Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

In the mid-1990’s, our office had quite a bit of work in northeastern Pennsylvania for a single client, and I found myself spending a lot of time in that area.  On one occasion, I was with Gregg Scott and, after a full day of meetings in several different locations, he was obliged to call on the administrator of one of the completed facilities in the area with “acoustical issues” in their dining room.  Since we were in his car, I was obliged as well.

The dining room was impressive, one of the nicest I’ve seen us do to this day.  It was very well appointed and the detailing was tremendous.  The problem was related to the shape of the ceiling – it was a large barreled vault.  The administrator insisted that we dine with her to see, or rather hear, the problem first hand.  We were seated with residents who were nothing but polite, and who almost apologetically conceded that there was a problem.  It turns out that the hard surface of the barrel vault was reflecting background noises to one’s ear so much so that it was nearly impossible to hear conversation directed from across the table.

After dinner, Gregg and I went from table to table, introducing ourselves as the architects of their noisy dining room.  It was the first of many humbling experiences I would encounter on the job, but most of the residents were gracious and congratulated us for the otherwise wonderful design.  There was one noticeable exception; a retired engineer.

“I am an engineer, and you can’t fix this!” he reprimanded us.  I took the attack personally and told him, in my head of course, that turning off his hearing aid would fix it.  I was much younger then, less level headed.  I am not sure what Gregg was thinking, but he maintained his composure and expressed his regrets, but assured the man that a satisfactory solution would indeed be accomplished.  The man glibly wished us luck, and we retreated to our office in Lancaster.

With the consultation of Howard Kingsbury the acoustician, we crafted a series of curved, sound absorptive panels affixed to the existing hard ceiling and sound baffles for the high walls on either side of the barrel vault.  Although I have yet to dine in the space again, I understand that our solution did indeed bring the sound reflectivity down to an acceptable level.  Although the whole experience was truly humbling, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud of the fact that the next meal the crotchety engineer might eat in that room would be crow.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dueling Accents

You’ve all heard of Dueling Banjos, but have you ever heard dueling accents?  Several years ago I overheard a conversation between Bob Patrick and Sang-Yee Rummler, discussing specification coordination.  I did not take notice of anything out of the ordinary until Division 8 and the topics of doors came up.

Bob asked if there were any “Par Doors” on the job.  Sang-Yee didn’t know what these doors were.  Neither did I, so I listened more closely.  To paraphrase their minute long verbal exchange, Sang-Yee kept throwing words out that started with “P”, from “Pella” to “painted” while Bob continued to just say "no, Par".  Finally I realized that Bob’s Pennsylvania Dutch accent was showing through, and he was actually saying “Pow-er” doors.  It did not help that English is Sang-Yee's second language - Mandarin is her first.  I found it fascinating as to how such small irregularities in one’s pronunciation could cause so much confusion.  Plus it was really funny to watch.

To digress from the first story, I was having a conversation about accents with a classmate of mine, who now lives and works in Boston.  His friend lapsed in and out of her heavy Bostonian accent, throughout our conversations without noticing that she had done so.  I asked her if she thought that I had an accent because I didn’t say things like, “Paaark the Caaar” and such.  She said she didn’t think so, which I thought was strange because to me, everyone in Boston sounded like Mayor Quimby from the Simpsons.

It’s amazing that misunderstandings as a result of the slight inflections in one’s pronunciation don’t cause us more problems, as the world continues to grow smaller and we work with people from all over the country and beyond.  I wonder why everyone just won’t talk like us.  You know - the right way.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Boston Transit

Having had the opportunity to visit Boston with my family some time ago, I came to appreciate the trials and tribulations of those with disabilities much more than I did before.  It was our first vacation with a baby (with stroller in tow), so we picked Boston because it is “America’s Walking City”.

Almost all of the sidewalks are paved with bricks, which are not ideal for those plastic wheels on the stroller, but some of the paths are paved with quarried stone cobbles which were basically nonnegotiable.  Any public building, especially the historic ones, were elevated from the street level.  If you were lucky, there was a handicapped entrance on the other side of the building, but in many cases, it was easier to pull the baby out of the stroller and carry everything up the steps.  So maybe public transportation was the way to go...

Most of the subway cars in Boston’s famously tourist friendly trains system have no elevators down to the train levels.  The trains themselves even have steps up to them.  Try carrying a stroller and a baby up onto a packed subway car.  I almost fell on my face once (don’t worry, I was carrying the stroller and not the baby).

The point became crystal clear when we were sitting in a public market, and a man with serious physical disabilities rolled up to us on his motorized wheelchair.  The brick and stone paving which had been menacing us all week with the stroller was part of his everyday life.  As he spoke to us, I recalled our difficulties with the stroller and imagined how this man who did not have the use of his legs and only limited use of his arms, managed.

As we design buildings, we're always taught to put ourselves in the place of those using the buildings.  I think in the future, I will be even more sensitive to the invisible struggle that takes place on a daily basis for those who have mobility limitations.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Coach Miller

Old Charlie Miller was the linemen coach on my high school football team.  He was a man of few words, but spoke volumes by his actions.  He must have been in his late sixties by the time he coached us, but there was still something very intimidating about his presence.  He certainly wasn’t physically imposing, but he had a way about him. 

