advent of new technologies and new delivery methods and a reshuffling of whose in charge in the profession and industry.

Due to these circumstances, this raises some questions to ponder:

  • How do you teach Design-Bid-Build when you recognize that its use is declining year by year, while at the same time more integrated methods – such as Design-Build, CM@Risk and IPD – are becoming the go-to choices for improved results?
  • How do you discuss construction documentation knowing that the majority of firms now work in models, not drawings, making fuzzy the line between design intent and dictating construction means and methods?
  • How do you cover the architect’s standard of care when BIM puts that term into question?
  • How do you make the content relevant to all students when you know that 50% of them will go on to non-traditional practice?

I’ll often hear practitioners complain that architecture school doesn’t teach students about running a practice, about the importance of attaining business skills or even how buildings are put together. You might have heard similar complaints – or perhaps even agree with these yourself.

The thing is, sometimes I would hear these complaints from firm principals, for example about the dearth of business knowledge in recent graduates, only moments after returning to the office from having taught just these very subjects in my courses.

Students are exposed to these practical topics – especially in professional practice courses. They are either just not making this known to their employers – or they aren’t carrying-over what they learned in school into the office, the proverbial academic/practice gap.

Is it that the information learned in courses such as professional practice doesn’t “stick,” or because it isn’t put into immediate use, doesn’t resonate with them – and so it is soon forgotten.

Some of this has no doubt been covered in the extensive reports collected by The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) for their 2013 Accreditation Review Conference (ARC13) July 17-19, in Snowbird, UT. Following the conference, the NAAB will revise The Conditions for Accreditation with a new edition scheduled for release in 2014.

Learning Professional Practice from Books

I attended school before professional practice course content was required for accreditation. I learned everything I needed to learn about practice from reading: books such as The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice (look for the new 15th edition Nov. 2013) and lesser known but equally impactful books, such as The Executive Architect: Transforming Designers into Leaders.

Architect and educator Andrew Pressman has written some excellent books including a new book due out January 2014, Designing Relationships: The Art of Collaboration in Architecture. Look for it.

But I recognize that students have different learning preferences and perhaps due to the forces of digital technology and social media, reading is less and less one of them. What worked for me won’t necessarily work for them. Reading gets relegated to the supplemental.

In my own courses, I emphasize the importance of people skills and in order to make the material memorable as well as actionable, I try to use a variety of learning tools – storytelling, role playing, break-out sessions, hands-on exercises – so as not to reduce the learning of course content to rote memorization from a sage on the stage.

As it is, students tend to compartmentalize knowledge – what happens in building science stays in building science – instead of applying what they learned in non-design courses to what they are working on in studio.

In the comprehensive Capstone studio I taught last fall – teaching both design studio and technology courses – I had the unusual perspective of realizing that my students could not perform tasks as seniors that I had evidence of their performing as sophomores. Instead of accumulating knowledge, or building on what came before, it is as though the information learned in one part of the curriculum remained inaccessible or dormant – as though left behind in some unused sketchbook.

For ProPrac course content to have any resonance, meaning and import – it has to find a way to be applied across the curriculum.

What, if anything, do you recall from your professional practice course?

What would you recommend to change about how professional practice is taught to make it more relevant for emerging design professionals?

– Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED-AP

On June 2013, I will be leading a early morning session on how to lead in the new world of practice, at the AIA 2013 Convention in Denver – live in person and also on-demand for the virtual convention. To learn more, please click the link below:

TH107: (Re)Learning to Lead with BIM and IPD

2013 AIA National Convention

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM

Denver, CO Convention Center, Room 201

Earn 1.00 AIA LUs + GBCI


Also, in July 2013, I will be leading a 2-day seminar. To learn more, please click the link below:

BIM: Lessons in Leadership

Harvard GSD Executive Education seminar

July 8, 2013 – 9:00am – July 9, 2013 – 5:00pm

Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA

Earn 14 AIA/CES




1. aubrey dawkins - May 27, 2013

Dear Randy
Im a practicing , under employed architect in Barbados West Indies , trained at Univ. of Southern Calif . class of 1982. I understand your challenge with the ProPractice teaching. When we took propracice back in 1980s it was made interestng by teaching through real life project situations that were occuring back then. I Suggest that you try to make the couse as relevangt as possible through real project situations occuring today .

randydeutsch - May 27, 2013

Thank you Aubrey for your suggestion. First, let me say that I am sorry to hear about your work situation and hope things pick up for you soon. The teaching focusing on ‘project situations’ sounds similar to the case study method used in business schools and elsewhere. I think this is a sound suggestion and I will look into incorporating current situations and practice cases into the course. BTW Thomas Fisher a few years ago came out with a book, “Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice” where the dilemmas (project situations or cases) he describes could be used in ProPrac courses to help get students engaged with the topic of ethics in the profession http://www.amazon.com/Ethics-Architects-Dilemmas-Professional-Architecture/dp/1568989466. Perhaps I can create similar dilemmas/cases for the other topics covered in the course? Thank you for your comment.

