10 Unglamorous Things Architects Do (Apparently)

architectI arrived at my desk this morning to find a printed article neatly placed over my keyboard, titled “10 Unglamorous Things Architects Do” by John Gresko. In order to better understand what it is like to work for an architect, it would help you (the reader) to understand what architects do all day. And, quite honestly, although I have been here for 3 weeks, I still have a lot to learn about architects too!

The first few lines set the tone of the article – “An acquaintance recently asked me about the kinds of things I did on a day-to-day basis at work, anticipating a response loaded with enviable activities. She was wrong.” He explains that every once in a while the profession comes with prestige – ground breaking ceremonies, topping-out parties and award ceremonies – but most of the time, it is very unglamorous and full of the following activities:

  1. Pick Up Red Marks – As a Journalism major, I know the importance of the red pen (editing is a MUST in that field). Well, the red pen is here to haunt me again while working for an architect. Red Marks, or Redlines, are the words used in an architectural office to reference the red ink that is typically used to mark up corrections that need to be made on architectural drawings. Architects are obligated to make the changes marked in red. Gresko suggests crossing them out in green when completed. He calls this process “laborious, sometimes educational, sometimes life saving, and sometimes downright insulting.” Although the task may be daunting, it is a necessary process for any creative medium because, well, mistakes are expensive.
  2. Redesign – “I created this masterpiece without any redesigns,” said NO architect EVER. A key part of being in a creative field is enhancing your work over and over and over again. Redesign would preferably happen in the Design Development Phase. Gresko writes “if you’re lucky, you get to refine the design the day before you go out to bid. If you’re even luckier, you get to redesign during construction. If you’re the luckiest, you get to redesign after construction.” I have noticed that some of our current projects have already gone through redesign phases. It just makes sense to get the design perfect on paper before bringing it to life.
  3. Specify Door Hardware & Create Door and Frame Schedules – This is definitely the most specific thing that Gresko lists. “No offense to the many talented professional door and hardware specialists in the world (especially the one helping me right now on my project), but this is one task to me that is not glamorous. More thought than people know goes into creating a functioning door. As a layperson navigating through a building, it’s hard to notice the nuances. Doors have to meet codes in regards to fire ratings, accessibility, be within manufacturer’s third-party labeling constraints, be easy to swing, be durable, and sometimes they actually get to look nice too.” I never really thought about the design and engineering that goes into a door, until I tried putting a cat door attachment on my sliding glass door. Kudos to you, “door people.” Also, I never realized the nearly endless possibilities of door design until I created a Pinterest for the firm. We have a board dedicated just to doors – and it is my favorite board!
  4. Convert File Types – Seems easy enough, right? Well yeah it is easy, but seriously unglamorous. Gresko writes “We get requests all the time for different file types, sometimes within our own company. I don’t think people realize how time consuming and depressingly mundane it is. If you want to assert your authority over someone and make it really sting, delegate this task to them. You’ll have that person updating their resume that night.” Most of the files created and saved on my desktop are Photoshop files (for marketing materials). I am an InDesign person, so I basically had to teach myself how to use Photoshop. It indeed was time consuming and extremely frustrating. But once I got it down, I had a weird sense of pride. Go me!
  5. Answer RFIs – RFI stands for Request For Information. These documents are used during the Construction Phase by the Contractor or CM to ask the architect questions and seek interpretations of the contract documents. RFIs are needed for reasons such as: substitution/construction modification, construction deficiency, and clarification or additional information. Gresko explains that the unglamorous part about RFIs is the fact that they have a time limit, and can sometimes come unannounced. “These are sometimes necessary questions and sometimes used as collateral in an unspoken cold war of paperwork… and definitely not glamorous.”
  6. Review Submittals – “Buildings are constructed from submittals,” Gresko writes. “They are intended to demonstrate the contractors understanding of the design intent. They can number in the thousands, are time-sensitive, and carry lots of risk. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to review them accurately and quickly. Nerve wrecking, yes. Glamorous, not so much.” A submittal is a shop drawing, schedule, catalog cut, sample, or report required by the contract documents for the contractor to furnish, review, and approve and for the design team to review. Basically the most important documents in architecture.
  7. Do Our Time Sheets – Pretty self-explanatory. Gresko takes it a bit further: “There are all sorts of unbillable tasks architects have to go through: time sheets, expense reports…” We keep track of our hours at our firm on a time sheet that gets printed out twice a month. It’s kind of nice – I don’t have to worry about forgetting to clock in or out.
  8. Manage Logs – If I have learned one thing in my three weeks of working for an architect, it is that there is a LOT of paperwork – and they keep everything filed! Gresko writes, “There are logs for all kinds of things: open design issues, open code issues, open coordination issues, internal and external QAQC logs, change request logs, RFIs, submittals, construction deficiencies, and NFL weekly confidence pools. This is about as much fun as attending pre-meetings.” Most creative types have a hard time being organized, but I think architects are (and have to be) the exception to that rule.
  9. Make Punch Lists – “It’s fun to be on site during construction. But it’s really fun to walk around the project and create a list of everything that every tradesman has done wrong… not. When you finish your list, it becomes a log. Double whammy. When you find someone’s work to be deficient, make sure to keep your hard hat on.” Gresko hit the nail on the head with that somewhat sarcastic description!
  10. Create Renderings – Architectural Rendering is the art of creating two-dimensional images or animations showing the attributes of a proposed architectural design. “Renderings look great,” Gresko says. “But getting to that final image is kind of like watching sausages get made. First, grind together input from way too many sources, take a guess at way too many things, and stay up late waiting for some server to unfreeze in some unknown location. Great renderings almost always come at a cost of lost sleep, added doses of junk calories, and lost opportunities to pick up precious red marks.” This is something I hope I can learn more about. I am currently getting a Graphic Design degree, and while not really the same as an Architecture degree, they have similarities!

