The creator of EquitybyDesign, Rosa Sheng, AIA, has asked a few of us on Twitter to blog about how we overcame certain obstacles along our paths to becoming registered architects. It’s my privilege and honor to participate in response to her request.
I was one of about 20 women in the School of Architecture at The Ohio State University in 1982. I found everything about college to be daunting from my daily commute from the far east side of town (I lived at home with my mom) to parking in the C lot and hulking large art projects on the large, wobbly, fast-moving campus buses. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on what happened once I graduated, which was a long time ago in September, 1987. Part of me hesitates to share anything because a) much of my initial groundwork was lain in the 20th century (so, does it still apply to today’s world? and b) I’ve not yet designed or worked on a project of the magnitude of the Burj Khalifa (so why listen to me?).
Rosa’s work through the @Miss32percent has highlighted certain “choke points” in the field of architecture where women sometimes quit the profession. There’s nothing wrong with being “an architect doing other things,” if that’s truly what you want to do. However, much like Engineering and IT jobs, women remain in the minority at around 20%. Must it remain “a man’s world?”
What Were Some Obstacles I Faced? My Story:
After working for two good firms in Columbus, Ohio, my husband (who was a Chemist at the time) and I decided to move to Orange County, California after I snagged a job while we were out there vacationing and visiting our close friends who’d moved there a year before us. That job ended up not being a good fit for me culturally so I began looking for work during my lunch break. I finally found work as a project manager for a firm in Santa Ana that specialized in designing custom theme restaurants. Unfortunately, the business hit a rough spot and the owner was forced to quick-claim his 1800’s brick, seismically-retrofitted historical building and work out of his garage. I was without a job and I was very scared. There we were out in expensive O.C., living in a newly purchased home in Rancho Santa Margarita. We were attending Rick Warren’s church at Saddleback and his positive sermon encouraged me. I prayed and asked God to bless my efforts to find a job that week. So, on Monday, I opened the Yellow Pages (just as I’d done in Columbus, Ohio when my boss died unexpectedly and I needed to find a new job) and I began calling all firms. I landed an interview with a firm in Laguna Beach and was offered the job that Thursday. I was elated.
While working there, we were very busy, going strong with many new custom homes and renovations. And then in 1992, things began to slow down. One draftsperson was laid off. I kept myself busy with “special projects” such as organizing the working drawings of all past projects and creating a computer system to track them. I recalled what my boss in Columbus, Ohio said when I had asked him what to do if work slowed down. He said: “Tara, there is *always* something to do in an architecture firm.” Which, of course, I knew to be true. The overarching concern was: would they retain me if I wasn’t at least 80% billable? That was the question that constantly haunted me.
While there, I began to study for the A.R.E. exam. That was one of the major benefits of being in California as opposed to Ohio: they didn’t require IDP nor a 3-year internship prior to sitting for the Architects Registration Exam. In Ohio, with my 4-year pre-professional degree from Ohio State University, I would need to get my Master’s Degree or work a number of years prior to becoming eligible to even apply to take the exam. So, in June of 1992, after studying for 4 of the 9 exams, I sat for the entire 9 exams in San Diego. I passed the 4 exams that I’d studied for. On the 12-hour hand-drawn Design Exam, I left at noon after literally reading the twenty page (it seemed) program and drawing two exterior walls. I had no strategy and was lost and exhausted. I walked out feeling down but not defeated.
A Move to Houston in October 1992:
My husband’s sister is an RN and she pitched a deal that drew us to Houston to start a home health and infusion therapy company. The plan was that I would help them out for a few months with the start-up and then get back into architecture. I even went on an interview with a local home-building company but didn’t get the job. Everyone was using AutoCAD and I had no experience with it. I left my portfolio at a small residential architecture firm for the owner to review. Somehow, his receptionist lost my drawings, so I walked away and chastised myself for being so trusting with such important documents. I took it as a sign that I should stick with the new endeavor. I worked at Infinity Care, Inc in several capacities, mostly focused on starting the billing departments and setting up and running the Human Resources department. As part-owner, I was willing to do anything and everything to keep the business going. I really enjoyed it. Thus, I was “an intern-architect doing other things.”
I felt badly about this.
