you’re not the boss of me

lucy boss.jpg

What is it like to be the boss? (I’m a solo practitioner, so I have no one to boss around). I’m not making any accusations today, nor am I judging anyone’s work performance. Today is about walking in the shoes of the boss.

I often feel that people don’t understand what it means to be the boss – however one wishes to decide that position of leadership. It comes down to the simple principle with every privilege comes responsibility (don’t go thinking Spider Man on me now, I said privilege not power).

One might draw an analogy to our days in school where everyone gets a taste of this…sort of. A student is generally autonomous (excluding group work). They have a client (the professor) and they have a schedule (project deadline). A student (Mr. Stayed-up-all-night) makes decisions about their project and presents it to their client (Professor Coffee-Breath). There is feedback and revisions, but a due date has to come.


There is only one problem with this – there is no real money being spent on the project (and tuition doesn’t really count). One is not ready upon graduation to work alone (don’t even go there), so we work for another architect and if not careful, become shielded.

What happens if the proverbial buck would stop with you? (Yes, deference to poker players and President Truman).


Since I started my firm over 13 years ago, I have come to learn at least three important lessons that are often missed by…those who are not the boss. Some have heard me say that everyone ought to be self-employed for at least six months in their life at some point in order to gain an important perspective – especially for those in the service industry. It’s not all sunshine and roses.

The design has to work
With respect to the architectural profession, the work I do, the work we do as leaders has to work. No one else will do it after us. I spend many hours working through solutions until I know they work. Mistakes or oversights rarely creep in, but knowing that there is no one supervising me drives me to be thorough and capable in defending my solution. The money being spent on the construction as well as on my services is constantly in the front of my mind. It’s accountability. I was never one to do a half-baked (or the other term) job with anything I’ve ever done, but I admit that knowing there was someone checking my work gave a safety net that was oddly comforting. There is still great wisdom in checking each other’s work regardless of rank, but for those who have chosen to be the leader can attest that when their name is on the work, a heightened sense of responsibility and awareness prevails. Too much money is at stake as well as one’s reputation.


No hiding from the client (or contractor)
I believe everyone should get a chance to talk directly to the client and be on a construction site among the various trades and builders. To take this further, everyone should be required to present to a client and everyone should have to discuss the project with the contractor. Facing the music, looking them in the eyes, and explaining the design are necessary skills to being an architect. It will wake you up in the morning. This is especially true about clients. They are funding this enterprise, so the main culpability is to them. We need to be able to clarify to them what we did and why we did it. Convincing them of our reasons and our process is essential. It only takes one rough encounter with a client speaking directly to your face to give perspective to this issue.

No quitting time until it’s done
This doesn’t mean we have to work late every night or any night– despite the stereotype. It simply means as the boss or leader, the job is to get the project completed. There is a fee that has some limit at some point. Even if the fee is not a lump sum, an hourly agreement has a limit at some point. Nevertheless, we must work until the project is complete, until things have been worked out thoroughly and until it can be released knowing it works (see point #1 above). This can sometimes (or oftentimes) mean working past the limits of the fee. (That means not getting paid for those hours). An owner or principal works until completion regardless. This requires developing good habits, setting boundaries, goals and having a plan for each project. Despite that, the project still has to be completed. Hopefully the hours incurred are within my estimate and hopefully I’m on schedule with the client.


Again, I enjoy the privileges of owning my own firm – something I swore I’d never do. Looking back, it was the right decision at that time in my life. However, it never goes away; it just sometimes gets a pause. If you are seeking a promotion in your firm, think like the boss. Imagine no one but you will inspect your work, review your design or check your details. Are you confident, I mean completely, that it works?

It’s something to think about…and I’d love to know what you are thinking.

you’re not the boss of me

necessary evils of practice


It’s imperative to start with the fact that I love my job.

As long as I have written this blog, I have clearly stated I find it a privilege to earn a living doing something I truly enjoy and something I have only wanted to do.