While all of these tasks are deemed “unglamorous” by the author, I still find them fascinating, nonetheless. I like structure and organization. I love making lists. I think I have always been destined to be unglamorous, in some sort of way.

My First Customer Consultation & Learning the Project Approach

handsLast week I got to tag along for an initial customer consult. My boss explained that these are new clients that recently purchased a home and wanted to renovate, so we needed to go check it out and get a feeling of what the clients want. We drove to the clients new home in Tierra Verde in the late afternoon, the sun high in the sky. Nervous excitement nestled into my stomach. I kept opening and closing my pen. When I get nervous I talk a lot, and apparently it can be distracting because we missed our exit. I took a deep breath and looked out the window at the water as we crossed a bridge into Tierra Verde. Boats floated along lazily, some with fishing poles poking out their backsides. The houses out there were so beautiful. Bright pinks, greens and oranges mixed with more subdued beiges and light yellows – the neighborhood was vibrant with color!

About 20 minutes later, we pulled up to a 3-story house, painted a teal and gray color. I noticed a small stained glass window near the top, which added a charming character to the otherwise plain home. It was a very large house – with loads of potential! My nerves began fading, thanks to curiosity and excitement. The clients welcomed us inside, offering us refreshments and apologizing for the mess. They had just moved in the day before! Larry quickly got to business and we began the tour of the house. I followed close by, like a lost puppy, scribbling down everything the homeowner said on my notepad. After about 30 minutes, we settled down in the kitchen and a large round table to discuss their plans more. This initial consult meeting taught me a lot about how Larry runs his firm.

After the initial consultation meeting, the next step is a Program Meeting. This is where we establish a written program analyzing all aspects of the project during discussions with the client prior to starting the design. We told the clients in Tierra Verde to create a prioritized list of what they want renovated and we would start there. Larry explained that this document can evolve during the course of a project. Another part of the Programming Phase requires the team to analyze and determine if the scope of work requested by the client can be reasonably achieved within their established budget. If the scope of work and budget are not compatible we suggest that the client raises the budget, ways of reducing cost, or the use of additive alternatives.

The next step is to collect or create Measured Drawings. We will gather existing drawings for all renovations completed on the particular project since it was originally constructed (in the case of this house, any original drawings dating back to 1984!). Based on the site analysis, we will depict the current actual conditions of the site, in a CAD format, and use them as base drawings at the start of the design effort.

And now for the fun step – the Schematic Design Phase. Typically the first two options provide a focused scope of work without the need for multiple directions or options. During this Design Development Phase, the architectural portions of the project are refined and the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are designed by the architects and sub-consultants. Outline specifications and the development of a keynote system on the drawings give the client’s and construction manager a clear understanding of the project scope as preliminary pricing proceedings.

