your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Archive for May, 2012

Sometimes I Wish People Didn’t Need Me

I was with a client today, doing the pre-drywall inspection on their house that’s under construction. I was doing a casual punchlist, they were double-checking that the house had their selected options, the construction supervisor was making sure that everything was right so that he can move on to County inspections.

I found that I was doing more explanation than observation during the process to reassure my client that what he’s seeing is normal and acceptable. But as I was leaving I was thinking that this house, which is being built pretty well and conscientiously, is still pretty crappy compared to what people are doing with Passive House or other advanced systems. It’s still just a code minimum house. And that’s a difficult thing to convey–that this house, for all it’s expense–is not state of the art.

Now I wasn’t hired to design the house – it’s a stock plan from the developer. I was hired to hold their hands through this, admittedly, scary experience. And it is scary, because they are putting a lot of money into this, and really trusting that everyone involved won’t screw them. So I’m more like that big guy in gangster movies who spends most of the time just looking big and scary.

But here’s the thing: I don’t like that this is a scary process that they need help with. It would be so easy for the builder and the salesperson and the inspector and everyone to be focusing on making the experience a good one for the buyers. Everyone but them does this all day long, and so they use jargon, and they rush through things, and in general set up an expectation that they (the customer) is in the way of them doing their job. And that feels wrong to me, and I wish that there were something that I could do.

Maybe I’ll write a blog post …

I Learned So Much at the AIA Convention – Now I Need to Change Things

I just got back from the 2012 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Washington DC. The weather was perfect, and the sessions were extremely valuable. The two that stand out were on disruptive innovations in architectural practices and blogging.

The blogging session was very funny because it had Bob Borson (Life as an Architect) and Jody Brown (Coffee with an Architect) but also very informative because they recounted the process that led them to blogging and the lessons they’ve learned. The two big ideas, and they are both things I need to be sure that I’m focusing on, were 1) make sure your blog has your personality, and 2) don’t expect the blog to generate work. I will certainly be keeping those ideas in mind as I blog.

The session on disruptive innovation was affirming and invigorating. Affirming because the presenters thesis is that the next phase of architectural practice will be to design solutions to problems, with designing buildings as a sub-specialty. When I first started working for myself, I had determined that what architects did was solve problems, so this was great to hear. The invigorating part was learning about how disruptive innovation works by entering a market at the lower end, where the larger players don’t want to go, and then growing from there. His example was MP3s, which is a crappy format for music, so big players like Sony didn’t want to touch it. And they ended up late to the party. My innovation is the Personal Architect model, where I work with clients on very small problems, so small that most architects wouldn’t bother to go after them. My hope is that these small problems, and the relationships that develop, will grow into a solid body of work.

Looking forward to the next convention and what I might learn there.

Report from the Markets – May 14th

Last weekend was my first back-to-back-to-back markets of the summer. The good thing about that is that I only have to pack my car once. And I find it’s easier to stay in the right frame of mind when they’re stacked up.

The best part is seeing familiar faces and catching up on their lives. One person was embarrassed that they hadn’t made any progress on the projects we had talked about. I tried to assure her that I’m not judging – in fact, I haven’t made any progress on many of my projects either.

The really best part is when people just sit down and announce that they’re ready to start on the project we had talked about last summer (or even the summer before).

But this post is about an interesting conversation from the market, and the most interesting one has to be the one where we designed a new duck house.

One of the volunteers from the Newark Co-op was working at the information table next to me, and popped over to talk about her duck house. They already have a duck house that they can move around so that they can park it over the raised beds in the winter for the ducks to fertilize. But its too heavy, and the  handles are awkwardly placed for her to move it herself. So we started to draw up a new design. It used 2×4’s instead of 4x4s, and a single-slope roof so that they can use translucent plastic, and open sides for ventilation. Also, better wheels.

Through the process I learned that ducks can’t climb as well as chickens (they also have chickens), that they don’t need individual nesting spaces like chickens, and that the drakes sleep on the floor. Also, that the chickens like the skylight in their coop. And from this conversation came another. The other woman at the information table said that she can’t wait until she moves out of the city and can have chickens. And she was told that Newark had passed a backyard chicken ordinance that allowed 3 hens per household. So now she’s thinking about chickens.

Idea Hours

Several things came together to create the product that I call the $99 Idea Hour. Through my booth at the Farmers Markets, I saw that many of the people with problems only needed a little help. They lacked ideas and were stuck behind the problem, but could get to a solution, and implement it themselves, if they could get unstuck. I also was reading about other architects who were offering $99 design consultations or services for $0.99/hour. I was intrigued by the idea of affordable architectural services, albeit at a reduced scale. And finally I had a couple of occasions where people would have me come out to look at a problem, and I’d give them a couple of hours of ideas and write a proposal, and never have it go any further-because they weren’t really ready for the project. So there seemed to be a market for short duration, fixed price, focused services.

The price came from two directions as well. It needed to be memorable, and not to scary, and still cover my time, or most of it. $99 fit all those criteria. I have since added the Extended Idea Hour for $149 because there are times when people have more than one problem they want to discuss, and I find myself there for three hours or so.

