Youth Looks Forward, Age Looks Back: A Love-letter to Internship (part three)

Note: the following post was originally written in 2004, as my entry for the ArchVoices Essay Competition. This was at the completion of my IDP requirements, a time in my life where I found myself feeling somewhat disenfranchised with the profession, as I’m sure many interns do. Some of my thoughts hold up pretty well, while I can’t help but shake my head at the naivete of some of the others… but seeing as this blog is devoted to internship, I figured it was worth sharing. Parts one and two were published in earlier posts. The original (full-length) version can be found here.

Somewhere between the youthful exuberance of academics and the bitter cynicism of the profession lies the intern.  After graduation, young architects willingly trade the academic world for the professional one, bringing with them varying backgrounds and levels of experience, but with one common denominator: heart.   The determination to do the best job that they possibly can at that which they have chosen to devote their lives.  Heart.  And, as quite often is the case, the harsh truths of the real world can rip out that heart and stomp on it. It can become nearly impossible to avoid having that heart broken, nearly discouraging to keep one’s faith.

The near-ubiquitous impatience with internship, and the subsequent rush to licensure, is a direct result of the desire for credibility, the need to reclaim some of that lost faith through career advancement.  But despite the negative vibe that it has developed, internship isn’t such a bad thing.  It gives young architects a chance to grow and develop with a level of comfort, knowing that there will always be someone looking over our shoulders and correcting our mistakes.  I cannot rightfully go forward from here without first pausing to acknowledge those who have helped me to get this far.

toiletrm_yellowA list of my most admired architects, the ones who have been the most influential to my own work, would no doubt differ greatly from yours.  Beside historical figures like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, alongside modern masters such as Antoine Predock and Norman Foster, would be the names of some of the architects that I have worked with on a daily basis.  I owe much of my development as an intern, and the future of my career as an architect, to the things that I have learned as my path crossed with theirs.  I’ve been inspired by the quality of line drawn by a stubby #2 pencil.  The flourish of a break line.  The depth and artistry of material poche.  The graphic representation of years of professional knowledge and experience passed along to me, with a modest amount of style and panache, as a series of red lines over my static computer-aided plots.  A drawing where red bleeds into black transcends the sum of its parts.  It becomes a palimpsest of information, where wisdom meets inexperience. There, the gaps are filled in, the errors corrected, the questions answered. In our world of graphic presentation and representation, a red line is a measure of knowledge; to draw one indicates an understanding of how a detail is put together, to yellow one out (hopefully) means that knowledge has been passed along, and will one day find its way to the next generation in a new layer of crimson ink.  Nowhere can one find a truer expression of youth looking forward, age looking back than in a redlined drawing.  I owe it to those who came before me, those architects who have graciously shared with me a little of what they themselves have learned, to do the best work that I can, and to then pass that knowledge along to the next generation of young architects who will come under my care.

Nine little exams from now, I will have earned the right to call myself an architect.  The word “intern” will no longer be a part of my title, but my experience with internship is only just beginning.  Soon it will be me drawing redlines, providing advice, and hopefully inspiring a young mind.  To that end, my most lasting contribution to the future of the profession is to never leave my internship experiences completely behind me.  As an architect, I must never forget how it felt to be an intern, struggling to make the most out of every opportunity that came my way.  The exam is a major milestone, no doubt, but it is not the final assessment of our talents and abilities.  The ultimate, quantifiable measure of how much you’ve learned is how well you can teach.  The quality of your work and your character can be judged by how much it inspires the work and the character of others.  Looking back on my youth, even at this early stage in my career, I can see how much I have been influenced by the others around me.  When I turn to consider my future, I think of the interns whose paths will one day cross with mine.  Will I contribute to their overall development, helping them to emerge as a masterpiece like the David, poised to slay the goliath of the profession, or leave them unfinished as a Prisoner?  What will I be able to pass along to them?  When they move on, what part of me will they take along?  For right now, I am unsure of the answers to those questions.  But I have faith that the answers will come to me as I continue along my chosen path, and look back at the youth of my career with the wisdom and experience that comes with age.  Our legacy is more than bricks and mortar, architectonic planes and poetic space; it is also what we, as mentors, will pass along to the next generation.

Sometime in the future, if we should look back and find that we never did receive that Pritzker or make that magazine cover, we shouldn’t be too disappointed.  It would have been a wonderful achievement, but ultimately only a signpost of a past accomplishment, a reminder of where we’ve been. Looking back on it would only serve to remind us of our age.  The only way to stay young is to constantly be looking forward.  Who needs to celebrate that which has already passed?  I’m more interested in where we’re going.  Show me an intern, and I’ll show you the future.

