Monday, June 29, 2009

Extreme Balcony Gardening, part 2

The garden is rocking along, my people. We've had an entire week of sun and temperatures over 80; it's frickin' heat wave. Maddy went out to check ont he garden with me Sunday morning, and of course went over to rub her face on the iris leaves. I don't think I've been keeping it damp enough--the tag I got with it says it likes "boggy conditions." Meanwhile, I need to get some kind of trellis for the Viriginia creeper (the tall thing in the middle of the photo below). I bought it to help screen my seating area from the hoi polloi at the neighboring pool below, but I still have its vines tied up. Not very screeny.

The garden in general is enjoying some good growth and morning sun, and it's become even more verdant and productive.

Wh-wh-what? What is that in my corn? Are those the beginnings of cornulence? Squee! It is! Two of my corn stalks have these cornulent things growing in the tops. Down low behind the corn, you can see my bean plants growing. I planted those a few weeks after I got the corn plants into last year's Earthbox, and so far all six plants are growing. We should have beans at some point.

My tomatoes, as usual, are losing their minds and going all feed-me-Seymour in their new Earthbox. You can see some li'l green tomatoes already at the base of one of the two. Both of my tomatoes this year are grape tomatoes. They tend to produce faster/earlier in the season and consistently all the way through the summer even into early October.

In the foreground here, the circular container has carrots, which are progressing nicely but I don't think are ready yet to be picked. The two long boxes beyond the carrots are my lettuce mix, which sprouted from year-old seeds. They're ready to thin a little this week and throw into a couple of sandwiches or salads.

It's really been satisfying to watch stuff grow and produce this year. Guy thinks I may have maxxed out the balcony in terms of weight limit (the balconies on our buildings are cantilevered concrete slabs about 4"-6" thick). But I'd love to keep growing veggies, even if I don't do a lot of decorative plants. I like knowing that I can keep something growing and living in a semi-inhospitable environment, which is rather a metaphor for life sometimes, isn't it?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A girl in trouble is a temporary thing

While practicing for the interview this week, I finally had a chance to talk to Howie about his behavior over the past couple of weeks. I started by asking him how he thought the economy and Design Associates looked. He described some things he'd seen that were good signs and tings that didn't give him much hope, but overall we were just trying to keep things steady. I asked if there was anything we (Team Howie) should know about, like are we about to do another round of layoffs. His response was no, and so I said, "Well, just checking, because I don't know if you know this or not, but you haven't been acting like yourself lately."

Howie sat back in his conference room chair a bit. "Really?" he said, looking genuinely surprised and interested.

"Yeah," I replied with a slightly pained expression. "You've been a little more impatient lately, and...well, one of the things we all like about working for Team Howie is that you never make it personal or say anything rude or snippy, even when it's our fault for messing something up, but lately it seems you've been a little more impatient, and some of your comments have been, ah, rather sharp. And it's not like you to be like that--ever--so we were wondering if maybe you were nervous about some layoff coming, or maybe if we don't get this project some of us need to start getting our resumes together--"

"No, not at all," Howie replied. "There's no excuse for me to act that way, but yeah, part of it is working for Bosley again after a break from Pomme de Terre. He can be pretty tough to work for."

"Very true," I agreed. "He'll say things occasionally that make me go, 'where the hell did that come from?' so I'm glad to know it's not just me."

"--and that's no excuse, but that's part of it," Howie continued. "Part of it's also that I have to go after work, and...going after work is a slow process, so when I've spent a lot of time doing slow stuff, all I want is 18 things right now."

I said, "I can totally understand that. It's like being stuck in traffic for half an hour on your exit ramp, and finally when the traffic clears--"

"--I punch the gas and go straight into a concrete wall!" Howie finished. This made me laugh pretty hard, because unlike most overly pushy people, Howie is aware of how his M.O. can backfire.

So we talked some more about management and scheduling and trying to stay busy, and when all was said and done, Howie thanked me for mentioning it to him and asking if all was well. I wouldn't say anything to him unless I knew that he knew how to act better, and I'm glad I finally mentioned it. He seems like he's been in a better place for the past couple of days, and hopefully that will hold until we get some more work in the office that allows everyone to breathe a little more.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Whew! Now that that's over with...

Just got done with the interview for another project. Bosley, Howie, and I got back to the office around 1pm, but around 2:30 I just didn't have any energy left, so I headed home. I'll be in better shape to get started again on FCH tomorrow.

The interview went pretty well, better than the last one. We got started late because one of the folks from the client's side was late to the interview meeting, so suddenly we were already five or so minutes behind, and then Bosley got started slow with his overview and introduction. By the time we got to my stuff about how we help hospitals plan for the future and how we do green design, I was having to rush so much that I almost might have well have said, "We build hospitals! Real good, too! I like spaghetti!"

