design – a process much like childbirth

“Over the years, I’ve come to understand that all design has a natural flow to it.  You start out with one thing in mind, but if it goes in another direction, you cannot deny it that transition–or it won’t work.  You cannot bend design to your will, you can only bring forth what wants to be brought forth.  If in the end, it is not what you really wanted, then you accept what it is and start over, in a new direction.” – comment by Matt @ the tiny house blog

The above quote was a comment posted to the Tiny House Blog about a project that was posted there, but it struck a cord with me and got me thinking about the process of design.  This has even come up recently in some social conversations going back to the days of design studio and even in present day practice, so obviously the topic is being discussed on multiple levels – as it should be.

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of design, be it architecture or furniture or clothing or technology or those little shell-shaped soaps they put in hotel bathrooms.  In college “design” was simply what we did.  My alma mater was very concept oriented – very little attention was paid to “can this be done”.  The emphasis was always on exploration and creative problem solving, which is the essence of design when you get right down to it.  Now, to be fair, we were required to take the requisite courses in structures and environmental technology and construction technology.  But these were not Studio (yes, with a capital “S”), these were “core” classes – you know, the ones that you had to get through in order to get to Studio.  That was the goal – Studio = Design.  Little did we know this also meant way too many sleepless nights spent hunched over a drafting table (yes, we hand drafted and built real models with chip board and glue) or squinting into a computer monitor, but that’s a story for another time.  This exploration led us, naturally, to some very interesting solutions to various design problems that we were presented with….and well, some not so interesting, but hey, you live and learn right?


You might be asking “what the hell does any of this have to do with childbirth?  Well, in all of our Studios, Design typically began with the presentation of a particular site and a particular problem that needed a solution.  We were all bright eyed and full of joy at this exciting new prospect to flex our mental muscles – much like a young woman feels when she finds out she’ll be a mother.  The luster can tend to fade quickly when, like a pregnant woman entering the second trimester quickly becomes fatigued and “swelled”…uh I mean “glowing”, the design begins to stagnate or some key part of the design seems too not quite fit in for reasons you can not discover on your own.  Frustration sets in, you start to wonder what the hell you were thinking in the first place. You’ll never finish, the design is horrible and everyone will laugh at you.

Upon entering the third and final trimester of Design, you feel drained both emotionally and physically. You’ve been staring at your computer screen or chip board model for more than 24 hours and all the lines and planes are blurring together.  At this point you’re convinced your design is crap and should be trashed.  But as you continue to push through, you’re nearly at the end and you get that last burst of energy and inspiration.  Suddenly those elements that you had been trying to force seem to need just a  little shifting and massaging.  Finally the design comes together, you’ve created something that works, that at least solves the problem you’ve been tasked with.  It may not be the most elegant or polished, but somehow it works.  This portion of our little tale is especially clear in my mind from my thesis.  I was so drained, so despondent about my project that, two weeks before final critique, I dragged a trash can over to my desk and did one big arm push into the bin – I chucked it all and started fresh.  Perhaps not the smartest thing in the world, but hey, it wasn’t working and I needed to try something new to get at a working solution, one that could breath on it’s own in the real world of Design.

Then, the pain sets in – presentation/birth.  You’ve toiled, you’ve sacrificed, you’ve eaten every pint of haggen daaz within 30 miles…wait that’s not right.  Now it’s time to show the world (or at least the 12 students and 4 professors with enough energy left to sit through your presentation) your design solution, to make your case, to “birth this baby”.  You start out slow, the pain is bearable, as you walk through the initial stages of research and concept design.  But soon, much sooner than you want, you’re getting to the meat, the heart, the soul of your design, your baby.  There are some grumblings from the crowd.  You wonder if you can keep going.  Sweat is trickling down your back into your underwear, you resist the urge to scratch your butt.

Suddenly you’re at the climax of your presentation.  You can breath a little easier, there are smiles on the judges faces.  Some of your fellow students are now dreading their own birth experience that is suddenly one presentation closer to reality.  You turn around and stare longingly at your boards, your model.  You marvel at the hours, days, weeks and months it has taken to create such a masterpiece.  Now the students and judges have moved on to the next presentation/birth and you can finally scratch your sweaty butt. Oh the sweet joy of victory and accomplishment.  Euphoria.

