unproductively productive


Pardon the lapse in time from my last post – I been trying to be productive. As a sole practitioner, I’ve been finding little time for anything but work lately, which I suppose is a blessing in disguise. For those that choose to peer into this window of being an architect (more specifically a small firm or a solo practitioner architect), something came to mind that might explain the purpose behind the irrational method in which we work.

As a kid growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s surrounded by Italian blue-collar workers (other than my British mother), I learned a strong work ethic and the value of a dollar from those before me. We learned as children, during our chores, to complete tasks quickly – before we moved on to the next task. In other words, the best way to get the task done is get on it, focus, do it without distraction or disruption and do one thing at a time. This was before social media.

The nature of architecture doesn’t mix well with this. We work in a manner that appears to be unproductive; however, to be good architects, we are typically required to approach a problem by starting multiple tasks, getting several of them going to understand, yet none of these tasks may get completed until deeper into the process. We are not linear thinkers; we are not linear workers, but the nature of making architecture needs a cyclical or “on and off” type of process to address the widest range of issues inherent in designing a building or space. The method of designing cannot escape the pattern of starting with more questions than answers, yet it is our initial procedure to discover these questions before it can even begin to address any of them.


Early in the design phase, we are interrogating, we are considering alternatives, and we are meeting with our clients to tease out the solutions. In that back-and-forth process, we discover what is relevant, what is irrelevant, and more things unfold that could not be considered or seen at the beginning of the process. It’s a type of clown car imagery of questions and deliberations flowing out endlessly. It’s a wonder we can predict our time to establish a fee or stay in business.

Here’s an illustration. I personally work with mostly existing buildings where the first thing we do is show up (in old clothes), measure and establish existing conditions drawings of the building. Thus, we spend much time poking around, seeing what we can learn about the nature of the building and attempting to reestablish the history of it and changes that may have been made along the way. This alone affects decisions about renovations as opportunities for the owner to develop their intended program must be filtered through the sieve of these restrictions factored with building codes, budgets, gravity and conclusions about what will remain and what will be demolished. We cannot measure progress without mapping out these variables graphically as well as study multiple options. This is before we finally design something.

If one could map the design process out, I imagine it would be series of spirals and loops that turn back on themselves, yet still advance forward. Therefore, progress is being made, yet not in a direct linear fashion. During the construction document phase, we still circle back as we look at the project in more detail, create drawings at a larger scale that begin to reveal conditions that could not be seen, or were not important in earlier phases. Rinse, lather and repeat.

borrowed this from an earlier post of mine

What reminded me of this seemingly insane methodology was working with my engineering consultants. As engineers. (I presume I am unfairly generalizing), they tend to be wired as linear thinkers and prefer not to work in our start-stop process, but favor starting with the answers in front of them, work to the end, and move on. Remember my childhood pattern? This certainly makes more sense from a productivity standpoint as well as from a financial business standpoint. Contractors would also prefer to start a project, finish it, and move on. Who wouldn’t? I don’t see how an architect, especially one that cares more than most people about their work, could work in that manner. Even if there could be more time spent up front seeking to find answers to questions, most cannot be discovered until certain a portion of work is done, interaction with others continues and then it cycles through again.

I haven’t even touched on working on multiple projects simultaneously. Wait, that’s another variable.

Maybe I’m missing something, or I’ve been doing it wrong for all these years, but that’s just how architects work in my experience. That is also how architects think.

If you find yourself working with an architect for any reason whether you are the client or perhaps you’re one of the consultants, or you’re involved in some fashion. Be patient and understand we’re just wired differently than you and the very nature of architecture typically requires that we work unproductively, seemingly. It makes better architecture; it makes the best architect.


photo credit 1: gregorywass Chicago, 2015 via photopin (license)
photo credit 2: drp Snow Job via photopin (license)
photo credit 3: wwward0 Snow Day via photopin (license)

unproductively productive

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