Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When they want to build, most don't start with the Architect

It has been my experience over the last 25 years that people new to the building process do not try to get started by hiring an Architect. Most will look for the real estate agent first, then they find a contractor, and then the architect is finally brought in to the picture as a necessary means to the end. Many times our service is perceived as a costly bunch of hooey required by governmental authorities, and the conversation usually goes something like this:

Contractor: "Your gonna need an architect."

Client: "I am? Oh, man, what for? What's that gonna cost me?"

Contractor: Gives an estimated cost to client.

Client: "Are you kidding me? For what? A bunch of lines on paper?"

And so it goes.

And of course the line I have heard most of my professional life is that since I'm an architect I must be rich. I actually think I am rich, but in a different sense. I love my profession because it satisfies the creativity that continuously boils over in me and it allows me to make a decent living at it. But monetarily I am not rich when compared to those in other similar professions, like doctors, lawyers and CEOs of major Wall Street companies.

I think a big part of the problem is that
public perception of our profession has shifted dramatically over the decades and we have done little to steer it back where it needs to be. And this is what I mean by that.

Architects come in two forms; the designers and the technicians. Designers are very good at perceiving buildings as art. They are in a mindset similar to that of a composer, a choreographer, a poet or a painter. They teeter on the edge of insanity ready to cut off their ear for the cause and hold true to their perceived reality. They often get published, work on projects in Beijing or Dubai, use half the construction document budget to get things perfect and only care about detail when it comes to finishes and color.

Then there are the technicians. They embrace Autocad, Revit and other useful technology and usually approach the profession from a platform of logic, and intolerance for the holier-than-thou designers. They understand numbers and building systems and interact well with engineers. They are the true designers, if you ask them, reworking the original design so it can really be built.

This schism is so strong that it actually shows its self in the type of firms that are out there for the public to use. Some firms are very design biased and others are technically biased, and it's hard for the public to know which is which.

You can try to figure out who's who by looking at websites of different firms. Design oriented firms have beautiful photographs of their work and often use Flash sites to get their point across. They may even have music, and a photograph of the principals in business casual attire, posed and gazing with deep meaning at the camera, barefoot on a beach. Technically oriented design firms often have links to pages that say "coming soon" or "under construction". The only thing they have in common is that they will both proclaim in flowery or complicated language that they are far and away the best firm on the planet. That they have figured out how to do architecture better than anyone else and somehow the best employees ever born have pooled around their little corner of the world. And, oh, that they care only for the welfare of the client, finishing things "on time and under budget".

And therein lies the real problem we have in perception. The public does not know what to believe from an architectural firm. They know we can't all be perfect, yet we say we are. They don't understand what we provide and why they need it, and we don't do a good job of telling them. Even the most seasoned clients don't seem to really know where our services start and stop.

Often we show our best work on our sites or in our glossy brochures (as we should), and that can scare the public into thinking we are too expensive for what they need. Many times we don't offer services we are capable of because we are afraid of getting sued (a subject for a future blog). We simply don't as a profession seem to get the point across.

We don't explain that great design comes from within and isn't necessarily expensive to achieve. We don't explain that good design makes users feel better and gives owners a better resale value.

We don't explain that making a building accessible to the handicapped is something we all owe society, that it is a compassionate thing to do and not just necessary regulation. We treat sustainability as a fad (see blog about jumping on the green wagon) and not as a money saving practice that includes a healthy planet as a positive side effect.

We don't explain that having technical expertise, understanding building codes, materials and methods of construction can make a building safer and even less expensive to own and operate (lower insurance premiums, energy savings, etc.).

And we don't explain that in order to provide all of that you will need to have both the great designer and the expert technician come together to form "the Architect" on each and every project. A good architectural firm will understand this and will keep the balance of both in mind when working with clients. The client that "just needs a permit" will still benefit from the insight of good design, just as the client that wants a monument to their ego will benefit from the great technician.

Maybe the days of the Master Architect are long gone. That's ok, the world is always changing and I'm not sure we need to go all the way back to the days when an architect could be put to death if his building failed. But a little more understanding of how the profession works -by those outside AND inside it - just might lead to something like this:

Client: "I need you to design me a new building."

Architect: "Cool, do you have a piece of property picked out?"

Client: "Yes, but I don't own it yet."

Architect: "Then you'll need a broker."

Client: "I will? Man, what's that gonna cost me?"

Architect: "And you'll need a contractor to build it."

Client: "You mean you guys don't do that? I had no idea!!"

If that happened, I would really feel rich.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A week in LA

Several months back I wrote about what we need to do to survive in the Aftermath, my term for the period after the Great Recession. Back then things were a little less clear. It felt like I was hanging out the door of a slowly moving tractor-trailer trying to stop it by dragging my feet along the ground.

