Category Archives: personal ramblings

optimistic or pessimistic?

Currently architects are stuck in a time of flux between optimism and pessimism.  Indeed it’s hard to be cheerful about the current state of our economy and even more difficult to muster up a pleasant outlook for the future.  The economy is almost a constant topic on most of the blogs that I read.  I’ve seen questions posted from students wanting advice about getting into the architecture profession, from those in the profession wondering if they should bail, still others simply shouting out frustrations at the wind and anyone who will listen, and who can blame them?  Each day listening to the news brings a renewed sense of near hopelessness at our elected officials who seem hell bent on destroying the economic prosperity of our country.  Banks and car companies have been bailed out and allowed to continue trudging along with their old and inefficient technologies and even sometimes criminal practices while rail and infrastructure projects all over the nation are being placed on the chopping block to make room for more social entitlement programs that only inhibit growth – solid investments in our future are being dashed in favor of pork barrel spending and wasteful government services.

So is there any optimism to be had?  Will we ever dig ourselves out of the sorry state of affairs we currently find ourselves?  The turmoil in Egypt puts this all in a unique perspective.  For years they have lived under an elected dictatorship that has squandered the resources and talents of the populace and a breaking point was reached a week ago.  Now the citizens are demanding their country back, demanding a leadership concerned with growth and prosperity not with greed and government largess.  Is this any different than the situation we currently find ourselves in?  I don’t think so.  The only difference I see is we have lulled ourselves into this state of apathy, where we’ve allowed ourselves to be put in a similar situation but without any pride left to stand up and fight against the establishment.

I’ve read that we (architects and building professionals) need to remain fixed on the “bright side”.  The bright side being the fact that we’re working and not living in abject poverty like a majority of the worlds’ population.  Is this true?  Should we simply be happy with what we currently have instead of working to make things better?

In the words of my British compatriots I say “bollocks” to that.  Architects are the ultimate innovators, we are constantly thinking of things in new ways and finding new uses for old materials.  But there is only so much that we can do when our hands are literally tied behind our backs by government idiocy and the total lack of vision on the part of 99% of our clients out there.  And there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of advocacy going on on our behalf either.  Sure there is a significant Advocacy/Lobbying arm to the AIA at the State and National level, but are they lobbying our best interests or are they simply lobbying big government and social change?

In the last 7 years of my practice I haven’t seen a lot of positive change in legislation for architects.  Our fees are steadily decreasing because we aren’t allowed to pool together and discuss how our fees should be structured unlike nearly every other profession on the planet, including doctors, lawyers, mechanics, dentists, insurance companies (health and auto), etc.  Why are architects shoved into the back of the drawer on this issue?  Why is it legal for everyone else, but illegal for us?

All of these questions (and yes I’m aware of the staggering lack of answers) leads me to believe that architects do truly represent an optimistic profession because we are so angry and discontent with the current state of affairs.  It is this anger that is driving us ever forward toward something better – toward a tomorrow that is more responsible, more prosperous and more sustainable.  So, to all my architect friends out there, raise your glass, raise your hand and raise your voice.  Talk may be cheap, but without solid ideas no action will ever take place.

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history and modernity

My thesis in college studied how modern and historic architecture could and should fit in the same neighborhood context.  But we so seldom see contemporary or modern architecture butted up beside a historic monument outside of cities like NYC or Chicago or Prague.

Why is that?  Is there a general fear within planning departments to blend the new with the old?  Is it a lack of vision or imagination that perpetuates the repetition of styles that have no real historical significance in our modern times?  Some might wonder why I’m asking these questions (even though they are questions I’ve asked before) and it’s because I’m seeing a good bit of talk lately on the issue of Urban Planning in cities around the country.  Most of these discussions center around land use planning and infrastructure, but along with that will go the types of buildings that are constructed and what they look like.  In other words, the style of our cities is as much important as how our cities are arranged.  Compare two cities like Atlanta and Savannah, both in Georgia.  Atlanta, being a modern metropolis with an expanding urban core and dedicated public transit has a very fast paced and modern quality of life that is reflected in the architecture.  On the other hand, Savannah, being steeped in it’s history and it’s historic identity has a much slower, easy quality of life and even new construction is forced into a “historical mold” that tells us nothing about the modern times we live in today.  Two cities directly impacted by not just planning and land use, but also impacted by the architectural styles present.

