Three lessons I never learnt at architecture school

The Learning Process. by rubyblossom., on FlickrI pondered for a while what to title this article.  Because its not about architecture really – its about the lessons you learn when you work, as opposed to the ones you learnt studying. Working as an architect or interior designer (and from what I know – an engineer or  a project manager too) is very different from the way we learn to work at University.  The amount of time you spend on different tasks bears little resemblance to how you would likely have imagined an architecture office before you ever actually worked in one.  When I was studying, design units made up at least half the course credits and probably took up three quarters of our time with very limited classes on business or even construction – and that certainly isn’t the reality for most architects or designers either working in, or running an office (even if you choose to call it a studio).  Somehow a recent conversation with a friend and colleague got me talking about what I thought were the most important lessons I  had learnt in my career – and none of them are things I recollect really learning about at uni.

Communication is the most important thing you do

Not design or anything else.  It doesn’t matter how good a designer you are – if you can’t communicate your design then your career won’t go far.  But its not just communicating our designs through drawings, models or other visual mediums that is important in architecture.  We spend more of our time communicating than anything else.  You communicate with your client, with your team, with your subconsultants, with the contractors.  You communicate via phone and meetings, minutes,  email, drawings, reports, room data sheets, spreadsheets, models.  All of these are different modes of communication.  To be effective, all of these means of communication need to be understood by somebody else – and often somebody else with a different level of experience or education to you, who may speak a different first language or maybe just has less time, involvement or interest in the project.  All of these things are barriers to communication.

It’s important to remember that communication is not primarily about you providing information (then we would call it information not communication).  Communication is about providing information in a format and structure that the person receiving the information can digest and understand.  How many times have you been part of a series of emails which go back and forth because the 2 people involved are not able to clearly identify the relevant issues and provide clear and direct instructions as to what actions need to be undertaken.  For example, recently we had a tender set due on a Friday.  Early in the week, the project manager indicated we would receive the final client feedback on Friday.  What he failed to tell us in the initial email was that the program had changed for other reasons, and we would not be required to issue the documentation for another 2 weeks.  It took four more emails for this information to be extracted from him! (And with 5 people reading thats a serious waste of productivity).  Whilst there are certainly some people who would suggest simply picking up the phone – I would say whilst that is a solution, it doesn’t always deal with the whole problem.  In some cases it may solve the immediate communication issue, but can still lead to interpretative issues down the track when there is no record of that communication and it relates to a contractual issue.

How do we learn to communicate more clearly?  Practice is certainly important, but not the only thing.  Clear communication is not just about the words (or pictures), its also about the format.  Its about space, bold headings, grid lines in a spreadsheet, line weights in a drawing.  All of these formatting elements can help provide clarity in your communications.  Learn by seeing what others do.  If you find a website, a spreadsheet or a drawing is really clear and easy to read think about why and how you can emulate it.

I also find its helpful to think about the other persons perspective.  What are they trying to get out of the project, what is their agenda, their key issues.  Especially if I only have a short time to get their attention (either in person or in writing) – what matters to them?

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions

As a  younger graduate, I was often quick to go to my boss, the project manager or the client as soon as a problem arose on a project.  I didn’t want to get in trouble for not keeping the right people informed.  One day there was some problem on one of the office fitout projects I was delivering internally for my company. I can’t even remember now what the problem was, but I think it was some sort of delay on the part of one of the furniture suppliers or subcontractors which would prevent us moving into the office on time.  It was certainly something of significance to the project, and completely outsisde of my control.  So straight away I rang the manager I reported to on the project. And I was given an earful.  I think he yelled at me for over an hour (unprofessional on his part) but what he did manage to communicate to me – was that I should have waited before calling him.  He was right.

It’s pretty rare that you can’t wait half an hour or even a day before passing on problems.  You should use this time to come up with solutions and recommendations.  In this instance, for example our options may have been something like – delay the move, hire temporary workstations or put more pressure onto the non performing subcontractor.  Or some combination of these options.  It would have been much better for me to go to my manager presenting all these possibilities, with research into the costs or pluses and minuses of each one and a recommendation of which action to take.  It shows you are proactive in dealing with problems and you can be relied upon to solve problems.

Hire your successor

This is one of my personal favourite pieces of advise I ever received.  It was very coincidental that someone said it to me just at the time I had interviewed a talented designer to back me up in my role as design team leader – but she had asked for a higher salary than I was on.  I had felt pretty threatened by that.  But hearing about the idea that you should always aim to hire people who are ambitious and want your job leaving you free to move yourself on to the next level in your career really resonated with me.  We all want to work with a great team, if someone is good enough to make you feel they could do your job, then it follows that they would be a great asset to your team as long as they don’t want your job right now.  I hired the designer (not on a salary higher than mine tho!) and didn’t regret it – although changes to our team structure  meant we only briefly worked together.  Now, I would have no hesitation in hiring someone who I thought wanted my role in the future – even if by future I mean a year or two.  I would also add that I believe that you should always aim to hire people you think will be incredible at what they do – and not just settle for average.  Whilst not everyone is a leader, you will find people who are incredible at documenting, or at producing graphics or at reviewing spreadsheets – and one thing I think these people all have in common is a passion to always improve the way  they work.

On that note – we are currently hiring interior designers and Revit architects/documenters at DJRD.  So if you are looking for a new opportunity in Sydney or know someone incredible who is, check out our ads on LinkedIn and get in touch.

You can learn lessons from someone you don’t like

I know I said 3 lessons – but I think its probably important to say that 2 of the lessons above I learnt from the same project manager – and I didn’t always like the way he behaved or treated me.  But that said, I still learnt.  If someone is intelligent and has things to teach, don’t let the fact that you don’t personally like them get in the way of learning.  Just don’t make them your mentor!

Ceilidh Higgins

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