Friday, May 29, 2015

You're from Lancaster...

So you're Amish, right?  I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this question.  Depending on who asks my answer can vary significantly.  But as our firm is from Lancaster and we work all over the country, I decided to provide a little historical background for those who may not be familiar with our fair city.  Because where we're from has something to do with who we are.

We've been using wind and solar energy here for a long time.

RLPS is a unique firm in that it is well known in the senior living circle as a national firm, yet we are not based where one might expect.  Instead of New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, RLPS is located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the heart of Amish Country.  Many years ago, I imagine this was a barrier to us getting work outside of Pennsylvania.  But today, we routinely compete with a half a dozen or so national firms that specialize in design for the senior housing industry.  We are the only firm that is based in a non-metropolitan area, however.  We speak at national conferences and at conferences for individual states from coast to coast, and our staff have been published in various national publications and trade papers.  We recently had people in both Portlands (Maine and Oregon) on the very same day, so we had all 3,187 miles covered, coast to coast.

Slate roof on First Reformed Church of Lancaster steeple.

Lancaster has a rich history of fine masonry workers. (Central Market)

RLPS began modestly in 1954 and at that time built its reputation upon the design of churches.  In the 1960’s and 70’s, many of those congregations created not-for-profit senior living campuses for their parishioners and missionaries, and RLPS provided design services for those same clients.  Now, a half-century later, we have worked on nearly 1,500 senior’s housing and care center projects.  We enjoy a national reputation, having worked in more than 30 states over the last 30 years, but we still have our roots in Lancaster.

Smell that?  Must be Spring!

Many of our staff is native to this area, including myself.  I was born in downtown Lancaster and, as I like to put it, Mehaffey’s have been polluting Lancaster County for centuries.  My earliest ancestor I have yet traced with the surname Mehaffey (also James) was in Marietta, Lancaster County in the 1700’s.  I believe our staffs’ roots has something to do with our endurance and our work ethic.  Lancaster County was part of Penn’s Woods and was a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  As a result, the area became a home to the Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, as well as the Scots-Irish looking to put some distance between themselves and the Crown.  These religious folk have a tradition of hard work and perseverance.  Today, there are employees at RLPS who have worked here for 30 and even 40 years and beyond!  This is unheard of in the architectural offices around the country, really.  I have been employed at RLPS for 20 years, and I still consider myself a young pup compared to five or six other guys who easily average more than 35 years.

Amish kids bringing their dads lunch at a local construction site (Landis Homes)

Lancaster is both a City and a County in South Central PA.  The city has a population close to 60,000 residents and the County is slightly over a half-million people.  There are those who may argue for other towns, but we say Lancaster is the oldest inland town in the United States, founded in 1734.  The very first paved road in the US ran from here to Philadelphia (now Route 30).  Lancaster is situated between the State capital (37 miles), Philadelphia (76 miles) and Baltimore (78 miles), making it ideal for commuters.  RLPS has been known to attract new employees from these more metropolitan cities.

Lancaster City and County have a rich history as it relates to the rest of the United States.  In 1777, after the British took Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in Lancaster on September the 27th, making it the Capital of the US for that day (the Congress had to continue to move west, away from British forces soon after).  In terms of politicians, Lancaster City is home to the James Buchanan estate, Wheatland.  As fifteenth president of the United States, he doesn’t get a lot of love for keeping the US from entering the Civil War, but that may have something to do with another Lancastrian, Thaddeus Stevens, famed abolitionist portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the film Lincoln.  The residents here from the Swiss and German stock especially were resolutely against slavery.

There are some tremendous buildings downtown (North Duke Street)

In terms of commerce and industry, Lancaster also played a part in manufacturing from infancy of the Nation.  The Conestoga wagon and the Pennsylvania Long Rifle both were manufactured here.  Robert Fulton, inventor of the steam boat, was a native son.  FW Woolworth opened the first Five and Dime store here in 1879.  Armstrong World Industries was founded in Lancaster in 1891 (by one of those Scots-Irish families), known of course for their floor and ceiling products, but started out in cork and linoleum made from plant fibers and oils.  Milton Hershey’s first successful candy shop was in Lancaster in 1886 and it is still home to the plant that makes Twizzlers (Hershey was one of those Swiss-Germans).  RCA had a factory here in the 1940’s, and along with Hamilton Watch Company and the Stehli Silk Mill, Lancaster made massive contributions to the War effort (radio parts, bomb timers and parachutes).  If you’ve ever been to an airport; you’ve seen Auntie Ann’s Pretzels, headquartered in Lancaster.  And MapQuest, formally a division of RR Donnelley (a printer of maps among other things), has its roots in Lancaster.

The old Silk Mill - windows were blacked out to prevent the Nazis from bombing it.

I give you this background to augment most folk’s knowledge of Lancaster, PA with full acknowledgement of the steep agrarian history.  We mostly come from farmers, yes.  In the attempt of full disclosure; the place I am typing right this second was a cornfield years ago, and I literally was picking corn on this site in 1989.  But we as a county (excluding the Amish) were part of the industrial revolution and every other revolution since.

