Following your Curiosity
We managed to catch Marilyn Moedinger, Principal at Runcible Studios, in between her teaching classes, visiting construction sites and meeting clients. She shared her unique path in starting her own architecture business, which includes being a construction manager, contractor and estimator prior to going back into full-time design mode. Marilyn has been an educator at WIT, Northeastern University and Boston Architectural College. She is the Chair of the Advisory Board for Northeastern University’s NuLawLab, servers on UVA’s Architecture Young Alumni Council and is a founding member of the Productive Collective. Marilyn was the 2010 recipient of the SOM Prize. Take a peak at her words of wisdom.
Tell us about your unique story of getting to be a Founder of Runcible Studios?
I think the earliest sign, though I didn’t take it as such, was the fact that while I had Barbie dolls when I was little, my brother played with the dolls, and I built them houses out of cardboard. I didn’t know any architects growing up, and my guidance counselors suggested I find another pursuit, because I was “bad at math” – strange they should say that, as I was in the advanced math track – and they suggest I find an “easier” school to get into. Being of a certain stubborn personality, I went for it anyway, but I wonder what would have happened had I not been so stubborn, or not had a supportive family that encouraged my creativity and ambition.
When I was visiting architecture schools, I walked into studio for the first time, and I had an emotional reaction – I felt like this is where I belonged, these were my people, thinking with their hands, thinking about spaces, being creative. It was a big moment for me.
After undergrad, I got a job with a contractor, as a laborer essentially. Incidentally, the project we were working on was renovating an architect's office. My first day on the job, I was hauling gravel in buckets from the basement through where all the other architects and other graduates from my program, working in CAD, were sitting. I was pretty sure I had made the absolute wrong decision, and there were those who said to me, “You are wasting your education!” But there were also those who said, “This is the best thing you could possibly do.” I worked in that field for about four years and then went back to graduate school for architecture. After graduation, I moved here to Boston to work in a firm and teach, which I did for a few years. I then went into academia full time for a bit, and then, basically on a whim, quit my job in 2013 to start my firm, Runcible Studios. I still teach, and Runcible is now a thriving business, with three of us, and many active jobs.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
One of my biggest challenges has been finding situations in which I could do my best work and be my best self. I generally just follow my curiosity rather than have a grand plan for my career, which means I sometimes make decisions that don’t make sense to others. And that’s tough. No situation is perfect, and it’s about figuring out whether I should stay in one place and make it work, or try something new. In the end, I jumped from the frying pan to the fire and struck out on my own – which was the best decision for me, but might not be for others!
In terms of specific challenges, I’d say it’s often related to the learning curve, no matter what field I’ve been in – construction, academia, or architecture – and that can feel overwhelming. When I first started construction, I used to go to the jobsite after hours to just look at what had been done, try to guess what would be done the next day, etc. I would read and read and read, listen carefully in any meeting I could get into, ask questions of trusted mentors, and just try to be as open to learning as I could. That was absolutely the best thing I could have done.
Do you recommend starting A firm to your students?
A lot of students tell me that they want to start their own firms. It’s kind of the dream, which I don’t want to crush, but I do feel a certain responsibility to help them be realistic. My question to them always is, “Are you interested in business?” If they say no, then they shouldn’t start their own firm. Students also say that they want to start their own firm because they want to have freedom – but I tell them that running your own company is a special kind of freedom that to some, may feel more like being trapped! I love the business side, and the challenge of designing a company and all that comes with that – but not everyone does. Realistically, I am designing architecture, in the strict sense, 30% of my time, and I am running the business the rest of the time. If that sounds cool to a student, then they should go for it. But usually they’re thinking of the old ivory tower model, and it’s just…much more in the trenches than that, in reality.
What other advice do you give to students?
“Paying your dues” is an interesting conversation. It is important to pay your dues, but maybe not in the way that it is usually discussed. Students want to learn how to be architects, but then say, “I don't want to just sit around and draft all day.” My response is, “What do you think we do? We make drawings. It is important to learn how to draw a building.” How do you think I learned what I know? A lot of drawing, a lot of work, a lot of observing. It is a mindset switch. Each tedious task is an opportunity to learn. If you want to start your own firm, go work for someone else for 10 years. Do you know anything about writing contracts? Do you know how liability works? Do you understand risk? Do you understand your professional responsibility? Do you have a stamp? What about ethics? Do you know how to set boundaries for yourself, to care for yourself and for your team? What do you do when someone undercuts your fee? When you are in charge and when the stakes are as high as they are as an architect - health, safety, welfare - this is real. We are dealing with people's lives and people's money. We have a serious responsibility. And there’s a way to learn all those things in a scaffolded, safe way – by working in an established firm, by keeping your eyes open, by being patient. It can feel like you HAVE to start your firm and be published in your twenties, but that’s not true. It takes time, and that’s ok – that whole time, you’re learning, growing. The best way to reinvent and innovate, in my opinion, is to deeply understand the thing you’re trying to change. It’s not flashy advice, but it’ll work!