The Q&A went pretty well, for the most part, except that it's apparent that someone at Wheatlands is talking smack about us and word is filtering around. Howie put in a nother call to Wheatland's CEO, who confirmed that all was well with us and them and the contractor on Wheatlands, but we're all still wondering about who's talking to whom about this? Who is it that's going around saying that a bunch of punchlist items didn't get picked up and they got poor post-construction service? Weird. I think I did pretty well, especially since I didn't have my stuff fully memorized and had to rush through it anyway, but I feel like I held my own during the Q&A part and was able to sound semi-coherent when it came to discussions about how we would design their department to the latest and greatest standards as well as questions about relevant codes.

Howie mentioned recently that I'm going to have to be busier than I can stand to be in order to stay busy enough. Makes sense on a certain level--we need a few projects each to re-right the ship of Design Associates and keep everyone employed that we can. The thought of it wears me out though; maybe it's because I've been up since 5am.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Please keep your seatbelt fastened; the architect has turned on the "Working Like Hell" sign

Okay, kids, I'm in the process of working on a few small but interesting projects on my own, plus I'm getting ready to do an interview for a job next week with Howie and Bosley. On top of all this, I need to figure out if/when I'm going to ask Howie WTF is going on that's got him so bitchy lately towards all of his employees. So, while I usually have a semi-decent post for you three times a week, this week might be kinda stale. Just hang tight--things will be back to semi-decent before you know it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Getting Work 2: Electric Boogaloo

After the getting work post, I got the funniest and yet most poignant email from a marketing coordinator at an architecture firm in Canada. Ontario, as we’ll call this poor, beleaguered marketing person, had some really interesting insights about getting work, many of which explain why architects drink. Ontario summed up the problem with RFPs as they are these days as “…a highly politicized process and more of a formality than an actual adequate and fair means of gauging one firm’s qualifications against another.” Very well put—it is indeed hard to separate oneself from the pack when all the firms are sending you different cover versions of the same song, which is “Pick Us Because We Are Experienced In Your Building Type And A Great Group Of People To Work With, and We Care About Your Company And Its Vision For the Future.”

Proposal calls from clients can often be downright ludicrous. One example of this is a medical system just saying “We’re planning to do a patient tower addition to our downtown campus. In the RFP, provide experience with healthcare facilities and sustainable construction. “ Okay, well, first off, are you adding up or out to your downtown facility’s patient tower? And which of your three patient towers are you doing this to? What’s your timeline? What’s your budget? Are you going after any unusual sources of funding, like stimulus money, CMS or FQHC grants, fundraising? How big of a patient tower? Are you going to have to keep the existing tower (whichever of their three towers it is) operational during construction? These are examples of information that helps a firm decide if it has the experience it needs to do the project right. Sometimes, when firms email or call for this info, the client will respond that they don’t have that info right now and really, it’s not material, we just want your qualifications right now. Well, I’d call that assertion retarded, but that would be an insult to all the wonderful, heroic participants of the Special Olympics. Of course it’s material to the RFP! It helps us tailor the info we give you to something that will actually be of use to you, so you can compare apples to apples! There are lots of healthcare firms all over any state that would be glad to go after that work for you, but if it’s under $20 million, some firms will bow out. If it’s over 100,000sf, some smaller firms may want to partner with another firm so that they’ll have the resources and manpower to get the job done. It makes all the difference in the world, punkin. Tell a Shorty.

The next thing is the format of the RFP. The description of a few of the RFPs that have gone out of Ontario’s firm lately made me spit coffee onto my monitor. One RFP wanted the firms to cover project understanding, project approach, workplan, schedule, and resumes of all the project team members…in five pages. FIVE?! How the hell do you judge anything in five pages? Moreover, how thehell do you pack in al of that info into five pages?! You’d be lucky if you could do it any justice in 20! As Ontario says, “Might as well of just asked for a sticky note.” On the other end of the spectrum, an RFP Ontario worked on required, essentially, that the firms provide in nauseating detail everything they’d do. Ontario says it best here:

At the other end of the spectrum, some clients request that we provide CVs for each and every member of our team and his mother, and sister, and long-lost relative…..And they want us to describe every nauseating detail about how we’ll hold their hand throughout the entire process, from project kick-start to final occupancy. One proposal I did exceeded 100 pages! No RFP response should ever exceed a Master’s thesis; that should be criminal. What do they think? That paper grows on trees?”

Another ridiculous requirement is asking us to describe what our subconsultants will be doing on the project. Again, Ontario puts it best:Well, what do they think Structural Engineers do? Teach Kung Fu?”