A very large percentage of our staff was born or grew up in Lancaster County or a neighboring county and I think it has a lot to do with who we are.  And those staff who aren't originally from Lancaster have been here long enough to have raised their children here.  We sometimes have to overcome backwoods or hick stereotypes, but our reputation nationally has been steadily building.  And while much of our work ends up outside of city centers based on the availability of large tracts of land, RLPS has been making some headway into more metropolitan work as of late.  This may be one of the last barriers we need to cross as a firm, getting that high profile, city center commission.  But based on information from the US Census Bureau, 97% (footnote 1) of the land in the United States is considered rural, not urban, so maybe we will be just fine.

Other Notable Lancastrians: 

Jim Furyk, golfer and US Open champion 2003 (he was a senior when I was a freshman at our high school)
Kristen Wiig, Famous Actress (also went to my school up to 8th grade, in my class)
Lt.. Cdr. Andy Baldwin, US Navy, from the Bachelor (also from my high school, though younger than me)
Brad Rutter, all-time money winner on Jeopardy! (also from my high school)
Charles Demuth, painter, 1883 - 1935
Tommy Herr, Major League Baseball player
Bruce Sutter, Hall of Fame pitcher

Major Dick Winters, US Army, my personal hero from Band of Brothers fame, and my grandfather’s first cousin

Footnote 1:  Information obtained at on May 29, 2015.

Photo Credits:  Photos 1, 2 and 3, Gregory J. Scott.  Photos 4, 5, 6, & 7 by the author.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Reluctant Code Guru

When I was hired here at RLPS a mere 18 years ago, my position was to assist one of the partners, Gregg Scott, on his particular projects.  His position included leading projects as partner-in-charge for several clients, but he was/is also the main business development person for the firm, doing interviews for more work, lecturing at conferences and keeping clients happy and coming back.  As opposed to developing the same strengths Gregg had by the bushel: as his underling, my job evolved into a role that augmented the skills Gregg didn't have time for.  I became a very young project manager/project architect on day one.

On my first day on the job with him, he told me we were running up to visit three projects in Northeastern PA, and to "wear a blazer".  Each of the projects was in a different state of completeness - one in early design, one in construction, and one post construction.  After a couple of months and a few meetings with these Clients, Gregg eventually left me on my own, without the life vest of having him attend all the meetings with me.  Gregg was out of town very often, so in place of his direct guidance back at the office, he encouraged me to utilize the office resources, which included not only code and technical books, but the people in our office who had the knowledge to help me.  I had only been in the field nine months prior to starting with RLPS, I had very little experience with Codes, especially in the Department of Health arena.

My part of the library.

Of those three first jobs were included a very messy skilled care facility addition and renovation starting in the design phase, a personal care provider in a mansion from the 1800's currently under construction, and a large retirement community that had just been completed.  I had to very quickly learn the ins and outs of building codes, health codes, constructability, construction management, and the coordination with our engineers and the in-house drafting team.  All of whom had many decades more experience than I did.  I was lucky that Dave the Contractor was (mostly) gentle with me and helped lead me to the proper decisions sometimes, Tom the Structural Engineer didn't laugh at me when I thought it was his job to fire proof the steel, Bill the Drafter I had on the job with me was able to draw the sections based on his vast experience, and we had an in-house resource for code support, Paul.  All that and I was making the transition from MicroStation to AutoCAD.

After a few years’ time, I eventually became a more traditional project manager, leading a variety of projects for any of the partners-in-charge at our firm.  But having been left to sink or swim in my early days, I had developed an ability to find things out for myself, whether calling on Code Officials or Plan Reviewers for guidance or consistently bugging our in house Code Expert.  When I did bug Paul, I always gave my best effort to read and understand the Code before I interrupted him, which he appreciated.  I used Paul as a resource to verify my interpretations, not as a substitute for reading the books.

Fast forward to 2014 and my annual review with the Partnership at the firm…this review is an opportunity to discuss how things are going and perhaps how things in the office can improve.  All suggestions are considered (I was the one to suggest sparkling water to be added as an option to the soda fridge – score!).  We had been operating without the benefit of Paul's guidance for a few years at this point, so I happened to mention that, based on the upswing in new projects at that time; a lot of designs were progressing without a seasoned project architect on board to review for fundamental code analysis.  It is always better to head off an issue early, I said, because I had been on the receiving end of some very difficult positions once the project got into Design Development with me at the helm. Some examples: bathrooms or kitchens far too small to be accessible, fire walls separating buildings that would be extremely hard to build or would require rated adjacent windows, occupant loads too large not to be separated or needed additional exits - just to name a few.  It would be great, I said, if someone could look at these plans before we have the Owners super excited about a building that will be too difficult to build without various changes.

Some of the literature at my desk.

