Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I rep da bitches, he rep da boyz, if you rep your hood then make some noize!

Oh, don't roll your eyes at me like that! What other blog can give you your architecture fix and quote Li'l Kim? Yo, Tin Man, this here's the jump off! Holla!

So, I promised everyone good news today, and I have good news indeed, but alas, it too requires backstory. The short version is that today was Mile High Guy's last day at his job, and he'll be taking two weeks off to finish painting the condo and go snowboarding. Then he'll start his new job for about a week, and then we're off to Vegas for our anniversary.

Okay, backstory: Guy and I met at Design Associates back in 2000 when I started there and he'd only been there for a few months. We worked on healthcare projects but never with each other. (Well, occasionally, we'd have to work on the same project for a week, and we'd nearly come to blows. One of us would storm out of a conference room shouting, "Fuck you and your 80-square-foot toilet room!") In the last year or so, Guy's project manager became overly hands-off to the point of being a hinderance, sending Guy into meetings without critical information or leaving him the day before the deadline without ever having gotten around to writing the specs for Guy's project. Guy asked his PM as well as our PM's boss for change, and it never happened. Last fall, Guy interviewed with two different healthcare firms in the city and accepted an offer from one. His new firm gave him a 25% raise but only two weeks of vacation for the first two years. (DA gives you three weeks after you've been here for five years.)

Here's another icky truth about the profession of architecture: in general, one has to change firms in order to see a real raise in pay. Now admittedly, I saw an almost-25% raise over the course of 2006 due to the good work on my management of Wheatlands as well as getting licensed. Also admittedly, what happened to me was rare. Howie went to bat for a sista, and DA tends to value their interns getting licensed.

When Guy hooked up with this other firm, Acme Architects, Inc., they had three jobs they were about to get, and they got none of them. Guy spent a great deal of time being underemployed in the office and constantly asked people if they needed any help. He got to do some here and there, but eventually got pretty bored. One day, he was asked to attend the marketing/new business meeting with the bigwigs in the office to figure out how to make up for the three jobs they lost. Guy offered the idea of going after some jobs with some management firms in the area. Often, a hospital will use a management firm to help them keep costs down and keep things on schedule.

Upon hearing this, one of the vice presidents scoffed. "We do high end healthcare; you can't do that with a managed project." Someone else in the room seconded this opinion.

Okay, I gotta blow the whistle and throw the Bullshit Flag. Bullshit...on the offense...15-yard penalty...repeat second down.

By saying that managed projects aren't "high end" design, these people just said that almost all the work Guy had done in the last 6 years--the very work they saw in his portfolio when they hired him--was a pile of chicken poo. Which is a lie. You can do nice design with a managed project; you just need good designers. Duh. Anythang can be perty if you throw enough money at it. Look at Britney Spears. Wait...bad example. Moving on....

Here's the kicker: about 80% of all healthcare projects involve some kind of management. Hence, Acme was cutting itself out of a shitload of work because they were looking down their noses at it. And hence...Guy was bored.

After a crappy day, Guy came home to find an email in his personal email account from the other company with whom he'd interviewed back in the fall. "Just checking in to see how things were," said the headhunter. "Give me a call." And call Guy did. He interviewed last Monday and put in his two weeks notice the very next day. Acme only had enough for him to do for one and a half weeks.

So now he's going to lay around the house for a few days and let his facial hair grow and scratch himself and not shower, which is what I'd do if I were taking time off. Then, he's going to hit Vail and take on some fresh powder and finish painting our living room a delightful orange-red while painting the bathroom a pale grey-blue. Then, he will be going to his new job with the same high pay and three weeks of vacation, like a mofo should have. What he will not be doing is taking any shit offa anyone. I guess his little vacay here makes me the Sugah-Mama-in-Residence for a couple of weeks.

Tomorrow, I'm heading off to do a site visit and pre-punch on Wheatlands, which I will explain later. Peace out, my posse.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Software is not soft

Among my other duties at work, I'm a member of the CAD helpline. The CAD helpline is made up of mostly conscripted people from different project teams who learn more about CAD than everyone else in order to help their coworkers when a routine problem arises. If one of us can't solve the problem, that's when we call Sarge. That still happens more frequently than he'd like, but hey, we're still learning.

