Friday, October 30, 2009

Feliz cumpleanos, El Papa del Guy!

Today is Guy's dad's 70th birthday, so we're off to St. Louis for a surprise visit to celebrate. It'll be a very quick trip--in town for less than 24 hours due to Guy's really busy work schedule, but I know we'll enjoy the time while we're there.

I'm doubly thankful for the opportunity to visit and celebrate. Last week, longtime employee and architect at Design Associates, Sutherland, whom some of you might remember as the guy who hired both Guy and me at DA, passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer. He was younger than El Papa del Guy, and he will be very much missed. His funeral is today, on EPdG's birthday. Such is the circle of life, I suppose. It's good to remember to appreciate our loved ones, and even our friends and acquaintances while they're still around. A few months ago, I emailed Sutherland to thank him for playing inadvertent matchmaker by hiring Guy and me. His response was kind and "aw shucks"-y, but I think he kinda appreciated it.

I know I appreciate it. Every day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The price is (almost) right

Earlier this week, we finally heard from the contractor on the DD pricing for TCMC, and we were pretty close to budget. Howie and I met with Akira from Avanta Health and several guys from the contracting company, whom I'll call Builditol Construction. Attending from Builditol was the project manager, who oversees budgets, schedules, and scope from start to finish; the main estimator, who sends out drawings and gathers bids on the work from various subcontractors; the MEP expert (for lack of a better phrase), who used to install mechanical and plumbing systems, so he knows a lot about MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) and can attest to what it takes to put those systems in a building as well as vet the prices that the subs send them; and a tech person who helped them navigate the various drawings and spreadsheets and so on that they pulled up on their laptops as we talked.

We were about 6% over construction budget, which could be accounted for partially through unforeseen issues with the project in general (like having to move a generator that we didn't think/know we'd have to move) and added scope from the owner (some extra sitework and retaining walls that they wanted in the side yard by the surgery department). It was also nice to see that Builditol included a fair amount of escalation and contingency in their original numbers from SD (which were just barely in budget) so that we had room for some additional problems that we didn't foresee and some other scope creep from the owner.

I should explain some terms here briefly, and I'll use the example of redoing a bathroom in your own home as a basis for these definitions. Let's say you decide that in 2010, you're going to remodel your master bathroom: new toilets and sinks and faucets and shower/tub and flooring and tile and even new lighting. Very cool, right? Well, let's say you decide you're going to do this yourself, so after you've drawn up plans and you know what you want where, you visit Home Depot and Lowe's and The Great Indoors, among other places, and you pick what fixtures you want and what tile you want and how much tile and so on. Then, you add up the costs of each of those items and that final number gives you your base budget. But let's think about this: if you're buying all these things in 2010 and not now, the costs may go up. Maybe when everyone starts shopping again, retailers will increase prices, or maybe the costs will go up because there won't be enough toilets to meet the demand of all the people buying them. The extra cost that contractors include to account for the price of things going up in the future is called escalation.

Now, you're looking at your bathroom, and you realize that the house is over fifty years old, and Lawd only knows what's in that wall when you tear off the tile, and Jesus, Mary, and Bob Vila help us if there's mold or evidence of a bad subfloor under there when you pull out that old tub insert. You'll need to fix those items--now you've got extra wall board or plywood subflooring to buy, maybe some sleepers to put under the existing floor joists, a little Kilz to mitigate any mild moldy funk. But uh-oh...did you account for all this extra spending? If you included contingency you did, at least to some extent. The other place that contingency gets eaten up in a project is scope creep: you decide that while you're doing the bathroom, you'll add a little wet bar in your bedroom on the other side of the bathroom wall where you're running a plumbing pipe anyway. Why not? you think. Well, at the very least, it's just adding more cost. At the worst, each bit of scope creep--adding something to the project that wasn't originally part of the project--begets new problems that require more contingency and/or scope creep. So adding that wet bar in the bedroom suddenly means that the pocket door no longer has a wall to tuck into, so now you need a new door, but because the house is so old it's settled and you have to redo the door frame and replumb it, but now you've cut a larger hole in the wall to get the new swinging door to fit so you have to redo the drywall in the bedroom, which means painting....

