Monday, May 13, 2019

In theory / In practice

There's a reason we call what we do as architects "practice".  No one ever knows it all.  This is true whether you're right out of school, newly licensed, or 23 years down the road like me.  I won't know it all in another 23 years.  The sooner you accept that fact, the better off you will be.

One of the best pieces of advice bestowed upon me by my mentor, Gregg Scott, was:  Don't ever be afraid to say "I don't know" long as the next thing out of your mouth is "but I will find out."  As a young twenty-something plunged into the role of project management less than a year out of school, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to seem like you know everything.  At that point in your career, especially if those at the table are far more experienced than you in the business, you're very concerned about trying to establish an image of skill and know-how at a younger age.   But, you can get yourself into much more hot water by overreaching your knowledge and presenting what you only think to be true as absolute truth, than by taking the question back to the office, and digging up the real answer.

Gregg would always tell to me take advantage of the resources around me in the office.  Whether that was George for detailing, Paul for codes or Sandy for how do deal with a difficult personality in the industry.  That was invaluable to me as young person, and why it is so important to surround an organization with the right mix of strong leaders.  Not everyone in the office is strong in every area of the practice, but that is okay when one of your partners is.

As Gregg often said, "You get paid to use both ends of the pencil."
Two decades later, I have now stepped into the role of "resource" for a couple of areas for the firm.  I know I don't know everything even about my areas of expertise.  Codes and construction methodologies are constantly changing.  I will tell someone without apology that, even though I may think I know the answer, I want the opportunity to verify that I am right.  On one or two occasions I have actually proven myself incorrect as a result of subsequent research.  My mantra is now, "it always pays to look it up, even if you think you're right".  More than once, I've found a new exception in the code that allowed something that hadn't ever been before. I just hadn't ever looked for it before.

So practice makes perfect!  Except we will never be perfect - no one is.  So instead, practice makes a level of care consistent with the industry standard!  Has a nice ring to it, no?

This is the 47th 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 "Theory and Practice" lead by Ann Lebo.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
-->Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
You Can Do Better

-->Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
the architecture of theory and how it is evidenced in my practice

-->Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Theory -- If Apple Practiced Architecture

-->Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

-->Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Theory and Practice

-->Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
The Theory and Practice of Full-circle Architecture

Monday, April 1, 2019

My First Job Interview

24 years is a long time.  That is even longer to be at one architecture firm.  That's how long I've been in the employ of RLPS Architects.  The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics released a report in September of 2018 that shows the median tenure for employees with their current company is just 4.3 years.  Architecture and engineering occupations were actually a tad higher at 5.7 years.  My firm has had at least four people celebrate a 40th work anniversary, so while I am only half way to that milestone - 24 years isn't anything to sneeze at.

I have a deep, dark secret though.  It turns out that I never actually interviewed for a job here.  How can that be, you ask?  Nepotism?  Prisoner work release?  Nope.  Not many people can say this, but my mother interviewed for me. 
I wasn't there. But this is how I've always imagined it.

In May of 1995, I was completing a semester abroad.  At that time, RLPS was extremely busy, due in no small part to earning its largest commission to date in 1994.  There were already three interns on board for the summer, which I think was a record for that era, but they thought they could use one more.  Based on the word of mouth from those three interns, who consequently also attended Penn State, a call was placed from this office to my parents’ house to inquire about procuring my services as a summer intern. 

My mother took the initiative to schedule a meeting with one of the partners and to gather up my unfinished portfolio and what she could find of my college transcripts (probably only through year 3 and a half).  Remember, it was 1995, I didn't have any of this stuff digitally and I don't think our dial up modem in Italy could have wired a single page of it.  Without any preparation or coaching, she proceeded to present my work and sell my services to the firm.  The only background she had to aid her in the explanation of my work was what little I had told her about it well over six month earlier.  Anyone who knows my mother knows that she is not a particularly visual minded person, but what she lacks is vision, she obviously compensates with loquaciousness.  Somehow, she managed to make enough of an impression that I was hired sight unseen and I reported upon my arrival back in the States.
This is not how I showed up for my first day of work...I swear.
All I can say is:  It pays to be nice to your mother.  She can be your biggest advocate.  And she saved me from a fourth consecutive year of nailing wood studs together through the heat of the summer!

This is the 46th 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 "My First Job Interview" .  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

-->Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Interview -- Nervous Energy

-->Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"my first interview"

-->Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
My First Interview - Again

-->Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
My first interview

-->Ben Norkin - Hyperfine Architecture (-)
My First Interview - Your Next Interview

-->Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
My First Interview That Reconnected Me to the Past

-->Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
My First Interview

Friday, February 1, 2019

How Hip Hop Took Over the World, and Quite Possibly Can Save Architecture in the Process

In the old school days...

If you polled my classmates in 1991, a good many of them may have voted me off the studio.  You see, prior to the iPod or iPhone containing a huge library of music; prior to you even having access to a computer in the studio which could also play your music, architecture studios were essentially boom box battle zones.  My boom box was among the biggest and hardly anyone else liked my kind of music.

