Thursday, March 15, 2018

Noisy Neighbors

Originally appeared in the AIA Design for Aging Newsletter in August 2014.

Moving is always stressful.  You have to find enough boxes to hold all your stuff.  You have to have utilities shut off in one place and turned on in another, hopefully at the appropriate times.  You need a van and a lot of friends who will move you for pizza and beer or soda.

Moving into a retirement community is stressful too, although hopefully you can afford professional movers at this point in your life.  However there are a lot of adjustments to be made.  For one, most of the residents moving in will be leaving a single family home and are accustomed to the buffer they have between their house and any neighbors.  This is not the case in most residential accommodations in a CCRC.  In most instances, at best, you will have one neighbor directly on the other side of the wall from you.  In many cases, you will have neighbors to both sides, plus above and below.

Sales people will likely not understand and thus not explain to residents the reality about what they may expect to hear from their neighbors.  And this is a disservice to the residents and to the administrators who will hear the complaints.  But expectations need to be managed in order to not to disappoint new move-ins.  The walls, ceilings and floors between units will in most cases never be “sound proofed”, but we as designers will do what is possible to manage and dissipate sound to acceptable levels.

I grew up in a semi-detached home until I was 15 and then lived in a townhouse with my family or the college dorms until I was 27, when I bought a single family home with my wife.  You could say I was used to having neighbors.  For almost 30 years I expected to hear my neighbors come in the door, hear their garbage disposal and generally, hear a bit of their everyday life.  But as long as the neighbors kept their AC/DC album to a normal level, this was ok because this is what I had come to expect.  However, this is not what many incoming residents to retirement living may expect.  They may expect the same quite environment they have now in a single family home.  They have no children.  They may even live completely alone.  The only sound they may hear is made directly by themselves personally.
When Aerosmith is your're going to hear something.

None of the close quarter living units I experienced growing up were even close to complying with ‘modern’ sound requirements.  Current building codes address both air-borne sound and structure-borne sound.  Simply stated air-borne sound is hearing your neighbor’s voice or TV.  Structure-borne noise is hearing your neighbor’s footfalls above you or their garage door open.  So as a minimum the wall, floor and ceiling assemblies between dwelling units must meet and sound transmission class of 50.  This far exceeds standard wall construction found in older building stock or in a single family home.  A wood stud wall with a layer of wall board on either side has an STC of about 34.  To get to about 50-54 STC (as measured in a laboratory) a wood stud wall must have 2 layers of wall board on one side of the studs, the stud cavity is filled with fiberglass insulation,  with another layer fastened resilient metal clips which offset the board from the stud by ½ inch.  These clips allow one side of the wall to vibrate independently from the other side and as such the noise does not translate from one side of the clip to the other at 100%.  The fiberglass insulation works as an attenuator, reducing the strength of the signal, so to speak.  This wall is also in effect 50% more dense than the standard wall.  The building codes also require that all openings, cracks and seems must be sealed with acoustical caulk and that penetrations, such as electrical outlets, must be staggered between studs, so that there aren’t one in each side within the same cavity opening.

Also, from the laboratory to the field conditions of the actual building, the STC is expected to be reduced by 5 levels.  This is most likely due to imperfect conditions and inherent weak points in corners and along edges, as well as penetrations needed.  So while we design to meet an STC of 50 in our drawings and the code plan reviewers see this, it is expected that a field test on the same assembly would provide a result of 45 and this still meets code.  Sound will penetrate a system at the weakest point, so anywhere the defenses are down such as at a door or an electrical box, that is where the sound will transmit.  Unfortunately, if the rest of the room is treated well acoustically, it doesn’t really offset a break in the assembly, like a hole or seam that is unsealed.  It only takes a small hole in a rubber raft to sink it.

