Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gingerbread 2013: Part One

Part One:  Concept

Our gingerbread display here at RLPS is legend.  I can say that because it has been going on for twenty-five years, annually since 1987.  Those of you quick in math may point out that this is a twenty-six year span. You'd be right.  But we did not do a display in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the aftereffects of which had already been felt heavily on us and our Clients.  The decision was made to abstain that year.

That said, the gingerbread display originated as a fun activity for our Clients at our annual Christmas party, held at the beginning of each December on a Wednesday night.  Quickly, it snowballed into a larger than life display, garnering local news coverage and we eventually intuited public viewing options after hours because allowing the public in throughout the day became so disruptive, it was hard to get through our old design studio.  Busloads (literally) would show up in the middle of the day.

I say "old" design studio meaning we've moved our office in the last 12 months.  So this is our first display ever in our new digs.  As you might imagine, there was a good amount of thought as to where the display would go, and how people would get to it.  I must say, with a few exceptions (I will get to those later) the display went off very well.  The exceptions had nothing to do with the building design, but how the display was set up for circulation.

One of the questions we hear all the time is, "How do you come up with the ideas, year to year?"  This year, i tried to document this part of the process, as the actual making of the display and the finished product garner a lot of attention and photographs, this part is a little less exciting, but nonetheless an important part of the story.  Each year, we begin with some committee meetings and someone (usually a newer hire) is tapped to be the main organizer.  This is our kind of hazing; much more cruel than any other I've ever heard about even in the recent NFL allegations in Miami.  This person has to herd in dozens of people, organize volunteer work sessions, make sure food is there for the volunteers (ultimately important) and keep the schedule.

We start thinking about the theme in early Fall.  This year, a theme that has been knocking around for a few years became the predetermined theme.  This is unusual for us, as normally, the first meeting of the Committee is brainstorming ideas and coming up with a short list of ideas that are ultimately voted upon.  This year the underlying idea and even a concept plan was presented to the Committee on September 25, 2013 at a lunchtime meeting.  We had pizza for lunch...

Some planning went into the presentation ahead of time:

...and the idea was presented to the Committee.  Already ideas were in place as to how the houses would be placed on the site and in relation to the other houses:

Scale of the houses had to be decided.  3/8" = 1'-0" works well for us so the buildings aren't too big, nor are people in the setting too small to build.

This year we had three formal meetings.  The next meeting was about two weeks later.  This year, as we were in a new space, we had to build an entirely new base for the display.  We had used a pair of layout counters in the old office.  This year we were placing the display in a larger room with no fixed furnishing to work around. 

This allowed us to lower the display and there was no real constraint on front versus back.  As the them was to be an Italian hill town, we noodled on how best to represent this concept.  Speaking of noodles:

Noodles would take a prominent role in this display.

The last formal meeting took place in the first week of November.  We ate subs.  I will pick up the story in the next posting...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wrestling with Sanity

I am not sure when people actually go crazy. I am pretty sure one clue is when you think you know everything about everything. I hope that I remain aware enough to know that I will never know it all. Recently I heard a radio interview with Former Governor (and wresting star) Jesse Ventura about his take on the World Trade Center Tower failures. I am not sure if he spent too much time under water in the Navy, was dropped on his head too many times in the ring or spent too much time around people in Minnesota who can not pronounce their O’s correctly, but he is a lunatic. 

The Body is convinced that there was some sort of conspiracy involving the owners of the buildings to “get rid of them”. He also believes there was some sort of controlled demolition in Building 7. I didn't catch the whole interview, and perhaps some of what I am reacting to in somewhat out of context, but….WHAT??? His argument was that these buildings were designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707 and should not have collapsed as they did. Okay. Let me reach for my U.L. rating book and find that wall design. Hmmm. Okay, there are no airplane proof assemblies listed - how about a column rating test that will withstand the heat of thousands of gallons of jet fuel combusting virtually instantaneously? Hmmm. I am guessing that the temperature inside the buildings at impact of the planes exceeded 1000 degrees after 15 minutes and 2000 degrees after 240 minutes and that would exceed the ANSI guidelines for testing fire resistance of an assembly. That test also does not account for tons of debris ripping off the fireproof covering and devastating the structural system without the aid of any heat. Each tower stood for over an hour after impact. That in itself amazes me to this day. How anyone expected more, I do not know. 

