Keep Calm And Contact Your PI Insurer: My Architecture Registration Interview Experience

In November 2013, I became a fully qualified Architect in the State of Victoria, Australia. This had been a professional goal of mine since graduating in 2010. This is my account of the oral exam that took place in Melbourne, October 2013. 

christina canters design draw speak


“I am confident in what I know, I am confident in what I know…”

I muttered to myself as I walked through the Fitzroy Gardens, which were pretty deserted apart from a handful of tourists taking pictures. I gazed at the trees and tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to coax myself into the most zen-like state possible.

Bah. I was never good at meditation.

I reached Albert Street and checked the time. 11.30am. Ninety minutes until my Architect Registration interview, the final hurdle to becoming a fully-fledged member of the Super Special Secret Society With The Special Handshake (AKA Registered Architect).

The hard work of the last few months was about to come to an end, and I couldn’t wait to have it over with.

I wandered over to Gertrude Street and parked myself at a cafe with a long black and a Volume 1 Preliminaries tender document for one final read over. I doubt I took anything in, but it felt like I was doing something productive.

(On a side note:  $3.70 for a coffee, Gertrude Street, really? I don’t care that you have exfoliating granules in your fancy Aesop hand wash…and then I remembered I was about to sit for an hour in a coffee table-like setting and had paid $370 for the privilege, and I wasn’t even going to get a coffee. $3.70 seemed like a relative bargain.)

Back on Albert Street, building 372, I took the lift up to Level 7 and walked into a long office lobby with a few chairs and infomercials playing on a small television. It was 12.45pm. There were already two candidates there. “One o’clock?” I said. They nodded. “Excited?!” Again, a nod. (I think I was just trying to get all the excitability out of my system so I didn’t blast my interviewers with pent-up nervous energy).

It seemed like all the interviewers were in some sort of discussion in the adjacent boardroom. A couple more candidates came in, and we chatted quietly about the PARC (Practicing ARChitecture) tutorial course and how well we all did in the first exam, thanks to our excellent mentors, Nicole Hardman and Bryan Miller.

Meeting my interviewers

Then the boardroom door opened and the examiners marched out, a few of them giving us a nod as they dispersed to the interview rooms. Please don’t be my guy, I pleaded silently as a solidly-built man with a face like thunder  walked past.

To my relief, a kindly-looking man, probably in his late 50s, introduced himself (let’s call him ‘Mr X’) and led me to a room at the end of the corridor, where I met examiner number 2 (‘Mr Y’), who was dressed in a neat checked shirt and looked like he was in his early 60s. No black turtlenecks or black rimmed glasses to be seen. They were like two lovely helpful uncles.

I was pleased with how this was going already.

Initially, as expected, they asked me about my current projects, but they were more interested in a small townhouse project I’d taken to Town Planning stage, and how we established the fees. I said at our company we usually set fees based on percentages, which in this case was about 6%.

In hindsight, I should have lied and told them it was higher, because then they started questioning me more in depth about how do you know if 6% is enough, especially if there’s a difficult site with no precedent for fee structuring, or if Town Planning takes longer than expected, or if the client SAYS IT WANTS FULL SERVICES BUT ACTUALLY INTENDS TO SELL THE LAND AFTER TOWN PLANNING…what the hell?! 

I responded by saying I would explain to the client that additional work would be charged at an hourly rate, but they kept pushing me for a different answer, prompting me with “If it’s going to take you extra time for town planning…?” It finally clicked. Establish a time frame, work out your hours/charge out rates etc, then compare to the percentage amount! Duh, it seems so obvious now…

They were also very keen to talk about tendering. I thought it would be a fun point of interest to mention that on my current project, the project architect accidentally emailed one tenderer the names of the other tenderers, but this led them to ask “So what do you do if the client asks you to start the tender process again?” Hang on, I thought, this wasn’t part of the script!

To buy some thinking time, I went through the consequences: it will push the project timeline out; the other tenderers will suffer a loss; the client may also claim damages…

Trying to weasel my way out of properly answering the question, I casually asked: “Yes, that is a really tricky one…have you ever experienced a situation like that?” Mr Y started to say “Well it did happen to a friend of mine, and they ended up…oh wait, I don’t want to give you the answer!” Dammit. Almost got him!

