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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

INSPIRE% Firm Culture: Inside View of Ehrlich Architects

An Interview by Susan Kolber (Part 2 of 2)

As EQxD continues to investigate how the profession can foster more equitable, innovative and sustainable practices, the voices of our top firms provide unique input on firm success and how these firms value their staff and work culture. On Monday EQxD shared 2015 AIA National Firm Award recipients Ehrlich Architects’ (EA) principal and staff perspectives on their daily routines and team dynamics. These interviews revealed EA's unique firm culture that seeks to create a family-like team with trust, respect, and collaboration at the forefront. This blog series has interviews by Principal Patricia Rhee (PR) and staff members with varying levels of experience: EJ Fernandez (EF), Will Korchek (WK), Amanda Snelson (AS), and Lyannie Tran (LT). The interviews featured below shed deeper insight into the staff’s development at EA and how they envision the future of architecture.

Can you expand on how you promote a healthy community and support "having fun” in your architecture practice?
(PR) It's a balance--at the end of the day, we are a part of EA because we believe in creating beautiful spaces that best serve our clients and communities. People don't choose to be an architect because it's an easy career path--we recognize the long hours, hard work, patience and endurance it takes to build buildings, particularly when you care deeply about the design. Design doesn't always follow a linear path or fit neatly into a tight schedule. So the reality is that we do inevitably need to work late hours to meet a deadline. So we try to make the working environment as comfortable and efficient for our employees as possible.

What is your average employee tenure? What benefits/incentives do you have to retain talent?
(PR) The principals and associates have all been at EA for 14-20 years. The junior staff ranges from 2-8 years.

Ehrlich Architects' studio located in Culver City, CA photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

Ehrlich Architects' studio located in Culver City, CA
photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your role at Ehrlich?
(EJ) I grew up in Chicago where I spent most of my time studying architecture before moving out to LA to get my masters at the University of Southern California.  While at USC, I was fortunate to have both Steven Ehrlich and Takashi Yanai as  studio professors which eventually lead to my current position here at Ehrlich Architects.  My role as a designer at EA is to provide project solutions through design strategies that function appropriately with the environment and client’s needs in mind.  I collaborate with my team to produce a functional project that promotes architectural honesty and community development.  I also help develop our office drawing standards and setting up our community outreach events.
(WK) I am a designer at the firm, managing projects that range from master plan studies to schematic design for an office building. Smaller roles include managing office IT and coordinating lunch and learns. I graduated with a BA in Architecture from UPenn in 2013.
(LT) I am a designer at the firm working in the residential team.  I have 5 years experience and am going to start my licensing soon.  I am a project manager for two houses which are soon to be under construction.
(AS) I’ve been at EA for 2.5 years, just after moving to the area from the Ozarks in southwest Missouri.

I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to take on considerable responsibility at my job. With limited experience, I’m often learning by doing. This can be challenging, but has provided incredible learning opportunities. The firm places a lot of trust in its employees, who take on a lot of work and are able to gain great experience.
— Will Korchek

Is getting licensed valued in the firm? If so, What are ways you encourage that and reward it? Do you have (have) formal or informal mentorship practices in place?
(PR) Yes, it is valued. As part of our office policy, we pay for study materials, the exams and licensure fees. It is one of the requirements for associateship. We have a long-standing internship program that is open to students or recent graduates that is approximately 6 months long. It's a good way for recent grads to gain exposure to an architecture practice with a wide-ranging portfolio and to pick up valuable skills like learning Revit. Mentorship occurs on an informal basis throughout the office--we are all still learning from each other constantly--at least I am!

Team meeting at Ehrlich Architects  photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

Team meeting at Ehrlich Architects 
photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career? How has Ehrlich helped you grow as an architect?
(EJ) The greatest challenge I have encountered was on my first project that involved finishing a CD set within a short amount of time.  Thankfully our project manager, Whitney Wyatt, and her experience, along with management's help to delegate two more workers on board, we were able to produce the set and get the project finished.  Ehrlich Architects has helped me grow immensely as an architectural designer.  This is also due to the fact that our experienced veterans take the time to teach the young staff rather than just assigning tasks.  I have learned everything I know up to this point in architecture because of the leaders we have here at Ehrlich Architects.
(WK) I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to take on considerable responsibility at my job. With limited experience, I’m often learning by doing. This can be challenging, but has provided incredible learning opportunities. The firm places a lot of trust in its employees, who take on a lot of work and are able to gain great experience.
(AS) Obtaining my architect license – of which EA had helped support through providing study materials, funding a lunch series for those studying, and reimbursing test fees once passed. A salary adjustment is also given once California licensure is obtained.
(LT) The first year is always the hardest, knowing the trade.  Then when you first learn to manage a project.  I still don’t know if that is something that has been overcome yet. [EA] has  given me the opportunity to manage a project and to also connect to other people beyond architecture.

