Can Architects Design Anything?

Guest blogging for conferences is a great way to get into the door and be a part of inspiring conversations! I had the opportunity of guest blogging for TYPO San Francisco last week and getting to hear conversations focused on design. Themed CONTRAST, the presentations dealt with design in typography, graphics, photography, A/V production, etc. ranging from advertisement signs to published books to TV commercials and movies. Check out the breadth of conversations in the blog posts at http://typotalks.com/sanfrancisco/blog/.

This was an eye-opening experience for me as an architect. For some reason, I used to be under the impression that there isn’t much to design beyond what architects are exposed to. Beyond buildings, if architects can design furniture, light fixtures, shoes and entire fashion lines, no platform is too far beyond an architect’s capacity. Easier said than done! Design is so vast that not everything can be done by anyone even if we belong to creative fields that branch out from similar backgrounds. I, for one, have the deepest regards for all artists and designers following the TYPO conference that helped me understand that there is a lot more under the surface. My 2 cents… Before you consider branching out to a non-traditional path from architecture, consider your exposure, training and experience in the field of design. It may or may not be the right avenue for you, but follow your passion and let design lead the way!

Lessons Learnt From Starting My Own Firm

I am living my dream. That’s what I thought till yesterday when the light bulb went off!

A few months ago I decided to launch my own practice. It was something I wanted to do for a long time, and it was something that some of my ex-bosses thought I should do. Everybody who knew me thought I fit the personality, skills and drive. I was getting pumped from all directions. And I wanted a new adventure in my life. A lot of my friends were doing it out of necessity, loss of job, recession, and what not. I did it because I wanted to give it a shot. Try it once and see how it goes. I had no potential clients, but I jumped on the bandwagon!

Because I had been thinking about it for quite a while, I did some homework before I made my decision. I am super impulsive by nature, but I was a bit cautionary in this particular action. I attended a few sessions here and there about starting your own architecture firm. Didn’t read any books, I can’t handle the books without a storyline. I knew I needed some money in the bank to survive, so I saved a little. But I had quite a few financial surprises awaiting!

For the first time in life, I paid my dues to the associations I belong to out of my own pocket. AIA ticket was the biggest! ULI came in close second. And I decided to join SPUR because it was quite affordable. I passed on USGBC although I am passionate about Green Building. The problem is, it’s not just the dues you have to pay. But there are additional charges for attending almost every nice event you want to go to. So you have to consider those additional charges on top of the dues. These charges add up real fast. And when you aren’t making a paycheck, they can be quite painful. Forget attending conferences if you are not funded! Then there are the business expenses for initial set up. You’ll spend thousands in the first few months, getting your business registered, buying software, signing an office lease, marketing material, website, business cards… it adds up.

But I knew all this before I got myself into this. I was prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for was a shocker I faced in the eye yesterday.

You see… being a woman with a foreign accent, I always got the impression that I could get some certifications and go after public work. Public work is my absolute love. I have never been comfortable doing private work, maybe because I have never worked with a developer who really cared about the environment or aesthetic quality of the work. My private client experience has been driven by financial outcomes. Public entities, although they move slow, care. They have to! Money is tight, but they care. So my gameplan was to set up the business, get certified as Small Business Enterprise (SBE), Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Local Business Enterprise (LBE), Women Based Enterprise (WBE), and then go after public work. I expected the process to be long, waiting for RFQs for IDIQ lists, then going through the steps, hopefully get called for an interview, and hoping to win a commission. Long process. Turns out, all certifications require US citizenship. Totally fair! I completely understand that. However, for a person like me with no country, this is a bummer. I’ve spent the last 12 years paying taxes like every other citizen of United States, rather paid much more in tuition and what not because I’m not a citizen. But now I can’t even qualify for government work. Life would be different if I was an illegal immigrant or married to a citizen. Unfortunately the laws are more strict for people who migrate out of skills and ability than for those who take shortcuts.