The worst part of RFPs, really, is the lack of transparency regarding final selection. We see this happen with public and private institutions alike. An institution (.com, .gov, or .org, whatever) will send out a proposal request to a bunch of architects or even publicly post it where anyone can see it and answer it. But when it’s all said and done, everyone can tell that they already had the winner picked; the RFP process was a formality, and any interviews (if there were any) were just about going through the motions. When other firms call to ask why they didn’t get it, the client’s reply is often some variation on “So-N-So Architects brought more to the table/really seemed to click with our selection committee, and they’ve done work with us before/are familiar with our campus due to previous work here.” Ontario has pressed these people for further elaboration and asked what could be done to make Ontario Architects better in future endeavors, and I know at our office Veronica has done the same thing. Even with this pressing, the refrain is, “So-N-So Architects is more familiar with our facility.” Fair enough, but then you knew that going in, so why dangle the carrot in front of the rest of us if there’s no chance? Just sign a contract with So-N-So Architects to be your architectural services provider for the next 2/3/6 years and make them your go-to group.

Now, my firm will sometimes do these RFPs and do interviews when they make the shortlist for these lost causes, and the partners’ reasoning is that if the client ever gets annoyed with So-N-So Architects, maybe they’ll remember us. Again, fair enough, but even our office does about 80% repeat business. The RFP process has become a lot of unnecessary work most of the time, but occasionally we’ll get a job out of it, like Wheatlands or FCH. Psychologists call this the law of intermittent rewards. It’s the same principle that gambling addiction is based on.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Software and hardware are no subsitute for good thinking

For the past week or so, Intern Kimmy and I have been helping Howie with some graphics for an interview that's coming up next week.  The reason we've been available is that Frontier County Hospital was temporarily put on hold due to funding issues.  FCH is funding their surgery and ICU renovation through a bond purchased with some one-cent tax income (or something like that) from the past year or more.  Problem is, there are some issues with transferring or converting the bond into the liquid funds required to make the project happen.  So, they asked us to give them a couple of weeks to sort things out.  Just today, though, Bosley came by my desk to tell me that FCH's local jurisdiction (either the county or the city, I wasn't quite sure because honestly, I wasn't fully listening) agreed to front FCH the cash to pay the architects and keep the design moving forward.  So later this week, they'll send us a list of what they want us to deliver in the next couple of weeks and what they want by the end of July.  That part I tuned into, and it gave me a little lift.

The reason I wasn't fully listening to Bosley is that I was working like a madwoman on some stuff for Howie.  Every couple of days, he's showing Bosley what the PowerPoint presentation for next week's interview looks like so far.  He wants lots and lots of graphics on the slides, usually in the form of colored plans and the made-up floor plans I was working on.  Today, Howie was losing his mind because some floor plans showing the possible phasing of the made-up plans' construction weren't lining up just so on his slides.  I suppose I can understand why he wanted them to line up--the idea is that as he clicked through the slides, the phases of construction would plop into place like puzzle pieces, and any shift in the plans from one to the next is distracting.  However, I find that I'm losing patience with Howie's speed and demands, or perhaps it's more the way he makes those demands.  When he asks if I'm able to do something he wants done, I think it through out loud by explaining how I would have to do it: okay, i make a PDF from Revit, bring it into Illustrator, copy and paste the linework into the original PDF, etc.  On Friday, he actually said, "God, I'm so tired of hearing that.  Intern Kimmy was saying it earlier, and now you're saying it.  I don't care how you do it, just do it."  Then he started getting annoyed when he asked how long something would take to do, and I answered with a number larger than 60 seconds.  While I appreciated his offers to get me a faster computer or better software, it's beside the point.

The point is this: it takes as long as it takes to do good work.  I always work as fast as I possibly can, especially when I know there's more to be done.  But I refuse to sacrifice quality for speed--that's a losing proposition, because I'm just gonna have to do it over.  Also, if the mistake doesn't get caught by us and makes it to the client, then how stupid do we look then?  I'd rather have less information that's completely correct and defensible than have lots of info with holes and mistakes in them.  Software and hardware are only part of getting any job done, especially when we're trying to get work.  We still have to think things through and make sure everything works, looks good, and makes sense.  And furthermore, we're all growing a bit weary of the constant pushpushpush pace that Howie seems to thrive in.  At some point, humans lose efficiency when they're in hyperdrive for long periods of time.  Bottom line here, I guess, is this: while I'm glad to have work to do, and I may actually be going to this interview next week, which will be cool, I really can't wait to get back onto FCH and work for someone who acts only slightly less obnoxious than Howie.  