And now it’s time to start all over again on the next project, the next presentation, the next painfully agonizing and torturous birth.

work fast, relax last – lets blog off

This week’s “Lets Blog Off” asks “What do you do to relax?”…. First, I don’t think many architects know HOW to relax, or maybe they just don’t have the right perspective, but I’ll talk more about that in a minute.  My first thought upon reading this weeks’ topic was something my current boss said to me during one of my interviews, and that was that “you have to have something outside of architecture so you don’t get burned out.”  I remember thinking, as I still do, that this was a strange statement coming from someone who owns and manages their own architecture firm (notice I didn’t throw in the word “design” there? we don’t do much of that here).  It seems to me that, in order to maintain yourself in any profession, especially a creative one, you have to have a passion for that profession.  It needs to be a part of you, a part of your daily life and not just your “job”. – feel free to stop me if you think I’m completely nuts-o –  Otherwise, very quickly I imagine, you will get burned out and wind up talking to squirrels and pigeons in the park wearing a foil hat….not that there is anything wrong with that *backs away slowly*

So what do architects do to relax?  Speaking for myself personally….well, “relaxation” comes in many different forms and unfortunately not very often.  I try to keep my “method” of relaxation open to interpretation.  This allows me to find down time in the most unassuming places.  But, no matter what I’m currently engaged in as my “relax” time, you can bet your ass my sketchbooks are not only CLOSE at hand, they are most likely IN my hand.

stacked, well worn and always at hand

Because “architecture” and “design” are part of who I am.  This isn’t a hobby or a job or even a career choice.  So “relaxation”, for me, is simply sitting quietly on a bus or a park bench or at my desk or on a plane or even on the john sketching or writing or just “doing” architecture.

An old saying that comes to mind is “if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Does it really get any simpler than that?  I don’t think so.

modular mania – an architectural affair

In the face of a crap-tastic economy many architects, developers, builders and even homeowners are looking for ways to save money on construction costs, increase energy and material efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to construct and finish a building.  With this trend of getting a bigger “bang for your buck” is coming a reintroduction of “modular” construction techniques and is causing what I like to call Modular Mania.  Just recently I read no less than 3 articles on modular construction and even doing a basic search on the ever-expanding world wide web will yield 10s of thousands of results for modular products.  And not just houses.  The term “modular” is really starting to take over life as we know it.  Dwindling are the days of “custom” craftsmanship or “made to order”.  Today everything from storage canisters to silverware to furniture to built-in casework – it’s all turning modular.

How do we as architects feel about this?  I’m sure you can guess my point of view, being such a big fan of cargotecture.  But does it help or hinder the profession?  Is there room for modular AND custom architecture?  Can modular BE custom?  Has a scarcity of financing and materials driven us to a point where architecture is evolving into a product rather than a skill or profession?  These are the kinds of questions that rattle through my head late at night while I try to count the swirls in my ceiling.

So what is modular and how does it help us?  Well, quite simply modular construction is no different than conventional construction other than all major building components (walls, doors, windows, insulation, wall finish, cabinets and fixtures) are assembled and fabricated off-site in a controlled environment which makes for less construction waste and less delays due to weather or site access.  The building is constructed in transportable “modules” and then shipped to the site, typically via truck, for final assembly and finish.

modular building being assembled on site -

As you can imagine, from the image above, on site construction time is seriously minimized.  And this is where real savings starts to come in.  Because, under the traditional construction model you have a massive coordination of trades, suppliers, fabricators, engineers, work crews….it’s an insane mess at the best of times and complete anarchy at the worst of times.  And you’ve got to wait on everything and everyone.  The foundation guy has to wait on the grading guy, the plumbing guy has to wait on the foundation guy, then they have to wait on each other, and the framer is sitting in a bar somewhere downing Shirley Temples watching “the game” cause he’s gotta wait for all these guys to do their thing, blah blah blah.  All that wasted time equals wasted money.

