My Interview with a High School Student

The other day, a local high school student asked if he could interview me about my profession. I said yes. He was a perceptive person, and had an interest in architecture. This is what we talked about.

What made you decide to become an architect?

Two experiences. First, I had a knack for advising college classmates on how to arrange their dorm rooms. I could see good solutions they could not. That was thrilling. Second, I worked on a succession of ugly projects as a construction laborer after college. I hated it. I told my boss, who happened to be an architect. He said, if you want to stay away from ugly buildings, design them yourself. That convinced me.

What is your typical day like?

I get to work a few minutes before 8 am. I quickly check emails, Facebook, NPR, and the weather. Usually I have mapped out my day the night before, so I know what I need to do. Being in a small firm, I spend a lot of my day producing drawings. We have two contract workers, and I spend time getting them up to speed. Usually I can just tell them to carry on with what they were working on the day before. Email or phone conversations with clients take up a portion of my day. If we are pursuing a project, I am putting together a statement of qualifications, which means a lot of InDesign and Photoshop.  I usually work ten or eleven hours a day, with half a weekend day thrown in.

What do you need to be good at to be an architect?

It depends on your focus as an architect. I like numbers and quantitative problems, so I use my skill in solving problems to support me as an architect. I’m also red-green color blind, so I don’t do a lot of color design. Architecture can call on a number of skills. The type of architecture one does will be a reflection of the skills one has.

If there is one skill every architect needs, it’s the ability to do a free-hand sketch. I do not mean the ability to do a presentation rendering with a pencil. I mean the ability to convey a three-dimensional idea on paper. Are you trying to communicate a flashing detail, a basic building mass, or an idea about solar orientation? Architecture inhabits a three-dimensional world. Being able to communicate in three dimensions with nothing more than a pad of paper and a Sharpie is essential.

How do you move into management?

Management depends on hierarchy. If you want to be a manager, you have to work for a firm large enough to have a hierarchy. Inevitably you will start in an entry-level position. The best way to advance is to work harder than everyone else, and show a good attitude. Hard work gets rewarded. Initiative and follow-through get rewarded.

What is the difference between being an architecture employee and an architecture firm owner?

I have never run any other type of firm than an architecture firm, but I believe my profession is like others. Being an employee means getting paid the same amount whether you are doing billable work or not. Being an owner means doing a lot of work for which there is no direct compensation. One hopes the marketing effort and the administrative effort results in an eventual pay-off. In the meantime, there are a lot of uncompensated hours, and there is the ability to profit.

Has technology changed architecture?

Oh, yeah. I started in architecture using a clutch pencil and a Mayline. We are now a fully integrated Building Information Modeling shop. We have dabbled in point cloud, and we do parametric energy analysis. Technology has completely reinvented the practice of architecture.

How do you get to work on big projects?

As an employee, you work on big, or complicated, projects, by showing the ability to do so. It helps to be with a firm that does big projects. The really big ones are in cities. Here in eastern Maine, the projects are not so big.

Does having an advanced degree improve your compensation?

Perhaps. What improves one’s compensation is skill set. People with advanced degrees have shown a willingness to invest in their skill set. They learned skills and ways of seeing and understanding and problem solving that others may not have. But what really matters is how much one is continually improving. Being a life-long student of architecture is the best way to improve one’s compensation.

My undergraduate degree was in religious studies, so I got a master’s degree in architecture in order to move into the profession. This is a common path, and one I recommend. Get a good liberal arts background; it will make you an interesting person who is interested in the work of others. Then get an architecture degree. It will give you the tools to work with those interesting people as their architect.

Ultimately, the highest paid positions in architecture are people-facing positions: principals and those doing marketing and client contact. People skills brings value to architects.

What are some projects you are working on now?

We are working on a renovation to Mount Desert Island High School. We have two small projects at Maine Maritime Academy. We have a church renovation and addition project. We have two separate projects for the Downeast Family YMCA. We have two projects for the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education: a flowing seawater laboratory and a guest house.

What buildings have you done in the area?

We have worked on projects for Unity College, Husson University, and Washington County Community College. Our Bryant E. Moore Center project is our biggest Ellsworth project. We have done work for WERU community radio, Eyes Optometry, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellsworth, Cherryfield Academy, Maine Department of Marine Resources, and several residential clients.

What are the challenging aspects of being an architect?

I used to think architecture was technically challenging. How does that roof detail work? What is the best way to flash a window? Bringing in the work continues to be a challenge. How do we get our name and our brand out there? The biggest challenge is the person to person challenge. How do we best serve our clients? How do we listen to what they want, and advise them on what we think is professionally the right thing to do? We work for many organizations where a building design is in the hands of a committee. How do we facilitate the many different voices and opinions?

How does architecture differ from landscape architecture, or engineering?

Architecture is primarily the design of buildings. We do not try to do landscape architecture, and I believe our landscape architecture friends stay away from building design. We work with landscape architects, and our work is often fruitful when we are successful at understanding the dialogue between a building and its site context. We also work with engineers, who bring specific expertise in the areas of structural design, electrical, mechanical and plumbing design. Broadly speaking, engineers are good at solving problems, while architects are good at defining what the problem is. The best engineers are good at defining problems, and the best architects have a good handle on the specific design areas of their engineers.

 

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.