Associated Thoughts: Finding Your Zone

My mom has been a kindergarten educator for over 30 years, and she is amazing at it. She really is. In the big big world of education, she has found her zone by focusing on the nuances of early childhood development, while loving learning and teaching kids to keep loving how to learn. She’s a specialist through a career of lifelong curiosity shaped by her passion.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

I have always been a little jealous of experts like her, the specialists I sit next to in the office who seem to find joy in burrowing deeply into something and becoming an absolute whiz. The woman who seems to know everything about customized Revit workflows, or the person who can recall code nuances and egress exceptions with shocking ease. BIM specialists, construction gurus, material specifiers, coding hackers–I wish I could be more like you. I admire folks with that deeply mined and cultivated knowledge–but also can get a little frustrated with myself in comparison.

As a curious and well-meaning generalist in the world of design, I aspire to bring that level of dedicated focus and passion that makes me a uniquely specialized designer. But I must confess that I get overwhelmed when I see just how much more I have to learn as an architect. One of the reasons I was originally drawn to architecture was because it really seems like you have to know something about just about everything–a career that can keep expanding without ever getting boring. Architects draw on history, art, sociology, math, economics, marketing, physics, politics…the list grows even longer as I think about it. We are generalists, but that broad knowledge base has to get down to nuts and bolts much more quickly that I anticipated. As a young designer, I have often felt overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite fine-grained details I still need to learn to get better at my job, even just to take my first licensing exam or figure out how to confidently document a drawing and spec for window flashing. In that vast ocean of skills, concepts, practices, and information that architects need to know–how do I find my zone, my own unique focus?

Unlike me, maybe you have known where you wanted to focus the minute you applied to design school, and have the drive to laser in on a specific portion of the field–energy modelling, material science, interior design. Maybe you stumbled on a passion and followed it down the rabbit hole–construction detailing, marketing pitches and presentations, modelmaking. Or maybe you are a collage of experiences and curiosities–some Photoshop and aesthetic skills, perhaps a knack for communication or writing, a love of solving problems, a bit of this and that in terms of project experience. Not an empty slate, nor a Swiss army knife, nor a surgical scalpel. In our big wide world of architecture, how do we find our zone?

My mom-the-kindergarten-teacher has been honing her teaching craft for a long time. My first boss could sketch squiggly diagrams that seemed easy until I realized they were drawn at precise scales and informed by years of practical knowledge. My current coworkers are whizzes at things I still struggle with–and I am grateful and humbled by each of them. As we grow as design professionals, these experiences and passions hopefully start to crystallize, leading us to lifelong curiosity and learning about the expanding boundaries of design. I am still stumbling on, discovering that the loose threads of my experiences stitch together into something resembling the expertise of a specialist.

Finding your zone is a continuing process, sometimes halting, occasionally clear, and hopefully full of the good kind of surprises that keep us emerging professionals curious about where we can direct our unique voices and talents in our careers. Our offices and communities across Virginia–along with ourselves–will bloom when that can happen.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: On Making Mistakes

Mistakes happen. They happen all the time. But they especially happen when you are doing things for the first time. Like when you forget to put north arrows or door swings during that early pinup in design
school. Or you put chairs too close together, forgetting that people have to walk between the rows. An
unpinned family in Revit. An unexamined set of meeting minutes. A wall section with the air barrier on the
wrong side of the insulation. Not backing up. Keynoting the wrong spec section. Not asking for help soon
enough.