That works, by the way, it just takes a really long time to stop it.

So, I feel we are almost there. If nothing else, we are now able to take the backsliding square in the chest knowing that it's just the way things are. Before we were still full of uncertainty. Now we are completely sure it has been a disaster for our profession and there can be no direction but up.

I just spent a week in Los Angeles with the new Crew Members and it was an amazing week to say the least. As I sat across the table from eight people that are very excited to be a part of our new collaboration, I saw eight strong minds that collectively are ready help us emerge in the Aftermath with a completely new concept as far as architectural firms go and I realized something very important.

I realized that if an idea is a good one, get it out of your mind, tell others and make it a part of their minds. And soon, the collective mind will turn the thoughts and ideas into reality. And I was seeing that happen before my very eyes.

Since I started looking for new crew members in October of last year, I have seen almost 2,000 resumes from people in my profession. Most are very sad stories of being let go and not being able to find work in their chosen field. Most were from people that have a college degree and many years of architectural experience that were hoping to land something before their unemployment benefits ran out. Many had already been unemployed for more than a year. Most I couldn't use because they just wanted me to give them a job, which I could not do.

But a few were like minded. They thought like Fearless Leader and were ready to be part of the collective mind. They might be fearless leaders themselves, just disguised as unemployed architects. And I found them in Los Angeles and San Diego and Las Vegas. There were some in Denver and Dallas, Houston and New Orleans, Portland and Atlanta. And my gut feeling is that they are all over this country, ready to take on the world. And take it on in a new way.

Over the coming months I am going to feature many of our new crew members and introduce to you the ideas they have for the cities they live and work in. As we emerge in the Aftermath to a brighter day I think you will begin to see the power of the mind. The collective mind that is the Curtis Architecture Collaboration.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Collaboration

Well, it's been a very busy and productive four months since I last made an entry to the blog. It's time to get back in to it and start telling you all what's been going on.

This collaboration idea has been big. There are so many talented architects in this country that are now unemployed and looking to get back in to some relevant and meaningful work. But things are not moving forward very fast in the conventional and traditional sense. A lot of original thinking will need to go into our profession to get it moving again.

I think we are on the right track. We have now associated with 4 new companies and 17 new individuals and we are all helping each other obtain work, from Portland to Atlanta, and just about every major point in between. It's a special arrangement that allows for an individual to basically open his or her own practice within their own city and keep it small and personal. At the same time it allows us to act big as a firm, being considered for projects that a one or two man firm could never hope to obtain.

We are now running a firm that is more virtual than real. We are showing that our true value is in the collective minds of the collaboration and not in the size of our lobby or conference room. We are using tools such as our website, Facebook and Twitter to exchange information with clients, contractors and consultants alike.

Author Jennifer Palmer describes the use of these internet networks in this way:

"The old structures are cracking under the weight of their own overhead. ....change is being propelled by people across the globe who realize that they can connect with one another and organize in far more fluid ways than had been possible before."

I am keeping track of many collaborators in many states on a daily basis, keeping everyone on target with what they are trying to accomplish as individuals who also happen to be a part of a greater whole.

This is working and I get more excited about the possibilities every day.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Crew is Getting Bigger!

Fearless Leader here for a special news update from Blogville: You heard right, the Crew is getting bigger....and much better.

As you know we are registered to practice in 14 (soon to be 16) states, mostly in the West and South. We work in all of them from time to time but with limited resources and travel budgets it is hard to be in a single market consistently. So what's a firm to do?

Best of the West album coverImage via Wikipedia

Well, seems a whole lotta folks in this profession have some time on their hands right now, some pretty talented ones, too. So, we have rounded 'em up and put 'em to good use.......Sorry, I'm getting a little bit of a twang to my writing ever since I added that picture (that is not us by the way).

Actually, we did a very in depth search for just the right people and have added them from afar via a very forward thinking arrangement. So with our new collaborations there are now crew members in Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans.

This is a very exciting adventure. With over one thousand people responding to our calling, we found a dozen really great people to associate with. Over the next weeks and months you will see how this gives us the ability to service our clients in a much richer and relevant manner in the aftermath. I can't wait to share.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jumpin' on the Greenwagon

Everything is going Green. From the new Green Network on cable to a book I saw at the store last week about "eating green". Every where you look its all about the green. Green plumbers, green pest control, green, green, green. I've been told by the Crew to be very careful about this subject. They know my disdain for fakery and nonsense in the business world. So bear with me as I try to navigate some tricky waters here.

