In Absentia

I should be on my way to Washington right now, to take part in the AIA’s Grassroots Leadership and Advocacy Conference. Unfortunately, between client meetings for two different projects, a deadline for a third, and several other commitments, the trip to the capital just wasn’t in the cards this year. I’ve always said that family comes first, work comes second, and volunteer efforts come third, but I’m still a little disappointed that I have to miss it.

This would have been my third Grassroots — longtime fans of my blog (both of you!) might remember my post from last year’s event, and I had also shared my experience from 2012’s conference on AIA Pittsburgh’s website. This year, I was really looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow facilitators from the Emerging Professionals Summit (by the way, check out the excellent recaps in the current issue of CONNECTION!)… and the opportunity to formally endorse the National Design Services Act by lobbying my congressmen to support the bill. Support for the NDSA is one of the major talking points for the Capitol Hill visits this year, so I will leave this in the more than capable hands of the other 700+ architects that will be attending the conference. I’ll rely on Twitter to keep getting the word out.

For the record, I’m not a fan of the concept of student loan forgiveness, but I wholeheartedly support the idea of the NDSA, and hope that it sees its way into legislation.  What I like the most about the Act is that it isn’t offering a free ride — by trading design services for loan assistance, it places value on design while offering graduates a chance to provide humanitarian aid through their skill set.  Having recently paid off my student loans, I can appreciate how difficult it can be starting out on your own with so much debt to repay… but the fact that I worked every day to pay off my lender makes me completely against the idea of a scot-free bailout for anyone.  The NDSA seems like a perfect solution to an increasingly difficult problem facing our profession… the very thing that Grassroots is meant for.

Not going to Grassroots?  For more information about the NDSA, including ways you or your chapter can assist with legislation in your area, click here.

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.

Time Flies

As I get older, I’ve noticed that time seems to be moving faster… 2012 has gone by in the blink of an eye.  I’m already seven months in to my stint as the State Coordinator, and five months have passed since my first stab at blogging about all things licensure.  2012 was one of the first years that I can systematically point to a series of events, each building upon the last, that had a profound impact on my career, and for that reason, I can’t let the year go by without a quick look back.

grassrootsThe year began with me passing the torch of AIA-Pittsburgh’s Young Architects Forum to our vice chair, looking forward to the next big thing, whatever that might be.  Turns out that I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  In March, I  joined my chapter’s executive director and board president in attending my first Grassroots Conference (over which I waxed philosophic, in a column for AIA Pittsburgh’s website).  Through advocacy at the national level, for the first time, I experienced the bigger picture of our profession, and the small role that I could play in it.  “Come as you are,” the marketing for the event asked, “leave inspired,” and I certainly did both.  (I also left with two small souvenirs from the AIA Bookstore — a copy of “Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice,” for me, and “Iggy Peck, Architect” for my son.  Both have been read and re-read several times since then, each offering sly humor and  deep inspiration that I never tire of.)


Directing traffic… (photo courtesy of the YAF Facebook page)

2012 also marked the 20th anniversary of the Young Architects Forum, an event that was celebrated earlier that same week by a gathering of 60 young architect leaders and emergent professionals from across the United States.  The event was called YAF Summit20, and, like Summit15 before it, was intended to shape the direction for the next five years’ worth of YAF focus and initiatives.  The bulk of the summit, and ultimately its main focus, was the identification of the top six issues facing young architects in the current state of architectural practice.  One of those six, the Value of Licensure, seemed to permeate the discussions of each of the other five, and for good reason.  Some of the underlying themes from Summit – including the introductory presentation by Marsha Littell (who, at the time, was the director of training and talent management at HOK) on the generational shift in the modern workplace, and, more specifically, my breakout group’s discussion on the “Value of Licensure,” one of the six issues that we explored at Summit — have influenced nearly everything that I have written, discussed, and thought about in the months since. I also made some great friends that have extended my network far beyond my little corner of the world.


Occasionally, I actually look like I know what I’m talking about… (photo courtesy of the YAF Facebook page)

The generational shift would play quite largely into a presentation that I was in the midst of preparing for Build Pittsburgh 2012, our chapter’s annual educational conference.  Titled “(Not) Just Another Day at the Office,” we looked at shifting attitudes toward the traditional office landscape, which have largely been driven by technological advancements, but also increasing numbers of Gen-Ys in the workforce.  We were speaking in general terms, of course, and focusing on an architectural response to the most mundane of spaces… but I found myself fascinated by the implications into our own profession.


Opening act: Pink Floyd.

In mid-June — my mind reeling with thoughts of generational issues, work-life balance, toilet room details, mentorship, record-high unemployment, career detours, intrepid second-graders, and the future of our profession — I accepted the position of IDP State Coordinator for Pennsylvania.  I saw the position as a way of addressing some of the issues facing the profession, in a manner best suited to my interests, skills, and mindset.  Less than a month later, I attended my first Coordinators Conference, and in October, I performed my first two school visits, literally within days of each other — visiting with Pitt’s AIAS Chapter on Friday, October 19, and Penn State’s Department of Architecture on Monday, October 22 — with a trip to CMU scheduled for early 2013.

Along the way, as part of AIA Pittsburgh, we continued with our series of ARE Review Sessions, performed outreach on behalf of the profession through Park(ing) Day and CANstruction, celebrated the registration of 13 newly licensed architects, and, of course, Facebooked/ blogged/ Tweeted/ Instagrammed about topics that were relevant to the future of our profession and our region (and, in some cases, both).  I suppose I actually did some real work (for the paying job) somewhere in there, too.  The end of the year celebrations brought a nice surprise… and some well deserved rest and reflection.

