Saturday, April 18, 2009

Doing what matters Part 2: the bell curve of time and effectiveness/efficiency

Intern Timmy and I reflected on a variety of topics at our lunch last week, and he made a comment that rang true and cracked me up at the same time.  "You know those interns that sit upstairs, and they're on Vincent's team?  They're always friggin' in here!  On weekend, late nights, doesn't matter--they're in here!" he commented.

I laughed.  "I've noticed that when I'm here late occasionally," I replied.  "What are they doing, exactly?  They're paid hourly like you and me, and we're all at 36 hours a week.  Do they have permission to work that much overtime?  Or are they just not getting paid for it or what?"

"Here's my thing," said Intern Timmy.  "I'm thorough and I do a good job, and I'll do what it takes to get a job done, but I don't wanna be here more than I have to be.  I'd rather be efficient and you know, actually make a profit on my projects."

Intern Timmy's observation about Vincent's interns reminded me of college yet again.  Vincent does commercial, retail, multifamily housing, and civic and museum/display spaces, so he does some pretty artsy-looking stuff.  The impression I get is that his project teams are full of the kids who made As and had amazing-looking projects back in studio.  What I recall about those kids in college is that they were always in Studio.  Anytime of day, night, or weekend, they were in the Studio.  Sometimes, they were working on a drawing or model or figuring out designs.  Almost as often, they were hanging out, talking to some of their peeps, smoking a cigarette (a lot of architects and architecture students smoke or ,like Guy, used to smoke) whatever.  It was as if their default position on Planet Earth was to be in that room and somewhere near their drafting table.  I would spend several hours of at least one weekend day at Studio, to be sure, but I dedicated a great deal of time to the rest of my classes.  The professor who wrote that recommendation letter I mentioned in my last post (who was my favorite professor, by the way) once told us after a midterm crit that he didn't want any of us in the studio for the next two days: he said that we were at Tech for an education, which included more than just our major, so he wanted us to go home and catch up on our other classes.  I also recall a fellow student who was always in Studio, almost regardless of time of day.  He produced these bizarre/creative flights of fancy and got As in Studio during the Winter and Spring quarters of our sophomore year...and flunked every other class he took.  The Design Meister was given the dubious honor of repeating his sophomore year.  Nice work, Frank Gehry. 

My opinion then, is that Vincent has a team full of people who have lots of practice making awesome-looking designs and spending lots of time making those awesome-looking designs, but they don't have near as much practice in making timely design decisions and getting the required documentation completed in time.  Hence, it takes them that much longer to produce the documents, and there they are in the office at 7pm during the week and at 3pm on a weekend day.  Now, to be fair, I don' t doubt that amazing-looking buildings might also take a lot of time to detail, and that would certainly account for some of that extra time spent.  But at some point, I have to say quit piddling around and get it done.  Quit losing your mind over oh how does that form juxtapose with that one? and just pick something nice and start drawing it.  The days of doodling on a napkin with an unlimited budget are over.  And if I hear you use the word "juxtapose", I will slap the Eisenmann-like taste out of your mouth so hard that your eyes will cross like an homage to Michael Graves.

This may sound like a case of sour grapes, and you might be right.  One of Vincent's associates and I have had discussions about why hospitals aren't any prettier than they usually are and tend to end up on the more normative and prosaic side with regards to their aesthetics.  (Note: I'm embarrassed I just used the words normative and prosaic in this blog.  Fart jokes will ensue shortly.)  And by discussion, I mean he gives me shit for "not making hospitals prettier" and I smile wanly and say, "with a decent budget, I could do a lot more, man," and then he says "don't give me that, look at this project," and shows me the latest archiporn magazine cover with a fancy-schmancy hospital and cancer treatment center in Florida.  Well, yes, that's an amazing hospital, dude: between being a cancer center with backing from a well-known cancer research and treatment nonprofit and a well-known name in hospitals plus some fat donations from rich white people living in frickin' Florida, it's funded like mad.  I do little hospitals for people in towns of 5,000 people in the West and Midwest.  These people don't want avant-garde slices of metal panel--they want strong-looking, comforting buildings that will hold up to baseball-size hail.  And more importantly, the purpose of a hospital is to heal people, not be edgy or, dare I say, "pretty."  So when you're up against a budget, you cut things that affect aesthetic rather than function.  You preserve program and equipment and get rid of finishes and fancy stuff.  That's how it works in healthcare, kiddo.

Maybe I am bitter that my buildings don't look gorgeous and amazing and don't end up on the covers of archiporn magazines.  But I'm no less proud of my efforts on a hospital projects.  If you don't spend a lot of time on your projects, they look like crap and the drawings and specs are incomplete and uncoordinated.  But oddly enough, if you spend too much time on the project, the same thing happens.  You change your mind about what goes where and how things look, and you look at the project so much that mistakes and uncoordinated issues no longer pop out at you.  The amount of time and effort versus quality of product on an architecture project does look something like a bell curve, where there in the middle is a certain amount of efficient work that is also effective.  Management guru Stephen Covey defines efficient as being able to cut down lots of trees in a short amount of time, and effective is cutting down the right trees in the right forest.  Likewise, being effective on a project is prioritizing what to draw and how to draw it, and being efficient is documenting and detailing these things such that it takes the least amount of time and effort overall.  Sometimes, we make a decision that takes more effort up front but saves time later when time is truly money--for example, we'll figure something out and draw it to great detail during the construction documents phase so that it's easy to understand and build during construction administration.  That's ultimately efficient and effective.

Design Associates went to a bonus structure a few years ago that gives the project team--associates all the way down to lowly interns--a piece of the profits when the construction documents are done and then when the building is finished.  The idea behind this, as I understand it, is to connect performance with reward.  Manage your project well, and you'll have a li'l som'n to show for it at the end.  I recall most of the people who were initially opposed to the idea were, you guessed it, folks who worked for Vincent.  They asked in meetings regarding the bonus structure, "A lot of our projects get stopped at the end of design development--what happens to our bonuses?  Do we just never get one?"  And it's a fair question. But those of us in healthcare shared a schadenfreude chuckle amongst ourselves.  Of course Vincent's team is pissed about the new bonus structure--they're here all the time and probably go through fee like Amy Winehouse goes through crack.  And Intern Timmy picked up on this--his desire for a bonus at the end means that he exercised some decision making and prioritizing along the way as well as enough self-discipline to Get. It. Done.  And that's another usefull skill for any professional.


xtine said...

And like you've pointed out in the past: hospitals get used for a very long time.

What's new and pretty in healthcare might now new and pretty in retail and residential, but (I speak from personal experience here) simply new in healthcare is enough to make up for pretty...or even make it pretty.

Ditto, to some degree, for educational space.

Need vs want. I don't care how pretty it is if it doesn't fucking work. That goes for cars and computers, too.

Wilderness Gina said...

Ah yes, but does Vincent's Team have anyone who finishes NOTHING and wanders around in a ceramic flat white mask?