The Real Life of an Architect: MSA’s Curtis Miller on the Job’s Harsh Truths

by Kylee Swenson
- Sep 30 2015 - 6 min read
Curtis Miller
Images courtesy MEI Architects (left) and Curtis Miller (right).

The life of an architect: It’s all glamour, wealth, and fame, right? When an architect is not demonstrating what a true visionary he is with critically acclaimed, high-profile projects, he’s jet-setting to the beaches of Bora Bora, driving million-dollar Aston Martins, and attending extravagant parties in Dubai.

Okay, now back to Earth.

Meet Curtis Miller, senior project manager and project architect from MSA in San Francisco. He knows a few things about the misconceptions of his field.

In his 27 years in the business working at nine firms (including Gensler), Miller has experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. He’s juggled projects in various stages—from concept to construction—focusing most recently on health care, retail, and workplace buildings.

But while he finds his job fulfilling, he doesn’t sugarcoat his day-to-day routine. (Even “starchitects” caution that the life of an architect is not all adulation and affluence.)

Here, Miller talks about working through tough collaborations, getting crucial post-school training, and selling yourself to achieve what you want.

What project have you worked on that was particularly meaningful?
We did an aquatic-therapy project down at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) that was challenging. We had to meet the needs of the VA administrators and facilities people bringing in projects, the vets who come in for the services, and the doctors providing the therapy. Not always do those things align, and the vets and the therapists have no concern about how much money it costs. So you often favor one side or the other in order to get the best project result, and then the administrator gets mad because you’re trying to push their budget too hard.

life of an architect curtis miller ksa
Curtis Miller (left) working with his team while at K2A on the City College of San Francisco Wellness project. Courtesy Curtis Miller.

Also, we didn’t always have the ability to talk directly to the veterans and doctors; our directive came from the facilities people who tell us what their clients can or can’t have. And sometimes they’re unwilling to tell their own client that. That’s my biggest dread. How do I tell these people they’re not going to get what they want when I’m not allowed to tell them directly?

How did you reconcile issues to present something satisfying to everyone?
You feel like a politician trying to compromise, build consensus, and get to a place where everyone is happy enough. And then you have to deal with things like building and planning codes, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the person who wields the power and the pocketbook.

I don’t know that any architect will ever be able to tell you they were 100 percent happy with what they ended up with. We probably get in trouble many times because design and creativity are personal things. It’s easier for a project manager to make some colder decisions than when you’re a project architect married to your design. When you have to be both, you become a very conflicted person.

What’s a good tip for managing people and clients?
Go get project-management training. If you’re lucky, you can convince your firm to pay for it. I did. I don’t know of any school of architecture that teaches about project management or the business of running a business, which is amazing given the fact that the majority of firms in the United States are individual practitioners. That means many architects are doing something they were never ever trained to do.

VA aquatic center MEI Architects
VA Palo Alto Wellness Center Aquatic Therapy. Courtesy MEI Architects.

What’s the biggest misconception about architects?
So much of what we do is coordinating with a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, structural engineer, civil engineer, landscape architect, lighting designer, et cetera. All sorts of things go into a single design. People hear about a $32 million building, and they go, “Oh, that architect made $32 million.” But that’s what it cost to build the building. Most architects rarely get even 10 percent of the cost of construction, and they have to spread out the majority of the fee to the consultants.

What’s difficult about integrating various people into the projects?
The biggest challenge is getting everybody onto the same page so everybody can understand what you’re trying to build. Sometimes, the mechanical engineer thinks, “I’m just going to put some ducts in. I’m not really concerned about the design or the fact that there’s a structural beam that my duct has to go through.” But architects are also some of the worst at communication. We get locked into having our own little vision.

The biggest thing is communicating the big idea and making sure everybody is working toward the same goal. It requires that consultants are involved from the beginning, using BIM technology to coordinate systems earlier.

life of an architect: city college of san francisco wellness center
City College of San Francisco Wellness Center. Courtesy K2A Architecture + Interiors.

Do you ever butt heads with engineers?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve worked with structural engineers who are very creative and see what you’re doing from the beginning. I’ve also worked with some who have blinders on; they’re focused on the most efficient way to build a canopy or use a certain size of steel I-beam all the way through.

I told one guy I’d given him 12 inches for a canopy structure, and he said, “Well, you need an 18-inch I-beam,” and I told him, “No. Listen, you need to pretend that there’s no such thing as an 18-inch I-beam, okay? I need you to help me fit it all in this size envelope.” He absolutely refused, so I had to go to his boss and say, “You need to get me somebody else because this isn’t working.”

What motivates you in your job?
As an architect, you dream about this legacy of something that’s going to last and be enriching beyond your own time. I worked on Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in the Sunset [in San Francisco], and my kids get a thrill every time they drive by it: That was the school their dad did. That’s part of the driving factor—you want people to remember that you did something good.

dianne feinstein elementary school k2a architecture + interiors
Dianne Feinstein Elementary School. Courtesy K2A Architecture + Interiors.

What advice would you give to architects early in their careers?
There are a lot of directions to go in this field. If you want to become a project manager, you need to let the people you work for know that’s the direction you want to go, because they’re not necessarily going to move you that way.

I know people who have been in this field for 10 years and wonder why they haven’t gotten somewhere. It’s frustrating. I ask, “Well, do you know where you want to go, and if you do, how come you haven’t let people know?”

I would say 75 percent of the people who come out of school think they’re going to design the next high-rise, and the reality is, they may never get a project like that to design in their entire career. They may help draft one up or detail it and figure out components of it. But if you want to design a building, you have to go beyond; take the initiative; and say, “Hey boss, this is something I drew up.” If you still don’t get the opportunity, keep working it or move to another firm and sell yourself there.

Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or other creator/maker.

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