July 16, 2006
Vision turned into reality starts design
Seattle Times business reporter
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
In an age when almost every label on every product seems to proclaim, "Made in China," it would be an entirely different story if buildings had labels.
Architecture is a field in which the Chinese outsource to Americans.
"In general, a lot of the design work is done by U.S.-based architects," said Matthew Fochs, vice president of the American Institute of Architecture Students.
Mulvanny G2, a fast-growing Bellevue-based architecture firm with offices in Portland; Washington, D.C.; Irvine, Calif.; and Shanghai, illustrates this trend.
"Shanghai outsources their design to this office," said Warren Pollack, a 61-year old architect who works for the company.
The firm also does work in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Pollack said the company is trying to make the exchange of talent go both ways by strategically hiring from outside the United States.
Barbara Granados, a 30-year old architect-in-training from Chihuahua, Mexico, has been working for Mulvanny G2 for almost two years. She focuses on the construction aspect of architecture and has helped build Costco warehouses in Mexico.
She said most of her co-workers in the Bellevue office converse in Spanish. "I miss Mexico, but I don't feel that far away from it," Granados said.
Business is booming for the company as well as for architecture firms in general.
Mulvanny G2 has hired more than 90 new people so far this year, according to company spokeswoman Valarie Kusuda-Smick. And they're continuing to hire.
Overall, demand for architects across the nation is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations in the coming years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most architects earn $47,000 to nearly $100,000 a year, with a median salary of $60,300, according to the bureau. Nearly 25 percent of all architects are self-employed.
An architecture degree usually takes five years. Then one must complete a training program that can take up to three years, followed by a grueling nine-part license exam.
"It's a zinger," said Pollack. "You don't just fall into [architecture], but it's well worth the effort."
Pollack said architecture seemed like the perfect fit for him, considering his parents' backgrounds. "My mom was an art teacher and my dad was a realtor," he said. "This is an art that has to become reality."
A lot has changed since Pollack joined the field. Computer-aided design, or CAD, has opened up architecture to those who aren't artistically inclined.
"I'm not great at drawing," Granados said.
Another advance is the use of building-information modeling (BIM) software, said Fochs. It allows architects to build 3-D models, choose building materials and calculate costs, attaching more information to 3-D models than ever before.
But drawing remains important when it comes to preliminary plans for buildings. Granados said site plans are always hand-drawn.
Architecture is a fast-paced field that values problem-solving skills and the ability to coordinate the people involved in a project. With deadlines and sometimes frustrated clients, being able to stay calm is important.
"You have to be able to be the central point and be able to calm the nerves of your client," Granados said. "It requires people skills and a lot of serenity."
Mulvanny G2's self-designed office tries to provide that sense of serenity.
It has big windows that let in plenty of sunlight. Three-dimensional models of projects, billboards that show future skyscrapers and giant maps with site locations stand out against red, yellow and pale-green walls.
Winding wooden steps lead down to a "Town square," where employees gather for group breakfast every Friday morning.
It isn't uncommon for architects to design their own houses. But they sometimes run into the same problems they have with their own clients: budgeting issues.
Architects must often help clients reconcile differences between what they want and what they can afford.
Pollack himself ran out of money when he designed his own house 20 years ago.
"I had to compromise things," he said. "Most architects' houses are always under construction."
While the buildings that architects design may turn people's heads, architects themselves don't garner much recognition from the populace.
But Pollack is fine with working behind the scenes.
"At the end of the day, I realize I'm actually getting to build the city we live in," he said. "It feels like a privilege to be involved, even though we're invisible to the population."
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