What would happen if we married the modern and the historic?  Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Historic Preservation (in it’s true form of preservation not forced architectural copy), but I am also a modern architectural designer.  It’s important that our generations’ architectural record reflect modern technologies, modern styles and modern materials.  Otherwise we leave no clear architectural expression of our own for future generations.  Currently I see us in a “Architectural Dark Ages”, where the majority of the construction I see going up (in my own little corner of the world) is, for lack of a better phrase, CRAP.  It’s a copy of one or two or even 10 different architectural styles that hold some kind of significance in history, and these buildings try to use these styles to relate in some way to their surroundings when all they’re really doing is insulting every architect who came before them trying to leave a mark of their time and place in history.

Ok, that was a really long sentence, please forgive my rant.  But haven’t you ever driven/strolled/walked/run though a neighborhood or city and wondered “what in the hell were they thinking?”  It happens to me quite often (occupational hazard).  Like right now, I’m sitting in a starbucks (i know I know, I’m not shopping local….but hey, I like the coffee damn it), in a strip infill building in Riverside that has NO meaningful architectural expression….none, nada, zip, zero, zilch….and what’s worse is across the street is a residential development….oh please don’t make me describe it.  Let’s just say it ain’t winning any awards, and, like a good serial killer, is not terribly memorable in appearance.

But these are the types of developments that are railroaded through planning and development.  Why?  Because they don’t challenge any conventions, they are specifically non-descript, could fit in any neighborhood in any city in America and give absolutely no consideration to pedestrians or the greater betterment of their surroundings.  I’m thinking we can do better, don’t you?  As architects, developers, land owners and potential homeowners, we can do much better for our cities.  Demand a higher level of design, a higher quality of life and a higher quality of architecture and design will follow.


resolutions and thoughts for 2011

New Year’s Eve is one of my favorite holiday celebrations and always has been, even as a small child.  It marks the culmination of a years worth of struggles, joys and accomplishments and offers a sense of hope and renewal for the upcoming year.  It’s also a time of making resolutions, or things you’d like to accomplish in the next year.  For most of us, I bet these goals are very grand and, for many of us, unattainable.  For others, goals set are perhaps a little less grand and therefore more attainable/doable for the regular guy.  My list for 2011 includes both very grand goals and very simple ones.  I think it’s important to be both extremely optimistic and at the same time very practical in the goals we set for ourselves.  By setting smaller, easier goals you set up small victories that keep you fueled to tackle the larger, more difficult goals without getting frustrated and burned out on the struggle.

Without further ado, my goals, hopes and resolutions for 2011.

#1 – Get Licensed (Architect)

This is something I’ve been putting off…..lets just say for too long.  And complicated by f*&^-ing NCARB continually “improving” the test, so that I had to start over halfway through.  Yeah, thanks…a$$hole.

#2 – Stick to a budget

this seems like it would be a no-brainer, but for those who were never taught “how” to budget, it’s been a difficult process, but I think this one may go in the “easy” column for the year.

#3 – Finish Home Renovations

……bahahahahaha!  This won’t actually happen…I mean, come on…but hey, one can dream.  😉

#4 – Take at least two weekend trips with my wife

having two small children and a pre-teen daughter makes it difficult to get out for a drink let alone take a weekend trip, but damn I’m determined to make this work cause we work too hard for our family. We deserve two weekends, don’t you think? :-\

#5 – Start my own firm and become completely self employed

I’ve actually been working towards this for a couple of years now, but some recent developments have made this a real possibility, so I figure what the hell, make it a solid goal.

#6 – Move to the Midwest

I’ve lived in Florida, or near, for the last 20+ years.  I’m over the beach, I’m over 10 months worth of summer, 58 days of fall and 2 days of winter, and more flat land than you can shake a stick at.  I want hills, mountains, SEASONS, lakes, streams, rivers.  Yeah, I’m over the southeast.

