architecture and construction

The further along I get in practice and the more projects I’m involved in that actually get built – this is more rare than you might think – the more I see a disconnect in the profession between the process and practice of architecture and the realities of construction. And while there are many reasons for this, there are two that I see as having a big impact on this phenomenon: technology and contracts.

yep. revision cloud. makes total sense.

yep. revision cloud. makes total sense.

Technology, since the dawn of time, has allowed us to further the cause of human existence first with the invention of cutting tools that allowed us to build the first post and beam structures and lean-tos to the modern tools and conveniences we have today that allow us to build monuments like the Freedom Tower, Taipei I and II, and so on. But with increasing technology, I think, has come a decrease in construction knowledge on the part of the architect. And unfortunately this trend begins in school.

The last crit that I sat in on I continually asked the questions “what is that material?”, or “what do these lines represent?”. And more often than not I got blank stares or vague archi-speak answers that made little sense and gave no concrete answers to the original question asked. In practice buildings really do have to stand up, because if they don’t they will fall down. And that’s bad.

Boy, sure wish someone would have caught that one....

Boy, sure wish someone would have caught that one….

The obvious answer to this should be more comprehensive education in construction and detailing, but I don’t see this happening anytime soon. A friend of mine is trying to push just this issue over at InSB. You should check it out.

The second issue is contracts. Ah, contracts, how I love thee. Let me count the….never mind. Contracts, as most of us know (or should) define our roles and responsibilities on a given project. Increasingly I am noticing the Architect and designer being completely phased out of the construction process. I’ve talked about this before and I’ll say it again here – during construction is when you NEED your architect or designer on site to make sure that the contractors are constructing the building as designed. A good design, quite frankly, is easy. Any of us can make something look good on paper. It’s in execution and the coordination of all the pieces and parts that make a truly successful building. Your architects is the one who is supposed to help make that happen for you.

By cutting your architect out of the construction process you do two things: First you give complete control over to the contractor to build as he sees fit. Building codes and construction standards outline a MINIMUM to maintain the Health Safety and Welfare of the public. Most architects do not design to a minimum standard (not if they can help it). They design to YOUR standard and it’s a part of the architect’s responsibility to ensure compliance with the standard as designed. The second thing you do by taking the architect out of the construction process is you devalue your building. All the fees that you paid your architect in the beginning to give you that set of pretty pictures are worth less than what you paid if the architect is not also in charge of monitoring the outcome during construction.

Sometimes they just CAN'T WAIT to put those windows it....they're so excited! O_o

Sometimes they just CAN’T WAIT to put those windows in….they’re so excited! O_o

So, this writing out of the architect during construction has led to less architects fighting to stay involved with their clients and their projects through to construction, thereby making it harder for the architect to keep up with construction standards, practices, materials and methods. This in turn makes it more difficult for architect to convince future clients to keep them on through to construction and project completion.

It’s a Catch 22. One doesn’t come without the other.

So what is a practical solution? In an economy where every project we can scrape together matters and every billable hour is crucial, do we have the luxury to DEMAND that we be kept on through the construction process? I say yes. But why would a client reasonably go for that, you ask? Because we’ve expressed to the client in no uncertain terms that we’re worth it.

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Daily Prompt: Happily Ever After

happiness is in your hands

happiness is in your hands

“And they lived happily ever after.” Think about this line for a few minutes. Are you living happily ever after? If not, what will it take for you to get there?

This is usually a question that gets asked of us by our spouse. “Are you happy?” “Are you ok?” “Does this dress make me look fat?” Wait, that’s not right…. Either way, “happiness” as defined by my good friend Webster is “a state of well-being and contentment”, or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience”. These are rather vague and esoteric definitions and can mean just about anything to and for anyone else. Today we’ll try and keep our focus centered on the realm of professional happiness in Architecture. What does it take, what does it look like and where can it take you – these are the avenues we’ll travel down together.

Now, obviously if the Webster definition of happiness is purposely meant to be vague, than it stands to reason that professional happiness in Architecture also will be vague. And this is mostly true. Professional happiness is going to be different for all of us. None of us are wired the same and we all take pleasure from things in different ways.

What it takes:

What it takes for me to be happy in my professional career can be summed up in two areas: first, feeling a sense of worth and value at my workplace; and second, being challenged often at what I do.

