your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

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.

Loss, Grieving, and What to Do Next

This post will have very little to do with architecture, or my business, or people’s problems. This mostly venting and raging, albeit quietly.

Last Friday I had a short meeting with a client at the Kennett Farmer’s Market. Four hours later he was killed in a car accident. The suddenness and immediacy are staggering. My heart doesn’t know what to grieve and mourn.

Should I mourn the man who worked at the absolute edge of his limits to effect change on the world, to create a place where people could be creative and cooperative.

Should I mourn the person who sat at my booth on my very first day and was so enthused by my idea that he inspired me to continue it, and grow it, and make it the foundation of my business.

Should I mourn the gentle soul who carried his burdens with grace and dignity.

Should I be honest and mourn the loss of an interesting project and the income it would have provided.

Should I mourn that there is one less Light in the world.

I know in an intellectual place that our lives are transitory, that we should take every opportunity to tell people that they are important to us. The suddenness of his death makes me feel that truth in my gut. I feel that were I to go suddenly, there are unsaid things still in me. And I know that I’m not doing enough with my abilities and time.

I don’t wish this kind of wake-up call on anyone, but when it comes, we should try to hear what it is telling us. For me, I’m hearing that I need to take care of myself better, to  keep family and friends in my mind, and to finally make the appointment to get our wills drawn up.

And that I need to spend time ensuring that David’s visions continue, carried by his friends into the world.

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.