Most architecture students enter the professional world with an idealistic vision, and commonly a strong desire to design. It is very important to understand the dynamics of this profession, define your path and position yourself well into it, to be able to implement your skills and ideas in a rational way. It is also advantageous to let your plans be flexible enough to evolve throughout the journey, yet it surely is challenging to accept, and embrace changes in this path. In other words, resistance to adaptation in various circumstances within this profession may inhibit further achievements and growth.
After stepping into the profession, almost like everyone else, as a member of the project teams I passionately tried to bring to the table new ideas, techniques, knowledge, and skills that I had gained through my six years of school. It was definitely a challenge in a lot of cases to realize how restricted I had become in real world projects- how code implications could impact my concepts and how client demands were so dramatically different from my visions that I had been taught at school. I certainly did not have to deal with this for school projects, where I had to sell my ideas to professors, perhaps a few critiques at final presentations, and sometimes my classmates whose thought process was not so different from mine. I had to be realistically responsible for every dollar spent on the construction of my designs and be able to reasonably analyze why I was making every single design move, and what the implications could be.
The bright side of it which became revolutionary to my thinking process, was that the professional work is undoubtedly less subjective than school work. Economic factors makes the boundaries and limitations more palpable. Part of what gradually made the real world projects exciting to me, and yet different from school, was the fact that everyone contributed uniquely to its perception and success, and the judgement was not the ultimate decision of your instructor.
After working on a number projects during a short amount of time, I came to the understanding that I should certainly focus my attention on the areas I had a lack of knowledge in. My passion for design and creation of new spatial concepts took major dedication during my school years, and I had spent a great amount of time and love in that field. Evaluating my own performance at work I realized that I was doing a better job at design, but I need to improve myself on other areas. I did not have any practical experience on how a simple building could really come together in two different stages. A much earlier stage including project execution, management, budgeting, and client relations; a farther stage which is constructability, technical details, building jurisdiction codes, and zoning ordinances.
Working at HLW, I had the privilege to openly discuss my goals, and ask for mentorship on what I needed to learn. This I believe is one of the most important aspects of my job satisfaction. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical to be able to redefine your goals as you gain more experience. With my background in architecture schools, I certainly do see a value in finding solutions that would challenge the status quo but I firmly believe that this can only be achieved through understanding the established rules and methods in the first place. I realized what I had to focus on was leaning the established rules and techniques, which was my major weakness, those that I had no interest to pursue while I was at school, but I knew I had to learn them prior to taking bigger passionate steps. I decided to ask my supervisors at HLW to expose me to the technical side of the projects, and let me work on projects that were at Design Development, Construction Documentation, and Construction Administration stages.
It was interesting enough that one of the projects I had worked on during the preliminary design stages, in my first few months after school, came back to us for further development and construction down the road. The project was an existing six story building that was intended to be repositioned to creative office spaces to attract tech company tenants. The idea was to renovate the bulky symmetrical, 80’s looking building to a contemporary design on the exterior and interior of the building.
As far as a learning experience, working on a renovation project was an incredibly comprehensive experience in that it involved far more complexities than a new construction project. The meticulous investigations on how the building was constructed thirty years ago, and figuring out how we could trigger the structure with minimal intervention and taking into account all cost implications was absolutely a valuable lesson learned.
As soon as we started on putting together a complete concept design package, I experienced a whole new level of thinking about design. In fact, we had to materialize the design perspectives we had, estimate the costs, present feasible options to the client, and be flexible enough to incorporate client requests and implement engineers’ directions in our design. Our scope of work on that project included façade renovation, lobby and core design, entry podium, and conversion of the 2nd floor parking to an office space. This conversation alone exposed me to zoning regulations, and I had to attend a couple of public hearings in which I presented our design to the committee and explained how this project could be beneficial to the neighborhood. Aside from this, putting together design development and construction documents packages influenced how I visualized design thereafter. Having said that, it is very important to work at a place where you can achieve what you’re looking for, and I luckily had that.
After pulling the building permits, and going through a few plan check revisions, and dealing with building department jurisdiction, it was the time for construction. This was certainly a unique experience, absolutely different from what I had done before. I got the chance to fully undertake project coordination during construction. Coordinating architecture with structural, MEP, landscape, lighting; and being responsive to the contractor questions and requests, had to be simultaneously overseen. In addition, we went through two value engineering processes during which we reevaluated our design and details to lower the construction cost. At this point, all the steps we had taken previously, in regards to pulling the permits and coordination with the engineers had to be redone multiple times to account for the changes. Below is the before and after images of the project I briefly explained here because, we as architects, always prefer graphics over text.
Through my own experience, and in no particular order, here is what I uncovered about construction administration. Firstly, it’s crucial to recognize how every single correspondence with the contractor had to be carefully analyzed and strategized, in technical and financial terms, because any remaining unresolved issues would show up eventually in other formats. It is always the responsibility of the architect to find a solution or coordinate with the engineers to find the best answer. The second important lesson I learned was how a smart design detail can simultaneously affect the schedule, budget, and the end result. And the last but not least is to emphasize on how important it is to get licensed in this profession. It is impossible to learn the bulk of information you gain by studying for ARE exams in a relatively short amount of time by work experience alone, and you might actually never get the depth of knowledge without going through the licensure path.
What I’m proud of during my years of work experience is that not only has my passion for architecture not faded away, but I’ve also been able to reform my goals and to some extent redefine them for myself. The influences of what I learned at USC, and my experience at HLW were both of great value. I always believe that as architects being able to keep our passion alive is the key because that’s what differentiates us, and we should acknowledge and appreciate this intrinsic passion.