Dear Sir or Madam

job application
Not a great application letter

It is a sign of the ongoing scarcity faced by the construction industry that architecture graduates are anecdotally having a lot of trouble finding work. The federal government’s stimulus package has long since dried up and the big end of town is once again executing layoffs left and right.

Though our architecture practice is small, on average we nevertheless receive one or two job applications a week. Many come from overseas and most are not very good. At the best of times, a poor application is a great way to be instantly forgotten. When the demand for jobs is as high as it is now, it takes even less for your application to find its way quickly to the bin.

Architecture graduates, if you want to find work in this highly competitive environment, you need to not only be the cream of the crop, you need to convince potential employers you are. This begins with your job application.

Here are 10 tips to help you on your way:

1. Dear Sir or Madam

In the digital age, there is no excuse for not knowing the names of the principal architects of our practice. Spend a few minutes trawling our website or even cold call us if you must. The simple gesture of addressing your application to an actual person shows you have invested thought into your application. It displays basic business savvy and in a small but significant way shows that you care where you work.

Further, an application addressed to Sir or Madam, an undisclosed recipient address and generic content are all dead giveaways that you have sent your application out en masse. Why should we bother treating you like an individual when you have not extended this same courtesy to us? It does not take much extra effort to send an email out separately and tailor it to our practice profile. At the very least, relate your application to the size of our practice and project typologies on which we work.

2. Spelling, grammar and syntax

If your aplication contains speling, grammer, and, errors syntax; we willnot give you the job.. Our logic is simple: if you do not have the ability or presence of mind to make sure you get this most basic of items right, how can you possibly be expected to tackle the more complex demands of the job you are seeking? Dictionaries, spellcheck and friends who speak the english language better than you do have all been around for a long time. Use them.

3. Skills and content

Years ago, when we were looking for student architect positions, the principal architect of one particular firm flipped rapidly through our painstakingly presented portfolio and dismissed it with the spirit-crushing words, “I want to see skills not content”.

Unless working as a CAD monkey for the rest of your life appeals, when a prospective employer says something similar to you, do as we should have done: thank the person for their time, leave the office and never return.

The lasting lesson here is this: your portfolio should demonstrate both skills and content. Sure, we want to see that you know how to use AutoCAD, Rhino, Photoshop et. al. but we also want to see that you have an ability to design good buildings. A good portfolio can demonstrate both with ease: not only its content but its graphic design will speak volumes about your sense of style as well as your technical abilities.

4. Let your personality shine

Do you enjoy long-distance running? Do you speak a second language? Do you spend your winters snowboarding? Have you travelled? Have you undertaken pilgrimages to notable buildings in obscure corners of the world? Do you have a collection of modernist chess sets?

We do and we have, so why can’t you?

Your application letter is not the place for an essay on your life’s experiences, but it is the place to communicate a few of the more fascinating things that interest you. Reading and watching movies are unhelpfully generic, though translating Italian poetry and sneaking your way into Hollywood film premieres are not.

5. Keep it brief

You’re busy, we’re busy, so keep it brief.

6. International norms

Different countries have different expectations of job applicants. Some demand rigid formality, others prefer a more casual approach. Some want to know what grades you received in primary school, others are content to know that you passed your university degree.

Whether you are an Australian looking for work overseas or a foreigner looking for work here, do some research into the country where you are applying before you send out your applications. You can start by reading this article and others like it. Get a feel for what the architecture industry may expect before you inadvertently put your international foot in it.

7. Paper

Of all the applications we have received, only one arrived in the letterbox. In this day and age, it was refreshing to receive something physical to review. This is not to say that you should spend hundreds of dollars printing out full colour portfolios for the dozens of architecture practices to whom you are applying. Rather, pick a few more likely prospects, call first to see if they might be hiring and only then hit the print button.

8. Social media is the future

Your application may be on paper, but long gone is the day when you are restricted to its crisp, white confines to express yourself to potential employers. Social media has drastically altered the way in which you can connect with us: do you have an online portfolio? Do you use Twitter? Do you write a blog? Do you have a LinkedIn profile?

There is no better way to convince us you are invested in architecture and interested in the same things we’re interested in than by being able to answer yes to all of the above. What’s more, long before you start applying for work, you should use social media as an opportunity to connect with your local architecture community. If you might one day be interested in working with us, you should follow our blog, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and even connect with us on LinkedIn.

9. Be interested

Architecture is not like other professions. Many practices are small like ours and enjoy family-like working environments. Even the larger practices still pride themselves on their creative approach to the workplace. As such, it is important that you are interested in what we do, both within our practice and as part of a broader community.