Every other week, the office buys us lunch, and we sit around a table and learn about the latest CAD stuff or new problems to solve. Lately, we've been learning about a new type of drawing software called Revit. Revit is owned by the same company that makes ADT (the Software Formerly Known As AutoCAD), but it's poised to surpass ADT as the most-used architectural drafting software. In our case, it's a matter of the partners at Design Associates got it from somewhere that Revit is the shizznit for drawing in 3D and it's the next step in software. At first, the partners wanted Sarge to just flip every project in the office over to Revit in, say, a month. Sarge advised them against this, explaining that the learning curve on Revit would shut DA down and the frustration of teaching Revit and dealing with the waves of ensuing questions would cause him to douse himself with kerosene and light himself up like a Vietnamese monk. Sarge convinced them to scale back their aspirations simply to converting all projects to some kind of 3D drawings, be it Revit or ADT. Since some project teams are using Revit now, we're having to learn how to use it in the event that we might have to help someone solve problems in it.

Here's the deal: software, schmoftware; if the user isn't on board with the whole shebang, it's pointless. There are a variety of reasons why the person doing the drawing wouldn't learn or use new software:
  1. The user is understaffed and pressed for time. This is the most valid of reasons, and not just because it happened to me while working on Wheatlands. When working 7-day, 60-hour weeks for months on end, and one is forced to choose between learning the hippy-dippy software and just getting phone calls returned and plans and casework drawn for the next client meeting, one will inevitably choose to do architecture in lieu of doing cool-ass software stuff. This happens time and again when project managers promise mad deadlines and pass a heavy workload onto only one or two people.
  2. The project team is unstable and there's no continuity of learning. Quel coincidence. This also happened on Wheatlands. In the last month of design development, Howie finally put a very bright and talented coworker on Wheatlands, just in time to help my intern and me finish up. However, my new help had no experience with my software and was forced to go back to basics in terms of drawing. My intern was pulled off Wheatlands a month later, so he didn't even get to develop a full understanding of the software and use it through an entire project, while my other coworker had to keep on with the old system of drawing due to time contraints (see Reason #1 above). If the same people don't get to work on and learn the software while applying it to a project, then they never really learn it. And then you can never really use the software. Reasons #1 and #2 have caused problems on Pomme de Terre as well. But the worst reason of all is....
  3. The user is a fucking idiot or stuck in his or her ways. Sadly, this happens more often than we'd like. I can tell when Sarge has been helping one of these people because he has a resigned look on his face and marks on the side of his head like he'd slammed it in a car door. Some people simply cannot--or will not--retain new information when it's given to them: they won't write it down, make a note, repeat it back to whoever taught them, whatever. Just as difficult is a user who's been doing CAD for several years and refuses to acknowledge that technology is changing. These people especially suck when they are the only members of the project team not using the software correctly--suddenly, everyone has to drop what they're doing to help them navigate a drawing or they open a drawing and fuck it up, so then someone has to fix the drawing. Or, they can't fix it and call oneof us on the CAD Helpline. And then we can't fix it and have to call Sarge, who arrives with a baseball bat in one hand and a bottle of NyQuil in the other. This makes for an unpleasant afternoon.

I wish I had something better to talk about than software, my dear new WAD Readers, but it's such a huge part of what we do. You do a lot of hand drawing and drafting in college, but precious little hand drawing in the workplace. Projects are ALL drawn on computers, and when the way we draw is made difficult, it makes...architects...drink.

I'll have a more pleasant post tomorrow after something happens after work. More architectural enlightenment to follow....

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mommy, Daddy, stop fighting!

Jesus, Mary, and Phillip Johnson, deliver me from Pomme de Terre.

Today, the PdT team had a CAD meeting to discuss some format issues as well as how the sheets were set up for printing this Friday. Gathered around a conference table and staring at the image projected from our CAD manager's laptop, we reviewed this information with the glazed looks of the Pussycat Dolls learning quantum physics. Here begins the pandemonium. The drawing software my company (and many architecture firms) use, typically called CAD (computer-aided drafting) or CADD (computer-aided design and drafting), has undergone some changes recently to make it even easier to make 3D models. Pretty much everyone working on PdT took a series of classes with our CAD manager, Sarge, and they got somewhat comfortable with using the new system of setting up files and sheets. Sheets are the computer files that one actually prints and gives to the contractor and says, "Go build it."

(One aside is necessary here: Sarge is the only person at my office who knows about Why Architects Drink. A former helicopter mechanic and sergeant in the Army, he has attempted to instill some type of order in our office in terms of CAD and project standards. He has found that it's less painful just to slam his head in a car door.)

