your personal architect

Architectural Solutions to Human Problems

Archive for architecture

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.

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.

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.