The Village

swingsAs the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, something I’ve become all too aware of in the past few years.

My wife and I welcomed a son in 2011; it’s been a life-changing experience, in ways that we never expected. We knew, going in, that parenting was going to be a huge responsibility. Turns out, we were wrong — parenting is an enormous responsibility, and I don’t just mean sleepless nights and dirty diapers. We’re in the process of creating a person; in doing so, we have charged ourselves with teaching our son right from wrong, good from bad… in other words, making sure that he becomes a decent human being. It didn’t take us long to realize that, while we have been his primary care-givers, much of what our little guy has learned has been influenced by other people in our lives — his grandparents, his aunt and uncle, his cousin. A little further down the road, there will be many others — teachers, coaches, friends and classmates — that will enter his life and share their knowledge. We may be new to this parenting thing, but we’ve already seen that we can only teach him so much; the idea that he has so many other people looking out for him and influencing him by their example, makes me feel that much more confident that he really will turn out okay… and become a much better person in the process. 

 The development of a young architect is not that much different, really. An intern just entering the profession has a great deal to learn, and the responsibility falls on the rest of us to show them the ropes. This profession of ours takes on a great many different forms, and we’re asked to wear a variety of hats throughout the course of a week, or in some cases, even in the same day. Passing along even a small part of that experience to a younger architect helps to broaden their perception of what architecture is really all about.

Mentorship is one of the “hidden” benefits of IDP… A mentor is an optional part of the program, but one that can have a profound impact on one’s professional development (through an unbiased third-party perspective, as well as how quickly one can complete IDP, through Supplemental Experience — a mentor can provide oversight on design competitions or take an intern on a tour of a construction project, both of which qualify for IDP credit). A mentor can be a constant companion throughout one’s career, or someone who helps out on one particular day; as such, an intern can — and should — have many mentors throughout the course of their burgeoning career. NCARB has formalized (and increased) the mentor’s role in an intern’s development by developing a series of guidelines to follow (which you can read about here), but mentorship doesn’t have to follow such a strict system of rules. Anytime that anyone offers a little bit of advice, from the technical (“don’t use that type of brick tie…”) to the mundane (“hey – don’t drink that… there’s better coffee in the second floor kitchen”), mentoring is taking place… and both sides, I feel, are a little stronger for it. I say this from my own personal experience — some critical parts of my development came not from my daily supervisor, but from the guy(s) who occasionally looked over my shoulder and offered some friendly advice. 

 Here’s the catch: that advice has to be offered. Our profession was founded on the principle of mentorship, the nurturing of future practitioners through a “master-apprentice” relationship, working under the wing of an experienced professional, nearly one-on-one with that individual, in developing their mastery of the craft. That was then, this is now. I won’t bore you with the same old details you’ve probably heard hundreds of times by now (building projects are more complex, budgets are tighter, clients are savvier, staff sizes are smaller, yada yada yada…). Suffice it to say, the profession has changed immensely, and along the way, has seemingly turned itself inward; that type of dedicated mentoring has been lost. We’re a long way from the master-apprentice relationships that used to define architectural practice, and guaranteed that our collective knowledge was being passed down to the next generation of practitioners.

I can already hear some of you grumbling, and believe me when I say that I agree with you — mentoring is a two-way street, and the mentee has to bring something to the table as well. A mentor is supposed to be an adviser, or at best a coach, not necessary spoon-feeding knowledge to someone who isn’t interested in receiving it. But I believe that we owe it to ourselves to at least try. The profession depends upon this type of “pay it forward” attitude to survive. We all live in this village together, and it’s up to us to make sure that it’s taken care of by future generations. 

This post was originally published as a full-length feature article in the Winter 2012 issue of Pennsylvania Architect, the online magazine of AIA Pennsylvania, and also earlier this year as a Viewpoint in AIA-Pittsburgh’s COLUMNS. My son is now three, and he has a little sister on the way — my village is more appreciated than ever.

Taking the Leap

Success is an interesting thing — sometimes someone else’s success actually can be more important to you than your own.  Maybe it’s because you understand the process, the steps that needed to be taken.  Maybe it’s because you were too close to your own achievement to fully appreciate what went into it. Either way, seeing someone else take that leap can be just as exhilarating.  On the rare occasion when one can say that they might have had a small part to play in that, the feeling is very difficult to put into words.

leap-of-faithOver ten years ago, I was asked to be a mentor for a high school student, one who just happened to be writing a paper on architecture.  It was part of her senior project, and she had to choose a topic that was based on her intended major of study.  I was more than happy to help… and this being the first time I was asked to mentor someone, I took it very seriously.  Maybe a little too seriously — I returned her first draft to her literally dripping with red ink.  I tried justifying it by telling her — and myself — that I was preparing her for what was yet to come, but it might’ve been a little too much for a high school student to take.  Luckily she didn’t create a voodoo doll that looked suspiciously like me… or if she did, as an intern trying to painfully work his way through IDP, I didn’t notice.

