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8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming An Architect January 16, 2014

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.
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emergingDear Emerging Professional,

I am so excited to be able to participate with you in the 2014 Emerging Professionals Summit in Albuquerque next week.

If for some reason I am not able to attend, there are a few things I would want you know – a few things I learned along the way to becoming and being an architect.

1. If you want to design buildings, design buildings

I actually learned this about writing. The best way to be a writer is to write. If you want to write, put butt in seat and write.

The same holds true for designing buildings.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity early in my career to design buildings.

A large firm I was working for at the time made me an associate of the firm.

But there were only so many design positions. If I were to continue working at the firm, I would be a technical architect.

So I said thank you and left the firm to work at a firm that had a strong design reputation.

Then I left that firm and thereafter, associated with that strong design boutique, was given the opportunity to design buildings for a living.

I have been a designer ever since.

The world today gives you so many opportunities to design.

So, if you want to design, design.

2. You can reinvent yourself at any time

There’s nothing wrong with being a project architect or project manager. These are worthy career tracks, and in the case of being a PM, has a greater career longevity than being a designer.

But I asked myself, at the end of my life how would I feel knowing that I hadn’t designed buildings?

While acknowledging that everyone is different, this thought made me feel empty.

I knew then I would not be following the dictates of my personality if I decided to spend a career in architecture as anything but a designer.

So I chose design. And by that I mean I dedicated myself to designing buildings.

I took a cut in salary at the design boutique, and worked way too many hours.

But I saw it as an opportunity to reinvent myself.

Like going back to school, this short commitment to a professional transformation has paid off for nearly two decades.

And I can see now, looking back, that my life would have turned out very differently had I not taken this less trodden path.

3. Anyone can be a designer

As with anything worth doing, you just have to really want it.

It isn’t so much about talent as it is about listening.

Knowing what it is that your client – or your manager or you boss – is looking for.

And then using the resources you have available to you – including tools, processes, consultants and teammates – to help you deliver the results.

All the talent in the world will get you nowhere if you can’t discern what it is others are looking for.

When you present your designs, what you’re saying is, look: I heard you.

And that’s all people really want: to be heard.

The greatest gift you can give others is to show them that they’ve been heard. That you’ve listened.

Then, once they’ve been heard, if you have a better idea – show them.

They are much more likely to see what you see if you first show them that you heard what they said.

I grew up in a cookie-cutter split-level home in the suburbs outside of Chicago. We didn’t know any architects. If I can be a designer, anyone can.

4. You can see your designs built

For the longest time, the most important thing for me – besides my family and my health – was to wake up each day and design.

Design, but not build.

If you want to see your designs built, then you will spend time designing your buildings in such a way that they are buildable.

You will make the ability to put buildings together on equal terms with the ability to design.

Otherwise, you’ll be a paper or digital architect.

But not an architect who builds.

If you want to see your designs built, you have to be excited about discovering cost-saving, value-adding, waste-reducing ways to see your designs built.

If you can be as excited about putting buildings together as you are about designing buildings, you have it. You have what it takes.

5. You can make a killing in architecture

This is probably the greatest myth in our profession.

That you can’t get rich being an architect.

It probably helps if money isn’t important to you.

Money was never important to me. It is part of the reason I went into architecture.

People – your boss, co-workers, clients – recognize when you’re not in it for the money.

You do what you do because you love it.

If you don’t love it, get out.

Or take a vacation, take a break, and see if the feeling has passed.

If you can’t wait to get out of bed because you have the opportunity – the privilege – for one more day to be an architect, then money probably isn’t your first concern.

Which is good.

Because the universe will recognize this and make you bloody rich.

I will never forget the time, years ago, when I was first offered $100,000 to design buildings – to do the thing I loved – for a living.

I showed my wife the email with the job offer and said “watch this.”

And before she could stop me from doing something stupid, I replied to the email asking for $10,000 more.

We sat in silence watching my computer monitor for what seemed like an eternity.

It was thirty seconds.

When the reply said “sure. OK.” Deal.

Rule of thumb: If someone is willing and able to offer you a $100,000 salary they probably don’t care if it’s $110,000.

You don’t make over $100,000 in architecture because it matters to you.

You will make over $100,000 in architecture only when it stops mattering to you.

Money is still not important to me. But it is important to my family.

And so, like going to the dentist twice a year, I make sure it’s covered.

Check.

Don’t give it any more attention or energy than that.