So in a sense, a standard party wall is about 15 to 20 STC points higher than it would have been prior to the regulations in the building codes.  That seems pretty good, but is it?  Consider these facts.  A rule of thumb is for every 10 STC you add to an assembly, the sound coming to the other side is roughly half as loud.  In diminishing returns, 5 STC is clearly noticeable, 3 STC is just barely perceptible, and 1 STC is almost imperceptible.  Mass is important to acoustical performance.  If you double the thickness of a membrane, such as 2 layers of wall board in lieu of one, the STC rating will increase by about 5, which is clearly noticeable.  Installing insulation is a wall also adds about 5 to the STC.
Example of an STC 30 wall - Photo Credit:  Gypsum Association

Walls assemblies with STC values far exceeding the code are often called a “luxury” and as such they come with a price.  A wall with an STC of 60 will pretty much eliminate the perception of loud speech from one side of the wall to another.  A double wall certainly improves STC ratings.  But they take up a lot of square footage (which often can’t be factored into rentable space) and they are more costly to build.  Also masonry walls are very dense and as such very good insulators of sound, but again come at a cost.  A 10 inch hollow block wall by itself attains nearly a 50 STC. 
Example of a 55-59 STC Wall - Photo Credit:  Gypsum Association
Floors will be very similar to walls, except a typical assembly “sandwich” would be made up of wood joists and fiberglass insulation topped with plywood subfloor and gypsum poured topping.  The bottom would have several layers of wall board attached to the same kind of metal clips on the underside of the joists.  Additionally, a floor needs to perform in terms of impact noise, i.e. footfalls, which is a structure-borne noise.  Typically this is addressed additionally with an acoustical mat placed between the gypsum topping and the plywood in the assembly.  These mats provide additional mass as well as resilience to the floor make up.  The mats can also be placed right below flooring as well.
Example of an STC 37 Floor - Photo Credit:  National Gypsum

Example of an STC 60 Floor - Photo Credit:  National Gypsum

STC ratings are a fairly sensible predictor of how a wall will perform.  However, SCT uses a range of 125 to 4000 Hertz, which are the range of frequencies associated with human speech.  This range does not really consider very high or very low frequencies, such as those produced by machines, air handlers or electrical transformers.  It isn’t perfect but the STC rating system is the standard by which designers live by.

I am using examples above in terms of wood construction because that is fairly standard in low to mid-rise residential construction.  But actually metal studs preform a bit better than wood studs.  This is due to their flexibility characteristics as they a can soften or decouple some of the noise vibrations from one side of the wall to another. In terms of the big three in acoustical dissipation, there is Mass, Airspace between and Resiliency (or materials that flex and decouple).  Any time you can add two or more of these properties to an assembly, improvements will be realized. 

During the pricing exercises on building or renovation project, we as designers are often asked to make concessions to reduce costs.  Many of these decisions, which the Owner must be a part of, may affect acoustical comfort.  These items include replacing cast iron waste pipes for PVC pipes, reducing or changing types of insulation on pipes, providing alternate wall assemblies (here we can point to code now to limit this reductions), alternate finishes which may be less absorptive of sound, alternate HVAC and mechanical items that may perform worse acoustically or alternative door hardware.  All of these issues can degrade the acoustical comfort in a building versus the initial design, so be careful.

How does this all translate to the expectations of future residents?  When discussing their future neighbors, the sales team must not convince the clients they won't hear anything their neighbor does.  It is expected in new construction that dwelling units will not be sound proofed, but that sound will be reduced to an accepted standard.  They are likely moving into new type of housing product whether it be apartment or semi-detached home, so it must be explained that there is an inherent difference between living on your own plot versus living in a community.  The sales team should learn, with the help of their design professionals, how a standard house wall performs next to the proposed party walls in the housing product.  How do they relate in terms of STC to each other and to the minimums mandated by code?  If the product is new, a pricing alternate could be explored for “luxury” STC 60 walls.  It could be an option to residents to buy up to this option.  But this is a very difficult feature to add later.

