Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The pros and cons of being an architect: correction/explanation

So I described the pros and cons of being an architect in my last post, and one of the cons I described was that we don't get paid super well.  I described this post to my husband, Guy, and he had an interesting take on that point.

"I don't know why people complain they aren't paid well as architects," Guy said.  "We're paid just a little less than engineers and pretty comparably to a lot of other professions."  The more I thought about this, the more I realized Guy was right.  Because architecture as a profession generally requires that you have certain types of degrees in order to even come in for an interview, it pays you for your experience, not your degree.  I always hate breaking that to the interns that come through our doors, because many of us--including me--have been told by our parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures to "go to college and get a good education and a good-paying job."  While college graduates still generally earn much more than high school graduates, a lot more people go to college these days than they did even 20 years ago.  This means there are a lot more college degrees floating around out there. which means that having a college degree doesn't necessarily set you apart in the workforce, depending on your job/career.  

Further complicating things (as described in the "more people go to college these days" link) is that depending on what your job/career is, you can make more with a lesser degree.  My sister in law (rock on, STL Fan!) makes more as an accountant than I do as an architect, even though she has a four-year bachelor's and I have a 4+2 yr M.Arch, and we have similar amounts of work experience.  The radiology techs at the hospitals I design make as much as I do or more, and the same goes for the licensed plumber who installs the toilets I draw.  The techs and the plumber have a degree/certificate thingy from a vocational/tech school, though the plumber might just have years of experience.

Another monkey wrench in the situation is some information I seem to recall reading a long time ago in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America and I reread recently in Jean Twenge Ph.D's Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  The fact is that the cost of major life expenses such as housing, child care, and college educations have outpaced wages and even inflation.  Twenge notes that between 1997 and 2002, the amount Americans aged 25 to 34 spent on mortgage interest with up 24%; on property taxes, 15%; health insurance, 18%.  The median home price in the US jumped 14.7% from 2004 to 2005, the largest one-year jump in 25 years.  The amount of a family budget that went to the mortgage increased 69% from 1975 (my birth year) to 2000.  All the while their discretionary spending decreased, and even the income of men aged 25 to 34 decreased 17% from 1971 to 2002.  What this means is that almost regardless of what your major is in college and what kind of job you get when you graduate college, you're likely not going to make the bills.  Many intern architects get a second job for the first few years of their professional careers, or they get roommates.  Guy and I moved in together when I bought the Kappy Kitten Highrise partially because it made financial sense for us.  (Well, that and we luuuved each other.)

Last but not least, no matter what job you get when you graduate, your income isn't enough no matter what you make if you have crappy money management skills.  I'm amazed at the number of fresh-from-college interns who think they have to have a new or almost-new car or a loft apartment in one of Denver's new steel-and-glass highrises.  I had an intern who complained of his income to me one day at lunch, and then I saw him walk out at the end of the day and get into his brand new Audi--the turbo kind.  Mm-hmm.  One of the guys that Guy graduated college with makes $82,000 as an unlicensed architect (he's a really good designer and he changes jobs frequently, which gains him salary increases), and he complains to Guy and me about how poorly we're all paid (while Guy and I make $75,000 and $57,000 before taxes, respectively).  Thing is, this friend and his wife (who is also employed and has been employed for all but about 6 or 8 months of the past 8 years) live in a two-year old four-bedroom house with stainless steel appliances (they have no children), both purchased new cars last year (an Audi and a Toyota SUV), and they frequently go on cross-country or international trips.  They were recently lamenting to us how they've starting dining out "so rarely, like never, maybe once a week now and then" and all the other cost-cutting measures they'd been taking, and Guy shook his head while we were driving home from their house.  "What I wanted to say to them," Guy said, "was 'oh, so you're living the way Pixie and I have been living for about seven years now, congratulations' but I didn't have the heart."

I realize I've been going on for a while, but the whole "architects don't make any money" thing has to be mentioned with a caveat.  Being paid for your experience vs. degree, the cost of living increase, and having poor money management skills all play into the lack of income issue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The pros and cons of being an architect

I recently got an email from a high school student wanting to know what are the pros and cons of being an architect. I wrote the following and emailed it to her, and then it occurred to me that some of my tens of readers might also find this interesting. 