I am faced with the reality of the matter now. Await a few more years before I can even qualify for any government work! In the meanwhile, I have to shift gears and find private clients. Something I never thought I’d be doing when I have my own business. It’s a complete shift in my strategy. Part-time teaching was always part of the plan, so I will continue to pursue that. And I’m working on couple design competitions. So in a way I am still living my dream… owning my business, being my own boss, running my own schedule, participating in design competitions, pursuing teaching. The shift is in my target clientele. A group that is outside of my comfort zone. But it’s something I will have to do to survive.

This brings me to the lessons learnt. I wish I had done the following before I started this journey. Too late for me, but the list might help some aspiring architects.

1. Don’t do it solo. There are things I am good at, but there are things I wish I never had to deal with. I am a social person, but within my comfort zone. If I had a partner today, I will be out and about every night building a network. But doing that solo is a huge challenge for me. I wish I had a partner today who would be willing to go through the lists of potential clients, strategize on how to target them, and keep an eye out for RFQs. I need marketing help. Of course I can’t hire one, so I’ve got to deal with it! I wish I could find a partner who was a US citizen and go after these certifications. But it’s too late for me. If you want a partner, find one while you are in school, while you are taking AREs, while you are working in a paid job.

2. Don’t do it if you don’t have a project in hand. Some people work on a family or friend’s house or store as their first project. Those people are wise. You need something to start. I have NO family in this country, so I don’t have a support network. All my friends are architects, because I spent the last many years hanging out with AIA folks in all of my free time. I have a big network, but the majority of them are architects, with couple engineers. Now I need to make new friends, and I don’t know where to begin! I am too much of an architect, and that too an AIA addict.

3. Be open to possibilities. I had put all my hopes and expectations in getting public work. And now I have to completely shift and look at the opposite end. You never know where life will take you. So be open to all possibilities. I didn’t work on a business plan, financial plan, or any plan. I still won’t be working on one. Maybe it’s a good idea to do that. Don’t take my example in this matter. I am yet to make a check. Working on non-profit work and competitions hasn’t got me a dollar, and I don’t expect it to!

In spite of these early woes and struggles, I am hopeful. It will take some time, but I will get there. I will sign my first contract. I’m sure I’ll have something to add to the list in six months from now. This is just the beginning…

At the Crossroads

I was appalled to read about one of the projects nominated for 2012 RIBA Silver Medal. The project that won the 2012 Rawat Award for Best Graduate Design Project. The project that at its core is the opposite of what the human actions should be. It is a thesis project by Jack Murno, a 2012 graduate of University of Westminster in London. Built with bricks made of blood and sand, the proposal is a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt. The positive spin to the thesis is that the blood being used for the bricks is a byproduct from slaughtered cows, hence the reuse of a waste resource. What horror for architects to stoop to this level! I see a direct correlation between the waste blood and the high levels of methane generated at slaughter houses. (I won’t get into the increased potential for diseases from eating meat.) It begs the question, what is our responsibility as architects? Architects are regarded among the leaders for the sustainability of the planet. Does our work start and stop at buildings? Why are we talking about what to do with waste blood or methane? Why are we not talking about why so many cows are being artificially mass-reproduced and then mass-slaughtered? Should architects be setting an example from our lifestyles that go beyond designing buildings?

Proposal for a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt

A professor once told me that while talking about project sites I shouldn’t use the phrase “natural landscape”. He said that everything we see around us has been touched by humans. The correct phrase is existing landscape, not natural landscape. On similar grounds, should we use the phrase “natural disasters”? I reckon we should call them man-made disasters instead. Hurricane Sandy… Sick of the news coverage much? Are you still debating whether climate change is real? Do you think your actions are so minor that they are a drop in the ocean? If you are not feeling responsible for Sandy, you are still living in a dream world. You are the cause for natural disasters. Together we are all the cause for them.

