Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Happy Accidents

Happy Accidents
Serendipity. Providence. Lucky Breaks.

There always seems to be an element of design that is due, at least in some part, to “fate”.  I’m not talking divine intervention, at least I don’t think so.  I’m talking about how, in school, a piece of your third year model falls off and moves to the other side, where it looks inherently superior.  Or, while frantically trying to pin up for a critique you flip your trace paper backwards and your professor makes such a big fuss over the mirrored version, you have to change the entire trajectory of your project.

Neither of those things happened to me, of course, but I have seen similar situations.  In real life even.

The first occasion I can recall was when we were designing a camp for missionaries.  This was a training center for those planning to move overseas for extended periods, so the decor was intentionally sparse.  The living arrangements consisted of four identical buildings each with twelve monastic cells arranged around a central living and dining space.  The rooms were simple, but generous enough for two people and each has a bathroom with a shower.  While the building design was simple, there was a concerted effort for sustainability that aligned with the values and mission of the Owner.  This project was to utilize a geothermal heat source.  And this was 1999 in a little town in Pennsylvania.  This town was so small, it had neither liquor licenses nor a locally adopted building code.  Think the town in Footloose.

The envisioned Campus
We were hosting a coordination meeting in our office with the Owner, all our engineering consultants and the Contractor.  A geothermal system of this size requires space for pipes, pumps and tanks, especially since the campus was going to be utilizing a well field, shared between these four buildings and the large educational building on the campus.  Our simple parti did not include large mechanical rooms: basements would be too costly and the attic arrangements would not accommodate enough space.  Do we actually have to build a mechanical wart on the back of all these buildings?  Problem is, there is no back to these buildings.  Half in jest, I said “why don’t we just put all of it in one of the guest rooms?”  It was about the right size, as it happened.

The chip board model.
Sorry, just trying to diffuse the tension… Everyone kind of tilted their heads for a long moment.  After the most pregnant of pauses, the Owner said, “we can make eleven rooms work in each building.”  That was the solution.  Perhaps the most simple and direct solution there that a room full of people were too focused on to find.  Sometimes it just takes a slightly sarcastic twenty-something kid to disrupt the thought process.  Okay, maybe “slightly” is being generous.

We did indeed turn one of the 12 guest rooms into the geothermal mechanical room.
Just a glamour shot of the shared living/dining rooms.
A little later in my professional life, I was confronted with another situation with which (I believe) I handled with more maturity.  This situation, coincidentally, dealt with a building housing twelve dwelling units, this time for retirement living. The rooms were on two floors, six over six, and had parking below.  We had two stair towers and thought we had them located properly – as many of you reading this will know, exits must be a certain distance apart to qualify as separated.  In this case, one-third of the overall diagonal of the building.  We knew this, we just failed (up until this point) to account for the balconies – and they were pretty big balconies.  Long story short, we had to push one of the stairs away from the core of the building.  I felt responsible.  I was responsible.  Not only was it my job to fix it, but it was my job to tell the Owner how we had to change their plan.
In the original rendition, the stair was more or less flush with the porches.
The plan only had to change slightly, but the stair had to project out farther than previously envisioned.  It actually provided for some improved privacy between two adjacent balconies and created a feature on the rear of the building.  This time there was something of a back to the building and it needed a feature, and here was the opportunity to break up the rear elevation and introduce a tower element.  Even so, the change would add some square footage to the program and add some cost and we (that is to say I) still had to convince the Owner that this would be a good thing.  I sat down with the Owner to review the code issue with the location of the stairs and the proposed solution.  Without any hesitation, the Owner latched onto the new design as an improvement.  No head tilts, no pauses (pregnant or otherwise)…

Without the projection of the stair, I don't believe this elevation would have worked as well.
Call it what you may; happy accidents or serendipity; but sometimes turning your designs upside down can only improve them.

This is the 45th topic in the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Happy Accidents" and was suggested by me this month.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

-->Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
When a Mismatch isn a Match -- Happy Accident

-->Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"happy accidents"

-->Nisha Kandiah - The Scribble Space (@KandiahNisha)
Happy Accidents

-->Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
There is no such thing as a happy accident

-->Architalks 45 Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Architalks 45 Happy Accidents

Monday, October 1, 2018

Learning from Mistakes

Learning from Mistakes

Much of what we do as building professionals has to do with this month's ArchiTalk subject.  As a code/regulations and quality control person in the office, most of my personal experience as it relates to reviewing construction documents has to do with how I or someone I know may have been burned in the past.  But as an office, we have a collective experience that can surely help us make good projects even better in the future.
The Project Autopsy

Case in point, I had a meeting on my calendar today listed as "Lessons Learned on XYZ Project".  Again, this was a job that went pretty well.  But when was the last time you said, " the construction of that last job could not have gone ANY better"?  Of course you haven't.  Things can always be better.  This was a fairly small job, though complex.  It dealt with a lot of high profile areas at the main entry, and had to be completed during the summer - about two months.  So the schedule was aggressive. 

The meeting consisted of the quality control personnel, the construction administrator, the design team (project architect, interior designer and Revit drafter), interiors partner and the specifications writer.  A total of eight people in a room discussed what could have been done differently to have been more successful than the project already had been.  That is a fair investment of staff hours on a pretty small job that for the most part went pretty well.