Pro: It's a really interesting job.  It's rare that you do the exact same thing week to week, especially as you get more experience.  I'm drawing buildings, then working out details, then figuring out how to make the client's latest request work, then looking at a contractor's estimate and seeing if it's b.s and then seeing if there's any way I can take some of the cost out of my project and then I'm looking at an existing facility and then meeting with the staff and then looking at a building that's under construction to make sure they're following my get the picture.  Even if you're an intern out of college, gaining your hours towards getting licensed, you should still be doing a variety of stuff--that's what the licensing requirements as set out by IDP is for.
Con: It doesn't pay super well.  We jump through similar hoops as other really well-paid professions, like nursing, medicine, and law, but we don't make near what they make out of school or even five years out of school.  With 8.5 years of experience and my license, I make $57,000 before taxes (U.S. dollars).  My husband makes $77,000; he has one more year of experience, is licensed, and most importantly for architects, he changed firms a couple of years ago, which is the best way to get a raise (other than getting licensed).  I encourage interns to get good with their money (learn to save, prioritize what they spend where) and sometimes to get a second job.  I had and still have one, teaching communication classes at a nearby adult ed center.
Pro:  It's a creative and challenging job.  There is some actual design involved, like making a building look nice, but there are so many other challenges, such as meeting a client's needs and wishes while also meeting building and accessibility codes and their budget and schedule.  It's making all the required rooms fit into an existing building or area of a building.  It's looking at two-dimensional drawings and understanding what the 3D space will look like.  It's looking for ways to get everything done on time and under budget and looking nice and working right....  I'm constantly learning.  I've built four radiology departments, and I've never built the same one twice.  That's refreshing.
Con: It's on the bleeding front line of the economy.  When the economy reeks like day-old diapers, we're the first to feel it.  Money spent on design and construction changes hands five times, so when the economy sinks, we sink, and it brings down the economy even more.  Always keep your resume in shape in case you get laid off.
Pro: You meet some really cool people.  Your clients and engineers are really interesting people.  I've learned so much about healthcare from my clients over the years that being in a hospital doesn't frighten me in the least.  You learn how different businesses work as well as some unexpected things: one of my clients climbed to the base camp of Everest last year, and another client used to investigate airplane crashes.  Interesting people in your life make for an interesting life.
Con:  You meet some really annoying as hell people.  Clients change their minds.  They don't understand your drawings.  They can't make a decision.  Then, they don't understand why you're not ready when they snap their fingers.  You meet rude people, self-important people, and ignorant people, and you can't really put them in their place because sometimes they're the ones footing the bill.  Along with your drawing skills, learn some good communication skills and learn how to deal with difficult people.
Pro: There's actually very little math involved.  I cannot tell you how many folks have said to me that they wanted to be an architect but they weren't good at math.  News flash: you'll never use anything above grade 9 math, maybe even less.  If it involves calculus, you need an engineer and you're not qualified to do it anyway.  What architecture requires is that you be generally intelligent and inquisitive, a good listener, and be able to draw and explain things such that anyone can understand what you're trying to do.
Con: It does take a lot of school and then internship to get somewhere.  In the US, you'll spend at least 5 years if you get a B.Arch, the first professional degree.  You'll spend 4 + 2 years to get an M.Arch, a Master of Architecture.  My husband has a B.Arch and I have an M.Arch, and professionally, there's not a noticeable difference.  After all that schooling, though, you'll have to work for at least 3 years before you can sit for the exam.  While at times those three years may get tedious, remember that you're working towards the long view. Internship is temporary; architect is forever.
Pro: What you do really matters.  I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see a bunch of nurses' faces light up with they walk into the building I designed and get all excited about their new work stations and the lobby and the light coming in and look how big the exam rooms are now!  It's beyond gratifying to see the citizens of a little 4,000-person town ooh and ahh and take picture after picture of THEIR new facility and to have them walk up to you and say, "Oh, it's BEAUTIFUL!!"  It's incredible--even after almost 9 years--to watch the lines you draw become wood and stone and carpet and drywall and reality.  it's like a miracle unfolds on every project.
Con: What you do really matters.  You cannot half-ass things.  You cannot sorta know stuff.  You have to know.  you have to be sure.  You have to be on time and under budget and clear with everyone about what's goin on and how this building is made and what's expected of everyone at each deadline.  You cannot procrastinate.  that's another piece of advice I give folks considering my career--give up procrastination.  Prioritizing is one thing, but procrastination?  Forget it.  Your drawings have to be well thought out and coordinated with the engineers' drawings and with the drawings of the existing site or building.  There is very little fudge factor.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mile High Fixie: flushed with pride

The Happy Kitten Highrise, Guy's and my humble abode, was originally built in the early 1960s and then converted into condos in the early 1990s.  Our plumbing fixtures appear to date back to that time as well, especially our toilets.  We have two, and they each have tanks that hold about 3.5 gallons, which is way more than the typical water-saving 1.6 gallons that are readily available today.  When the 1.6gpf (gallons per flush) toilets first came out about ten years ago, folks in Da Biz (design and construction) used to call them two-flush toilets because it took that many to completely evacuate the bowl (as in, get rid of floaters, if you know what I mean and I think you do).  Their design has been improved, though, and more recently-built 1.6gpf toilets work pretty well.

About five years ago, Toto developed a true two-flush toilet, but they called it a dual-flush toilet.  Wanting to take yet another step towards environmental responsibility, the tank had two buttons on the top of the tank instead of one handle on the face of it (like most toilets) which controlled two different flush volumes.  One button supplied 0.8gpf for a "number 1" flush and 1.6gpf for a "number 2" flush.  Miss Kitty and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but it was priced at $500.  Hell with that--I'll just flush every other time I go.  As you can imagine, though, that little save-the-earth tactic makes your bathroom reek, and added to that was the frustration of having old toilets that use 3.5gpf and still can't evacuate the bowl, which makes having company over a bit unnerving.  It was time for new toilets, but y'all, toilets are expensive.

As usual, Guy the Preeminent Shopper found us an Alexis dual-flush toilet at Sam's Club of all places for $106 including tax.  I know, $106!  It uses 1.1gpf for the number 1 flush and 1.6gpf for the number 2 flush.  Sweet!  But now, we have to install them.  So, Guy installed his first, then mine.

He took the tank lid off my toilet and rooted around in there.  I wanted to take pictures of him while he performed Operation New Throne, but I didn't want to bug him.  Even Maddy wanted to know what Papa was doing.

Guy took the tank off completely, and I opened the sliding door onto the balcony to let him put the old toilet detritus outside.  I took this shot and realized how grody the wall behind the tank was.  Eeeeuuuww.

He lifted the basin and base up off the floor and staggered outside onto the balcony with it.  I reiterate: eeeeuuuwww.  To Guy's credit, he did a great deal of clean-up before he installed the new toilet.  The entire process took maybe an hour tops.

And now, the final product...
Eeeeeee!  Look how cute it is!  Even the little chrome button on top is cute!  And oh, y'all, it flushes like a real toilet should.  I push the button and it goes WHOOSH! and then the bowl is empty and then the tank fills up in like ten or so seconds and then the bathroom is quiet.  Y'all, I can't even tell you how happy I am that my toilet works.
Maddy, however, was unimpressed.  She yawned and left.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The circle of life, intern style

Working on Frontier County Hospital (FCH) will be unusual in a few ways.  While this will be my third or fourth surgery suite, it will be my first ICU.  A hospital is a place where the circle of life sits in stark relief every day, and in no place is it more in-your-face than in an ICU.  A grieving room is required in every ICU per the AIA's Healthcare Guidelines, as are family lounges with pantries and napping areas.  Some hospitals even provide overnight sleeping accommodations on the ICU floor if families travel from far away and suddenly find a family member in the ICU after a surgical procedure.  Programmatically and operationally, it will also be unusual in that FCH's surgery department does a lot of C-sections, so instead of locating their remodeled surgery suite near the regular med/surg patient beds, we'll be locating it near their labor and delivery/women's/nursery area.

