the warm glow of guidance

Moonlighting has dark undertones, suggesting forays into unknown territory. But John Connell, AIA, CORA, founder of 2morrow Studio, Warren, Vt., is another architect who tries to make side jobs safer by bringing them into the light of day. Connell, who also founded the Yestermorrow Design/ Build School, says that half of his compensation package is low pay; the other half is his genuine interest in developing his employees as professionals, which includes coaching them on appropriate side jobs.

“Side jobs should be encouraged because they teach young architects so much about what can go wrong,” Connell says. However, he makes it clear that the job may not compromise interns' office performance. “We have plenty of work, so I'm not lusting after their work,” he says, “but if I think they're getting in over their head[s] and will be depending on me for excessive support, I'll recommend they bring it into the office.” The intern gets to be job captain, but clients are asked to meet with Connell initially so they know he's the architect of record.

His open-book approach also helps rookies fend off clients motivated primarily by a lower fee. “I really try to educate the intern as to what that portends,” he says. “They're so desperate to get built and they're thrilled to have someone address them as an architect before their time. But you never want it to turn into a situation where the client needs the intern to be working independently so the fee can be so low.”

Too often, people trying to get a deal are the worst kind of client. Last fall, for example, a builder/ developer asked Connell's intern to take over the design development and construction drawings for five houses. Although there wasn't much design involved, Connell thought it would be a good exercise in doing construction documents. Since the intern wasn't proficient enough to execute the drawings without coaching, he suggested she complete the first house to see how long it would take and then tell the builder how much the next four would cost. When she proposed this to the builder, the deal fell through.

Although Connell sticks his neck out for interns, he recognizes that it's not the way all businesses should operate. “While I can offer support to my small group of interns at any time, if I was running an office of 50 employees and 20 were interns, I wouldn't want to hear about their weekend escapades,” he says. “I wouldn't be able to sleep for fear of liability, [not to mention] worrying about how much they are taking from my office and fusing into their work. If a good percentage of 20 people were moonlighting, you'd have to format a policy, and the next thing you know, you would be responsible for it.”

building a career

Resourceful architects-in-training have found other ways to jump-start their careers. An intern at a commercial firm, who wishes to remain anonymous, works safely under the umbrella of several architects outside the office to get residential experience. For others, design/build companies are the ticket to avoiding the intern trap. After Matt O'Connell graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, he did a two-year stint at Yestermorrow before receiving a master's degree from MIT. Soon he landed a job with a large custom builder who had established a network of architects, and before long, he proposed starting a design division within the firm. That model turned out to be a winner for everyone. It brought in several million dollars' worth of new work, the architects they worked with began sending over jobs they were too busy to handle, and O'Connell got a raise, plus the opportunity to work with vendors. Two years ago, he and his wife formed a startup architecture firm, Anderson and O'Connell.

“There are builders in every town who would love to have a young designer available to them,” O'Connell says. “It's a real untapped opportunity. It's easy for interns to put a product on paper, but they have to realize this is going to be built and has consequences.” He vividly recalls the kitchen design he sketched in a project for his former employer. Six weeks later, he got a call from the field crew asking how to resolve a corner. “When the person who's building your design is a fellow employee, it's a much more open and collaborative process,” O'Connell says. “I learned a lot by having other people build my work very carefully because I was on their team.”

For Jeremy Culver, a recent graduate who is working on Intern Development Program credits, toting around a level and square beats life in a cubicle any day. He works for the Seattle firm McHegg Design + Build, where one of the principals is a licensed architect. He likes the fact that every project involves figuring out design details in the field, whether it's a deck railing, stairway, or entryway. “For the most part, I have it all here, so I'd like to stay as long as possible,” Culver says. “Or I may want to do my own thing when I get licensed.”

Whatever schemes young architects dream up to kick off their careers, it's smart to be safe and ethical. Sooner or later, everyone finds his or her niche—or it finds them. Take Reader and Swartz, for example. They were working for the same firm when the 1990s recession suddenly left them without jobs. “We had a clean break, and we just had to scramble,” Swartz says. Nine months later, karma caught up with them. A nonprofit group they had once helped out, with permission from their employer, was one of the first new clients to come along.