Do you think it’s easy to talk about work when in a beloved position? May I remind you that it takes sacrifice to achieve a level where one can spend the day filled with enjoyable work. Even though I’m fortunate to have gotten here, I cannot do anything unless I do it well; even the parts I don’t like. In any job, profession, or career, there will always be undesirable parts of the day or tasks that are disliked. So the question that begs to be asked is – why do those types of tasks exist? Why are they not our favorites? Are they our own fault?

Is it merely that we are lazy? Is it that we are spoiled? Are we afraid to get our hands dirty (literally or figuratively)? For me there are things outside my control that cause parts of my profession to be unpleasant.

Let’s elucidate.

punch lists
If you are an architect reading this, you are chuckling at this point. I have yet to meet anybody in this profession who enjoys preparing a punch list. For those that do not know, a punch list is a written or graphic list of items remaining on a construction project to be completed in order for the work in place to be consistent with the contract documents (i.e. drawings and specifications). Sometimes this means the work in place is incomplete; sometimes it is not completed to the quality level or level of craft required by the specifications. Sometimes, it means the work is not there at all. Regardless, I don’t like it.


The reason that I don’t like to make these lists, I believe, is not because I am not a detail person. To be honest, it is because I am a detail person and can’t understand why everyone is not like me in doing their work. Why do I have to fuss through a list – as comprehensive as possible – merely because someone else didn’t live up to a standard? In other words, why must the architect be punished for the contractor’s actions? Too harsh – huh?

I will admit this lacking isn’t always due to an absence of willingness, but a deficiency in scheduling. On rare occasions, it could be related to a lack of skill. What I hope to avoid is a situation where the contractor in question just doesn’t care. In the former, it often means that because of the schedule, the architect is called to prepare their punch list prematurely to speed up the process. In the latter, it’s just annoying. Remember that old adage, “if something is worth doing…”

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meeting minutes
I don’t like to write meeting minutes. They are incredibly important and absolutely necessary in our day and age with inaccurate memories. Yes, they can be friendly reminders and checklists for things to do; however, we all know that meeting minutes are primarily recorded because of our litigious society. I’m mostly referring to construction meetings more than design meetings. We want everyone to be on record that someone was going to do something or someone was not going to do something. It gets documented for accountability.

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I’m grown-up enough to know how people behave, and I recognize we often forget things innocently. Nevertheless, I can always find something else I prefer to do then type meeting minutes. Perhaps I’m fastidious when it comes to writing them. I like to use a consistent verb tense and I tend to write in the third person. These are not creative writing documents or novels; they are merely a record of who said what, who did what, and who agreed to what. Therefore, I pore over them to ensure the phrasing is concise, yet accurate. Generally, for a project meeting this amounts to a mere two pages of notes – on rare occasions three. This might be brief for many practitioners out there; however, I just wish we would remember what we said and be people of our word. Our notes could be briefer and less formal.

business tasks
For those of you who enjoy that architecture is a business can get up off of the floor as you are shocked that I would admit such a thing. Hopefully you’re still reading at this point.

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By nature, I am a right-brained, artist-type person and artist-type mentality with a nature that is also prone to detail. I think that is related to the artist/craft part. The whole aspect of chasing the dollar each day, being concerned about efficiency rates and project schedules along with expenditure reports, billing and accounting are not high on my favorites list. I don’t like neckties and I prefer to wear my shirts untucked.

Bills must be paid and I do like to eat every day. Nevertheless, I don’t do architecture with a goal of making a certain amount of money, nor did I ever have a yearly income amount as a goal. I only ever wanted to make architecture. Nevertheless, if I wish to keep making architecture, if I wish to practice long enough to be good, I must work hard at being a good business person too.

no green grass
Share with me what things you don’t care to do – maybe I’ll find them to be my favorite (thing to hate too). There is no greener grass on the other side of the fence. That’s understood. However, in our world of pushing our kids into high paying jobs, high tuition colleges, and high expectations for a perfect life, we all know that happiness doesn’t come from money, position or role. One should find and pursue something they enjoy doing.