The feeling of worth and value can come from two places as an Architect. First from your boss (unless you are the boss in which case I would hope you value yourself) and second from your clients. If your clients do not value your services then they will not refer others to you and by extension you will most likely not be very successful. If you’re working for a firm it can be difficult to feel that sense of value. Most times you will need to do something to stand out from a crowd, to prove yourself continuously in order to gain trust and eventually value. This is not an ideal situation and usually leads to finding new positions elsewhere.

Being challenged can also be challenging. Not all projects are glamorous…well, lets be honest, few projects are glamorous. But all projects, if seen from the proper perspective, offer unique and interesting challenges and problems to solve. Solving them efficiently and effectively is, in my mind, key to a sense of professional happiness. Something as simple as a bathroom renovation within an existing home can be very simple, but also very challenging in it’s execution. Perhaps the home sits on a slab and breaking that slab would kill the budget. How then do you deal with the placement and rearrangement of new fixtures? Small issues like this, which occur on all projects both large and small, allow us to flex our creative muscle and devise new and interesting solutions to mundane problems. This, sometimes above all else, makes me happy, and maybe even a little giddy.

What it looks like:

What does professional happiness look like? How does it work in practice? Well, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve already seen the answer – it’s up to you to find joy in your professional career rather than waiting around for either your boss or clients to give it to you. It has to be sought after, pursued and snatched from the air. In this country we have a right to pursue happiness, not a right to happiness itself.

If, as an Architect or designer, you can’t find joy in the mundane of professional practice you’ll never be truly happy even when those glamorous projects do come around because you’ll be bitter and resentful and more importantly BORED.

Where can it take you:

If, however, you can find the kind of joy in the mundane and monotonous, then you can do anything, create anything and build anything. Your boss and your clients will value you because you value yourself and your work. This will lead to new projects, new responsibilities, new challenges and new happiness.

In the end, happiness, both personal and professional, is in your own hands. You can choose to be happy and find joy in what you do and the people around you, or you can choose not to in which case….well, I feel very sorry for you indeed.

This is completely amazing! Sit back and watch a chair take shape using recycled plastic!

design transmitter

dirkvanderkooij.nl - rocking chairI really like the work of Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij. His furniture made out of used plastic is in my opinion a good example of how to recycle materials without downcycling them.

Kooij’s Endless Chairs are made of reused plastic that is collected from old refrigerators. The chairs are build by a giant industrial robot that Kooij reprogrammed to 3D print his designs.

After each finished chair Kooij re-evaluates the result and if necessary, adjusts the design somewhat. This has resulted in chairs that are not only very nice looking, but are also very comfortable to sit in.

Too often, products made from recycled materials lack a feel of necessity. It is as if designers really want to recycle materials and are less concerned with designing things that are useful and durable. But really, do we need more iPhone cases made out of recycled wood or coat…

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Daily Prompt: Undo

If I could pick one thing to un-invent what would it be and why.

I would like to tell you all that I would choose a noble and lofty thing to un-invent like the nuclear bomb or microwaves or twinkies – you know, those things that make life more difficult. But honestly, those things were a part of the natural evolution of the human condition and with respect to the A-bomb and microwaves have led to many other technological developments that have vastly improved life. Twinkies should just disappear on general principle. Seriously.

But no, the one thing that I would un-invent, if given the opportunity, is….wait for it…

THE SPEED BUMP

speedBump

Seriously. It just makes me angry. Not only does it screw up the bottom of my car, but it causes a most unnecessary interruption in my driving flow. And if I happen to be in my 5spd at the time it means I have to downshift, roll over the thing and then speed away. If ever there was a human invention that was more annoying, I’m sure I don’t know what it is.

Without speed bumps we could all cruise without interruption through residential neighborhoods, school zones, shopping malls and church parking lots like the good ole days. Ah, Utopia.

Daily Prompt: Mentor Me

“Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?”

Mentorship, in architecture, is incredibly important and something that I wish was taken much more seriously in a lot of the cities that I have lived and worked. In my experience there is a substantial divide between senior architects with the knowledge and experience to truly shape the next generation of architects and the interns who desperately need that knowledge and experience through professional guidance. In my own career I was lucky enough to have a true mentor very early. He was the most senior architect at the first firm that I worked for and he quite literally took me under his wing and went about teaching me the real guts of architecture. Later in my career, after I had left that firm, I learned that the other partners were talking of letting me go because, quote “I didn’t know anything” and so this one partner said “give him to me. I’ll teach him.” And so they did, and he did. I’m every grateful to this day for that singular risk on his part. His name is Walter Taylor, FAIA, and at the time I was working for KBJ Architects in Jacksonville, Florida. KBJ, formerly Kemp Bunch & Jackson, has a very long and distinguished history in Jacksonville and in Florida, and has birthed some of the most talented and successful architects in the city, thanks in no small part to senior architects like Walter. I hope to live up to that legacy in my own career.

