by Tara Imani | AIA, NCIDQ, CSI
17 women, out of 84 students, graduated from the School of Architecture at The Ohio State University in 1987. I was one of them. I had commuted from the far east side of Columbus, where I lived at home with my working mom. I had accrued over $250 in parking fines, hulking large art projects and models on the elongated, wobbly, fast-moving campus buses. What I savored most, though, were the long, quiet walks from the design studio to my car at 3:00 am in the morning, resolving parti diagrams and concepts in my mind while wishfully thinking I could make the 30 minute drive home, sleep, shower and dress and be back by 8:00 am.
IDP Internships- "Let the Games Begin”
You don't jump from academia to working in a reputable firm without some real world experience under your belt. This was a contentious topic among some of us in senior studios. I recall becoming discouraged by one girl who said people get hired based on their good looks. I was like, what?!! You mean all this hard work is for naught?
Fortunately, I found work. I didn't care what kind of work they did, I simply wanted to secure a position with a firm ASAP. We did high school renovations and roof replacements on parks and recs buildings.
After working for two good firms in Columbus, Ohio, my husband (a Chemist at the time) and I decided to move to Orange County, California. I snagged a job while vacationing out there and visiting our close friends who'd moved there a year prior. That job ended up not being a good fit for me culturally so I began looking for work during my lunch break. I finally found a position as a project manager for a firm in Santa Ana that specialized in designing custom theme restaurants. Unfortunately, that business hit a rough spot and I was without a job. I was very scared. There we were, out in Orange County living in a newly purchased home in Rancho Santa Margarita. We were attending Rick Warren's church at Saddleback and his positive sermons encouraged me. I prayed and asked God to bless my efforts to find a job that week. So, on Monday, I opened the Yellow Pages and I began systematically calling all firms starting at the beginning of the alphabet. I landed an interview with a firm in Laguna Beach, IB Christian Abel Architects, and was offered a job as a draftsperson the following Thursday. I was elated.
While there, I began to study for the A.R.E. exam. In June of 1992, after studying for only 4 sections, I sat for the entire 9 exams in San Diego. I passed the 4 exams that I'd studied for. On the 12-hour hand-drawn Design Exam, I left 4 hours into it, at noon, after reading what seemed like an endless program of spaces and design criteria. I had only managed to draw two exterior walls. I had no strategy and was lost and exhausted. I walked out feeling down but not defeated.
A Bold Move to Houston in October 1992
My husband's relative is an RN and she pitched a deal that drew us to Houston to start a home health and infusion therapy company. The plan was that I would help them out for a few months with the start-up and then get back into architecture. I even went on an interview with a local home-building company but didn't get the job. Everyone was using AutoCAD and I had no experience with it. So, I chose to work at Infinity Care, Inc in several capacities, on many executive levels, serving on the Board of Directors, and forming the foundation for the billing department and setting up and running the Human Resources department. As a co-founder and part-owner, I was willing to do anything and everything to keep the business going. I really enjoyed it. Thus, I was "an intern-architect doing other things."
However, I felt badly about about having left the field of architecture. But one day, while reading to my husband's nieces, I read about Thomas Jefferson and all that he had done. I realized that it's O.K. to have more than one major interest in life. So, in February, 1995, with the blessing of the CEO/President and Board of Directors, I took a leave of absence from the home health care company and embarked on an ambitious study plan with the goal of knocking out the 5 remaining exams. I passed all but one, the monstrous 12-hour Design exam (even though I participated in the TAMU - Texas A&M University - architecture ARE workshop where they did a full 12-hour mock exam, simulating the true experience. it seemed I still needed more experience to pass that portion of the exam).
Finding My Compass Again & Starting a Family
After selling the Medicare portion of the company in October1997, I was floundering. I stayed on with the new ownership to assist with the transition, but I was not happy. In February 1998, I resigned my position to stay at home. It was delightful respite to be at home in a quiet suburban setting and just do nothing except to sit in the sun on the back patio and read a book or lay on the couch and listen to music. I cooked some Persian foods for dinner and I explored some independent study courses in the local community college. But I was growing antsy. I wanted to go back into architecture, but wasn't sure what type of firm I wanted to work for.