#7 – Get more involved in local/national Historic Preservation initiatives

Living in an historic neighborhood and seeing new construction go up that is either a rape of the surrounding architecture or something so unfitting that it wouldn’t fit anywhere on the planet has fueled me to get more involved in preservation education.

#8 – Go back to school for Urban Design/Planning

Going back to school isn’t a necessity, but then I need to focus my obsession with learning new things to a more narrow subject matter and urban design is something I’m interested in.  I’m sure more degrees will come after like Historic Preservation, Art History, World History, Political Science, etc.  For now, we’ll start with one and see where we end up.  😛

#9 – Get to know my neighbors

This is just good safety, really.  But it also forces you to get out of your house and get more involved in your local community which bleeds into #5 and #7.

#10 – Get Licensed (Architect)

Everything begins and ends with getting licensed this year.  This is the biggest and most difficult goal for the year, but I need to get it done and get it done NOW.

So, what are your resolutions/goals for 2011?  Share them here!


2010 in retrospect – top 5

They say hind sight is 20/20, and they are correct.  Looking back on something gives us the “what would I have done differently” perspective on any given thing that we choose to reflect on.  Nothing can escape this desire, not even architecture and the architectural profession.

So what has 2010 taught us?  Are there any great lessons to learn or are some correct that we are simply still in a downward spiral with no clear course back towards prosperity?  Personally I think there were many lessons learned in 2010, but in a desire to keep this a short blog post, here are my

top 5 lessons I’ve learned as an architect in 2010

#5
Architects are seeing the need to focus more on providing education and guidance to their clients rather than just providing a service in order to collect a fee.

#4
As clients find less value in the typical services that an architect offers, architects are finding ways in which to add additional deliverables thereby increasing the architects value to the client.

#3
With Builders and General Contractors continuing to market themselves as Design/Builders and push Architects out of their own market, the quality of construction will continue to decline and unfortunately further the clients’ perception that the architect is irrelevant.

#2
We’ve allowed ourselves to be pushed out of our own market by not defending the quality of our work on behalf of our clients, thereby giving more power to the contractors to demean and devalue our work.

#1
Even in a down economy, Architects can not afford to reduce their fees to the point of virtually working for free in a competitive market.  We need to stand by our product and the value of our services (no different than a doctor or lawyer or mechanic)  and, if necessary, tell clients to take a walk.

This last, and most important, lesson may seem extreme and some will even say “well, that just means someone else will take the job for less money”…I say let them.  In VERY short order clients will see they got just what they paid for, or what they didn’t pay for, as it were, and will come to see that the little extra they would have paid in fee would have saved 10’s of thousands in cost later.

In an extreme economy and in extreme situations, it’s time for those worthy of the title “Architect” to stand up and be noticed by the profession and by clients as well.  My goal for 2011 is to try and work towards reversing some of what I’ve talked about above.  Architects are not just a necessary part of the construction process, but we are the first part of that process and we should all work to elevate ourselves to that position.


container homes and planning nazis

this is what became the subject of a recent post over at my other blog.  Comments started out in the realm of design as a critique of the posted project and quickly devolved into something much more sinister.  Judge for yourself and even offer your own commentary, please.  I love hearing new ideas and welcome diverging opinions.  Here is the link to the original post and the comments in their entirety.  I’ve only posted a fair few to give you the general idea of where this discussion went.

Ronin:

NOW you see what I’m up against.

This is exactly the kind of stuff we usually see… stuff that looks cool, but won’t work as drawn. While it’s cool and all, look closely at that render of the St Aug home proposal.

Then think “point loading”.

You’re going to spend more money rebuilding and reinforcing the structure to support those cantilevers than you’ll spend on the “base” structure itself.

Those top rails aren’t “structural”. The kids have spent too much time on Treehugger.

You and I know that, but somebody better tell these kids that, before they end up wasting all their money on engineering reports.

But the spirit of the project soars!

