Architect practice and community

As I continue on my journey to build a practice and move out on my own I have been looking around and thinking about what I want the future of my practice to look like. Do I want a big office with lots of interns and architects working under me or do I want a small modest office with one or two trusted partners working with me to produce quality work? Or even still does my practice more reflect a partnership with other architects that I can collaborate with on multiple project types that may or may not be in my wheelhouse but that I can lend and draw support from? In short is a big office better or worse than a community of professionals working together for the greater good of the community and city at large?

For ten years I have worked under some of the best and brightest and most talented architects in Jacksonville, Florida and Little Rock, Arkansas. I’ve watched and I’ve learned and I’ve asked questions. I haven’t wasted my time nor have I wasted the expertise and wealth of knowledge that has surrounded me for a decade. And what I see is a profession in desperate need of an overhaul. Not just a “repositioning” but a fundamental change to thinking about professional practice in architecture. The “good ole days” are gone. I don’t believe we will see a return of a time like the early 2000s where money flowed out of banks like milk and honey and everyone got fat and happy with too much work and firms grew to sizes in the hundreds of employees. There has been a shift in my generation. We have seen what huge overhead costs and fat office spaces can do to the profession. Hell, most of us have worked in those offices and seen them crumble.

I don’t want that. I don’t want to build a practice that can’t take on small projects because they aren’t profitable enough. I don’t want to build a practice that can’t adapt to an ever changing economic and social climate. I don’t want to be the only guy steering the ship either.

So what’s the answer? What does an architectural practice in the 21st century look like? Small. Agile. Collaborative. Focused on the clients. Focused on building communities.

r | one studio architecture will be a firm dedicated to reaching out to other architects, not in competition, but in collaboration to build a community of architects of like mind that can come together on specific projects to offer a broader and more experienced team of professionals to better serve our clients across markets and regions to provide superior service and design to shape the future of our cities.

And in this I’m looking for architects interested and of like mind to start building those partnerships. Not just in Arkansas but all over the United States. Contact me and let’s see how we can work to build a better world.

sole architecture practice – looking forward

Lee Calisti and Keith Palma have both come out with their top 10 reasons being a sole practitioner rocks. Keith even one-upped this by posting his top 10 reasons being a sole practitioner kinda sucks. I’d like to do a little bate and switch and turn his negatives into positives with my:

Top 10 reasons I’m looking forward to being a sole practitioner:

1. Lunch and Learns
Not only do I get to choose the products and materials covered (no more roof flashing presentations thank you) but I get to call up my fellow architect peers and set up group presentations on topics that actually matter to my practice.

2. No big firm resources
Big firm resources don’t apply to small firms. The books, magazines and other resources that apply to my business are either free (most trade magazines) and online (issuu.com) or are specific enough that I’m willing to go out and spend $60 on a book that won’t just sit on my shelf and collect dust. Small firms and sole practitioners actually use resources that are in their libraries.

3. No one to bounce ideas off of
See item #1. It’s time we stopped perpetuating the idea that we sole proprietors are in competition with each other and instead foster relationships with one another in order to share resources and even collaborate on projects to share workloads. I’m already starting this locally.

4. I wear every hat
In my office I control the quality of the work that is going out the door. I am the intern and the modeler and the receptionist and the office manager and the architect. My success and my failure is entirely up to me.

5. I have to buy trace, scales and sharpies
This simply means that I don’t have to go hunting for that ONE roll of white trace among the thousands of yellow and sepia rolls that no one wants to use. Why? Because I don’t buy the yellow or sepia rolls. My scales don’t walk off to another desk so I don’t lose the scales that I’ve had since college.

6. No intern.
I’m not ready to train an intern. I’m definitely not nearly patient enough yet. This is DEFINITELY a good thing. At least for now.

7. No friday morning breakfast delivery
But I can get together with my other architect buddies at a local breakfast dive and shoot the proverbial s**t. See item #3.

8. No annual holiday party
But I can take holiday vacations whenever I want and for however long I want. Especially if I have a laptop as I can just take work with me and my vacation suddenly turns in to billable hours and a tax write off. SCORE!