I am no forensic engineer by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t know everything. In fact, I know that I know very little about that science even though I do know a bit about buildings. But I do know to keep some of the crazy thoughts that go on inside my head right where they are. No need to share. Some people need their windmills to chase, I guess. 

As MIT professor Noam Chomsky recently quipped about this very subject, "There happened to be a lot of people around who spend an hour on the internet and think they know a lot about physics, but it doesn't work like that." If it did work like that, I'd have a PhD in Caddyshack quotes or whatever else I've invested an hour into lately on the internet.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fixing the Flux Capacitor

It’s difficult to convey to a Client that a set of documents representing their new building or renovation is a delicate ecosystem.  The plans live in a subtle balance of structural framing and mechanical systems, not to mention the life safety components such as egress and fire protection.  Just as in nature, if one facet of the ecosystem is altered, it can very quickly affect all of the other systems within that environment.  

Or a more colorful comparison that comes to my mind is that changing a design once too many decisions have already been made is a bit like time travel.  Depending on which theory one buys into; whether there are parallel cosmic timelines (alternate universes) versus loops in spacetime, there may be some arguments to the finer points.  Let’s just say we subscribe to the concept that history is plastic and subject to change, and that changes to history, while seemingly insignificant, can impact the time traveler, the entire world, or both.

Imagine a Client wants to change the environment we are creating for them.  They want to change the door locations, move walls, combine spaces.  That’s fine, of course.  It is also what the design development or schematics phases are for, but I digress.  Moving doors can affect egress paths.  Moving walls can affect sprinkler layouts.  Combining spaces may affect occupancy loads.  And each of these first layer changes can require additional changes to other systems, and on and on and so forth and so on.  In time travel this is called ‘resulting paradoxes’.  In building design this is called ‘additional services due to design revisions’.  Either way, you have to pay for the changes you incur.

The easiest illustration of this concept is the Back to the Future trilogy.  There are others like Doctor Who or stories by those like Ray Bradbury, but I am most familiar with the beloved science fiction comedy from 1985.  In the film, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, ends up in a point in time where he is presented with his parents as teenagers before they had began dating.  Any move Michael J. Fox makes seems to change the exact sequences of actions from the way they happened the first time, creating a significant ripple effect that changes time and impacting the future.  Simply the fact that Marty exists in the point in time is enough to make some changes.  Think about how the girl who becomes Marty’s mother (Lea Thompson’s character) is attracted to him instead of his father George while they are both teenagers.  Creepy enough for you?  But this fact alone creates a paradox that can bring Marty’s world to a sticky end.  If Marty changes the series of events that results in his teenage mother and father getting together at the perfect moment, Marty ceases to exist!

Just as Marty needs to repair the damages he created to his parents love story throughout the rest of the movie, the Architect must repair all the ‘damages’ generated by the Client altering the delicate universe we have created.  The ripple effect is often not immediately visible.  Often, additional necessary changes are uncovered as you work your way through the first set of changes, and each consultant that needs to react may discover supplementary revisions they need to sort out which again affects the architecture in a seemingly endless loop.  All this work is an effort to get back to a world where everything is okay again (Marty’s version of 1985).

Ultimately it is the Architect’s job to keep the Client happy, and this will include allowing them to change their mind even when it is late in the process.  We as the design professionals, however, are obligated to inform the Client of the ramifications and help them understand that some changes become a vehicle to additional services. And while these are never is as cool as Marty’s time traveling vehicle, the DeLorean DMC-12, we must not create immovable roadblocks because of the changes.  Because unlike the film, ‘Where we’re going, we DO need roads!”  We just need to fix the flux capacitor and get back to 1985.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Architect on the Go

Packed Bag
I recently put my briefcase on a diet.  It had to be done.  It was too big to travel well.  So this is my new one.  I'm not doing an advertisement here but it is the 15.6" Samsonite Classic Toploader computer bag. My main criteria were that it fit under the seat in front of me on the plane (I like to sit on the aisle so this space is sometimes cramped under that seat), and it had to be able to carry all my stuff.  I need my stuff when I go to meetings, whether they be cross town or cross country.  Okay, I may not need all the stuff all the time, but the Boy Scout in me likes to be prepared.  I have been gearing up for a series of trips to Oregon recently, so making sure I have everything has been on my mind.  So here it is above, in the packed position.  Never mind that it is on a soapbox.  I've used this bag a couple of times already on long trips and I have been happy with it so far.  When not air traveling, it is also working well.