She and I stayed in touch through her five years of college; eventually, the time came when she was looking for a job, and landed her first architectural position with the office that I was working for.  I actually had the opportunity to become a true mentor to her, especially when she was placed on one of my projects.  Of course, that meant a little more red ink — on her details this time — but I think (hope?) that by this point in her career, she at least had a better understanding of where I was coming from.

We lost touch a little when I left the firm.  The last time I saw her, at a pre-proposal meeting for a project we were both chasing, she told me that her goal was to finish her exams before her birthday.  Her most recent score reports being fairly regular, she even had scheduled her last division of the ARE so that she would receive her pass letter on her actual birthday itself — a bit of advanced planning (and ambition) that would make even the most anal-retentive architect (particularly this one) beam with admiration.

Today is her birthday… and yesterday, I received the wonderful news that she has earned her architectural license.  The fact that I celebrate the licensure of newly-minted architects is no small secret, but this one is more important to me than any other.  Even though I knew that this day was coming, I have been completely bowled over by the amount of pride that I feel.  (And to anyone who might think that the only party that benefits from mentorship is the younger one, you’re doing something wrong.)

Happy birthday, kid, and congratulations on taking the leap.  It’s been a pleasure to have been a part of your journey.  Now, hand over that voodoo doll…

Toward 5600: Line of Site

The latest in a recurring series on earning Supplemental Experience toward the minimum 5,600 hours required to complete IDP.

The Intern Development Program has very noble goals — it aims to produce competent architects by exposing interns to all aspects of practice.  The ideal internship promoted by NCARB through the Experience Areas, however, is not always that easy to come by.  The reason is, quite simply, that architecture is a business, and businesses need to be profitable — assigning two people to perform the same task, which is an ideal training opportunity, doesn’t always make the most business sense.  The profitability of the firm and the development of the intern can be somewhat mutually exclusive to one another.

building tourThis can be most apparent when it comes to visiting construction sites.  It’s a natural phase shift in our basic services to go from documentation to construction administration — and with that shift comes weekly job conferences and site visits.  In theory, there are ample opportunities to visit the project while it is under construction and see, firsthand, how the vision, defined by the architect’s documents, become reality.  In actual practice, however, the project’s budget might not support two staff members attending the job conference, especially for a building with a signifiantly-lengthy construction period (where the architect’s stipulated fee needs to be stretched over several years’ worth of meetings).  The end result is that the more experienced professionals end up flying solo, and the interns often aren’t able to visit the construction site on a regular basis — if at all.

Building tours (also known as “hard hat tours” for the personal safety equipment that is usually required) are a great way to start to fill in these gaps.  They are also a great way to expose yourself to different building types, other than the ones that your office typically performs.  Interns can earn up to 40 Core Hours toward Construction Phase: Observation by participating in a Site Visit with a Mentor.

Yes, earning Supplemental Experience in this category requires a mentor, but that can be as simple as having the architect leading the tour sign off on your time.  That’s right — as long as there’s an RA on the tour with you, and that individual is willing to act as a mentor by approving your experience report, you can earn IDP credit for this activity.  This is where the concept of having many mentors comes into play; a mentor can be someone that you meet monthly for coffee, or someone that helps you out on one selected occasion.  Chances are you may never see that individual again, but that one additional credit will be well worth your time.


There’s a high liklihood that your local AIA chapter (or a companion organization like the Master Builders, or the Green Building Alliance) may already be organizing tours such as this on a semi-regular basis.  These will likely be after-work events, meaning that this time will be above and beyond those 47 working weeks.  If you’re able to participate in four tours in a calendar year, that’s another half-day’s worth of time — in one of the more difficult credit areas — toward your IDP.

Our Number Two Dilemma

I’d like to offer you a fantastic design opportunity, one that will really test your chops as an architect: We need to design a public space that will see a lot of foot traffic – every single person that enters the building will pass through this space, and as such, it needs to be beautiful and inviting, with ample room for circulation.  We’ll be using some high-quality finishes with strict dimensional criteria – a lot of ceramic tile, with at least two accents – that will need some careful consideration.  There will be a great deal of specialty equipment that will need to be integrated with those finishes, some of which will be owner-provided.  There will be mechanical and lighting design concerns, as well as acoustic separation from the surrounding spaces.  Let’s not forget about accessibility – we need to be sure that we’ve complied with all necessary clearances, reach ranges, etcetera.  There’s also some document management concerns, since all of those items need to be annotated and dimensioned, in a legible enough fashion so that the contractor understands what he’s supposed to build.

