Perspectives from the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Industry

Perspectives from the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Industry

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Linda Mastaglio
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Linda Mastaglio

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Ego: The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected

Ego is a complex concept and is open to interpretation and personal perception. An action which might seem egocentric to one person might seem totally selfless to another. Since perception often is reality, I asked a variety of local folks what their experiences were like when dealing with egos in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Some of their responses may surprise you. Here are their candid thoughts:

The Invisible Competitor

From an anonymous AEC firm president in Dallas

I remember times in the early 1980s when leaders of competitor firms wouldn’t shake hands or acknowledge each others’ presence. They could stand within three feet of each other and not even say hello. Thankfully, attitudes and egos have changed.

The Cooperation Conundrum

From Mark Doty, Chief Planner and Historic Preservation Officer, City of Dallas

Working over the past 10 years with various architects, contractors, and owners on city-related historic preservation projects has certainly given me a unique perspective on ego, both positive and negative. The entire tone of a project—and how smoothly it can navigate through the Certificate of Appropriateness process and other applicable city processes—more often than not depends on the willingness of all involved parties to understand the constraints when it comes to both historic regulations and timelines. In addition, demonstrating flexibility to adapt when things don’t occur exactly as originally envisioned is also incredibly helpful. From a personal experience, I’ve dealt with the entire spectrum of personalities and it is certainly gratifying to see a successful project come to fruition when the entire team is willing to work toward the common goal; and to be 100% honest, it is sometimes equally as gratifying to see a project stall over time due to the arrogance and hubris of certain individuals who have no desire to work within the reasonable parameters initially given.

Ego and Humility—Equal Parts of a Learning Process

From Kevin Sloan, Hon. AIA Dallas, ASLA, Founding Principal, Kevin Sloan Studio

During my first semester in graduate school, Werner Seligmann—one of the legendary "Texas Rangers" who established the definitive curriculum to educate modern architects—made an uninvited appearance at my first pin-up. By luck, it was my turn to present and Werner, who was known for his blunt and blistering criticism, glanced at my work and looked away.

"Dean Seligmann, Mr. Sloan comes to us from a background in landscape architecture," said my studio professor—which I presume was meant to save me from some kind of forthcoming punishment.  

 And since he mentioned it, YES, I indeed had a "background in landscape architecture." For seven years prior to graduate school, I had worked for Donald Ray Carter and Satoru Nishita, former partners of Lawrence Halprin and the designers of such iconic spaces as the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, Levi Strauss Park in San Francisco, and Heritage Park Plaza in Fort Worth. Larry's partners had faith in young talent and within a couple of years I was promoted to lead designer for the transit plaza in front of the Alamo, which I completed and built before I was 28. So yes, I was a landscape architect, and I was pretty proud of it. Some might suggest I was a little cocky, too. 

When I finished the brief for my project, instead of offering any suggestions, Seligmann took out his fountain pen and said, "Mr. Landscape Architect, draw me a diagram of Versailles." I was stunned and frozen. Taking the beautiful Swiss pen from his hand, as 60-some other students looked on, I drew a pitiful graphic of something that looked more like a kite than a French garden, and handed the pen back to him.

In a somewhat loud and deliberate voice, he said, "How can you call yourself a landscape architect if you don't know the diagram of the most influential garden in Western civilization?"

From that moment until now, I have amassed around 10,000 pages of notational drawings, made while traveling to seminal places and spaces around the world. Out of what some might have seen as a rude and humiliating moment, which it indeed was (because he was right), came one of the greatest life and architectural lessons I ever received. 

Thank you, Werner.

When C Is Good Enough

From Steve Lucy, P.E., Hon. TxA, Hon. AIA Dallas, and CEO and Partner with JQ

I learned a good lesson about ego long ago. I was doing a project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the representative for the University of Texas told me he liked me because I knew a C was a passing grade. At first, that seemed like an odd thing to say, but then I realized that he was showing me the importance of seeing things from a team point of view. He was underscoring the reality that everyone makes mistakes and that one person shouldn’t make decisions that give another an A grade while causing everyone else to get a D or F. If one strives to succeed at the expense of others, the project, as a whole, will suffer.

Ego Can Make Today’s Employer into Tomorrow’s Competitor

From an anonymous member of the Columns Advisory Board

Ego is evident when you trace the history of many Dallas and North Texas AEC firms. Many were spawned from other firms for one primary reason—an ego (or multiple egos) at the top of the company didn’t give up-and-coming leaders the room to grow. When talented people don’t see opportunities and feel smothered by environments where recognition and advancement are stifled, they move on—and may even become major competitors. Too much ego can definitely be destructive.

The Collision of Egos

From Shade O'Quinn, AIA, 2012 AIA Dallas President and President/CEO at RHA Architects

The biggest ego I deal with is my own! I remember when I was an intern in 1987 and my boss—the owner of a large, successful architecture firm—asked me to decorate the company Christmas tree … a great honor in my office. After I finished, I proudly presented my wonderful work only to receive mild approval with a few suggestions. Once I completed the “re-design,” that was obviously superior to the wonderful original design, I presented it to my boss and again received mild approval and more suggestions. In my impetuous pride, I handed the box of decorations to my boss and said; “If you think you’re so good, you do it!” (I can’t believe I was so prideful … and I can’t believe I kept my job). My boss calmly took down my decorations and did it his way … which looked amazing … way better than either of my “wonderful” designs. I was obviously humbled and learned not to think so highly of my opinions. I also learned there is a reason my boss was a successful architect. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn that lesson more than a few times in my life whether it’s been with my business partners, contractors, or clients.