BUT with modular construction two things can happen simultaneously – site/foundation work and building construction.  With a properly coordinated and permitted set of drawings all of the site preparation can happen WHILE the building is being constructed offsite.  Then, once both pieces are complete and the foundations are ready to receive the load, the building is delivered, like a puzzle, and pieced together in as little as a day.  So instead of 6 weeks for site/foundation work and 1 week for plumbing/electrical rough-in and 8 weeks for framing and 2 weeks for sheathing and waterproofing and 3 weeks for insulation and drywall etc etc etc, we get to do all the necessary site prep while the building is being shop fabricated.  We’re effectively cutting our overall construction time in half.  I don’t know about you but I like the sound of that.

Now that we’ve all got warm fuzzies about the modular construction process, is there room for modular AND custom architecture, and can modular BE custom?

The obvious answer is “pfft, well, YEAH!”

Richard Meier has been designing “modular” buildings his entire career.  He’s obsessed with the “module”, which is nothing more than a principle of proportion in design.  Just because we are designing a building to be modular does not mean it has to be “standard” (images of huge residential tract developments are swirling around in your head right now aren’t they?).  A modular home can be custom designed for a specific site and a specific client – and in my opinion should be.

As with any other technology, new or old, modular design and construction are just another set of tools in the architectural arsenal of modern building and design.  By decreasing the time and frustration required during construction and the coordination of the various trades to such a nth degree, we free ourselves up to spend just a bit more time ensuring that our buildings are properly designed and detailed to provide the client with a more efficient, more useful and more beautiful building.

In my opinion, modular is here to stay, economic turmoil or no economic turmoil, and combined with IPD (Integrated Project Deliver)….well, now we’re approaching architecture and construction on crack! Ain’t no stoppin us baby! 🙂  But that’s another story for another time.


basic container design – green roof

I suppose we might want to start off this post asking the question “what is a green roof?”  Is it a roof that is painted green?  It could be, but not as it applies to our discussion.  When we say “green roof” what we are really referring to is a roof that has greenery on it, i.e. planting soil and grass of some variety.  This isn’t exactly a “new” technology either.  Man has been “roofing” with natural materials for centuries.  But obviously we’re stuck in this whole “the world is going to explode tomorrow unless we build everything sustainable and green” mentality that it’s become a “hot topic” and hits all the right political pressure points.  But before we get in to the “nitty gritty” of green roofing, let’s first discuss some benefits of using this technology.

First, it aids in reducing the heat island effect that buildings, especially in urban areas, are prone to create, which is what happens when you have a material that absorbs and stores the suns’ energy during the day and releases it at night rising the local ambient temperature above normal levels.

Second, a green roof acts as a natural insulator to reduce your need for hvac (heating ventilating and air conditioning).  Have you ever dug a big hole and felt the ground with your hand a few feet down?  It’s much cooler to the touch because the soil above it keeps it insulated.  It’s like living in perpetual shade.

Lastly, it just looks really cool….really. 🙂

So, what makes up a green roof?  What are the typical components and how do we adapt this for basic container design?  First you have to have a suitable load bearing structure to place your growing medium onto.  This can be many things – timber framing, steel joists, reinforced concrete, or any other typical roof framing methods.  Next you need a suitable waterproof membrane to keep moisture away from your structural supports.  Then there is a air and water drainage layer.  Why is this important?  Air needs to breath and circulate water just like we do.  If the soil doesn’t get any air movement, or if there isn’t a way for water to move in and out of the soil, it can rot and break down and eventually become unsuitable for growth.  This would be bad.

Now, on top of this air and water drainage layer we can put our top soil.  What type of topsoil you use will depend on what you are attempting to grow.  This can be almost anything, within reason – typical grasses, or small shrub plants, or even succulents.  In order to minimize the need for watering and maintenance you’ll want to plant something that is indigenous to your specific geographic location.

