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…

Architects on Screen

This is my recently compiled list of Architects on Screen. There are a few with landscape architects, interior designers, engineers, and city planners; I have NOT included those in this list. I hope to intrigue thought and participation through this endeavor. My objective for the research is to compare how the various roles depict architects in general, or sometimes rather unusual roles. You’d be surprised to see how little role the occupation of a character can play in the plot unless it is a doctor, lawyer or teacher. Viewers believe that by showing a character’s profession as an architect, they tend to think of the character as passionate, romantic, and sexy! But they are also considered stubborn and egotistical. Clichés of the society… I haven’t seen all of these yet, but my honorable mention goes to Art Vandelay! I believe that having architects on the screen brings attention to our profession and encourages interest and respect. We need more! Can you add to this list? Send me your contributions!

 

Architects on Big Screen:

1.       12 Angry Men: Henry Fonda

2.       500 Days of Summer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

3.       Bedazzled: Brendan Fraser

4.       The Brady Bunch: Robert Reed as Mike Brady

5.       Butterfly Effect: Elden Henson

6.       Click: Adam Sandler and David Hasselhoff

7.       Death of Night: Mervyn Johns

8.       Death Wish: Charles Bronson

9.       Don’t Look Now: Donald Sutherland

10.   Falling in Love Again: Elliot Gould

11.   Fear: William Petersen

12.   Fearless: Jeff Bridges as Max Klein

13.   Firewall: Virginia Madsen

14.   Heatwave: Richard Moir as Stephen West

15.   Heaven: Martin Donovan

16.   House As a Life: Kevin Kline

17.   HouseSitter: Steve Martin

18.   Hush: Gwyneth Paltrow

19.   In the Bedroom: Nick Stahl (student)

20.   Indecent Proposal: Woody Harrelson

21.   Intersection: Richard Gere as Vincent Eastman

22.   It’s Complicated: Steve Martin

23.   Jungle Fever: Wesley Snipes

24.   La Moustache: Marc Lindon

25.   Love Actually: Liam Neeson

26.   Mamma Mia: Pierce Brosnan

27.   Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House: Reginald Denny as Henry Simms

28.   Mrs. Miniver: Walter Pidgeon

29.   My Architect: (Louis Kahn)

30.   My Life as a House: Kevin Kline as George Monroe

31.   My Super Ex-Girlfriend: Luke Wilson

32.   One fine Day: Michelle Pfeiffer

33.   Peter Ibbetson: Gary Cooper

34.   Playing by Heart: John Stewart

35.   Prison Break: Scofield

36.   Return to Me: David Duchovny

37.   Sleepless in Seattle: Tom Hanks

38.   Strangers When We Meet: Kirk Douglas as Larry Coe

39.   The Architect: Anthony LaPaglia

40.   The Belly of an Architect: Brian Dennehy

41.   The Black Cat: Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig

42.   The Cable Guy: Matthew Broderick

43.   The Fountainhead: Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

44.   The Frighteners: Michael J. Fox

45.   The Holcroft Covenant: Michael Caine

46.   The Lake House: Keanu Reeves

47.   The Last Kiss: Zach Braff

48.   The Matrix Reloaded: Helmut Bakaitis (unconventional)

49.   The Namesake: Kal Penn

50.   The Pallbearer: David Schwimmer

51.   The Quiet: Martin Donovan

52.   The Serpent’s Kiss: Ewan McGregor

53.   The Simpsons: Frank Gehry (Voice)

54.   The Towering Inferno: Paul Newman

55.   The World of Suzie Wong: William Holden

56.   There’s Something About Mary: Matt Dillon (posed as one)

57.   Three Men and a Baby: Tom Selleck

58.   Three to Tango: Matthew Perry and Oliver Platt

59.   Thursday: Thomas Jane as Casey Wells

60.   Two For The Road: Albert Finney as Mark Wallace

61.   White Noise: Michael Keaton

62.   You, Me and Drupree: Matt Dillon and Michael Douglas

 

Architects on Small Screen:

1.       According to Jim: Larry Joe Campbell as Andy

2.       Clarissa Explains It All: Joe O’Connor as Marshall Darling

3.       Family Ties: Elyse Keaton

4.       How I met Your Mother: Josh Radnor as Ted Mosby

5.       Mr. Ed.: Wilbur Post

6.       Once and Again: Billy Campbell (Richard Sammler), Todd Field (David Cassilli)

7.       Oz: Bob Rebadow

8.       Seinfeld: Art Vandelay – Guggenheim Addition

9.       The Architect Sketch: Monty Python

10.   The Invaders: Roy Thinnes as David Vincent

11.   The O.C.: Benjamin McKenzie as Ryan Atwood

Architects’ Responsibility in Disasters

Is it just me or has there been too much about natural calamities in the news lately? Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires, and now a volcanic eruption! All superstitions aside, what’s going on? Scientists and religious people have various opinions and are projecting increasing number of incidents in future. Although we can’t do anything to prevent these disasters, there are steps we can take to help the people that are struck by them. What is the responsibility of our profession towards such disasters?