I’ve always found it interesting that in aging, it is often said the hearing goes first, yet in many cases the resident population we serve seem to be ultra-sensitive to sounds in their new homes.  I believe much of this is the result of expectations.  People coming to live in an apartment after having lived on their own plot for 30 or 40 years tend not to expect to hear their neighbors at all.  They don’t have common walls or hallways.  They don’t have elevators nearby.  They may be on the same routine as their spouse and don’t worry about someone being a night owl while the other is an early bird.  Let’s face it, if they’ve lived with another person for 40 year, they probably have adjusted to their routine.  A new neighbor is a completely different story.  They are probably used to the noises of their old HVAC system, but their new one may make different sounds.  Not more noise, just different.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Communication in a Yada Yada World

Gary Cooper, as Howard Roark in the Fountainhead.

Gary Cooper was the strong, silent type.  When it comes to writing it is almost always better to use fewer words to express a thought rather than more.  This is especially true in business writing and the same can be said for spoken presentations.  That is not to say that one should haphazardly remove words, or force sentences to their minimum lengths, but a well thought out paragraph should remove extraneous phases and redundancies.  As all things ultimately relate to Seinfeld; this is not a suggestion simply to gloss over the body of the story...

Did Elaine just yada yada the best part?  No she mentioned the bisque.
But this takes some time and thought, as does improving anything, and that is why it seems to seldom happen in business correspondence.  To illustrate, below are some of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Thomas Jefferson quipped, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Blaise Pascal said (in French), “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

This last historical example I present is not only clever, but ironic.  In Hamlet, Polonius states that “brevity is the soul of wit” in an exceptionally long winded explanation as to why the Prince is mad.  The Queen then interjects, “More matter, with less art.”  Quite possibly the most elegant way to say, “Get on with it,” that I have ever come across.

If I can be indulged a final personal example, I was working with an engineer on faucet specification.  Exciting, no?  There was a major difference between the faucet the Owner suggested (Faucet A) and the type we typically use (Faucet B).  First I received a ten minute phone call from the engineer explaining why Faucet B was specified by them in the first place and how it was more appropriate for use in this case.  Then the same engineer sent me the product cut sheets along with a very lengthy email further explaining the situation.  My task was to distill all this information to get a final decision from the Owner.

I was able to shave 1/3 of the word count from the original engineer generated email and send it to the owner for a value-based decision.  I believe it was clear, concise and yet courteous.  I actually got a note back from the engineer thanking me for sending out the question because, as he put it, my correspondence was what he was trying to say in his head, it just wasn't coming out that way.

The Gettysburg Address contained 270 words, roughly 200 less than this article.  Lincoln’s Address was not the only speech in Gettysburg that day. Edward Everett gave a two hour eulogy prior to Lincoln’s two minute talk and yet no one remembers the former’s content.

For the record, the owner responded the way we hoped he would and used only nine words to do so.  

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 "Communication" and was led by Brian Paletz.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Communication and the Question of Relevance

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
what does it communicate?
Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Types of communication in architecture
Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Talk, Write, Draw -- A Com Hat Trick
Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #36: Project Amplify
Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Communication - What, How, Why?
Samantha R. Markham - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
Why Communication Skills are a Must for Aspiring Architects
Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Who's Bad!
Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Jane Vorbrodt - Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Explain Yourself...

Monday, February 5, 2018

Starting a Design: First Thing's First

I am going to guess I look at the start of a design differently than any of the other architects writing about this topic today.  I think most people picture a person hunched over a slanted drawing table in a dark room, inking lines on vellum under the halo of the single incandescent bulb of an articulating lamp.  While I do get to look at each and every project in our office, my input has more to do with compliance and practicability than design notions.  And instead of ink and vellum, I typically have my codes pulled up on my tablet.  Or I may have one book open on top of another book. 

How TV Shows Portray the Architect.
Normally, I see projects after they’ve taking at least a rough form.  Programming and discussions with the Owner have already taken place, at least to some degree.  Our projects are seldom “simple”, meaning they usually involve a good bit of renovation and connections to existing structures, which means firewalls and other code related goodies.