Photographs of the deserted NYC subway system before Hurricane Sandy hit may seem rather serene. The aftermath coverage is jaw dropping. There are multiple lessons to be learnt from Sandy that have been covered widely. RMI published a treatise on smart grid vis-à-vis distributed power.  It may seem trivial, but Fast Company featured a cell phone charger for disasters. Story about a few student volunteers got featured that reached out to old or disabled people stuck in buildings without power, food and medicine immediately after the hurricane struck and before the Red Cross could do anything. Good news is that NYC saw a big upswing on the number of bicyclists on the roads. We’ve got to do something about that traffic! Camaraderie was witnessed top to bottom where people and corporations opened doors to help each other. People are working hard to rebuild the systems, bring order to the chaos. However, they say that prevention is better than cure. Could we have prevented Hurricane Sandy? Maybe not. But maybe it would not have been so severe had we not been living in an age of record number and catastrophic levels of disasters. Had the climate change not soared to these heights. Had we built smarter from the very beginning.

 Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Some people shun all discussion about climate change either because they think it is God’s will, or because they think that they are being forced to feel guilty over something they didn’t do. They say it is a tactic employed by politicians simply to control the masses. When a pigeon sees an approaching predator cat it closes its eyes thinking that now that it can’t see the cat, the cat won’t see it either. People are pigeons and the cat is the climate change. And in our case, the pigeons created the cat.

Disasters are coming; we should expect more of them at increasing levels in the future. Root cause, Climate Change. The issue is neither religious nor political. It is Common Sense. What will you do to prevent the next disaster? You are at the crossroads, which path would you choose? Acceptance of the consequences, worship when all fails, war against climate change, or elopement to the high-ticket underground caves? Choose carefully, because this is more serious than the Presidential Election. Failure is guaranteed, the disaster will strike regardless of your choice. But it may not be as devastating if you act now.

Residential Architecture

A kid’s drawing of his house

Regardless of the culture, country, vernacular, or time, a kid’s drawing of a house speaks a universal architectural language. The results of kids playing with Legos are also astoundingly similar due to the limitations of the building blocks. Some of these kids grow up to become architects and find their individuality. Some of them begin working on residential projects, whether custom homes, tract homes, or multi-family residential buildings. Yet how many architects live in a house designed by them? Only a few hold on to the dream of building their own home, and of them very few get the opportunity to do it. In the end the inevitable question of financing surfaces, which we so commonly lack even after lifetime of working in this profession. Unfortunately the lack of the dream is a bigger reason than the lack of finances for this sad reality.

The mention of residential architecture typically brings to mind the image of a custom single family home. This typology is extensively celebrated in our profession through design awards, publications, and focus groups. Makes sense, because a majority of architects work in this typology. It appears that the multi-family residential projects often get overlooked on the recognition platform. Possibly they are not being submitted, or lose the competition against higher budget commercial projects. The design discussion definitely needs to extend more to these projects. An outlook towards neighborhoods and communities in our thought process towards future development of the profession would be far more impactful than isolated cases of single family homes.

The AIA’s Architecture Billings Index shows the multi-family residential sector has the highest billing rate. The large cities are especially witnessing an upheaval of multi-family condominium or apartment buildings. California happens to be planning an entire new town next to the Salton Sea with construction slated to begin in the next three years. The developers claim that it will be one of the greenest developments with many job creation opportunities. Although the reviews are many-fold as to the absurdity of this project, it is neighborhood development nonetheless. A good or bad omen for architects? I’d let the environmental groups fight over that.

Another shameful trend is the absence of an architect in the design teams for residential projects. Due to lax laws in some States, many non-licensed professionals get away with doing major residential work and go unnoticed. Where the laws are lot more strictly abided, the law itself allows for small residential work to be done by non-licensed professionals. Some might say that this is all that is keeping some people afloat in the dire economic situation in which we find ourselves. But this trend is obviously affecting some licensed architects that have to compete with cheaper non-licensed inexperienced pseudo-architects. On top of it all, there are now a few software programs available to lay persons that let them design what they want and just hire a contractor to build it. People can now purchase home designs from a roadside stall. The need for an architect is vanishing. Is this technological advancement or ample availability of free design options for the good of our profession? What does the future hold?