randydeutsch - May 27, 2013

One more point concerning project situations. The case study method works in business schools in part because MBA programs require students to have at least a couple years work experience. In other words, by the time they arrive at school they have a common frame of reference. Not so with architecture students – many of whom have been turned down for summer internships or employment opportunities. I wonder how effective trying to engage architecture students using scenarios from the workplace would be if the students haven’t had exposure to the project situations being discussed in class?

2. Federico Negro - May 27, 2013

This is a really interesting topic Randy. I think we would get somewhere if we had some definition of where we wanted to go. When I was in school, and it still seems true today, the focus was on divergent thinking. ‘Here are all the amazing things you an do as an architect.’ Which is good. But we never successfully transition to convergent thinking, where we also cover the ‘what you NEED to know’ as a minimum. We let people learn that through idp or worse, by memorizing study cards ahead of the ARE. I don’t know the answer but I think with the little time given to these topics in school, that only by giving some definition to the type of architect that they eventually want to be, will we start to get somewhere.

randydeutsch - May 27, 2013

Thanks Fed. The ‘definition’ you refer to, for me, is the missing vision for our profession, answering: Who can we hold up as our role models? How practical would it be to try to mirror their behavior in our less celebrated practices? Who can we aspire to be while still maintaining some semblance to a practicing architect? What does it mean for an architect to lead today? Who or what does the world need for us to be? I agree about our profession’s inability to converge: it seems to mimic the architect’s desire to remain in analysis at the expense of zeroing in on a synthesis. Convergent thinking takes discipline – it’s not nearly as much fun as divergent thinking. Or so it seems until you try it. And so we fall back on the “NEED to know,” as the lowest common denominator education that might as well be called No Architect Left Behind. I agree with everything you say here. Perhaps instead of having guest speakers present on delivery methods or contracts, they could instead serve as rich exemplars for the sorts of architects working today. And only then can students know what type of architect they will want to be – until they create new definitions and types that do not yet exist – for having discovered what is currently available to them.

Federico Negro - May 30, 2013

I think that would be really valuable. There seems to only be one accepted version of being a ‘successful architect’ that is taught in school. In reality there are many. Exposing students to all of these personas may actually lead smart kids to pursue paths that the profession sorely needs and is now under serving.

3. bruce bondy - May 27, 2013


Great to see you posting here again. What I find interesting from my point of view, working with many architecture offices, is that such a small part of the profession actually practices design once they are in the workforce. There seems to be a large gap between the romanticized vision of “The Architect” and the reality of a job in the field of architecture. I’m sure technology will disrupt this even further while creating unique opportunities for those able to adapt.

randydeutsch - May 27, 2013

Thanks Bruce. I’ve seen numbers thrown around that even building designers spend between 3-10% of their time in design, the remainder of their time spent in meetings, doing coordination, running projects – all the things normally covered in a professional practice course. Others of course spend little or no time designing. That said – because everyone on the design team needs to have developed design sensibilities since design is an architect’s core competency – the thinking goes that they need to start off with a common foundation in design, no matter how little of their time is spent actually designing. Thus, the over-emphasis in school on design courses. Bridging the gap that you mention is the primary focus of my writing efforts.

taraimani - May 27, 2013

Hi Randy,

I, too, am very glad to see you’re blogging again. Your wealth of information and insights are so helpful.

I appreciate the comments from everyone, especially Federico’s ideas which seemed to serve as a key turning point in this discussion.

I like the idea of case studies but would suggest they be taken farther. You could divide the class into teams of 2-4 students and assign a small scope project (one that’s already been designed) and have them act as if they’re running their own firms. Assignments could include: building code and sustainability analysis, client revisions (how to respond to and bill for), construction cost estimates, writing a small spec for a specific room (auditorium, commercial kitchen, hotel room, etc), etc.

My ideas might be too specific and narrow. Thought to share them nonetheless…

I have a 4-year pre-professional degree so I did not take any professional practice classes in school.