This project will be the first time I actually have an intern working for/with me.  Every other project I've ever worked on at Design Associates either involved me as part of the team working for another architect, or I alone was the team.  I've wondered for a while about how to work with people who work under you.  Derek, Elliot, and Norman have all been Job Captains over interns.  Matter of fact, one of my first real projects was as an intern working for Norman right after he got his license.  So, I have an intern working for me.  Intern Kimmy got her M.Arch a few years ago and has been at DA for almost two years now.  She really proved herself on some small commercial projects, and she has lots of good, solid experience doing construction administration, which is rare for an intern.  Now, as I understand it, her commercial projects have slowed down due to the economy, and she still needs some planning/schematic design and design development hours for her IDP so she can sit for the ARE.  Plus, she works on Bosley's projects, so putting her on FCH just makes sense.

Here's what's really cool, though.  Back when I started at DA in the summer of 2000, I flat out didn't have enough to do.  Sometimes it was that my projects got put on hold, sometimes I just got done with what I was given to do too quickly.  Either way, I always seemed to have some extra time.  So, when Sutherland emailed around the office looking for someone to mentor a high school intern who would be learning about architecture for high school class credit, I readily volunteered.  The first high school intern I got in fall of 2000 was a decent gal, but she realized she didn't want to do architecture and got sideways for a bit.  The third intern I got in fall of 2001 was a young man who had a horrible, horrible home life and was having a hard time getting school and his internship and his afterschool job done.  I encouraged him to move out as soon as he could.  But my second intern, the one I got in spring of 2001, she was magic.  The more she learned, the more she wanted to learn.  She was sharp.  Her favorite word was a calm but interested, "Sweet."  When she presented her final project to a jury of interns and young architects at DA, the jury was blown away.  Guy, who was on her jury (we were dating but not living together at the time) pronounced as good as anything he'd ever seen in the fourth-year studios at Kansas State.

My second intern was Intern Kimmy.

So imagine how fantastic it was to hear from her every couple of years: a letter saying "I'm going to this college", a watercolored postcard from Italy, a Christmas card about getting accepted to grad school.  A few years ago, I got an email from her asking if DA was hiring.  I said I thought so, emailed Sutherland, reminded him of how awesome she was when she interned at DA, and the rest is history.  And now I get to work with her.  Today she taught me how to use Adoble Illustrator; I taught her how hospitals plan for the future in new buildings and try to adapt in old Hill-Burton era facilities.  I email her a PDF copy of the 1994 ADA Standards of Design; she emails me a few tracks from a cool new band she saw in concert last weekend.  I try to teach her about healthcare architecture, she tries to keep me from being a fuddy-duddy.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chat with someone in our accounting department, near which Intern Kimmy used to sit.  I asked him for a copy of a certain document, and when he emailed it to me, he typed: "By the way, I used to sit near Intern Kimmy, and I thought you should know how many good things she had to say about you.  She mentioned more than once what a role model you are to her, and she thinks very highly of you."

[snif]  Sweet.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The psychology of architecture, or using our power for good

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School; the school itself took the day off, and all schools lowered their flags to half-mast.  The school, faculty, and students are trying to move forward and stop being a noun and a verb in modern-day American English and stop letting this event define their existence.  To say it's hard to do is an understatement.  Some former students are now teachers at Columbine, and most surprising to me is that the same principal is still there.

Designing a facility in the aftermath of such an event is an architect's toughest assignment by far.  I had the opportunity and honor of touring the campus after the remodeling was complete, and I got to talk to the project's designers.  The library, where most of the shootings occurred, was directly above the cafeteria, where some shootings took place.  Consider for a moment that you are in a place where you watch several of your coworkers or classmates fall to a brutal end--a hundred coats of paint will not wipe that memory from your mind the next time you walk in.    The architects took the library floor/cafeteria ceiling out and made the cafeteria a double height space with 13 foresty-cloud mural panels on the ceiling.  As I understood it, the first designs involved just removing the floor in areas where people fell, but that almost seemed too macabre.  By removing the library entirely from over the cafeteria, the deceased are honored by no one being able to walk where they fell ever again, and no one has to relive the memory of being trapped in that space.  The new library was an addition to the building near where it used to be and includes lots of visibility in the library and has huge windows that look out onto Clement Park, near where the memorial garden is located.  The garden includes a small courtyard and 13 trees.

The number 13 has been a bone of contention for the community.  15 people died in total, but two of them were the boys that committed the murders.  According to an article in the Denver Post this morning, someone holding up a sign that said "Honor All 15 Victims" was removed from the memorial ceremony.  The question of 13 verus 15 is another tough one that the architects had to address.  It's my belief not just as an architect but also as someone who lost a parent to fratricide that they should find some way to remember all 15.  While my uncle (and Harris and Kliebold) cannot be excused for what they did, I cannot imagine what kind of pain and state of mind would make a person hurt fellow human beings and then end their own lives.  Their parents have been extremely silent on the whole subject for the past ten years, and again, I don't blame them.  We all say we want to know what happened so we can prevent it, but I'm willing to bet my bonuses for the next five years (that's right, all $74.35) that people really just want to know, how do I keep my kids from doing it too?  There but for the grace of God go those parents.  Everytime I tell people that my dad's brother killed my dad and then hmself, one of the very first questions is, why? What was wrong with him?  There but for the grace of God go all of us.

Not long after the shootings, I overheard a couple of businessmen talking about it, wondering how the building was designed before the shootings.  "Weren't there enough exits?" one of them asked.  I nearly punched him.  Exits are designed for most emergencies, but think about it for a second: if you were being shot at in the middle of an open field, there still wouldn't be enough exits for you, not enough ways to escape the horror staring you quite literally point blank in the face.  Schools and offices have fire drills and tornado drills, but we never have your-classmates-are-shooting-at-you drills.  I've been asked about if a tower could withstand the kind of impact that occurred at the World Trade Center, and the answer is yes.  Anything can be built strong enough to withstand crashing planes and bombs and bullets (I recently heard about a police station with 1/8" thick steel plates on its exterior), but can you afford it fiscally?  Is it worth it for you to spend that kind of money for an event that might never happen?  Same thing for high schools: the vast majority of them will never have a school shooting, but some of them will be designed and constructed to help people see oncoming threats better or to withstand pipe bombs that students might decide to make and hide around the school.