9. Firm retreats are lonely
Unless your firm retreat is a week long camping trip with your family in the mountains of Arkansas. See item #9

10. No room for advancement within the firm
You’re already in the top spot. How much more awesome do you need to be? O_o

So, there you have it. Got lemons? Make lemonade. Boom baby! 🙂

daily prompt – great expectations

Tell us about one thing (or more) that you promised yourself you’d accomplish by the end of the year. How would you feel once you do? What if you don’t?

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you know that the biggest goal of any year….and every year…is to finally open the doors of my own firm. This is no small task and is always complicated by the need to have steady income to pay the bills and take care of a family. And so I’ve been moonlighting on and off for the last 6 years. While I’ve had a fair number of projects over the last 6 years ranging from providing drafting work for a log home company to designing new homes and remodels all over the United States and more than a few countries, I haven’t been able to keep enough steady clients coming to justify leaping over the cliff into full time. So every year I make my resolutions and I put “run my own firm” right at the top. Last year that was replaced with “get licensed” but now that that particular nightmare is over with, and it’s time to refresh my list.

This year I am setting my goals more simply. Instead of the huge goal of “running my own firm”, I’ve decided to break that off into little chunks that are easier to chew. The first chunk was the license – DONE. The next chunk is rebuilding my media presence and filing the paperwork with my state – this week’s task. Once that is done it’s time to file paperwork for my Arkansas state license – next week’s task. Once that is done it’s time to start the marketing machine. I’ll shine my shoes, put on my best bow tie and hit the town pounding the pavement until I get those first projects that will pay the rent.

This is the one thing, the one goal, that I’ve always had; even at the beginning of my first internship more than 10 years ago. I never wanted to be just an intern, or just an associate, or just a project architect. I’ve positioned myself in firms over the last 10 years that would provide me the tools and knowledge I needed to run a firm successfully. I’ve learned many lessons on my own as well. The list of “don’ts” is far longer than the list of “do’s”, let me tell you. And now it’s time.

How will I feel once I finally step off the cliff and begin running my own practice? Elated, ecstatic, empowered, intoxicated….pick your description for immense joy and terror all rolled into one. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it because I’ve spent my entire life preparing, learning and now it’s time to take a step.

an architect’s process – part two

Ok, here we go. Part two of An Architect’s Process. In part one I talked about the steps to signing a contract and what I think are the 3 essential steps in working through that part of the process. And now that we’ve worked through the project details, our proposal has been accepted and the contract has been signed, it’s time to get into the meat of the project.

Any residential project, whether it’s a new home, remodel or addition, has 3 essential parts: the Site, the Building, and the Site and the Client. You have to understand all 3 in order to create a home that the client won’t want to sell in 5 years. So, what do we start with? We’ve got a contract, probably a retainer, it’s time to put lines on a page, right? Wrong. The first part of any project once you’ve been hired is RESEARCH. And not just a little either. You need to know your client a little better than just the first few meetings. You need to find out how they live, what do they do for a living, basically you build a friendship. You also have to know the site. You need to go there, see it, smell it, touch it. For me that is where it begins:

Building Site

Understanding the building site is not really easy. You have to go there. You have to be there, walk in the dirt and mud, see how the sun plays through the trees (if there are any), or if there’s a strong prevailing wind that can be used or maybe needs to be shielded, is there a body of water nearby, etc. Pictures speak a thousand words, but no words can ever duplicate the experience of physically being in a space. Your mind will take it all in and, if you’re good at what you do (I am), then that experience will influence your design in a profound way.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 8.24.53 PM

The site that I am currently working with is large – a 10 acre parcel with an additional 12 behind it for views. The building site the client’s chose is an amazing one. The site starts low at the street and begins to rise in these rolling hills before dipping down to a natural stream and then rising again in more rolling hills. One of those hilltops is the site for our design. The drive will come in along the East edge of the property and then cut in and rise up to the garage, which will be mostly concealed by existing trees that will remain. The view north and east will be mostly wooded but with a view of the stream down below.

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The property faces North and thanks to the heavily wooded site almost all of the sunlight will be filtered through the tree canopy during the spring and summer. During the fall and winter light will be more direct, but not enough for passive heating. Given these two factors, our opportunity and need for windows goes up dramatically, which is just what the clients want. I would not have known any of these things if I had just researched the property via the internet and Google Earth. I wouldn’t know how quiet it is just inside the tree line or how a mere 50′ south makes a big difference in terms of noise from the road. These things have to be experienced.

