Do you ever take stock of where you currently are and compare that to what you thought you would be doing when you first graduated college? This blog is about reflection. When I finished architecture school I had two big expectations for my career: #1 I wanted to be a design architect and #2 I wanted to start my own architecture firm. Life rarely goes how we plan and my journey is no exception. In this blog I share my story, my dreams and how I have evolved over the last 10 years since graduating from the University of Maryland.
It's #Architalks 22 y'all!
This blog is part of the #Architalks series. #Architalks is a blog series involving a motley crew of architectural bloggers who write about a common theme. #Architalks was started by the architecture blog-father Mr. Bob Borson of the website: Life of an Architect. At the bottom of this article you will find links to all of the other talented bloggers. Please check them out.
The theme this month was sent out by Bob, and instead of paraphrasing I am copying the message directly from Bob’s email:
After 21 topics, I have been thinking long and hard about how to come up with a topic that can span the experience, professional roles, and pet projects that make up this group. Rather than a specific word or phrase, this time I am going to provide a topical direction that should cover everybody here and give them a forum to talk about how their career path has developed and evolved from the time they graduated from school. Basically, I would like for everyone to tell their story of what they thought they were going to be doing when they graduated versus what they are actually doing - along with all the twists and turns the journey has presented to them. If you need a concise phrase to lubricate your creative chi, then I present you with ...................
"Then and Now"
Hot damn that’s a good topic! Well done, Bob! I love to turn back the clock and talk about prior experiences. Some of my favorite posts have been reflections and lessons learned. And this is a good time for this post.
I’m 10 Y’all!
I graduated with a Masters of Architecture from the University of Maryland in May of 2006. (Go Terps!) I have now been a big-boy worker for just over ten years. A decade of working as an architect! (Technically four years of internship and the last six as a licensed architect.)
After graduation in 2006, I immediately began my career as an Intern Architect with Michael Graves & Associates in Princeton, New Jersey.
I can only recall having two real expectations for my career as an architect:
Expectation #1 - Become a design architect.
Explanation: Not all architects design buildings. I would guess about 1 in 4 architects are involved with the design side. The rest focus their time on project management, construction administration, specification writing, code investigation, construction detail development, marketing, etc. And of course we all start off as interns, which does not involve much design.
I entered architecture because I liked art and this was a practical way to create art. Based on that, I knew that I would need to be a design architect to be fulfilled and happy.
Expectation #2 - Start my own architecture firm.
Explanation: I think this explains itself.
So how’d I do?
Expectation #1 - Become a design architect.
Although my official title was ‘designer,’ during my two years at Michael Graves & Associates I was essentially a glorified draftsman. I worked directly with a design principal named Gary. Gary would hand me a sketch on canary yellow trace paper and I would then draft that sketch in AutoCAD. I would print out the CAD drawing and then Gary would sketch his revisions on top. I would take the sketch back to the computer and incorporate the revisions in CAD once more. We would do this over and over again.
This was how the sausage was made.
It sounds boring and thoughtless, but I loved. I absolutely loved it.
I was learning how buildings were designed. I was working on high profile, high-rise hotels and condominiums in far-flung places like Egypt, Qatar and Switzerland. Although I didn’t have much ownership in the design I was happy to be a role player.
And besides…what the hell did I know about designing a building? The only thing I had designed were fake museums, libraries and urban gardens in architecture school. I was happy to be a spectator.
This is a fact that is a tough pill to swallow for many architectural interns: You don't know shit! The quicker you accept that, the quicker you will progress and learn some shit.
I'm moving to Charleston and will start saying Y'all!
In 2008, I moved to Charleston and started work as an intern architect with LS3P. I was fortunate and still am lucky to work with some folks who gave me a lot of opportunities. One of my friends, Brian Wurst, gave me some small design tasks right away. After a few years of being a supporting player I began to take on design leadership roles on projects. Over the last 8 years, I have been lucky to be a design leader on significant projects. I am proud to have many completed buildings under my wing with many more in the pipeline. And this past year I was promoted to Associate Principal at LS3P.