Sarge trained everyone on the PdT team except for two people who were hired way after training started. One of the new people does mostly management stuff, so he doesn't need to know much about CAD. However, Wanda, the other new addition to Team PdT, spends a great deal of time working in the drawings. Somehow, despite lacking the same amount of training in the software's advances, Wanda has ended up being the keeper of the file and sheet setups. While working on sheets a few weeks ago, she had a few problems with a few of her sheets and they wouldn't look right and print right. Sarge showed her a quick fix for those sheet files, which she not only did for those files but also for every single sheet file (of about 40 to 50 sheets). She revealed to the whole team today that the system she's set up is far off from how the team was taught by Sarge to set up sheets. Now, I realize many of you out there might say that this sounds like much ado about nothing and to get over it, but it's a big fucking deal to the people working on it. It's the difference between taking a couple of hours to print your drawings and taking eight hours. It's the difference between someone new being able to jump right into the project and start working and that same person spending half the day trying to figure out where and how the hell the files are set up. It's a Big. Fucking. Deal.

Upon seeing what Wanda had done to the files, Liz piped up. "Wait, are we doing this just for the deadline Friday or for the rest of the project?"
"For the rest of the project," replied Wanda.
"I think we need to take a step back, then," Liz said. "We spent a great deal of time learning this new system, and it seems like it would be problematic to simply chuck it all."
"Well, I had to do it this way to fix the sheets for the deadline," said Wanda.
"Right, and I understand that, but I really liked having the sheets divided up into subcategories so we could print faster."
Susanna chimed in. "This way of setting up sheets is easier at the outset, but it also makes it so that you have to alter the documents in the sheets instead of in a view file, like normal."
"Well, okay, but I had to get these sheets done and I had to prioritize," was Wanda's reply.

WAD Readers, this went on for fifteen minutes. While everyone's words stayed pretty civil, there was something subtle in the tones of voices--especially Wanda's--that sounded like tension was sneaking in. It finally felt to me like Liz and Wanda were almost arguing for control of the project's setup. Recall that I said that working with a team of women is mostly positive; here's where it's not-so-great. In general, men will debate for a bit, come to a solution, then move on. Women, however, more often than not will emote and continue to emote and strain to be heard, not realizing that they have indeed been heard and now it's time to shut the fuck up and move on. I'll admit that I've been guilty of it myself, but GOD! was it frustrating to listen to today, especially while sitting in a meeting. I swear to God, most meetings are a waste of my time.

Sarge piped in with a possible solution--when the deadline had passed, he would sift through the files and see if he could solve the problems so that we could set the files up correctly--but Lord, no, it didn't seem to satisfy. The repetition of everyone's points of view continued. I finally broke in to repeat Sarge's solution so that we could close the discussion and finally move on, and I almost succeeded. The discussion went on for another five minutes, then finally Wanda and Liz let it go so we could move on.

Dear WAD Readers, dear sweet WAD Readers, I fear I've put you all to sleep with this CAD-tastrophe, but it was truly a big deal today. What it was for me was 1) a waste of my time, 2) a revelation that the wrong person is managing the files, 3) an escalation of hostility between two people whom I both respect, 4) an illustration of how technology can simultaneously help and hinder, and 5) a glimpse into the Fifth Concentric Ring of Dante's Easy-Bake Oven that is Sarge's life.

I cornered him later. "Dude, is this what every meeting with Pomme de Terre is like?"
He shrugged. "Yep. Every single time. They were actually pretty good today; usually they break into four or five shrill voices trying to get their point across all at once."
I rubbed my temple. "Dear God."
"Yep." Sarge wrapped up his laptop cables and tucked them back into their case. "I'm gonna go slam my head in a car door. I'll be back after lunch."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Enjoy the silence

I arose at 6:30 this morning when Guy got up to go snowboarding, polished off a bagel with peanut butter while flipping through the Sunday paper, and finally got over to the office an hour later. Thankfully, blissfully, almost delightfully, no one was here but the cleaning guy and me. I sat down to my computer, worked on fitting ten pounds of hospital departments in a five-pound existing building, and tried to stay out of the cleaning guy's way. Four hours later, I got to a stopping point and feel better about going home now.

(Just now, someone walked in and proceeded upstairs; I remain unnoticed. Praise God. Only one other person here at my office knows I'm doing this blog, and I intend to keep it that way. It allows me more freedom to kvetch as well as dissect and expose just exactly what it is architects do. My professional aspirations keep me on the radar in the office, but my personal intentions keep this blog covert.)

