Mentoring 21st-Century Architects

March 7, 2011 · by RK Stewart

How do we reconcile the profession’s traditional knowledge transfer process with the next generation’s grounding in digital communication?

Architecture may not be the oldest profession known to the human species, but it’s got to be in the top three. Our earliest ancestors certainly had a demand for protection from adverse weather and beasts that considered them tasty dinner entrees. The stakes were high, the margin between success and failure narrow. Success meant you and your clan survived another season. It was through trials and failures that early architects uncovered building decisions and systems that made people’s lives better.

I’m sure it took time, but I’m certain that one fine day someone said, “Let’s make sure this knowledge gets passed to the next generation.” And just like that, architectural mentorship was born.

After two or three horrifying years for the A/E/C industry, we are finally seeing the makings of a turnaround. The American Institute of Architects Architectural Billing Index finally rose above 50 in both November and December 2010, indicating a positive outlook for firms. Additional data developed by Kermit Baker as part of the AIA Work-on-the-Boards survey program indicates that between 17 percent and 22 percent of firms are eliminating positions for interns and staff with less than six years of experience. We are at risk of losing a large segment of the next generation of architect leaders if we do not act fast to increase and improve mentoring across the profession.

Knowledge Transfer

The traditions of personal mentorship flourished for hundreds of years within the profession of architecture. Each architect builder selected a bright young man to serve as master’s apprentice. Over the course of many years working together, the apprentice would learn all the master had to share. The best apprentice would eventually begin to experiment with systems and techniques that challenged the master’s tried-and-true approach to building. With each round of successes and failures, the body of architectural knowledge advanced ever so slowly. 

As learning became institutionalized with the creation of universities, architectural education joined the movement. The professor began to compete with the practitioner as mentor to a young person seeking architectural knowledge. This move to academia was necessary and beneficial for the profession and society. Through examination of successful buildings, the science of building could be readily explained in writings and lectures that could be studied.  There was also recognition that some topics (architectural history, structures, design theory) could be taught most appropriately in the classroom setting while others (marketing, contracts, construction administration) were best learned in practice. 

There continues to be some disagreement on this point in various circles, but I believe this differentiation is needed. The practice of architecture was becoming more specialized and segmented. Would the education of architects not follow the direction practice was taking? More than other professions, architecture requires a great deal of experience. It’s unreasonable for practitioners to expect an architectural graduate to spring forth fully formed from academia with all the knowledge and experience required to practice effectively. 

From my perspective this disagreement has given rise to a profession that has forgotten its long tradition of mentoring the next generation.  Over the years, I have heard many arguments from various quarters that practitioners have no obligation to be mentors. I can see how such opinions evolve and find them unfortunate as well as shortsighted.

Labor-Intensive to Capital-Intensive

The last half of the 20th century saw a fundamental shift in the structure of every architectural practice. Until recently, ours had historically been a labor-intensive profession that relied heavily on the people who were brought together for a project. Adding production capacity to a firm was not a huge investment: For a few hundred dollars you could get a couple of sawhorses, a T-square, and a chair. (If you were a great employer you might upgrade that workstation with a parallel bar and a Luxo lamp!) That added capacity could continue to produce value for years with little or no additional investment.

Throughout those years, little effort was necessary for architectural interns to observe what professionals around them were doing. Specialization within a practice — the design department relative to the production or CA department — tended to be concentrated in the larger firms and challenge learning opportunities. Having experience across the entire process of creating buildings had value. Unconsciously, we looked over each other’s shoulders to see what was on a drawing board and learn. Design drawings evolved slowly over time, allowing more opportunities for discussions about how and what was to be drawn. I vividly recall one gray-haired veteran architect early in my career reminding me, “Never draw more in the morning than you can erase in the afternoon.” That was his gentle way of reminding me to be sure I understood what I was drawing before I got too far along. At the time many, I didn’t realize that such comments make up the very heart of mentoring in the profession.

As computers and design software were introduced into architectural practice, the processes that enabled an unconscious, casual mentoring culture were eroding. As the profession moved from its labor-intensive past to its capital-intensive future, a lot of subtle changes were exerting their influence. Adding production capacity now meant several thousands of dollars worth of computer hardware, software, training, communications networks, and electricity for each person brought into a firm. 

By no means am I a Luddite, longing for those nostalgic bygone days of the drafting studios filled with ink and vellum. The ability we now have to design, simulate, document, operate, and maintain buildings using computerized tools are unlike anything in the profession’s history.  We can study more options, understand their implications, and enable better decision-making by our clients to address their needs, all the while providing more complete information to the builders we work with to reduce waste and improve a building’s performance for a more sustainable future.