I think the underlying movement of a greener humanity is remarkable at its very roots. We started on this planet as a part of nature like every other plant and animal inhabitant and have managed to move beyond that through our technological genius. The industrial age of technological genius, however, is leaving the planet in ruins. What we are doing cannot be sustained. So instead of returning to the old ways, which is never going to happen, nor should it, we are merging the two worlds of nature and technology to create a better place for all creatures. That part I really like.

What I don't like is the Greenwagon. Everyone that cares more about how they look to the rest of the world is jumping on in amazing and stupid numbers these days. I mean, do we really need green yoga? In my opinion yoga is already about as green as it gets, so a phrase like that is redundant and self serving. There are examples like this everywhere you look and our profession is no exception. I want to expose a really big one and this is where the tricky waters part comes in.

Lets get right to the heart of the matter, right to the very center of the Greenwagon with a thing called LEED. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization, and it provides a suite of standards for environmentally sustainable construction. Individuals recognized for their knowledge of the LEED rating system are permitted to use the LEED Accredited Professional (AP) after their name, indicating they have passed the accreditation exam given by the Green Building Certification Institute, a third-party organization that handles accreditation for the USGBC.

What that really means is that you can put LEED AP after your name if you have passed a test that shows that you understand how to rate products and buildings, not a test that shows that you are proficient in green design. Big difference! I am a registered architect and passing that exam was all about my knowledge of architecture and not about my knowledge of how to rate architecture. This is where I have a problem with the Greenwagon.

A couple of years ago I toured a building in downtown Boise, Idaho that was the first LEED certified commercial building in that city. It was an old warehouse that had been turned in to offices and it was brilliantly transformed. I was curious as to what exactly qualified it as LEED certified and was astonished at what I discovered. One of the qualifying criteria they got points for was planting trees. I'm pretty sure that the least environmentally conscious architect on the planet would have gotten points for that because the City of Boise would have required by ordinance for those trees to be planted, regardless.

Front 5 Building, Boise, Idaho -Modus Architecture

There are many similar aspects to a LEED certified building. For example, you get credit for using certain materials even if it is the only cost effective building material in the region and nothing else is available. In other words, everybody gets those points. I don't fault the attempt to rate buildings so much as I don't like some professionals using it to make them look superior to their competition; using LEED as a Greenwagon marketing tool.

The other big issue is one that, interestingly enough, is a direct result of our economic downturn. There are an untold number of architecture and interior design graduates that are unable to find a job. To keep themselves relevant in the profession they are taking courses and becoming LEED certified, allowing them to put the LEED AP designation behind their name. We get several resumes a week like this. Now, mind you, these are kids who have never worked a day in an architectural firm, never had a meeting with a client, never dealt with municipalities or general contractors. Probably never even been to a jobsite! But they are LEED accredited experts! I was a newly graduated architecture student at one time and when I look back, boy was I dumb. It takes years of experience to become an expert at anything in this profession and still every project brings on new, never-before-seen, challenges. I'm sure that in time, these students will also realize this once the market picks b
ack up and they actually get a chance to work.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, I guess I'm trying to say "buyer beware". Any good architect, LEED AP or not, will use the skills he or she has learned over the years to make a building work to the best of the client's needs. Just having the initials after the name doesn't necessarily do the trick.

In this month's issue of Architect (www.architectmagazine.com) the cover story is about a clever little storage barn in Washington, Connecticut. This building is about as green as you can possible imagine, with solar panels for electricity and a ground source geothermal system for heating and cooling, just to name a few of its features. But not once does the article or the architect elude to LEED certification. It simply goes without saying. The Greenwagon need not come by because they don't need to get on!

Storage Barn -Gray Organschi Architecture

Curtis Architecture started our green practices in 1994 and actually had a "Green Architecture" division that was quite passionate in digging up what few ideas existed at the time. It was a struggle back then and things have come so very far in 15 years. We dropped the division in 1997, not because we gave up, but because we decided that everything we did naturally was green in its intent. We didn't need a special classification within the organization to prove that. We also decided that much of the green that was going to happen needed to be with product manufacturers. We thought the market was turning in the right direction and sure enough it was. LEED was established in 1998 and it's been off to the races ever since.

So, I hope I've made it through the rapids unscathed. I don't hate LEEDS or being green. Like Kermit the Frog used to say, "it isn't easy being green", but it is the right thing. And it will be a better place faster if we all stay green in the right context.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

So, what kind of architecture is it that you do do?

Sometimes the responsibility of being Fearless Leader comes with waking up at 3:30 in the morning thinking about things and not being able to get back to sleep. It's really ok. My most creative thoughts come to me at that time and it's usually best to just get up and put them down while they are fresh.

