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.

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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.

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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.

an architect’s process – part one

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In the last couple of months I’ve seen a number of posts on various blogs about the architectural process, or the value of an architects services, or why you need an architect, etc. All of these posts stem from the same basic principle – convincing potential clients that we are valuable and that our services are in your best interest to ensure a sound investment in your building project.

So, I felt like I should take some time and walk through my own process. And, as luck would have it, I just signed a new client that has hired me to design a new home in the Hot Springs area of Arkansas near the Ouachita Mountains. And that is where any architect’s process starts – with a  client who needs your help. I won’t bore you with all the reasons you should hire an architect and how it adds value to your project and saves money during construction, etc etc. We’re already there. We’ve got a contract.

But what does it take to get to a contract? What are the steps you and your architect should go through to learning if this is going to be a good relationship or not? For me, there are three things, or three steps, that I go through with a potential client to determine if we’re a good fit.

1. Initial Meeting
Just like a first date, you’ll know within the first 15 minutes of your initial meeting whether or not there will be a second date…er uh, meeting. In that first meeting I ask my clients a good deal of questions. Some of them may or may not have anything to do with their project, though project specific questions are important. Ultimately, I want to get a feel for who these people are, how they live, what their day to day life is like (young or grown children, newly weds, party animals), what they do for work (do they work from home or commute?), are they outdoor types or more cerebral. Basic first date chit chat.

If all goes well and they haven’t pushed/thrown me out the door, I try to schedule a second meeting to discuss their project more in depth.

2. Project Meeting:
Things like total budget, contractors, renovation/construction experiences in the past, etc will all come up. And, if new construction, I like to visit the site and get a feel for the land, scope out possible building sites, drive access, utilities, and anything that may influence the work and/or require additional fees that may need to be considered.

3. Project Proposal/Contract:
Once that is done it’s time to sit down and review the Client’s wants, needs and desires in relation to the budget in order to generate a preliminary building program and calculate a proposed fee. The building program and fee should be centered around a well-defined scope of work. For small projects, or projects with limited fees I will even list in my proposal and contract what drawings/services I will and will not provide. It’s imperative that you manage expectations from the very beginning and put in writing exactly what you will do as part of your fee and what will be considered an additional service. Otherwise you end up doing anything and everything under the sun. Trust me. I know.

If you’ve done your job right, if you’ve represented yourself well to the Client, then #3 is the beginning of what should be a fun and exciting relationship that can last longer than the design and construction schedule. If you start by taking care of your clients before they’re clients the rest of the project is a relative breeze.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

can kanye west save architecture? probably not

I can not say that I am a fan of Kanye West or his music because to call what he does music would be to degrade what real musicians and artists do. This is a personal taste, an opinion, you may disagree, but I don’t really care. And to add insult to injury, Mr. West recently gave a little impromptu speech to the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Now, it’s bad enough that Kanye West recently announced his foray into the design industries with his new company DONDA…..my ears bleed just thinking about that word…but this little speech is even more offensive because he ACTUALLY MAKES A POINT. Ugh. *face-palm

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Kanye West has made a valid point in regards to architecture, design and the profession. If you can get past his complete rape of the english language, you’ll find he makes two statements that, if applied, could save our profession.

“everything needs to be actually architected.”

Again, this makes my ears bleed. But I think what he is trying to say here is important for the profession – everything should be designed, considered, thought out, conceptualized, reasoned, crafted, and, if necessary, discarded. Too often architects, myself included, leave things up to the consultant, contractor or simply for during construction. We rush through the design and detailing toward a set that is “good enough” for permit. Each piece of a building is important, from the size and shape of window openings to their relative 3D position within the wall assembly to the type of brick mortar joints used and how they affect light and shadow on a building to the terminations and intersections of various finish materials. And all of these elements should be thought about as they relate to and inform upon the experience of our clients and the building inhabitants.

“the conversation always turns to realization, self-realization, and actually seeing your creativity happen in front of you…”

Oh the pain…..the PAIN. But, again he’s making a point – architects should create all the time. No matter if it’s sketching, drafting, folding paper or making spit balls. Use your hands and create SOMETHING. As architects we deal with every piece of a building and site: exterior walls, windows, landscaping, hardscaping, parking, roads, curbs, gutters, drywall, paint, lighting, hvac duct work, trim, furniture….the list goes on. In order to best understand something we have to pick it up, turn it, play with it, break it, taste it (yes I have actually licked a brick before…don’t judge me). We need to experience all of the pieces and parts of a building in order to best understand how use them in building.

If architects would do more of these two things, DESIGN and CREATE than perhaps more people would again begin to value our profession.

on the boards

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now, my posts have become seriously erratic in frequency and maybe even a little erratic in content as well. I’m sorry for that. There really isn’t any excuse other than I’ve been plowing ahead full speed in so many different directions lately that to try and rub two coherent thoughts together may cause a stroke.

BUT, I have stepped out of the fog long enough to write this post and show you some of what I’ve been up to in my freelance world. As you may have guessed by my review post of the last year, my new position has afforded little time for moonlighting and I am completely ok with that. I much prefer to have a fulfilling day job that lets me do the family thing once 5 o’clock hits. The two side projects that I have taken on are quite interesting however and I am proud of how they are shaping up.

The first project is more of a residential complex than a residence. Once complete there will be a total of 4 buildings (Main House, Guest House, Barn with 2 apartments and a work shop) plus horse corral and a huge retaining pond. All of this will sit on 21+ acres of old grove land in South Florida. It’s quite simply an amazing project.

Front Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Front Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

The architecture, as you can see, is fairly traditional. It’s not necessarily a style so much as a simple and honest design. Not a lot of ornament (you’re seeing the Guest House – which is being developed and constructed first), but I have taken an opportunity to show off the rear porch a little. The Dutch Gable roofs are fun and give that Florida feel. Finish colors will be very light with some wood accents. It will fit nicely with the surroundings.

The next project has actually been in development for quite a while. I began the design with the client last year and only now has it come back online and we’re moving forward with construction documents and permitting this month. This will be my first constructed container home. If you’ve followed this blog at all you know I’ve designed many, but haven’t had the opportunity to see any built, though some came close. This is going to be an exciting project.

Floor Plan - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Floor Plan – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

As container homes go, it’s on par with size and scale. Less than 1,000 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, living, dining, kitchen and storage. The rear of the house has a water view, so I’ve also created a roof deck above the master bedroom and the rear wall of the living room is a roll-up garage door. To say we’re “bringing the outside in” would be an understatement. 😉

Side Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Side Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Life and work continue to move at a breakneck pace, but I would much rather have too much work than not enough, no?

Some talk, some do

There are some container “designers” out there who like to talk a lot. But they never show their work. They’ll show other peoples work and even pass off others as their own. And then there are those that actually do design container homes. And here’s one of mine headed for permitting and construction this month.

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Great Expectations….in Architecture

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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.