Confessions of an Architect: Tradespeople Taught Me How to Build by Megan Peters
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
As a recent architecture school grad on the path to licensure, I made the decision to work for many years at a design + build construction firm. I did it on purpose realizing that my architectural education prepared me for a large number of things (most importantly, creative problem solving) but didn’t necessarily teach me how to build.
Suddenly and unexpectedly the architect on staff with 15+ years of experience left the firm. This architect was my advisor in my on the job, how-to-build training. Now there was a gaping hole in my quest for construction knowledge. Yet it was full speed ahead on the multiple large-scale remodels I was in the middle of developing, and each had a growing need for confirming the build-ability of the design ideas I was proposing. I did what I knew how to do, I asked for help.
There was a twitch of personal embarrassment that came from this situation, I was the one with a fancy degree and the one soon to have the fancy title of Architect. I felt like an imposter. What did I know compared to the years of field experience our trades have under their belts? Design is fun, but I realized that if I wanted to see it built, there needed to be more than just a good architect working on it. Successful built design work is only as good as its ability to get built.
My design team’s project manager, our framing crew, our most fastidious carpenter, our “artisanal” plumber, the soft-spoken electrician, and quick to laugh HVAC technician, the most collaborative window vendor, our painter who wore a “give a shit” pin on his hat, the roofer who would always pick up when I called — I could go on, there are so many others — contributed their knowledge and expertise. Together we discussed and “workshopped” my design ideas, sitting around tables or crouching over drawing sets in gutted houses in the middle of Michigan winters. In short, these tradespeople taught me how to build.
The thing that I came to value and truly enjoy was my relationships with these individuals. At my firm, we worked with the same handful of subcontractors and they became an extension of my design team. We would host “trades walkthroughs” and “trades round tables” to get their input early in the design process; the amount of knowledge and experience that these individuals and their teams have is enormous. These ended up being some of my favorite conversations because we were working together to find a solution.
While I was in the process of licensure — accruing hours of work experience and taking the exams — I thought, “When this is all over I am going to know everything!” Okay, maybe I realized I wouldn’t know everything but I thought I would know at least a lot about construction. The irony was that during the process of getting licensed I realized I know just a small bit of what is a very large body of knowledge and that there will always be more to learn.
So where has this experience led me? It has changed the way I look at and interact with the skilled trades. I always want the opportunity to invite them to the table (physically and metaphorically) and to learn from them. I would like to assure new individuals or individuals interested in pursuing a skilled trade that there are designers who are anxious and excited to work with them, that their skillset and experience brings a ton of value to every project.
So many of the tradespeople I worked alongside were happy to share their knowledge with me, to help me learn, willing to teach. As someone relatively new to the field of construction and with an insatiable curiosity this was an amazing experience. One that I would encourage other architects and all types of designers to be open to. It’s reshaped the kind of practice I aspire to work for and hopefully, one day lead, one where it’s not just designers drawing, but designers working alongside the skilled trades in a more integrated and collaborative way.