From left to right, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fat...Image via Wikipedia

So this morning I am mulling over that question that is most often posed to me in casual conversation right after I say "I'm an architect". Usually the very next question is something like "What kind of architect are you?" or better yet, "Do you do houses or buildings?" I can always tell the knowledge level of my new friend by how that question is phrased. It allows me to decide whether the next thing out of my mouth is, "Yes, exactly, do you come here often?", or "I think I hear my mom calling, I gotta go."

But it actually is a very legitimate question to ask and it was something The Crew and I were discussing just yesterday. Well, most of us anyway. Jon has decided to backpack in Colorado for three weeks so he is probably looking at the great Milky Way every night pondering far deeper things.

So, for us, we decided that what kind of architects we ARE is more important than what kind of projects we DO. For instance, if you have never used an architect before and you are opening a small restaurant with your life savings you are going to want someone to walk you through the process, step by step. You may really need us as an ally to help you through the tumultuous permitting phase. You may need us to help with kitchen equipment selection and colors and finishes. You will also feel more comfortable with your contractor if we help you oversee the construction process.
On the other hand, if you are seasoned in the construction process, work for a large company and have a prototypical product that repeats dozens of times in dozens of cities you will probably need us in a far different way. You will already have materials and methods that you want to adhere to. And you may only need us to help obtain a permit, leaving the construction process to you.

I am very lucky to have The Crew, like minded creatures that leave their design egos at the front door every morning and truly look at what it is each client needs. Sometimes it is high design. More often it is not about the design at all, but all about the service. As a bunch we truly do seem to get more satisfaction over great problem solving and making people happy than how a design is going to make us look to others. Don't get me wrong, The Crew can design when called upon to do so. Just look at the samples at www.curtisarchitecture.us. But better yet, they all have a knack for being able to customize their services to meet the specific clients needs at a specific point in time. That's what kind of architecture we "do", and it makes a leader proud. (lump in my throat)

Enough said, if you want proof, you will just have to try us out. I don't know of a better way for you to really know if what I say is true. Now, it's only 4:30 am, I'm going back to bed.
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How to get by in the Aftermath

The way the Crew sees things, this whole economic meltdown was caused in great part by two things.....early on,greed. Then fear.

The housing boom sta
rted sending things in the wrong direction and was mainly fueled by speculation. Small investors wanted a piece of the action and went way over the line by buying 2,3 or more extra homes so they could flip them for a quick buck. Banks and other lenders jumped in the fray offering loans with ridiculous terms and gave them to investors that had nothing but hope for collateral.

In Phoenix, the census gods follow housing starts to estimate population growth and told us all how many people were moving here. Retailers bought in to that and started leasing space and opening new stores wherever they could. Developers built lots of new space to hold them all and rents skyrocketed. They also built lots of new office buildings to house all the new workers that were going to fill all the new houses.

And with all the new stuff we were going to need to buy from China and elsewhere overseas we built lots of warehouses to store it in, because California was out of space to hold things, we decided to step in and save them.

Dentists and doctors by the dozens opened up new fancy practices on the city fringes waiting to take care of all the new citizens...........that never came.

Now it's obviously not as bad as the picture would indicate, but there are some lessons to be learned here and if you learn those lessons you should do just fine in the Aftermath.

Lesson One: Don't be greedy, we are all in this together; architects, engineers, owners, landlords, brokers, users, lenders and contractors. I know of an owner who recently bid a project and it came in over budget. 15% over what the bank would lend him. A friend of the owner told him that the three bids seemed high in this economy and he should easily be able to get them to come down 20%.

Well if you know anything about this industry right now you would know that there isn't a contractor in the country that has that kind of fat in a bid. What needs to happen is the owner needs to build what he can afford and not try to blame the contractors for charging too much, the bank for not lending enough or the appraiser for not valuing his collateral high enough.

Lesson Two: Understand that the Great Recession is not just a lull in the status quo. There will be permanent changes in the Aftermath. Those days of 2003-2007 are days gone bye-bye. The comeback will be a cautious one for everybody involved. There is simply too many houses unlived in, too many see-through office buildings standing as lonely reminders of this.

Foreclosures on the housing front are starting to stabilize but the commercial foreclosures are just beginning and may need several years to sort themselves out. Status quo won't cut it. What cool heads and great minds figure out will determine where we go from here. And it might just turn out better than we now imagine.

Now that picture is more like it! For us, caution, courtesy and caring is the way to go. If that sounds a little cheesy so be it. But I have found that contacting old clients and other friends in the industry and talking through our troubles together has had a great effect on our mutual attitudes. The human side is starting to resurface. One where greed and fear seem to have no future.