Humility and the Architect

Last year I wrote a post for AIA Colorado/Archinect titled “The Ego and the Architect.” ( )  If you didn’t read it, the post discussed evolving forms of leadership within an architectural office spanning age and experience, and how this relates to what seems to be a softening of the egotistical architect archetype in favor of a socially-conscious, collaboration-minded, sometimes empathetic individual.

As I look book after many months and reconsider this post, I have been scratching my head at how personal experience has begun to shed light on what might be a question and counterpoint:

Do architects need some sense of ego to maintain strength and optimism while experiencing what seems to be an even greater challenge than bravado; humility?

In the last year, I’ve moved out of the 1-3 year range as a designer and am now in what seems to be a rare bird in today’s post-recession market; a 3-5 year employee (Gasp! We do exist!)  In the 3-5 range, I’ve participated in a wide range of projects, large and small, from start to finish. I now recognize the importance of all project phases, and have begun to engage with each new assignment in a more involved role. Hence I am not a newbie, despite also not being an “expert.”

With that said, in this transition of time and knowledge acquisition, I’ve stumbled across a few revelations regarding perhaps the most exciting but also challenging aspects of becoming an architect: the ability to be humbled by the complex nature of what we do, how we do it, and perhaps most importantly, how we follow through once a project is being constructed.

To keep this post short(ish) but hopefully helpful, here is a counterpoint to my original blog post; a list of the lessons I’ve experienced as a student and young professional that require a personal shield of confidence to protect against an on-going sense of humility and acceptance in learning from experiences and decisions approached with optimism, idealism, and simply not knowing…yet…

(1) Academia: From a first critique, architecture students are challenged on every thought, decision, graphic, verbal, and text-related decision that is made. “Your project is promising, but must be improved here, here, …and here!” We are taught from an early age to both welcome feedback and to use it as constructively as we can, knowing that despite what we do or how much we produce, despite its level of quality, it will always have potential for improvement or different methods of thought and experimentation—a thought and design process carried throughout an architecture professional’s career and life.
(2) The IDP experience: At this time, a recently-graduated student is the most junior staff around (besides interns,) and he/she is eager to prove themselves while gaining relevant job experience. It is inevitable-regardless of what field he/she is in- that this time will be filled with learning, mistakes, and learning from your mistakes.

(3) The ARE: It wasn’t until I took my most recent exam that I felt truly humbled by the daunting process of taking not 1, not 2, not 5, but 7 exams testing ideas and concepts that I have engaged in directly, indirectly, or at this stage—not at all. I’ve found studying to be rewarding as a reminder of how many factors must be considered at every stage in the design process, and the degree in which an architect must become a semi-expert regarding the small and large nuances of our environment and the world we have made. With that said, I have found myself both bewildered, nervous, and then (hopefully) relieved to find my knowledge is on par with what NCARB might consider “sufficient knowledge” for an associate pursuing licensure. I have no doubt that after Test 7 I will have the biggest ego in the world, rooted in a necessary discipline, persistence, patience, not to mention a sharpened ability to complain, focus, agonize, and rejoice all within the same week (or days in some instances…)
(4) Becoming a 3-5 year person. After cutting your teeth as a junior designer, the more involved a young professional becomes in client relationships, a design process in its entirety, as well as actually walking his/her drawings in the field, there is a large window of opportunity to make mistakes that dance the line of being small but illustrative of how much you do not know yet.

So what will help the emerging class of future architects remain aspirational and optimistic, all the while knowing each design problem will require discourse, unfamiliar tasks and challenges, not to mention the uncharted territory of each unique client and client relationship?

I would come full circle from my previous blog post to say “mentorship”  as a form of leadership remains the key to balancing a young professional’s process of learning and developing.  Without oversight and people to teach, challenge, and recognize young designers (especially millennials,) our next group of architecture leaders may have to wear a similar façade of ego to protect them simply from what they do not know…

And we are live – ARCHITECT LIVE!

Good Morning Everyone!!!

Your AIACO_EP bloggers were busy representing at the 2013 AIA National Convention! We gave our presentation “Do You Know Your Emerging Professionals?” on Saturday morning. You know it’s a hit when over half the audience stays after the presentation to talk to the presenters. Just saying.

Then we had breakfast (or in Nathan’s case, Second Breakfast) and scooted off the Architect LIVE studio on the Expo floor. Click HERE for the link to our Architect LIVE video. 

Below are a few photos from our experience.

Thanks for all the love and support! We couldn’t have done this without our great mentors, friends & families. Enjoy!


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What Happens in Wyoming…

IMG_4312As we have probably all learned at some point in our career, no matter how passionately we pursue great design, it pains me to admit that not every project will put you in the running for the Pritzker prize.

There will be the moving of walls, the replacement of carpet; perhaps a new building that based on cost ends up looking like…(wait for it)…. a box!