I have got to take up meditation or pot, one of the two.  Even after a long weekend with my sister, I'm really running out of patience with the continual epic douchebaggery I'm encountering with my supervisors.  I'm getting to where I no longer can suffer the rudeness and flexing I've been seeing lately.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My high-rise garden, as featured in the June 2009 issue of "Extreme Balcony Gardening"

I started working in earnest on my balcony garden around Memorial Day weekend.  Ethel and I went to some garden shops and picked up some plants and supplies, and I promptly turned the existing soil, mixed up some new soil, got it into pots, and have a decent-looking balcony to show y'all.  However, Denver's weather has been downright bizarre this summer.  We haven't had a daily high above 78 since April (no exaggeration), and it's rained almost every day for nearly three weeks.   I had to bring my basil in because it wasn't warm enough at night to leave it outside.  We were having nightly lows in the 40s.  Really?!  Are we in Alaska?

So here we are, standing on the south end of my east-facing Balcony of Gardening Delights:

In the foreground there on the left is an eight-year-old arboricola, and on the right in the red pot is a boxwood.  To the left of the arboricola is a couple of run-of-the mill houseplants (pothos and unkillable viney-type plants).  Let's go further into the courtyard, shall we?

Ah, just past the arboricola and boxwood sentinels is a lovely seating area with a couple of Lawd-knows-how-old Chinese evergreens on an old table of Guy's.  Near the railing from front to back are the beginnings of my grape tomato plants, the beginnings of my sweet corn plants (with some beans just planted in the box with them), a Virginia creeper that needs a real trellis to grow on, and a pot full of irises.  Just behind the Adirondack chair with the Wilderness Gina-made afghan on it are some herbs--oregano and kung pao peppers in one pot (making a return visit from last year's garden), and a new rosemary plant along with the feed-me-Seymouresque parsley plant on a rack.  Against the grey screen is my three- or four-year-old gardenia, which I have named Terri Schiavo because it refuses to die but isn't really alive.

Ah, now we can see the garden from the north end of the balcony.  Outside of the courtyard are two boxes of lettuce which have languished a bit in the cilly unseasonable air, and beyond them is the basil which has been moved back outdoors like a prisoner getting its one hour of sunshine and exercise each day.  What?  It's going to be 48 tonight?  Back in the hole you go, Basil!

Here's a closer look at the tomatoes and corn.  The round container in the lower right corner has carrots in it--we'll see how those go.  The tomatoes generally do well in the Earthbox.  That's a new Earthbox with the tomatoes, but the corn and beans are now in last year's Earthbox, which grew some kick-ass 'maters.  I'm not sure how the rest of these veggies will do, but at least the 'maters will cover up the gaps bewteen the balcony railing and the hoi polloi at the pool of the apartment building next door, with their bad taste in boombox music and insistence on wearing Speedos and Bon Jovi t-shirts.    Have some self-control people; that outfit is bad medicine, and if you think you have the body to pull it off, you're livin' on a prayer.

You might notice that someone furry keeps showing up towards the north end of the balcony.

Maddy is still with us.  She occasionally has bouts of nausea but is still doing decently.  She loves treats, laps, petting, and evidently rubbing her head on the irises' leaves.  Occasionally she noms them, and Mama has to get up and wave her away from them.

After such a scolding, she comes and sits on my lap and snugs and purrs, and we enjoy the fresh air, warm sun, and good company of life and growing things.  More garden updates as conditions warrant.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Update and correction

Recently, Guy turned his mom onto my tripe of a blog, and she read this post and asked about the infraction I referenced on it.  After sending her the web link that mentioned the legal infraction attached to her name, we all discovered something really, really, odd.  It appears that despite the really rare nature of his mom's name, there appears to be one more gal with her name--first, last, and middle initial--who actually earned the legal infraction that we thought belonged to Guy's mom.  Had we done the math on the stated birthdate, we would have seen that the woman on the website was too young to be her.

While there's nothing on my blog that would ever allow anyone out there in cyberspace to be able to figure out her actual identity, it's still worth a correction that the infraction we thought was hers was not.  Instead of asking her why she'd never mentioned this (erroneously attributed) infraction to us, we all just assumed that she was embarrassed and didn't say anything about it, having moved on.  I could certainly identify with that interpretation--I've done plenty of things fifteen, ten, even five years ago of which I'm not proud and would never do again, and I don't discuss them because I'm not that person anymore.  

I'm also (hopefully) slowly becoming the kind of person who thinks before they act.  I'm certainly better at that than I used to be--I can't tell you how many times this week I've taken a breath and been civil with Howie and Bosley when they've been seriously rude and out of line, and the Pixie of five years ago, even two years ago would have scampered to the bathroom to weep.  I've been through enough to stand firm on the things that I believe: that organized religion does its followers a disservice by controlling their thoughts and only allowing for black-and-white/divisive thinking, which forces them to be judgmental of others in just the way that Jesus says not to be; that the modern-day white collar workplace is based on nineteenth-century management concepts that infantilize adults and fails to address advances in communication technology; that we as a culture and a planet have a serious civility crisis and cannot communicate kindly and respectfully to each other; that punishing the poor does not make them go away; and that animals deserve just as much kindness and respect as humans.

