Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I wouldn't give for a nap right now

I apologize profusely for the lack of posts (and the crappy quality of what few posts I've done)--recently, three projects that have long been on hold have come back online with compressed deadlines..oh, and they all have something due one day after the next. I had to travel for work recently, and when I got back to town, all hell had broken loose. And another project had just been given the green light. And Sven put me on another big project that's just starting...with Howie. Deliver me.

It's like thing after thing after thing keeps coming at me. I worked last weekend before flying out on Sunday, and I'm working again this weekend. I suppose I can keep this pace up for a couple of weeks, but not for more than that. Plus, my mom is coming to visit next week (YAY!) and I've barely had any time to either clean the house and/or get excited about her visit.

Give me some time y'all, and I'll get back to some at least mildly interesting posts. I've had something funny and/or interesting things happen in the past month, and with a little time and rest I'll post on them.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Busy birthday

Efforts to post this week have been foiled by a sudden huge increase in workload brought on in part by a long-simmering project finally getting off to a roaring start, plus I have to leave Sunday for a work trip, only to return to Denver Tuesday night to spend my entire Wednesday in meetings. Which means I have to spend Saturday at work. And today. Which is mine's and Guy's birthday. I've been so busy lately that it sneaked/snuck up on me again.

[Edited to remove poor-quality photo]

I can't get this photo to show properly, but it's a picture of Guy as a 13-year-old (or so) on vacation in Wisconsin. He's so dreamy....**sigh**.....

Where was I? Oh yeah, worn out, and miles to go before I sleep. But Guy and I are going to spend this evening having a nice dinner and just enjoying each other's company and mere existence. Today, I turn 35 and Guy turns 42. And I must say that as I get older, my life, health, career, everything has gotten better.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Visual Inspiration: Revived Places

Yes, another picture-laden post about a building. On an architecture site? No way! Do go on! Okay, I will.

During the same trip to Georgia in which I took photos of last week's abandoned house, my sister and I were coming back from a biscuit-laden breakfast at Cracker Barrel when she suddenly nipped into some back streets to show me this house. Evidently, it had languished for years until someone recently purchased it and spent a great deal of time (and I'm sure money as well) to restore it to something near its former glory.

Everything had been picked up on the exterior--the quadruple-colored eaves and pediments, so much a standard of Victorian residential architecture; the dark hardwood planks underneath the coach parking overhang, entry door raised high off the ground to accommodate transfer from a carriage straight into the house; the finely-detailed wood trim on top of wood trim next to even more wood trim at the entry; and even the steampunk-looking old-school doorbell in the middle of the front door.

Of course, we climbed and leaned and peered into the house to take a few shots, eager to see what wonders the new owners had worked on the interior. We were not left wanting for sights inside--while the kitchen was being updated with granite or solid surface countertops and stainless steel appliances, the front rooms were being fully restored to their former period-appropriate grandeur. Cruddy carpet had been ripped off of the stairs, revealing a dark, lush wood staircase below. Fireplaces--oh, the fireplaces!--were stripped of globs of paint and brought back to their original state, complete with elegant mirrored panels and small slivers of original ceramic tile hearths. Wood trim had been replaced or removed (where appropriate), and newly-restored and repaired 9-foot high pocket doors were seen peeking out of their old pockets, ready to slide back into service for a noble new century's use.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday Visual Inspiration: Abandoned Places

When I was last in Georgia visiting my peeps, I made my sister pull over on our way out to the country to visit Mom. Kitty pulled over in a dirt driveway so that I could finally jump out and take some pictures of a structure that we have for several years called "Maison de WTF."

Early to mid-2000s, someone began building a huge house back up on a hill about six or so miles from Mom's house, and it was the strangest damn thing we'd ever seen. It was huge--Atlanta McMansion huge--and was apparently made from CMU (cement block or cinder block, as y'all might call it) instead of the usual 2x4 or even 2x6 wood frame construction. Construction progress stalled out on it about six or so months after it started...and it never recommenced. One story we all heard was that a former Atlanta Falcon player was planning on moving to Small Town County or Booger County and ran through what was left of his fortune trying to build the dream country house he always thought he deserved. We never got a good story on it, though. Back in 2008 or 2009, the shadiest contractor in Booger County (who has also tried his hand at chicken farming, log truck driving, and preaching, all in the past three years) took on the project as a fix-n-flip...and took his sign down from the end of the driveway almost as soon as he had put it up.

When Kitty pulled over to let me hop out and snap a few shots, I cursed the fact that I'd put on a skort before leaving the house. I had dressed for the heat and humidity, but not for the long weeds and brambles that I'd have to face if I wanted to nose around in the fading glory of Maison de WTF. And oh did I long to nose around, to play forensic architect in these remains of post-millennial archi-cheez glory--I couldn't make heads or tails of the building's footprint or facades from my spot in what would have been the main part of the driveway/parking area at the house. Where the hell was the front door supposed to be? Perhaps the house had been designed to be the ultimate suburban house, where there is no front door and the only way in is a back door to the back yard or the door from inside the garage. It would have been a perfect summation of that residential building type: no one is allowed inside but family members; we are done with the outside world.

