Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I don't talk much about what my husband, Guy, and his firm do. However, the following story warrants repeating, with identifying details left out, of course. The firm at which Guy works, Acme Architects, Inc., has offices in several cities in the country, and they work on some pretty high profile stuff. On a mixed-use project that Guy is on, Acme has teamed with a really high-profile architecture firm. I mean, a name you might know from newspapers (and all my architect readers would know the name for sure). What happens on some projects is that one firm does the initial design and then passes it off to another, local firm that finishes the design and works out all the construction details. In this case, Guy's firm would be inheriting the design from this big-name firm, and he was excited to work with them. He might get to go to New York to meet with the designers on the project and even meet the high-profile well-known architect who runs the firm. Very cool.

It is at this point that I will name the high-profile firm "Scooby-Doo & Associates." There's a good reason for this.

Here's a little fact for you: three courses (rows) of standard brick are 8" high (including mortar joints), and three bricks in a row are 24" long (again, including mortar joints). Hence, we try really really really really hard to make sure a building's dimensions "course out", or that the heights between things like tops of doors and bottoms of windows are evenly divisible by 8" and the distance plan-wise between things like door frames and column bump-outs are divisible by 12" (you can cut a brick in half or hide half of it in a corner, trust me). This makes coursing easy, which makes construction and fabrication easy. The less your masons have to cut bricks, the less time and expense goes into your construction. (Remember: in the U.S., labor is more expensive than supplies.)

So, Guy gets SD&A's initial design for the building last month. It has a stone and brick exterior, a stone base with brick up top. Since most of the building is brick, you want to make sure that the pieces of stone course out, right? Mm-mm, not the fine designers at Scooby-Doo & Associates. Each of the stone units is 10.25" high. That courses out to Jack Squat. Frickin' ridiculous. Guy calls them last month--yes, a month ago--and tells them that in his review of their magnificent design, he noticed that the stone base units don't course out. Finally, a month later, this past Monday, he had to bring it to their attention again. They finally looked at the problem, realized Guy was right...and then told him that they would need a week to come up with a good solution.


Guy was blown away by this. "These fuckin' high-designer types," he mused, annoyed. "They have no idea how a building actually goes together. I mean, seriously. This is just one of several things I've found wrong in their drawings. And it took them a month to confront the reality of that! And it'll take them another week for them to 'assess' the design and 'figure out a solution'. It doesn't take that long to recourse your stone units. Jesus!"

"How can they not know how to put together a building?" I mused.

"Because," Guy responded, "a high-end design firm rarely if ever takes a design all the way through to completion, and detailing a building for construction documents and then having to monitor its construction teaches you how a building actually goes together. And these guys never get that experience. So they're really good at making buildings look good and cool and interesting, but they don't know shit about how it actually gets built."

"So," I mused again, "you're Velma and they're Daphne." Guy chuckled in agreement.

Look, I've met some architects and designers who worked for really high-end firms, and some of them know just how a building goes together. But others don't. That's the down side of being a really good designer--you get so good at making things look awesome that you never learn how to make things work. And in order to get licensed, you have to know how to put a building together. But if you're a good designer, you can get paid serious mad cash to make things pretty, therefore there's no impetus to get licensed. And in my cheesy li'l opinion, that makes you only half an architect. Earn your hours and credits, get the experience, take the tests, and get the license.

Let's just hope they don't turn into Scrappy-Doo before the end of the project.


Anonymous said...

I would argue that most high-profile design firms are more like Scrappy (loud, obnoxious, and friends to almost no one).

As for the brick, there are multiple sizes used in constructing a building (standard, modular, roman, king, western king, queen, and many, many more), and some of those have very unique coursing dimensions. BUT (and that's a very big but), that firm should have been able to come back to your husband's firm and said "we know some of the brick dimensions are irregular, but we've decided to go with brick A, therefore all of the dimensions course out perfectly with the size of brick A."

But your husband's correct about the high-profile design firms - on the whole they usually don't know how to put a building together. For them it's about the pretty pictures that incorporate the skewed sense of perspective and the image of a child holding balloons. Besides being paid premium moola for coming up with a design that doesn't really work, these high-profile firms also lack the professional liability that the local firms have for signing and stamping the drawings.

Mile High Pixie said...

