I often get asked, “Why did you leave architecture to become an owner’s representative?” When asked this question at a recent conference, I found myself robotically repeating what is a partial truth, albeit a diplomatic response. It goes something like this:
While I am still technically an architect, I did indeed choose a different path. When I worked as an architect, my responsibility was to manage a team of designers, draftsmen, interior designers, and consultants. At one point, I was managing eight decent-size projects and developed my skills for project management. The truth is I am a much better project manager than a designer.
There were a couple of outside forces working too. First, I was working with an owner’s representative on some of the projects I was managing, and I was attracted to the role. Second, I had obtained my LEED Accreditation and was completing my MBA, which inspired me to look at where I wanted to go with my career. There was a lot more opportunity as an owner’s representative, and the thoughts of being involved from a higher level with a broader responsibility throughout the project life-cycle was intriguing.
But, there is more to the story. I had become disenchanted with the job. I had started my tenure as an architect in 1995, making $8/hour, less than I made hourly doing my paper routes, but I was committed to doing my time. Fast forward to the Dot Com era (2003), and wages had increased, but so did the scope of the role. With BIM becoming more prominent (Revit was still just Revit), the industry seemed to be pivoting to shed more and more scope of the project requirements, master planning, budgets, construction administration, renderings, drafting, etc. I believed that architects were well-trained to manage the entire process on behalf of our clients, and yet the primary focus continued to be on the design. Since that time, the market has shifted back.
Compounding my frustration with the profession was the emerging trend of “starchitecture.” The industry was earning a well-deserved reputation of having projects be over-designed and placing a lower priority on listening to clients’ needs. I experienced this first-hand when a lead designer at the firm that I worked with would consistently redesign my project, even after the client approved a design that met the project goals. I was frustrated and, as the project manager, often stuck in the middle. I needed a change and knew a new chapter in my career lay ahead.
It was a Friday in winter that I recall the moment I realized I had to make a change. My co-workers and I agreed to leave the office a little early and tour one of our recently completed school projects as a team. As we left the parking garage, a line of our cars stacked up; black Mercedes, black Audi, black Infinity, black Lexus, black Mercedes again, and so on. I completed the train of the caravan in my Blue Cherokee Sport wearing a flannel with paint on it. It was then that I realized that I am the one out of place and not the other way around.
With my realization that I didn’t feel a strong connection to the role of designer and my desire to see projects beginning to end, I set on an entrepreneurial path. I was frustrated by the stories about projects going poorly and believed I could drive change one project at a time. Ultimately it was the desire to change the stigma that projects can’t be beautifully designed on time and on budget that pushed met to owner’s representation.
I gave my employer four months’ notice and began establishing the business infrastructure and prepared for the transition. I turned to my mentor, Kevin Gibbs, whom I am forever grateful for, and formed a joint venture managing Wember Inc.s first projects. Although we are not perfect as a company nor an industry, I believe we have left the Dot Com, self-centric days behind us, and are working more collaboratively than I ever.
I commend the architects and contractors that have learned to bring value to the industry and their clients as the determination of a project’s success. I believe that the current pandemic will continue to create projects even more focused on need and efficiency; collaboration continues to be the key to making the next wave of projects a success.
Paul Wember, President