Unpacked Bag
And here it is unpacked.  The following is a list of all my stuff, and believe me, it all fits.  This is not trick photography.

A.    Samsonite Classic Two Gusset 15.6 Briefcase.  Holds my laptop and all my stuff.
B.    Trace Paper.  I look for a used up roll, it fits better.
C.    Mini Optical Mouse
D.    Halo portable battery.  I haven't used it yet, but having been stranded in an airport before, I may.
E.    LED flashlight.  For looking above ceilings for fireproofing and smoke barriers.
F.    Dental floss.  Yeah, I do.
G.    Catch-all zip top bag of stuff.  Advil, Stain Stick, Band-Aid, sleeping pills (for red eyes), lens cleaner, and alcohol swaps (because you can't carry hand sanitizer on planes), and zip-ties (just because).
H.    Disposable toothbrush.
J.     Black pen.
K.    Red pens.
L.    10 foot tape measure.  I have a 25-footer in my car.  This one travels.
M.   Binder clips.  Always can hang a drawing up.
N.   Post-It Notes.  
P.    Three extra AAA batteries.
Q.   64 GB thumb drive.  I have all my music and books on tape on this thing.
R.    Business Cards in a real silver Frank Lloyd Wright holder.  Graduation gift.
S.    Leather Pencil Case.  My latest acquisition.  Holds a few valuable implements to always have.  Includes a lead holder, 0.7 mm mechanical pencil, green Sharpie pen, highlighter, lead tube with red, blue and HB leads, drafting dots and a mini-lead pointer.  This is like an architect's Swiss Army knife.
T.    6 inch architect's and engineer's scale.  They travel better, sometimes in the trace paper tube.
U.    iPhone.  With sweet Han Solo in Carbonite case.  Replaced a camera at version 4.  Missing is my charger chord...I will need that.  I think my son stole it.
V.    Leather Coach folio.  Pretty awesome gift from my mentor.
W.   Laptop.  I don't think they come any bigger.
X.    Earbuds.  Cheap because I lose them.
Y.    My wallet.  From my last trip (11 years ago) to Florence.  Holds everything.
Z.    Prescription sunglasses.  Because I have to drive the rental car when I get there.  In microfiber sack.
AA. Powerbrick.  I sometimes throw this into my roller bag (that is another episode).

So there we have it.  My portable office.  If I can, I mail sets of drawings to the site before I leave.  Way cheaper than extra baggage fees at the airport.  Full disclosure, I got the idea to do this post from a much more popular (and very good) blog "Life of an Architect" by Bob Borson.  But I thought my bag was special.  There are many like it but this one is mine.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Actor's Studio

I am not sure what it was that really bugged me when I learned of Brad Pitt’s increasing involvement in the architectural community. For some reason I was irked that he has become the face of a major redevelopment competition for the non-profit organization Make it Right. Perhaps it was because I still blamed him for dumping America’s sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston, or maybe it was for the 2 plus hours of my life he wasted when I sat through Legends of the Fall, or maybe because he has absolutely no training in design and more people listen to him than me. It likely it is the latter, and because someone like Mr. Pitt gets to use his money and influence to determine the new face of New Orleans.

It shouldn’t bother me. After all, he plunked down 5 million of his own money into the project (a good 20% of his 2007 revenue, I am told). As far back as the 1990’s I was told that Mr. Pitt liked to travel around Europe with a sketch book. This was of course was relayed to me by a young woman who really wanted to meet Mr. Pitt sketching in a piazza while we were in Rome for a semester. Later I learned that he had Frank Gehry redesign his wine cellar (titanium casks anyone?), and subsequent to that, he worked in Gehry’s office for some sort of weird, celebrity internship.

But then I started to think hard about the client-architect relationship. What would have become of Filippo Brunelleschi had he not had the Medici Family? Michelangelo had Pope Julius II. Schinkel had Adolf Hitler. Julia Morgan had William Randolph Horst. Wright had Edgar Kaufmann and Solomon Guggenheim. Gehry had the Guggenheim Foundation and Mickey Mouse. With very few exceptions (perhaps Philip Johnson is one) architects can not realize their treatise on their own dime. The early work of an architect usually only provides a glimpse into the deeper and more complex thoughts to be more prevalent later in their career. Think of the modest renovations in Oak Park for Wright or the Santa Monica Place shopping Mall for Gehry.

