Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It's All Good (in Theory)

Great googly-moogly! What a craptacular day!

Okay, let's back up. I have been pondering a blogiphesto about the documentary My Architect made by Nathaniel Kahn, Louis Kahn's "illegitimate" son. In case you don't know, architect Louis Kahn is considered one the foremost modernist "Form Givers" of the 1960's and early 70's. The hook is that he died in Philadelphia Station in New York in 1974, on his way home from India, and his body went unclaimed for 72 hours as nobody had any idea who he was since he previously scratched out his address on his passport. Ah, the life of a World Famous Architect.

I purchased and watched the DVD last year when it came available, and then I watched it again last weekend with my wife and a grad student friend from India (who reads this blog, so I have to be careful.) The movie -- or should I say film since I am a pretentious architect? -- is subtle and anti-heroic and heart-rending and eye-opening and lots of other hyphenated phrases. But I'm afraid it put my friend to sleep. In the film's defense, he drank all our beers before I subjected him to the cinematic tragedy that is Life of Architect. [In truth, we only had two beers--bad hosts--still he DID drink both of them. So there.]

And "so there" for your movie review, too. For the record: One particular Philadelphia politician who shall remain nameless earned my burning hatred because he took gleeful pride in preventing Kahn from ever having a single building constructed in his hometown. Lovely man.

Now back to my craptastic day...

First, my contractor directed the geotechnical engineer to conduct full-spectrum soil compaction analysis on the engineered soil that went in under the slab-on-grade and also on the bearing conditions of the drilled piers that were installed per the requirements and design of said geotechnical engineer eight months ago. Where's my beef? He never asked me. I specifically instructed said contractor NOT to do any materials testing during construction, trusting that the subs and excavator types would do their jobs to spec, and knowing that my client wasn't willing to pay for testing. I received an invoice from the geotech engineers today -- sent to me -- for $1,400 and change. Who's gonna pay for this? Certainly not me. And it would be a stretch to even conceive of the Hotheaded Client paying for it. Poor contractor...

Second, I gave my client an extra set of construction documents ("CD's" is the lingo) to deliver to his Homeowner's Association ("HOA" is the lingo) for their review and approval. I did this four months ago. Did he do this one simple thing? What do you think? Construction began a month ago. Last week the HOA noticed the excavation work being done without their review and approval. That led directly to a phone call to the contractor to cease and desist under threat of lawsuit. So we scrambled to deliver a set of CD's to the HOA President. Who then dinged us on two issues. The hotheaded client then told the President, this very morning, that he was a moron and that he should go to hell. Needless to say, I spent much of the rest of my day scrambling like a mad bitchdog after a run-in with skunks, porcupines, and horny studdogs. I finished up at about 10:15 tonight and emailed everything to the Prez. Wonder how forgiving he's willing to be?

And I wonder just how much the neighbors are gonna hate the hothead... a lot? or a whole lot?

Third, I put in four solid hours this morning on another neat job, waking up earlier than usual, and having some fun before being dragged back to client-from-hell reality. So I'm tired. Really tired. But I know you all want and NEED to hear about my day as Architect, so blog I must. (I'm beginning to sound like Yoda.)

Finally, my mom had hip replacement surgery last week and her recovery is not so good. Internal bleeding, and she's most miserable. My dad's doing a terrific job helping out, though -- at least according to the brief peek into their recovering lives I was able to discern during an hour visit this afternoon. Good for him. But worrysome to all.

What a damned googly-moogly day. The only bright side is that it's the end of the month, which means I get to INVOICE!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dog & Pony

I met potential clients yesterday -- a husband and wife, church-goers, a son in high school about to make his parents empty-nesters in a few years, beaucoups bucks yet with good taste in architecture and presumably architects since they interviewed me, buying a spectacular piece of land on a rise with views in all directions, next to a small lake, they even want to incorporate passive solar for Christ sake (if you know me, you know I will love you long time if you want the passive solar).

My problem? None at all. Except that I want and need this job more than oxygen itself and kibble itself and sex itself. I'm pretty sure I was born to design their house. So what do I say to them during the 90-minute interview? I can't remember. A total blank. Except that I'm almost certain I was charming and funny and helpful and smart and likeable and clearly easy to work with.