Google ‘refugee housing’ and you’ll find numerous results for architectural solutions proposed or implemented, ranging from sand bag walls to shipping container houses. There are also enormous complaints about such solutions. We can either sit back and laugh at the debates, or take action. The question is –‘timing’. WHEN we take action may be more important than WHAT action we take. Scientists have created a long list of all the possible places that these disasters may occur in future. Unfortunately they can’t predict exactly when the disasters will take place. We can narrow down the WHERE; we don’t know the WHEN. Why should we wait for the WHEN? Let’s figure out the WHAT first! What do we do as architects? We need to plan for disasters beforehand instead of being reactive each time.

Last year the number of people living in urban areas crossed the line of rural area world population for the first time. The highest degree of life loss will occur in major cities when nature strikes. Most of these cities will be along the coast. Our own region sits on a fault line and when the earthquake hits, loss of life may be enormous. The competitive business life may lead us towards the rush for clients. But we play a major role in the survival and deaths of those hit by disasters. The highest life loss is a result of bad architecture and construction. When we think of refugee camps, think of the separated families, of a person who lost a limb, a lady who is pregnant, a blind person, a crying child… They are people just like us lost in the hustle and bustle. Other than food and water, they need immediate SHELTER.

The architectural solution should be quick to install, easy to transport, durable, flexible, humane, and adaptable to the region. The layout should create a livable community with shared facilities as well as individual privacy. Needless to say, the structures should be environment friendly and regenerative with net zero energy and water use. Aesthetics should not be negated just because these are temporary structures. Think of the structures that are built for the Olympics. How much thought goes in those! If we can respect the recreation needs, we certainly need to respect the shelter needs. Many of us have more time at hand than before. Why not put our heads together and design for the next disaster now, before we scramble to find another shipping container!

I took the liberty of sharing my opinion. Now it’s your turn to share your creative solutions. If you didn’t participate in the COD Ideas competition, make sure to check the winning solutions in June!

COD vs COTE

I was in a shuttle going from the airport towards my hotel at the last AIA Convention in San Francisco when I overheard an amazed UK girl speaking to her mother. “Look mom, all the drivers are alone in their cars! There are no passengers!” she said. The mother tried to explain with futility, when the girl asked, “But why are there no passengers? Why are they driving the car for just one person?” The mother simply asked her to shush.

It brought back memories when I was that age and lived with parents in India. Quite simply, we used cars when at least two people were travelling. At other times we used scooters, bikes, mopeds, rickshaws, horse carts, three-wheelers, buses, and trains. This was not because of lack of means, but lifestyle and culture. I could count the number of times I had been inside an air-conditioned building on my two hands until I moved to US. We faced severe cold and heat with the same comfort as the pleasant spring and summer seasons. We lived among the rain and the fog. We adjusted. Our buildings worked, and we adapted to the seasons. Times have changed. Countries like India have “progressed” and become westernized in their luxuries. But are they getting away from nature in their pursuit of luxury? What’s the point of having an air-conditioner installed in a house if we face power-cuts? That’s common there, but may not be far from us at US. Are we prepared? Can our buildings function without electricity?

Environmental design, sustainability, green building, responsive design… whatever we call it… These words were new to me when I moved here. I didn’t initially understand why we were talking about these things. To me, it was part of design. I soon realized the dependence on fossil fuels that this country suffers from. Over the years, I have started to suffer from the same dependence. But I do understand what an experienced architect is talking about when they speak of green building versus someone fresh out of school. There is a big educational gap there. My architectural education in India was similar to US education 20 years ago, while my Masters at Michigan is of the current age. I’d say I’ve seen both sides of the coin. So what do we do about this?

In today’s date, LEED is considered the highest rating system for a building’s sustainability. There are strong opinions for and against LEED. Instead of getting into debates about how good LEED is, why don’t we stop and wonder; if we didn’t have LEED or similar rating systems, will all the buildings being constructed be sustainable? Is architecture all about form and function or are there certain basic principles that some architects overlook? Why are we separating the “LEED” items from a regular building design? I don’t think we should fight LEED because we think we know better! I believe it is an essential tool because without it, many professionals will be lost about how to properly design and construct a building. We need to have both discussions going on simultaneously – how to design well and how to design responsibly. I believe California is headed in the right direction through the adoption of Green Building Standards Code (CALGREEN). We need to lead the effort so Nevada isn’t much far behind. Time will tell how the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) will impact our work. In the meanwhile, let’s do what we can at home to design and construct well.

That brings me to the discussion of the Committee on the Environment (COTE) and the Committee on Design (COD). Why is COTE separate from COD? COD focuses on good design practices while COTE focuses on good environmental design practices. What?! Isn’t it the same thing?

One of my goals for this year was to start a local COD. Another goal was to restart COTE. After much deliberation and some discussions with peers who will spearhead the effort, we have come to the conclusion that these two missions need to be combined. We are starting an AIA Las Vegas Committee on Design that will be based on the missions of COD and COTE at the national level. We will not engage in debates on LEED and how to design green buildings. The mission would be to acknowledge good design. We do not plan on separating the two issues of good design and green design, because they aren’t separate! If you believe in DESIGN, please keep an eye on the upcoming announcements when we head start this new committee. To committee on “designed environments”… to Committee on Design!