6. You can open an office without any clients

One of the gifts of being an emerging professional is that you don’t know enough – haven’t been around enough – to be scared away from doing unwise things.

Like opening an office with no clients.

I remember when I announced to my colleagues that I was opening a firm, one took me aside and asked: “Aren’t you scared?”

At the time, it seemed like such an odd question. Scared of what?

OK, I learned soon enough. Who knows, perhaps had I known what I was getting into, I might not have made the leap.

But call it naïve or fearless, I opened my firm without any clients.

And by the end of day one I had three.

How? By putting myself out there.

Before launch, I hired a graphic designer and designed professional looking letterhead and an announcement.

And sent the announcement out to everyone I knew.

I got out of my office and, wouldn’t you know, while putting gas in my car, I heard a voice – a former client who, having received one of my announcements, asked if I would be interested in doing some work for him?

It’s all about putting yourself out there. You’ll find if you put yourself out there, people will meet you halfway.

Make it easy on others to find you .

7. You can teach and practice architecture

Before I graduated grad school, I went into the dean’s office and said there was something weighing on me:

Will I be able to practice architecture and write plays?

At the time, I couldn’t imagine being an architect without also being a playwright, and I wanted to know if there was a precedent for this, if this was possible?

The dean said: “If you want to do both, you’ll do both.”

And so, for the next dozen years, I was a playwright writing plays (some won awards and got produced) while being an architect.

I took that same thinking – if you want it badly enough – and applied it to teaching architecture.

And so, for half a dozen years, without any teaching experience, I taught in Chicago while running my own practice.

So, how do you get your first teaching position if you haven’t taught?

8. You can do anything if you have a sponsor

Join the local component of the AIA.

Participate in committees, attend events.

You not only benefit from exposure to interesting subjects, but as importantly – others see that you are someone who gets involved.

If you volunteer and serve, you’ll do so because you care about the profession; about the environment; about giving back.

The thing is, someone will notice you. It may not happen right away.

But one day, you’ll get a call to serve on a board, to organize an important event, to rise within an organization; to teach at their university.

Someone has been watching you.

When this happens, turn off your iPod and take off your earbuds.

You’ve been sponsored.

People will see that you have time – you are the sort of person who can create time – to do something outside of the office.

And they will push you a little, by presenting you with opportunities.

This person is your champion. They may not be your mentor, but they’re no doubt your sponsor.

Most emerging professionals don’t want to make decisions because they feel it limits their options, and in doing so, closes doors.

But in one’s career only so many doors will open for you in the first place.

You need to be there – and recognize – when it happens.

And when it does, ask yourself if you are truly interested in where it might take you.

If you are, well, go through the door.

I have seen it many times – and have experienced it myself.

The way you get your first teaching gig is to show up and get involved in the AIA or another worthwhile organization like Architecture for Humanity.

And care.

It won’t be long before you feel that hand on your shoulder.

Or you get that email or the phone rings.

And if you care about something, don’t be afraid of showing your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm helps. There’s not enough of it.

Being an architect is the best job in the world

Think of it like this. You are given so many days on this planet.

How do you want to go about spending them?

Being an architect is like the spacesuit you are given.

Only you get to choose which spacesuit to wear while you’re here.

I can think of no greater way to live on our planet than to have a position where you can act on it, change it, grow it, improve it.

But this is something I suspected all along. I hope you come to find this is true for you, too.

Wear your spacesuit well.

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Become a Life Change Architect August 19, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, career, change, collaboration, creativity, employment, reading, survival, the economy.
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1 comment so far

Fall is near, school’s back in session.

You can feel it in the air.

Studio Assignment #1: Apply the skills you acquired in becoming an architect to design a way out of this mess.

Finding a job – or keeping your current one – is job #1 for many architects today.

But should it be job #2?

I know 2 talented, well-connected out-of-work architects who found jobs this year.

Only to have their firm file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Maybe our job #1 should be something else?

As in, ourselves.

Assuming we can all take care of our physiological needs –

Food?

Water?

Shelter?

though admittedly these days, nothing can be taken for granted.

It may seem that anything other than 100% fixation on the bottom line is foolhardy.

But that’s just not the case.

Until you find that light at the end of the tunnel – however you define it – I am going to suggest you focus on something other than the economy, construction recovery, credit thaw or employment.

And I am going to suggest that you consider becoming something that you already do rather well.

In fact, quite exceptionally – better than most.