To get started, I need at least three bits of information.  What is the Occupancy?  What is the height & area?  What is the construction type?  A fourth component may often be:  What are we connecting to?  This is assuming we know which codes to use in this Jurisdiction.

This is What My Desk Really Looks Like at the Start...
Occupancy (or building use) may seem simple, but it can get complicated.  Our focus is primarily senior living projects.  Many of the buildings in communities serve multiple uses.  Are we separating the uses by fire barriers?  Are they allowed to mix?  Can that occupancy be open to the corridor next to that occupancy?

Height and area is pretty straightforward until it isn’t.  First, areas could change due to design changes, so you have to make sure there is some flexibility in the allowable areas or be prepared for heartache.  Do we get extra square footage (SF) for sprinklers?  Do we get extra stories, or is it capped at 4?  Then, where there are more than one occupancy in a building and those uses are not separated, the sum of the ratios of actual SF to permitted SF of each occupancy cannot exceed 1.  And you thought high school algebra was a waste of time!

Construction type is the variable I can help determine.  The further to the right in the code chart, the cheaper it is to build, typically.  But the cheaper construction types are the most restrictive in terms of how high or how big you can build.  So it is a balancing act.  In wood construction you just can't build certain building uses or you can't build them high enough.  In other cases, we have to divide the building into two separate structures, connected at fire walls, in order not to exceed the allowable area.
Exciting, Right?
The dance continues.  In a building containing multiple occupancies, you can separate them or allow them to “mingle” together (unseparated).  Unseparated occupancies must abide by all the most restrictive conditions for any of the uses.  This means if you have apartments and assembly spaces in the same building, you may be looking at a higher level of protection in the whole building due to the presence of that one use.  Or you can separate them with protected construction.

A Little Later on in the Process, Code Books on Top of Code Books...

When buildings are renovated or connected to additions, there is another layer of compliance complexity.  If the building is not separated into two independent structures with fire walls, what do we have to do to the existing building to make it compliant with current codes?  Sometimes this is not much, but other times the added square footage of an addition will require life safety systems that aren’t provided in the existing building, like sprinklers, smoke detection or fire alarms.  There are other triggers for accessibility as well.

This May Be Closer to Reality...
This is the stuff I start thinking about when I begin to look at a building design.  A little more than form follows function, isn't it?  And we haven't even gotten to the details yet. Like:  Where's your vapor barrier?  What's the flame spread of that material?  What's the UL of that roof/ceiling?  But early is the time to address these topics.  

Never has anyone ever told me, "I wish you would have waited until after permit submittal to tell me about the flaw in my fire wall!"

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 "Starting a Design" and was led by Jon Brown.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
."starting a design..."..

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake

Monday, January 15, 2018



I love beginnings. I marvel at beginnings. I think it is beginning that confirms continuation.

-        Louis I. Kahn[1]

To be honest, I was struggling to come up with the stream of consciousness that would stitch together my thoughts with this month’s theme.  I suppose that is appropriate for this theme, like a painter, staring at a blank canvass for the first time.  I have written many posts over the years; some come much easier than others do.
This is LBJ, having a worse day than I am.  I believe presidential photos to be part of the Public Domain.

I started writing regularly about my perspective as a young architect over fifteen years ago.  Cripes, I am old.  Anyway, back then I wrote for our monthly newsletter, which we actually printed out and placed a copy in everyone’s mailbox.  I started to look back at some of the topics, and I am all over the place.  Many of the stories I told are about people who are retired, moved on or in several cases, no longer with us.  I tried to write in a way that anyone could appreciate the story.  While most of my articles had something to do with architecture and my exploits with the Firm, I was just as interested in being relatable to our bookkeeping and clerical staff as I was to the firm Partnership.  I still strive for that universal appeal today.