I complained earlier about working overtime. When I have to do it, I prefer the weekend over an early weekday morning or late night. As I've aged (aged? yeah, I'm the ancient age of 31), I've found that I can only work about 9 hours a day and still produce quality work with my head on straight. I also learned while working on Wheatlands that if one must answer phones from contractors and clients while also producing documents and drawings simultaneously, one task or the other will suffer. In order to make phone calls when other people were actually in their offices, I found that using the weekends to complete drawings was indeed the most efficient use of my time. I've gotten consensus from my fellow interns and young architects that an hour on the weekend is worth 1.5 or 2 hours during the week in terms of productivity. Today, for example, I only spent four hours drawing, but I know from the past few weeks that it would have taken me at least one full business day to do what I did this morning, what with answering the phones for Wheatlands plus having to trade phone calls with the other folks on Pomme de Terre's project team.

So I work weekends now and then, but I like the quiet and solitude of listening to NPR on my computer while slamming through these plans. Now it's off to the grocery store, then home to take a nap with a cat on my head.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

...and now, for something completely different.

Friday afternoon, I realized I had a lot of drawing to do on Pomme de Terre before their deadline next Friday, and I remembered that I had to do a site visit to Wheatlands on Thursday. I collapsed in my office chair with the sinking and overwhelming feeling that I was going to have to go into the office this weekend to pull overtime on a project on which I'm supposed to be part time. Occasional overtime isn't so bad, I suppose, but after pulling eight straight months of overtime on Wheatlands last year, I really try to avoid it.

I went home and informed Mile High Guy of the need to work Saturday. "Well, dang," was his reply. "Jeff and I were gonna go snowboarding on Sunday. When do you want to hang out?" I sighed and decided I'd work Sunday instead while he was gone and I'd stay home with him on Saturday.

Readers, I could not have made a better decision. I stirred early this morning to the orange glow of snowflakes catching the sodium streetlights outside. When it snows around here, the flakes catch and magnify streetlights, which makes it look really bright outside. It muffles the sound of the occasional car driving by, and I feel safe. Just then, my 13-pound cat Maddy hopped up on the bed next to me, curled up, and fell asleep. I followed suit and didn't get out of bed this morning until about 9:30. Evidently, Maddy and I needed the rest.

I should note that I have other interests than architecture. Some architects I know are architecture-crazy: they read architecture and design magazines and books, they only visit places with famous or historical architectural sites, and they even spend their weekends remodeling their houses or, even worse, at the office. I'd rather whack myself in the head with a ball-peen hammer about twenty times than live/eat/breathe/poop architecture; it sounds less painful. For starters, my interests include my two cats, Maddy and Hazel; stand-up and improvisational sketch comedy; and staying in shape, mostly through running and yoga. It's that last bit that's gotten me in need of rest, lately. I get up every morning at 6am and either do yoga and a little weightlifting, or I run about four and half or five miles in 50 minutes. I've been limping and feeling a dreadful, pinching pain deep in my left hip crease whenever I lift that leg for the past few weeks. It got to the point where I had to use my hand to lift my leg into the car or out of bed. My massage therapist diagnosed me with a strained psoas muscle, and my friend Vito said it sounded to him like a pulled groin muscle. I don't know if those are the same thing, but it hurts like hell, and I've had to cut back my running. This makes me a sad panda, for I love running like Tara Reid loves drinking too much Jagermeister and collapsing onto unsuspecting B-list celebrities. In order to burn the same amount of calories that I was burning through running, I've had to start lifting more weights, which in turn makes all my back and arm muscles sore. Between all the aches and pains and the weary state I've been in mentally at work, I've been, shall we say, burned out.

So today was the kind of day I would love to have given Wide Lawns Subservient Worker. I arose to make some coffee and whipped up some sausage and vanilla-nutmeg French toast for Guy and me, and we at breakfast while watching the snow fall in large, white-chocolate flakes. I curled up in the warmest room in the house and caught up on the stack of magazines I'd been neglecting. Maddy curled up on me and snored while Hazel would occasionally stand in the doorway and kvetch that we need more catnip in the TurboScratcher. The TV stayed off. I never even got out of my flannel pajamas and fleece robe, and I never left the house. And neither did Guy.

Tomorrow, I'll go to work and finish a bunch of drawings that make my head spin. But today, I'm at peace.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cum on, feel the noize

My new WAD readers, I have a very good reason for not posting in a couple of days: I'm fucking exhausted.

First of all, our office has been in a continual state of disrepair since last summer from extensive remodeling. We've been adding on space to make our office span a full three stories in the old warehouse in which we're located, and we've been remodeling our existing space as well. Last week, the construction workers, God love 'em, began working on expanding the office mailboxes into a former coat closet and replacing the existing mailboxes with some counters, cabinets, and storage area.

