Left Turns

It’s hard for me to believe that, after over two months of planning, the Emerging Professionals Summit has come and gone. With it, my first visit to Albuquerque, a fact that met with some bemusement to my family and some of my friends, the ones that cut their teeth on the same pop culture classics as I did, for whom the city will always be associated with Bugs Bunny and his famous lack of direction. (Plus, I have to admit that I was pretty psyched to visit the setting of one of the greatest pieces of television ever made. No, not Breaking Bad… I was referring to that timeless coming of age story, High School Musical.)

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Albuquerque — and more specifically, the gorgeous Hotel Andaluz — was the site of the AIA’s 2014 Emerging Professionals Summit. Sixty professionals representing the AIA, as well as the various collateral organizations, gathered there to discuss future directions for the Institute, and ultimately the profession, in the interests of avoiding the somewhat dystopian view of our future (or any version of it) that I shared in my previous post. Our discussions in Albuquerque (graphically recorded for posterity’s sake) will form the basis for the next three to five years’ worth of initiatives that the AIA can undertake in order to strengthen the profession for emergent professionals. Bold ideas were encouraged, maybe even challenged, by AIA leadership (including CEO Robert Ivy and 2014 President Helene Combs Dreiling), and in response, bold ideas were proposed. Our conversations focused on four main aspects of practice — Education, Licensure, Career Development, and Firm Culture — with the expectation of more than just talk. Our primary responsibility for the weekend was to be demonstrative, ensuring that tangible, actionable results would be able to be derived from our discourse. It was a hefty charge, one that I’m proud to have been a part of.

Hefty charges, of course, often bring with them a fair share of self doubt. There will many, I’m sure, that will question our findings, asking if we should have zigged instead of zagged, made a left turn where we decided to go right. Perhaps we should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque. Only time will tell. The point of the exercise was not necessarily to pose a solution, but to chart a course. The destination is for all of us to find, together. I’m looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

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Make Your Mark

The AIA’s 2014 Emerging Professionals summit takes place later this week. Between Friday to Sunday, 60 professionals from across the country, representing the AIA and the other collateral organizations, will gather in Albuquerque to discuss the future of the profession, in order to position us for the next 20 years of practice. Late last year, anyone interested in participating was invited to submit an essay answering the question “In 2033, what role are architects playing in society?” In honor of the summit, I’ve decided to share my submission here. (For another emerging professional’s response, click here.) Join the conversation at epsummit.mindmixer.com, and follow the Summit on Twitter at #2014EPSummit.

March 14, 2033: I find myself celebrating my 56th birthday with our company in the last stages of a corporate buyout. Next Monday, I will begin the last phase of my career, acting as a consultant for a global construction management entity that has chosen to incorporate our staff into their local Real Estate Development group. Our offices have shared a long history of collaboration — as a small general contractor, they built many of our designs, giving them a foothold in the industry that allowed their business to flourish as ours, ironically, continued to grow smaller — and out of respect, our firm was acquired for its skills in space planning, programming, and code analysis.

The last time I packed up my workstation – fifteen years ago, when we moved to a smaller, more efficient tenant space – was a cumbersome undertaking, but I’m finding it surprisingly easy this time around. Our fully-integrated building models are entirely cloud-based, with changes uploaded instantaneously to the field model in the construction trailer, making the clutter of paper documents a thing of the past. Most of our digital information was already housed on our new partner’s network, making my move to their office no more complicated than syncing my tablet. It’s a seamless transition, especially since we had already adopted the contractor’s document management process years ago, in the interests of a more integrated delivery system. Following their paradigm was more cost-effective than creating our own.

With no paper documents to sift through, the focus is mostly my personal belongings, including some well-worn books and my stamp — which, having been used only a handful of times, looks as pristine as the day that I received it nearly 30 years ago. Hermetically sealed in a small glass display case, a gift from my wife when I was named senior associate, the simple inscription upon it still rings true, figuratively if not literally: “Make your mark.” It’s been a museum piece, a marvel to the paraprofessionals in the office, not only because the idea of putting ink on paper seems as dirty as it does antiquated, but because the act itself no longer has any meaning. By accepting all of the risk on a building project, the construction manager’s virtual signature, digitally encoded into each document, has physically and legally replaced the architect’s stamp.

My college diploma is next to be packed, another relic from a time gone by. Ten years ago, when academia standardized a “licensure at graduation” model, the need for practical experience was eliminated. A formalized internship program vanished, leaving us with no established method of training. The sense of entitlement — that a credential need not be earned — crippled the profession, breeding an entire generation of talented designers with little technical ability; an architect’s license lost its value. The backlash, realized in a huge drop in enrollment, forced several universities to drop their architecture programs, including my own. With no carrot to strive for, the younger professionals that remained lost their competitive edge. Many sought more challenging (and lucrative) work elsewhere, leaving the mid-range professionals like me with fewer resources to draw upon. The clout associated with the term “architect” — that the AIA had fought so hard to protect, for as long as I can remember — crumbled from within. We had spent so much time and energy worrying about how we were being perceived outside of our insular culture, that we neglected to focus on what was happening inside of it.