(AS) I have not experienced any hesitations on the job due to my gender – the partners portray a level playing field when it comes to expectations (definitely equal opportunity from my experience). They are also very approachable if there is ever an issue, either with working remotely due to health or family issues, needed time off for family, working with flexible schedules, to keeping an open mind about each of our capabilities.
It’s really refreshing to have multiple female leaders at EA with families to look up to – it is possible (albeit challenging) to be a successful woman architect with kids!
— Amanda Snelson

Do you have work life flexibility policy? If you do not, how do you navigate everyone's life challenges?
(PR) During the summer, we offer employees the ability to take every other Friday as a half day, assuming they make up the hours within the two week time period. As for flexibility to work at home, it's on a case-by case basis. The nature of our medium-sized office is that it benefits most from people coming together, rubbing elbows, talking to each other, observing the goings-on around them. When people have life challenges--we listen and try to work together to find the best solution for everyone.

What inspires you on a daily basis?
(EF) Being able to create architecture, space and community as a living is what inspires me on a daily basis.  From listening to clients’ needs, figuring out spatial strategies and detailing the smallest crevice in order to produce a sound and holistic project is enough motivation.
(AS) The view out my window – either at home, at my desk, or from my car.
(LT) It is hard to constantly be inspired but on a daily basis, seeing other people’s work whether in the office or in the architectural field itself is inspiring.  This is accomplished through discussions in the office, daily newsletters from architectural organizations and books.

What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?
(AS) Obtaining my license is my most important accomplishment professionally, to date, including all the efforts that lead up to licensure: university, internships, learning on the job under an architect, etc.  It’s a long road, and though most outside of the profession do not grasp the difficulty, it is a huge personal accomplishment – not only “jumping through hoops” but a necessary path in this demanding profession. If only we could be compensated to reflect these efforts.
(LT) To date, my greatest accomplishment is learning how to use the work that I do to achieve what I want to do in life.  I am able to pursue other hobbies and travel with my eyes wide open because of what I learn at work daily.

What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?
(AS) Surround yourself with people that inspire you, which you aspire to be like, and that believe in your potential. (This reinforces the great aspects of EA – the people you interact with on a daily basis are everything, and EAers are some of the best I’ve ever met.)
Timing is everything. Perfect is impossible. Don’t worry about things you cannot control. Everything always ends up working out. (These mantras help put things into perspective, when work becomes overwhelming or out of our control.)
(LT) “Have patience, it will benefit you” from my first fortune cookie.  I’ve learned that time is relative and we all seem to be in a hurry to go somewhere, compressing what little time we already have.  However, in time, all will work out.

How do you see Architecture changing in the next 10 years? What would your role be in the future?
(WK) Architects should get out in the community, support public events, host public events, and invite the community in for studio visits. The more people who know an architect, the more people are comfortable with architecture.
(AS) We will be given shorter time to develop design and construct buildings; Higher demand for building performance (energy efficiency, indoor environment, water conservation, etc.); More partnerships in the private sector with Developers, Contractors and Architects with shared risk/reward.
My role will be to respond to the changing industry demands by exploring alternate deliverables, honing project and time management skills, observing projects post-occupancy, and embracing the latest technologies.
(LT) I think there will be more linkages between cutting edge technology and a recycling of styles of the past, whether that be modernism or something else.  As always vernacular will be on the fringes.  I’m not sure what my role is in the future, but I hope that it will be more meaningful to the community.  

Ehrlich Architects photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

Ehrlich Architects
photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett

How does Ehrlich support equity in their firm culture, personal, and work?
(WK) At its very foundation, the firm is built on equity. We all work together; designers sit among partners sit among interns. Partners want to hear what designers are thinking and see how their personal creative background can inform a firm project.
(AS) I have not experienced any hesitations on the job due to my gender – the partners portray a level playing field when it comes to expectations (definitely equal opportunity from my experience). They are also very approachable if there is ever an issue, either with working remotely due to health or family issues, needed time off for family, working with flexible schedules, to keeping an open mind about each of our capabilities.
It’s really refreshing to have multiple female leaders at EA with families to look up to – it is possible (albeit challenging) to be a successful woman architect with kids!

Where do you see Ehrlich in 10 years?
(EF) As we continue to expand our portfolio and go beyond our boundaries I can see Ehrlich Architect growing in number and complex projects.  One thing we are not afraid of is adapting new technology and ideas, applying it to our projects and seeing how we can expand our architecture while sticking to our foundations in design.    
(AS) I would like to see EA challenging the industry’s status-quo by exploring alternate project management, project deliverables, and partnerships with developers and contractors for more productive project team dynamics.