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…

“Always Be Safety”

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Keeping people safe is serious business.

Yesterday, my 3 year old invented automated sprinkler systems.

OK, let’s back up a little bit.  As early as the 15th Century, people recognized the need for a quick, automated response to a fire.  In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci even developed a kitchen system that would help extinguish an oven fire. . . which flooded the fire and the entire kitchen, ruined all the food, and ended the Duke of Milan’s dinner party. . . so you could say it worked.  The sprinkler system as we know it today, really got its start in the early 1800’s.

Over time, systems have obviously become more sophisticated.  In addition to this form of “active fire protection” (meaning that there is a system literally attempting to extinguish a fire), there have been various means and methods developed to promote “passive fire protection” (contain fires & slow the spread of them) and “fire prevention” (eliminate causes of fire & educate occupants).  All three systems work together within a building to, first and foremost, protect the occupants of the building.  Saving the building, if it happens, is a bonus.

Many conversations with my son start with me asking him “What do you want to talk about?”  Some of those conversations investigate the minutia of which super heroes are the best ones (Batman, because he’s “just a guy”,  and Spiderman “because I said so”).  Sometimes we dive into the details of “Where does the mailman get the mail from?”

Yesterday, he asked me “what did you do today?”  So I told him.  It’s hit or miss with these conversations because he really doesn’t know what he’s getting into.  Sometimes, he cuts me off and asks me if I want to play, and yes, of course I do.  I thought he’d never ask!  Other times, though, he listens.  He doesn’t just let me talk. . . he really listens and turns it into a conversation.  I started talking about 2 separate projects that I worked on yesterday, both related to fire protection & safety within existing buildings.  Each has it’s own solution, but each serves the purpose of protecting the occupants inside.  I push the details with him. . . let him know, first of all, WHY people need to be protected.  If you have a “house” (residential occupancy) above an “office” (business/mercantile occupancy), you need to make sure that those spaces are protected from each other.  When people are at work, they’re not home.  When people are at home, they’re not at work.  So if there is a fire in the office at night, everyone is sleeping, and they won’t be safe. . . unless we make them safe.

“Can the fireman come and spray water and make it rain on the building?”  Yes.  Yes they can.  But, they have to drive there first and it might take a couple minutes.  The people still need to be safe until the firemen get there.  According to the rules (the 2009 International Building Code), we have to build our buildings to make sure they are safe, and we have to use materials that stop the fire (passive fire protection).  Sometimes, using the right materials between the office and the house is enough.  At this point, we got into a long back and forth listing things that catch on fire easily, and things that don’t . . . I think this lasted 3 or 4 hours (or at least felt like it).

And then my 3 year old invented the sprinkler system.  “Dad, if there’s a fire in the peoples’ house, they should turn on the rain shower and make it rain INSIDE the building until the fireman gets there (“rain shower” is what we call the shower in the bathroom so it’s more fun).”  I asked him what if the people are sleeping, or what if the fire is not in the bathroom.  “Maybe we can make a building with rain showers everywhere and they turn on by themselves, like when we wash our hands at Wegmans (they have motion activated faucets in the restroom that, of course, we have to try 4,000 times every time we go there – sorry, Wegmans).”

He’s right.  Although, to my knowledge, motion activated sprinkler systems have not yet been installed in any building. . . ever. . . that would be a potential solution . . . for about the first 10 minutes until they went off.  But, together, we came up with a better solution that involves detecting the smoke and the heat before spraying the water everywhere.

Sprinkler systems are expensive, and not all buildings require them.  It’s really an assessment of the type of construction, the nature of the occupants inside, and the size of the spaces.  There are many, many other factors that come into play as well, and every building is different.  You can rely on your friendly, neighborhood Architect to help guide you thru the process!

This morning, we got in the car and drove away, on our way to school.  A few seconds down the road an audible “ding, ding, ding” filled the car.  “Daaaaaaad, you forgot your seat belt!  Put it on so that you’re safety!”  I put it on and quickly changed the conversation before he invented the airbag. . . . . . . .

Prepare for Tomorrow

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Morning Ice

Time does not stand still, and neither should we!  I’m in the calm before the storm at the moment.  Although things are busy at the firm, Studio m Architecture + Design, I know that the slew of calls is coming!

