your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Back at the Farmers Market!

I’m so glad to be back at the Newark Natural Foods Farmers Market again this season! I was away for two years while they worked through the COVID protocols.

I will be there second and fourth Sundays starting May 8th and ending November 13th. I will also be there on the 5th Sunday in May, July, and October.

It felt really good being back and seeing many familiar faces and meeting some new people too.

I Architect Like I Parent

Agent of hopeSo I was in a project meeting recently and the discussion was veering off on a tangent. I was letting it go until I felt that it wasn’t coming back. So I stepped in to guide the client and contractor off that topic and onto the subject of next things to be done. As I was driving home I reflected that I am not usually the bossy, take-charge guy in meetings. I like to let the discussion flow to see what solutions come out. So why was I doing it here? The reason was because that’s what my clients needed. Left to their own devices they would talk around the little things and then not be ready to move on to the next thing that actually needed to be done.  Part of my role on this project, I realized, is to be the metaphorical grownup.

As I spend more time being an architect, I am finding more and more places where the skills that I am developing elsewhere in my life apply. I shouldn’t be surprised really. It makes sense that I would act professionally the way that I act personally. Previously I had thought that these skills were limited to things I learned in school, from my time as a programmer, or in my many volunteer activities. Today I added parenting to that list.

When we had kids we made many conscious decisions about how we would raise them. We put them in Montessori school to give them a foundation in learning skills. We used attachment parenting techniques. We use Non-violent communication techniques to resolve conflicts. We are, by definition, authoritative parents. Our goal is to teach our kids how to be grown-ups. So we spend a lot of time on skills, and talking about feelings, and all of that.

So how does this translate into the architecture profession?

One place it shows up is in how I listen to, and guide the conversations that I have with my clients. I honor and name the emotions. I am always seeking the unmet need that lies beneath, because once you find that, you can start to truly solve their problems. I try to put the problem on one side of a line, and my client and me on the other side, so that we are working together to solve the problem. I don’t blame. I don’t dictate solutions (usually).

But the other place it shows up is in how I manage my clients. An authoritarian architect will be demanding but unresponsive. A permissive architect will be responsive but undemanding. An authoritative architect will be responsive and demanding. I truly want my clients to not need me as much when I’m done. And that can only happen if I allow them to develop the skills needed to manage their work. Being responsive means that I provide what they need, not what I think they need. Being demanding means that I set expectations for them that I strive to hold them to.

Not every client needs or wants this. And I’ve found that with demanding clients I don’t feel as much part of the team as a service that they use. And I’m working on how to be a leading architect for my clients who need the guidance as opposed to the walking alongside architect that I am much more comfortable being.

Taking Things to the Next Level: Asking for Help

I’ve been working on my business for nearly five years now – trying things out, testing ideas, dropping things that didn’t work. Last year I spent a fair amount of money on a six week program to help me move my business to a more sustainable level.

All of these things are working, to an extent. I have more work, the work is larger, and I’m getting comfortable with how I work and who I work with. I have come to accept that I enjoy running my own business, that I’m reasonably good at it, and that I expect that I will continue to do this for a long time.


But I find myself still struggling sometimes with how to do the work. How can I work more effectively? How do I integrate my work with my family and all the other things that I’m doing? I realized that I’m at a point that I can’t solve all of this myself.

So I’m doing two things that I didn’t think I’d do: I’m taking a solo business retreat, and I started a mastermind group.

The retreat is something that I’ve toyed with, but I had always felt wasn’t right for me. But earlier this year my wife and I took three days and made a parenting retreat for ourselves. And it was so useful. By creating a quiet space where we could focus, we had breakthroughs, made plans, worked out issues, and in general improved the way we work together. So when I was again facing the issue of how to get my work completed effectively, I was more receptive to the idea of a retreat. Through the magic of AirBnB, I found a small house nearby that I’m renting for two nights. And while I have to be careful that I don’t try to work on too many things at once, I expect that I’ll come out of that experience with some clarity and some new methods.

The mastermind group was the result of a fortuitous set of circumstances – and I hope will be a great addition to my process. Having a group of people who are all working on their own problems will make it easier to share advice, receive advice, and to be held accountable to my goals.

