Daily Prompt: Elevator

You’re stuck in an elevator with an intriguing stranger. Write this scene.

2011-08-12-Elevator-Pitch

What immediately came to my mind when I read today’s Daily Prompt was “The Elevator Pitch”. You hear this phrase a lot in those professional development courses and all the leadership and sales seminars that dot the calendar year after year. The gist is you’re in an elevator with a stranger. That stranger is a potential client. What do you say in 30 seconds or less that will grab their interest and make them want to hire you, purchase your product, whatever? It can be incredibly stressful to think about, especially for architects. I mean, really, what the hell does an architect DO? Most architects couldn’t tell you in 30 minutes, never mind 30 seconds. But I’m going to give it a shot. So, here is my “archi-vator pitch” (that phrase is now copywrite by me).

Note: do not ride up and down the same elevator all day trying to either a) practice your archi-vator pitch or b) try using your pitch to get clients. people might get the wrong idea if some creapy guy/gal is spending all day in an elevator.

Alright, in 30 seconds or less, the pitch should go something like this:

The elevator doors open and a unfamiliar person steps on riding up a few floors down from where you’re headed.

Architect: “Hey there. Good morning/afternoon/evening. How are we doing today?”
Always smile and make the first move by engaging them in a simple greeting. Make eye contact.

Victim New Friend: “Hey there yourself. Not too bad. And you?”
It’s almost universal that the average person will at least return a salutation with the same right back. This now opens you up for real conversation.

Architect: Hey, can’t complain. Headed on up to meet a client to talk about their house/office renovation/general archi-project. It’s a good start to the day.

New Friend: “Oh, so you’re an architect? So what exactly do you do for your clients?”
This is an ideal situation. Most times you’ll need to find your own way to work this into a simple and quick conversation.

Architect: Well, more than just providing drawings to a client in order to build a project, it’s my job to be an advocate for my client. In short, it’s my job to make sure that my client’s wants, needs, desires and budget are all met on a project. Plus I get to make sure that not only does their project function the way they want, but also that it is a solid investment for them in the future, whether that means resale or adapting a building to a new use.
This is my own “short version” of a pitch. Yours should be tailored to what you think you do best and bring to the table for your clients.

New Friend: “Man, that’s fascinating. I imagine you really love what you do. I’ve never really thought about hiring an architect before. My wife/husband and I usually just try to find a good contractor for small additions and renovations.”

Architect: “Well, here’s my card. The next time you think about doing some work on your home/business give me a call and lets talk about it.”

New Friend: “You know I just might do that. This is my floor. Great talking to you.”

Architect: Same to you. Take care.”

Architects are service providers. By default we have to be people people. We have to be able to engage anyone in conversation and show almost immediately why we’re valuable. This is key to the success of any business, but more so for architects. And you’re pitch is your first impression. It should be genuine, unrehearsed and above all confident.

Daily Prompt: Art Appreciation

Do you need to agree with an artist’s lifestyle or politics to appreciate their art? To spend money on it?

In college I had a professor who told us constantly that we were not allowed to “hate” architecture. We could discuss any design faults, including and not limited to color, views, form, construction details, lack of construction details, human scale, etc. We were even encouraged to find these things to discuss and even took a couple of walks around Savannah during class to view and discuss some of the larger buildings.

Drayton Tower, Savannah, GA

Drayton Tower, Savannah, GA

One in particular was Drayton Tower. It’s awful. I never liked that building. Still don’t. It’s a typical mid-century modern tower with some retail on the ground floor, a few offices, I think, and apartments the rest of the way up. It’s a rectangular tower that faces the cardinal directions with one long facade facing due south. It’s all glass. O_o

To describe this as a fundamental design flaw would just be a waste of time. Over the years they tried to combat the fact that they essentially built a huge glass oven by installing tinting on the windows. It’s green. And has faded to different colors over the years and been replaced, etc. So you get a patchwork effect. Then the tinting didn’t really work as well as hoped so they installed large blinds and then beefed up the hvac system…typical stuff. It’s still Savannah….in summer….in a big glass oven.

BUT all of that to say, it’s significance as a piece of architecture for the city is incredibly important. It was the first multi-story building of modern design in a very historic city. It was also the first high rise to be built in the city with central heat and air thank God. And, for better or worse, it has become a part of the urban fabric of the city. It’s iconic for all its failures and successes and should be appreciated for both.

Architecture, like Art, is so often in the eye of the beholder. Some architecture, like art, speaks to us in a profound and visceral way while others we pass by every day without a second thought. Architecture, like Art, is not necessarily good or bad. It’s personal. It’s up to you the beholder, the user, the client, to determine how architecture makes you feel and respond accordingly. Just don’t say you hate it. That’s a useless emotional response that has no hope of creating a conversation.