I have to say from seeing it that the renovated Columbine is beautiful, eloquent beyond words.  It was nearly transcendent.  Its the kind of thing that architects try to do every day around the country and around the world.  It's the kind of thing that we strive to do in school and in offices and parks and houses and hospitals and buildings everywhere.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Doing what matters Part 2: the bell curve of time and effectiveness/efficiency

Intern Timmy and I reflected on a variety of topics at our lunch last week, and he made a comment that rang true and cracked me up at the same time.  "You know those interns that sit upstairs, and they're on Vincent's team?  They're always friggin' in here!  On weekend, late nights, doesn't matter--they're in here!" he commented.

I laughed.  "I've noticed that when I'm here late occasionally," I replied.  "What are they doing, exactly?  They're paid hourly like you and me, and we're all at 36 hours a week.  Do they have permission to work that much overtime?  Or are they just not getting paid for it or what?"

"Here's my thing," said Intern Timmy.  "I'm thorough and I do a good job, and I'll do what it takes to get a job done, but I don't wanna be here more than I have to be.  I'd rather be efficient and you know, actually make a profit on my projects."

Intern Timmy's observation about Vincent's interns reminded me of college yet again.  Vincent does commercial, retail, multifamily housing, and civic and museum/display spaces, so he does some pretty artsy-looking stuff.  The impression I get is that his project teams are full of the kids who made As and had amazing-looking projects back in studio.  What I recall about those kids in college is that they were always in Studio.  Anytime of day, night, or weekend, they were in the Studio.  Sometimes, they were working on a drawing or model or figuring out designs.  Almost as often, they were hanging out, talking to some of their peeps, smoking a cigarette (a lot of architects and architecture students smoke or ,like Guy, used to smoke) whatever.  It was as if their default position on Planet Earth was to be in that room and somewhere near their drafting table.  I would spend several hours of at least one weekend day at Studio, to be sure, but I dedicated a great deal of time to the rest of my classes.  The professor who wrote that recommendation letter I mentioned in my last post (who was my favorite professor, by the way) once told us after a midterm crit that he didn't want any of us in the studio for the next two days: he said that we were at Tech for an education, which included more than just our major, so he wanted us to go home and catch up on our other classes.  I also recall a fellow student who was always in Studio, almost regardless of time of day.  He produced these bizarre/creative flights of fancy and got As in Studio during the Winter and Spring quarters of our sophomore year...and flunked every other class he took.  The Design Meister was given the dubious honor of repeating his sophomore year.  Nice work, Frank Gehry. 

My opinion then, is that Vincent has a team full of people who have lots of practice making awesome-looking designs and spending lots of time making those awesome-looking designs, but they don't have near as much practice in making timely design decisions and getting the required documentation completed in time.  Hence, it takes them that much longer to produce the documents, and there they are in the office at 7pm during the week and at 3pm on a weekend day.  Now, to be fair, I don' t doubt that amazing-looking buildings might also take a lot of time to detail, and that would certainly account for some of that extra time spent.  But at some point, I have to say quit piddling around and get it done.  Quit losing your mind over oh how does that form juxtapose with that one? and just pick something nice and start drawing it.  The days of doodling on a napkin with an unlimited budget are over.  And if I hear you use the word "juxtapose", I will slap the Eisenmann-like taste out of your mouth so hard that your eyes will cross like an homage to Michael Graves.

This may sound like a case of sour grapes, and you might be right.  One of Vincent's associates and I have had discussions about why hospitals aren't any prettier than they usually are and tend to end up on the more normative and prosaic side with regards to their aesthetics.  (Note: I'm embarrassed I just used the words normative and prosaic in this blog.  Fart jokes will ensue shortly.)  And by discussion, I mean he gives me shit for "not making hospitals prettier" and I smile wanly and say, "with a decent budget, I could do a lot more, man," and then he says "don't give me that, look at this project," and shows me the latest archiporn magazine cover with a fancy-schmancy hospital and cancer treatment center in Florida.  Well, yes, that's an amazing hospital, dude: between being a cancer center with backing from a well-known cancer research and treatment nonprofit and a well-known name in hospitals plus some fat donations from rich white people living in frickin' Florida, it's funded like mad.  I do little hospitals for people in towns of 5,000 people in the West and Midwest.  These people don't want avant-garde slices of metal panel--they want strong-looking, comforting buildings that will hold up to baseball-size hail.  And more importantly, the purpose of a hospital is to heal people, not be edgy or, dare I say, "pretty."  So when you're up against a budget, you cut things that affect aesthetic rather than function.  You preserve program and equipment and get rid of finishes and fancy stuff.  That's how it works in healthcare, kiddo.

Maybe I am bitter that my buildings don't look gorgeous and amazing and don't end up on the covers of archiporn magazines.  But I'm no less proud of my efforts on a hospital projects.  If you don't spend a lot of time on your projects, they look like crap and the drawings and specs are incomplete and uncoordinated.  But oddly enough, if you spend too much time on the project, the same thing happens.  You change your mind about what goes where and how things look, and you look at the project so much that mistakes and uncoordinated issues no longer pop out at you.  The amount of time and effort versus quality of product on an architecture project does look something like a bell curve, where there in the middle is a certain amount of efficient work that is also effective.  Management guru Stephen Covey defines efficient as being able to cut down lots of trees in a short amount of time, and effective is cutting down the right trees in the right forest.  Likewise, being effective on a project is prioritizing what to draw and how to draw it, and being efficient is documenting and detailing these things such that it takes the least amount of time and effort overall.  Sometimes, we make a decision that takes more effort up front but saves time later when time is truly money--for example, we'll figure something out and draw it to great detail during the construction documents phase so that it's easy to understand and build during construction administration.  That's ultimately efficient and effective.