I decided at the beginning that the Idea Hour had to be a stand-alone service. It couldn’t be a prelude to a sales effort, or it would lose its focus. I’m clear that there are no contractual obligations implied. At the end of the time (which is usually closer to an hour and a half) they have a bunch of ideas and notes and sketches, and I have $99, and a developing relationship with a new client.

The Idea Hour also doesn’t go beyond the time spent at the house, unless it’s to look up a product or provide a further piece of information. I don’t produce drawings afterward, or write a report.

I have addressed a breadth of problems in Idea Hours over the last two years: from kitchens to house organization to where someone should live. In each case, the most important skill I find myself using is the ability to ask further questions and to draw out the deeper, unspoken needs. Once we get those out into the light, the solutions are often self-apparent.

But to address the question some of you may be asking: “does it lead to work?” – yes, it often does. Once or twice, at the end of the Idea Hour, the clients have asked for a proposal to continue the work. The more common situation is that several months later I’ll get a call asking me to come out to discuss a piece of the solution we discussed as a project. In one situation, the client was doing a lot of thinking, and just wanted to bounce ideas around, so we booked a second Idea Hour to do that. But the goal of the Idea Hour is not to win projects, but to provide a service to people to help them. That I’m setting up in their minds that architects are great listeners who can generate lots of ideas and solutions to seemingly complex problems is a bonus. In fact, the Idea Hour was the beginning of the notion that became Your Personal Architect, the concept that people need an architect to consult, just as you’d consult a financial planner or a doctor.

In Which Will Shows that Architects Can Solve Any Problem

Last weekend I was at the May Market in New Castle. It’s hosted by the Arasapha Garden Club to raise funds for the historic gardens they maintain. I set up by the plants rather than the craft vendors because my gut told me that the people buying plants would also be the ones who would have questions about their house.

What I didn’t expect was the number of plant/landscaping questions that I got. One of my first visitors asked about how to eradicate bamboo. Which of course is impossible, as I know from my parents experience. But I offered my suggestions (which were similar to those that I linked to: cut the stalks down, put Roundup on the exposed ends, and cut off the roots with a mattock), and off she went.

The next day I had a question about what to put where a holly tree had been. This was really a visual question, so after drawing a sketch of the yard, with the tree on the other side, I suggested an urn that she could plant vines in, which would make a “fountain” of green.

(photo from Plow & Hearth on-line catalog)

I did get plenty of home questions, and one on where to find or make pantry door shelves (like this).

So what do all of these questions have in common? That I was able to provide enough of an answer to get the person unstuck from their problem and closer to a solution that will work for them.

What Architects Do

Two weeks ago I volunteered for a fourth grade career day at my son’s school. I’ve done a few of these before, but only as a guest in the classroom. This would be my first “career fair” with a whole grade and lots of other parents. I enjoy these events because I enjoy educating people about what architects can do versus what people think architects do.

That morning I packed up my collection of interesting drawings, my portfolio, and some paper and pencils so they could make drawings themselves. In the gym where we were setting up, I saw that some of the other parents had brought hand-out stuff, like candy and pencils and erasers. Hmm, I thought, I’ll have to do something like that next time. There were lots of parents there (like, almost 40) with a fair range of professions.

The format had groups of five to eight kids moving from table to table for 10 minutes each for a total of an hour and half. It quickly became apparent to me that there wouldn’t be time for drawing. It also became apparent that my voice would be suffering at the end of the day (and I had a market that afternoon too.)

Now when I do these career presentations, I always ask  the kids first what they think architects do. “Draw buildings” or “build buildings” are the most common answers (with some statistical outliers). And they’re right. We do that. But what we really do (I feel) is solve problems. And usually those solutions are something that can be built, so we have to draw it for someone to build.

After a few groups I had settled into a routine, where I’d ask the question, validate their answers, explain about solving problems, tell the story of the railing connection at the University of Delaware that we came up with, talk about collecting information from people to make the drawing, show them the picture of the final product, answer some questions, flip through my portfolio, and then send them on to the next table.

Out of the 60 or so kids I saw, about half thought it was kind of cool what I did, a few who weren’t really there for this, and a few that really lit up at the idea of architecture as a career. But the next week I got letters from some of the kids (I’m assuming that the teacher asked them who they wanted to write to) where they thanked me for coming out. and talking to them about architecture. Some samples:

“I think your job is awesome!” (It is but don’t tell anyone, then they’ll all want to be one.)

“I create buildings with ‘LegoTM’ but first I make the colour scheemes and blue print. The drawing of the library was my favorite.”

“I like how you told me how you fixed the U.D. railing. When I wasn’t looking at your station I kept lookinging at you station because of the drawing.” (I’m not sure what that means either.)

I don’t want to get all maudlin here about kids are the future and all that. Most of these kids won’t become architects and that’s fine. I don’t do this to recruit, but as a way to slowly lower the perceived barriers to access that society and the profession has created. And so that some day, they’ll think that calling an architect first would be a good idea.