Working for and with Walter was always interesting. A brilliant designer and architect he was sometimes maddeningly exacting in his expectations and unwavering in his desire to have those expectations met no matter what. I remember many occasions when I’d be working through some task he had set for me and he’d walk over to my desk and lean over my shoulder saying “hurry it up, my meeting started 15 minutes ago.” Mind you I had most likely only been working on whatever it was for 10 minutes or so. It was certainly never dull and while I worked on many projects with him the relatively short while I was there, the one project I worked on the most and learned the most was the Orlando International Airport South Terminal Expansion. The project is a 1,000,000 square foot airside and landside addition to OIA which Walter had originally designed many years before. The project was split between our two offices (Jacksonville and Orlando) and our office was responsible for the landside portion which included the main entry, ticketing, baggage, and all the other stuff before you actually get to your concourse.

As you can imagine, this project was immense and you might even think that on a project like this it’s easy to get pigeon-holed into doing nothing but door details for months on end. But this wasn’t the case. Even as a second year intern I was responsible for coordination mechanical and electrical drawings with the architectural, creating the necessary stair sections and details for both service stairs and main public stairs, even editing and updating the myriad building sections and wall sections as were needed. And the most enjoyable was a specific design task that Walter put me in charge of – a cantilevered planter at the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main atrium.

Now, this may not sound like fun to some, but realize that the main atrium was nearly 1/4 mile long and curved. So, this planter is going to be one of the first things you see when you look up after entering the doors. No pressure. :-\ And it was during the design of this suspended planter that Walter gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. One day I was working through some section details of this planter which had to attach to a steel beam support for the mezzanine and had to be designed in such a way as to carry the load of the plant material as well as a drain space for water, etc. The easy part was the prefabricated pan that held the plant material. The hard part was the rest of the framing that supported the pan and the finished metal panels. So, I’m slaving away at my computer trying to figure this mess out and Walter comes over and takes a look at what I’m up to. After about 30 seconds he starts asking me some questions and he’s pointing to random lines on my screen. Questions like “what do these lines represent?” and “Where does this framing go?” After a few minutes he realizes that most of the framing I’ve drawn has no real 3 dimensional significance, so he stops me and says “no matter what you’re drawing, whether plan, elevation or detail, don’t draw anything that doesn’t represent something in physical space.” In other words, if the line doesn’t have a purpose, don’t draw it. This has been the singular most valuable lesson anyone has ever taught me. It’s why I like to think of myself as a good detailer because I think about each line I’m drawing and how it relates to all the other lines around it. I think about how the flashing for windows works not just in 2D but in 3D. How does it terminate? How does it interact with the corner flashing that turns up the face of the opening? How does the counterflashing work? In elevations, how does the gable trim intersect with the eave trim, etc.

That one piece of advice, which didn’t seem like a lot at the time, has led me to learn all I can not just about architectural detailing and drafting, but about construction and how buildings work so that my drawings will be better, more detailed, more clear and more easily constructed. That, after all, should be the goal of all architects.

home design – “how to” part I


architect-drafter-drafting_~u16172462

Since starting this blog a little over two years ago I’ve talked a lot about the role of and benefits of having a trained architect/designer involved in your project. And that conversation is still an ongoing one because I believe that the architectural profession has a ways to go before middle class America begins to see the true value in our services. But I want to now take some time and a few posts to talk about home design as a “how to”. I have no idea how many parts this series will have. I assume more than one but perhaps less than 50? We shall see. Either way, the goal here is to offer some insight into what I think is good design and proper planning when considering building or renovating a home. It’s my hope that these blog posts will be the start of a conversation and I’d love to hear from homeowners, architects and designers alike who may be following this blog. You all know I’m not afraid of criticism, so lay it on me.

Here in Part I I want to talk about the basics of planning a new home. Specifically I want to talk about function, organization and multi-use. To me these are the three key elements to today’s modern home and I’ll do my best to describe and narrate each element as succinctly as possible without going off on one of my famous architectural rants. But no promises.