If they could re-harness that, with a sound (easily achieved) design, they could commit to creating change, one family, one community at a time.

That’s Corten Coolness.

Me:

As a pretty picture, the design is great, and as with all student projects (and even a fair few professional projects) the “kinks” get worked out in CDs. This project could work with minimal structural reinforcement, I think. Since the walls are structural, and containers are built to stack, the biggest concern, other than point loading, is horizontal support. The cantilevering of the first floor container is a little silly and would not be necessary to the design as far as I’m concerned. Also I’d like to know how they tie back the entry overhang to a aluminum railing, but that, again, is something that could be worked out.
As is, you’re right, it’s loaded with issues, but with some tweaking I think it could work. Even if it blows their construction budget (which of course they will), projects like this start to push the envelope a little bit and get some much needed press for “corten coolness” to quote your eminence. :) And the more people who can spend the money to push the envelope will push innovation which will make more complex container structures “easier” in the future. It’s a win win, as long as the money don’t come out of my pocket. :P

Ronin:

Issues aside, I like that it’s being talked about.

However, these projects usually get a lot of “fluff” publicity and the first thing they seem to point out is that “they broke the budget”.

Granted, their budgets are usually unrealistic to begin with, but…

It’s this “too expensive” seed that get’s planted, that seems to discredit the practice of converting/repurposing these wonderful boxes. It gives contractors more room to yell, seemingly at the top of their lungs;

“See? Told ya. Wood is better.”

“Um… Why?”

“Well, cuz’ I got me a wood saw, right chere…” [wink!]

Just once, I’d love to see these projects in the hands of people who know what they’re doing from day one. But (sigh!) those people are already up to their butts in alligators, trying to save families… ;)

Peter:

Give them a break buddy : )

I have seen a ton of stuff on your blog about container homes that is just as impractical from a professional point of view.

One that springs to mind was last year you ran a post on making a swimming pool out a 40ft container laid on its side, backfilling with dirt to make a shallow end, creating a masonary wall near the door end to make a “pump room” and lining the whole thing with plastic.

http://renaissanceronin.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/im-in-the-hole-and-its-wet-in-here/

Buddy – I know you mean well but thats just a whole lot of silliness there, your blog is always entertaining if not always factually correct, there are saying about stones and glass houses !

this is where things start getting……fun. 🙂

Ronin:

@Peter;

It’s funny you should pick the 40′ Corten Pond to single out.

Several lap pools and even fish farm operations that use almost exactly that configuration have been running for decades without failure. The post doesn’t do the project justice, nor does it outline the entire build process. It was to simply illustrate the potential of the steel assembly. It was a quick commentary to a posed question.

And I’m always open to “rebuttal and even correction” if you find that “I’m in error”…

I make that clear on the blog. The purpose of the blog is to allow DIY building families to explore the boundaries.

And BTW: Glazing is okay, but I prefer Corten Steel to stones… ;)

Peter:

My rebuttal is not about if you can take a steel box and make a vessel that contains water.

Its about your blog and the method you describe to build a swimming pool out of a shipping container – I said you should ease up on the students design – its not that you can build a home out of containers but they had no idea how to do it right.

As far as your design goes its just wrong.

There is NEVER a case to be made for burying a container NOT EVER – not as a cellar, not as a storage room, not as a shelter and NOT as a swimming pool.

There are many arguments here but the simple fact is the container will rust within a few years and any attempt to “coat” the container with any material to prevent corrosion is a fools errand, this is about practical affordable durable construction.

The one container based swimming pool you referenced in the posts below that has actually been built is “above ground” and so not of the type you described digging a hole and burying one nor does it have some masonry wall at one end.