Are you a member of the Australian Institute of Architects? Have you volunteered at Melbourne Open House? Have you attended a Robin Boyd Foundation open day? Or a Melbourne Architours tour? We attend the events run by these organisations, so you should too. At the very least, you will learn something from the event; you may even get the opportunity to meet us in person. When we subsequently receive your application, we will know you as an individual, not just anonymous writing on the page.

If you can communicate your passion for architecture not just by the things you say but by the things you do, you are one big step closer to relating to us as part of our world.

10. What do you want?

Finally, put some thought into where you want to work. A large firm will give you exposure to significant buildings but will restrict your day-to-day tasks to only a few aspects of a project. A smaller firm won’t give you the variety in building typologies, but is much better placed to give you experience across the full range of an architect’s responsibilities. Do you want to work on institutional projects, or houses, or commercial developments? Are you keen to work with a practice renown for its design abilities or would you prefer one that has a reputation for strong client relationships and repeat business?

We understand that it’s unlikely today that you have the luxury of choice. However, working out what you want will help you better target the right segment of the profession and will put you in a more self-aware position once you’re offered a job.

Imagine this scenario:

We are sifting through a pile of 40 applications for an advertised position. We can’t possibly interview everyone so how can we quickly and efficiently reduce the pile to a more manageable size? First, we get rid of anyone who hasn’t nailed the basics: addressing us by our names, avoiding spelling mistakes etc. There are now 30 left in the pile. Second, we ditch anyone who doesn’t seem to know anything about who we are and what we do. Now we’re down to 20. Third, we look at basic layout and graphic design. This leaves us with 10.

Only then do we start looking at content, trying to understand who you are. If we happen to recognise your name from an event we attended or via our blog’s subscriber list, even better. Every little bit will help you be one of the 3 or 4 people we’ll interview.

Good luck.

Django Unchained

jamie foxx

What is it?

The most recent film by cult director, Quentin Tarantino. Set in southern American slave country in the late 1850s, Django Unchained is one in a long line of loose reinterpretations of 1966 Italian western, Django.

The film’s title character, played enigmatically by Jamie Foxx, is a black slave who is freed by German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz with his usual articulate charm. The first half of the film develops the relationship between the two against a backdrop of increasingly bloody violence. As Schultz schools Django in the arts of his trade, Tarantino’s trademark gore flies thickly and quickly.

The second half of the film steps up its inevitable tension with the introduction of slaver and mandingo “breeder”, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A mandingo is a black slave who, for the sport of his owner, fights bare handed against other slaves to the death. While we were of course put in mind of Rome’s gladiatorial contests, Tarantino substitutes the colosseum’s theatricality with the harrowing intimacy of Candie’s parlour. And though there is little historic evidence to suggest mandingo fighting actually existed, its stomach-churning plausibility amplifies its on-screen power.

In addition to his disturbing taste in sport, Candie also owns Django’s wife, a house slave with the surprisingly German name, Broomhilda. Fascinated by this coincidence, Schultz assists Django in his attempt to free her with the ruse of an interest in purchasing one of Candie’s fighters. As Schultz explains, Django is the Norse hero and maiden mythology’s Siegfried, setting out to rescue his wife from her captor.

What do we think?

We love Tarantino’s films and Django Unchained is no exception. It is political, violent, funny, meaningful and entertaining: Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio are joined by a high quality cast who all give outstanding performances; the plot is characteristically simple yet masterfully woven; the western genre is exploited brilliantly; and the subject matter is serendipitously poignant given the concurrent release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

franco nero

Tarantino explores his usual richness of cinematic references and oddball character placements, starting with a cameo by Franco Nero, the notably well-preserved actor who played the original Django. The hilarious and disturbing scene of a Ku Klux Klan mob storming a hill echoes a similar scene from Seven Samurai (1954); there are songs from the musical scores of 1960s Italian westerns; rolling text that recalls Gone With The Wind (1939); and our favourite, a small part played by Tarantino himself doing a remarkable rendition of a broad Australian accent.

We are pleased to see him working again with some of his favourite actors: Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, Tarantino goes a step further, developing not only a character but an entire story arc for the German and French speaking Waltz. It is clear that Tarantino has an uncanny gift for rewarding unrecognised talent: a brief survey of their filmographies reveals that Waltz has shifted into Hollywood stardom since Inglorious Basterds (2009), as has Michael Fassbender. John Travolta is another prominent benefactor, his career receiving Tarantino’s kiss of life with Pulp Fiction (1994).

