Dallas not sleeping during a snowstorm - 2001-ish

Dallas not sleeping during a snowstorm – 2001-ish

Overtime has always been kind of a hot topic in the architecture world.  Over my (erch) 17 year career, I have worked three places that paid overtime – two big firms, which just paid straight time; and one which paid time and a half.  That latter one ended up folding.  I did, however, buy my first road bike, a 1999 Cannondale R300, exclusively with overtime money.

It seems from my personal experience that most firms call all of their employees “decision makers,” and therefore pay them a salary.  That is all.  There is some consensus that an employee should be paid overtime as an intern, meaning that once you are registered, you are no longer eligible (however supposedly one would be paid more).

So this article in Entrepreneur Magazine caught my eye this morning.  It talked about how a new move in Washington would force more people to be paid overtime.  This, according to Entrepreneur, would stifle new entrepreneurs, and would in effect make employers restrict employee’s hours.  So, that employee who wants to put forth the extra effort won’t be allowed to… which not only stifles upward mobility, but also innovation.

Because everything stifles innovation.

Anyway, the first thought I had was: wow, this could have serious ramifications on our industry!  On my old bosses, on startups, on me!  Oh no!  And if everyone got paid time and a half as an intern, who on earth would want to become a registered architect?  The marketplace already shows that there is, if any, a negligible bump in compensation once someone becomes a registered architect.  This would, in fact, keep people from progressing in their careers!

Then, I started to think about my experience.  The architecture industry in particular has always reveled in working a ridiculous amount of hours.  It is a badge of honor.  From reading The Fountainhead to overnighters in studio to the workplace, putting in the hours has been what was most important.  I worked for a group who particularly pushed such a mantra: if you’re not here working at 8:00 PM and later every night, you are not working hard enough.

That is where I worked when I decided to start going back to school (they had known this when I signed on).  I had tons of papers to write, and I had definite cutoffs on some days when I had to go to class.  Class was at 6:00PM which means (gasp) I had to leave AT FIVE O’CLOCK.

I still had to get my stuff done.  I was at a (then) startup company, and had already worked many nights into the 2:00AM range.  I couldn’t do it anymore.  There are only 24 hours in each day that we all have, and I had made the commitment to myself that I was going to get a degree.

So something quite odd happened.  After only 6 months or so of this (leaving on time, having to seriously cut back my hours, etc.), I was approached by a partner.  He took me aside and said: “we’ve all been noticing you’ve been stepping it up lately.”  I suppose I had been.  I was figuring out how to do my work much more efficiently because I literally did not have the time to do it, and I was actually getting better in the process.  I was actually making an impression by forcing myself to work less hours.

I hate the cliché work smarter not harder, but there is some truth in it to me: its not the number of hours you put into a job, but simply what your output is.  Sometimes we all have to work late.  However, I like to say that if someone can’t get their work done within a reasonable amount of hours in the day, it is because of either:

  • Poor individual time management (who is writing a blog post at 9:40 this morning?  Yes I will be working late today)
  • Poor management (how long sir, have you been sitting on this, until you finally gave it to me to do?); or
  • unreasonable expectations by a client, or some other outside uncontrollable force.

Everybody makes mistakes, that’s OK and normal, and sometimes you have to work late.  But it shouldn’t be a badge of honor and it should most certainly not be a business model.  If the real response to this new legislation really is to cut back hours, I would challenge business owners and overzealous employees to get more out of the time you have.  And those who want to work long hours to excel?  Do it on your own time if you think it is THAT important.  Hours can be important, especially when starting out – because there are things that will take a young person four hours to do that a senior person can do in twenty minutes (in theory, that is why senior people get paid more.  In theory).  I see that as an investment in yourself, but the rest of your life also needs some time!  For instance, at my last “real job,” I was working alone on the weekends in the office – because I chose to go to the gym in the middle of the day, cutting down my usable hours in the week.  I feel like no one can keep someone from working; however, I don’t think sheer hours of work is what should get you ahead – it is the quality and quantity of your output.


Design: relevant?

So I receive an email today from our business development guy: “the reason your lost work with [your client] is because your work was not timely and accurate…  Good design is irrelevant.