Daily Prompt: Share the Love

Tell us about another blogger who has influenced your own online journey.

image courtesy of treehugger.com

image courtesy of treehugger.com

I’ve actually talked about this before, but recently I’ve had conversations with other architects about their “favorite” architects. I’m always a little surprised that so many architects out there in my own “bracket” (i.e. age and level of professional development), if you will, are still so drawn to the Starchitect class for their role models in the profession. I had always assumed that we’d grow out of that after college, but it seems this assumption was incorrect.

In college I was always drawn to the work of Le Corbusier, Mies van de Rohe, Richard Meier and even Daniel Liebeskind. What drew me to their work was the simplicity, experimentation and honesty of structure and form. Though in Liebeskind’s case it was the sheer insanity of his work that was amazing.

And even after college, at the beginning of my career I continued to try and emulate these architects in my work. I quickly learned that the flashy Starchitect class of architecture is just that – flashy. It’s pretty. It’s shiny. It gets attention. But there are more important questions to ask when deciding what is and is not good architecture. Anyone can be a good designer and get their picture taken. There’s enough software out there to turn any idea into a great image. It takes real experience and real talent to be a great architect. And the great architects that I know and love are not on the covers of magazines, they don’t give national news interviews. Hell, you may not even know who they are or where they practice.

Below is a short list of the few architects that I truly look up to. Not because their work is flashy or shiny or pretty but because it’s GOOD. Their work is thoughtful in terms of design, client needs, construction and budget. They’re not all bloggers, but most are. I hope you’ll check out their work and appreciate them as much as I do.

Bob Borson – Life of an Architect
Lee Calisti – Calisti Architecture + Design
Jason Fisher and Greg Beere – Content Design Group
Nick Renard – Cote Renard Architecture
Keith Palma – Cogitate Design
Aaron Ruby – Ruby Architects
Robert Swinburne – Swinburne Architects

Daily Prompt: Impossible Things

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland.

The White Queen - Alice in Wonderland

The White Queen – Alice in Wonderland

Come down the Rabbit hole with me, won’t you?

1. Clients will never negotiate your fees because they believe in the value of your work and the expertise you bring to a project.

2. Clients will always tell you to set your own schedule and take as much time as is needed to put together a well thought out and complete set of construction documents.

3. It’s ok to be a little over budget. The client will still build it the way you designed it. Refer back to #1.

4. The contractor will never try to substitute cheaper, inferior products for the ones you specified because, like the client, the contractor values your work and the expertise you bring to a project.

5. The contractor will read your drawings and specifications and build the project as designed.

6. Architectural practice is exactly like studio.

Feel free to add your own to the list.

Daily Prompt: Comfort Zone

PigeonHole2

What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?

I don’t always adhere to the “letter of the law” when it comes to these daily prompt posts….and today is no different. 😉

As architects and design professionals it is easy to get comfortable, to stick with what you know, to take the road often traveled. By this I mean it’s easy to stick ourselves in a category and never venture beyond our self-imposed bounds. And in years past, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you got a few similar projects, you quickly became very good at a select market sector. And if you did good work for those clients, word spread and suddenly you’re the “strip mall guy” or the “urgent care guy” or the “hospital guy” or the “residential addition guy”, so on and so forth ad nauseum. But if history teaches us anything it is that a good thing can not last forever.

Businesses, any business, that do not position themselves to adapt and grow or change with the times will fail. It is no longer a matter of “if” but rather “when”. Architects, design professionals and architecture in general are no different. I even venture to state that Architects are not meant to be pigeon-holed into any specialty. We are Master Builders, and this is our calling. It is not our calling to be hospital designers, or home designers, or mini-mart designers. An Architect can do all of these things once the right team has been assembled. And that is the way it should be.

So, I challenge all my fellow architects and designers out there, stop pigeon-holing yourself. Get out of whatever comfort zone you’ve put yourself in, or been put in by others, and get out there. Design something different, design it well and more clients will come. Our specialty should be architecture. Period.

Daily Prompt: 180 Degrees

Tell us about a time you did a 180 — changed your views on something, reversed a decision, or acted in a way you ordinarily don’t.

In the field of architecture, you lead two lives. These lives are not simultaneous, nor do they overlap. There is an order to them – one must come before the other. And the former will not prepare you adequately for the latter. These two lives that we lead in architecture are education and practice.