Given the degeneracy the tabloids constantly insist defines Hollywood, it is satisfying to see glimpses of professional and personal integrity at work here. In this and other ways, Tarantino is one of only a few contemporary Hollywood directors whose creativity and unique voice stamp an undeniable energy on a film. In our opinion, matched only by Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, who have also nurtured lasting relationships with particular actors, Tarantino justifies his cult following.

But what is most striking about this film is Tarantino’s dedication to revisionist history. Much like Inglorious Basterds, which (spoiler alert) saw Adolf Hitler shot repeatedly and gratifyingly in the face with machine guns, then exploded and then set on fire, Django Unchained re-imagines the dark slave era as a place where a black man can have the guts, skills and luck to take down an entire plantation of white slave owners.

We all have that innocent schoolboy within us, the one who dreams of beating to a pulp one of history’s many evil legends. Tarantino however also has a Hollywood studio and considerable budgets at his disposal to turn these idle dreams into cinematic realities.

We heard recently that Tarantino doesn’t just make films, he has an entire imaginary world inside his head, one where contract killers do have bloody accidents in the backs of Chevrolets, where Hitler and his henchmen are assassinated to end World War II. Django Unchained rests comfortably in this world, a place where black slaves rise up and forcibly obtain their freedom. Herein lies Tarantino’s true genius: his ability to make films may be unique but the imagination that spurs him is common. It resonates with all our imaginations: his films touch that deep chord within us that constantly asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

One of Tarantino’s best: 4.5 stars.

kill shot

The perils of tendering

timber framing

What is it?

A tender is “an offer to perform work at a given price, usually made in writing.” In Australia, seeking competitive tenders from a group of builders is the most common means for procuring an architect-designed, residential building contract.

The tendering process typically involves the submission of a project’s architectural and engineering documentation to three or four builders who have a month to assemble a price for its construction. Builders obtain elemental prices from sub-trades, as well as price their own work and management. They must balance their desire to make a profit from the project with the need to beat the tenders of their competitors.

Assuming the documentation provided is sufficiently thorough, the builders’ tenders should all represent the same built outcome, varying only in cost and time. Thus the goal of the tender process is to obtain the cheapest possible price for a project with fixed and predetermined scope and quality.

What do we think?

While the majority of our own built projects have been tendered, our experience of the process has been mixed: in some instances, the right builder has won the job, we have enjoyed a positive relationship on site and we have been satisfied with the build quality; in others, the wrong builder has won the job and the subsequent months on site have been a misery.

To reduce the likelihood of this latter scenario, experienced architects carefully curate their tender lists. They select builders with whom they have worked before, who are already familiar with their detailing methods and who have the technical capacity to execute their particular approach to architecture.

For projects in areas where experienced architects have not previously worked however, or for young architects lacking the decades of practice necessary to establish a list of trusted builders, such curation is not possible. The tender process becomes in part a gamble. Without the reliable guarantee of committed builders, three significant disadvantages of the tendering process are revealed:

  • A clash of personalities. Whenever we invite a new builder onto a tender list, we perform the same due diligence we would when employing a new staff member. We interview him, visit past and current projects and contact his references. We exert every effort to make sure he has what it takes to work on a challenging, architect-designed project. We also ascertain as well as we can the builder’s personality. If there’s a chance we won’t see eye to eye on how a site should be run or how paperwork should be administered, our working relationship is likely to be strained. In this, the brevity of tendering makes it ill equipped to provide true insight. We have to hope that our brief investigations and gut feeling are enough to steer us in the right direction.
  • Mid-tender dropouts. During the pre-GFC construction boom in Australia, builders were swamped with more offers for work than they could handle, so sometimes agreed to tender on a project only to withdraw a week before its closure. Anticipating these dropouts, we increased the number of builders on our tender lists. Discovering they were now competing against a larger-than-usual field, builders began dropping out more frequently. And so on and so forth. Our worst experience was for a house renovation in Clifton Hill, where only 2 of 7 tenderers bothered to submit prices. While this situation has abated somewhat, it remains the reason why even today we ask 4 or 5 builders to tender so we receive at least 3 prices.
  • Haste leads to mistakes. The short timeframe of the tender period and the late introduction of builders to a project make it easy for them to miss items in their tenders. While at face value this might seem like the client wins a discounted construction price, inevitably the project suffers. The successful builder either pushes hard on cost variations, winning back the shortfall at the expense of an adversarial relationship on site, or he absorbs the loss and compromises the profitability of his business. Even without mistakes in his tender, the successful builder’s limited familiarity with a project increases the chance of him making early decisions on site that have negative consequences for its final outcome.