Our profession demands a certain level of self-confidence and swagger to be the design leaders we’re hired to be. Trusted by our clients, we have a responsibility not only to conceive the design, but to insure its completion. Sometimes our responsibility demands that we fight against the forces involved to achieve the outcome that we’re held accountable to. However, we’re not the only ones with talents and responsibility. Contractors and other allied professionals all have a role to play and each believes he or she has a talent and a responsibility to accomplish a goal. Our egos are, therefore, fueled by more than opinion; they are fueled by a sense of responsibility.

There is a fine line between healthy self-confidence and egotistical, arrogant pride. We believe we have the gift of design and project leadership. To complicate matters, public opinion plays to our arrogance, puffing us up and confounding the truth. The story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” plays out too often in our profession. Swayed by popularity and opinion … and by what’s on the latest magazine cover, we promote designs at the expense of logic and our client’s needs. In response to this self-conceived arrogance, contractors and allied professionals consider architects to be out of touch and unfamiliar with the weightier, more realistic aspects of a project. … And that’s where they fall prey to their own arrogance. It’s difficult for us to understand each other’s role unless we place ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Whether we are the architect, client, or contractor, we have to appreciate each other’s gifts and responsibilities. The more we do to understand each other the better work we’ll produce and the more we’ll enjoy the process. And those who seem to have large, overweening egos, we need to work to understand them as well. After all, we may be them!

Does Columns Have Too Much Ego?

From an anonymous member of AIA Dallas

Columns magazine, like other publications in the architectural profession, expresses ego through the things it excludes. I find it interesting that architecture magazines are the only AEC industry publications that routinely only give credit to architects and not the teams. From an ego standpoint, this sends the message that “we’re better, we’re more important than the rest of the team.” This type of thinking creates a hierarchy perception; yet the problem is not just with publications. I know of several large architecture and/or engineering firms that don’t list other consultants in their award submissions, even though the application allows space to list the entire team. None of us do what we do by ourselves. If you want to be a leader, don’t just talk about yourself. Ego is a superpower to be used for evil and for good. It’s good to be focused and confident, but we shouldn’t step on others or ignore their contributions in the process.

Egos and the World-Class Architects

From Bill Scott, Executive Vice President, Linbeck Group LLC

Linbeck has built many signature projects and so we’ve worked with many world-class architects and artists: David Schwarz, AIA; I.M. Pei, FAIA; James Turrell; Philip Johnson, FAIA; and Ricardo Legorreta, Hon. FAIA, to name a few. Some of them have reputations for being ego-driven. Interestingly, that has not been our experience. While there are some team members who occasionally prove arrogant or dismissive, it’s usually not the visionaries themselves.

Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA is a good example. When we worked with him on the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, he didn’t believe Americans could reproduce the quality of architectural concrete that he could expect from Japanese craftsmen. So, we went to Japan to learn from them, and when we came back we produced mock-ups based on what we learned. In the end, we exceeded Mr. Ando’s expectations for the concrete. He was very respectful and he honored our craftsmen, even writing a personal note to our lead concrete superintendent expressing his appreciation.

Another example would be working with Moshe Safdie, FAIA on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. Mr. Safdie had a design concept utilizing 4-inch structural steel cables to support the glue laminated wood trusses for the copper roof and the glass walls. This created a condition that no one had ever built before. He asked us, as the builders, to help him understand how to detail that work to make it buildable. He had a vision of how the different materials should look in final form, but he wanted our input on how to assemble these materials and what methodology we would utilize. The final results are spectacular in design and have been performing well. 

What we have found with highly regarded architects is that they know their work is very visible to the public and open to more scrutiny than most projects. They know their careers and reputations rest on their work, so they take it very personally. It’s really a different kind of interaction; they express respect for the craftsmen’s skill and building knowledge and want to create a building the best it can be. When you understand them from that perspective, it sets a different standard and you are able to work together to achieve something amazing. When we respect what they’re trying to achieve and they respect our skill and knowledge, together we create great buildings. And let’s face it, in our day-to-day work, egos invade the environment all the time. Architects and builders all bring egos to the table; but we can’t forget our primary purpose and that is to focus on the client’s needs. When architects or builders stray from that objective, things can get confusing. That’s when clients get upset.

When working with high-profile architects, we have to demonstrate the skill as a builder to work with the best-of-the-best kind of architects to create remarkable visions. When expectations are that high, egos need to take a backseat and everyone must focus on working together.

When Architectural Ego Fueled the Best Job Ever

From an anonymous engineer

I worked on the Federal Reserve Bank Building from 1990 to 1993. There were a lot of firms working on it and there were many opportunities to learn. For one thing, it was the bank’s first fast-track project. For another, it took place during the early adoption of CADD, so much of the work was hand-drawn while other parts were produced in CADD. The design architect insisted that all of their drawings be hand-inked on Mylar before they were released. As a result, we were constructing the fifth floor before they released the construction documents for the façade. We were all guessing on embeds and many other details. It was a great building to work on, but it struck me that hundreds were trying to work this fast-track project (some working seven days a week), yet we were hampered by waiting for someone to ink a drawing. The contractor issued about 2,000 Requests for Information (RFIs) and we were conducting weekly full-team meetings for the first several months, many of them lasting six hours. It was an extremely difficult time and a huge effort, but it was the best job I ever worked on because of the interconnection between the design team and the contractor. The challenges with the architect proved beneficial in the end because it forced everyone else to be more cooperative. We ultimately all wanted the same goal, so the challenges created a cohesive group, all dedicated to solving the myriad of problems we mutually faced. We became a very aligned design and construction team that worked together, sympathized with each other, and stood committed to the client goals.


Linda Mastaglio is managing editor of Columns and owner of TWI-PR.