I stand firm on my beliefs, and I stand firm on the right to state those things in this venue because this blog, like any blog, is like an open journal.  Those who are interested may read it, and if a reader finds my thoughts disagreeable, offensive, or unpalatable, there are plenty of other websites and blogs to read.  Because it is ultimately my inner thoughts, I am allowed to blog those thoughts and opinions.  However, I don't have the right to say untrue things about anyone.  I cannot present my opinion as fact, and I cannot present inaccurate or inadequate information as full fact.  And that's not because any of you will ever go do the research and find out and catch me in a lie--there's plenty of nonsense I could pass off as true and y'all would never know the difference.  I don't have the right to present inaccurate information as fact simply because it's not right.  It's not the karmic or just thing to do to anyone or anything.  I cannot present inaccurate information about Pruitt-Igoe as truth, and I cannot present inaccurate information about people you'll likely never meet because it's not right.

This weekend will be spent meditating on the goodness of others, on second chances to make things right, and on speaking truth without doing harm.  It will also be spent working on my beleaguered balcony garden, which has been languishing in this weird, cool weather Denver's been having.

Getting work: it's harder than it looks

I've had the (mostly) good fortune lately to be involved in the process of getting jobs along with Bosley and Howie.  During May, Bosley spoke at a few office-wide seminars regarding how we get work, and we even went through a few RFPs and interview slide shows and talked about what worked and what didn't.  During those conversations, Bosely shared with us the changes in getting work over the past almost-thirty years that he's been practicing.  

Up until sometime in the 1990s, architects never advertised (and there were actually some laws in place for a while that kept us from doing so), and we got work by knowing people or having a client find us through a reference from another client.  We had lots of steady clients who would just call up one of the partners and say, "Hey, you mind coming by to talk about a women's care suite we're thinking about doing?"  Many healthcare facilities would have us present at their long-range planning meetings because we could provide some valuable insight into the physical manifestation of their policy and practice plans.  However, things began to change in the 1990s.  We were allowed to do a little advertising, though usually you see architects "advertise" by sponsoring some sort of nonprofit activity or radio or TV programming.  I think there was a bit of a rise in number of firms as the economy slowly got better, so suddenly there were lots of small firms out there to do the smaller commercial and residential work, and the larger firms grew such that they could take on larger projects.  Also, the nature of facility mangement changed: there was a lot more turnover at higher admin levels, and financial management of companies made it such that those companies wanted bids for the work, not to just hand a job over to someone.  This especially proved true in healthcare, where smaller hospitals and healthcare facilities and systems were taken over by larger HMOs or care systems (e.g., HealthONE and Catholic Health Initiatives to name a few).  So, we had to start doing RFQs, RFPs, and interviews.  

RFQ stands for Request For Qualifications; it's a document that you send a potential client to tell them a little about yourself and show that you are qualified to be involved on their project.  RFP stands for Request For Proposal; it's document that you send a potential client to tell them more about your experience and how it relates to their particular project, and sometimes it involves telling them what your fees are for certain kinds of work.  The interview is just that--you show up at the client's offices and talk to a group of their reps and elaborate on some of the stuff you talked about in the RFP.  Usually the order in which the process happens is RFQ, then RFP, then interview, but many clients skip the RFQ and just invite a handful of firms to send in RFPs.  They then narrow that list down for the interview.

We're doing an RFP (due in July) for architectural services for a small health system in west central Colorado, but this week Bosley, Howie, and I have been working on our interview presentation for a surgery suite renovation in a hospital near Wheatlands.  The client had someone do a little sketch of how they could do their surgery department renovation, and they gave a PDF of that plan to all the firms interviewing, along with a PDF plan of their existing department.  Part of our approach will be to note a few issues with their plan and then show a few options of our own.  Yes, Virginia, that means we're doing some work for free in order to get this gig.  What we hope it shows is that we're thinking about their project already and we're really interested.  We've been told after the interviews for some gigs we didn't get that we didn't talk much about the potential client's project, their facility, their needs, etc., so we're trying to address that as well.

We're doing a lot of graphics, sketching, and flat-out work to make this interview and presentation clear and outstanding.  Next week, we'll work on the words on the PowerPoint slides and what we're going to say with each slide as well as who speaks when about what.  The last time we worked on some slides together, it took a lot of work to get Howie to thin the words off his slides.  He likes to use his slides as his notes, and that's a really bad idea.  According to brain researchers, the same part of the brain handles spoken and written words.  So if you're reading slides, you're boring and insulting your audience.  If you're talking a lot while there are a lot of words on the slide behind you, then your audience can either read the novella on your slide or listen to you talk, but they can't do both.  Either way, you're wasting effort in one place or the other.  

