I was cleaning out the old hard drive the other night (and that’s not a euphemism!) when I came across some old Word documents, one of which was some advice for a family friend who was about to start her first year of architecture at Penn State.  Surprisingly, even though I wrote this nearly ten years ago, it holds up pretty well.  Classes at PSU start on Monday, so in honor of all of our returning students, I figured that this was a good time to dust this off and share.

y someone who’s been there… and lived to tell about it)

  1. Try and meet as many people as you can as soon as you can.  Don’t be surprised, though, when the first friends that you make in studio turn out to be the last people that you want to talk to by the end of the year (or the semester).
  2. Don’t be afraid to go to your professors for help.  They have office hours – that’s what they’re for.  You’ll benefit by getting answers AND by coming across as someone who cares about the quality of your work.
  3. Remember that sometimes other students can be the best teachers.  Find the “good” people in your class and get friendly with them.  Observe what they do on their projects.
  4. Don’t pull an all-nighter just to do it.  Use the time to get ahead on your work.  If your work isn’t going to benefit from those few hours, go home and go to bed.
  5. Unless there’s a project due on Monday, never spend the entire weekend in studio.  Go to sporting events and scream your head off.  Learn the words to the fight songs (ESPECIALLY the alma mater). Get ice cream from the Creamery. There’s more to college life than work.  Get out there and enjoy it ‘cuz it’ll be over before you know it.
  6. Remember that you are a student and you’re there to learn.  You don’t have to know all the answers.  You’re there to LEARN the answers.
  7. Don’t eat the London Broil in the dining commons.  You’ll thank me later.
  8. Make every effort to get together with your friends over the summers.  Don’t lose track of them.  Besides your degree, your circle of friends will be the best thing that you’ll take away with you after college is over.
  9. No project is worth crying over.  But if you NEED to cry over one of your projects, do so.  Just don’t let anybody else see you doing it.
  10. Get to know some people in the years ahead of you.  The things that you’ll be going through in studio are the same things that they went through before you.  They got through it.  So will you.
  11. Don’t resent anyone for knowing more or less than you do (or think that you do). Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.  The quicker that you get to know yours will determine your comfort level in studio (as well as life in general).
  12. Remember that the word “roommate” and the word “friend” are not always interchangeable (some roommates will never be friends, some friends should never be roommates)
  13. Keep good records of your work.  Save each course syllabus, handouts, and notes.  Keep copies of papers that you write and exams that are returned to you.  I still have all of mine.
  14. Don’t ever sell any of your architecture textbooks.  Don’t throw away your class notes.  You never know what you’re going to need later.
  15.  Remember that there will always be someone who has nicer tools, can produce better drawings, build nicer models, or give better presentations.  Don’t let that get you down.  Just concentrate on doing the best work that you possibly can.
  16. Keep a sketchbook with you at all times and use it as like you would a journal.
  17. Don’t feel as if you have to spend enormous amounts of money on expensive materials for your models and drawings.  If the quality of the work is there, it won’t matter whether it’s drawn on newsprint or carved into marble.
  18. Remember that studio grades are subjective, and that sometimes your GPA doesn’t always reflect your true abilities.
  19. Don’t be afraid to take risks.  No one ever did anything memorable by always following the rules.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST… if you’re ever stuck, without any idea of what you’re doing or why you’re even doing it, drop me a line.  I’ll be here for you if you would ever need to talk about anything.

Best wishes and good luck…!

Playing by Ear…

Today is my two-year anniversary working in my current office. Since starting here, I have had the good fortune of sitting next to Paul, one of the founding principals, the guys whose initials became part of our firm’s name. Paul is nearly completely retired, stopping into the office only to work on high-end custom residential projects. He’s never in any earlier than 10am, and if he’s still here at 3, he considers it a long day. He calls his wife before he leaves, and tells her that he loves her. He makes me smile.

He a product of a different era, and does business in a very traditional way — drafting on a board instead of a computer, spending a great deal of time talking to his clients over the phone, in an extremely affable and personable manner. In two years’ time, I’ve learned more by simply listening to his end of his phone conversations than I have in two years of traditional practice. It’s his manner that I’ve been the most taken with… The way he earns the trust of his client through his knowledge of construction, his confidence in design, his level of service to their project.

