Office Culture: Architecture
September 10, 2016 6:34 PM   Subscribe

I work for a very small non-profit headed by a former, recently retired architect. Can you tell me something about the work culture of an architecture firm?

The head of our organization was a founding member of a firm of about 50 people in a major metropolitan area in the US. I'm curious about the expectations and the work culture of architecture as I'm finding that there's a mismatch between what I expect and what our president expects.

I'm not going to include the details of my experience or my theories as I'd like to hear general answers/anecdotes without that as an introduction.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I used to work in an engineering firm which later added a large building science wing with architecture as its main focus.

If you are an engineer, architects are weird flighty birds. They don't really get us, and we totally don't get them. I mean they can make up a site plan, professionally stamp it, and just be like, well whatever, the guys on site building it will figure it out. That runs counter to everyone who is an engineer, who are held accountable by every tiny little detail in a plan.

They like things to look pretty, even if it leaves out a lot of critical information.

They do not understand it when you tell them that this is just not really physically possible, and then argue with how the impossible was implemented on site.

They are very much big picture, but they care VERY much about some tiny insignificant details. To the point of shouting arguments over column size, font on a plan or stone placement or etc etc etc ad infinitum.

They seem very self important to me, considering they don't really know how to build things, but criticize every attempt to build them in the real world.

I have also found architects, especially older ones, very seriously lacking in technological anything. Architectural drafters are great, their bosses, not so much.

I could go on, but you kind of get the idea. It's like working for a boss who knows what he wants and just tells you to do it by mind reading. You will do a lot of revisions. Ugh, I'm glad I don't do that anymore.
posted by sanka at 7:00 PM on September 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Architects go through a brutal winnowing to get through school, which is only the beginning of very difficult hurdles that must be surmounted to make it in the profession. Moreover, their education and hence their culture includes enduring and delivering scathing criticism in the name of their art, their standards, etc. with all participants understanding that it's a right of passage and how they improve. For some, it's their version of the dozens.

Some architects internalize this aspect of their training and it becomes part of how they interact with others in the design professions; some of them--mostly the "starchitects" and wannabes--can come across as arrogant and even contemptuous. Of course many reject that behavior--or only turn it on in appropriate settings--and just want to design structures that make the world better. Hopefully your guy belongs to this tribe.

Was he a managing or practicing partner? If your guy grew a firm from scratch, he's probably pretty attuned to the trade offs around time, money, creativity, and quality. And he may have had many young'uns trying to make it in the profession who were willing to work very long hours off the clock. Finally, he's likely competitive, since the profession entails going head to head with other firms to win commissions. Architects suffer boom and bust cycles, even if they specialize in evergreens like schools and prisons. Some learn how to roll with it, others remain on edge.

TL;DR. Architecture is a very specific culture as well as a profession.
posted by carmicha at 8:04 PM on September 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Architect here!

I think the first commentator regarding the engineer/architect dynamic highlights some very unfortunate tension between engineers and architects (although if we are going to grossly stereotype I'd say it's the engineers we find baffling with their lack of vision for the big picture and the minutiae/detailing... that's what is perceived most in buildings!). But that is neither here nor there for office culture.

Things I'd say are relatively universal for architecture offices:
- long hours... (longer than any other profession that isn't medical in nature)
- however... late morning start times! And general flexibility with time, since you are working all the time.
- super casual/eccentric dress code
- architects are generally not great at business and are slow to adapt
- very disorganized and everything is an emergency
- it can be high pressure and sometimes some of the older generation can be neurotically particular and will throw hissy fits (and its tolerated)
- people are super creative and are always involved in side art projects which makes for interesting convos
- graphics matter on everything
- you can always gather a group who is down for a happy hour
- The best insider tip I can offer is never say 'I can't make XYZ work'... ever. Figure that shit out and do it.

For more insight into this wacky world check out this comic series for some giggles.... Architects are an odd bunch, but for the most part they can be really wonderful vibrant coworkers.
posted by KMoney at 9:41 PM on September 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

There was am episode of 99% Invisible not too long ago called The Mind of An Architect that might have some insights.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:42 PM on September 10, 2016

sanka nailed it. I would add that they are control freaks about unpredictable things, just to be pedantic. They undermine project timelines & budgets by constantly changing things just because "they don't feel right". Then they freak out when they have to spend all nighters finishing drawings, & lay people off because their budget for the quarter or half year is blown.

I once was made to spend 3 hours drawing every flange & gasket for a skylight detail that we didn't even use on the project. That same project had a $10k change order because no one checked the bearing height noted on the drawings.

Contrary to their own self diagnosis, they are not special, they do not think in 3D, and they are egomaniacs, especially the older ones. I also found their thinking process to be very slow and impractical.

The saying in our office was always, "It's not over until the big dog pees on it."

I hated the entire decade I spent in the field. /rant
posted by yoga at 12:00 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

One last bit:

Architects have zero regard for the lifecycle & ongoing maintenance of buildings. They make the jobs of facilities people difficult by designing things that furniture doesn't fit into, electrical and plumbing doesn't work in, and cleaning is a general nightmare.

Ok I'm done.
posted by yoga at 12:05 PM on September 11, 2016

I've worked in three very different types if architectural firms, but none of them that large. There's a range of styles of principal architects in my opinion.

There's the one who's caught up in the details that aren't really important to making the building work. This type of individual tends to be very serious about protecting their personal vision. When working with them, be prepared to be the one who's gotta deal with making the vision reality even if that seems impossible. Your opinion will not be valued.

The other end of the spectrum is the person who is focused on making a functioning building and spends too much time on every detail because everything is of equal importance. You will only meet deadlines if massive overtime is enacted because nobody is looking at the big picture and saying that it's enough. Your opinion will be valued if you bring good ideas to the table.

I cannot say what a person leading a 50 person firm will have been, but cannot imagine they have spent time recently in the production trenches; likely, they have spent time in meetings and working with clients and soliciting more work. (All skills which are transferable to other fields.)

Whichever type you get, know that long hours and deadlines are normal for most firms: work-life balane are not normal.

I have to say, many architects really find frustrating the issue of low funded projects that don't allow a proper building to ever be a reality; budgets and schediles are never sufficient and often the lead architect is only scrambling to juggle unrealistic goals. If your non profit has this type dynamic, don't expect magical results.
posted by mightshould at 6:50 PM on September 11, 2016

Oof, previous commenters, brutal take on the profession there.

I am an architect and would describe the key to the culture as "make it work"... it doesn't work is never an acceptable answer to an architect, and if you say that to an architect they will just be sure that you have not spent enough time thinking about the problem. You might have to make compromises to make it work, but if you come up with a few options of ways to solve a problem, an architect will be happy. I would bet good money this approach will work well with your boss.

Big picture thinking is also key - engineers (for example) might say we don't know how such and such a thing works but actually we're trying to figure out how to get five different disciplines to work together, so the simplest solution for one group may not result in the best collective solution, and someone will alway feel as though the architect just wants to make things difficult. If you're finding you're getting seemingly unreasonable demands, look for the big picture and try and figure out how your piece fits in.

Lastly, most architects are very bad at running businesses as they tend to be somewhat idealistic, and also with a perfectionist streak - so hours do tend to run long and things can be somewhat disorganized. Don't know what to tell you about dealing with that part..
posted by annie o at 10:33 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

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