So you Wanted to be an Architect?

In any given social situation, the most frequently asked question is “What do you do?” Whether it’s a networking event, at a baseball game or Lyft Ride you can almost guarantee that you will be asked this question. I think all architects can agree, the most heard response is “Oh, I wanted to be an architect!”

I haven’t conducted professional data collection on this, but my informal surveying says that 50% of people thought about being an architect at one point in their lives. According to NCARB, in 2013 there were 105,847 licensed architects in the United States. This is less than .03% of the population that are architects.

We often discuss a perception issue we have within architecture. Whether it’s the perceived value of hiring an architect, or being seen as only designing high-end residential homes, it has made me ponder this statement even more so than usual. If so many people thought about being an architect, what is the disconnect here?

I have changed my approach in how I respond to this question. Instead of commenting, “Yes, so has everyone else.” I have started asking, “What changed your mind?” To this, most respond that they were inadequate at art and/or math in school. While both of these are important qualities and personally drove me to pursue a career in architecture, it seems funny that a middle school or high school student had to make a decision that they could never learn these skills in order to pursue a career that highly interested them.

Most people have a fear of being inadequate and this in turn directs their personal career choice or path through school. As a freshman in college, I struggled with my Physics course (which was required by my Architecture curriculum) and more than once a week thought “I am going to have to quit architecture”.  However, since working professionally, I have not needed to use F = MxA or any derivative.

The architecture profession is facing a shift, both technologically and in our labor force. As a country, we are facing large infrastructural issues and will need architects to help find the solutions for the cities we care about. We are working more collaboratively with experts to produce highly complex solutions to these problems.  We need a diverse body of architects that come from a variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and interests.

Having now worked in firms of various sizes and project types, I have found that there is not one way to be an architect. Each person has a very specific set of skills and this makes for well-rounded teams to complete the best projects.

Last night, I had an opportunity to share a Lyft Line with a guy who responded to my most frequently asked question with “Oh, I wanted to be an architect”. To this, I asked him “Why didn’t you pursue it?” And he responded that his school counselor told him his math skills weren’t strong enough. We shouldn’t blame our school counselors for turning this student away from architecture. But as architects, we should work with our school counselors and instructors to share with them what qualities an architect might possess.

After all, if it turns out that a student who might have been interested in architecture doesn’t ultimately pursue it, haven’t we just created a more educated and accepting client who understands the importance of architecture?

Denver Design Week Recap (and still time to register for the closing event tomorrow night!)

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Photo courtesy of Modern in Denver’s facebook page.  Denver Design Week Moderator and Panelists (from left to right) Beth Mosenthal, Jeff Sheppard, Brad Buchanan, Jonathan Alpert, and Tobias Strohe participating in a discussion, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of our Built Environment”

If you haven’t checked your social media feeds this week or driven by a downtown streetscape where large foam letters spelling “DDW” sit boldly outside an event space, you might have missed one of Denver’s most trending topics regarding the city’s inaugural week-long series of events; Denver Design Week.

Denver’s first design week is described by the founder and organizer, Modern in Denver, as “a showcase for the region’s best architecture, interiors, art, brands, and technology. Eight days of education, home and studio tours, demonstrations, presentations, conversations, inspiration, collaboration, and a launch party that might be the highlight of your summer…Denver Design Week celebrates and elevates design because it shapes our lives. Good design has the power to change the world in real and meaningful ways, and better design leads to better living…Dozens of cities around the world host design weeks, bringing creative communities together, promoting a wide array of design industries and organizations and connecting the public to local design ecosystems.”

Throughout the week, I was able to attend and participate in several of the events offered. From a launch party in RiNo’s Glitterdome industrial-event space that combined social interaction with the artistic and experiential to discussions with various thought-leaders in the community regarding topics ranging from rapid urbanization to driverless cars to a dynamic discussion regarding on-going issues of equity in design, each event was thoughtfully-curated and well-attended by a diverse cross section of Denver residents.  Many events accommodating 100 or more people sold out, identifying a desire from Denver’s broader community to connect and learn more about various aspects of design and Denver’s design community.

At an event I participated in on Tuesday, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of Our Built Environment,” I found myself sitting next to a youthful and engaged husband and wife. After brief introductions, they explained to me that they were attending due to their 13 year old son’s burgeoning interest in architecture, engineering, and design.  They wanted to learn more about the design community, and were curious about different organizations and events in Denver that they might attend with their son to continue to facilitate his developing interest.  To me, this was an important moment in my design-week experience.  As a design professional, their presence and enthusiasm at the event felt very significant to me, and to the broader intent and positive implications of an initiative such as a city-specific Design Week.