I was offered two jobs and had a choice to make: 1) To work for a sole proprietor in the Rice University area where I'd be expected on the residential job site at 6:00 a.m. but would get the opportunity to help build the infrastructure of his fledgling firm (writing policies and procedures, etc.) or 2) to work for a medium size firm that primarily did food stores. I would be handling their new gas station projects. After discussing with my husband, he recommended I go with the bigger firm for stability. So, I started there in May 1998 as a project coordinator and then went into the fixture-planning (space plan design) division so I could learn AutoCAD. Frankly, working with AutoCAD was a very alienating experience for me. I felt like a complete fish out of water. In June, 1999, I grew very disenchanted with my role in the firm. I didn't know in what direction I was headed and I felt completely dissatisfied. I was 36 and wanted to start a family, so I put in my two-week notice. In August, 1999, God blessed us and I became pregnant with our first and only child, Aryana. It was a miracle! I was overjoyed.
Hard Transitions: From Career Girl to Archimom
After I gave birth to Aryana in April, 2000, I had no notions to return to work anytime soon. There was a lot of tension among family members who thought I should get back to work. I, on the other hand, really wanted to linger in my “Blue Lagoon” lifestyle, playing with building blocks and painting pottery with my daughter. The other part of me wanted very much to run my own firm or to establish a small studio from home. I was torn.
When my daughter was about 8 months old, I was growing antsy again and held a pow-wow with my husband, laying out my ten-point plan to reach certain goals.
At the top of my list was finishing the one remaining licensing exam (by this time, the 12-hour exam had become two 4-hour computer-graphic exams). With this new change, I felt there was light at the end of the tunnel as, I reasoned, time management would be much less of an issue.
Self-Discipline At Home
Playtime was over for me! It was time to buckle down and get serious. We had hired a nanny to care for our daughter so I could get some stuff done around the house and prepare for the two exams (Building Design and Building Technology). This is where life balance becomes front and center stage in your life. You must decide what do you want to accomplish? Do you want it badly enough?
I would spend one hour meditating, getting my mind in a positive mental state prior to studying. This was the key to my success. Without this positive mental preparation, there would have been no way I could pass those exams. And I would often study at a nearby library for more focused attention.
And so it was. On October, 2001, I successfully passed my remaining exams and became a Registered Architect.
Working From My Home Office
Once licensed, I had business cards made and let family and friends know that I was looking for work. I was nudged by one of our close friends, a Mechanical Engineer in the Oil & Gas Industry, to start working on small projects. He asked me to design his wife’s Skin Care Clinic and from there, more small projects began rolling in and I was able to handle them on the boards, using my trusty hand-drafting techniques. No AutoCAD necessary. I did small residential renovations and space planning and design for lease space build-outs. I was very satisfied with the low project pace that enabled me to fully participate in my daughter's school and extracurricular activities.
In 2008, I returned to work at the same firm where I'd managed the fueling station projects. It was a great opportunity and I learned a lot about "modern day" computing which had changed considerably since 1999. It was, once again, a different world. But this time, I did not feel like a fish out of water. I felt right at home, although I would have liked to have known AutoCAD (such a thorn in my side, it would seem!).
Then, suddenly, the Great Recession hit and the firm laid off up to 40% of their staff, including me. I did not transition well to becoming unemployed. Part of me was hurt and upset, the other part of me knew that I was poised for something even better. Finding out what that was became my focus.
The Onslaught of Social Media
I found the AIA KnowledgeNet site and was thrilled to see other architects sharing their ideas on how to improve the profession and other pertinent discussions. This led to joining Twitter to participate in a #TweetChat led by @aiaNational. I have used LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and now my own blog to get the word out about our profession and what we can do to improve it.
Sharpening Skills, Not Adding Acronyms
In 2011 or so, I received a letter from TBAE letting me know I was eligible to sit for the Interior Design Exam. Some of my peers thought it was superfluous to do so, that being an Architect superseded becoming an Interior Designer. Yet, I decided that I wanted to earn the well-respected and coveted NCIDQ certificate and taking the exam was the only way to do so. Yes, it was an involved process, but I’m glad I did it. I sat for the first exam in March 2012 and became licensed in December 2013. It was a good “refresher course.” Next up: attaining CDT from CSI and possibly LEED AP… we’ll see.
My daughter is now a Freshman in High School and this requires a new kind of parental focus. And with the economy improving, I have had two of my busiest years in 2013-2014. My firm designed and managed the concept, layout, and interior design for a Barbershop and Salon lease space build-out for a prominent sports figure and value-engineered an interiors project for the common areas of a new student housing project currently under construction in San Marcos, TX. I look forward to breaking into the healthcare arena, specifically doing the interiors for a series of assisted living centers.
About Tara Imani @Parthenon1