In searching for ideas for this post, I looked back at the content from all the earlier articles, which I keep on a thumb drive.  My very first article was about how my mom actually interviewed for me at this Firm while I was studying abroad at school.  I wrote subsequent articles about projects I worked on which we have since added onto; about co-workers who very few current employees here will remember; about comical tasks I had to do as an intern; and about technology that no longer exists (remember fax machines and floppies?).  And while some of the articles I wrote have no real value as stand-alone texts, they all lead me to the architect and would-be writer I am today.

I had a professor once tell me that I should finish every thought I have, even if it is on a roll of trace paper that I know I will throw out, because that thought has purpose in the process, even if not necessarily the finished design.  In other words, I may still learn something from it.

Every time I begin anew, whether it be a building diagram or a blog post, the beginnings build upon all the other experiences in my data bank.  Some of those experiences have no relationship to the new destination, other than they are part of the road that lays behind me.

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 "Renewal" and was led by Larry Lucas.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
get out of town renewal

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Goal Renewal

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
renewal: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Renewal - Re-Ranch

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

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks 34: Renewal

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
No guts, no glory!

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
5 Tips for Harnessing Renewal to Advance Your Goals

Samantha R. Markham - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
reNEWal. new year. new goals

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
Break Routines

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Renewal is Valuable for Heart and Hometown

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
The 12 Steps of Sprawl Recovery

[1] “The Invisible City”.  International Design Conference, Aspen, CO, June 19, 1972.  In What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis I. Kahn, ed. Richard Saul Wurman (New York: Rizzoli International Publications).  1986, p. 150.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Choose Your Battles: ArchiTalks

You have to choose your battles.  A few years ago, we went down to Virginia to meet with the local code officials about an impending project for a preliminary plan review.  Every jurisdiction is different in how they apply the codes and we wanted to get everything straight before we got close to formally submitting plans for approval.  The Code Official and the Senior Plan Reviewer were there as well as two representatives from the Fire Marshal’s office.  Everything went fine and we asked our questions and we were able to judge how this jurisdiction was going to be to work with.

When we ran out of our prepared questions, we asked if anyone there had any pet peeves or things they like to see.  It is good to ask this but it is a bit of a loaded question and can also be the opener to the proverbial Can ‘O’ Worms.  It turns out the Fire Marshal doesn't really like vinyl siding or engineered lumber (TGI’s).  Their reason for the aversion: vinyl siding “is like solid gasoline” and “TGI’s fail too soon”.  Now, both of these items are tested and rated like any other construction material.  Both sides of the table knew that the design called for both, and both sides also knew that it was perfectly acceptable, according to all prevailing building codes.  The fact that they don’t like those materials really didn't matter much.  But for a response, we listened and nodded our heads and that was it.  We all knew those two products would be in the project in the end and arguing about it now would only cause our local hosts to feel less amiable towards the out of town architects.  So we basically zipped it while we indicated we understood their point of view.

Melted vinyl siding as a result of a fire.  Photo Credit:  Scott Eklund/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
A little like insanely hot silly string when engulfed, I bet.

Okay, these TJI's might fail on the right...  Photo Credit:
But their pet peeves were something I had not heard before, and they weren't done there.  We were only about 2 ½ hours away from our home office, in basically the same climate zone, but apparently down there mulch in planting beds will ignite and consume buildings with fire.  The Fire Marshal asked that we keep mulch as far away from the building as possible.  Their cautionary tale is an example I wish I was creative enough to imagine on my own.  Picture it.  It’s free Pancake Day at the local IHOP and the line is wrapped around the building.  (Pancake Day is March 7th in 2018, so mark your calendar).  Someone in line thoughtlessly flicks a lit cigarette into the IHOP’s mulch bed.  Poof – the solid gasoline, I mean vinyl siding, bursts into flames.  No one was hurt, but many a folk went without their free pancakes.

