Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to document his journey to design 30 projects by the age of 30 (May 2020). His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

Admit you don't know

Admit you don't know

As I continue working hard at the architecture firm, I’ve found myself with new exciting responsibilities that involve answering lots of questions. My preference is to receive questions via email rather than over the phone because I noticed that many people expect immediate answers. As every architect knows, a majority of questions don’t have immediate answers and require some investigation in order to get the correct answer. Whenever I find myself in a situation where someone expects an immediate answer, I admit that I don’t know and tell them that I’ll find out and get back to them. Here are 5 reasons why I admit I don’t know.

1. Don’t ever give an answer that you don’t fully support

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Have you ever received a question from someone that you kind of think you have an answer to, but aren’t one hundred percent sure? For example, let’s say you’re an architect who is working on a life safety project where you take the existing floor plan of a building and identify existing one hour fire rated smoke barriers, one hour rated walls, and two hour rated walls. You’ve created this life safety floor plan for your client and one day, they call and ask if the corridor walls leading to the egress stairs need to be one hour fire rated walls or one hour fire rated smoke barriers. You think you know the answer, so do you:

a.    Give the client an answer on the spot?

b.    Look into the area in question, review the building codes, and call with a definitive answer after some investigation?

In my opinion, I’d choose option b and do some investigation prior to providing an answer to the client. You see, there are situations where you might think you know the right answer and feel confident enough to give it to your client, friend, or family, but what if it turns out that the answer was wrong? Now, you have to pick up the phone and call the person, apologize for giving them the wrong answer, and try to resolve the situation as best as possible.

When this happens in architecture, there’s generally a lot of money at stake and these kinds of errors can have a big impact on a project. In many cases, errors occur during construction because of immediate verbal direction to resolve problems. Imagine a project manager, construction manager, or contractor picking up the phone and calling the architect with an issue and the architect tries to resolve the issue right then and there every time without reviewing the drawings or specifications. There’s bound to be errors down the road that’ll take time and cost a lot of money.

2. Gain trust from your client, friends, and family

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Whenever I encounter someone who talks to me as if they have all the answers in the world, a part of me is amazed at their intellect and the other part of me is skeptical. Whereas, if I asked someone several questions over a period of time and each time they said, “Honestly, I don’t know the answer, but I can figure it out and get back to you by the end of the day”, I’d develop trust with this person over time. Why?

Every time you admit that you don’t know the answer to something and follow up with a deadline for you to provide an answer, you develop a situation where you’re held accountable by the person who asked the question. Each time you successfully answer the question with either a resolution or honestly explaining that you couldn’t figure it out, you build a little trust with the person who asked. Now, do this several times and they’ll also develop a habit of asking you a question and saying something like, “you don’t need to answer this now”, or “get back to me tomorrow”. In this situation, you have control over the situation and you have the time to research and come up with a response.

3. Happiness follows honesty

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

One of the things I’ve discovered about being honest and admitting that I don’t know something is that I always have a sense of happiness. By being upfront and not giving a possible wrong answer to someone, you avoid the negative psychological effect that it has on you throughout the day, weeks, months, years, and even decades! You also avoid the liability that comes with giving the wrong answer.

Think about it. Let’s say that you worked on an architecture project and a question came up over the phone between a contractor and you about the American Disability Act requirements for the height of handrails throughout a skyscraper you designed in New York City. The contractor asks you if he could furnish and install all handrails without a 1 foot extension at the ends and you tell him that it would be okay.

During handrail installations, you go out on site and see all the handrails in place with the final ones about to be installed. All of a sudden, you realize that there isn’t an extension at the end of the handrails to accommodate people who need it during an emergency! You also know that there are hundreds of these handrails throughout the building because of all the egress stairwells.

How does that make you feel?

You see, taking the appropriate amount of time that you need to make a decision that you’re sure about will lead to great outcomes.

4. Personal growth

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Every time I don’t have an answer to a problem and I investigate it until I find a solution, I gain knowledge in multiple areas. First, I learn where to look for answers to that particular problem. For example, it might be a question about a product that we’re using on a project and whether or not a contractor’s proposed substitution would work. By finding an answer to this question, I’ll also discover a new manufacturer’s product that could work on future projects.

Second, I practice my research skills in the question’s specific area. It could be code related where I’ll have to go into the international building codes (IBC) and find the answers by going from chapter to chapter. Or it could be a question about a specific detail in our construction documents that teaches me new or efficient ways of detailing a similar condition.

Third and lastly, I get to know the people who I turn to while researching answers to the question. It could be a peer in my office who has worked on a similar building type or detail in the past. Or it could be a consultant whose work is closely tied to the area in question. At the end of the day, I’ll meet new people or strengthen my relationship with people who help me along the way.

5. Sleep well at night

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

Photograph by Ryan McGuire

In relation to the point about happiness from being honest, the most important thing to me at the end of every day is that I could go home, not worry about the issues that had to be resolved, spend my time in a productive and happy way, and go to sleep every night. Oftentimes, when we answer project related questions without the proper research, a part of our brains light up and we feel a small sense of doubt.

This sense of doubt slowly grows, and grows, and grows, until you start to feel it at the bottom of your belly. Slowly, it works its way up and you start feeling it in your chest, squeezing at your heart. Your palms eventually start to sweat, your brain starts to run at speeds you never thought was possible, and you lose focus on all tasks around you. All you could think about is that you could’ve and might’ve been wrong with your answer.

Avoiding doubt and uncertainty in your answers is the key to building fantastic relationships and sleeping well at night.

Conclusion

One of the biggest things I’ve learned from admitting that I don’t know, but I’ll provide an answer by a certain time is that almost everything in life can wait. In other words, nothing in life needs to happen right away. Far too often, we find ourselves in trouble because we rushed to a conclusion or an answer and didn’t give ourselves enough time to figure it all out.

Don’t ever rush yourself and don’t let someone else rush you either. Pause. Take some time to think, investigate, research possible solutions, and come to a conclusion with one or several answers to the problem.

When the night comes, have a relaxing time and fall asleep without worry!

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