Once you’ve added your top soil, obviously it’s time to plant.  Just like any lawn, you can either plant from seed or use plugs or lay sod.  It’s up to you and your budget/time schedule.  Below are some eye candy examples of green roofs used all over the world in different climates.

typical pitched roof with native grasses


Implementing a green roof atop a shipping container is really no different.  I’ve talked often about a shipping container being cost effective because you’re purchasing your structural envelope already assembled.  This isn’t quite true when talking about a green roof.  Unfortunately the roof structure of a shipping container is not quite strong enough to support the layers of membrane, drainage, dirt and greenery that we need without buckling.  So we need to reinforce it.  The easiest way to do this is with reinforced concrete.  This way we can create either a flat or sloped surface much thinner than with lumber and sheathing or steel and decking.  Once we have our roof structure, we simply layer on the items mentioned above and WHAM-O : green roof on a container. 🙂

green roof atop container home office

In the image above you can see that the green roof is built up atop the container.  It has it’s own structure separate from the container.

extreme green roofing and solar array atop container

Bottom line, green roofs are efficient insulators, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sustainable if done properly.  So, for your next container project, think about employing a green roof.  You’ll get a more efficient roof insulation as well as opportunity for additional flexible space for your home.

Unpaid Internships – virtue or villain?

I was recently chastised for re-tweeting a posting by another architecture firm for an unpaid summer internship position.  I know this is a very contentious issue and I’m sure that I will catch major hell for posting this, but….well, I don’t really care.  It’s a conversation that needs to be had and I want to provide a place for anyone, for or against, to man up and post their pros and cons on the matter.

I’ll start with my own personal views:

I’m not really for or against unpaid internships.  The reason for this is, I haven’t ever been in a position to TAKE an unpaid internship, so it’s not something that has impacted my professional journey in any way and is therefore a non-issue in my opinion.

Now, the opinion by many seems to be that it is an “unethical” practice and is somehow “demoralizing” to the profession.  This, quite frankly I find a little silly, but I also think it is at the heart of the argument.  Personally I disagree because I see an unpaid internship for what it is – a consensual business agreement between mature and knowledgeable parties and not an exchange of goods and/or services.  You see, the firm offering the position is making a trade of what I feel is unequal value.  The firm gets a inexperienced intern for a temporary period of time in which they will impart valuable knowledge and skills for which they get not much more than the interns time.  To me this is more than a fair trade on the part of the intern.  This is mostly an altruistic endeavor on the part of the firm.  It’s called pouring in to the next generation and should be done by ALL OF US, no matter our profession.  The more we build up the profession, the better off we’ll all be.

So, how does this “demoralize” the profession?  How is this an “unethical” practice?  In what way is anyone in this situation acting in an unprofessional manner?  The intern gets valuable experience and the firm gets to help further the profession of architecture by training the intern.  Seems a very ethical and even altruistic position to me.

Now, under the US Dept of Labor “guidelines” for unpaid internships, it states that an intern is entitled to compensation unless the following items apply, and in this case, and many others, I believe THEY DO.  Feel free to disagree. 🙂

The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment – obviously this applies to any internship, paid or unpaid.  An employer provides education, similar (but better) to that at a university, in a practical environment.

The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern – for our purposes, this is a bit of a no brainer. Name one employer that would directly benefit from an inexperienced and untrained intern….THEY DON’T BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO TRAIN THEM.  This takes time, sometimes more than a year to get a green intern to a point that they can be trusted with something more complicated than spelling their own name or answering the phone properly.

The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff – this also is typically easily addressed.  An intern, of this type, typically is brought on by the firm because they want to offer an opportunity to either a recent grad or a current student to offer practical, real world experience.

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded – I mostly addressed this in the item directly above – firms typically provide these unpaid positions as a way to offer training to the up and coming generation of architects.  Any “benefit” they get is mostly altruistic.  Yes, they get what some consider a “slave” to do their bidding, but they are still providing valuable education and experience which is the ultimate motive.

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship – this can be handled and/or investigated on a case by case basis when they are advertised.  Any unpaid positions that I personally have ever seen stipulate that a full time position is not guaranteed, and in some cases discouraged, once the internship is over.  The rationale here is that the firm does not want to seem to be giving special treatment to those who have completed an internship.

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship – this for me is the real heart of the matter.  An employer advertises a unpaid internship and gets a response from a willing participant.  All particulars of the position are either outlined in the ad or discussed further with the applicant during an interview.  The applicant does not have to accept OR EVEN APPLY for the position.  It is a completely voluntary agreement between two consenting parties.  If no one were to take the position, the advertising firm would eventually take down the ad and move on to business as usual.