Learning how to be an architect can be a tightrope. Not enough knowledge and experience to move
quickly, but always pressed for time. Move too fast and you miss critical details, or you have to redo
something so it takes even longer. You want to be independent and showcase your growth and initiative,
but also need to ask for help to set things up correctly the first time before you barge ahead. Things that
take your boss 10 minutes might take you an hour. Things that seem simple–a lighting grid, a corner
detail, a presentation slide–get more involved when consultants and specifications and schedules and
contracts come up. And you miss things, sometimes without even realizing it.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

To be a designer is to take risks, and to take risks means to invite mistakes and expose your professional (and sometimes personal) vulnerabilities. I certainly know what it’s like to realize you are in over your head, to be given a task and a deadline with no clue how to even begin, how it is to feel alone with no one around to help you because it’s a pandemic and the only living thing nearby is a houseplant. At that moment, it can be easy to hide and sit back, but I have learned that growing as a designer means exploring your mistakes, owning them, and asking for help early and often. Getting a building planned, drawn, and built requires more knowledge, time, and attention than any one person can have, let alone young designers tackling it for the first time. So even with the most dogged quality control processes in a firm, we still learn from the redlines, the busted dimensions, the misspellings, even as we hope to never see them again.

Your growth as a young designer is the inextricable balancing act of learning quickly and working humbly,
continually asking for help when you need it, and offering it when asked. In bravely surrendering the
veneer of the having-all-the-answers kind of architect, we open ourselves up to new ideas, better
processes, established rules, and gleaned expertise from the generations of architects before us, and the
wisdom of the communities that surround us. Some designers will tread longstanding paths, while others
will break new ground, each on their own pathway towards professional excellence and vulnerability. On
our own paths, we continue to learn from our own shortcomings and share that growth with others.
Mistakes happen, and they happen to the best and worst among us. We’ve all been there, and it’s never
fun, but it is inevitable in the iterative and collaborative world of real-life design.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: AIA Virginia Resources for Unlicensed Professionals

This is not the summer I was expecting—and I suspect I am not alone. I bike each day to empty rented office space, slide the door shut, and try to design via annotated snips, neverending chat boxes, texted photographs of sketches, and professional-from-the-waist-up video calls. Each week, I pray that my job as a designer is still viable when I show up to work—even as I feel that ever-present, low-grade anxiety that our firms can keep the lights on, get new contracts remotely, meet payroll, and manage to come out of this pandemic and protest-filled season. It is an anxious time to be a designer.

With so much out of our control, what do we do with our time when we as emerging designers are trying to find our way when faced with colossal uncertainty for the second time in the last 15 years? Whether we are students facing the most challenging job market in a century (something 2009 me could hardly have thought) or young designers trying to learn the professional ropes while working from your dining room table or even slightly seasoned professionals trying to take that next step—the opportunities for adding to our architectural foundations certainly look different than they did four months ago. 

No matter where you are at in your architectural career, developing new skills has never been more important. Below are a few tools from my (admittedly meagre) toolbox that perhaps you might find useful: 

  • Find a champion. A former boss asked me every week when my next ARE exam was, and the minute I told him I’d passed one, he would ask when the next one would be. Passing the ARE exams are difficult—more power to you if you think otherwise—and getting all your AXP hours requires not just effort and luck, but the scheduling, mentoring, and advocacy of the higher ups. Find a mentor who will not only support you when you need help, but will hold you accountable and push you towards your goals. 
  • Reach back to bring others with you. I am extremely privileged, and I have benefitted not just from the graciousness of mentors and colleagues, but from active systems of whiteness and patriarchy that get me further than any effort of my own could have. We begin disassembling these systems by kicking down doors for other people. Be one of those people who advocates for others to join you at the table. Or better yet, make your own table.   
  • Take aim at an actual credential.  Schedule the next exam. Take the night class. Block out two nights a week to study. Get new letters after your name.
  • Bring a non-traditional passion to work. You are a musician? Certainly useful in detailing an auditorium. Had a knack for economics? You might just be plucked for budgeting discussions. Bringing your whole self to work, with all the passions and hobbies you learned outside of studio, adds flavor that benefits your design work, and contributes to a broader expertise that might just get you promoted. 
  • Cultivate writing and speaking. Good design is communication, whether visual, verbal, written, or otherwise, and being an effective communicator means managers can trust you. Read good writing. Surround yourself with well-crafted words. Submit drafts to architectural publications. Ask smarter people for edits. Go to Toastmasters. Effective communicators get in the door, stay in the room, and bring in the work. 
  • Identify a gap and step into it. Look around and notice what tasks and roles are getting outsourced or underserved. Facilitation, spec writing, stair detailing, historic preservation analysis, or whatever it may be; being able to keep key services in-house ultimately benefits any bottom line, and those added value skills get you noticed for specialized expertise that exponentially increases your value as an employee. 
  • Ask to learn about non-design tasks. While less glamorous than elegant sketches or detailed renderings, learning the nuances of business development, staffing projections, financial statements, or marketing lingo builds a foundation towards leadership. Ask to look over drafts. Be curious about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and decisions.
  • Build something. What wondrous insights—and humility—come from actually having to buy materials, measure, and assemble something into existence. Plus, you can always gift it to a non-designer if it ends up wonky.