A recent discussion with Ian Provan from ProvanBuilt, who will only tender on projects worth more than $800,000, offered further insight. He highlighted two additional disadvantages of the tender process that primarily affect builders but logically flow on to affect construction prices and thus the industry in general:

  • Tendering takes time. Provan estimates he spends three full time days on every tender, sometimes longer if it’s for a large or particularly complex project. Our experience with other builders suggests that a week or even more is not uncommon. This is a significant collective burden builders have to shoulder. The time taken in tendering only gets reimbursed when builders win: thus each client indirectly pays for their builder’s previous losses.
  • Tendering is a lottery. Despite being meticulous with his estimating and pushing hard to win tenders, Provan says he has on occasion come second to builders quoting impossible prices. He attributes this not only to error, but to chance, desperation and, in today’s depleted construction industry, larger builders prepared to quote on zero or even negative margin just to keep their staff employed. There is every chance therefore that fairly priced tenders will lose out to one priced below the project’s true value.

These factors translate to high risk for builders. As there is no guarantee that any tender is in truth a fair competition between builders of similar capability, interest and financial motives, it’s a wonder builders are prepared to tender at all. For architects, whose commitment to the success of a project by definition extends to a commitment to the success of both client and builder, these issues together represent a significant disincentive to tender.

What alternative is there?

In our opinion, when considering an architect-designed project the only viable alternative to tendering is a negotiated contract. This involves “a process whereby the architect, on behalf of the client, negotiates a price with a preferred builder rather than calling tenders.” The advantages of a negotiated contract are numerous. Acumen, an online resource for architects that discusses many practice related issues, lists nine:

  • A saving in time.
  • Reliability of the price through careful assessment.
  • Reliability of the builder’s capacity to complete the project.
  • Increased awareness of the contractor’s financial capacity.
  • Access to advice on buildability.
  • Opportunity to discuss safety issues that may arise during construction.
  • Potential for reduction in variations to the works.
  • Offers the opportunity to raise matters early that can reduce disputes later.
  • The creation of a spirit of teamwork and partnering.

Provan echoes this broad sentiment and has even gone so far as to change his business model to encourage architects and clients to work with him via negotiated contracts. He now offers a cost consultancy service that can begin from very early on in the design process and will ideally continue right up until contract negotiation. If the client decides at this point to take the project to open market, he asks for a nominal fee to cover his time. If the client elects to proceed with ProvanBuilt, the cost consultancy is free.

As we see it however, there are three main disadvantages of negotiation:

  • No competition. By promising a builder a project prior to receiving a detailed price, there is no incentive for him to sharpen his pencil when he eventually does so. Though an independent quantity surveyor can be commissioned to provide a comparison price, a negotiated contract is in itself highly unlikely to produce the cheapest possible price for the project.

  • Establishing a list. For young architects, the tender process is the most effective way of establishing relationships with new builders. By discovering on this project how different builders approach the tender process, how their prices stack up, how they handle losing or how they perform on site should they win, it is possible to start curating a list of trusted builders for each and every project that follows. Negotiating does not entirely eliminate this opportunity but it does slow it down. Without other tenderers for comparison, it is harder to benchmark a builder and understand his strengths and weaknesses.
  • The necessity of trust. Without the competitive gauntlet of the tendering process, negotiation requires the architect and client place a great deal of trust in their preferred builder, trust that can only be earned through past experience. Where this trust is absent, most notably when the architect and builder have never before worked together, some of the perils of tendering are significantly accentuated; in particular the clash of personalities and haste leads to mistakes.

What should we learn?

There are compelling arguments that can be made for both competitive tenders and negotiated contracts. On the one hand, competition makes way for cheaper building prices but on the other, negotiation facilitates more open, collaborative working relationships.

We know that having the right builder on the job makes all the difference in the world. It makes the construction process a joy for everyone involved – for architect, client and builder – and it improves the chance that the built outcome will meet or even exceed our expectations. Undoubtedly, the best way to achieve these priorities is to select a builder with whom we have worked previously: to secure their involvement via negotiation.

Yet, while we would love to negotiate all our building contracts now, we recognise that this is impractical. Put simply, we have not yet worked on sufficient projects to be familiar with enough builders working across enough of Melbourne to cover every foreseeable future project. Further, it is not only the builders that must earn our trust, we need to earn the trust of our clients. If we want to recommend our clients negotiate their building contracts and in so doing sacrifice the opportunity for competitive pricing, we need to be able to back up our advice with past experience.

As our practice matures and list of completed projects grows, perhaps we will see a shifting emphasis away from tendering and towards negotiation. In the meantime, there will be many years of tendering before we can establish that coveted list of trusted builders.

construction site