Design Associates went to a bonus structure a few years ago that gives the project team--associates all the way down to lowly interns--a piece of the profits when the construction documents are done and then when the building is finished.  The idea behind this, as I understand it, is to connect performance with reward.  Manage your project well, and you'll have a li'l som'n to show for it at the end.  I recall most of the people who were initially opposed to the idea were, you guessed it, folks who worked for Vincent.  They asked in meetings regarding the bonus structure, "A lot of our projects get stopped at the end of design development--what happens to our bonuses?  Do we just never get one?"  And it's a fair question. But those of us in healthcare shared a schadenfreude chuckle amongst ourselves.  Of course Vincent's team is pissed about the new bonus structure--they're here all the time and probably go through fee like Amy Winehouse goes through crack.  And Intern Timmy picked up on this--his desire for a bonus at the end means that he exercised some decision making and prioritizing along the way as well as enough self-discipline to Get. It. Done.  And that's another usefull skill for any professional.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Doing what matters: the long view of what's useful

A few days ago, Intern Timmy and I went to lunch to get out for a bit and talk a little smack, and talk smack we did.  I think hanging out with interns benefits me more than it does them--I learn so much by seeing the world and workplace through their eyes.  We chatted about a variety of issues and how we've coped with them, and of course we shared insights on people in the office.  As my Southern grandmother used to say, it ain't gossip if it's true.

I shared an insight with Intern Timmy that I only realized about a year or so ago.  If I could go back to visit myself in college, I'd tell me this: the skills that make you a B student in Studio now will make you an A employee later.  I recall the kids in Studio who made the super amazing designs, immaculate models, stunning floor plans, and it used to infuriate me that they got As while they only had half the required drawings listed on the syllabus and final project requirement sheet.  I was even more infuriated that they got those As while using ridiculous words like "tectonic" to explain their projects instead of using words that actually made sense.  In contrast, my projects were decent looking--not amazing, stunning, or dramatic, but decent-looking.  I think this may have been due to a lot of factors, one of which is that I grew up in rural Georgia and didn't exactly have a full visual library from which to draw.  Another factor was the fact that I've always been so practical that it never crossed my mind that the point of school was to come up with crazy shit--there would be plenty of time to be practical later.

What I had instead of amazingly awesome-looking projects was a respectable-looking and buildable-looking project that had all the required drawings and models included in the presentation.  The arrangement and locations of the spaces required in the program made sense and were where they ought to be for a useful building, and that's how I used to describe the project.  I described my project using grown-up words but nothing particularly lingoistic.  And I got Bs.  Bs for six years, except for one C and one A.  And bear in mind, my faithful WAD readers, that Studio is a five-hour course, so a bad or so-so grade in it really drags down your GPA.  Thank God for all the French and Psychology classes I took to boost my GPA at Georgia Tech.

Fast forward to the workplace, and it turns out that all those skills--arranging spaces in a tight floor plan in a way that makes sense for their use and the flow of the users through them, having all the drawings necessary for others to understand what you're trying to do, designing buildable exteriors--are really useful and desired skills in an architecture office.  One of the reasons I'm so highly valued at my company is that I'm really good at putting ten pounds of program (required spaces) in a five-pound building, and I can do it in a healthcare building, arguably the hardest type of architecture to do.  (I said arguably--everybody out there doing strip malls calm down.)  I'm also valued because I get all the drawings done that tell the contractor how to build a building.  It's been my experience that everytime you don't give them all the information they need, the contractor throws money at something when they estimate it, or they just flat out build it wrong.  It's a rare contractor who cares enough to call the architect and say, "Here's how I'm thinking of building this; what do you think?"

Another skill I never used to think of as a skill was my attitude and demeanor.  When applying for grad school, I somehow got back a copy of the letter of recommendation that one of my GA Tech profs sent to the University of Virginia (who turned me down, by the way).  The sentence that stands out in the letter even to this day was, "Although Pixie is not a strong designer, she has leadership qualities that I believe make her an excellent part of any studio environment."  I was stunned and even a little insulted.  Is that how he could politely say, "she's a funny gal and sweet and her dad was murdered during undergrad but she didn't quit school, so that should make up for the fact that her designs are kinda lame"?  I read the letter to my fairy godfather back in Small Town, GA, who was (and is) an interior designer.  His reply put it in perspective for me; he told me that projects in the real world last much longer than a project in college--months and months and even sometimes years instead of weeks.  During that grind, it gets easy for people to get tired of each other and the project.  It's easy for everyone to walk into a room with a bone to pick with everyone else and start out a project on a contentious foot.  When a member of the team makes everyone's lives easier and keep sthings on a positive note, it can make all the difference in the world.  Fair enough, I thought to myself, but nine years later I realize what a difference an attitude of friendliness, teamwork, and service--yes, service--makes.  I make an effort to communicate clearly and fairly with all the parties on the team, but I don't think about it until I get calls even two years after a project ends from a contractor, wanting to meet for lunch or drinks or dinner, and at which meeting the words, "God Pixie, we miss you" are uttered.

Yes, architecture students have college to learn how to be creative, and they have their entire careers to learn "real world" skills and techniques.  But there are certain skills that are useful no matter what career path we take, and sadly, those are the skills that no school can or perhaps will teach.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The beginning of the end

I can't put my finger on it, but I think Maddy's chemo has stopped working.  She's a little slower to get around the house, she spends a little more time curled up in the bathroom floor or under a chair in the living room, and she's not as into the treats as she used to be.  Sometimes, she's just fine: she'll hop up on the bed right before my alarm goes off, chirp and sneeze in my face, curl up on my chest for a few minutes and purr heartily, and then jump down off the bed and scamper down the hall.  Other times, she's slow, withdrawn, and uninterested in much of anything.  

Guy and I went for a walk last night around the neighborhood and to pick up the last round of Maddy's meds from the pharmacy.  We talked about a lot of things, including what about Maddy and what seems to be the beginning of her inexorable decline.  Th vet oncologist told me that I might get one more year with her, tops, on the at-home chemo.  And I've gotten eight good symptom-free months with her.  This month will be the last round of Leukeran and prednisone before she goes back to visit the vet oncologist, and the blood test results may not be what we--I--want to hear.  And I know I wasn't going to get many, many more years with her, but just seems too short.  I suppose any amount of time is too short with those we love.

