Be IN the Room

Tonight’s the night. AIA Pittsburgh is hosting its annual Design Pittsburgh awards ceremony and gala. The event is promoted as “celebrating excellence in (regional) architecture and design, [and] honoring those who create it.” Our chapter produces several major events per year, but this is by far the largest and probably the most well renowned. It’s become an industry-wide event, allowing ample opportunity for networking against the backdrop of design excellence in our region. I can guarantee you that I will enjoy chatting up some of my fellow professionals, some of whom I haven’t seen since last year’s event. I can guarantee you that I will likely drink more than a few “Corboozies” along the way. I can also guarantee you that I will be one of a very small percentage of young architects in the room.

This fact never ceases to amaze me. Architects — particularly young architects — are often quick to point out that the profession is dominated by “old white men.” However, the vast majority of that same demographic seems not interested in doing anything to change it. Maybe its the cost of the ticket, maybe its the stigma that the AIA just ain’t cool, or maybe it’s the thought that, as a young architect, you just don’t belong in the room. None of these things are true. Young architects are just as much of a part of the profession as the more seasoned professionals — last I checked, the words “honoring those that create it” didn’t come with any exclusions. We make our contributions in different ways, but they are no less important than those of our project managers and senior principals.

During a committee meeting earlier this year, we were discussing this particular phenomenon. One of my former colleagues put it very adroitly: whether or not you see any value in belonging to a professional organization like the AIA, whether or not you think that the ticket is too expensive, if you care at all about your career, “sooner or later, everybody has to decide that they need to be in the room.” You need to be perceived as a part of the collective.

I will openly admit that I was very apathetic as a young professional. My first few years out of college, I rarely took advantage of these types of opportunities. My biggest reason? I didn’t feel that I had anything to offer. It turns out that I was completely wrong, but I didn’t find that out until much, much later… and I wish that I could have some of that time back. My involvement with the AIA has made me feel like much more of a part of my local architectural community, as well as the national organization that we belong to. It’s shown me that there is much more to the profession than just the three walls of my workstation, or the project currently in my browser.

This post is not meant to be a “bang the drum hard for the AIA” type of post. It’s not even necessarily advocating one the form of community involvement over the other. But it is about taking part in the community, and growing beyond your comfort zone. It’s about choosing to see the value of being in the room. (And yes, there are many other ways in which to do that, not just through the AIA, but this is the one that I’ve chosen.)

Whether or not you join us tonight, no matter which projects win our awards, I can tell you one thing for sure: It’s going to be one heck of a party, a celebration of our collective achievements over the past year, in a room full of talented, creative professionals. I’m proud to be in that room. If you do join us, seek me out, and let’s marvel together over the incredible community that were fortunate to be a part of. Let’s be in the room together. Might as well grab another Mintamalist while we’re at it…

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Fortune

Every once in a while, life hands you an opportunity that you just have to take, no matter how far out from left field it comes. For me, one of those opportunities presented itself last summer… I was invited to audition for Wheel of Fortune. The audition was held, mid-week, at a local hotel, and i just happened to be in between deadlines, with nothing immediately pressing on my plate. So, I did something very rare for me — I burned off some sick time and played hooky from work.

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Long story short, “I H_D _ BL_ST.” The audition was based largely on simulated game play, in groups that kept getting increasingly smaller as the day wore on. Between two rounds of play, I solved two puzzles — “WHITE COTTON BATHROBE” and “CHOCOLATE LABRADOR RETRIEVER” are now two of my favorite phrases — before advancing to the last round of the tryouts. Just like the show, we were divided into groups of three, in order to play the game against each other… and just like on the show, each candidate had to introduce themselves to the panel (and to the rest of the group). (I was prepared for this — I swore to myself that I wouldn’t use the word “wonderful” to describe my wife, since there are so many more adjectives that I could use. Failed miserably. You’d be surprised how easily the words “wonderful wife” just slip right out. Must be the alliteration. Anyhoo…) Of course, I mentioned that I’m an architect. Why wouldn’t I?

Later, on a bathroom break, I made casual conversation with two of the other auditioners; both commented on my profession. The first said that architecture was something he had considered, but when he saw how much work went into it, and how relatively little money architects make, he decided against it. The other guy, hearing this, offered this pearl of wisdom: “yeah, a buddy of mine went to Drexel, got his degree in architecture… he runs a nightclub now. Makes a LOT more money!” Yeah… thanks. This officially became the second-most awkward conversation I’ve ever had in a public bathroom.