It's at the point when you realize that the budget is too small to do what you want that you may engage in value engineering, or VE, as we in Da Biz (un)affectionately call it. Value engineering is supposed to be a process in which the design and construction team brainstorms ways to get the project in budget but not sacrifice quality--is there a cheaper product that works just as well? Is there a supplier that can get us the product ( or a comparable one) faster or cheaper? Is there a subcontractor who can do just as good of a job for less? While this sounds fantastic, what it usually means is that we strip the building of nice finishes (say goodbye to the really cool carpet and interesting sheet vinyl patterns) and even some useful stuff ( looks like the heat and AC for the entire west portion of the admin wing gets controlled by one VAV box--good luck with that). In some VE efforts I've done, we really did get value: for example, a cabinetmaker suggested that we use regular rubber wall base as the base for some cabinets under contertops because the rubber would hold up better to being kicked than the plastic laminate would. That's a great idea! Not so great was when we superstripped the sheet vinyl brands and colors and patterns in Wheatlands--turns out we even eliminated the antistatic sheet vinyl that was required in the equipment room for the MRI. I haven't heard of anything arcing or blowing up out there, but it's only been a couple of years. So, let's say you decide you really want the wet bar, so you decide to keep the old tub and just replace the sink and toilet, and you decide to redo the walls with a less expensive tile--no glass accents like you planned previously. You'll replace the flooring, but not in this project, maybe later in 2010.

So, we got some really good news today. We're pretty close to being on budget, so next week we'll present these numbers to TCMC and ask them if they're good with us proceeding. We have our fingers crossed--Lawd knows we'd all like some work to do.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday Visual Inspiration: Hidden Places

I took my digital camera along on a walk Saturday morning, and I realized how many opportunities there are in urban neighborhoods for hiding. Places and spaces are not readily seen if one is simply casting an eye about--it takes stopping and looking a little closer at what's around us. I find the notion of tucking spaces away and hiding little oases of privacy such an interesting one in these busy and closely-packed neighborhoods of central Denver. Here are a few of the hidden places and spaces I found on one walk.

This rather majestic/gothic-y house in Capitol Hill is set up on a small hill above the street, but elevating it wasn't enough--the original builders hid it behind a large wall and some rather dense trees.

Another grand turn-of-the-century house not content to hide with elevation alone. This one is ensconced behind a brick wall topped with a chain-link fence and a dense layer of trees and shrubs about 8-10 feet deep.

One house turned its garage/carriage house into another small home and even gave it its own little side yard behind a wrought iron fence with yet another layer of black mesh behind the fence. I took this through the black mesh, which is the shading around the edges of the image. It wasn't until I got back to the house that I realized there was a wire of some sort looping over the fence and into the view of the camera.

Some things hide in plain view. This old-school steakhouse in Cherry Creek North nearly disappears with its dark wood paneling and recessed facade beneath the ultra-modern metal paneling of the adjacent stores and loft-inspired condos above. I just happened to stop to check my cell phone, looked up, and realized it was there.

One of the constant bugbears of urban construction is what to do with the space on the side of your building where it comes up to the property line. Do I build right up to it? Or do I leave some space for occupation? What often happens is what you see here--both occupants leave just enough room to pass between the buildings on their side of the property line. What's interesting though is that the new mixed-use building on the left used that leftover/tucked away space to provide for little balconies for the condos above. The unintentional side effect is that passersby who care to turn their heads and look up will see galvanized roof/floor decking and drain pipes. But no matter--the only people who look up at ceilings are prostitutes and architects.

Sometimes the private space we seek out in urban areas has less to do with actual private space (like a backyard) and is simply more about separating ourselves from the public realm. Beyond these gates is the interior courtyard for about eight or ten brick townhomes, which back onto the access alleys to their respective garages. All this courtyard does is a) give them something nice to look at instead of the street, and b) give them an extra layer of protection from the madding crowd below.

I just love this. A very nice house pushed a bit off the neighborhood street, it uses a semi-circular drive to access the front door and garage. The front door is visible, but by simply layering elevation, materials, foliage, and space, the homeowners claim their space without putting up fences and gates. And it's glorious to look at in the fall.

Another li'l courtyard to about five or six small townhomes which riffs on the theme used above. There are some stucco and stone posts at the entry walkway to this courtyard, but no gate or fence--just something to say, "here's where you enter, but you really need to have some business here before you step over the threshold."

A few houses down, there's a wood fence by a duplex, and this hold is about two feet off the ground. Kneeling down and peeking through it, you can see a garden with a seated Buddha statue in it. Even cooler is that you see him from the side, not the front--you know he's facing in another direction where he's meant to be "seen", but he's also kinda meant to be peeped in on from here. If you bother to kneel down and look through the hole.

Another house had a nice yard with a stucco and iron fence around it, nicely manicured and well-kept...and then this wee statue of St. Francis under a tree almost in the side yard. Elsewhere in the yard, large dog toys were strewn about with children's toys, a happy mixture proclaiming the joy inside the home's walls. And just without the walls but within the property, a little reminder of the protection invoked onto those who dwell here stands quietly, asking those who pass by to take a second look at the yard and maybe to look out for all creatures great and small, two-footed and four-footed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What inspires you?