And I know I have high-class worries.  Lawdy knows I have some high-class worries in general.  Guy and I owed taxes this year, and we had the money saved in our emergency fund to pay it (plus I get to bank a couple of mortgage payments over the next couple of months while I wait for my new refinanced mortgage to kick in).  I can get a massage and a nice haircut every six weeks (and my peeps have been raving about my new 'do, I might add).  To top it all off, I not only have really good health benefits (for cheap) at Design Associates, but I even have the resources to buy chemotherapy for a cat.  

So, I'm not choosing food over heat bills.  I realize it's something of a luxury to weep for the impending death of an 11-year-old cat with stomach cancer.  But weep for her long and hard I do.  Guy held me last night until I dozed off from crying, and I started to tear up this mornng as I got up early to do some yoga before my weights session.  Maddy ambled over on her collapsed ankles (I told her to wear high-tops when she played for the Nuggets, but did she listen to me? Noooo!) and walked under me while I was in Plank Pose, looked up at me, and chirped her typical upbeat "whhhrrt?"  She then promptly laid down and allowed me to rub her bibbin while I attempted to do some twists.  She's not in pain so far, just slowing down.  She likes treats, just not as many as before.  Sick or not, she's still my kitteh.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Remobilization: it's not just for contractors anymore

I've been in an odd place lately at work, or perhaps I should say that I've found myself feeling strangely unproductive, despite the fact that I finally have work to do on the hospital with Bosley.  I'm trying to get into putting together a list of required rooms and spaces for each department in the hospital for its master plan, and I keep getting interrupted by all the little projects I've been working on over the past couple of months to stay busy.  Occasionally, Howie will pop his head up and ask me to do something for him, and knowing Howie it has to be done right away.  Thing is, working on a master plan requires some extended concentration to figure out what you've done and what you're reading in the AIA Healthcare Guidelines and so on.  So every time I get distracted with a request for x or y, and then I look back at my computer screen and ponder what I was doing, and then I think well I might as well go get some coffee while I'm stopped and then I go and get coffee and someone else stops me in the kitchen and asks me a question and I'm finally back at it after twenty minutes.  I feel like I'm getting. nothing. done.

During one of these breaks a couple of days ago, I stopped to chat with Liz.  I'd had a terrible headache in my right temple and right neck the day before, and I couldn't figure out if it was PMS or pollen or what--did she ever get headaches like that?  Well, yes, she replied, but...

"Here's the thing," began the ever-wise Liz.  "We've lost half our entire office to layoffs.  We've all taken a 10% paycut along with hours, and at first it was creepy because I've never been so unbusy for so long.  Now it sucks because I'm having to work 45-hour weeks for 36-hour pay to get stuff done for this project I'm working on and it still might not be enough to save my job if things stay crappy.  I've quit watching the news because it's just been month after month of bad news about something or another.  There's a lot of bad vibes out there right now, so honestly, Pixie, there's no telling what kind of stress or subconscious thing is making you hold your shoulders funny and making your neck hurt."

As usual, Liz hit right on the problem.  While chatting with her, we realized that there were so many things that could cause one's neck and temple to hurt, many of which had nothing to do with hormones and much more to do with factors outside our control, like barometric pressure changes and the stress of a long-faltering economy.  Liz confessed something that actually made me exhale a little.  "You know, when I suddenly had to start working on this project, it was almost a struggle to just work an almost-full 36 hours. I almost started complaining about having to do real work after being unbusy for so long."

"Holy crap, me too!" I exclaimed.  "I've been feeling the same way since I started working on this project with Bosley.  I mean, now I have a project that I've been wanting for so long, just to be productive and busy, and it feels like I can't just get ramped up again."
"That's the thing," Liz replied.  "It's not that easy to just ramp back up to full speed when you've been at half speed--or even less--for months.  It takes a while to get used to the pace again.  We're not machines, even if they want us to be."

Brilliant, brilliant Liz.  I had been feeling guilty for not being able to focus lately, but it's endemic in our office.  I'm not the only one.  

Monday, April 13, 2009

Myrtle Mae Monday 04.13.09: Yet another guest post with mediocre chicken coop sketches

I know; just when you thought it was over, here come some more possible chicken coop sketches for those brave poultry friends of our who shall follow in Myrtle Mae's fierce li'l clawsteps.  (If you click on the image, you can see a larger version of each of these images.)  Let the calvalcade of coopage begin!

Ah, a beautiful High Gothic cathedral/coop, complete with a solemn processional of monastic chickens!  Like the Gothic cathedrals of old, this ethereal coop tells stories with its stone edifice to those who cannot read. The central lower window shows a stained glass image of Saint Myrtle Mae the Fierce, Protector of Poultry.  The stained glass window on the right shows St. Myrtle Mae Defeating the Kittehs at Small Town, one of her many miracles, and the window on the left shows St. Myrtle Mae watching over the Peeps of the World.  The high center window shows Myrtle Mae over the Rainbow Bridge at the Happy Chikin Farm, to where she arose after three days in the fox's den.  [genuflecting]

Oh God no!  Godzilla crapped more tin foil!  Oh, wait, wait, sorry to freak everyone out again--it's just a coop designed by Daniel Liebskind.  Liebskind's design is based on the concept of "two chickens going for a walk," but that could be said of any of the titanium-covered nonsense that he's built in the past 15 years.  All the chickens are confused because a) they're a little weirded out by this pointy monstrosity, and b) all the chickens are sliding to one point whenever they try to roost on top of the coop.  Fortunately, the contractor carried enough warranty insurance to post-install some roosting grips on one of the roofs.  

And what is this?  It's a coop homage to Spanish Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudi.  The overall form flows like his Casa Mila, but the towers on it speak of his still-unfinished La Sagrada Familia.  Art Nouveau is a style of early modern architecture that gets forgotten, slipped in between Victorian and Art Deco and mostly popular in Europe--bits of it inspired Louis Sullivan.  Still, I think chickens would enjoy having a type of proto-modern architecture that allows natural vines to grow up over the chicken run.

