Apparently this is a popular blog topic in other disciplines, but it is still a tough question to answer as an architect. If you say no, are you just being falsely humble. If you say yes, are you that confident?
The inspiration for this post came to me one day before school when my nine-year old son asked me “Daddy, after school, will you show me what you do?” “Wow” is all that came to mind besides a soft fuzzy feeling that my son is interested in what his father spends his time doing all day…and night. “Of course” I quickly interjected and kept to my promise.
He actually has some idea of what I do. In fact he has a desk next to mine in my office (that’s all his) and he’s seen drawings and models lying around. Nevertheless, later on I showed him the design drawings and then the detailed construction documents of a current project I am trying to complete; he simply stared at them with amazement. I showed him simple drawings and photographs to explain it to him prior to overpowering him with the heavy look of construction drawings. I really didn’t comment much; that’s overkill. He seemed satisfied for now, but I got my approval when he insisted I tell Mommy the exact same presentation word for word. He walked in the other room and told her to go into my office. He also said what I did was “complicated.” He seemed impressed.
As I pondered this experience later, the idea of being an expert came to mind (and I don’t mean relative to a nine-year-old kid). Expert is rarely a term that comes to mind when I think of where I am in my career. I just never thought of myself as an expert at anything even though I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. I am the first to acknowledge what I don’t know. Yet when I am asked questions about architecture or construction I feel certain about what I know or what ideas quickly come to mind. That builds confidence, which is a step on the road to being an expert.
Simply having the title ‘architect’ doesn’t make me an expert any more than standing in my garage makes me an automobile. Yet I do believe architects have a breadth of value to sell. We can take our client’s project and money and maximize their investment both from a functional point of view as well as the intangible experience of delight. Not only can we wade through the mess of construction as an expensive journey but take a thought from nowhere and craft it into habitable space that serves more than its occupant. It’s not enough to do one or the other, especially in our generation of this competitive industry. Nor it enough to simply say “I am an expert”; not even if you click your heels three times while saying it. You must demonstrate it.
So what is an expert? How does one become an expert? Is it a destination? Or is it a perception in the mind of others? According to the dictionary (the place we assume to be ‘expert’ at defining words) it states that an expert is a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field, an authority. What constitutes special? How long does it take to get there?
In some of my readings about the subject some have stated that first one must truly have knowledge about a subject. You can’t fool people for long. Next a person needs to establish their alleged expert status by writing, speaking and even…blogging. Anything to put you and your work in front of people is good P.R. Lastly, being able to seek out problems which you can offer solutions is critical. Others will spread the news about your expert reputation. It is a process that involves experiential knowledge as much as academic knowledge. I also believe it takes simple hard work and a lot of practice at your craft. It also takes a teachable spirit. Look, none of us knows everything. It still requires ongoing learning, but along the way you can be helping other people while learning from other experts. Every project of mine teaches me something and gives me another brick of knowledge that I add to the wall of my expertise.
So are you an expert? Are we as architects willing to stand up and claim our expert status when it comes to design and construction? Maybe our marginalization has some connection here. No one likes arrogance, but false humility isn’t paying any bills either. So here goes. I am an architect; I am an expert. How’s that? Ok, I still don’t think I will add it to my business card. Or should I? What do you think?