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A Monument to a Former President

By Jared Banks, AIA | Shoegnome, LLC |

Right now the benefits of failure (and trying again) are all the rage: take risks, go big, and don’t give up on all your dreams if the one you’re working on fails. This is great advice for architects, of course. One of the fun things about our profession is we have so many opportunities to try again, to learn from our mistakes, to build off of our previous successes, to get do-overs. These benefits are amplified for us residential architects. We get to enjoy the benefits of a high frequency of projects (assuming a normal economy and all). Our typical projects are calculated in months, not years.

I think back to my four and a half years at SALA Architects in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In that time I worked on somewhere between 40 and 50 projects, all but two or three of which were single family residences. And that’s not counting all the projects I assisted on for short bits of time because of my role as BIM Manager. Working on so many projects I had plenty of opportunities to try and try and try again. Learn a new ArchiCAD trick for modeling lap siding? Great, there’s another project ready to test it on and refine the technique. Feel like I flubbed an e-mail communication with a client or coworker? No problem. There’s going to be another opportunity very soon to try again and improve. And best of all, as the BIM Manager, one of my jobs was to be the local superhero, swooping in to fix a problem or save a project from some computer glitch or digital near-disaster.

Ryan, the IT guy, and I got very good at working together as a team to avoid software and hardware related train wrecks. The biggest disaster we faced involved (almost) losing two weeks of work on a very large project, more if we couldn’t get our hands on a laptop that was with a coworker 600 miles away on vacation. The story gets very technical, so I’ll spare you the details. The good news is we fixed the glitch and our bosses never learned how close we came to a HUGE setback in a very important project. You can read that story over on my blog, if you want.

Those are all happy tales. Those are all stories where I get to brag about how awesome I am, and how in the face of adversity we architects can design our way out of everything and anything. My stories from SALA, at least the project based ones that are relevant here, don’t sing with the tragedy of a true train wreck.

Now if I look back to my younger days, the stories get more raw and more disaster prone. Sometimes we are the victims and then subsequent heroes of others’ messes. And sometimes we are the aggressors in the train wrecks of our own creation. Instead of sharing a debacle from my days as a licensed architect, I want to share a very personal story about being a very stupid, arrogant intern. This is about a tragedy I created. What or who was the victim? A project? A client? The firm’s bottom-line? Nope. It was me. I caused the mess and was its only casualty.

Back in 2004 I was doing a year of work between my 4th and 5th years of school. As part of the BArch program at Rice University we did what was called a Preceptorship: a 9-14 month internship with one of a number of prestigious firms from around the world. I had friends at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Michael Graves and Associates, Thomas Phifer and Associates, Weiss/Manfredi—big name firms in big name cities. Many of my friends went back to work at these firms after graduation. This was a huge opportunity; what young hopeful wouldn’t want a foot in the door of a prestigious firm, either for a future job after graduation or as one hell of a name on a resume.

I took a different path. Instead of competing for a spot in New York, Los Angeles, or London, I asked to stay in Houston. I was about to get married and my fiancé had a nice new job in the oil industry. It was the kind of job that could set up a young couple for a very nice life (for perspective it took me about eight years before I made more money than my wife did that first year after we graduated, and that was because in that particular year I was working fulltime AND had a successful side business). Anyway, while my best friend went to Boston to add Office DA to his resume, I went to work for Gensler in Houston. Since I’m being honest, I was a bit resentful that I was working on medical laboratories and office build-outs while my classmates were doing competition entries for theaters and museums. I didn’t (and still don’t) regret my decision to choose family over a fancy architecture adventure, but that didn’t stop me from being bitter. This attitude led me to do some dumb things. And my week building a monument to George H. W. Bush was the low point.

Let me make a quick disclaimer: with perspective I realize I got so much out of my time at Gensler and I had some wonderful, helpful coworkers. What I learned at a big, corporate firm that year put me so far ahead of my competition when I was subsequently looking for work in Houston and then the Twin Cities. But the benefits of working at a small residential firm, with the knowledge of how to do production like a big firm, are for another issue of the CRAN Chronicle.

Anyways for this monument project, I was tasked with building a full-scale mockup of the monument. What that meant was that I took over a corner of the office and built giant foam core benches. You can see an artist’s image of the original design here. I did a shitty job. Instead of working hard to finish early and ask for more work, or ask what else I could do to make the presentation with the Chinese investors a success (something I was too young to think of), I dragged my feet and finished in time for the meeting. I thought to myself “f* it. This is stupid. If the meeting is at noon on Friday, I’ll finish by 11 am on Friday. What else do I have to do? Grump. Grump. Grump. Pout. Pout. Pout.” So that’s what I did. My craft was okay, but not great. My attitude was poor, if that. I probably made snide remarks about the project (a different Bush was in the White House at the time, so the jokes were easy to make). And I definitely felt a little humiliation that I was in the break room building these mockups while everyone else in the office was doing “real work”.

On the Friday of the presentation we drove the mock-up out to the site, presented it to the investors in the rain, and they were happy. My job that day was to ride in the back of a pick-up, help set up the benches, then stand sullenly off to the side, hoping that the meeting took a long time so that I could get out of doing anything else that day.

It wasn’t for many years until I realized whom I was really building the mockup for. This sounds so obvious now, but it needs to be said. The main client for most interns is the boss. I learned this years later when I was at SALA Architects and worked with all fifteen or so project architects in the firm. I came to appreciate that each had their own style of working; each had their own particular needs. I understood that I spent more time interacting with them than with whatever client the firm had. I learned to manage up and give better feedback for them to help manage me. But back in 2003 I was just dumb.

It didn’t matter if the investors liked the mock up or not; in fact I bet they didn’t care at all about its quality or craft. But it did matter what my boss thought. And know I disappointed my boss. A friend at the firm told me after the fact that this particular studio leader thought I was lazy, that I wasn’t a good worker. My friend defended me when our boss was badmouthing me, but the boss had personal experience with this dud of an employee (me) and wasn’t swayed by the counter arguments of a junior architect. I don’t begrudge this boss at all. On the monument project and a few other “special” projects he gave me, I was uninspired and let that show. Initially in our working relationship he gave me unique projects to work on. I found them dull and beneath me. Instead of doing a great job, instead of going above and beyond what was asked, or finishing fast and demanding more, I just did my job. The result was things only got worse for me at the job. It is now no surprise that I became more frustrated when I explained to the boss that I wanted to get some other experience in the firm and he didn’t help me do that. Why would he? Here was an arrogant, lazy intern not proving his worth, but asking for something better.

What a train wreck. To any emerging professionals reading this, let me make this clear: your first clients aren’t homeowners. They are your bosses. They are the ones you need to impress. They are the ones you need to make happy. At Gensler I put in the effort and connected with my immediate coworkers and supervisors, but completely bombed with the higher-ups, with those that had the power to really offer me interesting opportunities. Even when I had coworkers ready to defend me and promote me, those that were making decisions had seen (or heard) enough of my capabilities. And they were not impressed. So the next time you’re given a task, remember for a moment who you’re doing the work for. The boss may be asking for something you think is silly or inconsequential to the client, but pause for a moment. And remember to focus on YOUR client, not THEIR client.

PS: managers with young staff? Remember we’re often too young and inexperienced to get what’s going on in an office. Don’t be afraid to remind the new team members that before they are left alone with paying clients, that they first have to win over their first clients: you. Better communication between my boss and I would have fixed most of our problems. But he didn’t have a good track record of stellar communication and I’d yet to realize that client communication—whoever your client is—is paramount to success.


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