I am greatly appreciative of the opportunities that came my way in 2012, and hope that I’ve been able to help some of you on your own paths to licensure.  Looking forward to what 2013 will bring…

4.0 Average: Where to Begin…?

The shift from ARE 3.1 to ARE 4.0 was implemented by NCARB to create an exam that was more reflective of the profession.  The seven divisions of the exam are now more integrated with each other, rather than parceled out into neat little packages.  The graphic vignettes have been combined with the multiple choice sections of the test, as well, in keeping with the idea (rightfully so) that architects need to have a wealth of knowledge while representing themselves in visual form.

The exam format gives you the flexibility to tailor the experience to your own strengths and weaknesses (my thoughts on this, if you’re interested, will be offered in another post)… but it comes at a small price:  one of the biggest questions about the exam is what order one should attempt to take these seven divisions.  Every opinion is slightly different… from fellow bloggers The Artichoke’s Guide and AREndurance, to a neverending stream of posts on AREForum.

AIA-Pittsburgh’s YAF is kicking off our 2012-2013 series of formal ARE Review sessions this week.  With the disclaimer that every exam candidate is different, and you really need to do some homework to figure out what’s going to work best for you, we’ve decided to endorse the following sequence:

Construction Documents and Services (CDS)
Programming Planning and Practice (PPP)
Site Planning and Design (SPD)
Structural Systems (SS)
Building Systems (BS)
Building Design and Construction Systems (BDCS)
Schematic Design (SD)*

In the interests of streamlining the study process, this sequence seems to work out well by building upon prior knowledge.  CDS has a (relatively) narrow focus, making it somewhat easier to study the material.  There’s a lot of overlap in content between CDS and PPP, and again between PPP and SPD, making these three tests ideally suited to be taken together.  BDCS, by contrast, is extremely broad in scope; a lot of the content will come from related subjects in the SS and BS divisions, so studying for them will help build your knowledge base (and comfort level) for BDCS.

* – The only “wild card” is Schematic Design — as the only division of the exam with no multiple choice component, it is an entirely different animal.  It could conceivably come anywhere in the sequence — some candidates use it as a “break” from the hardcore studying for the other divisions.

The first exam you take will be the hardest, mostly for psychological reasons. It doesn’t matter which division you decide to start with. It has a lot to do with the fear of the unknown – getting to the testing center, finding the actual space itself, waiting to be given a computer terminal, watching that clock count down your time remaining and knowing that it’s FOR REAL this time. That feeling will pass – somewhat – when you take exam #2.

Lastly, to any exam candidates reading this, let me ask for a small favor — If you’ve found an exam sequence that works for you, or if you think I’m insane for suggesting such a thing, please leave me a comment!  I’d love to hear how you’ve decided to tackle this thing.

Down the Path…

Welcome to InDePth, a blog devoted to the path toward architectural licensure in the state of Pennsylvania.  Here, you’ll find musings, anecdotes, random thoughts, and maybe even some useful information on architectural education, IDP, and the ARE.  As long as that pesky paying job doesn’t get in the way, new content will be added on a semi-regular basis – sometimes weekly, but never less than monthly.

First, though, a little about me: My name is Sean Sheffler, AIA, and as of June 2012, I have taken over the mantle of Pennsylvania’s IDP State Coordinator.  I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, earned my degree in architecture from the Pennsylvania State University, and have spent my entire career since then working in Pittsburgh.  I completed IDP in 2004, earned my architectural registration in March of 2006, and became a LEED AP in December 0f 2008.  In 2011, I served as the Chair of AIA-PGH’s Young Architects Forum, and I continue to support that group as its immediate Past Chair.  Through friends and family, I have visited all four corners of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and am proud to be serving my profession in this new role.

My official title may be “IDP State Coordinator,” but I have every intention of using this as a forum for addressing all three aspects of the path toward licensure — Education (the NAAB-accredited degree), Experience (IDP), and Examination (ARE).  I might even throw in some posts related to professional development while I’m at it.  And, of course, if you have suggestions for a post or two, please share them with me!

Any of you that are currently undergoing this process, or preparing to get started, please feel free to direct your questions to me at  Drop me a line with anything that’s on your mind, from questions about logging Training Units to advice about studying for the exam.  You can also follow me on Twitter by searching the username @IDP_PA.  I’ll share new blog posts via the Twitter feed as soon as they are available, and re-tweet anything from NCARB that’s relevant to my followers.

Before we dive in, though, I wanted to take the opportunity to recognize the efforts of the previous IDP State Coordinator.  Art Sheffield, Associate AIA, NOMA, faithfully and diligently served the commonwealth for over seven years before deciding to pursue other opportunities.  For many of those years, Art also carried the torch for the Pittsburgh Interns and Young Architects Forum (PIYAF), which paved the way for the AIA-Pittsburgh chapter’s YAF.  It’s safe to say that young architects across Pennsylvania — including me — owe Art a great deal of gratitude.  Everyone here at AIA-PGH wishes him well in his new endeavors!

I’m here to help all of you in your journey toward licensure.  And, with that, I’ll leave you with a beautiful and inspiring statement that I found on the message boards of

Dreams are not captured in ‘arrival’, they are shaped and defined in the harsh reality of journey.
‘Arrival’ simply gives us hindsight to see that obstacles were actually footholds in our ascent.
The obstacles are there to empower you, because they map the path.

Down the path we go…