About half of the work I do is residential.  Every year around this time, people start to suddenly realize that the Spring is coming sooner than they thought. . . and that they need a set of drawings before they can build their new home.  How do you get there though?

There are a few different ways to get to your goal, and the design is only a small part of that process.  There are people who hesitate when it comes to up front design costs.  After all, they probably found something kind of close to what they want on the internet, and it sounds like it’s only going to be a few thousand dollars to just buy the plans online.

Option 1:  Get plans Online:
Make sure, however, that the plans include structural / framing information.  Some sites skip this important detail because they really don’t know where you are building (snow loading in the northeast can increase framing sizes quickly).  I’m sure someone along the way will figure it out. . . . . hopefully.  Depending on what kind of drawing package you get, it can probably be submitted  to the local municipality for code review and permitting.  Some municipalities ask for structural calculations, residential energy compliance (again, depending on where you are building, this will effect the insulation values), and sometimes specification sheets for materials.  You may or may not get that from online plans.  Once you have your drawings, you can reach out to one or several contractors to get a construction cost.

Option 2a:  Call a builder (design/build firm):
Some design/build companies have drafters on staff who can help draw your home.  Often, these services are “free” as long as you build a house with them (some charge a fee. . . some take a loss).  More often than not, you will be given a “portfolio” to review and choose from (after all, it’s less expensive for them if you build the same house that everyone else is building – the drawings are already finished!)  These free services, of course, are wrapped up in the cost of your house, so the cost really isn’t free, it’s just rolled into the overhead (profit costs) of your construction contract.  The benefit of hiring a builder is that they will be able to track your costs in real time as you make decisions on your home.  Sometimes, these guys call me, which I love because it usually means that their client wants something unique.  Chances are, you will get a price from them, but will have a hard time bidding to multiple contractors (some firms may restrict it).

Option 2b:  Call a builder (contractor):
This is almost the same scenario as above, but with a General Contractor.  This typically happens when you have family or a friend, or someone who you already know you want to build your house.  Some of these guys have a “go to” guy to draw up the plans for them.  Sometimes, they will just ask that you come back when you have plans.  Ideally, they will be able to keep a finger on costs as the home design progresses.

Option 3:  Hire an Architect:
This one is my favorite one (OK, I may be a bit bias. . . . ).  Architects cost money.  In fact, building a house. . . . costs money.  The cost of hiring an Architect can be offset by the fact that you hired an Architect.  If you are about to spend more money than you ever have in your life, why would you NOT hire someone to help you design it and make it exactly what you want?  Accurate, thought out plans have continuously benefited the Owner in cost savings during construction.  Contractors make assumptions when they have to, and it would make no sense for them to guess low on something that they don’t understand (or, if they do guess low, you either have to pay more for what you wanted in the first place, or settle for what you don’t want at all).

Chances are, you have an idea of what you want.  You may even have an example of a plan you like (we’ll use that as inspiration, not to copy).  An Architect can sit down with you and dissect what you like and why, and turn those ideas into your new home.

For some more info on how you and your Architect can work together:cover.jpg

Steps to Today

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Soho – 2001

This week, Little Guy started his venture into Preschool.  Although this is only approximately 100 feet from his former “Toddlers” class down the hall, this is a major move in his world!  We’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a “big boy” and why he needs to move along.  He was a little anxious at first, but at the end of the day, he says he has fun.  Onward and upward!

As much as this blog is about him, it’s about me as well.  After all, the places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had are directly connected to my interaction with him.  I didn’t just wake up one morning and start a firm, Studio m Architecture + Design (well, in some ways, I kind of did).

Hit the books
I didn’t decide to go to Architecture school, I just went.  I don’t really remember there being a weighing of options except for what schools to apply to.  I chose the University of Cincinnati based on the 6 year co-op experience they offered.  By the end of 6 years, I had already logged 2 full years of experience in Architecture offices – and good ones too!  After spending time at home at a local firm, I traveled to Chicago, Santa Monica, and eventually wound up in NYC, and each experience was with a different type and size of firm.  I was able to work on large scale, high profile projects in CA like the Las Vegas Monorail & Universal Citywalk in Hollywood.  I also shifted focus and got to work on high end private residences in Soho, Upper West Side, and Midtown.  Mausoleum planning, Government courtroom interiors, K-12 educational facilities, I was even in the right place at the right time to work on some really cool “dot-com” projects with unlimited budgets.  In 2002, I was able to graduate with degrees in Architecture and Interior Design.