So, in other words, our solution requires not only design expression plus technical skill – the very definition of architecture.  Great opportunity, right?  Now, what if I told you that it’s a pair of ganged toilet rooms.  Still interested?

I know what you’re thinking — I embellished the description, right?  That toilet rooms couldn’t possibly be described in those terms.  Go back and re-read it.

No, really – go ahead.  I’ll wait.

toiletrm_blueToilet rooms have earned the worst possible reputation in the practice of architecture (narrowly edging out the runner-up, stair plans and sections, to earn the title).  No one, it seems, wants to be associated with spaces that are dedicated to the evacuation of one’s bowels.  It’s funny, really – every project will have at least one toilet room in it, and it’s a virtual guarantee that the majority of plan review(s) and building inspection(s) will be concerned with how these rooms are laid out.  (As someone who has done his fair share of them, I can tell you that they don’t design themselves.)  It’s an essential skill for an architect to have in their bag of tricks.  And yet, every young architect cringes when asked to work on them, as if this task were beneath them.

The profession is based on licensure — RA status is our most valued credential, and the AIA has vigilantly defended the title, to raise public awareness of the architects role in society, only to see its numbers dwindle.  Enrollment in architecture schools has steadily decreased over the past five years, with even fewer graduates actually completing the degree program and entering the profession, and fewer still pursuing architectural registration.  The AIA has referred to this as “The Associate Crisis,” and it’s one of the largest issues facing the profession.  Not the largest, though — in the grand scheme of things, I’d say it ranks as a great big Number Two.

There’s a great deal of speculation as to what has contributed to this trend.  I’ll venture a guess that some of it stems from the “Gen-Y Effect,” the well-documented tendency of the current generation to stray from commitment.  At the risk of overgeneralization, studies have shown that Generation-Y (or “The Milennials”) rents instead of buys, chooses to remain single instead of getting married, pursues short-term employment instead of long-term positions.  Buckling down for a five-to-seven year internship, coupled with a seven-part examination, is an awfully big commitment, especially when it brings little increase in responsibility or compensation.

That’s only part of it; another is the vast disparity between academia and practice.  In architecture school, we’re taught to dream big, to throw caution to the wind, to not get bogged down in realities.  As one professor of mine put it, “you’ll have the rest of our career to worry about that kind of stuff– have fun now, while you still can.”  Or, in the words of another, addressing my entire class on the whole: “Each of you is way too talented to be drawing toilet room details.”  And since so few members of the faculty actually were registered architects, it’s hard to argue with that mentality.

Another factor — mentorship, or the lack of it.  Developing a set of skills requires a little bit of oversight from a more experienced practitioner, one that can help to identify problems to find potential solutions.  That type of guidance is all-too-frequently lost in our hectic schedules, where we are constantly expected to do more with less, and in shorter timeframes, than ever before.  A harried PM would rather see someone come to the table with the knowledge required to perform a certain task, not take the time to teach that skill.  But when it comes to things like toilet room layouts, we’re simply not taught that sort of thing in school.  The fact that the onus for so much of our training is carried by practice, not academia, is a liability for employer and employee alike.

Graduates from architecture school, especially those that have not had any sort of internship experience, are in for a little bit of a rude awakening.  The real world of the profession bears little resemblance to the fantasy realm of the studio. In school, we’re made to believe that each and every one of us is a Designer (with a capital D), practically given a cape when we graduate.  Then we land our first architectural job, where we’re placed in a 4-by-6 cube, handed a stack of redlined drawings from an overworked project manager, given minimal direction, and left to our own devices, sometimes for days on end.  It’s no wonder that so many young architects find themselves, in no particular order, confused, disenfranchised, bored, marginalized, out of work, and finally, in search of another career.

toiletrm_whiteBlame it on the toilet room details.  The perennial scapegoat of our profession, that menial task that each of us secretly (or not-so-secretly) dreads.  After all, after years of intense studio culture, countless all-nighters, learning from the masters in order to develop one’s own post-modernist masterpiece (even if it is only on paper), while in the meantime racking up thousands of dollars’ worth of college loans, surely we have more to offer the office — to say nothing of society at large — than a well-placed feminine napkin disposal.  The implication is one of snobbery – we’re Designers.  We shouldn’t have to burden ourselves with toilet rooms – after all, the grand architectural expression isn’t going to be made there.  Did Mies ever have to concern himself with where to place a hand dryer?  Would Corbu’s sixth point of architecture have been “one soap dispenser for every two lavatories?” Sullivan’s credo “form follows full-length mirror?”  We’re interested in making buildings worthy of the cover of a magazine, not rooms in which to read one.  (Think about it.)