I was only able to trot up the driveway and get about 20 or 30 feet from the house and garage to snap a few pictures. As I tried to aim the camera into a window that I really couldn't reach, I also realized that the Georgia light was fading fast on me--I'd soon have to break out the flash to get any decent shots. As I snapped a couple of pictures of the tattered roofing underlayment and wisps of some sort of gauzy protective wrap on the building's parapets, my camera flashed and closed its lens--out of batteries. Like everything else involved with this building, my attempts to properly photograph it would go unfinished, out of energy and resources, fading like the evening light.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Demolition and memory

I recently got a text from my sister recently in the form of a photo. It was of a pile of rubble and a few small pieces of mechanical equipment, and in the foreground was a chain link fence that said "WELCOME TO BOOGER COUNTY ELEMENTARY VISITORS PLEASE CHECK IN AT OFFICE." I called her quickly and left a message, and she called me back moments later to explain: yes indeed, Kitty's and my old elementary school had been demolished in the past week. A new elementary school had been built in the past few years, and I had heard somewhere that the county government was going to take the old elementary school over to use as city and county offices, storage, and some community-center-type uses. Evidently, this was not to be.

Architects spend their lives learning how, what, and why to design things to be built. Secretly, though, we're fascinated by demolition--watching the tearing down of something is mesmerizing and downright incredible, and I know we're not the only ones. When Glasnost Construction announced at a recent OAC meeting for my project at Gestalt's Bierstadt building that they would start demolition of a few areas next week, nearly everyone in the room--clients, architects, project managers, and engineers--exploded with an excited "I wanna knock something down!!" We all love on some strange level to destroy something, as if we were all mortal incarnations of Kali: the goddess of destruction and resurrection. It's as if we know that once we knock something down, we make room to build something new, even if that new space only becomes an open space or park.

When Kitty and I were kids, Dad used to say that it was weird to drop us off at the elementary school, because when he was our age it was the black high school in his county (yes, kids, before 1964, the year my dad graduated from the white Booger County High School, the U.S. was South Africa without the diamond mines and the good soccer team). It seemed strange to him because walking those halls had been a socially forbidden act in his day--this was a place of separateness, of less-than. Now it was the place where all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, gained the foundation for a solid education. He never mentioned to us if the county renovated the school any in order to hand it over to the white kids.

However, I do know that the metal building that was the "new" gym was not original--it was added on after 1964 for sure. Moreover, I recall when the county added on a new building in the front lawn/courtyard space that became the new library, music room, and art room. It was built in the mid-1980s, right around the time when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. According to Kitty, everything is gone now from the site, even that "new" building. This is the part of demolition that horrifies me as an architect. The building is younger than I am, and it was demolished? Really?!

When we build, part of what goes into our material and design decisions is the building's function, which dictates an explicit or implicit life cycle--we call that building an "x year building." For example, the University of Colorado in Boulder dictates that its buildings as 100-year buildings, meaning that they have to last in decent shape for at least 100 years. Other school buildings as well as hospital buildings are often designated 50-year buildings or more. A strip mall, by contrast, is often thought of (and sadly, constructed) as a 20-year building. But if we assume that the library/art room/music room building at a rural county elementary school was built in 1985 and torn down in 2010, that gives a school building a lifespan barely past a PetsMart in the next county. Where is the logic in that?

I suppose some of my irateness is due not just to my professional perspective and training, but also a bit of wistfullness. When we were kids, our dad would be driving us to our elementary school and would point at a heavily-wooded area on the corner of two rural roads. Through the woods, the roof line of a dilapidated building could be seen. Dad would gesture at the hidden building and say how that was the cafeteria/gym of his old elementary school. "The actual school building burned down when I was in high school," Daddy would reminisce, his gentle Tom-Hanks-like southern accent searching for the words to explain nostalgia to his two daughters who were barely old enough to miss anything from the past. "Reckon either lightning ran in on it or someone burned it down."

"I wish someone would burn our school down!" Kitty or I would laugh. (We found school itself mildly tolerable, but the people who attended with us were insufferable.) Strange to think of that now that someone did knock down our school, down to its very foundations. When Kitty showed up with Mom at the elementary school's site on the way to a craft fair, there were just a few piles of rubble and a small Bobcat piling up the last of the chipped-up concrete slab.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Part 2: a change would do you (and all of us) good

Okay, okay, under intense long-distance pressure from New Hampshah, the rest of the story (part 1 is here):

So, I have to preface this story with another one. On the Friday that I had lunch with the interns, I got back to my desk ready to call it an early day when an email marked "High Importance" popped into my inbox from an interior designer. Turns out all of the interiors gals--the few that we have left, that is--wanted to meet with me. They heard that I was meeting with the interns about good and bad things in the office and was going to report on that to the partners and associates, and they had a few things to discuss. I said I had planned on leaving, but I had a few minutes for them.