My afternoon will be spent in the file storage room, an archaeological dig through record documents and yellowed rolls of paper. It’s strange to see the names of former senior principals on these documents, proof that they did indeed deal with the daily mechanics on projects in the same way that I have. Having known them solely in marketing and business development roles, seeing their signatures on RFIs and change orders strikes me as odd; they always seemed to exist in different realm, separated from the rest of us by strategic planning, budgets, and spreadsheets. They have long since retired, taking their professional relationships and business acumen with them, leaving the next generation of leaders to essentially reinvent the wheel. It’s no surprise that, when given the reins, many of us struggled, and some failed; when the phone stopped ringing, the lack of mentorship at all levels of development in the profession became painfully evident.

I set the lid in place, the last remains of my formal career in architecture neatly boxed, musing inwardly that it didn’t have to be this way. A profession full of creative, intelligent, passionate individuals, we had the ability to change the course of events twenty years ago. By placing appropriate value on licensure, while still embracing non-traditional paths in practice. By fostering open collaboration with our fellow professionals, on both sides of the design community. By establishing ourselves as progressive leaders of change instead of followers, rigidly holding on to outdated ways of doing things. Most importantly, by encouraging mentorship and succession planning. By strengthening the profession from the inside, so that we had nothing left to prove to those outside of it. Simple concepts, but difficult to implement. It wouldn’t have been easy, it would have taken a collective effort from all of us, but it would have been worth it. The contents of this box deserved it.

Liberation

It’s the 16th of the month, which means it’s time for my mid-month round of bill paying. This time around, however, there’s one less to worry about. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to start off 2014 with a (relatively) clean slate — and with the help of a small monetary gift from Santa Claus, I have successfully paid off my student loans. It only took 13 years and one month… or, in other words, 157 easy installments, plus one big push at the end. Nothing to it. (Ha.)

Shawshank-Redemption-scriptI didn’t think that this day would ever come (when I started paying the loan, six months after I had graduated, the total amount was so large that it was difficult to fathom)… and now that it has, to be perfectly honest, it actually feels a little strange. (The curse of being anal-retentive and perpetually anxious, not paying that bill is actually making me uneasy, as if I’ve forgotten something… I suppose it will feel a little more real on the 16th of next month…?) The payment has been part of my monthly routine for my entire adult life. Many things have changed in that time — I’ve owned three different vehicles, moved several times (my varied rent payments eventually giving way to a mortgage), each living arrangment with a different type of utilities and set of providers, and somehow managed to finance an engagement ring and a wedding band — and all along the way, my loan payments have always been there, ever vigilant. The monthly payment amount might as well have been tattooed into my forehead; it’s only changed twice in that thirteen year period — once, when I consolidated my five separate loans into one, under a new loan carrier (which reduced the monthly payment by half), and a second time, when that carrier rewarded my repayment with a reduction in my interest rate (a whopping half-percent, but hey, it was something). Paying off the loan balance came with little fanfare — not that I was expecting streamers and confetti when I clicked “Submit Payment,” but a congratulatory email, maybe? Farewell and thank you for your business? Remember us when your kids start college? (Update: I did indeed receive a simple yet sincere letter of congratulations from my loan provider, just over one month after making that final payment… so apparently it took at least that long for it to become “real” for them, too?)

Along the way, I’ve read countless articles about managing your debt, including some very sound advice for paying off your loans faster; some of my favorites, such as “Just pay more against the principal!” (Thank you, faceless financial adviser — you do realize that a college graduate is reading this, right? I’ll cut back on the ramen noodles this month…) and “Skip the daily Starbucks run!” (Hello?! I can’t afford to buy coffee at Starbucks, BECAUSE I’M PAYING OFF MY SCHOOL LOANS!! Sheesh…), make the issue seem somewhat trivial, as if the problem were the fault of the student, not the system. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last year, the country’s total student loan debt currently surpasses $1 trillion, and about 9% of all consumer debt is student loans (which is an increase of 3% from a decade ago). In December, CNN reported that the average student loan debt, per person, was $29,400 in 2012. I realize that I’ve been very fortunate to have been gainfully employed since I graduated, giving me the ability to continue to make those monthly payments consistently. The economy, particularly in recent years, hasn’t been as kind to many others. It’s no mystery why student loans have become our country’s latest debt crisis — it’s relatively easy to get a loan as an 18-year-old, but nearly impossible to pay it off when you’re 23 and unemployed.

Last year, I came across an article about lobbying efforts by the AIA and AIAS for student debt assistance, allowing graduates the opportunity to exchange pro-bono design services for loan forgiveness, very similar to established programs (like the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders) for other professions. The proposed National Design Services Act would promote the work of community design centers and collaboratives in underserved areas, allowing architectural graduates the opportunity to do meaningful work and receive some consideration for their debt in return. To say that this is an incredible idea would be a severe understatement — this is just the sort of humanitarian effort that would appeal to many graduates from architectural programs, who could use their skills to make a difference in communities in need, and help with the debt issue certainly wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at.

For more information about the NDSA, including ways you or your chapter can assist with legislation in your area, click here. Or consider joining the AIA for lobbying efforts at the state or national level, where you can help by speaking directly to your elected representatives, putting a very real face to a very real issue.