Now we wait. Let's wait together...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

So Why Did Howard Laugh?

Isn't it about time I explained the name of my architecture blog, Why Howard Laughed? Begin with the opening paragraphs [mercifully edited for brevity] from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead:

Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion...[snip]
He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead. He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. He tried to consider it. But he forgot. He was looking at the granite. He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him...[snip]
He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them...

For most readers who have taken pleasure from modifying their natural surroundings to suit their will -- be it building a custom home, tilling soil and creating a garden, planting a line of trees, or even fiddling with the natural flow of a stream using boulders and rocks -- these words read like the opening chords of an heroic symphony. But to readers of naturalists Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, or readers of peak oil crank James Howard Kunstler, to Earthfirsters, Greenpeace followers, and to believers in the Gaia Hypothesis, these words are nothing but trouble.

Yet I am given to both schools of thought. I am a man torn by contradiction. Architect Robert Venturi was right: Modern Man will no longer be about either/or, but both/and.

While I once was a true believer in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism after reading The Fountainhead at the impressionable age of 17, I ultimately rejected much of it at the age of 25 once I came to understand,
1) That we're all in this together;
2) That nobody doesn't care what others think of him or her unless one is entirely devoid of compassion, as compassion is dependent upon deep awareness of and empathy towards the feelings and experiences of others;
3) That while society's achievements are built upon acts of courage and heroism of individuals, we each owe a tremendous debt to the collective achievements accreted generation by generation, as though a pearl, which is then given back to each individual according to ones curiosities and ambitions so we might stand on the shoulders of those who passed before; culminating in
4) from whom much has been given, much is expected.

But for Rand, payback was a bitch -- or at least how she saw society's expectation of payback.

Instead, I came to understand that one of the most mature realizations an ambitious and rugged individualist seeking wisdom can make is that duty to each other, to society, is an act of honor and respect towards our forebears.

As for me, I would love to make so much money that congress and the IRS would have to create a special tax bracket to garnish massive chunks of my wealth. And I would gladly pay. For no person works and creates and then benefits from that work and creation without first having a social foundation and culture built on others' past experiences and achievements on which one draws as an investment.

And as an aside, I would insert the personal concern that just as the Soviet Union's economy collapsed under rampant collectivism based strictly on society at the expense of the individual, so too is the danger that the American economy may very well collapse under rampant get-rich-quick individualism at the expense of societal concerns. Something to ponder...

But that's not really what I wanted to say with this particular post.

No, what I wanted to say is much briefer than all that:

Creating is a hoot.

Examining a problem from all sides and all facets, meditating on it, even pounding your head on the razor sharp edge of failure's abyss... and then feeling adrenaline excitement when a new and strangely attractive solution pops into your head -- that is what architects, artists, musicians, novelists, craftsmen, and all creative types live and work for. Nevermind that three quarters of all those new ideas may still be pure garbage.

The trick to creating comes in two steps:
first, conceiving new ideas;
then, evaluating those new ideas.

As it's said that every good writer needs a good editor, every architect needs equally good judgment. Some of the most creative architects I know can't begin to successfully evaluate their ideas. So everything goes in -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. The projects of these uber-creators succeed if there's more good than bad, and darned little ugly. But that doesn't always happen.

Me? My process is best described by Gene Fowler's famous words, when he wrote, "Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." Architectural creation is truly 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. When designing, I conceive of and then ultimately reject hundreds of ideas each hour. I would like to think that I have rejected thousands of moderately interesting ideas that lesser architects might have still exploited for fame and fortune. But not me. 90% of the time I'm a hack just like they are. The difference is that those hack ideas all get tossed. However, 10% of the time... yes, 10% of the time...

When The Fountainhead's "Howard Roark laughed", he was reveling in his own creative urges and architectural ambitions in the midst of the tremendous personal and professional turmoils he would soon face from his architectural school and from the world. But he just knew that he could do it armed with total confidence in himself made possible by the complete lack of compassion that Ayn Rand endowed him with.

Yeah. Right. Only in fiction.

