Ben Kasdan – It Takes A Village [of Mentors]

American Institute of Architects, California Council Academy for Emerging Professionals

March 31, 2015

Mentorship is the backbone of architectural practice. As long as there have been architects, those architects have been teaching younger professionals how to become the next generation of the profession. However, mentorship has found itself in a crisis in contemporary architectural practice as of late. There are still veteran architects who want to teach and emerging professionals who are eager to learn, but those groups have not been connecting over the past decade in the same way that previous generations have.

Despite its altruistic intentions, it seems that the National Council of Architectural Registration Board’s (NCARB) Intern Development Program (IDP) is primarily responsible for over-complicating the mentor-mentee relationship. Undoubtedly well-intentioned, IDP has made mentorship feel regulated and forced, and even worse, the mentors in IDP play a nominal and often redundant role. The IDP supervisor (which is also technically a mentorship relationship) works directly with licensure candidates and approves the hours that they submit to NCARB. While it is recommended by NCARB that the IDP mentor does not work directly with the candidate, IDP mentors are in fact encouraged to work at a different firm than the mentee. The IDP mentor does not necessarily review or approve anything and, as a result, the official “mentor” has become a figurehead and a burdensome relationship to maintain. This is quite a departure from the historical and highly-valued apprenticeship model for mentoring.

What has been lost is the fact that most architects have lots of mentors, not just one, and that the mentorship relationships are typically informal, casual, and intuitive. Emerging professionals, like me, constantly surround ourselves with mentor-types but we may not be recognizing them as such.

Along those lines, I have had lots of mentors throughout my young architectural career. I started working in an architecture firm when I was a senior in high school, and Robert Braun, AIA took me under his wing to show me the possibilities of the profession. Even though I was only a teenager and worked mostly in the print room at the time, he made the effort to instill a sense of hope, pride, and idealism about architecture that I have held onto ever since. While attending California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, (Cal Poly), a few professors (specifically Wil Bennedict, Tom Fowler, Tom DiSanto, and Michael Lucas) went out of their way to mentor me, as well. My IDP supervisor was David Lacey, AIA, who taught me how to solve problems like an architect. My official IDP mentor through that process was Tim Smallwood, AIA, who taught me about architectural design as a process, as well as how to study for the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE). Jana Itzen, AIA taught me about altruism, serving the profession, and about professional practice as a Young Architect. But, my primary mentor is my current boss, David Senden, lead Design Principal for KTGY, a national award-winning architecture and planning firm that I have worked at since I graduated from Cal Poly. David is not a licensed architect, so he is not even eligible to fill one of the official IDP mentorship roles, but he has served as my mentor in more of the conventional architectural mentorship tradition than any of the others I have been fortunate to learn from.

David is a talented designer, a savvy public speaker, a thoughtful writer, and a natural leader. He basically encompasses most of my professional goals, and I constantly try to learn as much as I can from him. He is exactly 10 years older than me and is a role model to me and my fellow designers on in our studio. Since our mentorship relationship has never been formalized via IDP, or any other outside structure, we have simply worked together for a long time and are both invested in each other’s mutual success.

David has always seen the potential in me, even before I saw it in myself in many ways, and the investment of his time and effort in sharing his knowledge with me has been extremely appreciated. There are obviously practical reasons for his spending extra time and effort teaching me (in addition to the other young designers in our studio) since I report to him, but I think the main reason that David has devoted so much attention to mentoring is the fact that he was mentored by others when he was my age. In other words, he adheres to the classic architectural mentorship tradition paying it forward.

I think that is all the profession still needs: a resurgence of retro apprenticeship practices. Architects, as a group, are generally optimists who want to make the world a better place. We almost cannot help ourselves from sharing our knowledge with others. Now we just need to relax the mentor labels and get back to preparing the next generation of architects to lead the profession one relationship at a time, regardless of the official titles and formalities.