Did I mention that I sit right next to said coat closet and mailboxes?

Last week, the drywallers took a steel cutter to the metal door frame of the coat closet. The noise was so awful, I not only put on my headphones and turned the music up to 11, I also put on my hard hat and impact-resistant safety glasses. Hell, if they're wearing them, why shouldn't I? Today, they began the installation of the new mailboxes next to my desk. In order to make this huge bank of cubbies hang safely on the wall, the contractors have to install plywood backing on the back wall by attaching it to the metal studs in the wall with heavy screws and loud drills. Just as this work started, I had to go into a meeting at 10:30am.

Did I mention that my meeting was in the conference room next to the new mailboxes?

Now, I'm not afraid of some construction noise. It needs to be done, and I understand that it's all temporary in the grand scheme of things. However, I'm sitting in this conference room and reviewing seven floors of the new and renovated Pomme de Terre Hospital with Howie, who's twitching like a germophobe in a fish-packing plant. I'm joined by Susanna, the interior designer on Pomme de Terre who's also having to do architectural space planning, and Leslie, an almost-licensed architect who's helping out "part-time" like I am. Howie marks and marks and marks on our plans, trying to understand where all the departments are and how they relate. His pen runs out of ink, he's made so many marks. He borrows mine. He starts marking over his marks. He takes Leslie's highlighter and marks some more. We hear the announcement over the intercom that the lunch seminar is beginning. A sales representative for a loading dock equipment company was bringing the office lunch and was presenting information about their products while we ate and listened. This was a lunch Leslie and I were counting on having. We missed it. Instead, we tried to explain to Howie how we're still short two NICU cubicles and need to get rid of this stupid useless eleavtor in the North Tower and listened to WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! from the contractors, who were now evidently installing a waterfall and jacuzzi in the mailbox alcove. Susanna's hands started shaking at ten til one, so she went to her desk to get her lunch so she could finish the meeting without passing out. When we finished finally at 1:10pm, Leslie and I went across the street for an overpriced chicken salad to take back to our desks. I attempted to eat while returning phone calls to my contractors on Wheatlands.

Suddenly, the email goes out: another meeting is needed at 2:30 to talk through the changes to the exterior of the building with the Core and Shell team for Pomme de Terre. If a project is large enough, as PdT is, one group of people work to design and detail the exterior of the building as well as the sizes and locations of the elevators, stairs, and mechanical shafts. Another team, which in this case is Leslie, Susanna, and me, locate departments and rooms inside the building. We're called the Interior team. What our whole team should be called is Fucking Exhausted; these plans are due for pricing next Friday, and we're still trying to establish just exactly where the fuck the elevator banks are going and which version of the structure is correct and can we move this column because it's in my ICU corridor? By the time this second meeting was over, the contractors had gone home for the day (they usually start around 6 or 7am), but we were nearly giddy with pressure and exhaustion.

The main Core and Shell designer, Liz, noticed I was sketching an exterior stair to the electrical room in the basement. "Pixie, I see you drawing a stair outside; what's that going to?" she asked, craning her neck and preparing to sketch it on her own drawing.

"It's a stair to the Normal and Emergency Power Rooms. You wanna see it?" I replied.
"Yeah," she said, "Here, how far--"
"Come 'n get it, sista!" I yelled while swiveling my neck, Jerry-Springer style.
"Oh, you wanna go?" she yelled/laughed back, swiveling her neck. The room broke down into pure cackling.

The mostly-upside to Pomme de Terre is that almost the entire design team is female, which is nearly unheard of in architecture. We get a decent amount of cooperation from each other in these meetings. The downside is that there's just so damn many people on the project, so it can be tough to make decisions and easy for tasks to get lost, everyone thinking that someone else drew something in some other plan. When this second meeting ended at 4pm, Leslie declared with outstretched palms and arms: "NO ONE can talk to ANYONE tomorrow! We have to DRAW!" With more laughter, we all went out separate ways. However, by this time, my brain was so fried from constant meetings that I could get very little done. Bone-weary, muscle-weary, and mind-weary, I shut down my computer and wished for some Bailey's.

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings: three reasons why architects drink.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I went to two different schools for my B.S.A.S. and my M.Arch, and at both schools, my major was referred to as “architorture.” At my graduate school, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architectural Students (actual organization, by the way) made up ”Architorture” t-shirts featuring an emaciated figure sporting a riveted metal mask and straitjacket with a T-square tucked under one tightly-wrapped arm. Actually, it looked like a rip-off of a Quiet Riot album cover. [banging head and playing air guitar] And I doooon’t knoooow why!