If you find yourself enjoying how you spend your day, feel fortunate and try to make someone else’s day brighter too.

photo 1 credit: Working Environment. (Ballycotton Co. Cork, Ireland) via photopin (license)

necessary evils of practice

small projects :: consultants


Q: As a solo-practitioner architect, how do consultants play a part in your projects?

No one can do everything – no one is an expert at everything. Therefore, architects use consultants to assist them in areas of the project that they need specific, expert input. In my case (and the case of thousands of other architects), most of the consultants I hire are engineers. More specifically, I have a structural engineering consultant and a MEP/FP engineering consultant (mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection).

There are many other types of consultants an architect could hire and it depends on the building type and complexity. There are consultants for acoustics, building envelope, building code, cost estimation, sustainability, LEED (and similar) certifications, civil engineering, surveyors, landscape design, lighting design, kitchen design, interior design, traffic design, roof design, graphic design and I’m sure many more (no need to elucidate). You get the picture.

I have developed a good working (and somewhat personal) relationship with two engineering consultants that I generally work with on every project. For the most part, I don’t seek multiple bids for each project – I just call or email them and get their fee to include within mine. Here is my take on how we work together.

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Every project is important and the details must be correct, accurate with sound engineering judgment. However, the method of getting there is often quite informal. We talk over coffee or lunch, I often develop an overall concept or direction and communicate it to them. In the case of my structural engineer, I get red-lines in return that I incorporate into my drawings (either architectural or structural). The MEP work is often too difficult to try to do the drafting myself (nor do I have the time). Since we have a strong relationship, the working process is friendly, light but very focused and serious in intent. It’s just that we have a few laughs along the way. We even text each other at times. I like it, it’s what I know.

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Small projects are my life – I just happen to do many of them at a given time. However, the types of projects and types of clients are direct and quick. There is generally an extremely tight budget and no room for fluff or elaborate systems. Make it stand; make it efficient; make it comfortable; make it affordable. The project scope is limited, the options for systems are limited, therefore, we work together quickly to find the most direct solutions. To be honest, the best designs are the simplest. There’s no need to pound a finish nail with a sledge hammer.


Engaged Process

Architects complain about engineers; engineers complain about architects. To-may-toe / To-mah-toe. Either way we have to work quickly and resourcefully. We develop a scope of work at the outset (to set a fee) and then I generally set the direction in concert with the client. I prefer to involve the consultants early, but oftentimes, they want to work in a linear fashion after the decisions have been made and just ‘do their thing.’ I respect that but as an architect I work in circles while moving forward. Therefore, I cannot send the whole project to them to ‘figure’ out. I need to be intimately involved with the big picture, send them my digital files, but also send them notes or sketches of how things must be done. Then we have a series of discussions and they begin their work. I press my MEP engineer to send me duct sizes early so I can check them within my digital model. With my structural engineer, the process is generally quite simple. He reviews the project, red lines a set of drawings, I review it and add those notes and graphics into my set. On occasion I’ll ask follow up questions and we’ll do a bit of editing. The MEP aspects of a project can be more complex and I’m still learning how much I have to check and review everything. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s just a matter of confirming that the solution is appropriate for my project, my context and my client as well as fits within the architecture.


  • Is there a simpler way?
  • Is there a cheaper way?
  • How do we balance first cost with operating cost, life cycle cost, replacement cost?
  • Is this the best overall method for the client?

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To be an architect means many things and one must (in my not so humble opinion) be knowledgeable and focused on the building systems just as much as the paint colors. In fact, many if not all of my designs are influenced and/or connected to these building systems. My architectural interventions are inseparable from the engineering aspects. Oftentimes the structure is exposed, the duct work is exposed, or somehow the architectural move(s) is a response to or is conceived from an engineering solution. To me that’s real integration and then the project isn’t mere make-up but architecture.

This is another reason one should hire an architect.

My consultants are often hidden to the clients and end users, but to me they’re priceless to the process and to the project.

small projects :: consultants