The Village

One architect's look at mentorship.

By Sean Sheffler, AIA, LEED AP BD+C Posted on January 29, 2013

ShefflerswingsAs the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, something I’ve become all too aware of in the past eighteen months.

My wife and I welcomed a son in 2011; it’s been a life-changing experience, in ways that we never expected. We knew, going in, that parenting was going to be a huge responsibility. Turns out, we were wrong — parenting is an enormous responsibility, and I don’t just mean sleepless nights and dirty diapers. We’re in the process of creating a person; in doing so, we  have charged ourselves with teaching  our son  right from wrong, good from bad… in other words, making sure that he becomes a decent human being. It didn’t take us long to realize that, while we have been his primary care-givers, much of what our little guy has learned has been  influenced by other people in our lives — his grandparents, his aunt and uncle, his cousin. A little further down the road, there will be many others — teachers, coaches, friends, and classmates – that will enter his life and share their knowledge. We may be new to this parenting thing, but we are already aware that we can only teach him so much; the idea that he has so many other people looking out for him and influencing him by their example makes me feel that much more confident that he really will turn out okay… and become a much better person in the process.

The development of a young architect is not that much different, really. An intern just entering the profession has a great deal to learn, and the responsibility falls on the rest of us to show them the ropes. This profession of ours takes on a great many different forms, and we’re asked to wear a variety of hats throughout the course of a week, or in some cases, even in the same day. Passing along even a small part of that experience to a younger architect helps to broaden their perception of what architecture is really all about.

Mentorship is one of the “hidden” benefits of IDP… A mentor is an optional part of the program, but one that can have a profound impact on one’s professional development (through an unbiased third-party perspective, as well as how quickly one can complete IDP, through Supplemental Experience — a mentor can provide oversight on design competitions or take an intern on  a tour of a construction project, both of which qualify for IDP credit). A mentor can be a constant companion throughout one’s career, or someone who helps out on one particular day; as such, an intern can — and should — have many mentors throughout the course of their burgeoning career. NCARB has formalized (and increased) the mentor’s role in an intern’s development by developing a series of guidelines to follow (which you can read about here), but mentorship doesn’t have to follow such a strict system of rules. Anytime that anyone offers a little bit of advice, from the technical (“don’t use that type of brick tie…”) to the mundane (“hey – don’t drink that… there’s better coffee in the second floor kitchen”), mentoring is taking place… and both sides are a little stronger for it. I say this from my own personal experience — some critical parts of my development came not from my daily supervisor, but from the guy(s) who occasionally looked over my shoulder and offered some friendly advice.

Here’s the catch: that advice has to be offered. Our profession was founded on the principle of mentorship, the nurturing of future practitioners through a “master-apprentice” relationship, working under the wing of an experienced professional, nearly one-on-one with that individual, in developing their mastery of the craft. That was then, this is now. I won’t bore you with the same old details (building projects are more complex, budgets are tighter, clients are savvier, staff sizes are smaller, yada  yada  yada…). Suffice it to say, the profession has changed immensely, and along the way, has seemingly turned itself inward; that type of dedicated mentoring has been lost. We’re a long way from the master-apprentice relationships that used to define architectural practice and guaranteed that our collective knowledge is being passed down to the next generation of practitioners.

I can already hear some of you grumbling, and believe me when I say that I agree with you — mentoring is a two-way street, and the mentee has to bring something to the table as well. A mentor is supposed to be an adviser, or at best a coach, not necessarily spoon-feeding knowledge to someone who isn’t interested in receiving it. But I believe that we owe it to ourselves to at least try. The profession depends upon this type of “pay it forward” attitude to survive. We all live in this village together, and it’s up to us to make sure that it’s taken care of by future generations.

To learn about mentoring prospective architects at the high school level, read about the ACE Mentor Program.

Sean Sheffler, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, served as the 2011 Chair of AIA-Pittsburgh's Young Architects Forum, and is the IDP State Coordinator for Pennsylvania. This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Pennsylvania Architect, the digital magazine of AIA-Pennsylvania. He is a Project Manager with WTW Architects. Read his previous contribution to Columns here.

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