So, what have we talked about? We talked about the important steps to signing a client and a new project. We talked about how important it is to represent yourself well, to talk to your client, understand what their wants and needs are for their new home or remodel, and to be upfront about project costs. And today we discussed the site, which is an essential first step in the design process. Even if you’re working on a remodel or addition, you have to put yourself in the space and understand what the environment is like with all 5 of your senses in order to begin to formulate a solution to the clients design problem.

Next time we’ll talk about the building and the client, since they really go hand in hand.

Cheers.

is a project ever too small? – a message to clients

Recently I got to work and dialed up my google+ feed and immediately clicked on the latest blog post over at Studio MM titled “Working with an Architect: Making Sense of Services and Fees”. In that post Marica describes a common interaction with a potential client where the client wonders “is my project too small to interest you?”.

Private Residence - Closet Addition

Private Residence – Closet Addition

I say this is a common interaction, but the reality may be more accurate to say that many clients will automatically THINK this to themselves and never actually seek out contact with an architect or designer to help them with their project. Well, I would like to put this baby to bed by saying that there is no residential project too small for a homeowner to bring to an architect for advice, consultation, design and even construction.

Private Residence - Porch Addition

Private Residence – Porch Addition

I don’t care if it’s a brand new home, a mother-in-law suite, a finished basement, a garage, bathroom renovation, kitchen remodel, dog house or chicken coop. I want to help you design whatever it is to suit the needs of you and your family (furry family included) and get it built on time, on budget and to a level of quality that will last.

Private Residence - Closet Addition

Private Residence – Closet Addition

In short, the purpose, the calling, of an architect is to design the built environment around us. Your project is not too small to involve one of us because each piece of a home matters and how that piece works and relates to all the other pieces is what makes the difference between a home that you love and a home that you just live in.

daily prompt: on the road

If you could pause real life and spend some time living with a family anywhere in the world, where would you go?

This is an interesting question. And if I weren’t an architect, I would have a long list of places and cultures that I could submit as an answer. I don’t think it would be possible to limit it to one single location. There are so many interesting and intriguing cultures and locations on this earth that I could spend my entire life going from one place and culture to another and never see them all or get my fill.

telepathic alien species from an old 50s movie - also what architects will likely look like in the future

telepathic alien species from an old 50s movie – also what architects will likely look like in the future

But, as an architect, I would say that this is actually part of my job. Because, when you design a home for someone, for a family, this is exactly what you have to do – put yourself in their shoes and decide what is most important in how a home should function, how it should flow and what it should feel like. To be an architect is also to be part sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, engineer, artist and archeologist. It also helps to be psychic and telepathic as well. O_o

Great Expectations….in Architecture

600full-great-expectations-screenshot

The movie Great Expectations always intrigued me because of it’s depiction of social hierarchy and the lengths to which those of us closer to the bottom will go to claw our way to the top once we’ve had a taste of that life. At some point we reach a line that we must decide if we’ll cross and continue that climb, knowing that we will fundamentally be a different person from the moment of that crossing. Architectural practice is similar.

Each new client comes with their own Great Expectations for their project. That is, they come to the relationship with a predetermined set of goals and perceptions about how things will work and what their end product will be. Those expectations will typically center around getting more than what they are actually paying for and expecting you, the architect, to deliver it for them.

This is where 9 out of every 10 potential clients that contact me lose interest and move on to someone else. I have learned, through hard experience (another blog post coming on that subject soon), that the first and best thing you can do for a potential client is to give them an open and honest reality check about their project, their budget and their Great Expectations. You will not do yourself or your client any favors by telling them what they want to hear in order to get their signature on a contract. And this is the line you can not cross. Once you do, your practice will fundamentally change and you’ll never truly succeed.

Most clients, especially residential ones, learn about architects from the movies and the shiny pages of high end design magazines. They see us as magicians who make amazing things happen with no money and everything happens smoothly and without difficulty. Dashing that particular fantasy right off the bat will save you many sleepless nights. Believe me.

Your client needs to know right up front, before you even think about drawing up a contract, that you are not a magician, you are not a miracle worker and you are not the Messiah of building and construction (though, admit it, you tell yourself that all the time). You are an Architect. You are the first piece of the puzzle that is their new home. You are their advocate and most importantly you are their bullshit detector.