Providing opportunities for connection and direct dialogue (almost all sessions involved an audience Q&A) between design professionals and members of the community helps demystify the inherent value of design in cities, while also creating greater access to residents’ concerns, priorities, and aspirations for the places in which they live, work, and play.

If you’ve missed the events thus far, there is still a chance to attend Friday night’s keynote with special guest-speaker Andrew Zolli, founder of Brooklyn Design Week and forward-thinker that “works at the intersection of global innovation, foresight, social change, and resilience.”

Much like Denver Start-Up Week, Modern in Denver’s first Denver Design Week has been a huge success, and will hopefully continue to grow and create more meaningful connections and opportunities between the city and the design community (and its outcomes) in the years to follow.

Will New DOL Standards Affect Your Practice?

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The Department of Labor’s (DOL) final overtime rules will become effective December 1, 2016.

The rules increase the minimum salary requirement for “exempt” status employees from $455 per week ($23,660 annually) to approximately $913 per week ($4,476 annually).

What does this mean for architectural firms and their employees? “It depends”, of course.  (You knew a lawyer wouldn’t give you a clear answer right out off the blocks.)

Background:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires most employers to pay many employees at least the federal minimum wage for each hour worked, as well as overtime pay for time in excess of 40 hours in a workweek.  The FLSA allows for exemptions from minimum wage/overtime requirements for certain “exempt” employees.  These “exempt” employees must meet the minimum salary requirement and the employee’s duties must meet certain criteria as “administrative”, “professional”, “executive”, or “highly compensated” employees.

The criteria defining these four categories of exempt employees can be found here.      Note: The DOL made no changes to the duties test.

Final Rules:

The new rules effective December 1, 2016 may require firms to either re-classify employees or increase their salaries.

Every three years, the DOL will adjust the minimum salary requirement for the exempt employees to maintain it at the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage region.

In addition, the minimum total compensation for the highly compensated employee exemption will increase from $100,000 per year to $134,004 per year on December 1, 2016.

For the first time, employers may use non discretionary bonuses, incentive payments, and commissions to satisfy up to 10 percent of the minimum salary requirement as long as these forms of compensation are paid at least quarterly; at least $913 must be paid on a weekly salary basis.

Recommendations:

Use the next several months to ensure your firm is in compliance.

  • Confirm exempt employees meet applicable exemption tests – both salary and job duties requirements.
  • Identify whether these employees’ salaries fall below $913 per week.
  • If current “exempt” employees fall below the new salary requirements you will generally either have to:
    • Raise their salaries to the new requirement; or
    • Reclassify the employee to an hourly employee and pay overtime whenever they work more than 40 hours in a workweek.

If exempt employees do not meet the new salary requirement and do not regularly work more than 40 hours per week you can simply re-classify them.  If these employees regularly work more than 40 hours per week and you want to keep the compensation costs the same, you will need to account for the overtime premium when you reclassify them as non-exempt.  Calculate the employee’s hourly wage using this formula:

[weekly salary]

________________________________    = $ New Hourly Rate

[40 hours + (avg. # overtime hours x 1.5)

Also, keep in mind that non-exempt employees must be paid for travel and training time.

For more information, contact an attorney or review the final rules at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/overtime-factsheet.htm

Architecture + the PR Dilemma

One of the most prevalent complaints from architects in regards to the general public is that people don’t understand or know what we do on a daily basis, and thus might not be able to value the impact architects have on the built environment. When we tell people that we are architects, we are invariably met with responses such as “Do you do commercial or residential architecture?” or “oh… I thought about being an architect”. Unfortunately, architecture is often seen as an insulated profession that too often works in a vacuum and excludes the general populous from its discussions, aspirations and achievements.

People will counter this argument with websites and magazines such as ArchDaily and Architectural Record, among many others. These are great resources, but they are made specifically for architects by other architects and designers. We can sit around all day patting ourselves on the back about how amazing our ideas and designs are, but if we don’t make those ideas apparent and accessible to everyone else, no one will care.

I’d like to offer the example of alternate fields like science and technology (this will seem like a bit of a stretch, but stick with me). Let’s say that a new satellite is launched that will improve WiFi capabilities in every US city and is being put forth by a very ‘brand name’ technology company. If you turned on the local news that evening, opened a news agency web page, or listened to the radio on your way in to work the next day, it would be nearly impossible to not hear about it at least in passing. When a technology company develops an innovative gadget or piece of software, people hear about it. If an architecture firm designs a new and innovative building that will revitalize an area of a major city, people will be lucky if they know about it before the first shovel is put in the ground.

