Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

then and now: #architalks

Every month a group of international architects and designers converge on the internet to write about a single topic and publish from their own individual point of view. This is Architalks.

You might be thinking from the title that this is an episode of VH1. Unfortunately there will be no snappy bubble text or cheesy 90s music videos. Then and Now refers to two parts of a journey, my journey, through the practice of architecture from the start (immediately after graduation) till the present. I like to think I’m far from halfway finished so the best part of this journey is that I am closer to the beginning than the end. That means lots of room for improvement.

img_3518

Graduation

I like to start things at a logical place. Graduation was a great day. Stuffed into the back of an auditorium with 60 of my closest architectural friends surrounded by 1200 other people we didn’t know because they weren’t in architecture, walking across the stage at the culmination of 5 years of study, exams, models, presentations, X-acto blades, glued fingers, millions of feet of trash paper, and some of the worst work any of us would ever produce. In short, after graduation it’s all uphill. Rock bottom. We were so naive and full of architectural utopia that we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. Looking back I kind of want to smack myself and walk away shaking my head. But you gotta start somewhere.

Intern

What a horrible term – Intern. But that’s what I was. Though it took nearly 6 months after graduation to land that first internship. I sent out resumes and portfolios to at least 2 dozen firms in Savannah and surrounding cities. Finally I got a call back from KBJ Architects in Jacksonville, Florida. I went down and interviewed with the principal, Will Morris. He asked me a question that day that has stuck with me and it is exactly what this post is all about. He asked me “how do you feel about the business of architecture?” I can’t honestly remember what answer I gave. I’m sure it was completely wrong and naive as only a 23yo graduate can be. But I got the job and I was very greatful for the experience (in retrospect). At the time I was like “Dude, you’re so lucky to have me here.”

I left that firm just before my 1yr anniversary to take a position with a smaller firm in Northern Virginia. The opportunity was to be more involved in design and client interaction. Unfortunately I learned quickly that working for large residential developers was not for me and I went back to KBJ 7 months later. This was in 2005. I spent the next 2 years working mainly on one project – the Orlando International Airport expansion. There were some other projects sprinkled in, but mostly I did nothing but construction documents for that one project. By 2007, production was nearing an end and the market had started to slow. We were seeing the start of the crash and KBJ trimmed the fat early. I happened to be very low on the totem pole, but luckily had a position lined up at a new firm, Fisher Koppenhafer. I spent a year learning everything I could there on mostly mixed use, office and country club projects before once again moving on to R. Dean Scott, Architect. And for 5 years I worked hard, took my exams (never quite finishing), until the market again began to slow and prospects were looking grim. In those 8 years after college I got married, had one child, bought a house, had another child, lost that house, and managed to get caught in the transition to ARE 4.0, meaning I had to start over at nearly 30 years old. Not cool.

At that point we started looking elsewhere. I had been doing side work for a few years, small residential stuff that almost never got built, but I wasn’t yet licensed so going out on my own wasn’t an option. I was also moonlighting for some friends doing CAD production. All of this helped to pay the bills, but little else. Finally I landed an interview with Ruby Architects in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Full disclosure: I had no idea where Arkansas was and had to look it up on a map.) at this point in my career it was time to find a forever home and I had very high hopes that this was it. So we packed up the family and moved from sunny Florida to central Arkansas.

Architect

At this point in my career I had been around the block enough to know what I didn’t know and how to find out. And even though still not licensed I was given an incredible amount of responsibility. I wore all the hats – designer, production, contract administration, contract negotiation, marketing, etc. In short, I was in heaven. We got settled in our new home state and I started taking my exams again in earnest. Just a few days shy of my second work anniversary I passed my final exam and earned the rank of Architect. No longer an intern or a project manager. It was the best day EVER. Until shortly after lunch that day when my boss sat me down for a chat. I had planned this conversation steering down the aisle of “so now that you’re licensed lets talk about how you can move into a larger leadership role with the firm.”

Instead, the conversation went like this: “So, we’ve decided to merge our firm with another firm. I’ll be going in as a principal and you’ll be going in as ‘the new guy'”. That’s not a direct quote, but it’s close enough. To be sure I was less than enthusiastic. I think my response was “I’ll have to talk to my wife about this.” I.e. “I’m going to take some time to figure out the nicest way to say ‘no thank you'”. Two weeks later I handed in my notice and was gone a week later to a much larger corporate firm – something I said I would never do again. After six months of that, and after signing a number of sweet projects on the side (I’m licensed now, remember), it was time to give it a go on my own.

Entrepreneur Architect

So, in November of 2014 I officially opened the digital doors of Rogue Architecture. Though, at the very beginning my title block simply said “Jeremiah Russell, Architect”. I had about $3,000 bucks in the bank…mostly because we hadn’t paid bills yet for that month, and about $20,000 in billings for the next 3-4 months. From other stories that I have heard I had a much better start than most, but then I was and am still the sole bread winner for a family of 5. To say I had incentive to make this thing work would be a gross understatement. In December of that year we formed our LLC, got insurance, changed our title block, created a website, and got to work.

We’ve been working successfully now for 2 years, nearly to the day as of this blog post, and eagerly look forward to this next year as we expand, take on a partner, hopefully an intern and many more clients.

The Journey

From graduation to 2014 my journey had one clear direction – Principal of a firm. The choices that I made along the way were made with that goal in mind. This is why my first few years as an intern were deliberately spent at multiple firms that practiced in very different disciplines. I needed experience and I needed to figure out which discipline I would be most valuable in and passionate about. It turns out that discipline is two fold with one common denominator: Residential and Light Commercial. I am most valuable to and passionate about working for private clients – the end users of my designs. I do not have the temperament or the political savvy to work for a large committee, board of directors or focus group (shudders). And so I stay away from those sectors and focus on those I know I can help the most.

For more words of wisdom, check out these other arch-bloggers.

 

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/then-and-now-architectural-design-or-accounting/

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Where It All Went Right

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Then & Now…and the middle

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Then-Now: A Sketch Trip

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
Big Ass Buildings

Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Reflection on My Wonderful, Unexpected Career

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
The Joys of Being an Architect

Anthony Richardson – That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
Then and Now

Nisha Kandiah – TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)
Then & Now : Still Chasing the Dream

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
bettermenTen

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
The Reluctant Code Guru

Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
10 Lessons Learned from a Young Architect

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
#Architalks 22 – Then and now

Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
From Then to Now…Residential Architect

Mark R. LePage – EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
The Biggest Surprise of My Life as an Architect

Nicholas Renard – Renard Architecture (@dig-arch)
15 Years of Architecture

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

brady ernst – Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Pens & Fizzy Drinks: Or How to Set Measurable Career Goals

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
How did I get here?

Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Being the light in darkness

Kyu Young Kim – Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Career Path: Follow Your Heart