For whatever reason, I did not have a twinge of disdain for the above mentioned patrons of the arts (with the noticeable exception of Hitler, of course) and I am unsure of why that is. It may be my perception of the celebrities in general. Rarely do I think of celebrities, especially those in recent times, as being all that well educated, which may be unfair. While the media often picks up on the ridiculous quotes and theories of celebrities, I did discover that Mr. Pitt did start college and studied journalism, but did not graduate. The reason for his failure to complete his studies, I do not know. I do know for a fact though that the above mentioned patrons of the arts were all very opinionated and most certainly shaped the design of their commissions which meant compromises to the ideals and ideas of their architects. The designs we are left with would have been significantly different in some cases were it not for the influence of their patrons.

I guess I need to cut Mr. Pitt some slack. He is trying to do a good thing. More people should take an interest in the built environment, so why not him? I guess celebrities can be useful too, I mean, it’s not like one could ever be President of the United States or anything.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Here Comes the Sun

I’ve had this one calculator since the late 1980’s.  It is lightweight, thin and has never malfunctioned in the twenty years I’ve carried it around.  It does everything in need it to do, and several functions on it that I haven't used since I had a calculus class.  Here’s the kicker – I have never had to replace the battery.  It is solar powered.  Check that – it even works under a light bulb.

The solar cell on it is just a tad more than 1 square inch.  The overall thickness of the entire housing is a quarter inch at its thickest.  I’ve had this durable and dependable technology since the tenth grade, yet I still have to heat the water in my house with petroleum products.  You would think that the implementation of this power would have advanced in this generation, but it seems to me that much of the solar energy hitting the earth is just plain wasted, short of the solar calculator on my desk.

I’ve often wondered about other kinds of wasted energy.  What about the kinetic energy exerted at the gym?  It seems that the treadmills and stair climbers could easily be harnessed to run the lights inside the facility.  Where does all that energy go, other than being converted to heat, which makes the operator run their air conditioner more in the summers?  There has been a renewed effort into placing buildings to passively exploit the energy of the sun, but when I was in school, many of us dismissed this as “hippie talk”.

I am guessing that many people have seen the children’s experiment where the chemical properties of the potato can be harnessed to run a small clock mechanism.  Or how about placing a mint candy into a diet cola that produces a huge release of carbon dioxide (I guess this is not a great thing for the environment, but let’s use it as an example).  Having been raised in Lancaster County, I’ve learned not to waste things.  I’ve got to think that there are more things we can do as the designers of the built environment that capture the spirit of my Casio Scientific Calculator. 

On a slightly off kilter note, I purchased a rotary mechanical calculator, “the Addometer”, which works only on the power of the user, from EBay.  I had seen some of the more experienced guys using these in the office.  These babies have the lifespan of a giant tortoise, and can add fractions much more quickly (than in my head, not by a tortoise – I don’t have any empirical data on the tortoise).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Education of an Architect

Having had the realization that I have spent more than forty percent of my life here at RLPS, I had cause to look back in retrospect. To put it another way, I’ve spent as much time in this institution as I did in school, including college. I was introduced to life here as a summer intern, working on a presentation model for Reformed Church, and I was under the tutelage of the “professor”, Mark Schlenker. It was a full time job for the two of us and one other intern. There were more layers of paint on that model than on the Golden Gate Bridge. I think I saw the striped of colors in my sleep at night. By the end though, it was a good learning experience, teaching me something about massing, color and rhythm. However, when I found out the cost of that model, I about passed out. It was more money than I would make in my first year out of school. That also taught me something. My first assignment as a full time employee included a renovation to a skilled care facility in Allentown. It was an odd project in that never had an executed contract, and the G.C. was on board to help make informed decisions on the design of the building. They literally were building while we were designing. The facility had deficiencies as well as next to no floor to floor heights to contend with. I tend to think that most of the design in that building was done in the job trailer. People kept leaving the project; the executive director and the director of nursing left for other jobs. The landscape architect, the superintendent and the lead electrical engineer left and, unfortunately, even the president of the construction company died. At the end it was just me and the Owner’s project manager remaining as original team members. Consequently, we have already undertaken a renovation of that renovation I worked on then. That made me think. This was not the first job I’ve worked on to have lived out its expectant life span and has been updated again. As it is, I am still considered more or less a Johnny Come Lately here, and I can appreciate that. Some have been drawing here at RLPS as long as I’ve been drawing oxygen. But this year, to shake things up a bit, we moved out of our old home and into these new digs. Everyone should do that every 30 years or so.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fly the Friendlier Skies