It's damned hard work creating and evaluating ones own creative efforts.
It's damned hard work believing in the delicate and necessary balance between the heroism of rugged individualism and the social compact.
And it's damned hard work trying to be compassionate and not caring what others think.

These are all efforts worthy of heroes, highly conflicted heroes!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Make No Small Plans

This has been an exciting week for my client and me as groundbreaking took place when a large frontloader tore heck out of the earth and began to create man-made order from nature's original laid-back intent. Caissons are being drilled in this photo by two crews. Bedrock was discovered by the geotechnical engineer only a few feet below the surface which would not provide good purchase for a typical and much less expensive spread footing. The drilled pier/grade beam foundation system added over $30,000 to the cost of the house. When this house is complete, it will be a 3,600 sq. ft. contemporary Arts & Crafts masterpiece costing the client about $200/sq. ft. It'll be worth the extra cost though, as the two-acre lot is the last one in the neighborhood, and it has wondrous lake and mountain vistas. The client and I have worked on this dreamhome, most recently to get costs down, for nearly 18 months. It is time to build. I'll of course update with photos.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Long and Winding Road

Every profession and occupation has hoops and hurdles to jump over and through to join the club. Or should that be through and over? Nevermind. You know what I mean. Credentials are important. One doesn't simply declare oneself to be a lawyer (though the requirements of claiming the title of "Esquire" seem to be a bit more lenient these days). No, the lawyer-to-be must take the bar exam. And pass it. And before that, the LTB (lawyer-to-be -- please keep up!) must earn a bachelors degree in something else before being accepted into law school. Lots and lots of hurdles to overcome. Lots of credentials to earn.

And still we have too many lawyers! Ironic, no?

Excluding recent developments in job titling within the computer industry, not just anyone can wake up and decide they shall henceforth be known as ARCHITECT.

So what hoops and hurdles, you ask, does one jump over and through... er, through and over to become ARCHITECT? Well, first of all, before I answer the question, I would like to thank you for asking it in the first place. You see, so few of my friends and relatives seem to give a darn about any aspect of my work or profession, and it's kinda nice to...

Uh, sorry about that self-pitying cul-de-sac. It won't happen again. Where were we? Oh yeah...

There are only about 100 universities in the United States that have accredited architecture programs leading to a professional degree. A professional degree is typically a Bachelor of Architecture or a Master of Architecture degree (don't be fooled by a Bachelor of Environmental Design or Bachelor or Arts in Architecture or some such sillyness). The B. Arch and M. Arch. are good because they are the most direct path, if not the only path in most states, to becoming ARCHITECT. Most states, though not all, now require that a candidate seeking the coveted title of ARCHITECT must first earn a professional degree from an accredited university. It once was that any schmoe who had worked half his life under the supervision of a licensed architect (no more caps and bold for now) could sit for the registration exam. But that has pretty much been changed now as architects lobbied their state registration boards to limit the transformation of non-architects into architects to limit the competition or to prevent hacks from entering the club. Anyway, the Bachelor of Architecture degree takes five years or more to earn. A Master of Architecture degree takes two or three, though one needs an undergraduate degree first, preferrably in a major similar to architecture like liberal arts or lawn maintenance or broad brushstroking or basketkaboodling.

Getting into an accredited architecture programs is no piece of pie either. The school where I studied received about 450 applications for 200 slots for the first "pre-professional" year. I made that cut easily with my massively huge SAT scores. Or were they modestly acceptable ACT scores? I forget.

Anyway, the first-year students took a handful of identical courses that pre-professional year and then re-applied to the "professional" program to continue their studies. 250 applied to second year and 68 were accepted. I was ranked #4. From the top, of course. When I graduated following fifth year -- some were on the six-year plan, but not me -- I graduated sixth in my class of 65. Yup, true enuf. I be smart and vewy vewy talented. But enuf about me...

Once the professional degree is out of the way, then the potential architect must go to work as an Intern or an Architect-in-Training or as a wage slave for a number of years under the watchful gaze of a real architect. During this internship, usually lasting something like three years depending on the state requirements, the wage slave must beg and plead with his or her master to earn experience points doing various aspects of professional work such as drafting, managing consultants and engineers, drafting, construction field observation, and drafting.