Mulch fires do happen apparently...  Photo Credit:

What do you say to that?  In the end we said we would talk to our landscape designer about running a boarder of pea gravel around the building in lieu of pushing mulch beds right to the exterior walls.  But in reality, we know we wouldn't be able to pay for all that gravel.  There was nothing else we could have said to assuage their fears.  Our meeting was over, it was lunch time, and suddenly we were in the mood for pancakes.

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 "Eureka" and was led by Stephan Ramos.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
Limit Their Stress By Limiting Their Choices
Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Choices -- Your turn
Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
A million choices
Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How Do You Deal with Choices During the Design Process?
Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Slow… merge… stop
-->Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

-->Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


The ArchiTalks theme this month required some reflection.  In terms of major discoveries in my development and career as an architect, I don't really think in terms of surprise

revelations.  As with projects during my 20 plus years, typically the path is long and full of hard work and coordination with others.

I do, however, recall a poignant moment I experienced in my first year at school.

First Year was a bit of a struggle for me.  I had coasted through high school, really.  I was in the top 2% of my class of 300, and never really had to try that hard.  At least not like I had to in college.  I worked, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t know what work was until architecture school.  Design Studio was a real adjustment.  I initially applied the same worth ethic  in that class as I had in high school classes.  I was always there and I always did what was asked.  But never more.  And in architecture school, that is only good enough for a B, B- maybe.  Sometimes a C+.  Along with all my other classes, I was still able to scrape together decent grades for the first semester.  But as Design Studio was approximately one-third of your credit load, and approximately two-thirds of all the work you had to do, I was just fair to middling in my class.  We started out with a class of 75 freshman students, and as our class shrank very quickly to about 60 that first semester (due to kids changing majors), I was in the bottom half of the remaining class at that point.

This is from a later trip, thus the leaves.
In either March or April of the second semester, the entire class that remained took a trip to Fallingwater.  We loaded up three or four blue Penn State vans, full of 18 year olds and drove the three hours to Mill Run, PA.  It was pretty dreary weather, as Western PA tends to be in early spring.  There weren’t too many leaves on the trees yet either.  In spite of all that, we were about to take over the most famous private residence in the entire world.  I didn’t know it yet but it would change my attitude, and my life.

The Money Shot
Our group pretty much had the run of the place.  As I recall we had almost unlimited access.  Most people have that one “money shot” looking up at the cantilevers from the water in their mind when they think of Fallingwater.  And while that was amazing to see for the first time, my moment came in a much more secluded and private location. But you can imagine, 18 year olds set loose on the grounds was bound to  unleash some shenanigans.  Kids were all over the stream bed, in the water.  I distinctly remember one girl had a white T-shirt on and, well, she got herself soaked.  And inside, had I been a docent that day, I would have been popping Maalox, afraid some kid would get mud on the original rugs or cushions or something.  Aspects of the interior were certainly dated, like the kitchen appliances at the time, but I was in a building unlike I had ever been before.  This was architecture.  I don’t think I had ever experienced it before.  I had hardly been anywhere before, let alone one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.  Nearly everything you saw, touched, heard or smelled seemed to be orchestrated.  How the floor bled out of the boulders forming the fireplace and spilled outside seamlessly.  How the corner windows melted away to provide unobstructed view of the exterior.  How that one beam went out of its way to allow a tree to grow through the trellis.  How that one desk has a crescent cut out of it to allow the casement window to open.

The Trellis
As the day wore on, I made my way down those stairs that literally ended at the water.  I don’t know if Edgar Kaufmann ever used that platform at the bottom to go swimming, but it doesn’t matter.  I had my moment right there.  I got it.  Architecture is not about physics or calculations or drawing straight lines.  It isn’t even about getting good grades.  Architecture affects human emotion.  That is the point.  And everything I did in school after that changed.
photo: Daderot, CC0 1.0
We got back into those buses to go home with a part of me changed.  There were still shenanigans.  I remember we stopped for gas, and while the driver/professor went to pay, the guy sitting in the passenger seat wrote in the condensation on the windshield “BIG DADDY DON” in huge letters.  Our professor's name was Don.  Hey, we were still kids.