Good catch on the various sizes of brick--I should have mentioned that the 8" thing only works with standard bricks. And also, good call on the professional liability issue--the architect of record (not the design architect) is the one who can get sued if something goes awry later.

paul mitchell said...

I have never encountered a designer that knows anything about sizing steel, ductwork, or (of course) brick coursing. That is why I am self-employed and do their detailing and never have any liability.

I vacation well, please do not kill my golden goose of having a 95% moron/architect ratio.


St. Blogwen said...

Help me fill in my mental picture: At any point, does the brickwork and the stonework occur at the same elevation/datum/AFF point? Because if the brick is all on top of the stone base, where is the problem?

(I'm sure it's screamingly obvious when the drawings are in front of you. I wouldn't ask and thus avoid making an ass of myself, but I just want to know.)

Mile High Pixie said...

PM: you're cracking me up. I love the notion of turning the liability thing on its head by doing their detailing for them. Your secret is safe with me.

St. Blogwen: Good point. I presume because of Guy's complaint that at some point, the brick does touch 100'-0", so it would need to course. Otherwise, he probably wouldn't care. Also, it might be an issue if they're connecting to an existing building that courses properly, and then you're stuck trying to course as best as you can to match existing (which sucks!). But yes, good catch--if the stone goes all the way around, its height and coursing doesn't matter.

Minneapolis Architect said...

Amen Sister!

I really like it when the flower bearers, trumpeters and fan waiver entourages accompany the "Rock-Star Architects". Its bad enough keeping them in line let alone their wanna-be proteges. I don't mind that they are creative, intelligent and do amazing designs...it is when they try to hyper control the whole project when they are only proficient at part of it (the pretty picture). Keep up the great blog!

Auntly H said...

Sadly, this phenomenon is not limited to high-fallutin' architects. In my experience, it's about the ego, not the international fame. I nearly came to blows with the (unlicensed) "designer" on one of my project teams who insisted that the masons had to cut block no matter how we laid it out so coursing just didn't matter. I couldn't bring myself to add the other modular materials of our building into the argument.

faded said...

It is time for a story that occurred in 1990.

This happened when I worked for Pickles, Pickles and Pickles architects. PP&P was the architect of record on a university performing arts center. The fancy design firm was from Boston and the dean of the Yale school of architecture was the firm's rain maker.

They did all crazy things you have described and we had to figure out how to build it. We had all kinds of crazy details on the project. But I digress.

The real story was main auditorium.

The schematic drawings of the main auditorium were fully dimensioned except for the chord length. This runs from the center of the stage to the back of the auditorium and is used to define the arc that lays out the seating. It is usually set first and the space is designed around this dimension.

These guys did it exactly backwards and laid out every other dimension but they would not supply that one. We column center locations, wall thicknesses but we could not be sure that what they had drawn would work unless we had that dimension.

I finally realized that the fancy designers and the folks at PP&P had now idea how to do the geometric construction required to figure out what the dimension needed to be.

In 1990 cad was still new and I was the only person in either office who knew Autocrud. It took me about 10 min to work out using Autocrud. They thought I was some kind of wizard.

The final building turned out to a fine piece of design.

PP&P could not get the designer to stop making changes to the building. The project ended in a lawsuit but the university and PP&P filed together against the fancy design firm.

2H said...

I once had the pleasure of doing executive architect work for a recent AIA gold medal winner. The initial designs from their office had a garage that was too small, and the templates of the cars shown in the plans made this sort of obvious. After we commented on this, they told us they would fix the problem. When the next design drawings came back, the cars had been scaled down.

I guess everyone has some sort of similar story.

Mile High Pixie said...

2H, that solution never crossed my mind--I'll have to use that some time! :-)

paul mitchell said...

My absolute favorite thing that designers/architects do is ignore the physical properties of stairs, ramps, elevators and their mechanical requirements, and elevation change. That said, please delete your post entirely, architects might be reading and if they do, I lose money.

mizscarlett said...


I wanted to study architecture when I was a wee lass. So Dad popped me in the auto and we took off for a meeting with the dean of Architorture at Auburn.

His advice - don't bother. Real work was ultimately going to be done by structural engineers who had a design minor.


instead, I decided to major in blowing stuff up. Much more satisfying and better paid.