architectural storytelling : #architalks

3rd in a series of posts by architects about….something totally random and not necessarily related to the practice or profession of architecture. O_o

But this time we’re talking about architectural storytelling. Architects, by definition, are great storytellers. We are groomed into this art from our very first studio critique where are are made to tell a very convenient fiction about our design and how wonderful it is (it’s not) and how it’s never been done or thought of before (of course it has) and how our designs will change the world (let’s just say boots are typically required in your average architecture studio). Today’s story will hopefully be more entertaining and at least a little enriching, offering a small glimpse into the mind of one architect and one day in a city not so far away.

It’s cold. The heat in my townhouse never quite reaches the top floor. Just like the cool air in summer, come to think of it. They tell you in school that hot air rises. “Evidently it doesn’t rise fast enough to stay warm”, I think to myself as I’m huddled under a blanket dreading my exodus from the very small cocoon of warmth I’ve managed to build up as I slept. I look out the window and see the fresh snow on the trees. I resign myself to the pain I’m about to experience, and with clenched teeth, I throw off the covers and head for the shower and hopefully a few drops of hot water that might have been left by my housemates.

Showered, shaved, dressed and ready for the day. It’s Saturday – my favorite day of the week. I deliberately don’t make plans so that I can have the day to myself. No friends, no phone calls, no emails. It’s my day. I head down the stairs, grab my coat, hat and gloves, strap on my shoes and head out into the cold February D.C. morning. I’m headed for the Vienna Metro on the Orange line, which is in Northern Virginia, but it might as well be a D.C. suburb. My townhouse is on the edge of a neighborhood with a paved walking track that leads straight to the metro station. It didn’t take me long to discover this when I moved here and by now it’s a familiar path that I barely need to think about.

I reach the metro station, slip my card into the slot and head down the escalator to the platform. I hear the train heading in already. This is the last stop on the line so I don’t have to wonder if it’s my train or not. And as I step through the doors I look around and marvel at all those headed into work on a Saturday in their suit and tie. Me? Nope. Jeans, a sweater, a jacket, a scarf, long socks, warm shoes and gloves. Hey, I said it was cold, right? The train doors close and off we go.

I change trains only once to get where I’m going – from the Orange line to the Red. Finally I come out from underground and into the bright morning sunshine. It’s almost blinding at first from the relative din of the subterranean metro station, but my eyes quickly adjust to my surroundings just outside the Dupont Station. The familiar buildings, not-so familiar people and the streets. I love these streets. This is my Saturday morning ritual. I head out to Dupont Circle and this little book shop and cafe that has some of the most obscure architecture books I’ve never heard of. I find a copy of “how architecture got it’s hump” by Roger Connah, “the look of architecture” by Witold Rybczynski and “invisible cities” by Italo Calvino – three of my favorite books on architecture. I spend some time looking through the now familiar stacks of architecture books. There are books on history, design, theory, a few collections of works by famous starchitects that I don’t care about and countless others that I won’t have time to read, but by now it’s lunch time and I’m hungry.

My next stop is a little sandwich shop a few doors down from the book shop. I’ve never bothered to learn the name. It’s one of those trendy places that pops up with a clean modern and flashy design, a few barely legal hotties behind the counter ready to take your order. I get my sandwich and my water and I find a place at the bar top to enjoy one of my new books. It’s also entertaining to people-watch in places like this. There’s a steady stream of customers in and out. Some stay for a bit at the small round tables-for-two, others just grab their grub and go. In DC you’ll more often than not hear conversations in every language but English. It’s almost like being in a foreign country…or an airport…whatever.

I’ve finished my lunch, stashed my books under my arm and now it’s time to head out and explore. I almost never go the same way twice, but I always end up in the Adams Morgan and Shaw areas of town. The small shops that occupy old shotgun town homes have the most amazing things in them. Vintage housewares, records, jewelry, cowboy boots, fuzzy handcuffs…all sorts of things from eras long past popular fashion. After a couple of hours of aimlessly wandering the streets of DC I make my way back to the Dupont Metro. I don’t actually need to walk all the way back to this spot. There are plenty of other stations I could use, but the area between Shaw, Adams Morgan and Dupont has some amazing architecture. Italianate and Federal and Queen Anne and Victorian and French, Gothic and Greek Revival – the ornamentation, the stonework and the masonry are just amazing. It’s even better in the Spring when all the trees are full and in bloom. But that’s a different day and a different story.

