Architect as a Project Manager/Owner’s Representative - Architecture Career Guide
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Architect as a Project Manager/Owner’s Representative

This is a guest post contribution from Michael Riscica who blogs at YoungArchitect.com

Three years ago I accepted a position as a project manager for the city of Portland, Oregon. After ten years of working for architects, this is my first job that is not with a traditional architecture firm. I manage construction projects for the city and act as a representative for the Owner.

“…so you’re not an Architect anymore?”

This was something I thought about a lot when I made this move. On the surface it may appear to be true, but my response to myself is…

“…Sure, But now I get to think about projects from the owner’s perspective, which is also a lot of fun.”

With my strong background as an Architect/Designer, project management was a surprise alternative career route that I never would have expected for myself. At first, it felt weird making this kind of a career change, but now after being in the project management world and using my architecture background, it has actually let me feel more like an architect than many of the other traditional big firm architecture jobs I have had. Working as a Project Manager for a large institution has felt very similar to working for an architect, except the decision making is at a different level.

What is Project Management?

Defining the problem

Projects exist to solve problems. Before a problem can be solved it needs to be defined. Often a good amount of work can be done just trying to understand and define the problem before a project is ever born.

Overseeing projects from conception to long after completion.

By definition all projects have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Project Managers see these projects through all phases and typically work on a project for a great deal of time before and after an Architect is involved.

Playing the role as the Owner (aka holding the checkbook)

As the Project Manager, you essentially act as a representative for the owner during the decision making process. In my situation, the real owners are the city workers or the taxpayers who live in it. Playing the role as the Owner comes with a lot of responsibility which can bring on a great deal of stress.

Gathering and overseeing the resources for the project

“How long will it take?” and “What will this cost?” are the two most important questions a project manager needs to be able to always answer. Unlike the architecture firm, often more energy is spent worrying about time and money than the design.

Assembling the right team to do the work

Project Managers find the best people to work on their projects. This could be Architects, Engineers, Contractors, Consultants, companies, services, anyone or anything that contributes to a project.

Making sure the project is moving in the right direction

In my situation, the users (usually city employees) of the project are typically the real client. It is my responsibility to make sure that the communication between the users and the design team (or project team) is clear and appropriate for the project. While working for the city, I often spend a great deal of time resolving challenges within the city to keep the design team and project moving. These could be internal issues like coordinating resources, contracts, budgets, IT, or political agendas.

Identifying risks in advance and proactively managing them

The only thing that is guaranteed when working on a project is that something is going to get messed up along the way. Actively planning for these moments is a big part of being a project management process. This is done by regularly identifying everything that could possibly ever go wrong. Then they use that information and make it a habit to be proactive and make moves to ensure those things don’t happen.

Getting projects completed within multiple constraints

Budgets, schedules, political agendas, building codes, contracts, office politics, laws and rules. Lots of rules.
No matter what your project is, you will be frequently told, “No! You can’t do that.” Learning how to get everyone to support your project and being able to complete it within all the constraints and parameters is the art of project management.

Providing great customer service

As I said earlier, things will go wrong. Personalities are another big factor that need to be managed during a project. In my situation, the users typically have little to no experience with construction and make sure that their voices are heard, they are kept engaged, and are on board is always crucial for the success of the project. The relationships built can frequently be the most rewarding or exhausting aspect of project management.

The Owner, Architect, Builder Relationship a holistic view.

When I studied for the Architect exam, I spent a great deal of time examining the relationship between the Owner, the Architect and the Builder. Each party plays a very distinct role and has their own special interests at stake with how a project is delivered. The more I studied, the more it became very clear to me that if I wanted to truly understand my vocation as an architect, I would benefit if I had some experience working on projects outside of my perspective as an Architect.

Architect as a the Owner’s Representative

A lot of what I have been trained to do as an Architect directly carries over to the day to day of the project management.

One of my strengths as an architect is that I can speak the language and know how to ask the right questions. I love to read and check drawings. Since most of my projects are awarded through a public low bidding process. The experience I’ve had working for Architects, delicately crafting construction drawings and doing construction administration helps me significantly as a project manager.

I shouldn’t admit this but I have almost learned more about the architecture business from hiring architects, than working for them. I have met a lot of really inspiring talented architects and many of them are informing how I will run my future Architecture office.

Design = Decisions

All architecture or construction projects are results of millions of small decisions made by many different people along the way. The longer I work in a project management environment the more I believe that deciding how to get work done is design. Having an influence over who, what, when, where, why and how those decisions are made can be just as much of an impact as problem solving through design sketches or crafting a beautiful set of construction drawings.

My Motivations

When I decided to start traveling down the long journey towards becoming an Architect. The two things that have always been clear and motivated me through all these years are:

  1. I want to help people.
  2. I want to create things.

I can honestly say I truly believe that I am doing each one of those things every day. Sure, I was also doing this in the architecture office but now I feel like it has multiplied. It’s great working on one cool project but now I get to work on 5-8 projects. The difference is I am not the person drawing every single line and doing all the work. This situation is becoming perfect entrepreneurial training.

Learning more about Project Management

Project management is its own profession and industry. You can become a certified project manager from the PMI Institute. The process involves logging hours (similar to IDP), studying your butt off and taking a long and difficult test. What I find really interesting is the certification process looks at managing projects in an abstract way. Regardless of the industry you are in the theories, systems and processes are still applicable.

This project management certification seems to be more popular with the IT Industry rather than the construction industry. I recently completed the Architect Registration Exam, I have also started looking closely at the project management industry and asking what I could learn from project management to make me a better Architect and Project Manager.

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Michael Riscica is a licensed Architect in Portland Oregon and blogs at YoungArchitect.com. He writes about design, the Architect Registration Exam and what it is like coming up as a Young Architect.