Get a Job!
As a graduate with 2 years experience, I found it incredibly easy to find a job, and accepted an offer from a boutique firm in NYC.  We worked on some really nice projects – high-end retail, corporate interiors, banking, and detailed interior renovations/conversions of large buildings in the City.  This was the goal since I was a kid.  I wanted to be an Architect in NYC!  I loved every minute of it, but was more than happy to move back to PA with my soon-to-be wife.

Bring it Home
I love living where I came from.  There is the constant pull of Philadelphia, NYC, and other major cities that are so close to Northeast PA, but the fact that we are so close to all of them offers the best of both worlds.  After getting married and landing back here, I worked for a few local firms and continued to gain valuable experience ranging from single family residential projects to large scale student residence / educational buildings, as well as high-end retail in Las Vegas & Atlantic City.  I absolutely loved the fact that I was starting to work more and more in PA.  I like the high profile projects all over the country, but it’s great to work with local people on local projects too.

Start it Up
I’ve learned something at every job I’ve had and the people I’ve worked with have been great.  I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without the path behind me.  In 2013, I left my position as Associate at a local firm and started my own.  The experience in the past has equipped me to be able to handle the large-scale projects, and the fact that I do most of the work on my own allows me to tackle small projects as well.  It’s absolutely an adjustment to be responsible for every aspect of the business, but things are starting to run on rails.  I’m also able to be more flexible with my time and get to work around Little Guy’s schedule, and that’s been the most rewarding aspect so far.

Keep on Walking
Onward and Upward.  Little Guy is taking his next few steps, and I will too!  There are some exciting things in store for the business this year and it looks like we’re on track to build our new house in the Spring.  I’m sure he will be extremely involved in the process.  So far, his request for his room is that it looks like Radiator Springs (complete with “a floor that looks like mud”, and “pretend tires in the closet”.)

The persistent WHY?

The Holiday Season is fast approaching, and Little Guy has been anxiously waiting for every morning when he gets to open another door on his LEGO advent calendar.  He’s also been asking if it’s Christmas yet…every day…and every day we tell him that when all of the doors are open, THEN it will be Christmas.

“Well then come on, let’s open all of them.”

Makes sense.  I mean, I did just give him a direct cause & effect scenario, and logic based on what I said would tell you that the fastest way to get to Christmas would be to just get on with it and open the doors already!  I told him that’s not how it works.

“Why?”

Here’s the fork in the road.  As a three year old, Little Guy asks “Why?” approximately 4,000 times a day.  I answer all of his questions until around 3,600 when the answer starts to become “because that’s the way it is.” or something like “pineapple head” so he knows the difference between a real answer and me just trying to get past the question and move on with our lives.  Obviously you can’t just open all of the advent calendar doors, because when Christmas doesn’t immediately appear, there’s going to be a lot more “Why”s to answer.

“Dad, my truck won’t stay on top of my LEGO tower.”  He’s trying to balance a 24″ long truck on top of a 4″ stack of LEGOs.  I tell him that’s silly and that the truck is too heavy, the LEGOs are too small, and that’s just never going to work.  “But Why?  I want it to work.”

I’ve run into countless difficult scenarios in my career.  I see challenges every day at my firm Studio m Architecture + Design.  Limited area on a building site dictates the shape and size of a new structure.  An impossible amount of the Client’s desired spaces just won’t fit into the amount of square footage that they are about to lease for the next 5 years.  The ridiculous budget number available for a residential project is unreasonable and so tight that you can’t do anything with it.  Never once have I told any of these people that what they are trying to do is “silly”.  OK, maybe I said that to the guy trying to build a 3,500 square foot house for $100,000, but he really was being silly.

Often, in the design process, I ask myself. . . “Why?”  I’m frustrated.  Things aren’t working.  I don’t think I am going to come up with a solution that works. . . . why?  Isolate the problem.  Identify the issue.  Solve the one piece that’s causing the roadblock, and the problem starts to solve itself.  Find the better way, and the “WHY” goes away.

The LEGO structure was retrofitted with a second tower, a wider base, and top platform for the enormous truck to rest on.  It wasn’t failing because the idea of the truck on top of the tower was ‘silly’, it was failing because we hadn’t explored a better way to do it yet.  Not only did we solve the problem, but we found satisfaction in knowing we came up with the solution that worked.