I like a lot of music.  Truly.  But, for all that is holy, I can only stand so much Brown Eyed Girl or, Lord help me, Best of Billy Joel.  Certain people in my studio pirated the airwaves with that junk all day long while professors were mulling around.  Either all they had was that one CD or they were too lazy to take it off of "repeat".  It didn't matter because it was the banal stuff that would offend no one.  It was, however, all I could do not to grab their boom box and throw it out the fourth story window onto the unsuspecting engineering students below.  During the day, my kind of music was taboo.  But as soon as night fell, I pressed 'play".
One of my favorite album covers.  Maybe because the artist was an architect, Matteo Pericoli.
Check him out:  Matteo Pericoli
I showed up to college in 1991 with a crate of rap and hip hop cassettes and CD's.  There was no streaming music back then?  Remember Columbia House Records?  You got 10 CD's for $1, then you had to buy so many for regular price over then next 37 years.  It was a total scam but I had Public Enemy, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, NWA, Digital Underground, Eric B & Rakim - you get it.  I had some punk and what would be called alternative stuff too, but in order to drown out the Chicago Greatest Hits for the eighth time that day, I went to something like Ice Cube.  And loud.  My friends hated me, but I was 18 and intent on offending those around me whom I had decided had offended me with their oppressively uninspired and stale taste in music all day.
Shock value?  Sure.  But contextual too.  This was one of my first hip hop albums.
I was nearly alone in my affinity for the genre.  They all scoffed at my "Hizzouse" music and they were all sure it (hip hop) would never last as a viable musical category.  I did get a few friends together to see Public Enemy, Ice-T and House of Pain at Rec Hall with me in 1992.  It was a steal for a $20 ticket!  But as Chuck D looked out on us (the audience), I believe he called us "Quaker Land".  Predominately, it was a sea of white kids at Penn State, as it was my studio.

Fast forward almost 30 years.  Hip Hop basically took over the world, as we all know.  Beyonce, the Kardashians - they all married into hip hop royalty.  All of my friends were wrong, and I was obviously right.  And today the AIA is literally dying to get some diversity in the profession of architecture.  Still.  They talked about this 20 years ago.

A couple years ago, a then graduate student in architecture, Michael Ford, blew up the architecture scene with a compelling program called Hip Hop Architecture Camp.  From their website:

The Hip Hop Architecture Camp® is a one week intensive experience, designed to introduce under represented youth to architecture, urban planning, creative place making and economic development through the lens of hip hop culture.

Learn more about Hip Hop Architecture Here:

Beautiful.  How do we get young architects with diverse backgrounds in the pipeline?  College is too late.  High school is too.  Take the message to them early.  Make it seem cool and like it can make a difference.  Music and architecture have always had this symbiotic relationship.  I remember our first year instructor Don going on and on about Mozart's compositions and how you could have "too many notes" and all that.  Did that resonate with 17 and 18 year olds in 1991?  Not a bit.  Well - maybe a little since I remembered it 27 years later but - Don was no Grandmaster Flash, that's for sure.

Early hip hop spoke about the environment, the real environment, in which the artists lived.
Ford introduces kids to architecture within the context of contemporary messages.  Bad environments can produce bad social/economic situations for those who live there.  -Of course.  Good environments can promote social equity.  -There's the solution based problem solving we need.  Architecture is contextual, just as there is a regional component to hip hop.  It started as a battle between the Boogie Down Bronx and Queens, but as rap spread, it became East Coast vs. West Coast.  Then it became even more regional, so today we have such selections as Dirty South, Crunk, Miami Base; there's a Chicago scene, a Twin Cities scene, St. Louis, get the picture.  If a certain type of music makes sense in certain place, doesn't it make sense that maybe the architecture should reflect that too?  Ford will personalize his hip hop to the location of the camp.

Photographer Glen E. Friedman took this photo on his own roof.  He did album covers for many artists across many genres.
Hey, it is no coincidence that the rappers I was listening to in the late 80's / early 90's are now popular cultural icons with proven acting careers like Ice-T, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Will Smith, Latifah, Mos Def, Common, etc. The list goes on.  These people had something to say, and once our demographic became the one with all the money to spend, producers and sponsors took notice.  Now half the commercials on TV have hip hop scores in the background.  And by now we've all heard that Ice Cube was studying architectural drafting if that whole NWA thing didn't pan out.  Kanye wants to "architect" things.  The interests are aligned.  Sir Mix A Lot now fronts the Seattle Symphony.

Even Canada has their rapper.  Yeah, Toronto!
While I may have tried to force my musical preferences on those around me in studio by cranking my box to "11", it took someone smarter than me to harness the power of hip hop to reach out to youth that maybe wouldn't have ever considered the career path of architecture or design.  If you don't get what the kids are listening to, they probably know something that you don't, and maybe never will.

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