I don’t particularly enjoy flying in any kind of craft, but the merits of flying in these small charter planes have got commercial flights beat in almost every way. If you have enough people going, the math actually works out in favor of these flights compared to even driving. Flying to Rochester, NY saves 8 hours of travel per person, knocking the travel time from 10 hours to 2 for a round trip. It allows a longer day of meetings and reduces the amount of overnight stays, putting less pressure on families at home. They do have their draw backs; however. These plans can either fly around weather or through it, because above it is not an option. Sometimes you have to wait out a weather system before you can take off. I have personally had one or to very bumpy and worrisome flights, although I was not on one flight were the door popped open. I steer clear of that seat next to the door when I fly. The planes are loud, but that allows me to zone out for an hour because it is too loud to talk. I told a friend of mine that I was in Rochester the previous day and was trying to explain the trip, and she asked how big the plane was. When I told her there were 5 seats, she asked if someone serves you drinks. I told her that would be a little difficult since you cannot stand up on the plane. But the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Aside from the actual flight time save, you can show up for an 8 AM flight at 7:55 without a problem. There is no problem parking and it is free. There is no check-in and you don’t have to take off your shoes or take apart your carry-on at the x-ray machine. I can only see this way of traveling expanding for business travelers. Charter flights just make sense in so many ways. There are areas of the world where these types of flights are the only reasonable way to get from point A to point B. For example one in eight people in Alaska have a pilot’s license. I would choose it every time, and I don’t even mind that there is no one to serve me a drink. I would rather have him keep his eyes on the road, or horizon, rather.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

I was given the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery last summer on my own (meaning no kids to “enhance” the experience).  I was looking forward to finding the resting place of my grandfather’s brother, Peter, who served in the Second World War in the Pacific.  He was part of the invasion forces Saipan (specifically Guam) and the occupation forces in Okinawa.  It took quite a while after his death for the government approved his request to be laid at Arlington, and the internment took place very quickly thereafter, so I was unable to attend the memorial service there.  So I was looking forward to finding his marker and paying my respects.

I found what I thought was his location in the cemetery from the welcome center.  But I was woefully wrong.  I ended up walking in circles and as it turned out, was nowhere near his location.  But had I not been so lost, there would be no story…

I had decided to go back to the welcome center to see if I could get some help locating Pete.  It had been a beautiful day in Virginia, but it seemed that some rain storms may threaten my walk.  I had been walking for hours and was worried I may have missed my chance of finding Pete on this day.  But on my way back, I encountered an older gentleman sitting on the edge of his car’s seat with the door open.  It looked as if he may have needed some assistance, and he waived at me as if to confirm my suspicion.  As I approached nearer, I noticed he had flowers in his right hand and a cane in the left.  As I walked up next to him, he asked me if I could help him get to his wife’s grave.  Even in my haste, I wouldn’t refuse a request like that.

It turns out his wife’s grave was only a few yards from the road, maybe 15 yards.  I held his arm steady as he bent over to place fresh flowers at her headstone.  I noticed her name, and “wife of” Major General John W. “Jack” Huston, ASAF.   I asked, quite dimly as I look back on it, if that was him.  Of course it was him.  Well, when I helped him return to his car, we started talking.  I told him of my intended quest that day and he told me a little about how he came each week to place flowers at his wife’s grave. 

He asked what I did for a living. As it happened that I was working for another retired USAF Major General, as she was the director of the retirement community for which I was currently doing an addition – Falcon’s Landing - the Air Force Retired Officers Community just outside of Washington, D.C.  He knew all about the community.  I told him I was from Lancaster and went to Penn State and it turned out he was from Pittsburgh originally.  He mentioned that he was on an advisory group for an architectural project, I believe alongside of Lady Bird Johnson (whom he said was “just a lovely woman”).   

