Is that designed?

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A local, semi-abandoned shopping center/strip mall has recently been slated to become a “professional plaza”, and the look and feel of the existing buildings needs some work.  Studio m Architecture + Design has been lucky enough to have been chosen to liven up the place a bit.

Some may say that “it is what it is” and just assume that a strip mall is a strip mall. . . no matter how you dress it up.  I look at a building like this, which has good “bones” (solid structure, block walls), and see it as a fantastic opportunity to really start to look at the materials and colors in an effort to make the place more desirable to tenants, but without spending a ton of my client’s budget.

My son’s first question is, “Will it be designed?”  “Design” is a new word for him, and he is using it more and more.  He’s telling me things like “I think that’s like…designed”, which in most cases means that he likes it.  He asks me a lot about what I am doing, and often, my response is an explanation about how I am designing a new house or that I am working on a design for a new office building or restaurant.  I always immediately follow up with a question to him:  “What do you think?”

6 years of Architecture school and 16 years of working in the field have helped me learn how to utilize the response that comes from any critique of my work.  “It’s nice”, might sound like it’s desirable feedback, but other than finding out that someone doesn’t absolutely hate what I’ve done, that comment usually isn’t too useful.  “I think it looks like a stick building”, he said, obviously responding to the elevation (above) that is 200’+ long.

He’s kind of right.  As a response to the building that is there now, I chose to utilize linear materials to emphasize the “horizontality” of the building (there’s also a term, frequently used in the design world, called “post-rationalization”, which in a case like this, means that I found some material that I want to use, used it, and then came up with a “reason why” I used it . . . which honestly is only because I think metal panel cladding will look cool).

So my next task is to determine if “looking like a stick building” is a good thing or a bad thing.  I am already thinking of a few ways to break up the upper canopy over the sidewalk; maybe with color, maybe with some “up and down” or some “in and out” that will start to break up the 200′ long surface.  I will redesign it and see if it looks better or worse than its current “stick” form.

Some Architects will disagree with me, but design critique and input doesn’t have to come from an educated design professional.  If someone walks by a building and thinks “I like this”, isn’t THAT a success in some respect?

I’ve always tried to operate with the mantra, “How could this be better?”  There is always a better way to do something, but finding the balance of effort, time, budget, & literally just getting the job done, can be difficult sometimes.  I can sit a redesign a project forever, each time coming up with a “better” solution than the time before.  I would love to get paid for that:  endless ideas, unlimited budget. . . but clients tend to want their projects built and don’t have bottomless checking accounts.  “Design” becomes the successful balance of all of these factors, not necessarily just the look of the building.

As we drive around, he asks, “Is that designed, Dad?”, pointing to a building.  Sometimes, my ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is enough.  I know that, at the moment, his interpretation of design is the aesthetic of something, and that’s ok.  I’ll wait a few years before imposing budgetary restrictions and timetables on his LEGO buildings!

In the building above, I think that so far we’ve reached a good balance of the factors.  Until it’s built, we’ll continue to tweak the look & the numbers while keeping an eye on how much time is passing.  Hopefully a successful effort for everyone.

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Who decides if I know what I’m doing?

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I know that I’ve always wanted to be an Architect and a Dad.  I don’t remember asking to be a business owner or a parent.

Being a Dad is easy!  In fact, my wife did most of the work to grant me the title.  As soon as I held my son in my arms, I was a Dad.  Anyone can be a Dad. . . well, half of us, anyway.   I love being a dad.  Dad’s get to know things like the names of all of the new cartoon characters and they get to decide that maybe it’s not too late for ice cream.  Being a Parent is much harder.  Parents have to know things like “how many teaspoons of medicine”, and “what’s the weight limit on the car seat”.  A Dad crashes in the bed after roughhousing.  A Parent lies awake wondering if they’ve done everything right.

I see the same dichotomy in my professional life.  I love being an Architect.  Architects get to work with people & come up with ideas that solve problems.  Architects get to be creative and make the spaces and places we inhabit.  Business owners have insurance and pay taxes, and have to make sure there’s a “next job” on the way.  An Architect falls asleep thinking about how to make your building work (or maybe stays awake designing it).  A business owner lies down and stares at the ceiling, worrying about cash flow.

I’m realizing that I’m attempting two of the more difficult ventures in my life so far. . . at the same time.  Don’t misunderstand this as “regret”, because these are also two of the things that bring me joy in my life.  And, “difficult” is a relative term, of course.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have chosen these opportunities for myself.  As a parent, I’m supposed to be invested in the choices I make.  The same goes for running a business.

On occasion, I am so confident that I have no idea what the hell I am doing.  How should I know what the long term effects of “timeout” are?  Is standing too close to the television REALLY that bad?  It’s just light!  Is this REALLY the best way to keep track of expenses and billing for the firm?  I went to design school, not expenses and billing school!

How will I ever know if I’m doing any of this right?!

“My family makes me happy.”

“I absolutely love the way my new place turned out.”

I suppose that sometimes, you just keep doing what you know is best. . . and the reassurance presents itself…