I spent the next ninety minutes in a small conference room with three women in their late twenties and early thirties as they described a workplace just this side of the the third concentric ring of Dante's Easy Bake. Prudence, the head of our interior design department, has never been a snuggly person to deal with. I've found her to be prickly and difficult, but I had no idea how bad things were for her staff. These talented young professional women told me of how any attempt to work in a meaningful way on projects with the architects were met with backlash and from Prudence, and even minor mistakes were punished with being thrown under the bus by Prudence to the architects. "Carrie was never sent the carpet pattern submittal for the XYZ Hotel project," said one designer. "So the carpet got installed all wrong! When the architect got the call about it from the owner and took Carrie to task for it, she went to Prudence for advice on how to handle it. All Prudence said was 'well, Sadie made a similar mistake on Will's project last year, and she was laid off a couple of weeks later.' That's it for the 'advice' she gave Carrie on the situation."

I listened in near-horror as they described how unclear and frustrating their day-to-day jobs were. Prudence is evidently so focused on how much profit her jobs are making that she literally looks over her designers' shoulders at their computer screens and carps, "What are you drawing?! You better be billing that to the architecture code on this!!" The designers are never told at the start of the project what exactly their fee entails, so when they start doing something that would reasonably be their job, they get shouted down and told "stop that!" Meanwhile and unbeknownst to the interiors department, the architects in our office (especially Howie) have a terrible opinion of our interior designers as lazy and penny pinching because the refrain over and over from that department is "we're not doing that; we don't have the fee for it."

At one point, designer Carrie grabbed the hand of each girl on her left (Claudia) and right (Saffie) and said, "Yesterday, I was so upset that I called my husband at work and asked him if I could please quit work. Every day, we just pat ourselves on the backs and head so we can talk ourselves into coming back to work each morning. And we don't have any backup or support or guidance or mentorship or anything...we just lean on each other."

Saffie, the youngest of the group piped up. "We heard you were doing this Intern 101 thing for the architects and teaching them about the business side, and we thought, 'why isn't anyone doing this for us?'" I was mortified to realize that I'd never included the interiors group in my intern seminars, and I informed them all that they were welcome to join us and would be included in all events from here on out.

Claudia then jumped in. "Pixie, we haven't had reviews or raises in two years. We've all been working at least eight hours of unpaid overtime a week for months. If we're not going to be treated with some sense of respect, then there's no reason to stay here anymore. As soon as the work comes back elsewhere, we're gone."

I thanked them for sharing and told them that I'd talk to the partners on the following Monday. That very Monday morning, Carrie came downstairs and asked me to step into a conference room.

"Look," she said, her breath and voice catching a bit. "We still feel the same way we did on Friday, but...maybe we should just lay low for a while...."

"Not at all," I replied. "Carrie, when you have to talk yourself into coming into work every day, that's not acceptable. That's not the kind of workplace that Design Associates want to promote. I'm not going to say anything bad about Prudence, but I want to tell someone about what's going on with you ladies. Frankly, you've suffered enough."

After the big group discussion during lunch, I figured I might have the best chance if I talked to Audrey alone. So, we went into a small conference room, and I laid out for her the working conditions that interiors has been dealing with: the lack of support, the retribution when they dare to work for architects instead of her, the sniping and looking over their shoulders, the snarkiness and veiled menacing threats, the lack of backup and support and reviews, the continual unpaid overtime.... Audrey started the conversation with the usual concerned but deflecting observations: "well, Prudence has never been a very touchy-feely person...yeah, Prudence has always been about the profit and nothing much else...." By the end of the discussion, she had a couple of steno pad pages of notes, and she looked genuinely concerned and even a bit horrified.

"Audrey," I finished, "Carrie came down here this morning to ask me to not say anything just now, that they wanted to 'lay low' for a while. They're terrified of her and of some kind of retribution."

Audrey's face twisted into the kind of expression one usually makes while watching "Silence of the Lambs". "They haven't approached her about this?"

"Audrey, they don't feel safe doing so, given the lack of support in their day-to-day workplace duties," I explained. "How can you confront the boss about their behavior when you're terrified of him or her?"

So, we'll see if Audrey shares any of this to the rest of the partners about Prudence's behavior. There's only so much that I can do. I just hope that something is done. This is a good way to increase turnover in a very important department at our office, and there's just no excuse for this kind of behavior anywhere. Meanwhile, I'm going to go attempt to have a quiet and truly restful Labor Day weekend, and I hope the same kind of weekend for all fifteen of my readers.