Next up is the Construction Drawings Phase. These documents are highly detailed and clearly delineated drawings provided by our firm, and are specifically tailored to each project we do. During this process, we will thoroughly review all consultant documents to avoid potential conflicts and omissions.

Next comes the Bidding Phase, typically with a minimum of 3 potential contractors. We attend pre-bid meetings and inspections of the site with all bidders/sub-contractors that are assigned to very specific dates and times. Contractors do not want to be late for these meetings because their bids must be submitted prior to the assigned date/time. Otherwise they might get locked out. At this stage we encourage questions from the contractors. If required, written addendums are distributed to all bidders prior to the Fixed Fee Contract submittals (or sometimes refereed to as GMP submittals, in the Commercial setting).

Once the building/renovation begins, we enter Construction Administration Phase. During this time, we avoid construction delays with timely performance and answers to any questions the client(s) might have. We encourage routine meetings with the client and contractor to keep the lines of communication open and construction moving at a constant pace, until the renovation is complete.

Over an hour had passed while sitting at the kitchen table discussing the inner workings of our firm. I felt a little dizzy from the large amount of information I had just absorbed, but it was nice to get a quick overview of what I will be doing at my new job. The clients looked a little dizzy themselves, but Larry reassured them that we will take things at their pace. He told them that, for now, all they had to worry about was creating that prioritized list for our Program Meeting. She asked if she could make Pinterest Boards that depicted what she was looking for – and I blurted out “That’s a great idea!”. Larry agreed – any visual aid they provide us will only help us achieve their desired look.

Before we left Tierra Verde, Larry drove around and pointed out all of the houses that he designed that had been built. There were 4 total. Each one was more grandiose than the last. I couldn’t believe I was working for such an accomplished person! We headed back to St. Petersburg in silence, taking in the beautiful city that we live in.

What is Architecture – A Quick Research Post

Frank Lloyd Wright - Fallingwater House

Frank Lloyd Wright – Falling Water House

My background is in Journalism and Graphic Design. I have been hired mainly to help with marketing and general office work. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t take pride in my work – in this case, for an Architect. As I wrap up my first week as an Executive Assistant at an Architecture firm, I thought it would be beneficial to do some research and give myself a quick “Architecture 101” crash course.

So, what is architecture? Well according to the dictionary:

[ahr-ki-tek-cher] (Noun)

  1. The profession of designing buildings, open areas, communities, and other artificial constructions and environments, usually with some regard to aesthetic effect.
  2. The character or style of building.
  3. The action or process of building; construction.
  4. The result or product of architectural work, as a building.
  5. Buildings collectively.
  6. A fundamental underlying design of computer hardware, software, or both.
  7. The structure of anything: the architecture of a novel.

Okay, great. But architecture is more than just a definition. After a week in the field, I can already understand that architecture is a form of art and something that is very historic. Cities and Empires are remembered and essentially defined by the way they built their structures. Just look at the Romans. Some of their buildings are still partially intact, 2000 years later! For example, The Pantheon was built in about 120 AD and is still in continuous use as a place of worship today! Mind-boggling! And let’s not forget the most remarkable example of the Roman genius that is the Pantheon – it’s roof, a large dome. In an extra touch of “hey, look at us,” the center of the dome is open to the sky. Possibly the world’s first skylight, perhaps? Oh and did I mention that the Romans invented concrete? Where would architecture even be today without concrete?

Let me reiterate – I have never studied architecture. However, as a fan of design in general, I do know of one American architect – Frank Lloyd Wright. He is most famous for Fallingwater, an amazing residential project he built in the 1930s. It has even been called the best all-time work of American architecture. I love this quote of his that I found:

“What is architecture anyway? Is it the vast collection of the various buildings, which have been built to please the varying taste of the various lords of mankind? I think not…

No, I know that architecture is life; or at least it is life itself taking form and therefore it is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today or ever will be lived. So architecture I know to be a Great Spirit….

Architecture is that great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, and creates, according to the nature of man, and his circumstances as they change. That is really architecture.”

Music has always spoken to me more than anything else on the planet. I imagine that if I were an architect, looking at a building would feel the same as when I listen to a song that I love. There are many aspects that come into play in architecture – some that scare me (cough-math-cough). But I am very excited to absorb as much information as possible! My first week working for an Architect has been very interesting. You can check on me weekly and read my blog to find out how I am doing. Catch ya later!