He offered me a ride back to the welcome center in his car.  As I accepted, it dawned on me that I just effectively hitch hiked with a guy that couldn’t walk 15 yards.  I hoped the speed limit on the cemetery grounds would prevent a high speed crash.  I sat in the back seat because the front passenger seat was filled with stuff, including magazines, books and, poignantly, many empty gravesite flower stands.  But as it turns out, he dropped me off at the welcome center without incident, we exchanged some warm fair wells, and he drove off and I returned to the welcome center and received the correct directions to my Uncle Pete’s mausoleum building (not grave, he was cremated, which I didn’t know).  After I found Pete’s marker, I looked up Jack Huston on my smart phone out of curiosity.  I discovered he had a professional biography on the USAF’s official website, as most General Officers have.

I found the older gentleman I helped was a WW II veteran.  He was the navigator for a B-17 crew and flew 30 combat missions.  Regarding the 30 missions, it was customary to only to fly 25 missions before being rotated home, but Jack flew five more.  It was nearly statistically impossible for crews to survive 25 consecutive sorties based on the massive losses in the European theater.  Through the rest of the war, he instructed navigation to airmen back in Kansas.  Subsequent to his service during wartime, Jack continued to train troops, worked in intelligence operations, served in various policy positions and finally as the Chief Historian of the Air Force.  A web search will reveal numerous books that he wrote or edited about Air Force history.

I consider myself to be lucky that I got myself lost and was able to provide a very small favor to such an admirable man who served our country.  It just goes to show that doing a service to a stranger can end up paying in ways that aren’t imaginable at the time.  I was looking to pay my respects to one hero, and ended up finding two.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fly the Friendly Skys

How easily we can be reduced to a very basic and primal state.  I had the pleasure of an overnight layover in the Chicago-O’Hare airport a few years ago; unplanned, of course.  Summer thunderstorms delayed my outgoing flight from Denver to Chicago so late, that there were no more planes running that evening –  or morning, rather, because I didn’t land until after midnight.  This was my first experience being stranded.  I was just so thankful that I was traveling alone, or at least not with any children.  Here are some survival tips in case it happens to you.

1.         Find a line and stand in it.  You need to get a new ticket.  Chances are you will be told to move to another line, then another.  Just find the main service desk and stand in that line first.  The “temporary” lines the airline staff set up are just that – temporary.  The main line will be longer at first likely, but it won’t evaporate.
2.         Find the free sodas, blankets and pillows.  You won’t really sleep, so get all the caffeine and sugar you can.  The blankets and pillows provide some buffer between your behind and the floor.  Hopefully they won’t smell like ham.
3.         Find a set of chairs that does not have air rests between each seat.  Some people are actually skinny enough to squeeze their bodies UNDER the armrests to lie down on the chairs.  Let’s just say I sat up all night.  I saw cots, but I don’t know where on Earth they came from.
4.         Don’t bother setting an alarm for your 6 AM flight.  The cleaning crew will make sure you are awake at 4:30.
5.         If flights were messed up all night, they are going to be messed up for some time the next day.  Pilots need a minimum time on the ground before they are allowed to fly again.  I was flying standby on a flight for 6 AM and miraculously got a boarding pass.  Literally five minutes later they cancelled the flight.  No pilot.
6.         Listen to the other stranded passengers.  Chances are you have it way better than some of them.  One guy was on his way to get an operation.  One family of five (with young children) was to spend 4 nights vacation in London and was looking at losing two of them.  A few adults were chaperoning twenty-some teen aged girls and were trying to get home from three weeks in Europe.
7.         Don’t listen to anything the service desk staff says.  I called our travel agent to see if they could get me on the next flight.  I was informed they got me the last seat on the 11 AM flight.  When I went to get my boarding pass the customer representative told me I was just given an overbooked seat.  It apparently didn’t do me any more good than flying standby.  Literally five minutes later I had a boarding pass and seat assignment in hand.
8.         Look for celebrities.  They get stuck too.  I saw Dustin “Screech” Diamond from Saved by the Bell.

On my several mile walk from Terminal B to Terminal E, I witnessed what can only be described as a refugee camp.  Every horizontal surface was strewn with bodies wrapped in blankets.  Mothers with small children camped on the floors.  Bodies huddled around electrical outlets as if to gain warmth from them.  People who seem rational and mild-mannered while in line were stoked to a rage when they heard when the next open seat was.

All I can really say is “chin up” and try to work on your return from all angles.  As one of our partners put it, via email after I told him I wasn’t going to make it back, “Welcome to a national practice!”

