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What's your story?

August 17, 2018

This post is a continuation of my previous post, "Storytelling for Architects". The previous post was part of a series called #architalks - a group of architects who blog about the same topic each month - and this month's topic is Words. The words we say and how we say them form the basis of the engaging stories that captivate listeners and encourage them to remember the idea you'd like to leave them with. I wrote about how one might go about shaping the story they want to tell. This post is an exercise using that advice and is the story of my current practice at Little. 


I had always known that when I started work at a firm I'd finally have access to the knowledge of experienced professionals, resources, and products to specify. Honestly, I'm a hoarder of information and I would salivate in school about all the "real-life stuff" we didn't have to consider as constraints regarding our projects. Looking back, I think this story practically wrote itself but at the time I wouldn't have dared say I'd base my career on that experience at the beginning. 

 

My first really real, from start to finish, big, important project I worked on was complex for lots of reasons. I was still closely supervised, given a few tasks at a time, exposing my horrendous knowledge gaps, and learning whole new concepts. I was working on a public middle school project (new construction) that was just starting design development and getting agency & school board approvals that are required in the state of PA.

 

As part of starting at my first commercial design firm with registered architects, I was required to learn lots and lots of new things that all aspiring architects should learn, but I also had to learn some very specific requirements for LEED rating systems and documentation that also required a 3D model of a building instead of projected lines in 2D space. The client also wanted to be involved, but learning how to teach a client is a whole other skill. I had to really learn, not just talk, but learn and then repeat. 

 

The interesting thing about learning about the real world of architecture is that eventually you come to understand that each new layer of knowledge does build on your existing knowledge even if the topics on the surface don't relate. I remember as our meetings got more dense, and more in-depth, the discussions got longer, harder to follow, and overall just being way more likely to run into topics I hadn't yet encountered. 

 

Through the design development phase, we are specifying systems, deciding how our schematic plan will take form. The way in which we assess what needs to be completed on the walls, floors & ceilings is methodological, and some people have different methods. There are certain assumptions you make based on experience, that when more "green" (haha get it??), you're not as likely to know to make. 

 

One of the most difficult things I think for architects to learn is the construction. OK I know that sounds so repetitive because people to tend to say it all the time. AND its the most common issue with new grads/ a well for self-criticism/ and more time consuming than is EVER ever (literally ever) available or funded. 

 

I've learned recently that "open finance" firms have a huge advantage in terms of mentorship & growth opportunities, stretch projects, and training. Employees (most? all? some don't care/ need to know but it's not restricted) have access to project performance and group performance. To be fair learning the dinosaur beast of a software program (yeasss it is BST) is almost impossible. It's practically another language with the symbol buttons. More on that bit later. 

 

One of the things I have learned is that getting through construction is really about understanding and administering the Owner's contract with the contractor. The process, especially the contracts and the roles they establish, don't give the architect any power over the process of the construction, other than what we are allowed to draw & specify. The Contractor is responsible for "means & methods" which includes things like making a schedule, hiring subcontractors to do each part of the work, and getting the work done correctly. 

 

I remember designing the cafeteria ceiling for this project with a gorgeous wood-framed element with uplighting in it for a really special effect. I was working with my first real mentor & boss who was mostly directing the project & checking my work, while I provided a lot of input on the initial design & picked up redlines and helped to coordinate the final drawings that would be submitted to the city for review & then construction. We had drawn all of the parts, specified sustainable wood on a modular frame & energy efficient LED lighting, and made sure they worked with all of the sprinklers and other devices. 

 

One of the hangups we had during construction was that the round duct size was large from the main unit. The large branch fit in the ceiling but didn't fit over the raised wood element. The duct was designed to dropped down a size to reach the windows, but we didn't coordinate where. After adjusting the wood element to align with the reconfigured booths, the engineer didn't update his transition.

 

The contractor didn't assume what we did, and he had ordered too much of the larger size and not enough of the smaller size for the branch. Getting that all measured, redesigned, confirmed with the engineer, ordered, brought to the site, installed, and back on track was a circus of chaos and coordination. An atom of Californium, electrons of timed and scheduled activity flurrying around the office and the jobsite. The act of problem solving quickly and efficiently is both terrifying and graceful. It is stress and satisfaction and dunking another goal and now I know the feeling of racking up a few wins when things that you've learned from in the past are caught and dismissed long before you make the same mistake over again. 

 

It goes on like that, a few wins and then another surprise, until there are no more things to do and then you reach substantial completion and the last few things get done except the pesky remaining two obnoxious details. It fades to a few emails and then poof it has all come to a close. What will they remember you for? This is the secret that people don't tell you. The architect is really, REALLY the person that determines how the Owner feels at the end of a project. They hired us to create and execute a vision and be on their team. 

 

I say we can do this. If we are mentally and emotionally present, willing and/ or able to be available, we've gotten through half the battle. It takes commitment and even more rare, trust where you can find it. It takes resolve and attention, often for the projects don't have any fee left based on the number of surprises or mistakes. Learning how to provide excellent customer service while battling the other forces fighting against you is like trying to fly without lessons. You can only hit so many buttons randomly and still stay in the air. 

 

Eventually, after studying for exams, getting the wide variety of experience that NCARB requires, and deep dives into each specific task or topic,  you learn your way into feeling comfortable at meetings and having the right answers. The way I see it, if I learn enough, eventually I'll be able to not only take great care of my own projects and clients, but also have the ability to salvage relationships and projects that are even more of a challenge. 

 

 

 

 

 

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