Friday, September 23, 2011

The Summers I'll Never Forget

If you expect to open this post and read about some long lost loves, you're mistaken!

Two summers while I was in college I worked for my Uncle Collin. He married into the family about 20 years ago and is a general contractor in the Cape area. He mostly erects pre-engineered metal buildings, but he also does odd jobs like pavestones and interior renovations. (I'll share another post with some of my construction experience some other time.)

When I was going to school for architecture, a professor of mine encouraged me to get some construction experience.
She said it would be beneficial on my resume and also help in the long run while I was detailing connections on drawings. She was right. The things she didn't tell me were that my construction experience would impede my creativity in design studio, because I'd always be thinking about the practicality of a design and I'd always be asking the question: "would it ever get built?" If the answer was "no", I'd scale down my idea, sometimes at the expense of a better grade. She also didn't tell me that I'd learn lessons that I'd never forget. Lessons that I'd never learn in school and maybe never in an office.

There were two things I learned from Uncle Collin that will be with me for the rest of my life:

The first is something he said to me. "Your work is your signature". If you build a building and it leaks, or falls apart, that building becomes part of your reputation. But if you build a building that stands for 50 years, that building is also part of your reputation. There are some architects, like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava, that have a signature. Gehry does a lot of work with metal panels and most of Calatrava's work looks like a bird or an airplane. Those materials and shapes are their signatures. But those aren't the kind of signatures Collin meant. He meant the ones that make colleagues and clients respect you and come back for future business.

The second thing he taught me he never said to me, but I learned it from watching him. "Trust yourself before you trust someone else." When you're standing on a roof beam 20 feet in the air you have no one to blame but yourself if you fall, and no one to congratulate but yourself if you're able to walk all the roof purlins down the beam into their places.
When I started working for Collin my first summer, I was about 130 pounds and barely any muscle. The first week on the job, he called me over and put a 20 foot metal c-channel on my shoulder and told me to walk it to the other side of the building. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. By the end of the summer, I was picking up small air compressors and carrying them across jobsites without even thinking about it.

Photo courtesy of my Mom, on a day she came to visit her only daughter at lunch and embarrassed the crap out of her by taking photos of her on the scissor lift...
The work I did with Collin wasn't spectacular. It'll never win an award for being the Gehry or Calatrava work of Jackson, Missouri. But every time I go home and see those buildings and projects I worked on, I brag about them, and feel proud that they're still standing and in good shape.

Every project or report or email that leaves the office makes me think "How does my signature look?" Does it make the contractor snicker and say "Oh, she's a dumb blond" or does it increase their respect for me? 

Hopefully, more often than not, it's the latter. This career in architecture is a learning experience. I look back on every month and think about how much I've grown professionally and feel a lot more confident about the architecture license I'll soon (pending the results of this last blasted exam!) hang on my wall.

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