Good luck with your course, I know it will be great. Please post a follow up letting us know how it went.


randydeutsch - May 28, 2013

This is a great suggestion, Tara, and one that I’ll seriously consider implementing. After students perform their team exercise, they can perhaps select one team member to report back on their results and what they learned. Course logistics – amount of content that needs to be covered, number of students in the class (85-90), and time limitations – are frequently cited as the main reason professors don’t engage students in the material this way. There’s also an unspoken loss of control and lack of guarantee of learning outcome: but do professors know how much of their lectured content is retained by students? (I’ve read something like 30%, eroding even further just days afterwards.) I’ve found that the benefits outweigh any potential liabilities when it comes to using class exercises like this. In fact, one of the talks I’m giving this summer, at Roger Williams U in Bristol, Rhode Island, is called “Teaching for the Cycle,” where I use the baseball analogy to describe how it is more effective to sprinkle ‘hits’ throughout the class session vs. always going for the veritable home run. Thanks for visiting and for your support.

4. http://www.carterarch.com - May 28, 2013

In our professional practice course we learned about business law as it related to design professionals, marketing, how to use new and emerging materials and systems. we did a sample simple residential hvac system, plumbing, and electrical drawing to be turned in to the City of Raleigh for review, just to get us thinking about what it takes to get a permit reviewed , the process. Then another requirement for us was to work at least 6 weeks over the summer with a contractor or architect, required for graduation, or the other option was document via photographs and drawings a undocumented historical structure for the NC Department of Archives and History.( that got a record for them and experience for the student.)

5. Wayne Broadfield - May 28, 2013

Thank you for this very interesting topic. I do struggle with the thoughts of transition from University design and real world design as it applies to how the project is translated to the public and clients. I think more is said about Integrated Design with the project team, but one thing I believe is overlooked is that the owner is integral and that as architects we need to be able to solve his problem. I love the blogs and will book mark it to check in.
Thanks,- Wayne @broadfield_AIA, AIA Potomac Valley

randydeutsch - May 31, 2013

Thanks Wayne for your comment and kind words.

6. Lynne Funk - May 30, 2013

“Is it that the information learned in courses such as professional practice doesn’t “stick,” or because it isn’t put into immediate use, doesn’t resonate with them – and so it is soon forgotten.”

All of the above. I do not recall Pro Practice classes ever taking us thru an entire project so that the concepts are relevant. Use a real project and tag the places where PP is key. LFAArchitecture.com

randydeutsch - May 31, 2013

Students have a tendency to compartmentalize information that they learn: what happens in professional Practice stays in professional practice. Lynne, I like your suggestion – a version of the whole learning approach. Give them a project – the big picture overview – so they can see where each learning component fits in. It will go a long way to help assure that they understand the importance and role of each topic covered in the course.

7. Sharon Egretta Sutton - June 5, 2013

Randy: Thanks for an excellent post and literature suggestions. I will review all at the end of the summer as I am updating my professional practice course, which I will be teaching for the third time this fall. My course involves lots of reading and writing, lectures by myself and visiting practitioners, small-group discussions, office site visits, a team case study (3-4 people depending on class size), and a research paper. My main goal is to help students see where they fit in the practice of architecture—not in the distant future, but in the here-and-now. I want them to take away something that will help them be better entry-level employees, which I hope will facilitate their route to middle-management, where they might use some of the to-be-forgotten NAAB requirements. I am fortunate in that usually about 95 percent of the class has some practice experience, which they draw upon for their team case study. They are to use one person’s office and do an analysis of the office’s practice related to some particular issue(s) that have come up in the readings and lectures, like leadership style. Last year, one group did a fabulous comparison of the three office the three students had worked in. As you might imagine, the case studies become more interesting as the course progresses and one group sees what another group has done. To keep the competition as friendly as possible, I tell the students that I will give the early presenters extra credit for going early and expect more of the late presenters. Although I imagined the case study to be a minor assignment, I saw the first year that it was what most engaged students because it allows them to reflect upon an experience they have already had and to see how they might take better charge of their career development in the next go-round. So I have increased the amount of time I allot to it. The site visits are to three distinctly different office types and involve the office leaders in presenting a particular aspect of their practice, like ethics or client development. Surprisingly these have been less interesting to the students, perhaps because our school has a lot of engagement with the professional community so there is nothing new. Some of the discussions sessions that have been designed by practitioners have involved the small scope hands-on activities that Tara suggests. These have come across as busy work. The students are engaged in the moment but the ideas worked with do not reappear in written exams or research papers, which is my measure for whether something is sticking. On the “lots of reading and writing requirement”—of course the students hate these requirements, but literacy is a professional practice skill!!! Plus awarding a masters degrees to someone who can not read a chapter and synthesize it or write a cogent paragraph seems downright unethical. So I am perfectly happy to get marked down on my teaching evaluation for requiring reading and writing. If someone had done that when I was a student at Columbia, I would not have had to take several remedial literacy courses to continue my education or write an effective syllabus. Besides, you can not communicate effectively or resolve crises if you can not thinking logically. Thanks again for the cites!

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