An old mentor gave this advice—make yourself invaluable. Architecture is a big field with lots of ways to get crowded out when the projects run thin. Broadening your skills not only keeps you a step ahead, but keeps our creative minds from calcifying and retreating into what we already know. 

But perhaps more importantly, now is a time to also cultivate kindness and justice—attributes and skills that never fail to disappoint and elevate.

In solidarity and action,

Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Just a Few Fun Things to Click On

Something to Talk about with Your Boss and Coworkers: AIA has developed Guides for Equitable Practice, for resourcing architects to make the business and professional case for ensuring more equitable practices in our firms, particularly towards black and minority individuals and clients. This is an important baseline, especially the personal stories in this section. Ask your supervisors if your firm has discussed and implemented these guides. 

A deeply discounted Amber Book Subscription: AIA Virginia is offering a $50, 2-month subscription to the Amber Book. Sign up here.

Something to Sign Up For: AIA Virginia has formed a formal relationship with the newly launched Virginia NOMA Chapter. This is an important step, and is an effort that needs people of all skin colors to actively support minority architects. Fill out this form to show your support and interest.

Some Free Stuff for the ARE Exams: I just signed up for my last ARE exam–come join me! AIA National is offering their ARE prep course ArchiPrep FOR FREE for associate members until August 31. If you need a study buddy, please reach out! There are study groups in every corner of the state to get connected to. 

Some accounts to follow: Pascale Sablan is more than a rising star–she’s here to stay, and her design work and advocacy for Black architects are worth your Instagram follow. Also find Architecture Is Too White and BIPOC in Architecture and read the stories emerging from melanized voices in design. 

Something from AIA Richmond: AIA Richmond is partnering with Venture Richmond to launch “Picnic in a Parklet,” a program designed to assist Richmond restaurants and other businesses with Phase 2 of Forward Virginia. Through this new partnership with the City of Richmond, business owners can receive design and permitting assistance for their requests for more outdoor space, particularly parklets. If you know of similar initiatives elsewhere, please reach out.

Something to keep in your Google tab: This spreadsheet was started by designer Dong-Ping Wong, and it is a growing list of BIPOC firms across the nation. If you have a firm in Virginia that is not on this list–add it! He also specifically created it as a job-application resource for young designers of different races and ethnicities looking for BIPOC-led firms, so it also serves as a hiring resource.  

Call for Regional Associate Director Nominees

Are you an Associate AIA Member? Are you interested in the issues confronting architecture school graduates on a path to licensure? Would you like to help the National Associates Committee address these issues? Then, you may be just the person we’re looking for.

Every two years, the AIA Region of The Virginias (Virginia and West Virginia) selects an Associate AIA member to represent the Region on the National Associates Committee. Applications are now being accepted for the National Associates Committee 2017 – 2018 Virginias Regional Associate Director. If you think you may be interested, please read on. If you know of an Associate AIA member who may be interested, please forward this information to them.

NAC Purpose
The National Associates Committee (NAC) is dedicated to serving Associate members of the AIA in the advancement of their careers.