I think I'm going to be involved in this interview, but I'm still not 100% sure.  I presume I am because I'm being involved in the meetings and conversations.  After a somewhat contentious meeting with Bosley today to show him what we have so far, Howie turned to me with an odd smile after Bosley left the room and exclaimed, "Man, that was great!  Really good!  I'm psyched!"  I wondered silently if he was trying to convince me or himself.  It was one of those where Bosley would shake his head after Howie said something and then almost spit, "I have no idea what you just said."  Again, at what point are we all going to agree as a culture that "It's not personal" is no longer an excuse for rudeness and obnoxious behavior?  We wonder why the world is so rude, why kids flip you off on the street and people curse and honk in traffic and telemarketers call you during dinner.  It's not the TV, people--it's us.  TV is just catching up to our crappy behavior.  When "it's not personal", "no offense", and "don't take this the wrong way, but..." are used to excuse rudeness and nonsense, we become inured to insult, and naturally it seeps into the rest of our culture.  

However, I'm a professional and an adult, and I will continue to behave as such as a model to some and as a mirror to others to reflect their behavioral inadequacies.  And if you find my deportment snobbish or abhorrent, you can kindly go fuck yourself.  Nothing personal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A silver lining in the housing crisis

An article in today's Denver Post highlighted some houses that the city of Aurora (Colorado's second largest city, just east of Denver) have purchased from foreclosure and are fixing up to sell to qualified low-income and middle-income families.  It's money from the Neighborhood Stabilization Act, which is part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (signed into law by Bush back in July), that allowed Aurora to do this in the first place.  I'm loving this for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it's part of my Master Plan To Eradicate Everything Undesirable when I take over the world.

Contractors are being hired to work on the properties and make them essentially new when the new owner moves in. According to the article, potential buyers must meet certain income criteria before they can even look at a house, and the homes will be sold for their appraised value or for their purchase cost plus the cost of renovation, whichever is less  (price is non-haggleable).

So there are three good things happening here: one, Aurora is employing contractors and keeping people on a payroll, which should inevitably put some cash back into the economy (every dollar into design and construction supposedly changes hands as many as five times, holla); two, the program gets folks into homes that would otherwise sit empty, look icky, and bring down everyone else's home values in the neighborhood; three, the low-income or middle-income families can benefit from normal-market home-ownership perks like being able to deduct mortgage interest on their taxes and sell the house for likely much more than they paid; and four, it has the possibility of mixing low-income families into middle-class neighborhoods, which can have a positive effect on the family.

Reasons Three and Four are the most important to me.  Back in 2001 when I first started looking at buying a loft downtown, I looked into a new complex that was going up in LoDo.  The saleslady mentioned affordable housing, and I thought I wasn't eligible until she informed me that the income limit for a single person for affordable housing was...$60,000.  I was making about half that.  First of all, what does it say about a society when we consider someone making $60,000 a year in need of affordable housing?  Perhaps our housing costs are out of range for most decent, hardworking folk?  I almost jumped at the chance to buy one of the affordable housing units, but then I discovered two nasty truths about them: one, they're the crappiest units in the building.  They had no view, no balcony, and were on the noisiest corner of the complex.  Good thing I wasn't trying to raise kids in this building.  Second, I found out that the cost of the unit would have to be capped at a 5% increase of its previous purchase price for the next twenty years, in order to keep it as an afforable housing unit.  So, I don't make a lot of cash now, and you'd like to punish me by not even letting me reap one of the good benefits of home ownership, the so-called American Dream.  Thanks for punishing me for being poor.

When I was working on my thesis on designing environments for the homeless mentally ill, the head of the program I interviewed which had the lowest recidivism rate shared with me her secret for truly truning people from homeless to homeworthy: one, you have to provide support, like "reminder training" of how to keep a house clean and how to balance a checkbook (when people are homeless for too long, especially while taking drugs or suffering from a mental illness, they can actually "forget" how to do these things); and two, mix their housing units into the general population.  Instead of ghettoizing them into a public housing complex and labeling them, put a person (or a few people) into an apartment complex our single- and dual-family home neighborhood full of working-class and middle-class folks.  As Ruby Payne observed, if poor kids only hang out with poor adults, then they only learn how to do what poor people do.  In a neighborhood full of people that understand the implicit and explicit value of listening to teachers, learning, saving for college, evaluating resources, and so on, lower-income families learn how to do what needs to be done to lift themselves out of poverty for the long term.

So, I like what Aurora is doing.  They're taking care of their neighborhoods, their property values, and their communities.  It's still not as far as my Master Plan To Eradicate Everything Undesirable would go, but it's a decent start.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A few kitteh pictures

Nothing much to say today, just getting used to the daily grind again.  When I got home from Georgia, I flipped open my suitcase and went to do a few things.  When I returned liess than five minutes later, someone was in my suitcase.