If this story has a point, it’s this: there’s a lot more to learn than can ever be taught. So much of what we do on a daily basis isn’t based on anything that can be quantified; it’s just part of the experience. To be a young architect means that you have to be a sponge, soaking up as much as you can of the environment around you. IDP is only the tip of the iceberg, and nowhere in the Experience Areas will you find “eavesdropping on a principal’s phone conversations,” but we have to take our opportunities wherever we can get them. I used to dread making phone calls in the office (I preferred the ability to collect my thoughts in email, and most days I still do). I’ve gotten better at it over time, but listening to Paul’s end of his phone conversations has given me a new appreciation for it. He’s given me an example to follow, and I hope I’m able to live up to it.

A little epilogue to my story: We’re in the midst of a clean-up effort before a major (and much-needed) renovation of our office. A lot of our older presentation boards — some damaged, others just obsolete — are being gotten rid of. One day last week, I found Paul looking very longingly at one of them, a cast-in-place concrete building (very Tadao Ando, with expressed reveals and formwork plugs, the weight of the material balanced very deftly by the lightness of its form). I’m sure it was very much in vogue when it was built, but time has inevitably taken its toll, and it has started to look somewhat dated. Paul is looking at it like it’s a picture of one of his children.

“I think we’re throwing this out,” he says, more to himself than to me. “I want to keep this. This is the first building that I ever designed,” Paul tells me. “Two other guys and me, we did the whole thing. All of the drawings… On linen.”

The very thought of working on linen, as always, is mind-blowing to a relative whippersnapper like me. “You didn’t change things as often back then, right?” I ask. “You did it once and that was it?”

“Of course!” he tells me, as if there was no other possible answer. Then his eyes narrow: “Why? Do you guys change things a lot these days?”

And again, like so many times in these past two years, a smile spreads across my face.

Update: I’ve been at the firm for nearly four years now. The renovation is long since complete, and Paul now sits above me on the mezzanine… further away, but still close enough that his end of his phone conversations still drift down over the guardrail…


From Thursday to Saturday of last week (July 26-28 for those calendar fans out there), I “took my show on the road,” so to speak, and headed to the annual IDP Coordinators Conference, held at the Hotel Allegro in Chicago.  As a new State Coordinator (not to mention someone who has held IDP at arm’s length since completing it), I figured that attending the conference would be a great way to explore this new role of mine.  Besides, any chance to get to Chicago (which, for my money, is the greatest city in the United States, hands down) is worth the trip.

I was expecting to learn a lot (which I certainly did), and make some new friends (ditto).  What I wasn’t expecting, though, was how much fun I would have.  For the record, I’m not just talking about our evening escapades.  (Don’t get me wrong, though:  that stuff was fun too.  The Architectural Boat Tour on Friday night was, as always, an excellent way to spend an evening in the windy city.  And a little howling at the moon (at Howl At The Moon, natch) never hurt anyone… who knew that so many State Coordinators were Tenacious D fans…??)

The conference was brisk and compact (no expo floor to get lost in) and well-focused on whats new with IDP 2.0, as well as NCARBs plans for the future of the program.  A pleasant surprise was the amount of levity that was introduced, courtesy of the dry wit of Harry Falconer (NCARB Director), Nick Serfass (Assistant Director), and Martin Smith (Manager)… for an organization that gets a little bit of a bad rap for being bogged down by rules and restrictions, the glimpse at its lighter side was incredibly refreshing (and maybe it’s just me, but I think that if more people got to see that aspect of it, they might have a different opinion on this process.)  I have to admit, being in a group of so many like-minded people, with unbridled enthusiasm for helping emergent professionals on their path to licensure, was really quite inspiring.  There was, quite simply, no apathy to be found here.  I had the opportunity to meet a lot of first timers, like me, who are new to their roles, as well as several who have been at it for many, many years; all of whom, however, shared the same commitment to promoting the value of licensure in our profession.  The energy level of this group was intoxicating.

The best part, for me, were the chances we had to talk instead of just listening. Yes, this was a conference, which meant a lot of group lectures and PowerPoint presentations.  But it was the smaller sessions, where my fellow coordinators opened up and shared their opinions on the program, the process, and the participants, that really opened my eyes to how IDP and ARE are handled.  Saturday morning’s breakout session for state coordinators, for example, was a very frank and honest discussion about our role in the process (including how the title isn’t really the best description for what we do, which involves so much more than just IDP).  I also had the opportunity to present at a round table session (on something that I’ve come to know a good bit about: setting up ARE prep resources in your local component, alongside Wisconsin’s state coordinator Russ LaFrombais).  Yes, even as a first-time attendee, I actually got to contribute something to the conference — and I really feel like people were interested in the advice I had to offer, too, which was the icing on the cake.

I treated the conference as my official “kick-off” for my term.  I returned home energized, excited, and thoroughly exhausted… and ready to begin!