NAC Vision
By promoting excellence, providing information and leadership, fostering inclusiveness, and encouraging individual, community, and professional development, the NAC will integrate the growing Associates community of the profession into a strong voice within the Institute. The NAC aspires to be the catalyst for progress within the Institute and the profession:

  • We ENGAGE by becoming agents of change
  • We INNOVATE by challenging the status quo
  • We CONNECT by representing our diverse membership
  • We LEAD by example, promoting mentorship, fellowship, licensure, advocacy, and service

The NAC believes its work serves to make AIA membership meaningful to Associates through services that effectively anticipate, meet, and exceed their needs.

NAC Overview
The Regional Associate Director (RAD) works with their counterparts, the YARDs, AIAS Quad Directors, Architect Licensing Advisors, and AIA Regional Representatives. RADs are responsible for gathering information about issues facing Associates within their Regions and disseminating information about national/regional activities and resources for use at the local level. Of equal importance, RADs serve as a vital link between Associates and the national organization.

RADs are the key to vertical communication, connecting Associate leaders at all levels of the Institute. RADs are also encouraged to work on various issues important to them and their regions through the NAC work groups. More information about the NAC can be found here: https://network.aia.org/nationalassociatescommittee/home

This is a tremendous opportunity to take on a larger leadership role within the AIA. This rewarding experience will allow you to be actively engaged in shaping the future of the profession and to grow your network with the NAC, YAF, and the AIA both regionally and nationally.

NAC Annual Events and Commitments

  • YAF/NAC Annual Meeting, Washington, DC:  March 5–7, 2017  (Mandatory)
  • AIA Grassroots, Washington, DC:  March 8–10, 2017
  • AIA Convention, Orlando, FL:  April 27–29, 2017
  • Architecture Exchange East, Richmond, VA: November 1–3, 2017
  • NAC Full Committee Quarterly Conference Calls – 1 hour each
  • NAC Taskforce/Workgroup Conference Calls – 1 hour each/frequency TBD
  • Regional Reports – written with the assistance of the NAC
  • Attendance at Regional Emerging Professional Committee Meetings and Programs

NAC Funding
National AIA covers the costs for Regional Associate Director travel, food, and lodging to attend the NAC/YAF Annual Meeting. In addition, RADs have the opportunity to attend AIA Grassroots and the AIA Convention, but expenses for these events, along with any other costs associated with other travel or conferences, are the responsibility of the RAD.

Required Application Material

  • AIA Membership – Applicant must be an Associate AIA member in good standing within The Region of The Virginias (AIA NV, AIA RI, AIA BR, AIA CV, AIA HR, or AIA West Virginia) and must not be licensed at the time of submission.
  • Letter of Nomination/Letter of Interest – Applicant may be nominated by others or be self-nominated. The author of the nomination letter should ideally be familiar with the NAC and understand the leadership qualities of the applicant. Limit one-page.
  • Letter of Recommendation – Each application must include one letter of recommendation from an AIA Leader. Limit one-page.
  • Personal Resume – Indicate education, employment history, organizations or activity involvement, honors, and awards. Limit two pages (It is NOT in the applicant’s best interest to simply submit a firm resume with project experience).

Deadline
Completed applications must be submitted by email as a single PDF to Brian J. Frickie, AIA, Region of The Virginias Representative to AIA Strategic Council (bfrickie@kernsgroup.com) NLT Monday, January 23, 2017.

AIA Summer Advocacy Fellowship Announced

The AIA has announced a 2013 AIA Summer Advocacy Fellowship to provide Associate Members the opportunity to engage with AIA Advocacy staff regarding legislative issues that influence the profession of architecture. The summer fellowship, which begins in mid-June, 2013, allows recipients to spend eight weeks working at AIA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. gaining experience in the areas of legislative action, regulatory reform, and public advocacy.

All current Associate members of the AIA are eligible for the Fellowship program. At least two fellowships will be awarded in 2013 and each recipient will receive a $6,000 stipend for the period. All housing, meals and other costs will be the responsibility of the recipient. More>>