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Not Your Grandmother's Nursing Home (But It Is Mine)

If you’ve read this blog in the past, you may remember that I once wrote about how I refused to design a house for my parents and that it was a very wise decision to let others tell my parents that they are nuts.  I know they are nuts and I didn’t feel the need to become nuttier myself working for them.

However, in 2007 I had the distinct luck to have my grandmother admitted into a project that I designed.  My grandmother had fallen and broken her hip for the third time in about two years and needed structured rehabilitation.  She had been to other nursing facilities for rehab in the past and it was always very depressing to visit her in these very old, medical models.

I decided to try my best to get her into Landis Homes for rehab, with the hopes of securing her a bed in the Memory Support wing permanently.  Grandma had been living in an assisted living facility, but as the series of falls she took would tell you, she was ready for more assistance.  Luckily they had a space open for her in Rehab.    Talk about a post occupancy evaluation.  It so happened that the first day I was able to visit her in her new living arrangements was on her birthday at lunch time.  Since she lived much closer I was able to go over my lunch hour.  I got to see first hand how the food service and dining worked.  The dining room was spacious enough for residents, but did not accommodate visitors too well.  Grandma had three visitors at one time this day.

My aunt was anxious to let everyone know that I was the architect for this building.  While I didn’t think I had anything to be ashamed of, I usually don’t say anything about being the responsible party until I hear what the staff are saying about the place first.  Call me cautious.  On this day though, I truly looked at the building through different eyes.  This was no longer just a building I designed; it was my Grandma’s house now.  Some how everything I looked at was with a critical eye, as in “how does this detail work for my Grandma?”  It was actually quite an experience, almost an out of architect body experience.  I was looking at the building more like an end user.

The real funny thing about this whole experience was the fact that several years earlier, Gregg Scoot and Linford Good (from Landis Homes) did a presentation at a conferences on the design of this building.  As is typical, Gregg was looking for a peppy title for the presentation.  At the time I had a friend who also had a grandmother at Landis Homes in the Dogwood building.  All the residents from Dogwood were moved into the new building once it was competed and Dogwood was adapted to another use.  So my suggestion for the presentation name was “Landis Homes – Not Your Grandmother’s Nursing Home”.  The title stuck.

Once healed up, Grandma then was transfered to the Memory Support House (which was the predecessor to the building I designed, but also by RLPS) and I took my children over to visit on the weekends when I could.  We typically sat in the living room and Grandma enjoyed watching the kids literally run around in circles.   I can not help but remember the marketing photos we have of this space, graciously appointed with loveseats, coffee table, hutches and small dinette set.  The room as it appears now has only gliders and recliners at the perimeter of the room facing inward.  I remember the discussions we had on the design of this building’s successor and because of this situation; each floor of the new building has a much larger activity room to allow more flexibility for seating of the entire neighborhood, as well as several smaller seating arrangements for functions like visiting great-grandchildren. 

At the end of our visits, the children were usually tired of hearing me tell them to stop running and be quiet and Grandma is usually asleep in her rocker.  We would whisper good-bye and see you next time, and as we would leave I hoped that in some way I helped care for Grandma’s needs.  Grandma Helen lived at Landis Homes until Janualry of 2010, just shy of her 92nd birthday, I had gotten to see her just hours before she passed in a place the really had become her home.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Blow Torch Architecture

People pay big bucks for new things- new cars, new houses, new faces and new spouses.  It seems the appreciation for things that show their age has declined.  In one instance we were looking to give materials an old world look.

Mennonite Central Committee’s training center was a unique experience.  Everyone on the design and building team had to be trained to “get it”.  Team members were sent to Egypt and India in order to give them an appreciation for the lifestyle of missionaries as well as the landscape in which the people we were designing for were to be immersed.  As a result of this trip, we spent a lot of time trying of figure out how to make something look old or weathered, or even cheap.

This had many incarnations, such as applying paint to the walls with rags to give them a modeled appearance, experimenting with stained concrete floors, and having a local metal worker make some of the door hardware.

One activity really stuck out in my mind and it was the brilliant idea of the superintendent on site, Dave.  We used a lot of reclaimed lumber on the job for everything from doors to stair treads.  The thing about reclaimed lumber is that is has a surface patina that takes decade of dirt and oxidation to create.  The trick is how you deal with the cut edges because they look like freshly sawn lumber – a stark contrast to the look we were going for.