At certain points when he felt our team was not practicing with as much intensity as he thought we should, he would approach each one of us on the field, grab us by the face mask, and shake vigorously.  No one dared try to stop him.  As I would see him turn towards me for my turn, I simply let him rattle my brains until he was done.  It was his way of trying to shake some sense into us, I guess.
Charlie is one of those people in my life who made an impression that I could never forget.  That man of few words left me with a phrase that I will always remember.  While talking about blocking assignments, he always said, “If you can’t remember who to block, never make a mistake of omission.  It is always better to make a mistake of commission”.

What he was saying was, in short, block someone, anyone, even if it isn’t the person you aren’t supposed block  Don’t just stand there and block no one.  I thought the way Charlie explained himself was quite eloquent.  He took a football situation and explained in such a way that it applied to all facets of life.  Better to make mistake by doing something rather than just standing idly by and doing nothing at all.

Sometimes you should listen most carefully to the people who say the fewest words.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Speaking Japanese

My first full time job was in a very large Japanese company right outside of New York City.  I liked working near the City because of the cultural and social amenities it affords to its inhabitants.  There are few places like New York where large segments of one ethnicity can live in a distinct community, right next to another large group of another ethnicity.  Just think of how Little Italy sits right next to China Town.  The line between them is blurry because there is no real boundary, pizza shops live next door to Chinese bodegas and it seems natural in New York.  Not even the planned juxtapositions in EPCOT Center in Disney work as well. 

My office was more than 50 percent Japanese, and sometimes it was just like working in another country.  Not only was I in an ethnic minority there, but the Architectural Division was a much smaller part of the corporate structure than the Construction Division, housed in the same building.  It was a completely different world to me.

At one time, the office was working on a very large competition to design a Japanese Corporate Headquarters in the Midwestern US.  I was given a very small part to work on in the grand scheme of things, but I was none the less invited to the design meetings held in-house.  I presented the things that I was working on to the group, as I might have done in any office, but to my surprise, I was invited to leave the meeting after my portion was discussed because, as my boss said, “we want to speak Japanese now.” 

I didn’t really have anything else to add to the meeting, but as an intern right out of college, it would have been valuable for me to hear the rest of the discussion.  At that exact moment, I realized that I either needed to learn Japanese or I needed to go somewhere else.  I figured I was too old to learn a different language, especially one that doesn’t read left to right.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Green Beans

Maintaining direction during a meeting may be one of the most challenging tasks we as architects have, especially during presentations to the residents of the community whose lives our work will affect.

The most dramatic “left turn” I can remember occurred during a presentation to residents of a community for a proposed aquatic and fitness center.  All the normal issues about number of lanes, water temperature, fitness equipment and the like came up, and as usual, no one agreed completely on any of them.  One man in particular was an avid swimmer and was the most vocal during the meeting.  Then, out of the blue, this man begins to talk about food service, which was not part of the program of this fitness center.  It only got worse.

I will never forget the next words out of his mouth, “what are you going to do about my green beans, because they are always mushy!”  Had it not been for his sensible wife and her pointy elbow, I don’t know if we ever would have gotten out of there.  “They’re architects, not cooks!” she scolded him.

People are such an unpredictable species.  To try and steer them in the right direction is not always easy, because a pointy elbow is not always handy.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ella's Laundry

I received a round of applause the other day.  It was just out of the blue.  Ella, who runs the laundry at Landis Homes and has been there for 23 years, wanted to show me her new facilities since they have moved into them.  It’s nothing fancy at all:  they have painted block walls, exposed plank ceilings, and painted concrete floors.  The floor to ceiling height is about 8’-0”, so all of the piping and ductwork is exposed as well. 

What she and her staff were so excited about were the nine windows they got.  Their previous location was in a basement with no windows.  They so desperately wanted daylight, that they had me put in two small windows into an areaway that gets just minimal indirect light.  But since she and her staff once went five years without any of them taking a single sick day, they were to get what they wanted.  And most of the ladies who work in the laundry ride their bikes to work, even in the snow!

So Ella introduced me to the staff as the person responsible for giving them their windows.  Ella explained to me that the first shift starts at 3 AM, and the highlight of their day is to watch the sunrise though their windows that look across the pond and the farmland in the background.

As we preach to our other clients the importance of daylight and connections to nature, we can all take a lesson from Ella at the Landis Homes laundry.  She gets it.

(Photo Credit - Gregg Scott)

Friday, June 17, 2011


As I approach the completion of my fifteenth full year as an architect, I've had a chance to reflect on my beginnings here at the firm.  It turns out that I never actually interviewed for a job here.  Not many people can say this, but my mother interviewed for me. 

In May of 1995, I was completing a semester abroad.  At that time, RLPS was extremely busy, having just started work on the largest project the firm had ever done in Florida as well as many other large projects.  There were already three interns on board for the summer, which I think was a record for that time.  Based on the word of mouth from the other 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 our partners and to gather up my unfinished portfolio and what she could find of my transcripts.  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 particularly a visual minded person, but somehow she managed to make enough of an impression that I was hired sight unseen upon my arrival back in the States.

The lesson learned here is always be nice to your mother, because no one can lay it on as well as Mom.