Whoa!  That's a bizarre-looking coop, but,'s so clean and groovy-looking!  It could only be an homage to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome.  Beind it, the mesh chicken run is reminiscent of his Dymaxion House.  By Horus, even one of the chickens in the yard is doing a bespectacled shout-out to Bucky!  The chickens at this coop are so comfortable with its forward-thinking, creative futuristic design that they're snoozing in the sun.  They'll be flocking in from all over to live in this coop.  And like the geodesic dome, flocks of chickens only get stronger as they get larger.

Well, that's it for today's guest Myrtle Mae Monday.  Keep your feathers preened, your eyes beady, and the yard kittehs on the run!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I've created a monster

Earlier this week, we had the first intern development seminar in a few months.  I got Bosley to join the interns (the few we have left) to explain how we at DA get work and talk about how we respond to potential projects and clients.  The small, hearty group that joined us really enjoyed it and couldn't wait for the next installment next month, at which point Bosley and I were going to compare two presentations that he and I had done together.  As we left the presentation this week, Bosley was almost...nervous.  "Well...they seemed like they were nodding at the right times, so maybe I didn't bore them completely...if I ever get too far off track, please bring me back," he said.  Bosley said this, y'all.  This is the guy who I've only ever see be smooth under fire, I mean smoooooov.  Dude can handle a tough room full of cranky facility managers, but when faced with a roomful of interns who feared this guy's wrath and were absolutely transfixed by his commentary, he was actually concerned about if he bored or annoyed them.

This afternoon, Veronica came up to me and said, "So, Bosley and I were talking just now, and we both agree that the entire office needs to hear what the interns heard at their seminar.  Next month, we'd like to do this week's presentation again, and I'll be there as well to fill in the gaps regarding how marketing works with the partners and the design teams."

Wow.  The entire office, huh?  Even associates and higher-up type folks?

"We want everyone at this," Veronica confirmed.  "I've even insisted that certain partners make it to this because they really need to understand how marketing fits in with getting work and writing and making proposals and presentations."

Again, wow.  Veronica had mentioned the idea of doing the intern job proposal/interview seminar for the entire office, but I was never quite sure how to make that happen.  My focus was always on training and teaching interns, not everyone.  I suppose I could chalk it up to my past experience--I've spent a lot of time in the past dragging people (usually my age or older than me) kicking and screaming towards success.  Essentially, I've raised a lot of people already, which might also explain why I'm 33 and have zero interest in children.  So, when I think about mentoring and teaching, I look to do that for people younger than me because I've wasted so much time trying to teach and help people my age or at my same level.  When Veronica proposed that this idea go to people at my level and higher, I was at a loss for moving that forward.  It just seemed like such a Sisyphan task; I felt like saying "If they wanted to know, they should freakin' I'm doing."  Everytime I've come up with an idea for a seminar, I've ended up learning as much as they did.  It wasn't my intention to start this so I could learn more, but it just ended up that way.  Fortunately, people who outrank me (who are the ones who should really run this) decided to take this to the general office public.  I'm glad to sit in the audience on this one.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

And now, for some belated Vegas pictures

I suppose the subtitle for this post should be:

I just realized that I never posted any pictures of Guy's and my 4th anniversary trip to Vegas.  Well!  It was just too fab for words.  Our first stop upon hitting town was the outlet shops in Primm, though next year we'll stay in town for the outlet shops just south of the strip.  Yes, I know you can outlet shop anywhere, but seriously the outlets in Vegas have way better stuff than the outlet shops wherever you live.

Our next stop was the Liberace Museum.  Now that is a fabulous way to spend a couple of hours.

This was his pink feather outfit he wore for an Easter special--he emerged from a huge Faberge egg while wearing this.  The whole outfit (cape, suit, and shoes) was 400 pounds.  A brutha worked out on a  regular basis.

God, that queen knew how to work it, didn't he?

You might note on the suit on the left that the shoes look like they're turned/sitting kinda funny.  Liberace was a respectable 5'-9", but he wore heeled boots with his outfits so that the weight of the capes (many of which clocked in at about 200 lbs.) wouldn't pull him backwards.

All this fabulosity had me in the mood to do a little shopping too.  Back to the Shoppes at the Palazzo for a shorty.
Oh lawdy!  That jacket is foxy!  And the colors on that dress are so right up my alley!

Squeeeee!  This is so cute I nearly shat.  Mommy, make me this dress, pleeeeze?!

*gasp!* I think Mommy may have made me this dress already!  More squeeee!

I also made a pilgrimage to the new Christian Louboutin boutique in the Palazzo area.  I was not worthy to enter this time, but oh next time.  If the economy doesn't suck too bad next year, A Shorty might save up her milk money for some red-soled awesomeness.

While most of the store windows left me squealing with delight, the window displays at the three-story Barney's in the Palazzo left me scratching my head.
What exactly are they trying to sell me here?  "Sport clothing for knockin' a bitch out--stylin'!"

You know, I've had some rough times gardening, but none that left me wrapped in a garden hose in a $500 skirt.  It almost looks like a scene from a bad 1980s teen movie.

The weekend was also highlighted by dinner and the Craig Ferguson show with Miz Scarlett.  Look how cute our hair is!  (Scarlett on left; me on the right, poor beleaguered Guy taking the photo.)
And all was right with the world.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Finally! Something to do!

I can't seem to find it on this blog, but I swear I've talked about this new project we just miraculously got.  Frontier County Hospital in Wyoming picked Design Associates to design the remodel of their surgery unit and to design a new ICU for them.  Bosley, the partner with whom I'll be working on this project, met with the top administrative staff of Frontier County Hospital (ever after on this blog known as FCH) a few days ago.  In the process of  working through the present state of their facility, FCH realized that they need a master plan for their facility for the next five years.  They need a proper master plan, not like the crazy MPs I've been doing lately.