The design process is the same way.   Not every moment will be filled with inspiration and an excess of technicolor creativity.  FYI architecture students–there will be days of typing pricing narratives, drawing details, hours spent discussing Value Engineering options, not to mention really awkward moments spent surveying bathrooms while people silently judge you for being “creepy” as you take photos of grout joints while they wash their hands.

But for a young architect (or to be honest, most architects I’ve spoken to, regardless of career stage) even if the project or process isn’t “transformative,” I would argue that there are always unique experiences each project provides that serve as a chance to gain new, worthwhile knowledge.

For me, this was the case for a recent project I took on a few weeks ago.  Already swamped with three on-going projects with corresponding deadlines and meetings, a senior co-worker asked me if I wouldn’t mind traveling with her to Wyoming to look at a lobby space for a government building that needed a refresh.

I could tell this wasn’t just a trip to look at a lobby.

I recognized this was an opportunity to do a few important things.  The first was to spend time with a seasoned co-worker and mentor that I continue to learn from on a daily basis.  When someone is willing teach, I am (usually) willing to listen.  The second was that I just happen to really like repositioning projects.  Regardless of size, the chance to reinvent a space to make it more functional and to show people the power of design in a “before” and “after” context is something I can’t really turn down.  The third was personal; I am from the East Coast and had never been to the great state of Wyoming.

And so on a recent Thursday, my co-worker and I met at 7:30am in Downtown Denver, grabbed our respective coffees, and began driving due West to Wyoming.

An hour and a half later (including one slightly embarrassing photo-op at the Wyoming border) I was introduced to the wonder that is Cheyenne.

Originally from the East Coast, going on architectural site-visits in the West can often feel a bit like a field trip more than work.

So was the case for my trip to Cheyenne.  I came, and I saw.  What did I see you might ask?  I saw some yellowish paint, wasted circulation space, a few fake plants, a sign reminding me to wash my hands to avoid “THE BUG!” and a giant wooden trash receptacle that had the words “THANK YOU” inscribed on its trash flap. I also saw a lot of potential.  Potential for a new storefront system to create some programmatic separation, a new design strategy in which “less” would speak much, much “more,” some ways to rearrange furniture to create more usable space, and some existing infrastructure that could easily be enhanced to create a friendlier user experience.

On the drive home, I also saw Cheyenne’s state capital, some authentic cowboy boots, and a Western clothing store that would make any hipster with an affinity for plaid shirts and cowboy boots very, very excited.

A few weeks later I completed a successful design proposal and presentation to the client, and issued a pricing plan.  While I’m happy with the design and feel it’s the right solution for the space, I can’t say I’m confident it will grace the pages of “Dezeen” any time soon.

With that said, my discussion with my co-worker on the drive home about her 30+ years of experience in the biz, not to mention her philosophies on life, a detour to drive-by her college dorm at CSU and a whole day of hard work, laughter, and a sprinkling of sarcasm proved to be an experience that has made this project one I will not soon forget.

To “Lean In,” or not to “Lean In;” That is the question.

Full disclosure: being a “nerd” isn’t nerdy anymore. Oh, and being a woman in technology is DEFINITELY not nerdy.  In fact, it is the epitome of cool.

At this point, this might be old news.  One only needs to go to his/her local coffee shop to observe youthful people and lovely ladies wearing threadbare granny sweaters and oversized glasses, sipping tea and reading a tattered copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to remind themselves that it is seriously hip to be seriously square.

What is not old news is that the historically “nerdy”  tech industry is instigating a heated dialogue about women in the workplace, and specifically women’s roles in tech-related fields.

Last Wednesday I attended an event at Google’s Boulder office titled “Google Recognizes International Women’s Day.”  The evening began with networking amongst the members of the Society of Women Engineers, the Meetup group “Women Who Code,” and the National Center for Women and Information Technology.  Oh, and there I was, a female Intern architect that happens to have a younger sister in the group “Women Who Code.” Networking was followed by a panel of two impressive women in technology-related fields—one as a successful programmer at Google, the other a renowned Computer Science professor at CU Boulder

While I might not be a programmer or web developer, the evening was of interest to me as a female representative of the architecture industry for several reasons:

  1. Architectural representation, documentation, and in many ways, construction and fabrication is reliant on current and emerging technologies.
  2. While the needle is definitely moving fast and furiously, architecture has historically been a male-dominated field (I believe the technical term is “Old Boys’ Club”).
  3. Discussions about work/life balance will forever be interesting and relevant to me.

As the evening and discussions progressed, the last question for the panel addressed the theories and attitudes about women in the workplace in the new book, Lean In; Women, Work, and the Will To Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the former VP of Global Online Sales & Operations and current Facebook Chief Operating Officer (this is the point in the blog post where I insert an obligatory “You go, girl!”)

