July 18, 2008
The Users Guide: Mentorship
Get with those who have gone before you.

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you ... select a mentor?

Summary: Architecture mentorships can be informally arranged or structured within the practice of a firm. They can be purely practice-based and professional, or they can also deal with interpersonal workplace culture issues.

Among creative professions, the need for a mentor in architecture is unique. The size, complexity, and length of project timelines inherent in the profession means that practice-based guidance is vital in many areas and can be applied in many ways. In a purely personal dedication, some young architects seek out mentors as visionaries, giving themselves over to be molded like clay. Conversely, some larger architecture firms now offer much more structured mentorship programs that group young architects together with more experience practitioners and organize their learning experiences.

Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company in Norfolk, Va., is one such firm. This 87-person firm offers four programs that address mentorship and continuing education for their interns and young architects. All of these programs are designed to work together, and the firm’s COO and CFO Nick Vlattas, AIA, says they address the key workplace value of “nourishment”—“the continued professional growth and motivation of all of our employees.”

The firm’s Academy program presents clinics on specific topics each month. Young architects get design experience abroad with Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company’s International Design Retreat, when they send a group of young architects and two architecture professors from Virginia Tech to places like Egypt, Spain, and Italy. Their Summer Scholars program provides lodging for visiting summer interns. The Virginia Design Medal invites a college professor to work at the firm for three weeks and give lectures for the Academy program. Vlattas says structured programs like this don’t let young architects become too passive about planning their career, and allow firms to build mentorship into their long-term planning initiatives.

Blind mentoring
Grace Kim, AIA, a principal at Schemata Workshop in Seattle, has set up group mentorship programs and mentor-matching programs, but she says forced matching can make for awkward mentorship relationships that aren’t productive. And for small firms like hers (two principals, three interns), very structured programs aren’t practical. “The best mentoring relationships occurs organically, through frequency of contact and similar interests,” she says. “It’s kind of like dating. How many blind dates do you know of that work out?”

Kim (winner of the 2004 Emerging Professionals Mentorship Award and author of The Survival Guide to Architectural Internship and Career Development) has adapted her programs for these kinds of considerations. For the past three years, she has organized Speed Mentoring sessions at the AIA National Convention, an idea that borrows methods from online dating communities. In bursts of five to eight minutes, mentees sit down with potential mentors and then move on to the next one. Kim’s Laddership program brings together five or six interns with an architect mentor who leads them through discussions on a range of career development issues. A one-year commitment is required, and within the groups, no friends or co-workers are allowed, so as to encourage candid and critical discussion. There are currently five Laddership groups, and AIA Seattle is planning to adopt it as a component-wide problem, Kim says. To find an apt mentor outside of these opportunities, Kim suggests a very empirical selection procedure that consists of making a list of potential candidates, ranking their contributions to the profession as they compare to the mentee’s interests, and then contacting the top choices.

Setting the mold
In informal mentoring situations, the burden often falls more on the mentee to seek out a mentor and forge a working relationship, though ideally mentorship is a shared responsibility for the mentor, mentee, and the firm at large. While he was still in high school, Maurice Jennings, AIA, sought out AIA Gold Medal Winner Fay Jones and worked with him for the next 25 years—as an intern, an associate, and eventually a partner. Jennings met Jones when he was a senior in high school and had him as a professor while he was studying at the University of Arkansas. Jones asked him to come to work at his firm after he graduated, and Jennings planned to stay for only one year. Out of respect and loyalty to Jones and the clients’ they’d been working with, Jennings stayed on and never left, adopting the humbly contextual scaling and aesthetic of quiet beauty that Jones’ work exemplified. Today, Jennings has his own four-person firm in Fayetteville, Ark.

Jennings says that once young architects begin working with a mentor, they’re best served by sticking with projects until their completion if at all possible, despite the extremely long shelf life of architectural projects. For him, this is when an architect’s die of design priorities is cast. “I think that it’s very easy to work in a situation for a short time and then move on to something else too quickly,” he says. “The problem that architects have is that if they do not set their goals high enough, I feel that there is a very good opportunity to do something that’s maybe mediocre in design, and then once you start doing mediocre things, that’s what you’re known for and that’s what people start coming to you for.”

Bigger purposes
Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, founder of the 30-person Ross Barney Architects in Chicago, worked for John Holabird, FAIA, of Holabird and Root, from 1972 till 1980. She says Holabird was an excellent professional practice mentor, but she also relied on an architect at SOM named Natalie Dubois for advice on how to navigate the exclusive boys club that was architecture at the time. “Just being able to talk to her and having her council and the openness of our friendship was super for me, because there really wasn’t anybody else like that,” Ross Barney says.

While she was with Holabird and Root, Ross Barney worked on a rehabilitation of the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, as well as a host of smaller, public projects that Holabird referred to as “noble clients.” The most important lesson Ross Barney says she took away from her tenure with Holabird were the ethical responsibilities of an architect.

“He worries about bigger purposes,” she says. “I wanted to be an architect because I thought that you had to do something to the world to leave it better after you were here, and John confirmed for me that I could do that being an architect.”

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recent related

Doer’s Profile: Grace H. Kim, AIA
› Doer’s Profile: Nick Vlattas, AIA
› Universal Faith, Local Design
› Their Vision, Their Words, Our World

Take a look at the Young Architect Forum’s Mentor Guidelines.

Take a look at the AIA’s IDP Mentoring Workbook.

Do you know SOLOSO?
Read Watkins Hamilton Ross Architects’ approach to best-practice mentoring.

See what else SOLOSO has to offer for your practice.

From the AIA Bookstore
The Architects’ Handbook of Professional Practice, published by John Wiley and Sons, 2008.