Your client needs to know that you will call them out when they come to you with an unreasonable request that will destroy their budget, their timeline, their overall design goals, whatever it is. You can not be their friend, you have to be their voice of reason, which no one wants to be. You won’t be entirely popular during the process, but when the job is done and you hand them their house keys, you’ll be the star of the show because they’ll finally see that all of those unpopular decisions you had them make helped steer their Great Expectations into reality.

daily post: an architectural fiction

Walking down the street, you encounter a folded piece of paper on the sidewalk. You pick it up and read it and immediately, your life has changed. Describe this experience.

image courtesy of treehugger.com

image courtesy of treehugger.com

Truly exceptional clients do not come along every day. There are challenges to overcome with each new client, with each new project and with each step along the way through construction. What ultimately determines the success of a project is your ability to manage all the players. But every great once in a while you come across a client that is a true pleasure to work with. This is a story about one such client.

Walking down the street, muttering to myself how miserable that last project was, “my God I don’t ever want another client like that – never satisfied, constantly making changes even during construction, and no, it’s not ok to change your mind on the wall color AGAIN once the contractor has finished the punch list and final payment is due…”. I look up and marvel at the beautiful historic buildings in the city. I wonder briefly if those architects had to deal with similar issues….most likely. A carefully folded piece of paper sitting neatly on a storefront window ledge catches my eye. “That’s odd.”

I walk over and pick it up, thinking to myself only after the fact “this could be covered in snot….or worse – whatever, lets see what it is.” I unfold the heavy paper – it feels like a cotton stationary. Written on the inside, in a careful and precise block script are the words:

“Hello. You’re my new architect. I’m across the street at the coffee shop. Come find me and lets talk about the project that will change our lives.”

I think to myself, “this guy/gal is obviously a crack-pot. I must meet them at once.” I head over to the coffee shop. I walk in the door and scan the room with no idea what or who I’m looking for. I’ve still got the paper in my hand as I scan over to a small table halfway down and off to the side. A man is sitting there, about middle aged, a little gray starting to show, but otherwise youthful, in shape and dressed casually in jeans, loafers, a button down and a pair of Ray Bans lying next to his black coffee. I like this man already.

He looks up and sees the paper in my hands. He smiles and waves me over. I smile back and head that way. I reach the table, he stands and offers his hand. We exchange a firm handshake as I say “Good morning. I’m Jeremiah, you’re architect.” He smiles and laughs, “Yes, indeed you are. I’m Alexander. Coffee?”

“Yes, indeed.” I look up at the barista, “black with two sugars, please.”

“You must think this a little strange”, he says. “Oh, more than a little”, I say with a smile. “But I’m in a unique position where a life changing project would be incredibly welcome.”

“That’s good to hear”, he says, “because that’s exactly the kind of project I have in mind.”

He begins to tell me about his project. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds wonderful. I try hard to contain my enthusiasm (I’d really like to hug this man) until he’s finished. I interject a few questions here and there when it’s appropriate, probing mostly to find out if this man escaped from some local nut house (he can’t possibly be playing with a full deck).

Near the end of the conversation we discuss his budget, which is incredibly reasonable for what he’s described. We talk about a percentage fee, which he feels is perfect for his needs and even understands that costs may come in higher which would increase the fee. It’s all still sounding too good to be true, and I’m thinking “at least I got free coffee out of the deal”. Just then he asks about retainer to which I answer my standard (this is usually where the conversations with client’s ends), and he takes out his check book and hands me the retainer right there.

“Lets get started right away” he says “and please send me your contract as soon as you can.” He hands me a card with his contact info and we go on our way. I stand like a statue, stunned, bewildered, wondering if I’m being filmed right now. I look down at the card he handed me. It’s nothing terribly special – white card, black type, clean and simple font. His position and industry aren’t terribly special either. By all accounts this guy is your “Average Joe”, but he GETS IT. He understands the value and the need for an Architect – not just the service but the end product as well, which will be his home.

Over the next few months we collaborate on the design, sometimes effortlessly and sometimes it might seem we’re carving off each other’s flesh with a spoon. But always it comes back to the initial project goals. Early in the process the contractor was brought in to join our little menagerie of collaboration. The final, refined design was bid successfully and construction began. Securing a good relationship between the three of us, Owner, Architect and Contractor, early was key to the ultimate success.