What policies would you like to change in the profession?
One of the things that I find particularly frustrating as a business owner, and as a small firm owner, is the prevalence of undervaluing our work. From a monetary standpoint and from a time standpoint, other professionals don’t do that. They also don't take calls after 5 pm, meet clients on the weekend, send emails at 3 am….why do we feel obligated? It’s about how we write our fees; it’s about the culture that we ingrain in students from day one in studio, which is about working more, not working efficiently or smartly. It’s important to work very hard in school and learn how to work for a deadline, of course. But the bad part is that then we think that our work is not worthwhile unless we suffer, and pull all-nighters; that we’re not real architects unless we do that stuff.
Another issue is that architects are constantly undercutting each other. There is a fear of discussing fees, which is of course grounded in a series of court cases in the 70s and 80s. So, as a result, a client goes to Architect A and says, “Well, Architect B will do it for this. Will you?” Then, Architect A says, “Okay, fine. I want to get this job and build a relationship.” So they might lose money or not make a lot of money on the job. Then on the next job, when Architect A expects to get paid what they’re worth, the client moves on to Architect C. The only way this stops is if we all charge what we’re worth. I’m not talking about price fixing or overcharging or anything unethical here. I’m just talking about having the confidence to charge what we’re worth, and, even more importantly, recognizing that seemingly individual decisions about fee have cumulative effects on our industry. And then, of course, delivering on our value, with high-quality design and project execution.
I want to pay my people well, offer good benefits, not be scrambling with impossible deadlines – not only selfishly, but also because that puts us in the best position to do our best work for our clients. And that starts with me negotiating fair fees. If we want to change the culture, we have to work together.
Any advantages / disadvantages of being a woman architect?
Interestingly, when I was contracting, I had clients say that they appreciated having me as their project manager, they appreciated having a woman in charge. They said they felt like I listened and communicated in effective ways, and that I was a good collaborator. 15 years ago, being the only woman on the scene was disconcerting – now, not so much. I’m comfortable and confident, but sometimes, others still don’t expect a woman onsite. It can be helpful in negotiations – being underestimated can give you the upper hand.
In construction, I certainly faced some disapproval. I had a very supportive boss who wouldn't take any guff from anyone, and who counseled me when I faced situations with some pretty rough characters. But what I have noticed in the construction world is that generally, construction professionals appreciate people who like to get things done. They appreciate problem solvers, who are going to cut through the noise and get to the point. And so, I feel at home there.
I feel like I faced the most negative situations in academia. Things happened – like getting passed over for assignments and responsibilities in favor of less-experienced men, getting interrupted, getting spoken over, having someone turn their back on me in a faculty meeting to speak to everyone but me – and I always had to wonder, if I was a guy, would this be different? Why are my superiors lecturing me on being too direct sometimes, and at other times, too emotional? It can feel like there are two sets of rules. You start to wonder if you’re imagining things, and get distracted from the job you’re there to do. It’s insidious, annoying, and exhausting.
The thing is, mostly because of how I was raised, I don’t think “I’m a female moving around in a male dominated industry.” I think of myself as a professional who’s competent and confident and who loves her work – and that’s why it throws me off so much if I get weird reactions from people, or when people confront me about being a “female” Architect. Can’t I just be an Architect?
These issues often manifest in seemingly trivial issues, like how we dress. Today for example, I am doing this interview, then teaching a class, then meeting a potential client, then going on a construction site and climbing on the roof, then running a small group session for my business group, then meeting a friend for drink. How do I dress for all that? How do I carry my computer, fee proposal, teaching materials, and lunch in a more professional bag than a backpack? How do I fulfill society’s notion of what a professional woman working in an aesthetic field should look like, while also being ready to climb ladders, while also not looking too sexy, while also looking like a sufficient mix of feminine and masculine, while also balancing my own desires for how I like to dress, and what’s comfortable? Even saying these things feels problematic – if I bring it up, will I be judged for being frivolous? I can’t pretend I’m in a world where what I wear doesn’t impact what people think of me, and I’m also disturbed by having to hew to this line. The fact is that all of this takes up a lot of brain space, in ways that men just don’t have to deal with in the same way. And I think that could be said for other issues in our profession as well. I for one am looking forward to, and working for, the day when everyone who wants to be an Architect can just be one – and can be evaluated on their passion, their creativity, and their abilities.