Science and technology sectors are more far reaching than most architectural projects, so those companies have an easier time conveying these innovations and discoveries to a larger audience. Architectural projects usually do not directly affect a wide array of people unless they are massive in scale or are put forth by world renowned architects. This does not mean, though, that there is not an audience that is willing to listen or even longs to know about some of these projects and how they will change the landscape of these cities. If there was a larger push from various media sources to report on architecture and development projects, I believe that we would expand our audience, increase our value, and make architecture more accessible and understandable to more people.

In addition to a heightened awareness of architecture, a campaign such as this has the potential to lead to a more thoughtful architectural process. Often architects design projects through the lens of being an architect. However, if we make the effort to make our designs more digestible to the public at large, we frame our designs in a way that are meant to be more readily perceived and understood by everyone. In doing so, this sort of campaign can become more of a dialogue between architects and the public and not just a grandiose marketing scheme.

Between the “I look up” campaign that was pushed by the AIA, various online and print magazines and blogs, and social media in general, it would seem like architects are on the cusp of creating a wide spread and focused media campaign. Imagine if you turned on your radio on the way into work in the morning and right after you hear about the latest political gaff in the presidential race, you are then told about a new public housing project designed by “_______ Architects” that seeks to revitalize an area of the city in which you live. Or, if you turned on the nightly news when you got home, and heard about how Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects are being tasked with designing a new presidential library and what that will mean for Chicago and President Obama. Instead of burying these topics within the “arts and design” pages or on obscure blogs in the depths of the internet, there is an opportunity to push these stories to be front and center and to make them relevant in people’s lives. We need to move beyond the efforts of “hey look at us because we are important” and “look, other architects, we have created a wonderful piece of architecture” and push the initiative of “hey populous, architects are important and here are these projects that show you why. Now let’s talk about how to make things better”. Maybe these topics won’t resonate with every person out there, but they will surely resonate just as much as hearing about a new weight loss diet or the latest fashion trends for the summer.

How Does the NDSA Work?

So you have graduated from college, and now you are saddled with $26,450 in student loans. As as aspiring architect, you now know you have a few options: you can continue onto graduate school, work for a few years and then return to school, or meet your state’s licensing laws by working for a certain number of years without attending graduate school. In the 2015-2016 school year, ACSA saw an increase in graduate M.Arch applications and enrollment. So you, like many other graduates, choose to pursue a Masters of Architecture from an accredited university.

Two to three years later, you have an incredible portfolio and a greater breadth of knowledge about the architecture profession. You are ready to get a job! When you examine the possibilities, you see a few Architectural Intern positions at various private firms. In preparation for interviews, you know the median Architectural Intern salary for someone out of school is $42,000. Based on some of the coursework you took in school, you would love to do social impact design. In addition to the private sector firms, you’ve most likely found a few opportunities with Habitat for Humanity, IDEO or a Community Design Center. When it comes down to it, you realize that maybe having the job that gets you NCARB experience, salary and benefits is the secure route and you accept a position in a private sector firm. Six months in, you get your first student loan repayment bill. And then it hits you. In addition to the $26,450 you have from undergraduate school, you have now accumulated anywhere from $42,000 to $100,000 of additional student loan debt from graduate school.

According to newamerica.org, Americans have over 1 trillion in student loan debt, 40% of which is attributed to graduate and professional degrees.

Let’s return to that job you started six months ago. You have learned a lot but you really wish you could  have more of an impact and provide more help to your community, and also relieve some of the burden of your student loans. You have examined the Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and realized that it might be challenging to find a job that is suited to your skills.

This is where the National Design Services Act (NDSA) can help you out. On the surface, it looks similar to the PSLF program. When we dive a little deeper, we know there are some significant differences that will allow architectural graduates such as yourself the opportunity to work in underserved communities while receiving student loan relief. Let’s examine the key differences between PSLF and the NDSA.

  1. PSLF requires ten years of employment within the governmental or non-profit agency before student loan forgiveness kicks in. The NDSA would only require one year.
  2. PSLF can only be applied to direct federal student loans. The NDSA is a repayment program and can be applied toward other types of loans, including private loans.
  3. Most importantly, the PSLF lacks a focus on the power of design. The NDSA brings design thinking to underserved communities. It allows us, as architectural graduates, to apply our unique skill sets to our communities and impactful local design.

If you are interested in the opportunities that the NDSA might afford you, join the efforts to get this legislation passed! Sign up for the Legislative Action Network and join the NDSA Coalition today! You can also follow our efforts on Facebook.

This article was written by Korey White, AIA and originally appeared on the AIA’s ANGLE Blog. Visit the AIA ANGLE blog for more informative articles: http://network.aia.org/browse/blogs