Well, be careful what you wish for.  That guy is now me.  I was not suggesting that we get one person do this job more or less full time, let alone it being me.  I wasn't sure I was qualified me to do it, really.  I had been an unofficial resource for codes in the office for some time.  I had a lot of experience (as much as anyone in the office I suppose) with Department of Health work that included NFPA reviews. I had a pretty good grasp on the International Code Council (ICC) codes as well.  Everyone from partners to drafters were already stopping by with questions.  But I had no formal training in code compliance or quality control.  I also wasn't sure I would be able to give up working on one job for months or years at a time, as I was accustomed to do.

Turns out I can still work for the Clients I have a relationship with, just in a more managerial way.  I have to adjust my thinking sometimes, but I can still be a team member.  And I started to really like seeing more projects our office is working on, where I may have never seen them prior to the finished product photos.  Analytically I am able to look at early plans and try to sort out construction types and area/height limitations, building separations, occupant loads, etc.  As I understand it, others don't find this as interesting as I do.  I describe it as "reading the Matrix".  I try to look at any limitation or hurdle with a problem solving eye, very much the same as I do when I am laying out building programs and adjacencies in floor plans.  It is just another type of problem to solve - split the building this way, provide sprinkler coverage to get height increase, perhaps change the construction type...and not knowing everything there is to know about the project or client just means that I need to think in terms of options.  You can do this or that and get to five stories - you choose.

The Matrix - Isn't this how everyone sees buildings?  I see clearances and ratings as readily as doors and windows.

I also do a lot of reviews of projects near the end of Construction Documents as part of our quality assurance procedures.  This way I get to see the (almost) finished product and see which options they went with.  I try to go through the code sheets as if I am seeing it cold, however.  I try to take on the persona of the Plan Reviewer.  I try to take out any of the questions I feel may be asked with the help of a red pen.

Codes change of course, as we experienced from the SBC,  BOCA and the UBC to the ICC family of codes.  We work all over the country and, in my opinion; there is really no unified building code.  Every jurisdiction has multiple amendments and approves the more recent codes at their own pace.  Various State agencies require conformance to the NFPA Life Safety Code while local jurisdictions review under the International Building Code. And why is it International when only US States and Territories use it?  And depending on the State, there is potentially a 12 year difference in the Code edition enforced - 2003 vs. 2015 Editions.  So one of the more challenging parts of my position is figuring out what we have to comply with.  This is not always so easy to find on the State and Local websites.  In one case I found one department did not yet know that a legislative change revised the way townhomes were reviewed, essentially taking out of the State’s purview and putting it solely into the local review.   Anytime there is an overlap of responsibility between the State and Local, it is just an opportunity for potential conflict. It is all part of the fun!

So, a couple of years later, I am primarily the office "Code Guy".  There are still several jobs in construction that I had run, and am still involved with projects where I had been the primary contact for several years.  But now I am integrated into the front ends of many projects, assist project managers with issues, attend preliminary code reviews with them at the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), assist in the QC/QA process, as well as assist any client having code issues with existing facilities, etc.

It is challenging work, but there is a variety and overview that I find refreshing.  I had just recently worked on three projects with extremely long timelines, each taking 5 or more years to design and build.  I felt a little pigeon holed in those projects and felt like I didn’t get to see anything else we were doing as a firm.  While I have to broaden my depth of understand of code issues as I look at up to a dozen projects in a week sometimes, I see more projects, I work with a wider range of people in the office and I even correspond with a broader cross section of Clients in my new position.

The one area that I am still getting used to is the interruptions.   I have come to realize that my work days are now a series of disruptions with some intermittent scheduled work in between.  When I am working on any of my projects, I am often doing complex calculations or I have my head in the Code book(s), reading and rereading sections of code.  This is not an ideal task to interrupt, at least not for me.  I never claimed to have any Codes memorized.  In fact, Codes have a tendency to change with each edition, so it is not wise to rely on memory alone.  Certain tasks can take me into a section I have never really read before and the Code is not always particularly black and white for every situation.  I don’t carry code books to the coffee pot or the rest room.  That doesn't seem particularly sanitary in either case.

Read, interpret and retain, right?
Everyone has their strengths, though, and where one has strengths where many others are unsure, you're bound to be popular.  Maybe I need a take-a-number dispenser like at the deli.  I’ve always liked those paper hats they wear, too.

Now serving:  Number 32.

The position I am in now all relates to whom I started working with and how I was able to fill in and learn a set of skills that were needed to round out those first three projects I started working on with Gregg.  Had Gregg been the technical guy, I may have never become the Code Guru.  I really don’t like that name though – sounds like I teach yoga on the side.  Other considerations are:  Code Sage, Code Shaman, Code Illusionist, Code Whisperer, Code Soothsayer or Code Clairvoyant.  Whatever you call it, I never, not in a million years, suspected I would be in this position.  If you would have asked me when I was 22 if would ever want to do this day in and out, I am sure I would have said no way.  But that is a dumb kid talking, one who doesn’t have twenty years of experience and doesn’t see the inherent value in staying out of trouble.