Some of the topics discussed included:
  • Long Lead Items on Short Schedules
  • Specific Details on One of a Kind Details
  • Demolition Notes
  • Existing Conditions
  • Door Hardware on Aluminum Storefront
  • Utilizing Technical Representatives from Manufacturers
  • Specifying Finishes in Publicly Bid Work
Some of these topics are so specific, that they may never be applicable to any other job we do.  However, a few of the items will go on the Quality Control Checklist that we maintain.  There are a few items that are already on the checklist that will be repeated for the benefit of the staff's memory.

Regardless of the size of one's practice, having a procedure to do a postmortem on even successful jobs is a great way to strive for improvement for your next challenge.  While most projects are unique, there are often opportunists to apply what you've learned to other situations.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Learning from Mistakes" and was led by Steve Ramos.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
some kind of mistake

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Learning from mistakes in architecture

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Archi-scar - That Will Leave a Mark!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"Learning from Mistakes..."

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Forgotten Mistakes

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Are Architects Experts?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
A, B, C, D, E...

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Learning from mistakes

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
How Living Traditions Learn From Mistakes

Monday, September 3, 2018

Designing for Others

Designing for Others

In a sense, architecture is always about designing for others, is it not?  Even if I designed a home or structure for "myself": as a married person with children, wouldn't I ultimately take the needs of my family into consideration?  Unless I was designing a domicile for which I intended to occupy in solitude so that I could devote my time to a great work of literature (clearly I am not talking about this blog), would I not consider visitors?  Even Thoreau's Walden: Life in the Woods devotes a chapter to the comings and goings of visitors (he always had three chairs ready for visitors).  We are never truly alone.

As it turns out, nearly all that I do revolves around design for others.  In my position as one of the "Checker of Drawings", I essentially become a method actor playing several roles as I read "the script".  The script, or the collective of the construction documents, as it were, is strictly a draft when I read it.  Depending on which act I am reading, I immerse myself into the character suitable for the role.

First, I become the Code Official.  I am likely seeing this set of documents for the first time.  Even if I know a lot about the project, I pretend I do not.  The Code Official must be able to review the first several pages of a set and get a general understanding of the existing conditions (if there are any), the type(s) of building(s) proposed, the occupancy, the construction type, the amount of area and height, etc.  A lot to do, and it is a challenge to do this clearly and succinctly.  Are there fire walls, and if so, where?  How much renovation is there (Level 2 or Level 3)?  Where are the different uses separated?  We have to come up with a way to convey this information even if it means adding little drawing vignettes to clarify.
Much of what I look for is not glamorous, however stairway enclosure protection is important, especially if missed and not considered during design prior to bidding.
Next, I try to take the point of view of the people building this structure.  How clear are all the transitional details - are there enough blow-ups?  Are the required dimensions there?  Even if the dimensions are there, are they in the right place, where they make sense to the builder?  How have the details considered the person physically putting the drywall on the wall?  We also try to incorporate all of the systems and engineering knowledge to coordinate consultant drawings; so that our drawings don't say one thing, and the electrical drawings say another.There are so many things to consider that, unless you do the same building over and over again, no one would ever catch them all.  But we try none-the-less and strive to be better all the time.
Sometimes, the things I look for are mundane, like how does this tiny shaft get drywalled up three stories?
Sometimes, when I see the same issue over and over, I need to keep myself sane...
Obviously, the point of view of the Owner, or in our case the end user, is of the upmost importance.  I have to look for details that do not comply with Codes, of course.  However, I find myself becoming the advocate for those with limited abilities of all sorts, where, even if the design complies with the Codes, I typically ask if certain moves might be made to improve accessibility.  In senior housing independent living apartments, typically (per ANSI A117.1) a sink in the laundry is exempt from side approach requirements (the ability for one to approach the sink sideways in a wheelchair and have enough room to center your torso on the sink).  The first instinct of a designer is to throw the sink to the corner as far as you can so that there is as much open counter to fold.  This may work fine for the able bodied resident, but what about one in a wheelchair or scooter?  Even if one is temporarily confined for the time it takes to mend a broken bone or some other kind of ailment, it would still be nice to be able to use your laundry room.

A reception desk in a senior's environment needs to consider, in all aspects, the perspective from a wheelchair.
In closing, I look at this set from my own perspective.  For this set of documents, even though another architect was the lead on the project, I ask myself what personal experiences can I impart on the design?  I have been designing for seniors for over 20 years, but the office as an entity has been doing so for three times that.  We have a lot of collective experience.  You can also call it collective memory.  You can call it tales from the trenches.  You could even call some of them war stories.  Whatever these deign issues are called, we want to review each project from the perspective of this checklist of items, lest we overlook them.  As one of my favorite sayings goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  When the office produces a set of documents, I want us all to be proud of the end result.  For successful building projects, repeating advantageous design moves and avoiding detrimental ones can only help the cause.

Always remember, staff break rooms cannot be considered "employee work areas"!
Note:  If you were marks are green and not red because I am not the only one to redline jobs.  My green marks distinguish themselves from someone else's red marks, while still visible against the black lines of the construction documents themselves.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Designing for Others" and was led by Jeff Pelletier.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How To Design for Others

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
designing for others – how hard could it be?

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"designing for others"

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Planting Seeds of Better Design

Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people