Anyway, I finally reached the conclusion: I WOULD CONTACT MY PI INSURER. Would our favourite old chestnut impress the examiners? You bet! Nods from both Mr X and Mr Y. Yesss! I gave myself a mental hi-five.

Is it over yet?

I didn’t take a watch into the interview, but I was able to surreptitiously glance over at Mr X’s watch across the table (yes, that’s how close we were. Like having coffee without the coffee). I swear 35 minutes were already up. Awesome. Keep it up, Christina, I thought. Zen, zen, zen. 

There were the expected questions about setting up practice (they literally said “Go through the checklist of things you do”; I got up to “Get insurance!” and they were like “Ok, that’s enough”), and offsite items.

Mr X said: “You may not know the answer to this question, but say you had a lift not yet delivered to site, and the builder has claimed 50%…” He basically handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card for not knowing the answer, so he was VERY impressed when I replied with: “Well there’s a risk to the client if the item is uninstalled blah blah blah, the ABIC SW contract doesn’t allow for blah blah blah, I wouldn’t approve it blah blah blah…” No problems there at all.

But I couldn’t let myself get comfortable. The trickiest bits were yet to come.

A lesson in keeping calm

I had to conjure up all the zen power I could muster when Mr X asked: “Which area do you feel you are least experienced in?” Uh oh. This is what I had been dreading. I don’t have much contract admin experience, and had a feeling they would specifically pick up on that. But they actually gave me an opportunity to nominate another area altogether.

This should have been easy.

I could have said “fee writing” or “negotiating with tenderers”.

But no, I did the honest/dumb thing and said “Going to site and checking for defects”, which resulted in some raised eyebrows from Mr Y and a gleeful glint in the eyes of Mr X.   Shit. I scolded myself for being too damn sincere. Now they’re just gonna ask me about bloody site inspections!

And right I was. “Do you mean you’re inexperienced with assessing progress claims?”  “What if your firm sends you to site on your own?” “What if the experienced architects are busy and can’t help you?”

I’d like to say I deflected the questions like a ninja deflecting bullets off a sword, but it was more like catching a baseball in a mitt and carefully pitching it back. I just kept calm, told them what I knew, and they seemed happy with that.

Before I knew it, they were checking their watches and said we were running out of time.

When they asked if I had any questions, I asked about how architects can improve clients’ perception of the value of design services. It was great to hear both their answers: Mr X said we need to work together as an industry and stop undercutting each other, while Mr Y suggested it’s more difficult for an architect starting out, and we may need to reduce our fees (“Only initially though; I’m not supporting the discounting of fees!”) to get one job built to use as an example to justify higher fees for future clients.

He also suggested you can guilt clients into it by saying something like: “You want lower fees? Well, you don’t want a crappy building now, do you?” Ha! I’ll remember that one.

Some final thoughts

All in all I had a really positive experience and I bounced out of the interview with a massive smile on my face.

The examiners were very kind and helpful and at no point did it feel like an interrogation. It really just felt like a discussion about the profession with a couple of experienced colleagues.

At the end, Mr Y even told me I was a good communicator, which is one of the best compliments I’ve received from a fellow professional!

I was kidding when I said I should have lied, because you don’t know which path the interview will take from there.

I think that being honest is one of the best pieces of advice Nicole and Bryan gave us. I found that when I didn’t immediately know the answer to something, I just talked through my thought process (even repeating stuff we’d already covered), and if I was still struggling they gave me some helpful pointers, like “something to do with fees..” (They also offered some not-so-helpful pointers, like “you’re getting warmer…”)

So if you’re about to sit your Architecture Registration interview: stay calm, don’t lie, and be confident in what you know.

And when in doubt, contact your PI insurer 😉

Are you in Melbourne and want to sit your architecture registration exams? If so, I highly recommend the 12-week PARC tutorial course, run by Nicole Hardman and Bryan Miller. Enquire about upcoming courses at nicole[at]practicingarchitecture.com.au. 

Comments

  1. Great read! Made my palms sweaty thinking about my interview!

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