I design neato things I can’t talk about until they’re almost under construction. So you get a massing model of something that doesn’t look like anything.

Now, we are doing another project with this client.  I had thought we had lost it.  Turns out he meant another project, which, honestly, we did not have the bandwidth to do at the time.  So after several hours of worry burning a hole in my Saturday afternoon, that got clarified.  I had not lost a project for reasons unknown.

But it got me thinking: our industry is pleagued with people screaming about what’s wrong with our business. The most common crap I hear is that our work is becoming “commoditized.”  I started reading one book which began with a mantra about commoditization and how technology was going to “fix” that.  I stopped reading.  Lets start here:


1: an economic good: as

     a : a product of agriculture or mining;

     b : an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment; or

     c : a mass-produced unspecialized product

2: something useful or valued 

3: obsolete: quanitity, lot.

4: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price

5: one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market

(source: Merriam-Webster dictionary; m-w.com)

I am guessing that the whining comes from definitions 4 and 5.  The funny thing about architects is that we think we are special: the fact is, all industries struggle with this every day.  Even, say, manufacturers who produce items in high saturated markets, like common raw materials or whatever widget you want to think of.

Something else that looks like nothing

So a service industry is screaming worrying about the trouble of being commoditized?  Are all of you saying that price is the only driver?  Surely not.  I used to work at big firms.  Those firms do not charge small fees.  But people keep coming back to them.  So price, in itself, it not the issue.  All of this complaining about our fees not being big enough due to “commoditization” – to me – is just crap.

How do you add value?  Isn’t that what being in a professional service business is all about?

Hmm.  How about listening to your client?

The whole reason I got that project was good design…  I took a new look at a project that had already gotten all of the way though CDs.   The new development team wanted to take another stab at it because the original program didn’t match their requirements, but at the end of the day due to a down and dirty exercise between planning and building officials I was able to pull out $2 Million from the project due to pulling off an entire floor while removing full subterranean parking.  Does that mean the other architect was bad?  I don’t think so.  There are many reasons why designs end up the way they are and I always give the benefit of the doubt – there was a reason why it was the way it was.  In fact, because of the timing, the zoning had changed and the density was able to be increased after that design was done (so I did, actually get more units with less floors).

So I thought that was relevant.

I still think it is.  But, it did take me a while to complete.  There was lots of back and forth with the client.  There were a lot of late nights, tense conversations, negotiations with authorities, to get it done, and it took a while.  And I was just starting a company.

So it was hard, and we produced.  And we grew.  We hired some great talent that made a tense situation much better.  I thought things had improved until I got that email… Then it turned out things had improved, I had just taken it the wrong way.  However, it got me thinking: do I KNOW what my clients want?

I think I do.

I was told good design was irrelevant.  I don’t think it is.  But: do I KNOW what they want?

Everyone is different in this industry. I’m amazed, for instance, at the time for design and construction that is given for people in the high end residential sector.  We don’t have that luxury in the commercial business for the most part.  Being given a year to design an office building… is unheard of.  So one has to expect that every type of client is different and each set of priorities is different.  The trick is knowing what those things are.

There is a lot of market data about high volume sector like retail or B2B organizations or whatever.  What about smaller service oriented businesses?  Typically we work with people on a very personal level: you’re almost friends.  Sometimes you become friends.  Sometimes you start as friends and are never the same thereafter.

How do you know what your client wants?  What is important to them?

Oh Dear God.  You have to ask.

So you want to be an architect

I have seen this video countless times over twitter and email over the past two weeks.  There is some strong language in here, so it may Not be Safe For Work.

This is a discussion between a person wanting to be an architect and a “seasoned” professional with a few issues.  It takes every frustration to the extreme, but I think anyone who has worked at a large company would identify with this.

I looked at this on YouTube and found a series of videos also called “so you want to be an architect,” but it is a little more constructive.

Part 1:

Part 2:  What does an architect make (not money)?

Part 3: What does an Architect Learn?

Part 4:  What does an Architect Use?

Part 5: What does an architect ask?

Part 6: What does an architect mean (perhaps the preview sheds some light on something)?

After all of that, maybe this is more approrpiate (and completely different):