Literature of Reinvention or Chicken Soup for the Architect’s Soul?

Architects right now need empathy and understanding as much as they need work and relief.

Architects need courage and tools to face their situation and this is where a helpful new book comes in.

It offers both.

Heartily endorsed by Daniel Pink, Marshall Goldsmith and Gregg Levoy among others, the book can be read by all ages.

Though one senses the main audience might be what is innocuously referred to as “the third age.”

I posted a while back on the subject of increasingly prevalent thirds – and the third age is one of them.

What I am suggesting is that the answer to our circumstances may just be in retirement – specifically in the literature of self-reinvention.

Third age literature refers to retirement – how to spend our post-work years.

While retirement is not an option for most architects, and very few architects ever plan on retiring at all, perhaps it makes sense to think of our current situation as a third age of sorts.

Three (St)ages

1. School

2. Working pre-great recession

3. Work/Life post-great recession

The book I’m about to introduce you to helps you to plan for your third age – right now.

And by that I mean your post-great recession worklife.

It helps you to see your life as an architect stepping onto an empty lot for the first time – the architect’s equivalent of the blank canvas, blank page or hunk of clay.

The book is based on research into the work processes of artists and over 100 success stories of those who have managed to reinvent themselves under similar circumstances to our own.

Using the very same skills and creativity we use as architects.

Become a Life Change Architect

While waiting for your next opportunity and for your life to change you can become a life change artist.

Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life, by Fred Mandell, Ph.D., an acclaimed personal transformation catalyst, and Kathleen Jordan, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in personal creativity and business innovation.

As the book makes clear, the authors are equally adept at helping individuals make considerable changes in their organizational settings as well as their individual lives.

The book – recently published in paperback new from $7.39 – offers an innovative approach to reinventing yourself at any stage of life.

Making a Major Life Change

The authors deduced 7 key strengths that the most creative minds of history shared, and that anyone rethinking their future can cultivate to effectively change their life:

  • Preparing the brain to undertake creative work
  • Seeing the world and one’s life from new perspectives
  • Using context to understand the facets of one’s life
  • Embracing uncertainty
  • Taking risks
  • Collaborating
  • Applying discipline

To architects this list may at first appear overly familiar and simplistic.

But don’t let these strengths fool you.

Once you dig into each you’ll realize that the abilities we take for granted – and use in our everyday lives – are much more powerful than we give them credit for.

Especially when you apply them to the problem of our worklives.

Just take the first strength: Preparation.

The book defines this not as undertaking mental or physical warm-ups but as “deliberately engaging in activities that help break us from our usual patterns of thought and feeling and prepare us for creative insight.”

This insight can be just what you need to lead the way to a breakthrough in your situation.

The book talks a great deal about creativity and art – but it is primarily focused on process, not product, as well as on skills and learning.

With the belief that the very skills we use in creating art – or in our case designing buildings – are those that we need to create a more fulfilling life.

The book argues that making a major life change requires the skills of an artist.

And certainly for the unemployed and underemployed, finding work of any sort but especially satisfying and fulfilling work, calls on our inherent creative ability.

As an architect, you already have a leg-up on the targeted audience of this book in that you have been trained in these seven key skills.

They’re in your blood and soul and you, at times like these, forget.

And don’t even realize it.

You can almost imagine a job interview in the near future where your future employer asks you what you did during the lull – and you explain that you treated your predicament as though it were a design assignment.

What was your secret?

How did you escape from the box you were in?

You treated the process of finding your way into a new life by utilizing the very skills engendered in becoming an architect.

You designed you way out the only way I knew.

If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. Right?

So why not try something different?

To be sure, the book is not Chicken Soup for the Architect’s Soul.

But right now, despite the summer season, a little soup might just be what is needed to help us assuage and survive the predicament we find ourselves in.

When all life gives you are tomatoes, make gazpacho.

The book is inspiring and with its exercises, tools and creativity assessment in the appendix, it will help you to keep your creativity – and soul and much else – alive and well in these trying times.

Building on What You Already Know

You need help.

You want to help others in need.

And you help yourself by helping others.

Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life will help you to help others – the young, the elderly, neighbors, friends, emerging and senior talent, those out of work, those looking to make a change in their own lives – discover these qualities for themselves.

Because you already have these skills, strengths and insights: in droves.

You just needed someone – or something – to remind you.

With this book you can consider yourself reminded.

