Category Archives: theory

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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Architectural Manifesto

Every designer should have a personal architectural manifesto.  My own personal manifesto was actually a requirement for my college thesis.  I’m posting it here because I want feedback.  I want to know what makes you passionate about architecture, what do you hate about architecture, what would you change if you had the keys to the kingdom, so to speak?  Or are you happy where you are?  Is your architectural career what you always hoped it would be?  For most of us, I’m thinking….NOT.  So, first, mine, then I want to hear from you.  Be bold, be passionate, be whatever you need to be about architecture and post your comments below.

[note: this manifesto was written almost 10 years ago at the start of my senior year in college. that’s not a defense, simply a statement.]

“Architecture connects us to daily life, clarifies our relationship with one another and to the realities of place and time.  We should do the opposite – obscure and isolate – only out of neglect or indifference or error.

Among other things, architecture is about fit, revelation, and prediction.  It should fit with what is there and what transpires, and it should reveal what is there and how events change.  And the fit and revelation are not just now, at the start of design, but over time, in the future; thus prediction.”  — Joseph Esherick, FAIA –

What Esherick is saying, and what I will say, is that architecture is no longer defined by a set of rules, regulations, or styles.  Architecture is whatever we, as designers, wish to make of it.  In Connected Isolation, Thom Mayne theorizes that the key issue for architecture is that “the recognition of diversity is the natural evolution of things”, and by accepting the dynamics of this diversity, rather than attempting to substitute for unified and simplistic principles we are able to tap into the vast forces inherent in all things.  This is to say that through the experimentation and investigation of new thoughts, methods, and techniques our architecture will capture the essence of imagination and be bound by nothing, save gravity.  In a number of today’s cities there seems to be distaste for the introduction of experimental architecture.  Some in these cities seem to think that the inclusion of such experimentation will somehow diminish their identity as a community.  This is simply not true.  The expression of new materials and new ways of thinking is necessary to further the exploration of an identity; nothing is static.  The character of a given place is not rooted within any one thing, but in the personalities and ideals of its people, and these people constantly change and grow, as any architectural expression should do.

As we continue to grow and change so does our architecture.  With the progression of each year, each decade, each century, our identity, our defining characteristics change alongside them.  Life is not a fixed, monotonous endeavor.  It is something that molds anew with the inclusion of each new generation.  Our architecture must act in the same regard, as a pliable and renewable resource.  What we build today becomes our history tomorrow.


dMass via jetsongreen

this blew me away at 630 am.  Just AWESOME!  Mad kudos to Howard J. Brown, founder of dMass.


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.


the problem with DIY design

As I’ve said many times before, I read a lot of blogs and some of them are DIY (Do It Yourself) blogs about design and construction.  I want to take a minute and talk about the problem with DIY design.  Notice I said “design” and not “construction”.  I’m all for anyone who wants to go out, buy some land and build their own home.  When I was a kid my mother and step father did this (I helped in a very small capacity being only 7 but I still helped) and it was an awesome experience.  To build a home, you have a set of instructions (construction documents) and guidelines (local building codes) to follow.  It’s like a kit of parts that just needs to be assembled in the proper order.  But designing that home is a different animal all together.  It takes more than just a kit of parts, or a program, to put it all together.

When an architect ( at least this one) begins the design process it starts with a couple of casual conversations with the clients to determine “who” they are.  This leads into more specific conversations about “how” they live.  Most clients won’t realize how important these first conversations are in the process of designing a home for them – but it is critical.  You can not properly design a home for someone without knowing who they are and how they live. All of these “spec” homes that are built are built for a generic client, which means when someone does move in, they will invariably have to either change something about the house or compromise how they live in some way in order to be comfortable in the house.  I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t go into great detail on this point.  Suffice it to say this is not the ideal recipe for the biggest investment you’ll ever make in your life – your home.

Once the architect has an idea about “who” and “how”, he can begin to develop the program with the client – these are the spaces that will make up the home (i.e. living room, dining room, # of bedrooms, etc).  This list will be talked about and refined many times at the beginning of the design process in order to get at the core spaces required by the clients.  These spaces will then be arranged according to “how” the clients live.  This is where an architect becomes crucial to the process of designing a home for someone, and why the “DIY Designer” should always consult an architect prior to construction.  Architects and designers spend a lot of time and energy learning and studying how people use space and how spaces relate to each other in a building.  The average DIY-er will be able to choose a floor plan from a book or a website, but that plan won’t ultimately meet their needs and will require the same choices as purchasing one of those “spec” houses I mentioned earlier.  The DIY-er will also not know what questions to ask themselves about how they live, how they want to live and ultimately how they will live in the future.  An architect does know what these questions are and will know how and when to ask them.

Again, I’m all for someone purchasing some land and building their own home – the construction is easy.  But designing a home that will fit your personal lifestyle is something different and requires at least a design consultation with a architect or designer to properly lay out your new home.  It will save time, money, frustration, money (yes it bears mentioning twice) and possibly your marriage (you try explaining to your wife why you forgot to put a mud room off the garage with laundry storage and a dry storage pantry just off the kitchen).

Cheers.


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.


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