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Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Archive for Farmers Market

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.

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.

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.

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.