Somehow Dave knew how to deal with this.  Even though he had not gone on the trip to the two Continents and didn’t see any of the presentations the design team made to the Owner’s Board, Dave always “got it”.  He took it upon himself to treat the cut ends of the reclaimed lumber with a blow torch.  With just the right amount of acetylene and artistic flair, one can burn a patina into freshly cut wood.  Even if you were looking for it, it was difficult to see which ends were cut last week, and which had been cut last century.

Dave had done his part in contributing to the overall aesthetic (he contributed in many other ways, too), by pulling a non-tradition trick out of his bag.  I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to practice “blow torch architecture” in the future, but believe me, I am ready.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cheeseburger in Paradise

It’s funny what you carry with you from childhood.  For some reason I was thinking about 6th grade reading class the other day.  It was the very first day and many of us had not met before since it was our first day in middle school.  We all had to introduce ourselves and tell the class something about ourselves.  I have no idea what I said about myself, but that is probably because I was obsessing about what a girl said who went before me.  She said, “Hello, my name is Jennifer and I’ve never eaten a cheeseburger.”

I went on to know this girl for seven more years in middle and high school.  I actually ran into her a few times at Penn State where we both went to college.  But I never asked her why she said what she said in Mr. Shull’s reading class.  I am sure I forgot about it by the day after the occurrence, but during the rest of the class I wondered what she had against a slice of American on top of a burger, and why that would be of interest to a group of thirty twelve year olds.  Having known her for some time, I knew that she was neither lactose intolerant nor a vegetarian.

It never clicked with me until I was involved in designing the food service facilities for the Jewish Home of Rochester.  We had design meetings with the Rabbi to get his blessing (literally) on the food service plans.  I didn’t know very much about the Kosher lifestyle, but I got a crash course in it, learning that utensils and equipment can not be cross-contaminated between preparing, serving or eating dairy products and meat products.  I did a little internet reading to find that there are some verses in the Deuteronomy and Leviticus regarding the preparation of these kinds of foods as compared to Pareve, or neutral, foods.  It is also interpreted from these verses that one should not eat an animal with cloven hooves or sea creatures without scales.  It gets much more complicated from there, and I don’t claim to understand it, but it was quite enlightening to me at the time.

And then, twenty-one years later, a light bulb went off in my head connected to this distant memory.  Call it a revelation.  I am guessing that Jimmy Buffet is not Kosher…I knew it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What goes around, comes around...

We had a ten year reunion with my architecture class several years ago (ok, close to 7 years ago).  It was a time for reconnecting and reminiscing, as reunions typically go.  Out of a class of 26 we had 16 show up, not bad considering at least two did not show because of imminent child birth (one class mate actually had his child come on the day after our reunion, so good thing he did skip it).  Some flew out from the West Coast, just for the weekend and many others had 5 to 8 hour drives.
During our tour of the old hang outs, we noticed that the songs played both by sound systems and live bands in the establishments were ten to fifteen years old, almost without exception.  They were all songs that had come out during our time in college.  As I looked about the room at all these twenty-somethings singing along to these songs (like Tom Petty’s “last Dance with Mary Jane”) I realized with some horror that these kids were singing to the “oldies”.  As a freshman in college, there was a lot of interest music from the era of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.  Those songs were about as old to me as the Petty song is to these kids.  What goes around comes around.
Later, interviewing staff for a community for which our office was to do a master plan exercise I listened to Gregg disclose that he designed the Nursing Center that is one of the community’s challenges.  I realized that what I have been doing for many years is following Gregg from community to community, updating facilities that RLPS designed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Attitudes and design for seniors has changed so dramatically.  That 1970’s “state of the art” building has becomes a communities ugly step-sister.  The rooms were dramatically undersized, the corridors were long and uninterrupted, all the surfaces were hard and reflective, and the building truly looked like a hospital.
This realization, while helping to define a nursing center’s usable lifetime, was not quite a painful as the realization that I am becoming one of the older guys in the office, too.  Some of the earliest projects I worked on are now in need of an update, even though they must have been perfect when I finished wth them 10 or 15 years earlier, of course.  But now we are putting lipstick on Kim Bassinger's dead body (reference to the Tom Petty music videa circa 1993).