As we look into how to adjust for the globalization, economic, technological, and legal trends questioning the role of an architect, we also need to dig deeper into that child within us that might have dreamt of designing his/her own home. Whether we are financially able to build our own home is a secondary issue. For the faintest of hearts and for all those suffering from the blues of economic challenges, I would suggest reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. An inspiring read about the challenges of master builders from the 12th century, it is an eye-opener for anyone who would think these are the tough times. Keep those childhood dreams alive for we might get to live in our dream homes someday.

YAF at AIA Convention

It is always a joy to see old friends at the wonderful annual event of AIA Convention. Design Connects. As Jeff Potter FAIA elaborated, the theme for 2012 stood for how the art and science of design connects us to one another.

The convention was a big success for Young Architects Forum (YAF), and emerging professionals in general. YAF and NAC co-hosted the EP lounge at prime real estate in the convention center. Our design was fit for the location decked out with interactive boards, exhibits, multi-media presentations, and comfy couches. We held several presentations at the lounge, such as Repositioning Initiative and Future of Architecture by Lee W. Waldrep and David Zach, YAF Summit20 Outcomes by Jennifer Workman AIA and Brad Benjamin AIA, and 2012 YAF/COD Ideas Competition by Virginia Marquardt AIA. A tweetup was held at the lounge moderated by Joe Benesh AIA that garnered a huge audience of social media junkies. Most importantly, the candidates that were running for the national AIA elections made an appearance at our lounge and addressed questions and concerns of the emerging professionals. Congratulations to all of them for the legacy they have formed in the AIA and beyond, and we hope they will continue to support emerging professionals moving forward.

Board Candidates addressing emerging professionals

YAF organized two sessions – Young Architects Awards Winners presentation, and Leadership Forum panel discussion both moderated by Matt Dumich AIA. In addition, Brad Benjamin AIA moderated the YAF/COD 2011 Ideas Competition panel presentation. Young architects also co-presented with Fellows during the College of Fellows 2+2 presentation. The 2012 Young Architects Award winners were honored during the Honors and Awards ceremony.

Our publications effort didn’t lag behind. We released the 2012 Young Architects Award book created by our editorial team led by me, and 2011 Ideas Competition book created by Brad Benjamin AIA. They were made available at the AIA bookstore and sold out by the last day! The May issue of ARCHITECT magazine was released at convention featuring an article about YAF Summit20. To get some real estate in the official national magazine of AIA was a big feat that we will need to continually strive for.

We got some media coverage as well. Jennifer Workman AIA was interviewed and broadcast live on convention TVs talking about Summit20. I had the opportunity to be part of the I AM AIA video campaign. I was also fortunate to be interviewed for the Repositioning Initiative.

And of course we socialized! It began with Golf with Donald Trump in which Adam Palmer AIA, Jennifer Workman AIA and Brad Benjamin AIA represented YAF. There was a meet-up of Young Architects Regional Directors on the first evening organized by Jason Dale Pierce AIA. The YAF Advisory Committee held the annual YAF Legacy Lunch with the past AdCom members the following day. Some of us made it to the fab Chapter Host Party at the Newseum at night. The emerging professionals reception was the second evening co-hosted with NAC. The attendance was fantastic as usual! We attended the AIAS Nightcap reception afterwards. We did manage to take care of some business items the day after in the AdCom business meeting. This evening was taken by the COF Convocation Dinner, which Adam Palmer AIA was lucky to attend.

So at the end of it all, I got to participate in yet another fantastic convention, attend a few great sessions, catch up with old friends, and form new connections. The weather in DC was perfect and AIA|DC did a fabulous job of organizing the event. But my favorite part was the Michigan Alumni Reception of course where I got to see some old friends from school. What a successful and memorable week!