This shift to a capital-intensive, computer-based profession has had two consequences on mentoring the next generation: a new process and a higher cost.

Casual mentoring by observing the work on someone’s drawing board morphed into something very different when the work could only be seen on a computer, even one with a 21-inch monitor. The shift to three-dimensional building models no longer allows us to see a stack of drawings grow throughout the process of creating a building’s design. We have a lot more information — not just drawings but reports, tables and schedules when needed. But the progress of developing a design is not as obvious when the process takes great leaps forward as the building model is prepared.

Mentoring Evolves

The process of mentoring must become much more deliberate in a computer-enabled, model-based project delivery process. More thoughtful planning is required of project leaders to assure that information, guidance, and encouragement are provided at the right time in the right measure. Knowing the schedule for the project, the unique design challenges of the project, and the staff’s expertise, we can define opportunities to provide mentoring. It’s important to affirm the two-way relationship so important to successful mentoring relationships.

Regular, frequent mentoring strengthens the learning connection and accelerates staff development. The project itself will benefit as well thanks to the mentoring discussions that revolve around the project’s development.

The shift to a capital-intensive profession has greatly increased the cost of doing business for every practice. Firm leaders are more sensitive than ever to the economic demands of their offices. Marketing, business development, and client relationships rightfully receive priority when they allocate their time. Careful attention to staff productivity and operational/overhead costs take another big piece of leaders’ time. Without looking after the business economics of the firm, we never get a chance to do what we all love most: design great buildings for grateful clients. Addressing economic issues uses leaders’ time they might otherwise spend mentoring future leaders in their firm.

This competition for mentoring time has not just occurred with the advent of computerization of the profession. We’ve been facing economic pressures for much longer. Nor have the devastating impacts of the recession the past few years created this conflict (although perhaps they have enhanced the pressure). The cyclical nature of the design and construction industry seems to never end.

Rededicating Ourselves

Now is the time for the profession to rededicate itself to mentoring the next generation of leaders. We have some wonderful tools to give structure to mentoring relationships. The National Council of Architectural Registrations Board’s Intern Development Program is the mostly widely known tool. While focused on preparation for licensure, IDP gives definition to the areas of practice a good mentorship should consider. The program acknowledges the importance of these relationships within the firm as well as outside.

Building on NCARB’s IDP is the California Architectural Board’s C-IDP program. C-IDP highlights certain areas of the NCARB IDP to enhance learning through the use of work products and essays to facilitate conversations between protégés and mentors.

AIA components across the nation have local and state programs to enable mentoring relationships.  For more than a year I’ve enjoyed being part of the mentorship program operated by AIA San Francisco. The AIASF program brings together groups of four or five people to share experiences and mentor each other. Each group is composed of two people early in their career (less than five years), one mid-career professional, and one senior professional. I hope my contributions to our discussions have been helpful to my group mates. They have taught me a great deal about the challenges facing emerging professionals in this economy.

What is desperately needed is the recommitment of every leader throughout the profession to re-instill the culture of mentorship that is fundamental to the profession. Leaders of firms large and small, currently employing emerging professionals or not, can take steps get the ball rolling.

You can initiate creation of an internal mentoring program to augment your professional development program.  Setting an example for other leaders within your firm, you can serve as a mentor, dedicating time to demonstrate its importance. Encourage and celebrate members of your firm who actively participate in external programs like AIASF’s.

While the economy often inhibits our ability to hire new staff, there seems to be no shortage of pro bono opportunities to improve our communities. Support the work of the many organizations responding to requests for architectural assistance by volunteering to mentor their staff doing the work. Once you understand the importance being a mentor has for the profession’s future, the numbers of opportunities you’ll find are limitless.

A basic characteristic of all architects is our willingness to serve others for the greater good of society. Mentoring serves emerging professionals, our firms, and the society looking to architects to improve their lives. If we act together we’ll be able establish a culture of mentoring. It will look different from the apprenticeship model of old, but it will be effective and appropriate to the 21st century. In doing so, we can assure the future of the profession.


RK Stewart is an associate principal with Perkins+Will, where he serves as director of the Innovation in Project Delivery Initiative and addresses building performance and sustainable design issues. Stewart is a former president of the American Institute of Architects, current vice chair of the National Institute of Building Sciences, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

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