Over the next year I will interested to see how these changes will affect my business and my work. And I expect that I will be taking retreats more often as a way to tune up and focus my direction.


Questions from the Market: Ground-level Decks

Last weekend the Farmers Market season opened and I’m back in the swing of things. Had several nice conversations with people – both new and old. That’s my favorite part of the market – making and maintaining relationships.

I got a good question at the Newark Natural Foods Market about how to build a deck close to the ground so I wanted to spend a little time exploring that. The person was looking for a way to have a deck in place of grass but didn’t have a lot of money to spend on building a deck. We went back and forth on ideas. The usual way is building a traditional deck very close to the ground. At it’s best you will get a deck to be about 8″-12″ off the ground. Which was too high for this person.

Second choice was to use Dek-Blocks – saves time in digging foundations, but still has the problem of height.

I suggested using a timber foundation as a way to get the foundation & structure lower, since you can set it into the gravel. If you set the timbers on 24″ centers you can deck right on top of them.

That led to suggesting that they build a mat of composite decking on the ground, like duck boards. The idea is that it is a self-supporting unit that floats on the ground. To be effective it needs to be a pretty level part of the lawn. First you remove the sod. Then lay down landscaping fabric and 2″-4″ of gravel extending beyond the edges of the deck area. Then lay 2×4 composite decking on 24″ centers on the gravel, running the short direction. Level those and then install 2×4 decking on top running cross-wise. I’d put a large gap between the decking to allow trapped moisture to escape. Much like building a roof deck.

Searching around I have found a few people who have tried this, but no results yet. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Props, Costumes, and Staging; or How to Feel Like an Architect Again

So this week I knew I had a lot of phone calls to make. I don’t like making phone calls (it’s the introvert in me), and I was thinking about that, and how I could make it easier to do, when a strong sense memory bubbled up. In it I recalled sitting at my desk at a previous firm, grabbing the phone mounted on my cubical wall, and dialing. Hmm. I certainly don’t get that feeling when I’m using my cell phone, which is my “office” phone now. The more I thought about it, the stronger the need to have a handset in my hand as I talked with someone. My bluetooth headset certainly didn’t fill that void either – in fact I sometimes feel even more disconnected from the call when I’m wearing it. Thinking that there must be solutions out there that would combine my cell phone and a desk phone, I went searching.

Well, there are several solutions, all with different issues. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a bluetooth one, because my phone often requires me to reconnect with devices, and I didn’t want a solution that required me to buy an additional desk phone. I wanted something simple and easy. I decided on the Native Union MM02 handset and base.


And here it is set up at my desk.

MM02 on laptop

I couldn’t wall-mount it like my previous phones (which gives you back desk space) but this works to keep it out of the space where my coffee mug usually goes. The handset has good weight and it fits on my shoulder. And as a bonus I know have a place to park my phone. Today I have to finish making the calls and I’m almost looking forward to it.

A Little Bit of Difficulty is a Good Thing

In a recent issue of the Economist, I read an article that captured some very powerful ideas, ideas that I hadn’t realized I supported and incorporated into my work. The article is called “The uses of difficulty” by Ian Leslie, and it postulates that small obstacles may boost the creativity of the brain. He cites several studies and anedotes, and my favorite one is a neuroscience study that found that handwriting activates more areas of the brain than typing. Ian suggests that the act of trying to make your hand do what you want it to creates a tension that produces a denser expression, as opposed to using a keyboard where letters can flow out easily.

This leads me to speculate that one reason that architects cling to hand drafting – and the reason I still do it – is because it’s the most effective way for me to get my initial thoughts out of my brain. Though once I’ve worked those thoughts out, I switch over to the computer, because I can do so much more through those tools. But even using the computer doesn’t necessarily mean that the process is easier.

Ian recounts the situation of the Beatles, who weren’t able to come to America to record, where the equipment was more advanced, because of their contract with EMI. So they had to find ways to make the older equipment at Abbey Road work in the ways that they wanted the songs to sound. And it required considerable ingenuity and effort to make that happen. Also, he notes that Jack White purposely uses cheap instruments that don’t hold a tune because he finds that when it becomes too easy to make the music, it becomes harder to make it good.