When the intern / wage slave's time is up, he/she/it may now take the registration exam in his/her/its state. But don't let the singular character of the word "exam" fool you into thinking that the test lasts one day. Noooooo, we're talking seriously plural. We're talking four full days and at least eight hours and up to twelve hours each day. The architectural registration exam is the most rigorous and demanding exam going because the public's health and safety is at stake. Traditionally, the registration exam is subdivided into nine separate sections -- site design, theory, structural systems (two sections), mechanical systems, building design, etc, etc, and etc. And if you fail any of the nine sections, you get to wait up to twelve months before you can re-take that section.

This is why it took me -- your intrepid narrator/genius -- three tries before I could pass them all. I passed eight sections the first time I took them. But the longest one -- an all-day 12-hour exam on building design -- took me three tries and two extra years. In the meantime, I dutifully and grudgingly remained at my wage slave post drawing bathroom fixtures and such. Well, not really, but it sure felt like it.

When I finally passed the WHOLE exam, I became ARCHITECT and haven't looked back (I can hear my wife smirking right now!) All in all, it took me ten years from my first classroom lecture on "Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas" (Latin translation: Firmness, Function, Delight) to earning the right to pay my state board an annual registration fee to reach the promised land: The title of ARCHITECT!

It felt good.

Though that didn't last long. More to come, donchaknow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My Heroes Have Always Been Builders

Okay, maybe that's not the best heading for a post about why I became an architect. Don't care. Makes perfect sense to me. My blog. Mine, mine.

When I was young, maybe eight or nine, I was a space cowboy lost in my own little world, and my favorite thing to do was build things with erector sets, Lincoln logs, tinker toys, and dams out of bricks and mud in the curb gutter in front of our house. You know,
build stuff.

Never got into Legos because nobody ever gave me a set. Sad, huh?

The parents found out why I was a space cowboy when I was ten -- deaf in my left ear. One operation later I could hear a bit better, but I still decided that the life of a space cowboy was the best way to go. Very few friends. The life of the mind. Introspective. Sensitive. Shy. Perfect architect material. Yeah, right.

When I was 13, I designed my first ranch-style house. Absolutely sprawling but with active and passive solar, and even a wind turbine in the back yard alongside a huge garden. Guess I was a bit of a hippy at the time. Still am.

Shortly after that, I built a suspension bridge which spanned one end of my bedroom to the other. I used rope as the suspension cables, high-back chairs as the towers, string as the regularly-spaced vertical support cables, and lots of those electric racing car snap-together tracks for the road surface. I used only the straight sections of course. This was the coolest thing I'd ever done, I thought. And then I promply forgot it.

Ten years later, after crapping out in college thinking I could major in the purest of sciences, I recalled how I always really wanted to be an architect and design cool things. So off to the library I went. (When I get an interest, I research the hell out of it. The internet has been a God-send for me.) A couple dozen books later, heavy on the Life and Work of Frank Lloyd Wright, I
knew that architecture was for me.

Before then, I assumed that to be an architect, one needed to have wondrous drawing skills and have a deep interest in
ART, which I did not have. But after reading those dozens of books, I realized that there were so many niches and specialties in the architecture profession, that I could find the perfect niche to temper my miserable drawing/drafting skills.

Also around this time, my father purchased the first Apple computer after reading that computer literacy would be a key for future generations. I glommed onto that thing and began writing games and various software for weeks on end -- sort of like today's online fantasy gamers and their terrible addictive neglect of the world around them in exchange for killing Gnomes and Trolls and Serpents and, and, and. That was me, only over two decades ago.

Fortunately, I read that computer literacy would be a future requirement for architects. And fortunately, I decided that my obsessive focus on computers could give me a headstart in a career of architectural design. And fortunately, I realized that poor drawing/drafting skills could be balanced out with brilliance on an Apple. Or an IBM. Or a mainframe. Or an Atari. Or whatever platform became the norm.

I was going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright and design beautiful, inspiring, highly articulated and detailed houses for my generation.

It wasn't until I began majoring in architecture that I learned that 97% of the homes Americans live in are NOT designed by architects. Duh! Okay, I can be a bit slow in my space cowboy world. But I persevered.