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we are the one percent

No, I’m not talking about the filthy rich 1%, though lets be honest, I’d love to be one of them. I’m talking about something much more important and infinitely more rewarding:

1% Logo

As of now r | one studio architecture is part of The One Percent Project – an organization that allows not-for-profit groups to post architectural projects that they need services for and helps to find architects and designers willing to donate 1% of their billable hours as services to these groups. “Launched by Public Architecture in 2005 with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, The 1% is a first-of-its-kind effort to encourage pro bono service within the architecture and design professions. If every architecture professional in the U.S. committed 1% of their time to pro bono service, it would add up to 5,000,000 hours annually – the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm, working full-time for the public good.” – theonepercent.org

There are about 2000 billable hours in a given year for most professionals, or about 160 hours per month (for some of us it’s a lot more than that….but lets just keep it simple). Donating 1% of your time per month is 1.6 hours in 30 days. If you’re like me, I waste at least that much time every day checking Facebook. Don’t even ask me to calculate the time suck if I added Twitter, LinkedIn, Houzz, Pinterest, Instagram….you get the picture. This is not a lot of time and these are some very worthwhile causes that need the help and expertise of architects and designers.

It’s my hope that everyone who reads this blog, most importantly my colleagues and architect friends, will add their own names to The One Percent Project. Architects do more than design buildings. We build and shape communities – it’s a responsibility and a pleasure to give back.

AIA Arkansas – Tactical Urbanism

Mike Lydon gave a great presentation this morning on tactical urbanism, which is not really a new idea, but centers around revitalizing urban and even suburban areas through grassroots community actions like parklets, or complete streets initiatives, or pop up streets, or better blocks programs. All of these blurbs will yield incredible results on google.

The gust here is that for years our zoning overlays have created roadblocks to development and better communities through design and planning. By tactically creating smaller initiatives and documenting feedback you can better catalyze change.

More to come in part 2.

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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: Homeys

Yeah, I couldn’t really resist adding this little clip. Who doesn’t love In Living Color? 🙂

But, seriously, today we’re talking about Home. And for an architect, and especially a residential architect, Home is something we think about a lot. And not just because we’re always stuck in the office and hardly ever get to go there. Home is what we do – we CREATE Homes, not just houses like in the world of big box retail residential manufacturing (lets be honest, it’s not really architecture if they all look the same….and they do. ALL of them).

And creating a home for someone is much more involved than just drafting some walls, doors and windows and throwing a hipped roof on top. There is a process involved and it begins with understanding people, understanding the client and the client’s wife/husband and the client’s children, etc. Understanding space and the difference between quartz and granite countertops comes later, much later.

As an architect, this is our primary function. Builders are great at showing you a picture of a house that someone else designed for someone else’s lifestyle and building that for you (not to say that there aren’t exceptions), but at the end of the day it’s still a home designed for someone else, not you. So, if you really want to build your home and not someone else’s, talk to an architect first.

Daily Prompt: architecture of the now

Do you belong in this day and age? Do you feel comfortable being a citizen of the 21st-century? If you do, explain why — and if you don’t, when in human history would you rather be?

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio

Architecture began thousands of years ago with the earliest humans using large tree branches to create the first post and beam structures. These simple, temporary shelters developed into more permanent, but mobile, structures like Tee-pees and tents made of long wooden rods and animal skins sewn together. We call this Pre-historic Architecture.

Eventually our ancestors developed more permanent forms of building made out of a multitude of readily available local materials like mud brick, stone, wood, palm leaves and even concrete. We call this Ancient Architecture.

As the centuries progressed, Architecture and Construction became more refined, more functional, and even more beautiful. In each new era of building we have a certain style (this is a dirty word to some, but not to me), or a certain set of principles that identifies a particular age and way of life for that time and place. And in times past, place had a much more important role to play in the architecture through material, construction and even function.

Now, fast forward through the Industrial age, the invention of the elevator, central HVAC, the automobile, the airplane, the microwave and the iPhone – Architecture, in my opinion, has devolved. We’ve lost, through technology, the basics that make architecture great. Our technology has made it possible to design anything, anywhere, at any time. We are no longer bound by the basic principles of place, of climate or of time. This is leading to the death of real Architecture. The idea of sustainability, what used to be a default in all buildings, has now become something extra. In many cases something MUCH extra indeed. We don’t design buildings to perform and respond with their site and climate. We design them AGAINST their site and climate in a constant battle for supremacy. And how’s that working out for you?

For 21st Century Architecture to succeed, we need to return to basic Architectural Principles: Site, Context, Climate (Macro and Micro), Materials (local), Construction (durability and longevity), and Proportion (beauty). No matter what architectural style you favor, a well designed building that takes the items listed above into careful consideration is successful and will be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone. Like good music, good architecture is just that.