But one day, while reading to my husband’s nieces out of one of their school books, I read about Thomas Jefferson and all that he had done and realized that it’s O.K. to have more than one major interest in life. So, in February, 1995, I took a leave of absence from the home health care company and studied ferociously for my remaining exams. Again, I had run out of steam on the big 12-hour Design exam (even though I participated in the TAMU – Texas A & M University – architecture ARE workshop). I simply didn’t feel strong enough to pass the 12-hour Design Exam; in retrospect, I lacked a cohesive exam strategy for that portion. So, I went to Sacramento to sit for the remaining exams in June 1995 and passed all of them except the 12-hour Design Exam. I was so happy, though. It was nerve-wracking because all eyes were on me. I had a lot at stake.
Certain family members- one in particular- had put me under a microscope and wanted to know what was my plan for passing the whole thing and to “GET IT ALL DONE THIS TIME.” I wanted to tell that person a bunch of stuff, but I knew it wouldn’t make a hill of beans difference. That this exam is something that only those of us who’ve gone to architecture school and sat for the exam would understand.
Starting a Family
After selling the Medicare portion of the company in October, 1997, I was floundering. I stayed on with the new ownership to assist with the transition, but I was not happy. So, in February, 1998, I quit home health care to stay at home. It was delightful to be at home in a quiet suburban setting and just do nothing but sit in the sun on the back patio and read a book or lay on the couch and listen to music. I cooked some Persian foods for dinner and I explored some independent study courses in the local community college. But I was growing antsy. I wanted to go back into architecture, but wasn’t sure what type of firm I wanted to work for. And, I still had no AutoCAD experience. So, I contacted a gal that I’d befriended at the now-famous David Thaddeus Structure’s ARE prep classes at University of Houston and asked if her offer still stood– she had invited me to contact her if I was ever looking to get back into architecture. Well, she had moved on to work for Gensler but she kindly put me in contact with her previous firm and I was offered the job after a few interviews. In fact, I was offered two jobs and had a choice to make: 1) To work for a sole proprietor in the Rice University area where I’d be expected on the residential job site at 6:00am but would get the opportunity to help build the infrastructure of the firm (writing policies and procedures, etc.) or 2) to work for a medium size firm that primarily did food stores. I would be handling their new gas station projects. After discussing with my husband, he recommended I go with the bigger firm for stability. So, I started there in May 1998 as a project coordinator and then went into the fixture-planning (space plan design) division so I could learn AutoCAD. Frankly, working with AutoCAD was a very alienating experience for me. I felt like a complete fish out of water. (This alone could be it’s own post).
In June, 1999, I grew very disenchanted with my role in the firm. I didn’t know in what direction I was headed and I felt completely dissatisfied. I was 36 and wanted to start a family, so I put in my two-week notice. In August, 1999, God blessed us and I became pregnant with our first and only child, Aryana. It was a miracle! And I was over-joyed.
During my pregnancy, one of my architect friends emailed me a poem about a mom that used to work. The gist of it was this: Once you become a mom, you will completely lose your competitive edge and will never be what you might have been in your career. I cried for two hours after reading that. It was hogwash, of course, but I didn’t know that at the time.
From Career Girl to Archimom:
The term “Archimom” was first posed to me by my former boss and CEO at the last firm I worked for in Houston. After I gave birth to Aryana in April, 2000, I was on cloud nine. I had no notions to return to work anytime soon. I preferred the idea of finishing my licensing exam (the dreaded 12-hour exam had been changed; it was now a two-part exam: Building Technology and Building Design exam, each one was 4 hours long and you did it on the computer using a special software created for NCARB). There was finally some light at the end of the tunnel as I reasoned, time management would be much less of an issue now that the design portion of the exam was computerized. And it was. On October, 2001 (nothing like a terrorist attack to light a fire under you), I successfully passed my remaining exams and became a Registered Architect.
While I was out shopping with my then 2-year old toddler, buying some fresh flowers in Rice Village, I was approached by a friendly lady who struck up a conversation with me about how cute Aryana was. I then found out that her husband was an architect and she told me to contact them if I was interested in even part-time work. That was extremely generous of her. However, I wasn’t ready to return to work . It had been difficult enough to shut down my maternal instinct long enough to focus on studying from August to October. Who would take care of her? What milestones would I miss?