A proper master plan of a medical facility--or of any facility, really--involves taking stock of what they have now and then listing what they need based on codes, facility guidelines, and their needs and utilization statistics.  Utilization statistics, as the name might suggest, are counts of how much different services are used at a medical facility, but they can also include stats on how much the nearby population uses your facility (and what ages and genders are in that population).  Let's say your facility only delivers one baby a month, but the population within a half hour's drive of your facility is about 30% women aged 18-34.  This means that you have potentially a lot more patients (and yes, customers) than you're treating.  Where are the rest of these gals going to have babies and get their pre- and post-natal care?  Or what if your facility delivers one baby a month but 45% of the nearby population is over the age of 55?  Then you need to start stepping up your orthopedics, physical therapy, and so on.

The best news is not just that we have something to do, but it's that I can get started ASAP this week.  I have to wrap up some stuff for the other master plan I'm working on, and I hope to get that done by end of Monday. One of the many difficulties I've experienced the past few months, like many folks out there I'm sure, is that I'm never quite sure what I'm working on week-to-week or even day-to-day.  Finally, I have something to do for at least the next few months, and I'm more than glad to do it, and do it well.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Money is tight, but Allah is tighter

Today's post title comes from a Muslim classmate of mine from college.  When commiserating about their bills and the cost of school, etc., my friend and her sister would eventually sigh and utter this phrase, and eventually things would work themselves out.  I had forgotten the phrase until yesterday.

Going over the last-minute details of my mortgage refi with my loan officer galperson, she confirmed the loan amount and rate and term (20-year for only $25 more a month than my present 30-year, holla!), and then she mentioned that my first new mortgage payment would be due June 1st.  "Wait," I stuttered.  "My next's d--..I don't ha....?"
"You're cutting out a bit, Pixie," said the loan officer galperson.
I laughed.  "Forgive me, I'm actually speechless for once," I chuckled.  "I wish my husband was here to see it.  No, I just want to make sure--are you saying that I don't have to make a mortgage payment until June?"
"Correct," she replied.  "You don't have to pay one for April or May."
"But I just sent in my April payment."
"They'll cut you a check in the next thrity days and redisburse the funds to you."

Hot damn.  I was freaking out because I have a big credit card bill coming up (a lot of things came up at once and ended up on the same month's bill), and I know we're gonna owe on taxes this year, even though I lost my ass in the stock market.  And suddenly, here's a tidy little influx of cash to help a Shorty out.  Nice.

Today at work before I left for my refi closing, I spoke with Bosley about the new surgery and ICU project I'll be working on with him.  One of my big concerns was volume--how busy was I going to be?  Would I have time available to help other project teams that I'd been helping for the past few months?  Bosley's answer: probably not.  "This project is going to keep you busy through August, most likely," he said.  "You might have a few hours here and there, but you're gonna be on this full time from Wednesday on."

More hot damn.  I'd been really freaked out about not being able to stay busy for the past few months, and this project is finally going forward.  And keeping me occupied through the summer?  Praise God/Allah/Yahweh/G_d/Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Today, my only prayer has been thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Eventually we'll just do it by auction

I was reminded recently during a conversation with a colleague how buildings get built and how the different methods can make a difference in construction and pricing.  There are three primary ways: Design-Bid-Build, CM/GC, and Design-Build.  Allow a Shorty to explain.

Design-Bid-Build: This is a fairly traditional method for building delivery, and it's how buildings have been built for the past several decades.  It's also called hard bid.  An architect draws up the plans, the plans are priced (sometimes by an independent estimator and sometimes by a contractor paid a flat fee to do so), and then the drawings are put out to bid.  Two or more contractors have one to three weeks (on average, depending on how complex the project is) to price the drawings, and then by a specific day and time, they deliver their sealed bids (in an envelope) to the owner or architect.  They open the bids and pick the one they like (usually the lowest).  Then the architect and/or owner interviews the selected contractor further and asks about their insurance, etc.  If they're satisfied, they move forward with that contractor.  If not, they send them out the door and go to the next least expensive contractor.  If none of the bids come in under the budget they set for themselves (they don't tell any of the contractors what that budget was), they either revise the drawings and rebid, or they hire a contractor and have them help VE* the drawings.

CM/GC: These letters stand for Construction Manager/General Contractor.  An owner and his/her/their architect interviews contractors and will supply them with some info about the project, perhaps even allowing them to look at schematic design documents to produce preliminary pricing on them.  The contractor gets hired before the architect is done with the design and the drawings and gets to review the drawings on a regular basis in order to work out constructability, budget, and schedule issues.  VE can take place before the project is done so that the owner doesn't get blindsided by sticker shock after getting their hopes up.

Design-Build:  Usually, the architect and the contractor work for the owner, but under design-build, the architect works for the contractor, and the contractor alone works for the owner.  It's like CM/GC on steroids.  It's sold to the owner as a one-stop shop/source for a design and good construction services.

Wheatlands was a CM/GC job, and we had two rounds of VE on it.  It was painful; by the end of the construction it felt like a design-build project.  It got to the point where the contractor said "take this out of the project" and we just had to friggin' do it.  At the end, the project, though ultimately lovely, was a shadow of its former self.  Problem with that is that owners tend to forget the budget stuff but remember that damn architect gave us a shoddy-looking building.  Because of the economy, hard bid may be making a comeback.  Owners, even on complex projects like healthcare, feel like getting the best deal possible by pitting contractors against each other.  I find this petty, but talking to my colleague gave me a different point of view.  His experience has been that every contractor's preconstruction services (the CM of CM/GC) are crap.  They've got the job, so now their goal is to VE out anything that looks like it might be a pain in the ass to build.  CM/GC, in my colleague's experience, is a way for contractors to maximize their profit with a minimum of work.  He said that the project he worked on in the past ten years in which he felt the owner got the most for their money was a public project that was hard bid.  After all the change orders settled out at the end of the project, the project's final cost was only $500 off from the independent estimator's original estimate.

It will be interesting to see what the immediate future holds for the construction delivery process, especially in regards to the economy.  Will we all revert back to hard bid while the gettin's good?  We shall see.

*VE means "value engineering."  It's a fancy phrase for "take money out of a project through simplifying stuff, specifying lesser products, eliminating program, etc.  It bites.