As I said in the original comment your blog is very entertaining I don’t think anyone holds it to professional review for “how to accuracy” that’s not what its about – all I am saying is you get things wrong regularly so try not to be so hard on young designers just starting out.

skipping down a couple of comments to me:

Peter…..where do I begin. In your second comment you say “this is about practical, affordable, durable construction”….And you’re right. And Ronin’s comments/critiques on the original design are exactly that, critiques on the “practicality, affordability and durability” of the design as it stands. So, in that you both agree. I do love bringing two people together so effortlessly. :-\
Second, you keep saying that you give specific examples. But yet you simply keep repeating that Ronin “gets things wrong regularly” and “a lot of what he talks about is wrong”….that’s not even close to specific and is at the heart of what I was talking about. What does he get wrong? What projects or topics do you have issue with and can offer alternate opinions on? For that matter what do I get wrong? Are there things that I’ve said or posted that you disagree with? I’d love to hear your opinions, but please be specific and back up your own theories with substance. It’s really not a tall order for even the smallest and most modest of blogs.
You say you take issue with his comment on one of his blog posts that ““Just once, I’d love to see these projects in the hands of people who know what they’re doing from day one” – if you’ve ever actually read his blog that’s exactly what he does is try to provide some basic educational resources so that people will know what they are doing (or at least know the right questions to ask of those who should know what they are doing) to get these types of projects built. So, through all of this your comments are not specific, they are not targeted at any specific projects, other than a damn swimming pool, or specific topics other than this one project that Ronin takes issue with on simple constructibility issues that even you point out as being costly – so again you’re in agreement and again I point out that I’ve brought you two together in some manly bonding. Just no tongue, there are children watching. :-P
And by the way, I don’t care if I only have one person reading my blog, or even no person. This is MY blog and I’ll run it just about any damn way I please. If that kills my readership, so be it. I’m not using this as a platform for popularity or even to make money (notice no targeted Adsense ads here?). I do it because I want to offer my own opinion out to the world wide web for posterity sake and quite frankly because I like to hear the sound of my fingers typing late at night, as is evidenced by this very long comment on my own blog. :-D
You said, “Does the man know what he is talking about, in my opinion he has strong opinion but he is missing a lot of professional understanding on core issue from insulation to modification to permitting.” This STARTS to get at something specific. Please expound on this topic with some DETAIL and offer your own experience and expertise (whatever that may be) and lets start a substantive discussion. PLEASE.
As a matter of fact, the two of you have given me all the material I need for Monday’s post. I will be reposting all of these comments and adding my own little spin on where this discussion has gone and where it may be going. If you don’t like it, tough. Again it’s my blog, so….PFFFFT! *sticks tongue out like a 5 year old*.
Ronin, I always welcome your opinion on any topic foreign or domestic.
Peter, I also welcome your comments and want more specifics and substance to your comments – suggestions, whatever. I’d also be interested in what it is you do for a living. Whether architect, builder, ex mob boss, former big top ring leader, maybe even a disgruntled postal worker?
Have a great weekend. Cheers.

Things quickly spiraled out of control from here.  Click the above link to the whole messy discussion and let me know what you think.  Cheers.


why I love Architecture

I know I talk a lot about the problems in our profession and how architects are killing the industry and how clients suck, but I thought I would take a moment, switch to a more positive tone, and talk about why I LOVE Architecture.

As any architect can tell you, going all the way back to “what made me want to be an architect”, it is a love/hate/love/gun-in-mouth/love relationship that at times can be very complicated and at other very special times is very simple and clear.

My own personal journey with architecture began when I was 3 years old.  Obviously I went through the typical career choices same as any toddler/child/teenager (fireman, fighter pilot, math teacher, motorcycle cop, sniper, G.I. Joe, etc), but architecture and the buildings around me always held a special fascination in my mind growing up.  I was always drawing and creating things out of paper (origami) and was sent to detention A LOT for not stopping my scribblings (thanks, mom, for defending my creative freedom to more than one principle and guidance counselor).

ok back to the topic at hand

When I was 3, my grandmother took me and my mother to NYC for some shopping or whatever (I’m not actually sure why we were there, I was 3 for goodness sake), but the only thing I really remember is riding in a taxi with my head sticking out the window staring straight up into the air thinking “how the hell did they DO that!?” (I was a fowl mouthed 3 year old, what can I say).  And thus started my fascination with buildings.  My wife gets irritated, because to this day when we go to a new city I have an obsession with touching buildings….it can get a little steamy sometimes, I mean good architecture is just SO SEXY!  😉

