your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

What Architects Do

Two weeks ago I volunteered for a fourth grade career day at my son’s school. I’ve done a few of these before, but only as a guest in the classroom. This would be my first “career fair” with a whole grade and lots of other parents. I enjoy these events because I enjoy educating people about what architects can do versus what people think architects do.

That morning I packed up my collection of interesting drawings, my portfolio, and some paper and pencils so they could make drawings themselves. In the gym where we were setting up, I saw that some of the other parents had brought hand-out stuff, like candy and pencils and erasers. Hmm, I thought, I’ll have to do something like that next time. There were lots of parents there (like, almost 40) with a fair range of professions.

The format had groups of five to eight kids moving from table to table for 10 minutes each for a total of an hour and half. It quickly became apparent to me that there wouldn’t be time for drawing. It also became apparent that my voice would be suffering at the end of the day (and I had a market that afternoon too.)

Now when I do these career presentations, I always ask ¬†the kids first what they think architects do. “Draw buildings” or “build buildings” are the most common answers (with some statistical outliers). And they’re right. We do that. But what we really do (I feel) is solve problems. And usually those solutions are something that can be built, so we have to draw it for someone to build.

After a few groups I had settled into a routine, where I’d ask the question, validate their answers, explain about solving problems, tell the story of the railing connection at the University of Delaware that we came up with, talk about collecting information from people to make the drawing, show them the picture of the final product, answer some questions, flip through my portfolio, and then send them on to the next table.

Out of the 60 or so kids I saw, about half thought it was kind of cool what I did, a few who weren’t really there for this, and a few that really lit up at the idea of architecture as a career. But the next week I got letters from some of the kids (I’m assuming that the teacher asked them who they wanted to write to) where they thanked me for coming out. and talking to them about architecture. Some samples:

“I think your job is awesome!” (It is but don’t tell anyone, then they’ll all want to be one.)

“I create buildings with ‘LegoTM’ but first I make the colour scheemes and blue print. The drawing of the library was my favorite.”

“I like how you told me how you fixed the U.D. railing. When I wasn’t looking at your station I kept lookinging at you station because of the drawing.” (I’m not sure what that means either.)

I don’t want to get all maudlin here about kids are the future and all that. Most of these kids won’t become architects and that’s fine. I don’t do this to recruit, but as a way to slowly lower the perceived barriers to access that society and the profession has created. And so that some day, they’ll think that calling an architect first would be a good idea.

Why the Farmers Market?

Three years ago I set up a table at the Newark Natural Foods Farmers Market. I had been laid off in November the year before and had worked my way through “What Color is Your Parachute”. One conclusion from that was that Sustainable Design was a foundational part of my practice. But where were the people who cared about sustainable design? At Farmers Markets. And then I recalled an article I had read about John Morefield and his Architecture 5 Cents booth in Seattle. And like a good architect, I took the idea and generated a solution from it. And I bumped the price up to a quarter. And thus was Architectural Help 25 cents born.

I really thought that this would be a way to generate business for me. I was very wrong. For two reasons: 1) the economy was still terrible in 2010 and no one wanted to spend money; and 2) if someone is ready to start a project, they’ve already got people lined up for it. What it became was a way to educate people about what architects can do for them, and to reduce the perceived barriers between people and the profession.

I did get a few projects out of the effort – but most of those projects came months to years after I met the people at my booth. Mostly I answer questions that range from “where should I put attic ¬†insulation?” to “where should I live?” But the most common question is “what are you doing here?” And my answer is a short version of the preceding paragraphs.

At the end of the summer I had met nearly a hundred people, handed out a bunch of business cards, and made a number of connections in my community. And I decided that I wanted to keep doing this. So the next summer I signed up with the Kennett Square Market on Fridays. And the next summer I added New Garden Market on Saturdays. And that’s enough. Three markets in a row really wipes me out, but I’m still educating people and still presenting the profession as problem-solvers and still generating business.