I got that design architect role that I wanted!
Expectation #2 – Start my own architecture firm.
So that second one. Starting my own architecture firm……well……I definitely have not done that. Technically as a share-holder at LS3P I am part owner of an architecture firm, but that is a bit of a stretch.
I am not sure when it happened, but at some point in my journey the desire to start my own architecture firm vanished. Or slowly eroded. And that is worth digging into. I have been meaning to write a blog on this topic for a while.
Most architects have at some point dreamed of having their own architecture firm. It is in our blood. And when I say architects, that includes interns architects, students, etc.
I mean, who doesn’t want to be their own boss?
This dream started for me the day I collected my diploma from UMD. (Go Terps!) Start my own architecture firm. Pick my own clients. Use my own design preferences. Be my own boss. Me, me, me, me…………………….It would be glorious!
So what happened to that dream?
Did I fail?
Did I give up?
Or worse….have I become complacent?! (oh shit, he broke out the C-word!)
Well…I’d like to say that I just changed my mind. A lot happens in 10 years. When I graduated I knew nothing about architecture and I realize now that my dream of starting an architecture firm was a bit ill-informed and perhaps juvenile.
There have been 3 key game-changers that have affected my decision to not start my own architecture firm:
I experienced the benefits of working in a large firm.
I experienced the Great Recession.
I found my calling.
Let's dig into those:
Game Changer #1 - I experienced the benefits of working in a large firm.
In my career I have worked at 3 architecture firms. The sizes ranged from 50 people to 300+. So to be fair I have never technically worked at a small firm and thus I acknowledge the potential for a biased opinion.
Benefits to working at a Large Firm Benefits over a Small Firm:
Variety: Capability to do more building types at various scales.
Robust Resources: More people with all types of experience, great toys: computers, software, etc.
Financially Stability: A larger older firm will typically be more financially stable than a smaller younger one. For example, a larger firm will have accountants whereas a small firm will likely embrace the do-it-yourself mantra.
Better benefits: Health insurance, 401K, profit-sharing, professional development allowance.
Focus: I can focus on the things that I enjoy and am good at: Designing buildings. That means very little time on accounting, marketing, staffing, construction administration, etc.
People: I enjoy working with people. Lots of them. It can get lonely as a small firm or one man shop.
On the flipside there are:
Benefits to working at a Small Firm over a Large Firm:
More Autonomy: It's your ship man. Go where you want.
More Nimble: Easy to change the direction of the ship.
People: Maybe you don't want to work with a lot of people.
Flexibility: The ability to be more casual. Work from home. Pajamas all day every day.
If you start your own architecture firm there will be a long period if not an eternity where you will be a small firm. After appreciating the benefits of working at a large firm I am less likely to want to do the small firm thing. And this is just a personal preference. Many people would rate autonomy as most important and would sacrifice the other resources to steer their own ship.
Game Changer #2 - I experienced The Great Recession
The great recession changed everybody. The recession hit shortly after I arrived at LS3P in 2008 and it played a role in my shift in career goals. I made a couple of key observations during the recession.
- The business side of architecture is no joke. About 1/3 of all architects lost their jobs during the recession. I was very fortunate to retain my job during the recession and a lot of that had to do with the fact that I worked for a mature and financially conservative firm. I have a basic understanding of the firm’s finances, but I take comfort in knowing that the real number crunching is handled by our robust accounting sector.
- Many architects start architecture firms because they have no choice. They have been laid off, fired or just can’t find work. Many one-man shops were formed during the recession. That observation was eye opening to me.
In other words, The Great Recession scared the shit out of me. I asked do I really want to start my own business? Would I want to try to grow a business, hire staff and put so much at risk. How about having to lay people off?...hmm.......
Game Changer #3 - I found my calling.
Out of all of the reasons for not starting my own architecture firm, this is the main one. During my journey I discovered the type of work that makes me fulfilled and happy and that type of work would be challenging to do as a small firm.