Maddy had snugged herself down in there like she'd been there the whole time, all the way from Small Town.  I said, "Whatchu doin', Princess?" and she merrily chirped "Whhrt!"

Hazel, however, was less than impressed.  If no treats were to be distributed upon my return, then she would just go hang out in the living room.  Whatev.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pruitt-Igoe and the failure of the modern housing projects

Gather round, my children, and I'll tell you the story of Pruitt-Igoe, a housing project that was meant to be the post-war hope of the future and ended up being a sorry mess.

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese architect who followed the International Style (what most of us think of as "modern"), for the city of St. Louis. Post-WWII, St. Louis the city had been deserted by anyone with any money for the suburbs. The city decided to demolish a large swath of dilapidated houses and small, run-down apartment complexes and put up instead Le Corbusier's wet dream.

The complex was designed in the early 1950s, and after a round or two of value engineering (where you change the design in order to decrease the cost of a project), construction was completed in 1955. Over 50 acres were cleared for the 33 buildings of the complex. The buildings were originally separated into two groups, the Pruitt complex and the Igoe complex; one would hold blacks and any other minorities, and the other would hold whites. The complexes were integrated in the late 1950s. Upon its completion, the world's architecture journals praised it as a beautiful example of International Style housing, which many architects of the time believed was just the way to alleviate and even end poverty and to cure society's ills. Some residents, upon first moving in, said it looked like a dream come true.

But it wasn't long until the complex looked like this:

Remember that value engineering I mentioned earlier? First of all, Yamasaki's firm proposed a mix of varying heights and densities of buildings--low rise, high rise, and walk-ups (not more than three stories)--but that plan was nixed and all buildings were set at eleven stories each in order to economize each building's construction. Some politicians attributed the high cost estimates to having to pay union wages to the construction crews. Regardless, money had to be saved somehow, and changing the size and shape of the buildings wasn't the only way. In order to get more people into smaller building footprints, the units were way too small and had inadequate kitchens and plumbing fixtures. Even worse were that the elevators only stopped on three of the eleven floors--it costs a lot of money to stop an elevator on a floor, so by stopping it on the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth, you save a lot of cash, right?

What they saved in up-front construction cost, they lost in the long run. Too many people from different neighborhoods in substandard conditions made for a lot of tension amongst the residents. Thugs and thieves waited in the stairwells for people returning from their jobs with paychecks and the mailboxes with their monthly assistance checks as they climbed up to their floors where the elevators didn't stop.

By the late 1960s, only one of the buildings had any residents in it at all. Estimates vary on maximum occupancy, but they range from 33% to 60% full at its fullest. The first of the buildings was imploded in 1972, and the last imploded in 1976. In 21 years, the critically-acclaimed housing complex was no more.

So what happened? I don't think the fact that it was a "modern" building was the problem. My research on designing homeless shelters (that was my thesis, bitches) as well as my experience in healthcare architecture has shown me that if you don't give people nice things, they don't care about what's around them and won't take care of it. Put poor people who know they're poor in cheap-ass-looking public housing and don't even give them adequate space and for the love of Philip Johnson, you don't even have the elevator stop on each floor...well, you've made it pretty clear that you don't think very highly of these folks. And they will behave accordingly and treat their building that way.

It's also a matter of scale. The psychological concept of crowding has shown in animal studies and to a less-controlled extent in people that if you put too many of any mammalian species in a given area, they react poorly and engage in destructive behaviors. Furthermore, it's worth noting that a nearby public housing complex that had fewer units per building had much less vandalism, and its residents were much more careful about taking care of their gronds and keeping them clean. Studies have shown (and of course I can't put my hands on them right now, but I distinctly recall this) that people are more likely to help out when there's fewer of them present. One study on this concept found that if there are ten people in a room, and they hear someone fall in the next room and cry out, the "oh help!" person is not very likely to get help from any of those people, but they're much more likely to get help if there are only one or two people in that other room. So, with Pruitt-Igoe, if you put 20 units on a floor, they tend not to take care of their public areas (halls, courtyards, etc.) as much as they would if there were three or four units on that floor. In my eyes and experience, the failure of Pruitt-Igoe was less of an architectural aesthetic failure and more of a planning, policy, and psychology/sociology failure.

By the way, Pruitt-Igoe was not the only notable piece of architecture that Minoru Yamasaki designed. Know what else he did?

I bet you do know.