I’m reminded of those nights trying to finish projects for studio, when pens run out and supplies dwindle, and you are forced to find alternative solutions that will still allow the idea to come though. And those skills that we develop, those improvisational tools that we find, they go into our bag of tricks for later in our careers. So that we know that we could finish drafting something with a ballpoint if we had too. Not that we’d want to.

Sharpening Your Saw

Many of the time management and self-improvement programs I seen recommend devoting time to “sharpening your saw” – preparing your tools for action. In architecture, our tools are varied, from CAD programs to colored pencils to the design process itself. How do we find time – between marketing, accounting, and doing the work itself – to sharpen our skills. For me, I found a client that requires me to do just that.

In 2010 I was hired by Wilmington Friends School to design and build the sets for their plays and musicals. While at the time I took the job mostly because I needed something to bring in income, the job matched up with my skills and experience. And while I thought that working there would be a marketing benefit, I’ve found that the job brings additional benefits to my practice, so many in fact that I’m now working hard to make sure I can continue to work for them even when I”m busy with other projects.

Set Design and Construction is a unique process. It’s much more like school projects than a typical architectural design project. You have a short amount of time to understand the principles and unique elements that will convey to people the mood or era or feeling of the production. You have to document the design enough that the production team can understand what you’re envisioning so they can react to it. So you find yourself making pencil renderings and using SketchUp to make models. And then you have to work out the details and select colors and document it enough that you know what materials you will need.

Then once that is done you still have to build it, with the limited resources (time, people, money) you have available. And the deadline is fixed and immovable. So the pressure can start to build to just get it done, and in that pressure the design gets focused as you decide what things don’t really matter to the overall vision.

This abbreviated process means that there is a lot of design that happens during the construction process, which puts you into the Master Builder mode as you shape the set to match the vision in your head. It’s fun and invigorating and also a lot of work-physically and mentally. Add in the management of the many volunteers, and the teaching of skills like painting and using screw guns, and it takes on the appearance of a very busy job site.

And when you are done, that happy glow of satisfaction is short-lived, because in about a week you’ll be taking it apart and cleaning up and getting ready for the next one.

So why am I still doing this? There are several reasons, chief among them that the immediate satisfaction of imagining the design and then seeing it real in such a short time is a real rush. The other is that when the whole production team is clicking, and everyone sees the same vision, the collaborative process is so powerful. And I’m exercising my vision muscles – seeing the whole thing in my mind, and being confident in making decisions. Just as answering questions at the market gives me confidence in my interactions with clients, set design gives me confidence in my designing abilities.



Some Thoughts on Architecture School

I recently finished reading “One L” an autobiographical recounting of Scott Turow‘s first year at Harvard Law School. In the Afterword he discusses his thoughts about law school after spending many years in practice – and what he says is strikingly similar to the discussions around architecture school and its role in the profession.

He makes the argument that law school isn’t lawyer school, that it doesn’t exist to teach students what it means to practice law. Law school is about training legal scholars – teaching them to think like law professors. The judicial opinions of cases are studied, not the briefs or arguments from counsel. Students don’t spend time discussing the remedies that the law can provide, or how it can be applied – issues that are fundamental to law practice. However, since many professors have never practiced, expecting them to teach fundamental skills is pointless. Those skills are best learned from those who use them every day. The downside, Turow concludes, is that

“… while the students learn about the capacity of all arguments to be undermined, they are taught nothing about the ends to which that skill is meant to be applied. Little about the profession is held up to them for scrutiny – or admiration. The result is that the powerful minds of the law faculties bypass the opportunity to contribute more directly to the formulation of the ideals of the profession, and students depart having undertaken little refined reflection on the complex values which guide and inspire legal practice.”

Turow does feel that it is important for law school to spend time thinking about the law, and to explore its historical development, policy rationales, and its fundamental assumptions about our culture. What he wants is for the schools to apply the same focus to the profession, much like medical school has courses on public-health.

