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.

specifications – why they matter

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Architecture produces a lot of paper. And I mean, a lot. And if you’re working on a LEED project?….Forget about it. You’re going to kill at least a few thousand trees just documenting your points for certification. And all of it, every scrap, is important. There are proposals, contracts, sketches, drawings, specifications, addenda, ASIs, Change Orders, RFIs, RFQs, RFPs, submittals, transmittals, memos and even emails. All of this paper is part of what eventually will dictate what your building looks like. But the two most important, other than the contract, are the drawings and specifications.

There are two things that the architect and contractor are concerned about when properly detailing and then pricing and eventually building a particular project: Quantity and Quality.

The drawings represent the Quantity, or the pictorial representation of the building. The site plan, floor plans, elevations, building sections, details, etc. The drawings give the contractor a visual representation of how the building should go together and how much of each part he’ll need in order to get the job done. Now, to some degree, the drawings also represent a level of quality that the contractor is to adhere to. This is mostly evident in the building sections, wall sections, details and framing plans where the architect will depict particular ways of assembly for various pieces and parts of the project. Some of these will be visible while others won’t. But they are all important.

But when it comes to the true Quality of the project, the specifications are where it’s at. And, to me, the specifications can make or break a project. And specifications, like the contract and drawings, becomes a part of the Contract Documents, which are the legally binding agreements between Owner, Architect and eventually the Contractor. These specifications outline the products to be used, the acceptable manufacturers and/or level of performance to be met, warranty information, procedures for testing and evaluation, mock-up requirements, sizes and installation requirements. So, not only do they need to look good, they need to read good as well. And, yes, I’m aware of the horrible grammar in that last sentence.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to specifications and how they are crafted – book format and sheet format. This means that the specifications are either in the format of a book type document (8.5 x 11) or sheet format in which case they are a part of the drawing set. I’m not partial to either. Each is acceptable depending on the type of project you’re working on. Though, in my office almost every specification, even small residential projects, will have a book specification that accompanies the drawings. It’s not necessarily right or wrong it’s just our preferred way of doing things.

Whatever format your specifications are in they need to be clear, inclusive of the materials and finishes necessary for your project, and they need to be carefully proof-read by more than one set of eyes familiar with the project. Lastly, since the specifications outline the quality expected on your project, they need to be READ BY THE CONTRACTOR. This seems to be a more and more difficult request lately. Unfortunate, but true.

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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a year in review

community.humanityhealing.net

community.humanityhealing.net

I’m a firm believer in self-critique and examining your own immediate past in order to better understand where you are, how you got there, where you want to go and how to get there. This is an essential task in life and not taking time to give yourself a review is a great way to ensure you’ll never get where you want to go and most likely just float along aimlessly until something happens to you rather than making things happen. And if you read this blog you know that just 12 months ago I made a huge personal and professional change (i.e. risk) by moving myself and my family from sunny Florida out to woodsy Arkansas. I left a firm I had been with for more than 4 years, a city I had practiced in for 9 years and countless friends I have known even longer. Making a change like this is never easy, either personally or professionally. In both cases I and my wife have had to start our lives over completely. New state, new city, new home, new jobs, new colleagues, new friends. It was…..stressful. But the opportunity to be closer to family and new adventures professionally were too great to ignore. So, we packed up and hauled butt. And now, one year later, this is my Review.

Before we get to the meat of things, I think it’s important I lay out some of the goals I’ve had for myself and some of my professional biography. In 2003 I graduated with my Masters in Architecture and in early 2004 I began my first internship with one of the oldest and most respected firms in Jacksonville, Florida. During my time there I learned a lot about the practice and production of architecture. Between then and now I’ve worked at several other firms in Florida and Virginia, and now Arkansas. I’ve designed projects in multiple other states and countries including Panama, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.

So, after nearly 10 years in practice, where did I think I’d be by now? Well, I certainly thought I would be licensed before now. That was probably the single greatest goal that I set for myself. Everything else was pretty fluid. I was never one of those architects that had a particular style of architecture or even market sector as a major focus. I just love what I do and relish in the opportunity to work on any project and do the best I can for my clients.

But, I suppose if I was totally honest I would have to admit that I always considered myself a Modern and/or Contemporary designer. I’ve always had a preference for a simple and honest expression of structure and form without a lot of ornament (as little as possible, if any, in fact). But I also always had an appreciation and a love of old buildings. Living and studying in Savannah, Georgia was certainly good for that. But it wasn’t until this past year that I really began to appreciate, study and truly investigate architecture on a deeper level. This was due 100% to the new position I found myself in Arkansas. My firm does a good bit of Historic Preservation, Rehabilitation and Restoration work all over the state. And once I got more involved in these projects I began to more clearly appreciate how historical styles and movements and traditional building methods got us to where we are today with architects like Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman and Santiago Calatrava and so many others. And through this deeper investigation I began to see the beauty and the purpose behind a lot of the ornament that I had always spurned as ugly and unnecessary.

Fast forward to today and quite frankly I can’t stand a lot of modern architecture out there because there is an almost complete lack of scale, proportion, sensitivity of material or eve at times GOOD TASTE. So much of the modern work I see is a white box or a black box or a grey box or a wood box. Windows are out of place, out of scale, and simply creating a huge open multi-functional space for people to live in is not good design…I could go on and on and on. And to cut a long story not so short, the last year has been wonderful for my professional growth as an architect, and I am also happy to report that as of this post I have taken my 5th of 7 exams (fingers crossed on a big win for that one). This will also be my third exam since moving here last year. Before that I hadn’t taken an exam since 2009. To say I lacked motivation and encouragement is the understatement of the century. There is thankfully no lack of either since I moved here and, God willing, I will be a fully licensed architect before the new year.

And with that big hurdle accomplished it will be time to set new, higher goals for myself in the next year. I look forward to new challenges, new adventures, new projects and new clients. And, on top of all of that, over the next month or two I will be transitioning this blog to a new blog and social media platform. I’ll be handling all blogging and social media for Ruby Architects, Inc. Nothing will really change other than the name, but it’s another step forward for me in my career and I’m really excited about it!

daily prompt: naked with black socks

Are you comfortable in front of people, or does the idea of public speaking make you want to hide in the bathroom? Why?

Finally, a daily prompt question I can relate to. Lately they’ve been more about writing creative stories and….well, this is an architecture blog, not a creative writing blog. BUT today, we’re talking about being naked….wait…no, we’re talking about public speaking. Yeah, we’ll go with that.

When I started college I was shy. No, seriously. 😐 I wasn’t the outgoing, energetic, ever-positive guy I am today. I was a major introvert. Anyone who has ever seen the inside of any architecture department in the WORLD knows introverts have two options:

A) drop out and teach high school art classes

B) become not-introverted REAL quick

I chose option B. It wasn’t easy and it took the first 2, almost 3, years of college before I really came out of my shell and took hold of this whole public speaking thing. And it wasn’t entirely by choice. At SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design for those who don’t know) you gave a presentation in most of your architecture courses at least once a week. Every other class at least once or twice a quarter. It was serious trial by fire, sink or swim, pick a metaphor.

So, I went from being terrified of speaking in public, even small group settings like my studios, to ENJOYING public speaking and presenting my work, or just talking to people in a crowded bar. And this is incredibly important in practice because, as an architect, you have to be able to speak clearly, calmly and confidently about yourself and your work to clients, engineers, consultants, product reps, board members, city officials, review panels, public hearings…the list goes on. You either get good at it, if you’re not already, or you will most likely find yourself behind a desk until you do.

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.