your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Leading vs. Supporting

Through the magic of Facebook I reconnected with a fencing buddy from college, who I haven’t connected with for twenty-*cough* years. He does heart-centered business coaching (Heart of Business), which was very appealing to me. So I signed up for his newsletter, and read some of his blog posts, which had some ideas that resonated strongly with me. Then he announced that he would be leading a day-long workshop in Maryland, and I jumped at the opportunity to get deeper into some of the things he does. And also to see him and how he has changed since we last saw each other.

It was a fabulous day, and it gave me much to chew on. One thing that came out, that I didn’t have time to explore there, was about domain. The exercise was that Mark stepped out of the leadership place, and you would stand at the front of the class, and make it your domain. I was struggling with this idea, and was trying to figure out why. What came to me was that I am most comfortable supporting, or leading from the side or back. Standing in front of a group, and asking them to follow me, made me nervous. I haven’t worked through that issue yet, but it obviously something that I need to work on, and develop skills around.

I was able to put this understanding into place last weekend talking with some long-term clients. We’ve been slowly working on their many issues around their house and their stuff and their life. When it came time to talk about next steps, I was able to say that there are two ways to do the work: either I take the lead and present ideas to them for their reaction and discussion; or they can lead and ponder and discuss the ideas themselves and then bring me in to refine and develop them. It felt good to be able to articulate the different paths, especially the different processes that are involved in each.

I still strongly resonate to working alongside people, guiding them as we explore together. But I am becoming more comfortable with the idea that I can also lead them to the same place.

Popular Question from the Market: Screened Porches

It’s not surprising given the weather lately that I’ve been getting questions about screened porches. Ones that can be built on top of decks, and in place of decks, and as an alternative to decks. Now my experience with screened porches is limited mostly to the cabin on Squam Lake that my uncle owned. So this is a great opportunity for some research. And a chance to browse a collection of screened porch photos at Houzz.

So let’s look at the different ways to build a screened porch. The first way, on top of an existing deck, has the advantage of using the existing framing and foundation. But before you start, make sure that the deck structure will support the additional weight of the roof and wall framing. You may need to add additional framing or even posts. An insect barrier will need to be installed below the deck boards since they are spaced for drainage. Then you basically remove the existing posts and railing, and replace them with larger (typically 6×6) posts and bracing. The tricky part is building the roof and connecting it to the house. Whoever is building it must carefully flash the connection or else the potential for water damage is high. A good example of the process was in Handy magazine.

Building a new porch attached to the house is much like building a deck, but with the added challenge of the walls and roof. Before you start though, consider whether you will be want to convert it at some point to a sunroom/three-season/four-season room. If you think you will, you will need to provide a continuous foundation wall and footings instead of just piers for the posts. Here is an example of building a typical porch from Family Handyman.

The last option is a free-standing structure, typically built on the ground. Again, you can build it like a ground-level deck with a slab on grade and piers for the posts. Or you can explore the innumerable options for pre-fabricated gazebos and cabanas (traditional and modern) and free-standing enclosures.

In all cases, you ‘ll want to carefully consider how much space you will need. You really need to treat it like any other room, and look at how the traffic will move through and where you will put furniture. It would be very disappointing to build a porch that ends up being too small to use well. And you’ll want to look carefully at your house for design cues that you can incorporate into the new porch so that it will look appropriate.

Taking a Trip to the Hardware Store

I get the occasional ‘off-topic’ question at my booth. I’m used to people thinking I deal with plants, and I’ve managed to answer those questions without embarrassing the person for their mistake. But my favorite ones are where the people are really seeking help of any sort, and there I am, so what the hell. My favorite is a woman who sat down and said “Where should I live?”

So last weekend a woman sits down with her daughter, and proceeds to ask for my advice on how to build a mobile for these 3-d planet puzzles that they have. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the hardware store (and I’m counting Home Depot and Lowes too), only about half the time am I actually looking for a specific product. The rest of the time I’m trying to find parts to build something that will do what I need. So I am intimately familiar with the process of repurposing things. I established how comfortable she was using tools, and we talked a little, and I suggested that she look at PVC conduit because it’s easily to cut and drill, and reasonably stiff. Hang some nuts on a bolt on one end for a counterweight, use some short pieces as bearings, and you’ve got a mobile.