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 "Eureka" and was led by Stephan Ramos.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:
Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Eureka!? Finding myself amid the "busy."

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Gee, golly, gosh EUREKA: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Eureka! -- Things That Suck

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

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
Searching for that Eureka Moment

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Finding That "Eureka!" Moment in the Design Process

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Naked in the Street

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Eureka moments and what do if clients don't appreciate them

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Eureka for George in Seinfeld Episode 181

Monday, October 9, 2017

Passing the Test

I have literally no advice for anyone taking and passing the Architectural Registration Exam today.  I am sure that was not the intent of this month's topic, but I took it so long ago...

How long ago was it?

I am glad you asked.  It was so long ago the Vitruvius only had seven Books on Architecture at that point.  John Ruskin only had five Lamps of Architecture back then.  They were just digging the foundation for This Old House...
From my yearbook...

Alright, it wasn't that long ago, but I did begin in 1999.  It was version 1.0 of the fully computerized test, I believe.  I couldn't wait to get it done.  I think the fact that I didn't know what to call myself until I did finish the exam pushed me.  I was once introduced to a client as "an intern" after a few years on the job.  Then the client asked when I went back to school.  Come on, man!

I completed my hours for the Intern Development Program (now called AXP) in the minimum amount of time possible and registered to take my first division of the test.  I resolved to take one division per month until I passed all of them.  There were nine divisions then.  I took the first exam in October 1999 and finished the last in June of 2000.

There were two other interns in the office taking the exams at the same time.  I remember the three of us rummaging through the mail bin to try and find our letters from the State Licensure Board to see if we passed or not.  You see, you used to have to take the exam at the testing center and leave without knowing if you passed or not.  What's more is, notification was snail mailed to you and, looking at the postmarks, we had to wait a full month after sitting for the exam whether or not you passed.  It was a painstaking wait!
This is all we got and we had to wait about a month to get it!

Older architects would regale us "newbies" on the merits of taking the entire exam over the course of several consecutive days in an old Post Office in Philadelphia, with T-Squares on old doors.  But being in the first generation of computerized testing was also a challenge.  The design software was available for download for practice for the Building Planning and Site Planning portions of the exam.  The software was was rinky-dink and fussy.  Otherwise, the tests were more or less multiple choice on the computer, which sounds easy, but I recall only leaving one exam with a feeling that I definitely passed it.  I was lucky enough to pass them all the first time, but there was one which scared to devil out of me.
Ah, the good olde days.

I forget which test it was, I think it may have been Materials and Methods, but I was at the end of one section of the exam.  Back then the computer saved each section before loading the next section  you were going to take.  After the second of three sections I pressed the "Save and Go to the Next Section" button - and I got a Fatal Error.  I had to get the test administrator to restart the computer.  The administrator couldn't tell me whether the saving "took" or not.  I was left to complete section three of three not knowing if the first two sections saved properly or not.  That was a long month to wait for a Score Report.
Never a good thing.  Really not a good thing on an exam.

Fortunately it came back as a "PASS".  But that is all they tell you in the test report.  If you failed, there was no indication on what you didn't do well on in order to study for the next time.

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 "The Architectural Registration Exam" and was led by Meghana Joshi.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
What is the Big Deal about the ARE?
Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
what A.R.E. you willing to do
Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Take the architect registration exam, already
Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
ARE - The Turnstile
Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
the architect registration exam

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
I forget
Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
The Architecture Registration Exam
Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
What is the Benefit of Becoming a Licensed Architect?
Kyu Young Kim - J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Every Architect's Agony
Nisha Kandiah - ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
To do or not to do ?
Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Test or Task
Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Part 3!
Ilaria Marani - Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
How to Become a Licensed Architect in Italy
Jane Vorbrodt - Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Seven Years of Highlighters and Post-it Notes