An architectural internship is meant to impart the fundamentals of practice onto emergent professionals. The underlying goal of the Intern Development Program is to ensure that anyone wishing to call themselves an architect has the ability to competently and responsibly practice on their own, protecting the health safety and welfare of the general public.  Internship is the time when it’s expected to develop one’s skill set, which includes such things as competent toilet-room layout, in the process of honing one’s craft.  This, to me, is the basic difference between DESIGN (which has no real-world concerns other than looking !!really cool!!) and ARCHITECTURE, which has an inherent responsibility of being functional as well as beautiful.  Design requires creativity, intuition, and conviction — architecture requires all that, as well as a generous helping of knowledge, research, and technical ability.

It’s the responsibility of the intern to view IDP as more than a numbers game; it’s essential training, and needs to be treated as such.  But it’s also an inherent responsibility of the academy and practice to provide adequate opportunity to hone those skills, with the proper coaching and guidance, in the best interests of the individual and the profession at large.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not arguing against the importance of design.  Every space  — yes, even the toilet rooms — deserves to be beautiful as well as functional.  Design does play a critical role, even in what we consider ancillary or support spaces.  It’s a curse of our profession that we’re always looking for the gaps, the poorly thought-out details, the missed opportunities.  When I see cleanly-detailed tile walls, accessories that are carefully located, none of which come across as an afterthought or compromise, all of which are found in a generous space with no compromised sightlines, no intrusions into my personal space… as an architect, I’m impressed.  Someone made that happen, someone with skill and ability.

As soon as the profession is able to engage its emergent professionals in such a way that even toilet room details are seen as heroics, we’ll have found a solution to our Number Two Dilemma — convincing our own ilk that what we do is valid, worthy of their time, effort, and education.  Maybe then we can move on to Dilemma Number One — figuring out how to convince the general public of the same thing.

Editor’s note:  This post was originally published — trimmed for length, and minus some of the more blatant scatological humor — in the January 2013 issue of YAF Connection.

5600 or Bust!

5,600 hours.  That’s the minimum amount of time required to complete IDP.  But what does that mean, exactly?  (Warning: there be math ahead.)

If a typical work week is 40 hours, that means that IDP requires (at a minimum) 140 weeks to complete (5,600/ 40 = 140).

If there are 47 work weeks in a given year (52 weeks, minus 3 weeks for the standard amount of time off, minus another 2 weeks for holidays), that means that IDP requires just under 3 years to complete (140/ 47 = 2.97).  Again, at a minimum.

I hate to break it to you, but it’s going to take you a little longer than that.

The three-year rule of thumb for internship has become something of a staple of our profession (harkening all the way back to the days before a formal IDP process was established — you had to earn three years’ worth of experience before you could sit for the exam), but of course, it assumes that every hour spent during those three years is worthwhile experience, counting toward each of the 17 distinct Experience Areas defined in the IDP Guidelines.

I’m sure that it’s possible, but the reality is that it will likely take a little longer to complete IDP.  Exactly how long depends on you, your supervisor, and your employment setting, as well as a whole host of other things that are beyond your control (economic downturns, projects being placed on indefinite hold, a lack of any current projects under construction, etc).  (NCARB by the Numbers has shown the average amount of time required to be 5 years.  Counting a summer internship during college, it took me well over 4 years to finish.)

That’s where Supplemental Experience comes into play.  There’s no way around earning the required 5,600 hours, but Supplemental Experience can help you to earn them faster than you would in the traditional 40-hours-per-week work setting.  For example, working with a mentor (or mentors!), an intern could visit a construction site or perform tasks in the Emerging Professionals Companion, which, when added to the time already spent in the office, can in turn help to complete your internship in less time.  Even better, Supplemental Experience can be earned in both major categories — the minimum 3,740 Core Hours, which every intern needs to earn in the same quantities, as well as the 1,860 Elective Hours, which allows an internship to be tailored to a paticular set of skills, interests, and professional goals.

Over the course of a semi-regular series called Toward 5600, we’ll look a little more closely at IDP’s Supplemental Experience categories.  Look for posts tagged 5600 for great opportunities to earn credit beyond the traditional work setting… and accelerate your internship.