Are You a Koala or Raccoon? July 4, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, career, employment, environment, identity, pragmatism, survival, the economy.
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4 comments

All architects are by training generalists and then in practice become specialists.

To see that this is true we only need to look at Vitruvius’s bucket list for the training of architects:

to be creative, apt in the acquisition of knowledge, a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies

Despite never becoming somewhat of a musician, many practitioners understandably have remained generalists their entire careers.

Some to great success.

That is, until now.

For while statistics aren’t readily available it is conceivable that the majority of architects who find themselves out of work, or underemployed, today are the generalist sort.

That the better gamble would have – years earlier – been to become experts at something.

But that thinking – while comforting to tell oneself – would be off-the-mark.

By suddenly specializing, generalists do themselves a disservice, are untrue to their calling and sell themselves short.

More than anyone employers need to realize this.

For while there are certainly merits and detriments to each:

Is the current trend to fill holes predominantly with specialists short-sighted?

The Generalist Advantage

Using a biological analogy, a generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources while specialist species can only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions with a limited diet.

In more utilitarian terms, specialists know where to hit the nail to get rid of the creak in the floor board.

While generalists can recommend eleven types of flooring that don’t creak in the first place.

Generalists see the big picture.

Specialists have great depth of experience in one specific area.

Generalists conceive the big ideas and concepts that energize teams and carry construction projects through their arduous 3-5 year lifespan.

Specialists focus all of their effort and skill development on one specialty.

Generalists keep things interesting – they’re often whom colleagues and clients relate with best.

Specialists have an easier time selling their services once they find their market and can charge more.

Generalists are the glue that holds teams together.

In the body politic, specialists are the workhorse liver and spleen.

Generalists? The heart and sinew.

Specialists know the work inside and out.

Generalists – with broad peripheral knowledge and the ability to provide clients with alternatives if one solution doesn’t fit – are the heart and soul of the operation.

For that really is the crux of the matter:

When specialists die who attends their funeral?

When generalists die they’re standing 10 deep, nary a dry eye in the room.

Specialists may be safer in the short term but generalists are a whole lot more fun.

Wanted: Specialists – Not Deeper Generalists

Is your specialty being a generalist? Are generalists the new specialists?

Architects have so much to learn that being a jack-of-all-trades isn’t really a conceivable route to take.

Even generalists are more specialized than they give themselves credit for.

One look at the jobs postings – what there are of them – and its dishearteningly clear: only specialists are in demand.

Employers now require recruits and candidates that are exact matches for the holes they need to fill.

Down to the detail – looking for people with single attributes.

In the wish list of job requirements “well-rounded” is not among them.

Forget round altogether. We’re living in square peg, square hole times.

Not fire starters but firemen – relievers – to put out fires.

Wanted: Closers, not openers. Fastballs, not knuckleballs.

Generalists in a Specialist’s World

And there’s no room for ambiguity, no growing into the position. You’re either it – or you’re not.

It may be well and good that the architect’s core competency is a hard-earned and all-too-rare comfort with ambiguity.

Make no mistake. We are living in clearly unambiguous times.

This talent – often referred to as agility and flexibility – to keep as many balls in the air for as long as possible isn’t needed right now, thank you.

For there are far fewer balls to maneuver and the few that there are seem to hang in the air longer.

Task masters are in. Multitaskers need not apply.

Going back to that biological analogy, most organisms of course do not fit neatly into either the specialist or generalist camp. Some species are highly specialized, others less so, while some can tolerate many different environments.

In other words, it’s probably healthiest for architects to think of the specialist–generalist issue as a continuum, from highly specialized experts on one end to broadly generalist practitioners on the other.

Are You a Koala or Raccoon?

Forget the Hedgehog or the Fox, where the generalist fox knows many things, but the specialist hedgehog knows one big thing.

Instead, ask yourself: Are you a Koala or Raccoon?

A well-known example of a specialist animal is the koala which subsists almost entirely on eucalyptus leaves. No eucalyptus, no koala.

In our current work environment it is perhaps best to think of oneself like the wily raccoon – which are able to adapt to all sorts of environments, even urban ones.

Ever adaptable, the raccoon is a generalist because it has a natural range that includes most of North and Central America and it is omnivorous, eating berries, insects, eggs and small animals.

But then again, adaptability – like the generalist today – is underrated.

Perhaps it’s best to be a little of both?

But you’d have to be a generalist to see it that way.

Image credit: Lynne Lancaster