My Romantic House in the Woods
Some of my favorite architects are people like Glenn Murcutt, James Cutler, Rick Joy, and Brian MacKay-Lyons. These guys all have one thing in common: They design kick-ass modern houses out in the boonies. Just flip open any of their monographs and you will see amazing houses that are completely isolated.
And there is something intriguing about that. I have always romanticized about designing a modern little house out in the woods.
The more I thought about how cool it would be to design houses in the woods I continually was experiencing work that was much cooler: Designing Larger Urban Projects.
I aspire to design buildings in urban environments that have the greatest potential to affect people’s lives. Not just the people that inhabit the buildings, but all of the people that will walk around and experience that building. Urban buildings shape space.
I grew up in the sticks of Southern Maryland, but now I am a city boy. I was trained at the University of Maryland about the architect’s obligation of place making and urban design. I have visited great cities of the world and I feel it is my duty to contribute to the next great cities of the world.
In addition to designing in the city, I take great joy in designing larger buildings. I love it. There is something very powerful about designing an entire city block, or seeing your creation sore high above your head and become a participant in a city's sky line.
It is powerful!
It is Hard to do Big Buildings at a Small Architecture Firm
It would be extremely unlikely that I wouldn’t be doing this type of work if I started my own architecture firm. Even if I could pull it off, finding a client to have enough trust to hire me would be a major challenge.
When you start an architecture firm you will likely start off with small jobs: deck additions, kitchen renovations and if your lucky: your grandma’s sunroom! And gradually after you gain experience, the projects will get bigger and better. And maybe one day, 20 years later, you will get around to designing large buildings in the city.
I don’t want this to read like a criticism on residential or small firm architects. This is a personal preference. I get great fulfillment out of designing larger urban buildings and I doubt I would get that from the house in the woods.
Now there are always exceptions. There have been architects throughout history who have won a competition or have built up a presence through academia and have landed a big fish. There are also people who bring a client from their large firm days and use that client as a transition to their new firm. These things happen but are very rare.
Ten years in the profession. I am now 35. I no longer feel like a young architect. This is mostly because many of my colleagues don't know the 90's music that I grew up on. They are like Weezer? Sublime? I think I may have heard one of their songs.
I feel like I have learned a few things. Working with so many people has been a blessing. I would not be where I am without the help of so many others.
I have had some luck and I have also worked my tail off. I find myself involved on the design of very important projects. Many projects which will help shape the future of Charleston. Over the last couple of years the shaping of Charleston’s urban realm has become highly politicized. These big ass urban buildings involve meeting after meeting with stakeholder after stakeholder. Sometimes I wish I could just retreat into the woods and work on a little modern gem.
And even though I don't get to design those little modern houses out in the woods, I did get to design a little home addition in the city for myself.
I don’t really know what the future will hold. I take one day at a time and try to always work on my craft. It will be fun to read this blog when I am 45. I imagine I will be wearing some sort of silver suit and will be reading this directly from the lens on my glasses.
What about you?
I am curious. For the architects that may be reading this article. Did anyone not want to start their own firm? Whether or not you believed you could do it, I bet you had the same itch?
For the students of architecture: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Does it involve working with someone names like Bjarke or Rem?
Please check out the other #ArchiTalks Bloggers:
Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Where It All Went Right
Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Then-Now: A Sketch Trip
Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career
Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
Then and Now
Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)
Then & Now : Still Chasing the Dream
Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
10 Lessons Learned from a Young Architect
Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here
Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
The Joys of Being an Architect
Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
From Then to Now...Residential Architect
Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
then and now
Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
The Biggest Surprise of My Life as an Architect
Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Then & Now...and the middle
Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
then and now: #architalks
Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
then and now
brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Pens & Fizzy Drinks: Or How to Set Measurable Career Goals
Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
How did I get here?
Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Being the light in darkness
Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Career Path: Follow Your Heart
Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
The Reluctant Code Guru