My love for architecture, however has grown not out of design, but out of practicing the business of architecture.  Design is wonderful, it’s what keeps us engaged and creative and energized, but it’s not the nuts and bolts of our profession.  It’s easy to enjoy something that is naturally fun – like design.  But to LOVE something you have to take joy in the most mundane and tedious tasks associated with it as well.  In this way, being in architecture is much like being in a marriage – you may not always like her or get along with her, but you still love her and can’t imagine your life without her (talking about architecture not my wife….she’ll kill me for that, but I don’t think she reads my blog anyway :-P).

So, through the practice of architecture, the grit, the grime, the tedium, I’ve grown to love architecture.  Architecture has the power to shape entire cities and change the course of human history.  Look at the redesign of Paris, or Washington D.C..  Look at the patterns of development in cities like Atlanta or London or Chicago or Savannah.  There is beauty and symmetry and chaos and confusion and architecture has the power to bring it about or change it all at the same time.  As I’ve said in a previous post, Architecture is one of two of the best professions to be in.

Now the question is, why do you love architecture?  What keeps you passionate and engaged with architecture?  What got you started down such an amazing, frustrating, sometimes suicidal path?


how to live small with a family

My wife will kill me for writing this one, but here it goes:

There’s a huge movement sweeping across the country known as “the tiny house movement” or “micro living”, or whatever else you want to call it.  Basically, people are moving away from large expensive homes in favor of smaller more economical and ecological homesteads.  In order to do this, obviously, some sacrifices need to be made, but one thing  that I’ve come to notice that is a little unsettling (and in my opinion would slow down the trend) is that a good portion of the “case studies” for smaller living are of either single people or couples with no children.

[editor’s note: this is simply my observation thus far.  anyone out there with children living in a home smaller than 1000 sf, please comment with photos of your home.]

When I design a “small” home, I always design with my family in mind: husband, wife, two kids (three on the weekends).  My wife will say that our current home (coming in at 1200 sf) is no where near enough, but then our home wasn’t designed or built for 21st century living [we own a 1918 Craftsman Bungalow currently in various states of renovation].  Our home was built before the automobile was widely used, before television, before central heat and air (for residences).  Life was much different 92 years ago.  Changes are obviously in the works to maximize the use of our 1200 sf, but that’s a story for another time.  Even with such a modest home, we waste a great deal of space simply because of the nature of how it was designed – segregated spaces and separate functions.

The logistics of housing 4 or 5 people may seem like a daunting task and you may think that this would muscle out the idea of “micro” living, but you would be wrong.  It’s all in the way you perceive things and how imaginative you can get with how spaces function.

For instance, do you really need a dedicated living room, dining room and kitchen?  Probably not.  Even for a family of 4, providing a generous kitchen with seating at an island is sufficient for every day use and reduces the overall square footage needed for each function.  Living spaces can also be reduced in size by the careful and thoughtful placement/use of built-ins.  With the advent of wireless technology, flat screen tv’s and compact discs, virtually all of your media needs can be stored in a very small amount of space.  A dedicated media built-in need only be about 12″-18″ deep, depending on the type of equipment you have, and can be designed to have multiple functions such as entertaining, reading, romper room – basically any public function.

Through careful design and efficient use of space, as well as taking a cold hard look at what is really necessary for residential living, a family of 4 could comfortably live in a home of no more than 800-1000 sf.  Think NYC/London hyper-urban living in the suburbs.

Oh, how glorious it would be to build a sub urban neighborhood with a density closer to an urban center, but still supplying green spaces, access to mass transit and easy connections to necessary services like shopping, groceries, schools, hospitals and leisure all without sacrificing privacy.

Reading this post and my other post, why a custom residence is better, will hopefully make you think twice next time you drive through some big box sub urban neighborhood to drop $200k+ on a house that has 1000 sf that you really don’t need.  And then go find an architect or designer who is passionate about his profession and wants to design a home for you that fits you and won’t waste space or your money.  There’s a better alternative, you just have to look for it.


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