Building Product Careers

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote almost 20 years ago. The construction industry is, once again, experiencing a down phase of its economic cycle. If I wrote the article today, I would not be as sanguine about the stability of jobs with product manufacturers; many manufacturers have had to lay-off staff or switch from boots on the ground to some form of online marketing.

As opportunities for traditional architectural employment appear to he declining, many architecturally trained people are having to face involuntary career adjustments. If you are in this situation, you should be aware of opportunities for architects in the building product industry.

This industry is a large and robust sector of the construction economy and consists of manufacturers, trade associations, independent sales agencies, and distributors. Many architects find it hard to contemplate careers outside of design firms. To overcome this mind set, compare architects to engineers. It is widely recognized that engineers can succeed in industry as well as in consulting firms. In the same way, the communication, technical, aesthetic, and organizational skills acquired through architectural education and practice can qualify you for positions in building product sales, technical service, and management.

Who, for example, is better suited to make sales calls on architects than a fellow architect. While salespeople without construction background can spend years learning the language of architecture, it is already your native tongue. With your training you will not only understand your product, but also how your product contributes to the overall success of your customer's design. If you are selling windows, for example, you will be able to talk not only about glass and aluminum, but also about how the fenestration can reinforce the designer's concept. You can roll out the tracing paper to help solve detailing problems. The ability to see the total project as greater than the sum of its parts will enable you to establish better rapport architects - to be not only their sales representative, but also their consultant.

Your architectural skills will also find applicability in building product marketing. You have been trained to understand the big picture and to organize myriad small details that are necessary to accomplish a vision. Your communication and presentation skills will give you the edge in presenting your ideas and communicating them to corporate management as well as to your customers. Even your draftsmanship and aesthetic training will be called upon to help you create effective product literature and advertising for your product.

Product research and development may appeal to the more technically inclined. Product design is similar in many respects to building design. It begins with defining the performance requirements for the new product and developing alternative solutions. But while most architectural designs are one-of-a-kind structures and are not tested until occupied, product designers often have the opportunity to build prototypes to refine ideas and test a product's performance. Your understanding of construction materials and methods will be enhanced by an increased appreciation of the nature of materials and manufacturing processes.

Building product manufacturers also need architecturally trained individuals to serve as project engineers. With construction technology becoming more complex, consulting architects increasingly delegate detailing responsibility for building systems to manufacturers. Project engineers must evaluate the building and contract requirements and must design appropriate solutions compatible with their firm's capabilities. Individuals in these positions also act as in-house consultants to provide trouble-shooting, make field inspections, obtain code approvals, and respond to special inquiries about a product's performance or suitability for proposed applications. Your knowledge of the way buildings work will be tested daily.

Working for a manufacturer in a particular area of building technology, such as roofing or curtain walls, can enable you to develop a degree of expertise not normally obtained in architectural practice. You may eventually be able to return to practice with an attractive area of specialization.

Experience as a principal of a design firm can be parlayed into a management role in the building product industry. While the product is different, you must still recruit and manage staff, marshal resources, watch the books, and supply the vision that gives a business direction.

The same entrepreneurial drive that leads many architects to start design firms has prompted others to launch building product businesses. Architects have developed many new building products when they recognized product ideas, stylistic trends, or construction problems not satisfied by existing products. And some have gone on to found companies to manufacture or market their product ideas. As in any industry, most of these new businesses fail. But others have succeeded and range in size from small custom mill work shops to leading manufacturers like Kawneer, founded by an architect who first patented metal window frames. Before launching your own building product firm, you may want to spend a few years working for an established company to learn the territory. But even if all you are launching is your own career, look for a company with a commitment to quality and training, who will provide opportunities upon which yon can build.

In general, economic rewards and job security in building product firms are at least as good or better than in architectural practice. If you decide to make a career shift into the building product industry, take your architectural sensitivities and passions with you; you will not stop being an architect just because you no longer work in a traditional practice. The building product industry influences architecture through the invention and dissemination of new technology, new building systems, the economic and political clout of major national and international manufacturers, and the persuasive powers of advertising and sales. During your career in building products, you will make significant contributions to the success of hundreds of buildings. A career in building products will still enable you to leave your mark on the quality and future of architecture.

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By Michael Chusid 
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, Copyright © 1992