I hinted at this in my last post, but I'm more fully realizing that living in the built world leaves me inspired at every turn. An artfully-arranged Lanvin dress, a sparkly logo on a business card on Etsy, a strange and haunting photo from an abandoned psychiatric all moves me and makes me think, makes me write a story in my head or riff on their idea or whatever.

This weekend, I'll be taking some digital snapshots of things I find interesting or inspiring and post them next week. In the meantime, what inspires you to create or think differently?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Architects and alcoholics: only one is acceptable to confess being at a party

Many of Guy's (my husband, for WAD newbies) and my friends are architects. Guy and I are both architects. Guy's brother in law is an architect. His brother is a project manager for a flooring installation company (a subcontractor, in our field). My dad was an irrigation specialist.subcontractor, and my mom was a form carpenter. We're surrounded by our profession when it comes to our social circles. It gets really easy to talk shop 24/7 when everyone around you is familiar with the lingo, the problems, and the situations that come up when you work in architecture and construction.

I've often said that architects are like alcoholics--you're still one even if you're not a practicing one. Being an architect is like seeing The Matrix: you have to see it for yourself, no one can explain it to you; and once you've seen it, you can never go back to just saying 'oh, that's pretty.' There is no such thing as a "pretty" or even an "ugly" building--knowing how it's built and about when it was built and what it does and how it sits on the site and faces the street (or ignores the public domain) and what that material is and if it's real stone or not and what those things are on the west side (they're vertical sunshades, you see them in a lot of buildings done between 1960-1980) and so on and so forth...that knowledge makes it nigh on impossible to simply toss a blanket statement out about a building.

And we can't stop. Or at least I can't, anyway. Our friends, who suffer from the same illness, laugh when we describe how we pick over buildings when we visit Las Vegas and how we punchlisted the Wynn on our first anniversary trip. Just as bulimics and overeaters cannot avoid food, the source of their addiction, we architects cannot avoid the built world. Parking lots and fences, retaining walls and walkways, mullion spacing on storefront windows and drip edges on metal flashing, bricks and CMUs and gutters and downspouts and glass and doors and everything--it whacks us in the face wherever we go. As we walk into any building, we think gawd they're gonna get water in that, they must spend a fortune sealing and cleaning this terrazzo, bet they didn't realize that this stainless steel gets fingerprints like a mofo, this atrium must be third-ring-of-hell hot in the summer.

And it bleeds into any design, really. Architects are notorious for thinking that because they design buildings, they can design anydamnthing. Frank Gehry designs jewelry for Tiffany (and it kills me to admit how lovely it is), Michael Graves designs products for Target and for the disabled (a byproduct of his recent confinement to a wheelchair, though it would seem difficult to confine Graves to anything), Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and objects (teapots, dishes, etc.), and Zaha Hadid designed a stage set for one of the Pet Shop Boys' tours. Hell, Oscar Niemeyer and Louis Kahn designed entire campuses and town centers. Every year here in Denver, Pret A Porter gives teams of architects and interior designers an actual product or material to turn into a wearable piece of fashion. As if designing buildings gives us the right to design clothing too.

I once asked Guy what he would be if he weren't an architect. His response: baseball pitcher or fashion designer. "Really?" I asked. "Yeah, if I wasn't color blind," he replied. When I get an article of clothing from my mom, he inspects the seams and the matching of patterns. "This seam looks a little rough," he once said. "Do we need to get her a new sewing machine?" (I know, he cares! It's so cute.)

For me, going for a walk is like sitting down with a full bottle of riesling. It's a guilty pleasure to look at buildings, at details, at spaces, at everything. I think about the parts and the whole on buildings. I inspect home improvement projects in progress, I pause and think about strange constructions and spaces and think about what it is or was or why someone built what they did. It gives me a strange sense of inspiration. Of course, to fully illustrate this, I may just have to take some pictures and show you what I mean. Pencils and cameras are to architects what bottles of MD 20/20 are to hardcore alkies--they enable us to indulge in our addiction.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

Me and my big mouth.

I was kvetching about how quiet work had suddenly become. Then I remembered that I really haven't had that many Friday afternoons off this year because my project(s) had actually required 40 hours a week, and I got excited about taking Friday afternoon off and hitting the grocery store, then cleaning the house a little, snuggling with Maddy (who had a rough few days where all she wanted to do was curl up in the bathroom, but she's acting more herself again), and doodling around...