Eichberg Hall - Architecture Studio - Savannah College of Art and Design

Eichberg Hall – Architecture Studio – Savannah College of Art and Design

In education we are taught how to design, how to craft space and light, solid and void. We are taught the precedents of history and then taught to ignore them. We are taught that anything is possible, though leaving out the two most important factors to that statement – Time and Money. We’re taught that anything can be built with a miraculous material called Anti-gravitonium, glass in a universal building material with magical structural properties, and polished cast in place concrete is the only acceptable opaque material that can be formed in ANY shape conceivable…again, irregardless of Time and Money.

In education we explore the sometimes completely unrealistic limits of architectural design and theory. Our imaginations are stretched beyond their limits and sometimes beyond the limits even of Hollywood. We come to think, after years of this experimentation, that life beyond academia will be “just like studio”.

That life abruptly ends day one, minute one of our first internship. Our life takes a 180 and we crash headlong into the face of practice. The practice of architecture is not even really a 180. It’s more like you used to live on Mars. Now you’ve come back to earth where things actually have to make sense, fit within budgets and schedules, be buildable, and most importantly they have to stand up. Because in the real world where cyanoacrylate is not your major joining compound, buildings really do have to work, to stand up. Otherwise they will, and do, fall down. Usually with people in them. And that’s bad.

an architects office - life of an architect (looks way too clean)

an architects office – life of an architect (looks way too clean)

Our life in architecture begins with education. This life quickly dies upon graduation and is reborn in practice. This, for me, is real life, real education, real architecture. These two lives are not simultaneous, nor do they overlap. There is an order to them – one must come before the other. But in practice, this is where the real fun begins.

architects, competition and professionalism

Dominate-the-Competition

Envy is the ulcer of the soul.” – Socrates

I came across this quote while scrolling through my blog feed and was almost struck dumb by the enormity of it’s implications. For years I’ve talked about the need for architects to be more organized as a community, to work more diligently at building up the next generation, to be more involved in local activities and generally to simply promote the profession in a positive light. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the biggest problem and the most difficult hurdles to get over would be envy, and her evil sister, pride.

I’m not sure why this never fully occurred to me before, but looking back at my career I’ve seen first hand the territoriality of architects and their work. And not just with other architects whom they are in competition with, but even with employees. One friend of mine, when he left one of the last firms he worked at before hanging his own shingle, was nearly threatened with a lawsuit because a potential client was going to follow my friend rather than stay with the other firm. I remember thinking at the time “how ridiculous is this?”, but thinking back now, it’s a pattern of confrontational behavior that has always been in our profession.

This envy of others leads to an attitude of “well, I should have gotten that project because we’re more qualified…blah blah blah”. This continued attitude leads to more of the same and eventually becomes a competition of pride where architects begin puffing themselves up more and more and taking cheap shots at their competition in this race to try and get more projects than the other guy.

All the while we don’t realize that the client is in the middle of this game, and they see what’s going on. They see the bravado and the chest-pounding and wonder why they need to put up with this crap just to get a building designed. I wonder the same thing.

If the profession is ever going to move beyond this sad state of affairs in a global marketplace we have to rekindle the sense of community and collaboration that we felt early in our careers and even during studio. When we are able to work together we all do well.

Daily Prompt: Places

Places. What are places? Do you have a favorite place? Is there a place that you need to go, to get away, to clarify, to download, to decompress, to escape or just to BE? I imagine for most of us the answer would be yes. It certainly is for me. Living in Florida there really wasn’t a “place” for me to go to accomplish any of the above listed things. It was more a state of being that I had to go to, a refuge in my own mind. That state has always only be achieved when running.

Top of Pinnacle Mountain

Top of Pinnacle Mountain

But now, living in Arkansas, there is a actual place I can go. The top of Pinnacle Mountain, which is, quite literally, around the corner from my house. And, there’s nothing particularly magical or mystical about Pinnacle. It’s a mountain, much like any other in this part of the US, but for me it’s the first I’ve ever climbed. It’s the highest peak I’ve ever sat atop and quite frankly the first time I made it to the top was….well, magical. It was quiet, serene, peaceful, majestic, and a little humbling.

IMG_3181

So, when I sat down two minutes ago to write this post, it got me thinking about the idea of “place” and not just in the sense of identification, but in the larger sense of having something more, something intangible that evokes a response from people. As architects, it’s our job to design and construct buildings. These building serve a function, provide a necessary service to society, but more than the visceral function of a building we are creating places. If we’re not thinking beyond the basic requirements of our client’s needs for a building and moving on to the larger context of the impact on it’s surroundings, then we have failed to create, we have failed to improve and strengthen the larger fabric of our society. We have failed as architects if we do not at least try for something more in our practice.

Daily Prompt: Happily Ever After

happiness is in your hands

happiness is in your hands

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

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

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

What it takes:

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

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

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

What it looks like:

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

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

Where can it take you:

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

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

Daily Prompt: Mentor Me

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

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

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

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

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

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