At the end of the project, some 18 months later, I sat down to a glass of wine with Alexander and I asked him “So, did this project change your life?”

He seemed to think about it for a second and a smile came to his face and he said “You know, I can honestly say, my life won’t ever be the same. Thank you for all your help.”

I smiled back, “The feeling is mutual, my friend.”

This story is a complete fiction. I have not had a client like Alexander yet, but I’m still young enough to be hopeful and diligent enough to try and educate my potential clients enough to make them like Alexander – appreciative and aware of the value not only of the services of an Architect, but the value of the final product as well, which is their building – whether that building be a home, a garage, commercial office space, pizzeria, deli, bathroom, outhouse or chicken coop. In the end we all want the same thing – a good and successful building.

daily prompt: all grows’d up

When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up? What are you? Are the two connected?

At 10, like any incredibly indecisive child, I wanted to be many things – from a Math Teacher to a Motorcycle Cop (who didn’t love Chips?) to an Army Sniper (I was an odd child, I know). But, a few years before that my life was impacted much more profoundly and has dictated where I am today.

At about the age of 3 or 4 my grandmother took my mother and I to New York City for the first time, which, for her, was going home – she grew up in Brooklyn. At such a young age I don’t remember much, but what I do remember, with clear and pristine detail, was sticking my head out the window of the cab, eyes bulging out of my head at all the amazing buildings. My mother was obviously concerned for my safety and repeatedly told me to get back in the car “right now, young man!”. :-\ Probably sound advice, but I doubt I listened very well. Still don’t.

A few years after this, at the age of 7, I helped build my first house. Yes, that’s right I HELPED BUILD our home. I went around the entire foundation with a pair of snips and picked off all the little rebar ties. Then once framing started my mother and I grabbed several dozen boxes of nails and hammered down the subfloor sheathing for the first and second floors. It took just 9 months to build and we managed to live in the home for just over 7 months before we had to move for my parents job relocation (sonofa*&&%^$$#**^*).

Over the years these experiences have stuck with me in incredibly ways. Like I mentioned, I’ve wanted to explore other careers, but architecture and construction were always my first loves. In my senior year of high school I had a free elective and decided to take drafting. My teacher saw some talent in me and gave me increasingly more difficult assignments, though I still finished all of them a full month before school was out and had absolutely nothing to do with my time.

Fast forward 15 years from that class and I’ve graduated college with my Masters in Architecture from one of the best programs in the country and am now 9 years into professional practice with only 3 exams standing between me and the legal title of Architect. To say I’m living my dream would be an understatement. I’ve said before that Architecture is not a forgiving profession. You’ve got to want it, otherwise the humdrum, day-to-day grind of client meetings and schedules and site visits and billing and RFI’s and Addenda, etc. will drag you down, chew you up and spit you out.

Daily Prompt: Dream Home

You win a contest to build your dream home. Draft the plans.

This should be a no-brainer: Architect + Dream Home = easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The truth is an architects home is many times like a mechanics car – it always needs work and it’s never quite right. I actually began writing a post some months back titled “why I never want to design my own house”. It never quite got finished because, to be honest, while I understand that I am the worst client for any architect to have, there’s not really another architect on the planet I would trust to design my home and get the massing, materials, function, flow and details right. Don’t even get me started on contractors.

So, what does my dream home look like? Is it all glass and steel and concrete? Is it traditional wood detailing used in minimalist ways? Is it on wheels? Will it stand up? To be quite honest, I have no idea. My wife and I have talked often and agree that one day we will build a home for our family on a decent sized piece of land. We’d like to have a large garden, large dogs, a few chickens and possibly a goat, but that is a ways off and we’re happy to wait to do it right. Some sketches have been made, some thought into the basic organization and materials and even the overall scale, but that’s as far as it needs to go right now. Without a site it’s a bit superfluous.

Until that day comes, my “dream home”, or more accurately my “for now home” is a simple “must have” list of the basics:

3-4 bedrooms
2 baths
Kitchen/Living/Dining
Laundry
Garage and/or basement
Office
fenced yard for the dogs and kids to chase each other without running into the street

Other than that in any home I look for a sense of proportion as well as some thought to detail, materials and color. As an architect I’m probably not as picky as some. Yet.