...and about 11am on Friday, just as I was doing a little light filing, here comes Ephraim, one of the project managers in our office. Ephraim looks like a character on a children's show and has the sweet and beguiling personality to match, but evidently back in the day he was a super bad-ass in the Navy or Marines, like a sniper or special forces or something. It's kinda flattering when Ephraim, a short, round version of Beaker from the Muppet Show, talks to you. "Pixie, I hear you're available...?" he inquired.

"I am indeed, for a couple of weeks. What's up?" I responded.

Ephraim went from gently assuming to gleeful and amped. "Aw! Man! We could so use your help for the next four days..." He went on to explain that the rather large-scale multifamily apartment building/multiuse building that his team was working on had CDs due on Tuesday, and they really needed someone to do some roof details. He then said that the partner in charge of the project had approved up to 16 hours of overtime for me to do the work. It took me a second to realize that when he said they needed me for the next four days, he didn't mean Friday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, he meant Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Tuesday.

So I ended up working a full Friday plus ten hours this weekend on the roof details, and I'll be working the first part of this week on the project too. Funny, though, I actually felt bad for only working ten hours of overtime on the project. As Guy and I walked to one of our neighborhood watering holes after I arrived home at 7pm Sunday night, I asked him if that was lame of me. Guy, of course, scoffed. "No. Don't feel guilty. You did your part," he said.

He went on: "They asked you this on Friday. What if you'd had stuff that you had to do this weekend? It's their fault for not getting you on board sooner. And look, ten hours--I can't get the people that work on my project full time to do ten hours on the weekend, much less someone I roped in at the last second. So, no...don't even worry about it."

There's a reason I lurrve my Guy so much.

So anyway, the house is still kinda grody and my nails are left undone, but maybe I'll take Wednesday off or something. Or save it for a full day next Friday. Whatever. As I age, I'm finding that I prefer time off to overtime money.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are my ears ringing or is it just quiet?

It occurred to me this afternoon that I haven't been really unbusy for a long time, for most of 2009 in fact. This is a good thing, really. For the vast majority of the year, I've been either just busy enough, decently busy, or almost crazy busy. And suddenly, I find myself barely busy enough. And it feels weird.

Last week I wrapped up two deadlines in the same week: TCMC and FCH. On TCMC, we finished the DD drawings, so we're not working on the project at all until the contractor has priced the drawings and Avanta Health has approved of the design, all of which should be completed by early November. The day after the TCMC deadline, Intern Kimmy and I wrapped up the partial DDs and handed them off to Contigo Architects, who will be the architect of record on FCH. They'll complete the DDs and CDs and then oversee construction of the project. Hence, we won't be working on that project at all after last week. The deadlines, as you may recall, came at a great time, as the day after FCH went out the door, my sister flew into town and I was able to take off two full weekdays with her--epic squee! But after the quiet few days I've had, I'm wishing I'd taken three days with her--I ran out of stuff to do today.

Architecture, as I've commented many times here on WAD, is a cyclical bidnazz. Sometimes we're crazy busy, other times we're mostly or partially idle. I was able to help Prudence, the head of interiors, with a small project that needed to go out the door--a two-page permit set to move a door in a clinic--but that ran out this afternoon, and I suddenly realized that the volume of work that had allowed me to bill between 36 and 40 hours for nine months was suddenly gone. What this also means is that the cash flow problem that has been plaguing many of my colleagues has not been a problem for me until now. I know, I've been pretty lucky.

I always get a little freaked out when I'm idle, but I'm sure it won't last. Sven will eventually have something for me, Prudence will need a little help over here, and TCMC will come back and need finishing. Meanwhile, I just have to take a deep breath and be patient. Which is not my strong suit.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Architect pay, professional pay...same difference

A reader recently emailed me to ask if the pay for architects is truly as abysmal as it sounds. The succinct answer is yes, it sucks for the first few years, but getting licensed and/or changing firms can help increase your income. However, everyone getting out of college for the past several years—regardless of their major—is getting paid crap compared to the cost of living. It just hurts architects more because of a) the professional costs of continuing education and professional dues and testing and so on and b) the business costs of all the special software we have to buy and insurance we have to have in order to practice. I have two previous commentaries on what architects make here and here.