There can’t be 4,000 life lessons in response to the continuous stream of “why”s that exist every day.  When Little Guy asks why he has to go to bed. . . . “pineapple head” is sometimes a better answer than trying to collectively brainstorm about the optimal sleep cycle routine and why right now might not be the best time after all.  However, I think it’s up to me to realize that sometimes there is much more behind a “why”, and maybe the best answer isn’t always “because that’s the way it is.”  In that respect, I kind of hope the WHY never ends.

 

Architecture/Design Products:

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Cardboard and blankets work just fine, but we’ve noticed that Little Guy is getting more demanding with his fortbuilding requirements.  Build Abouts look like a pretty interesting modular product that might be perfect for indoor Winter playtime.

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  (creator of advent calendar shown above)

Pretend Architecture

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Not the land of make-believe

This month’s theme is “Building” at my son’s preschool.  They are building with blocks, deciding what does and doesn’t work as a building material, and creating “all sorts of buildings” according to Little Guy.  I also have a project in the framing stage that just happens to be about a minute from the school.  So, after I collect him from his day, we swing by the job site and, depending on what is going on, we stop by and check on things.

“It’s like a real house.”  This may very well be some of the most complimentary Architectural critique that I’ve ever received.  I certainly hope my clients feel the same way!  But there was much more behind the seemingly obvious observation.  It is, in fact, a real house…or at least on its way to being one.  “What do you mean?”,  I asked him.  He told me that “First it was just words.  Then it was on your papers and it was just pretend.  Now it’s just like a real house that we are in.”

Yes.  Yes it is.

We proceeded to make our way in and around the newly framed walls that just barely define the different spaces on the first floor.  I showed him the kitchen and explained where the sink would be.  “This is where the oven goes.  Over here will be the fridge.”  “That sure is a big kitchen, huh, Dad?”  Down the hallway, into the bathroom where he asked where the sink would go and proceeded to “pssshhhhhhh, wash his hands.”  “What will this be?  Is this a window?  Do you have to jump out the front door? (the grade outside hasn’t been finalized yet).”  It was truly amazing and extremely fulfilling to answer his questions about what exactly was going on in the skeleton of space we made our way thru.

“I like it.”, he let me know when we got back in the car, and I’m sure I smiled ear to ear.  “Dad, where does everyone sleep?”  We had not been able to visit the 3 bedrooms upstairs because…well, they didn’t exist yet!  He said he can’t wait until the stairs get built.

It was, indeed, “just pretend” at one point.  The design process does start with “just words” when the initial flood of ideas, the wants and needs of the client, all come out.  There’s budget and timing and there’s sometimes things that people know they want, and know they can’t afford.  There’s managing expectations, determining the level of my involvement in the process, and of course, making sure that the most important people (the ones paying for and living in the house, of course) remain connected and engaged during the process.  And we haven’t even started yet.

Little Guy and I review drawings together.  We look at “pretend” spaces and attempt to identify them.  “What kind of room might this be?  It has a big table in it with lots of chairs.  This is a door.  This is a window.”  We test questions like “Why can’t the cars park on the roof?  Why should the playroom be on the opposite end of the house from Dad’s office? (some answers are more obvious to me than they are to him…)”  I like to think that he is absorbing all of this, and I’m sure he is, but at the moment, it’s just us having fun talking about what I do; showing him how spaces can be designed beforehand, and aren’t just the result of someone nailing a bunch of boards together.

This, of course, can apply to any number of things we encounter in our daily life.  Things can be designed.  We can design them.  I hope to instill in him the idea that we don’t have to just accept things for what they are.  We can think about how we want things to be. . . and make it that way, or at least experiment a little bit and make stuff up for the fun of it.  It’s something that happens in the Architectural profession all of the time.  We have ideas competitions, or hypothetical design solutions for non-existent projects.  It sharpens the pencil, sharpens the mind, and maybe results in some ideas we may not have thought of otherwise.  Sounds exactly like something we should be doing with our Children!

 

Architecture/Design Products:

book

The LEGO Architecture book came out last year.  It’s a story and visual guide to the LEGO Architecture products that I’ve highlighted in the past.  Another product that may be more for Dad than for Little Guy, but as he gets older. . . we’ll see!

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LEGO Architecture book
LEGO Architecture Series 
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