BaxterWatch’s post reminded me of this phrase, and interestingly enough, my schools were not alone in the use of this word. The alma mater of my husband, Mile High Guy, also used this particular nomenclature for those in his major. Fellow coworkers from every corner of this strip-mall-covered republic we call the United States have used “architorture” as a synonym to “architecture,” and there’s good reason for this. I alluded in my inaugural post to the fact that it’s a tough major, and it is indeed. Students stay up late into the night and next morning drawing, detailing, and building models of their projects. They cantilever, exhausted, over their drafting boards, elegantly tracing thin ink line after line onto mylar, a plastic drafting sheet medium that ran at least $12-$20 for a 30” x 40” sheet back when I was having to buy it. They hunch intently over thin twigs and slices of basswood, painstakingly gluing the pieces together with Zap-A-Gap, a type of cyanoacrylate (clear super glue). They watch the sun set. They draw. They glue. Someone’s making a run for coffee; does anyone want some? They draw more. They glue and hold two twigs together to make sure it takes. The coffee arrives. Some nurse it; others slug it like a shot of whiskey in an Old West saloon. They glue. They erase a line they just drew, dammit. They watch the sun rise. They go to the restroom and change shirts so they can go to class because it’s Thursday now. And they’ll do it all again tonight, because good design takes time and this shit’s due Friday at 2 and it’s got to be something you’re proud to stand next to and show your classmates and professor at pin-up time.

Meanwhile, one doesn’t escape the architorture just because one gets a degree and starts working. I’m presently balancing my time between a project I worked on from start to finish—my project—and a project that’s more like a despondent gaping maw of a vortex than a building. Wheatlands Hospital* in Kansas, my hospital, is about halfway done, and at this point in the process the questions from the field become fewer. I have a good contractor who saw most of the problems coming early on, so we’ve already solved the big stuff. Since I can manage Wheatlands in about 10-20 hours a week, I’m helping out on the massive hospital project to which I referred in my last post. Pomme de Terre Hospital* is a massive project in Idaho that will ultimately cost nearly half a billion dollars and end around 2012. I wish I could say I made that up for the blog, but alas, truth is stranger than fiction. I started out just laying out one department for them, but now I’ve laid out two floors in the new building and three floors in the renovation portion of the existing building. I really, really, really need MCRI to start soon before I get sucked into getting neck-deep in this project and forgetting my own name, left only to drool and occasionally mutter, “The doctor’s lounge has to go somewhere!”

When I do, rest assured I’ll be wearing a metal mask and a strait-jacket.

Though I don’t know why.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

I suppose, since it's early yet, that now's a good a time as any to tell y'all who I work with. Wow, could I sound more Southern?

I work for a major architecture firm in Denver called Design Associates*. We have a whole lot of people and do a variety of project types: schools, colleges, multifamily housing, commercial, and medical. Unlike many architecture firms, we have our own landscape architects and interior designers on staff, which means we can design a project from the street to the doorknobs. It gives an architect a little more control, as well; if you need to consult with someone about the wallcovering in the lobby or the line of the sidewalk at the drop-off, he or she can just walk across the office instead of setting up yet another meeting.

(That's the thing about architects. We're some of the meetingest people you'll ever meet, and the more of us we can squeeze into a poor-ventilated conference room, the happier we are. We'll strut around in our stern, black turtlenecks and shout at everyone to "take $75,000 out of your scope now!" and marvel at how intense and misunderstood we are.)

I've worked for a few different project managers at DA, but I can honestly say that I have most enjoyed working for my present project manager, Howie Entenmann*. Howie is intense and demanding, but he doesn't make it personal. He has unbelievable energy and is unable to be still for more than 120 seconds. When forced to sit with me to review questions from the contractor or write down notes during a client meeting, his leg jitters and jumps up and down and he twirls his pen. I so have an urge sometimes to slip a Quaalude in his hot tea.

I don't know yet who in my office will be on my team for the mental hospital. The Mendwell Center for the Reality Impaired (MCRI)* will be about 80,000 square feet and hold as many 80 inpatients. Another firm will program the facility (that is, they help the clients figure out what they want and need in their new building) and do some initial design, then they'll hand those plans over to us to continue designing the facility and meeting with the clients. Sometimes out get to design a building from start to finish, and other times you inherit a basic design from another company. Design Associates has handed drawings off to other architecture firms, and we've inherited drawings from other firms. As Tom Jones might say, it's not unusual.