As I sat holding Aryana in her nursery in the yellow rocking chair, I thought about that cruel poem I’d read. I thought about the job offers and some of my family members who said their moms had returned to work after only 20 days! (horrific, I thought) and I asked myself: Where would you rather be? Behind a computer monitor or here, holding your precious child. And the choice was obvious. I was contented to be a stay at home mom.
We had hired a nanny to care for our daughter so I could get some stuff done around the house and, specifically, I wanted to reach my goal of licensure– after all, it had been hanging over my head since 1992. Although, if you compress the time I spent, it would be about 3-1/2 years (which meets the new rolling clock rule). After going through a few ladies, we finally found one that worked out. One of the first things I did after giving birth was to lose the weight I’d gained during pregnancy. It took me about 6 months of eating the Atkin’s diet (home-cooked meals only) and working out religiously 5 days a week– cardio 45 minutes on the treadmill, and a circuit led by a group fitness trainer where we lifted weights, jogged, ran up and down the stairs 5 times in a row, etc.). Could I have done this while working a full-time job? No, I honestly don’t think that would have been possible.
But I knew that attaining licensure took mental toughness more than anything else, so I thought that disciplining myself to lose weight would be a good first step. Secondly, to sharpen my focus, I revisited the books that helped me prepare before:
1. The Psychology of Winning by Denis Waitley
2. The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
I would spend one hour meditating and getting my mind in a positive mental state prior to studying. This was the key to my success. Without this positive mental preparation, there would have been no way I could pass those exams. And I would often study at a nearby library for more focused attention.
All of my life, I have been project-oriented. This was a trait of mine that apparently drove my younger brother crazy as I would often recruit him to assist with my latest idea. So, once licensed, I had business cards made and let my family and friends know that I was looking for work. Small projects rolled in and I was able to handle them on the boards, using my trusty hand-drafting techniques. No AutoCAD necessary. I did small residential renovations and space planning and design for lease space build-outs. I was very satisfied with the low project pace that enabled me to fully participate in my daughter’s school and extra-curricular activities.
In 2008, I returned to work at the same firm where I’d managed the fueling station projects. It was a great opportunity and I learned a lot about “modern day” computing which had changed considerably since 1999. It was, once again, a different world. But this time, I did not feel like a fish out of water. I felt right at home, although I would have liked to have known AutoCAD (such a thorn in my side, it would seem!).
Then, suddenly, the Great Recession hit and the firm laid off 40% of their staff, including me. I did not transition well to becoming unemployed. Part of me was hurt and upset, the other part of me knew that I was poised for something even better. Finding out what that was became my focus.
The Onslaught of Social Media:
I found the AIA KnowledgeNet site and was thrilled to see other architects sharing their ideas on how to improve the profession and other pertinent discussions. This led to joining Twitter to participate in a #TweetChat led by @aiaNational. I have used LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and now my own blog to get the word out about our profession and what we can do to improve it.
Rosa has picked up the baton and ran far with it. I am amazed and humbled by her efforts. Unlike me, she is not just about “framing the problem” (which is a crucial part of the solution), but she is about Action and Moving forward. I look forward to seeing the result of her efforts in this year’s AIA Convention in Atlanta. I will not be there in person but I’ll be there in spirit.
I’m still here, plugging along.
I finally learned AutoCAD, by the way, thanks to the Ledet AutoCAD bootcamp course I took last year. And I am going to teach myself REVIT using Lynda.com Lots to do, but I’m no where near giving up on my dream to pursue architecture.
And, I became an NCIDQ- certified Registered Interior Designer in December, 2014. (That, too, is another post in itself).
My best mentor was the CEO of the last firm where I worked. He encouraged me to take the remaining Design Exam and to keep pushing forward. Whenever I’ve had questions on my own firm’s projects, he has been a ready resource to help me figure something out or guide me on the right path. I’m grateful for his kindness and generosity and will pass it along to others.
Not the End of the Road:
In preparation for writing this post, I asked my husband what he thought. He has told me time after time that knowing many friends who are Physicians and in the medical field, he thinks that Architecture is a far more difficult profession. He says it’s more time-consuming, and a more grueling process to attain licensure and find work. He says he has total respect for anyone who has made it in this field.