The bottom line is, no, we dont make a lot of money as architects, certainly nowhere near what doctors or lawyers (or, apparently, nightclub managers) are bringing home (and I suppose the fine print, below the bottom line, is that I don’t need to be reminded of that by complete strangers, thankyouverymuch). I’m not going to lie — the thought of making tens of thousands of dollars, in less than half an hour, didn’t hurt… but quite frankly, there’s more to life than money. I have the good fortune of doing what I love for a living, working in a career that uniquely suits my skill set (so much so that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else)… and allows me enough of an opportunity for a balanced lifestyle. I have a great deal of responsibility and often too much work to do in too little time, but in a job setting that allows me a certain degree of flexibility (I could be wrong, but I don’t think a doctor or lawyer could necessarily drop everything mid-week and audition for a syndicated game show). When I have a deadline, I may work through lunch and stay late for a week straight… but if my family needs me, I can usually make arrangements to be there. And if an oddball opportunity pops up, one that might make for a good story later, I might just be able to take advantage of it. And that, I feel, makes me a very fortunate person… even if I didn’t get to meet Pat Sajak. (That’s okay — I’m holding out for Jeopardy!, anyway…)

Be the Change

Nearly seven years ago, I received my license to practice architecture… to no fanfare, little accolade other than congratulatory sentiments from my co-workers.  I did not get a raise, nor did I experience any discernable increase in responsibility in my daily tasks.  My studio leader bought me a bottle of decent vodka, and I think a few of us might have gone to lunch, but that was about it.

At the time, the human resources manager was pretty good about sending congratulatory email messages to the entire office — welcoming of new hires, growth of our extended family through weddings and births, and most importantly, professional advancements.  When one of my colleagues earned their professional credentials — architects, engineers, marketing directors and administrative assistants — an email went out.  I never told anyone, but the expectation of that email was my personal motivation.  I couldn’t wait to get finished with the ARE, so that someone with clout could inform the office of my achievement.  I didn’t want or expect a tickertape parade down Boulevard of the Allies, but I did want that email message.  It sounds simple, and possibly even silly, but we have to take our rewards where we can get them. That email was my carrot.

He ended up leaving to pursue another opportunity about two months before I passed my last exam.  My achievement went largely unrecognized.  And what might be even worse, I simply accepted that, as part of the status quo, and moved on.  Turned the other cheek, if you will… but I’d be lying to you if I said that missing email hasn’t haunted me ever since.

Two years later, it struck me that being an anonymous staff architect at a moderately large architecture firm just wasn’t enough for me anymore.  I was starting to realize that there is a distinct difference between a job and a career.  A job is something you do every day, whether you like it or not.  A career goes beyond the cubicle and embraces the community, and hopefully makes a difference.  So, in search of a career, I joined the AIA.

That was five years ago, and since then, not only have I found an creative outlet beyond my 9-to-5 job, I’ve seen that I have the ability to enact change, that we don’t have to settle for the status quo.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world;”  involvement with the AIA has given me the opportunity to live by that mantra.  Sometimes it’s at a snail’s pace (I now understand why Gandhi was such a patient man), but it happens.

I make a big deal out of licensure, for a lot of reasons.  It’s a tremendous achievement, not only for the individual, but also their office, the local AIA chapter, and the profession at large.  Also, it’s not easy — it takes an incredible amount of work and a lot of personal determination.  The time, effort, and money involved, between the internship and exam process, is nothing to sneeze at, and warrants respect.  But quite simply, I make a big deal out of licensure because no one made a big deal out of it for me, and I don’t want anyone else to feel like I did.  I can’t give them a raise or increased responsibility, but I can at least celebrate the achievement.  If it means that I become a glorified cheerleader on the behalf of a new RA, then so be it.  They deserve it.

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2012 President Mark Dietrick, new RAs Mike Driscoll, Luke Havrilla, Emily Putas, Natale Cozzolongo, and Lindsay Reed, and 2013 President Dutch MacDonald (Not pictured: Acadia Klain)

At last night’s Holiday Party (held at Wigle Whiskey, for a definite change of pace), as we have for the past three years running, we recognized the newest registered architects in Pittsburgh — a grand total of thirteen in all for 2012.  We had to track some of them down, and not everyone could make it, of course, but about half of them were able to be a part of the evening.  Each of them was introduced by our incoming Board president, and then the chapter raised a glass in their honor, out of respect for their registration.  It’s such a simple thing, really, but it’s one that I am quite proud of.  As an architect, I’ve worked on some pretty impressive projects and created some nice spaces, but that’s my job; as far as my career goes, this is the thing that I want to be remembered for.

The toast would have been plenty, but there was more to come.  In a surprise move, I was also quite humbled (flabbergasted might be a better word, actually) to receive the AIA’s President’s Award.  The certificate, which has earned a place of honor next to my monitor, bears the following text:  “In grateful appreciation for his tireless efforts to help architecture interns obtain licensure, which benefits all architects and the AEC community at large… whose wit and wisdom is generously shared as a regular contributor to COLUMNS and through his own communication efforts… and whose good humor and passion shine through as a beacon for all of us who care deeply about the benefit of good design.” 

I don’t know what that email from HR would have said, but I doubt that the words would have been as poignant.  I finally received the acknowledgement that I didn’t even know I was waiting for, and for that, I am eternally grateful.  To everyone at AIA Pittsburgh — Anne Swager, Rachael Kelley, Erin Raff, YAF Chair Anastasia Herk, outgoing president Mark Dietrick and the rest of the Board of Directors — I thank you for including me as a part of your family, for giving me an outlet for my passion over our noble profession, and, most importantly, for letting me be the change I wanted to see in the world.