I'm concerned about who's going to be on my team because I know I'm about to be busier than a cat covering crap on a marble floor. Howie, you see, doesn't just manage me. He has ten people under his management working on a multimillion dollar hospital project that won't be finished until 2012. He has four other architects and architectural interns (people with experience similar to mine except not yet licensed) who each manage a different project--a medical office building, an addition to an medical office building, a surgery center addition, and moi, who's finishing up the construction of a 70,000 square foot hospital in Kansas. I know I'm going to be rather on my own for a lot of the MCRI project, and whoever Howie gives me to help on this project, in the words of Tina Turner, better be good to me. I've already lost a lot of weekends to my Kansas hospital because I didn't have the right help or not enough of it, and I'm not doing it again.

*All names with asterisks are fictional. Certain details have been altered for anonymity.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

An excellent question

Thanks to all who posted comments on my inaugural post. I've received a VIQ (very important question) from The Wandering Author, which has pre-empted my earlier-decided post of today. I'll quote her below:

"MileHighPixie, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you don't design the sort of dismal maze every hospital I've ever visited has "boasted". But I'd be interested in a post on why so many of them turn out so horribly, if they pay people with so much training to design them.I've never, thank God, been a patient in one, but as a visitor, and in some cases a visitor who had to spend a lot of time in one hospital and another, I have only noticed three design constants. First, it seems to be a requirement that the building be dismal and depressing. Second, it seems to be a requirement that it confuse anyone without a GPS receiver and a computerised map of the place. Third, they all seem to be designed to make anyone who spends much time there you have any idea why all hospitals turn out that way?"

Excellent question, WA. There are many reasons for the structure you see when you wander their halls. Let's see if I can hit the primary factors in an abbreviated fashion:

Reason #1: Many hospitals are victims of their time period when it comes to design.
Think of a house designed in 1973--avacado green kitchen appliances, orange and brown shag carpeting, wood paneling. Looks really hot now, doesn't it? Well, only if you're filming a low-budget porn. The same happens to a hospital. I wager most of them in operation today were first built between 1920 and 1960 (depending also on the country in which they're located). Design elements and layouts that were edgy or thought of as best-healing practices fifty years ago now look dated.

Likewise, any hospital built in 1950 in the United States will likely use a lot of "bathroom" type materials, such as heavily-painted concrete block (hereafter on this blog referred to as CMU), ceramic tile, and terazzo or a similar hard flooring, all colored some enthralling shade of white. Feels sterile...overly sterile, doesn't it? Let's remember that in 1950, it had been less that 100 years since Joseph Lister discovered and explained the role of germs in disease and the importance of cleanliness and antiseptic practices. White was and to a great degree still is universally thought of as the color of cleanliness, and super-hard, nonporous surfaces were considered to be the easiest to clean. While the bit about nonporous surfaces is true, the flooring and wallcovering industries have come a long way since 1950. There are now new types of flooring that are resilient, easy to clean and sterilize, and come in as many colors as there are crayons in a box. Glass tiles have joined ceramic tiles on walls of bathrooms, epoxy paints are mildew- and mold-resistant and match any color in the rainbow, and solid surface materials (like the brand name Corian) are not only easy to clean but also look like granite and marble. Newer hospitals definitely look more appealing; more on this later.

Reason #2: Many hospitals are victims of their own success.
Hospitals used to be designed to be used about fifty years, but in reality they get used for 100+ years. Master planning and site planning were historically pushed by the wayside while old-school designers thought, "Well, they'll just move and build a new, bigger building." Wrong, Scooter Bob. Rising real estate prices and convenience of present location usually lead hospitals to stay where they are and expand in place: build the new surgery wing into the old parking lot, buy a few residences nearby and build a new parking deck there, and then expand the imaging department to include the new MRI they want. When older hospitals are expanded without a thoughtful master plan, what you end up with is the confusing mass of buildings tacked on and onto each other of which Wandering Author writes. In the past 6.5 years, I've yet to design a hospital without showing dashed lines around the edges showing them how to expand in the future, or without purposefully building in a "shelled" room (just walls and a concrete floor) into which they can expand later.