But that conversation reminded me of a passage in “Zodiac” by Neal Stephenson, about hardware stores. And through the magic of Google Books, I can bring it to you without having to find my own copy.

“Where’s a good hardware store?” I said. A trivial question for him to answer, but priceless for me.

“What kind of stuff you looking for?” he asked, highly interested. He had to establish that I deserved to have this information. Blue Kills probably had a dozen mediocre ones, but every town has one really good hardware store. Usually it takes six years to find it.

“Not piddley-shit stuff. I need some really out-of-the-way stuff …”

He cut me off; I’d showed that I had some taste in hardware, that I had some self-respect. He gave me directions.

….

Most of my colleagues go on backpacking trips when they have to do some thinking. I go to a good hardware store and head for the oiliest, dustiest corners. I strike up conversations with the oldest people who work there, we talk about machine vs. carriage bolts and whether to use a compression or a flare fitting. If they’re really good, they don’t hassle me. They let me wander around and think. Young hardware clerks have a lot of hubris. They think they can help you find anything and they ask a lot of stupid questions in the process. Old hardware clerks have learned the hard way that nothing in a hardware store ever gets bought for its nominal purpose. You buy something that was designed to do one thing, and you use it for another.

 

The Architect As Counselor or, They Didn’t Teach Us This In School

Again and again at my booth, I help people who have problems. And a big part of helping them is just listening to them. I often feel like a therapist, with my “uh huhs” and “I knows”. You start to see that the value in therapy – that just talking about the problem helps you see the solution.

In my residential practice though, it is more about counseling rather than therapy going on. Working through the problems and asking questions often exposes assumptions and previous disagreements. It gets more interesting as you try to determine who has the power in the situation. Often it’s not the one doing the talking.

So my job becomes even more interesting as I try to craft a solution that solves both sets of problems. The new clients I met yesterday knew that they needed an architect, but also knew the solutions they didn’t want. The one I came up with seemed to please them both – and that surprised them.

I recall in school one of my professor cautioning against residential design, but mostly because the clients are often scared by the amount of money they are spending, and get tense about the process. She felt that retail clients were much nicer because they weren’t spending their money and they understood about the need to spend money to attract money.

But I do wish that there were a course in school that covered programming, pre-design, and client management. Including role-playing games or real couples for us to work with. Because I didn’t do this kind of meeting in any of my previous offices. If it weren’t for my Quaker upbringing and skills developed raising four children, I would be fumbling about and making a hash of it. Instead, I feel that it’s one of my strengths-that I listen.

Listening is a difficult skill to develop, especially in our profession where the emphasis is on conveying our knowledge. And again I am really grateful for the booth and the skills it is developing in me. I often tell people that one reason I continue to do the booth is so that I can practice for my practice.

How Do We Get Things Done?

Last week at the Market I got an interesting question. Interesting because it really had nothing to do with architecture, but it is something that I have been spending a lot of my brain energy on.

A couple asked how to get things done. Specifically, the wife asked how to get her husband to get things done. That’s an answer fraught with danger. But the more general question of how to complete those small tasks that linger on is one that many people struggle with. A quick glance around my house will show you dozens of projects in intermediate stages. I’ve read that procrastination is really just a delayed decision, and I get that. You can’t put something away if its place isn’t ready yet, or you don’t know where that place is. So you put it in the “Box of Waiting” and tell yourself you’ll get back to it soon.

I’ve had some success with the Getting Things Done methodology, but find that making time to do the reviews is my issue. I record tasks in my weekly planner and that’s pretty effective for me, but those are really things that need to be done this week. I had tried a system where tasks had points, and before I could break for the day I had to complete a certain number of points. But I cheated on that too often.

The one I’m trying this week is to categorize each task with its effort and result, and then divide effort by result to get a ranked list of tasks that will give you maximum effect for minimum effort. And while this doesn’t handle those things that must be done now because of whatever reason, I like the idea of quantifying my list.

As for the happy couple at my booth, I suggested a method that works for me at times: dedicate one hour to those half-done tasks, and go at them. And at the end of the hour, give yourself a reward.

How about you? What works for you and why? Please let me know in the comments.

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.