Another question I received recently regarded how much it’s worth slogging through architecture if the pay is crap and you have behemothesque student loans. First, let me say that again, like everyone else, your student loans are out of scale with your out-of-school income. Again, it’s the whole cost-of-living thing. Second, and more importantly, how much it’s worth it depends on what you put into it. There is indeed some luck involved in how well you do in your profession; for example, if you get out of school and join a firm that lays you off after six months and you spend the next fifteen months on unemployment (which happened here in Denver a great deal), then you suddenly find yourself behind in the game with regard to getting experience so you can get licensed faster. But that’s if you even come back to the profession at all—this economy is going to make architecture lose some pretty good people. But if we set aside luck and the nature of the economy, you really only get out of architecture what you put into it. I’ve seen interns and architects thrive and do well in nearly the same environment as other interns and architects who are barely hanging on and self-medicating every night at home out of misery and disappointment.

So, the short and simple (but not easy) answer about architecture as a job, a career, and a profession is: it depends. Which is probably true of a lot of professions. Is it true of yours?

Monday, October 12, 2009


I know, I know, I haven't posted lately. Bu my sister is here until eeeeaarrrllyyy Wednesday morning, and we're making the most of the long weekend. My deadlines on TCMC and FCH last week left me in a good place to take Friday and Monday off, and so I am. We've spent the weekend shopping, reading a plethora of cheezy-poof magazines she brought from Georgia, telling obscene jokes, and just goofing off in general. Very good times.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

This is why architects drink.

I think I've had this conversation before with an owner.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Happy birthday Dad!

If my dad were still alive, he'd be 63 today. I rather think he'd be proud and glad of the way that my life has turned out. I think he'd rather like Guy as well; they'd have likely gotten along quite nicely. Usually on Dad's birthday, I like to celebrate a little with a nice dinner and a glass (or two) of wine and watch some comedy. This year, however, the celebration will have to wait til later in the week: I have a DD deadline on TCMC on Tuesday and the handover DD deadline on FCH on Wednesday. Intern Timmy and I spent Sunday in the office working on TCMC, and Intern Kimmy has been spending lots of late nights and lunches getting FCH in shape to pass off to Contigo Architects so that they can finish the DDs and CDs on the project. And after those two deadlines, my sister is coming into town for her Fall Break. I'm really looking forward to seeing her, but I have hardly had a chance to a) get excited and b) clean up the Happy Kitten Highrise in anticipation of her arrival.

So, I have a few more days before I can clean up and rest. The good news about all this overtime I'm about to have to pull is that I can take some time off right afterwards. Kitty's visit is timed just right for me to take a day (or more) off. So, please be patient, my peeps--I'm not gonna be able to post much this week while I slog through these deadlines, but all will be well again in a few days.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Okay, so here's the deal...

Let me just say that I've been invited to an industry conference to speak about the intern mentorship I do at Design Associates. This is highly highly cool on many levels: I've thought about doing this kind of thing for several years, but only now do I have the experience to speak on his topic; I'm excited to speak to my industry on behalf of interns, who often get ignored; I like talking in front of groups and am not frightened at all by doing so; and I feel like I'm finally in a place where I have some authoritah, or at least some cache and leverage at my company and in my field.

As I've watched my office's population dwindle and my colleagues walk out the door one by one with two weeks' severance and all their stuff in a copier box, I've wondered how it is that I continued to dodge the bullet through four-plus rounds of layoffs. You bet your sweet bippie that as soon as I got the email saying that I was accepted to present at the conference, I sent out word to all the partners and higher-ups at DA to tell them about it. (I won't hit them up for a travel stipend until a couple of months before the event--I want to see how the office's finances look, but see here, they're getting free publicity and I'm doing all the work, so somebody need to peel off some cabbage roll for a Shorty.) I wanted to remind them that the work I do around there isn't just limited to the awesomeness of my daily work on projects, and it's not just limited to the clients that literally ask for me to be on their projects, but it's also the extra things that make me valuable.

It's also a little something in my head that gives me some comfort as I tolerate the occasional bad bit of behavior from a manager or colleague. I realize, slowly but surely, that if I confront someone on their particular brand of assholery, no one's going to fire me. I'm not the kind of person who blows up at people--I know how to confront without being confrontational--but even the thought of setting limits with others (especially those in charge) in this crappy economy has nearly driven me to drink because I kept thinking that I shouldn't be rocking the boat. But that, it would seem, is hardly the case. First of all, there's plenty of evidence in my office that you have to really suck to get fired. Second, I'm still here because I'm valuable to them in some way or another. And third and most recently, the very value that seems to have kept me employed has now gone a step further what with speaking at this conference, and that value would look very good on my resume, whether it's my resume at DA...or another firm, if they were foolish and petty enough to fire me/lay me off because I dared to set limits with someone's unreasonable requests or unprofessional comportment.

Even though I have two deadlines next week, I feel better already.