Edited 12/9/2011: I appreciate the continued feedback on this post, and I'm aware that evidence regarding the architectural intentions of Pruitt-Igoe's architect and the planners have recently been made clearer in a variety of books and articles in the past several years. More recently, a documentary title The Pruitt-Igoe Myth sought not only to delve into the socioeconomic issues involved in Pruitt-Igoe's creation and demise but also to understand the architectural and planning issues and decisions made regarding the project. As better information and research on this topic is produced by others who have the time and ability to do so, I urge readers to seek out those resources and will close this particular post for receiving comments. Glad to know that this topic still provides lively discussion in the public sphere, and hopefully it will continue to do so in the spirit of improving the public realm's aesthetic as well as how we care for those less fortunate than us.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Answers to the quiz

As of writing this post, I only had one response on the quiz. William Nobles, your answers are almost completely right--rock on!  Let's see:

A is the office building.
This is the Monadnock Building, the tallest masonry-structure commercial building. The top of the exterior walls are 18 inches thick, but the bottom of the walls are six feet thick.  See why people would rather use steel for a tall building's structure?  You use a lot less space to hold up the building, which means you can rent more of it to tenants.  Originally, the design included brick that would fade from dark purple at the bottom to golden yellow at the top.  The dark purple ended up being used for the entire exterior.  Some students thought this was a government office building because a government building would be a kinda plain-looking skyscraper.

B is the church.
This is the nondemoninational chapel at MIT, by Eero Sarinen, one of my favorite Modern architects.  Honestly, MIT is a great place for architecture tours.  A good pal of mine from grad school who lives in Boston took Guy and me on a tour of MIT and Harvard a couple of years ago when we spent our birthday weekend in Boston.  If you can ever go, do so.

C is a government building.
This is the Denver Public Library in Denver, Colorado, a little something by Michael Graves.  Graves is mostly known by nonarchitects as the guy who designs all those cool kitchen and house gadgets and stuff at Target.  However, he was an architect first, and I for one actually like his stuff.  It's a bit like Facadism and a little on the two-dimensional side, but I like it.  Unlike a lot of PoMo architecture, it's got a sense of humor.  Speaking of sense of humor, someone in this year's class thought this was a government building because it might be a prison.  Someone else thought it might be a government office building, because each piece of the building might hold a different department.

D is a residence.
This is not just a residence, people: this is the Glass House by Philip Johnson.  Mmm.  That queen knew how to do some crazy shizzle.  Behind the photographer of this shot is the Brick House, which has solid walls except for a few small circular windows.  I can't even tell you how much I want to see this house, this place.  I'm sure if I ever get to New Canaan, CT, I'll just fall to the ground and weep.

Building E is also a government building.
This is the Phoenix Public Library in Phoenix, AZ, by postmodernist and really-good-but-reputedly-kinda-vain architect Will Bruder.  I had to do a project on the unusual structure of this building, and it's pretty cool.  I only got a B on the project.  Shoulda had Bruder present it for me.  In the lecture last year, some students thought that this was the church because it looked like the megachurches you see these days.

Finally, F is a train station.  It was also built before the Civil War.
St. Pancras in London, England is also a hotel.  In the lecture, this was seemed to be the easiest for everyone to get as built before the Civil War because the students associate Gothic architecture with really really old buildings. 
Later this week, the story of some EPIC FAIL public housing. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Back and (mostly) rested

I just got back into Denver, where it is 46 degrees and misting rain.  When I left Atlanta less than four hours ago, it was sunny and 88.  I took li'l Lucky for a walk at 10am and was sweating like Paris Hilton in a spelling bee.  So now I'm here and feeling much better rested than I expected.  Usually, Kitty and I overbook our time together, but we spent the time only having about one thing planned per day, which means we ended up doing a lot of sitting around in the Happy Kitteh Cottage, drinking coffee and reading various magazines.  We had some wonderful goofy moments, about which Kitty will probably post because she's the one with the photos from Mom's cell phone camera.  We were nearly kicked out of Michael's, the craft store, but I think we avoided being ejected from the property because our behavior was just weird enough that it was Nature's way of saying "do not touch".

Anyway, I'll do answers for Monday's quiz shortly, and I'll drop some interesting stories on y'all later in the week.  Word.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Time for another Guess the Building Quiz!

Okay, just like last year when I went to do my architecture lecture, we're doing the quiz again.  


Here's the deal: if you wanna play, just for funsies, post your answers as a comment. I'll hold off on posting all the comments until I'm back from Georgia in order to give all my peeps some time before "pencils down." Whatchu do is write the letter of the following pictures for your guess of the answer. Bear in mind that some of these questions have more than one answer. So, have a look and give it a shot. And yes, I know that I have some architects in the my readership. You can play, too, my peoples.


The questions:

1.                  Which of these do you think is a church?

2.                  Which do you think is a government building?

3.                  Which do you think is a train station?

4.                  Which is a residence?

5.                  Which is a business or office building?

6.                  Which of these do you think was built before the Civil War (which was 1861-1865, for those that got a D in History)?

Building A:

Building B:

Building C:

Building D:

Building E:

Building F:

Rock on, and good luck!