Function:
Now, in residential design you first have to start with a client and that client will bring you the second thing you need – a building program. The building program is just a fancy term for all the spaces that make up your home; i.e. how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, eat in kitchen or formal dining, is there a pool, do you need a helipad, etc. So we’ll start out with a basic program for a single family house for a modern family of 3 plus dog. It might look something like this:

3 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, office, living, dining, kitchen, pantry, garage/carport, storage and a den/rec room

Now, for the average person this list doesn’t mean much more than something you’d see on a “for sale” real estate flyer, but most architects and designers will look at this list and immediately start to associate each functional area in relation to another and begin creating imaginary bubble diagrams in their head. Bubble diagrams are an informal way to think about the organization of space, function and circulation. These diagrams usually come either during or just after a conversation about how you’ll be using the space the most, i.e. do you entertain a lot, do you have a large family or friends that come over often for large dinner parties, do you spend most of your time indoors or out, how important is a “space” away from the main public areas, etc. All of these questions inform an architect on how you live and how you might use your space not just in the immediate future but also down the road when life may change, such as when kids leave for college. This is the function of your home, the how and the why of how you live your life.

The average person, of average intelligence, is, generally speaking, smart enough to sit down and think critically about how they live and reasonably lay out a home floor plan that will serve it’s larger purpose of providing shelter and a level of modern comfort like air conditioning. But I think we can all agree that there is a something extra that should be in a home, no? There is that feeling of home. It’s not tangible and for most of us it is a feeling that comes after living in a home for some time. Usually after making some adjustments and getting things the way you want them – in other words, you’ve fit the house to match your lifestyle. But what if instead your home was designed and built with exactly this something in mind?

Organization:
This something, coupled with our functional requirements, leads us to the organization of the home. This is where the building program meets the bubble diagram. They go out, they have a few drinks, one thing leads to another and….well, you get the idea. Hopefully less than 9 months later out pops a conceptual design. Typically consisting of floor plans and elevations (perhaps even a 3D model if your architect is savvy enough), this is where all those ideas begin to take physical form and you can begin to actually imagine yourself in your new home.

Within the organization of your home, and given our modern, technologically saturated lifestyle, multi-function plays a key role in the long term success of any residential project. Lets face it, life changes. You get married, you have kids, they grow up and hopefully leave, but maybe they come back with husbands, wives and kids of their own, or an aging relative needs help….there are literally thousands of possibilities for how your life may change and your home should be adaptable to at least most forceable outcomes. We as architects and designers can’t predict everything that may come your way, but we can plan in such a way that as needs change the house can change with those needs. This is a little extra something that gets thrown in with the original something from above.

I hope this has given you a little insight into what it is exactly that we, as Architects and residential designers, bring to the table in the early stages of planning a home. Stay tuned for part II in which I plan on talking about the next stage of planning which has to do with getting pricing from contractors, the process of value engineering and why your architect is your first line of defense in ensuring your home is priced and eventually constructed properly.

Daily Prompt: Teachable Moment

Today’s subject is essentially “how do you learn?” When learning a new skill do you prefer to read about it, hear it from someone else, watch someone else or just do it yourself?

This is an interesting topic for me right now because, as it happens, I am learning a new skill – Vectorworks Architect 2013 (BIM). Our office made the switch by first purchasing two seats – one for me and one for our other intern – a couple of weeks ago. We decided that we would take two new projects and start them in Vectorworks rather than trying to start in our old software and move after.

Now, learning BIM is not quite like learning a completely new skill where you’re starting from nothing and working up. I’ve been a practicing Intern for about 9 years. I’ve worked in multiple cad platforms, some with 3D capability and some that are purely 2D, so my experience is fairly wide. But BIM is a true shift in thinking from conventional drafting so I’ve had to alter my learning style some in order to keep my momentum moving forward rather than getting bogged down in the minutia of the various tools.

I’m typically a “learn from doing” kind of guy with a little “point me in the right direction” thrown in for good measure. With Vectorworks, and BIM in general, I’ve taken the “everything under the sun” approach to learning. I’ve downloaded and bought books, watched nearly every video posted to the Vectorworks support site, combed through the community forums, watched youtube videos, asked for help from other architect users and I continue to push through on my own as I’m actively designing and detailing two residential projects. It’s been……interesting, to say the least.

Some days I feel like I’m doing ok, and then others I feel like there’s still so much to learn that I’m never going to really get it. Somewhere in between those days I know that I’m getting it little by little and, luckily, there are MANY tools and resources out there for me to use in order to find my way.

So, whatever your personal learning style and no matter what you’re learning, remember that no matter how you think you learn the best, there’s always something you can learn from some other source. Don’t limit your learning. Use whatever and do whatever it takes to master “it” and achieve your goals.