Reason #3: When most hospitals in existence were built, there were no Baby Boomers.
The Baby Boomers catch a lot of hell these days for ruining the environment, raising spoiled children and grandchildren, and hosing the economy, but they've done a lot for the healthcare field. Boomers are savvier consumers than their parents, who, being raised during the Depression, are just glad to have anything. In terms of heath care. where Depression-era Americans were glad to have a Band-Aid and some aspirin, Boomers insist on getting second opinions and using technology to ensure a more precise diagnosis. Likewise, they insist on nicer places in which to heal, and this philosophy of hospital-as-resort permeates the facility. Modern-day operating rooms are often wired with stereo systems to play relaxing music until the patient goes under, then it cranks the tunes that the operating staff likes. (I guess knee replacements are more successful with BTO in the background; after all, the doctor is taking care of business.) Labor, delivery, and recovery (LDR) suites of old had a curtain around the door for privacy as their only amenity. Every LDR I've done since 2000 has internet outlets, cable TV, and a jetted tub in the patient bathroom, so when Mom goes to soak after delivering her bundle of joy, it feels like a thousand happy post-partum fairies are farting in the tub with her and relaxing her aching back and...stuff.

There are other reasons beyond this, among them that much research has actually been done in the past 30-40 years about how environment heals and helps those in it. The most recent healthcare codes and guidelines require, with only a few exceptions for small rural hospitals, that there be only one patient per patient room because research has shown that having privacy and room for a patient's family helps them heal faster. This sort of design would have been considered indulgent and a waste of square footage fifty years ago. It doesn't just help the patient, however; the hospital stands to make more money by not tying up a patient room for four days with a minor procedure patient.

I can go on and on about this, and I probably will at a later date. Healthcare design is an art and a science, and I have zero problem bragging about what I do.

Note: Portions of this post were provided by my husband and fellow healthcare architect, Mile High Guy.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why Architects Drink: A Primer

Before I begin, I dedicate my blog to my dad, God rest his soul, for believing I could even do this for a living and putting me through college to do it. I also dedicate this Blog to my sister, Miss Kitty at Educated and Poor, who helped me refine my writing and convinced me that maybe there was something to my pedestrian profession worth writing about. I mean, about which is worth writing.

Here's the deal: I've been a healthcare architect for about six and a half years now, and I recently was assigned to the project of a lifetime. The project is an inpatient mental health hospital in the northwest, which is not only related to my thesis project (an inpatient mental health facility for the homeless mentally ill), but it's also a hard project to find under any circumstances. Due to the rise of HMOs and their financial strength, inpatient stays for mental health care are becoming more and more rare, so it's hard to find the financing to build a new mental health hospital. (More on this in a later post--I'm not riled up enough right now to go off on the state of mental health care in the U.S. yet.)

So, I've started this blog just as the project is about to take off and my involvement in its design and construction begins. But I also wanted to give the public at large a better sense of just what it is that we architects do. Let's begin with some FAQ:

What does it take to become an architect?
There are several ways to become one, but the fastest way (not that the process is fast, per se) is to acquire a professional degree, which is either:
  • a five year Bachelor of Architecture (B. Arch) degree
  • or a four year Bachelor of Arts in Architecture or Bachelor of Science in Architecture Studies (B.A. or B.S.A.S) followed by a Master of Architecture (M.Arch)

I received my B.S.A.S in 1998 and my M.Arch in 2000, both from major colleges in the Southeast.

Architecture school is tough. Actually, saying architecture school is tough is like saying Hurricane Katrina was an air current. The history and technology classes require a lot of studying, and the studio class each semester keeps future architects awake and late-night coffee shops in business. On every college campus, the lights are on 24 hours a day in only two buildings: the student center and the College of Architecture building.

Wow, that's a lot of schooling. But then you're licensed, right?

Nope. After school, you then have to work under the direct supervision of a licensed architect for a minimum of three years in order to acquire the hours of experience required to sit for the ARE, the Architectural Registration Exam, or as I called it while taking it, the Asshole Reaming Exam. The exam has nine parts that can be taken all together or separately, each part costing over $100 each. If you flunk a section, you can't take it again for another six months, and you have to pay for it again.

Golly, that's a lot of work to become an architect. Bet y'all make mad cash, yo!


Um, no?

No. While our education and licensing procedures are comparable to that of many medical professionals, their financial compensation far outpaces ours. Fresh out of grad school in the summer of 2000, my yearly gross was $30,000. Licensure, along with an increase in responsibilities, has allowed me finally to make the kind of money that leaves me more than one paycheck away from homelessness.

Wow, yo, that ain't right.

Yeah, that shit's fucked up. Bitches ain't pay a sista a damn thang.

Yow! Do you kiss your momma with that mouth, missy?

Actually, yes. A former form carpenter who built concrete-frame bridges, she taught me to talk like that. I got worse in architecture school, and my profanity has become pathological since joining the profession. So piss off.

Maybe that's enough Q & A for now.