In the description of Lean In,  the book summary is as follows:

“Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.”

In Sandberg’s examination of why women’s progress in achieving leadership is stalled, she cites disappointing but close-to-home examples of how many women make concessions in the workplace that men typically won’t (for example, negotiating salaries or asserting themselves for job promotions, etc.).   She also proposes solutions for ways to seek  “professional achievement with personal fulfillment” while abandoning the myth of “having it all.”

The panelists were asked whether or not they agreed with the idea of “not having it all,” and in many ways, prioritizing their careers so as not to lose momentum before or after having children, etc.   Answers were mixed, and a heated debate ensued amongst an audience comprised of women of all different ages and stages of life.  Many women felt “leaning in” was unrealistic—surely women had to make worthwhile sacrifices that fit the job description of “Mother.” Others felt that Sandberg was right—backing off on professional ambitions often meant pressing a dangerous “pause” button on potentially blossoming or thriving careers; not to mention this was a decision men rarely had or have to make.

When I go to work each day, I feel fortunate that I work in a demographically balanced office with many women rockstars.  Whether it’s vocalized or not, it is easy to sense how much effort and gusto my co-workers put into completing deadlines and delivering great work while still getting home in time for a child’s recital or to construct an architecturally-impressive Halloween costume, or to be present and able to take a break from work to prioritize precious time with significant others, family, friends, and side-hobbies/pursuits.

I’ve ordered a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s  Lean In, and am admittedly excited to read it.  With that said, I am already proud of the various communities of professional women in Denver/Boulder. Just knowing there are groups such as “Women Who Code,” “Women In Design,” or “The Society of Women Engineers,” that exist to provide support, mentorship, and resources to women within similar industries gives me hope that moving forward, women will have enough resources and support to continue to pursue historically gender-imbalanced fields, skills, and opportunities in whatever capacity they might feel most comfortable.

The Ego and the Architect

apex-helping-hand-610grA few weeks ago, I witnessed an interaction that I imagine most people in the design industry experience numerous times both in school AND professional life.  What transpired was this: a few junior architects were pinning up carefully composed drawings, renderings, and sketches for a client meeting.  Under a tight budget and time constraint, the amount of thought, options, and exploration on the wall felt vital and impressive. As the last drawing was being pinned, a visiting architect from a different office briefly stepped into the room, looked at the wall for about thirty seconds, and quickly claimed “Oh, I built this building in the 90’s…”

As the wind was quickly taken out of sails, the last pin was pushed in with a slight hesitation rather than the initial confidence and momentum of the previously installed drawings.

A few months ago, Heather wrote an extremely relevant blog post about the importance of mentorship in architectural offices today.  Rather than follow the traditional, antiquated approach of “Master” and “apprentice,” she explored the notion of the mentor being an omnipresent “Yoda” type that is able to support, critique, and affirm junior architects in their many stages of professional development.

As a follow-up to this discussion, I’d like to briefly touch on the idea of “leadership” in an architectural office.  For all of their good, idealistic, altruistic traits and stereotypes, architects have also (on occasion) been stereotyped to have relatively large egos.  While I will refrain from going into semantics or arguing for or against this stereotype (I plead the fifth!) the anecdote I mentioned above suggests that at times, voiced opinions that support the ego rather than the effort can prove futile rather than productive.

When I think about the people I would consider “leaders”  in my office, they don’t just include the people with the highest-ranking title or the most experience.  They are the people who send out design inspiration emails, events, and tips to keep us involved and aware.  They are the people who will put down their pens and walk over to your screen to guide you through an issue that is perhaps their expertise or passion. Their willingness to share that knowledge becomes a great resource to the entire office.

Leaders are the people who understand that the work we do extends beyond our desks and find themselves leading community and service-related efforts in their personal and professional lives. Furthermore, they look at the work that’s been produced and consider the source, the thinking, the project parameters, and then voice their opinions in a way that both challenges and guides the ship forward, rather than sinking the vessel in midstream.

I am impressed by the bravery of the many young architects I’ve met as of late, in their ability to begin to define what seems to be a changing paradigm of architect from egotistical to humanitarian.  While architects have always wanted to help improve society in small and large ways, the increased collaborative nature of offices, use of integrated design and delivery models, and the steady re-emergence of a celebrated creative class are all phenomenon that are requiring us to brand ourselves in ways that defy and transcend the definition of the stereotypical “master” builder or craftsmen.

As you approach your academic or professional workweek, I challenge you to consider your personal definition of leadership, and in some small way, aim to acknowledge or act in a manner that reinforces this.  While young architects need continued mentorship, they also need to be bold in working towards breaking old stereotypes and replacing them with definitions that reinforce both the importance and impact of architects’ contributions to helping shape the design and experience of the places we work, live, and enjoy.