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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



How Little the Future is Focused on the Future August 30, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, change, technology, transformation.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

“This new generation does not waste time speculating about the future.  Its attitude seems to be: Who needs the future? The present is plenty interesting on its own.”

The most striking thing about the best technology writing of 2009 is how little of it focuses on the future.

So opens the introduction of The Best Technology Writing 2009, as in the past made up of short articles from periodicals, blogs, newspapers. And how refreshing to discover a technology reader that continually returns us – neither to the foreseeable future nor the recent past – but to the eternal now. Readers and writers both were invited by the Yale University Press to nominate pieces, and even self-nominations are encouraged, with a preference for “profiles, policy, and Big Think pieces including blog posts, features, and investigative reporting; human interest, humor, business and gadgetry.”

In other words, the usual geeky fair with the ideal submissions being engagingly written for a mass audience, no longer than 5,000 words and published in 2008 (explaining how the 2009 collection – though with an official publishing date in October, can be had in August.)

Guest edited (given their quality it would be more accurate to say curated collection of essays) by Steven Johnson author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, it turns out that the criteria for inclusion in the collection is as creative and open-sourced as the content within.

Some of Johnson’s favorite passages in this collection “have this introspective quality: the mind examining its own strange adaption to a world that has been transformed by information technology.”

With our preoccupation with all things online we may have inadvertently missed a remarkable streak of emotive writing when learning of the previous collections: last year’s The Best of Technology Writing 2008, Sherry Turkle, Director, MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and author of my current favorite read Simulation and Its Discontents (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life), wrote “reading this collection, one suspects he is right—it sparkles with beautifully written narratives not only about what technology can do for us but what it does to us as people, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, and how we envisage our world.” The human element in this collection looms large.

There has been much written in the past about “High Tech, High Touch,” the balancing and rebalancing of the cool innovations of technology with the all-too-human interface. The essays selected for The Best Technology Writing 2009 take “touch” to another plane altogether when you consider how in touch they are with our feelings about our current – and human – condition.

The Best of Technology Writing 2007 also touched on the human element (social networking, “crowdsourcing” and the online habits of urban moms, amongst others) and the changes that connected computers have brought to this aspect of human behavior.

The current collection contains essays by Nicholas Carr [worrying that Google is making us stupid,] Dana Goodyear [heartbreakingly chronicling the renaissance of the cell phone novel,] Andrew Sullivan [on why he blogs,] Dalton Conley [on how the wealthy overwork in the information age,] and a particularly incisive essay by Clay Shirky marveling at the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the decline of the TV sitcom, resulting in Wikipedia and perhaps the saving of the earth, amongst many others.

So why should architects of all stripes bother with this annual collection of well-wrought wisdom? For many reasons – not the least of which being that architects – whether building or software – can get pretty wrapped-up in the latest technology and software only to be reminded that it is people that count. People – who use the buildings or programs, people who we are designing for. A simple message perhaps – but one we need reminding of each day as we sit before the monitor and design.

Something that says a great deal about technology today is that I discovered the book at my local bookstore and shamelessly ordered it from Amazon at 7:30PM that weekday evening only for it to arrive – free of charge – at 3PM the next afternoon. That’s technology for you – but also excellent customer service. The “get it in two-day” delivery option under-promised and over-performed – what any self-respecting service provider (including architect) would strive to do. Needless to say, with an official release date still months away, let it be acknowledged that this is the book’s first review.

As Johnson concludes in his introduction, “sometimes, when the future finally arrives, the most surprising thing you discover is that things aren’t that different after all.” Bless this realization.