So I certainly want to hear from anyone and EVERYONE.  If you agree, great! Tell my WHY.  If you disagree, great! Tell me WHY!  This is an important discussion to have for our profession.  I’m sure we’re not going to change a whole lot of minds, but we can come together, offer dissenting opinions, have a discussion and learn an alternate point of view.  I will moderate comments, so lets try to keep it professional if not always friendly. 😉 Passion and conviction are MORE THAN WELCOME.


basic container design – stacking

In residential design the simplest way to maximize your usable square footage while limiting your overall building footprint is to increase the number of stories, to go UP instead of OUT.  This is just basic “architecture 101”.  The same is true of shipping container design (even though we’re already working with a very small footprint).  And, obviously, if containers can be stacked 10 or 12 high on a cargo ship that is traversing the high seas from one continent to another, they can certainly be stacked on your property and be structurally secure.

stacked containers headed out to sea - courtesy of google images

On a cargo ship, when containers are stacked they use something called a “twist lock”.  This is essentially a triangular hunk of steel that is set atop the bottom container, in all four corners, and then when another container is stacked on top, these triangular pieces “twist” and “lock” in place.  This creates a mechanical bond, or link, between the two containers.  These same twist locks are used to stack containers being used for housing design as well.  By creating this mechanical bond between our two containers we create a “seam” between them.

example of a vertical twist lock - courtesy of google images

installed vertical twist lock - courtesy of google images

Mechanical bonds are great.  They get the job done, but we want to take it one step further and add a chemical bond by way of welding.  By welding our two containers together we effectively end up with ONE container that is now twice the size.  In terms of structural stability and hurricane/tornado preparedness….well, let’s just say if Dorothy had lived in a container home, she may have still been in Kansas when all was said and done that day and the Wicked Witch would still have her ruby slippers.

guilty (tv) pleasures – letsblogoff

What’s your favorite show on TV? What’s the show you’re hooked on but are kind of embarrassed by? Are you a dyed in the wool Gleek? Can you rattle off the names of this season’s Bravolebrities? Now’s your chance to come clean and stand up for what you like. No one will laugh at you, we promise. – Lets Blog Off Crew

I’m a huge TV/movie dorkThere isn’t much that I haven’t seen and if I haven’t seen it it probably sucks anyway, so why go out of my way? 😛  Growing up I watched some very eclectic programming.  Nick at Night was one of my favorite stations as a kid because they played old episodes of The Honeymooners, Mr. Ed, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy and The Patty Duke Show.  And occasionally I would get to stay up and watch Mystery Theatre on PBS.  I wasn’t really into much that was out in the early to mid 80s.  Perhaps the occasional He-Man, Mask or Transformers cartoon, but that was really about it. 

And now, as I’ve gotten a little older, wiser and more handsome, I try to look for programming with substance.  There needs to be something going on, a story, a lesson, a reason for me to sacrifice 60 minutes or more of my time that I will never get back.  For this reason, I CAN NOT STAND reality television….I just can’t.  It makes my ears and eyes bleed. I just can’t do it.  And I certainly don’t understand how anyone else can either.  I mean, honestly what the hell is the draw to shows like American Idol or America’s Got Talent or (for the love of God) Jersey Shore?

Ugh, the fake boobs, the fake tan, the fake accent, the fake drama…aside from the “train wreck” phenomena what in hell are you getting from these shows? NOTHING! You’re losing valuable brain power and reasoning skills to these mindless humps parading around television as if their latest failed relationship or most recent singing/dancing/acting/tumbling blunder somehow matters to the cause of humanity in any way shape or form…I mean, really….AM I MISSING SOMETHING?!

*blood pressure spike*

OK.  I’m better now.

Television used to be about entertainment, presenting a story, a drama, a comedy, something with substance, and an expression of the acting art form.  Now it seems to be a display arena for all the reasons China got it right when they started requiring approval to procreate.  So, as you can imagine I don’t watch a whole lot of sitcoms.  I do watch a few.  Some of my favorites are: Bones, House, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, NCIS and So You Think You Can Dance (the only reality show I can stomach).  These shows offer some of the things listed above and I can say that I don’t mind sacrificing a little of my life to watch them.  On some level I can take something away, something to ponder, some lesson or insight and this makes the time commitment worth it to me.  Otherwise my tv would be just a large paperweight collecting dust.