I am struck by the similarities between his description of law school and my experience with school. I think the statement that architecture school isn’t architect school is great. And I agree that part of the role of architecture school is to expose the students to the larger world and history of architecture. The apprenticeship of a graduate is still an effective way to learn the skills of the profession – though the effectiveness can vary widely from firm to firm.

I wonder how things would be different if the minds of architectural school faculties turned towards the profession and studied it as much as we study the Renaissance.  Certainly there are a number of practitioners that are advancing the profession, but not always through in the rigorous methods of the academic.

For me, personally, I feel that the separation of the architectural education into school, internship, and examination suits it well. I never got bent out of shape that school didn’t give me office skills, or that internship didn’t provide me with everything that I needed for the ARE. They are separate things, and while they overlap some, they seek to instill in the aspiring professional the various parts that are required for practice.

Finally, Turow captures perfectly the internal conflict of the practicing architect when we must be our clients “unhesitating advocate, the keeper of the client’s deepest secrets, and also someone who must call to the attention of a court controlling authorities that damn his client’s position …” This professional duty to both client and society is something should really be the focus of more time than it usually gets in either school or the office.

Asserting Our Supremacy, or How Not to Improve the Perception of Architects

There is a lot of real and virtual hand-wringing going on in the architectural community since the economy went in the tank. Mostly about how to get people to use architects again. (I am reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” where the business men are reviewing sales figures and noting that people aren’t wearing as many hats as they used to.) I have heard people say that we must assert our supremacy in the construction process. Others talk about getting the AIA to advocate for us, or to educate the public about the value we provide, or to enact laws that would require architects for any project that requires a permit.

In my opinion, these are all the wrong ways to go about this. None of these solutions addresses the root of the problem – and in fact could make it worse if we come off as arrogant whiners – which is that most people don’t know how an architect can help them. You can’t assert that, you can’t legislate that, you can’t advertise that. You have to show people. And I can say this because this is what I do at the Farmer’s Markets.

Very few of the people who sit down have ever worked with an architect before. They sit down because they have a question or a need and there I am in my intriguing and accessible set up. At the end of the conversation I have usually shown them – through my answers, my suggestions, my drawings, and my listening – that I am here to find solutions to their problems. And they go away with a new perception of what an architect can do for them.

I am resisting going onto every message board where architects are moaning about this and that and suggesting that they get off their butts and find ways to show people what they do. That to me is the only way to change people’s perceptions. It certainly is easier to blame the AIA for not advocating strongly enough, or HGTV for not showing enough architects, or whatever you think is the problem. It’s certainly easier than making yourself accessible to people. That’s scary.

We should know that showing is vastly more powerful that talking. We should, but we don’t.

So get out there and show someone how an architect does it. Then do it again.

Preparing Our House for a New School Year

Over the last week we’ve been pushing through on some stalled projects to get the house ready for school. The biggest one was getting my wife’s desk moved into the living room so that all of our desks are in one place. The two main benefits are that all the kids will be doing homework where I can watch them and the old office will become a kids playroom with a Wii that some friends gave us. The actual process didn’t go as smoothly as originally planned, nor is it complete yet. Our projects typically move like this. There’s the initial activity, often involving buying the stuff (in this case Ikea table tops and shelves). Then there is the doldrums, when enough has been done to make it mostly usable. Then there is the mad rush to finish it because it’s now in the way of some other project.

And this happens almost every time the project takes longer than a day or two.

It is not unlike how architectural projects go (he said casually linking the theme of the post). There’s the slow build up where we collect pictures and work on the design and get it all laid out. Then the big moment comes when we start to do the work. But there comes a point where the work is mostly done, the space is usable, and there are other things that had been pushed aside that need to get handled. And that’s the point that many projects, especially DIY ones, stall. And getting the energy and time to get that last 10% finished is hard.

For me, what gets it moving again is that the unfinished project is blocking a new project. That’s frustrating of course – now your new project will take longer because you have to finish another first.

To get a project done quickly and completely, I find I have to get people to help me. The extra people keep the work from being too large, and the schedule forces me be ready and prevents excuses.