After a dozen years of working with high-profile architecture firms in the neighborhood Megalopolis designing commercial, healthcare, recreational, ecclesiastical, and educational facilities, I have now been out on my own for over three years trying to make it as a residential architect.

Good luck with that, huh?

Dribs and drabs. But the projects I've done have been interesting, the pay has been meager but encouraging, and the future almost looks bright. At least until the American oil-dependent economy collapses, bringing down the dollar, the real estate market, and all job prospects for the building industry.

Until then, armed with a supportive wife earning a decent salary and benefits, I remain the most optimistic space cowboy/architect in my Western State (of mind).

What's in a Name?

Nicknames are powerful things.

They can be used as cudgels by bullies. For example, one friend in high school had the unfortunate nickname of "Porky". Everyone called him by that awful name, and over time he even gladly answered by it.

My oldest son played college baseball and in his freshman year was nicknamed, well... let's just say it was a less-than-complimentary term for "eccentric". Funny thing was that he was given the nickname by the most eccentric player on the team. Of course, that didn't mean my son's nickname didn't fit. Or to put it with fewer double-negatives: The nickname was spot-on accurate. When my mother heard about the nickname, she gasped and then chuckled to herself, "it wouldn't be so bad if someone else was nicknamed 'shit-for-brains'." As the season developed, we all got used to it. The following year my son edited his own nickname to make it something of a Simpsons reference. By his senior year, his nickname had transmogrified into something bearing very little resemblance to the original, which it occurs to me is something "Porky" might have attempted had the thought ever popped into his pudgy little brain.

I have a client who is very disagreeable. He erroneously thinks he knows more about practically everything than I do -- including the architecture biz. He whines and complains about everything, he needs constant hand-holding, and he has masterful bullying tendencies. His first reaction to bad news, of which there has unfortunately been plenty, is anger. And I don't mean pouting and blaming and getting pissy. Nope, this guy is a hothead. He curses. He threatens. If we were face to face, he would probably slug me. I know this because he has told me so. I only call him or email him with bad news. Did I say he curses? And the one time I cursed back -- yes, I did -- he immediately grabbed the moral high ground for the next month.

Nevertheless, I've worked very hard for him. But he has been woefully unappreciative. When I try telling my family about his antics, I can barely extend the basic human courtesy of referring to him by name. So I resort, instead, to a nickname. My family now knows him as "The A**hole". Again, my mother was a bit taken aback by my bold use of profanity, so she began referring to him as "The A.H." Since I am a professional, I of course saw the wisdom in this, so I now call him "The A.H." myself... except when in private conversation with my wife. Since she knows what I have been through with this client, she wholeheartedly accepts the fully extended and articulated (and well-deserved) nickname. Unfortunately she sympathizes with him as well, knowing the challenges and heartache he has had to endure. And that drives me nuts.

Is it possible for someone to be too nice? I think so because my wife is a [naive] angel.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ego Uber Alles

Yes, I am architect. Licensed and everything. Own my own firm. Have clients who pay. I bill for billable hours. Sometimes bill for unbillable hours (just kidding). Design pretty things. Am hugely underappreciated (aren't we all?) Occasionally get yelled at. Occasionally design things that get built and make it all worth it.

But I'm not going to tell you who I am.

Why? Because professional ethics prevent me from talking about my clients and their projects in any specificity without their expressed consent. So... I'm doing the next best thing -- I'm going undercover.

Why? Because there's just too much to tell. Not metaphorical or unethical dirt, mind you, since I and my clients (for the most part) are deeply ethical and respectable people. Well, there is that one client...

No, for me, an architect, to open up and feel unbound by proprieties and politesse, I crave and require anonimity.

Okay, now that I've finished struttin' and flourishin' for y'all, I would like to tell you a bit about myself... without revealing so many specific details that friends and associates might figure out it's me.

Unlike nearly every other architect I know, I am a pretty good writer. Most people who know me well have suggested at one time or another that I audition as an architectural critic for one of the local or regional newspapers. I haven't done it, however, because I've been committed to doing architecture rather than writing architecture. (And never you mind that I'm writing architecture with this blog, and also never mind that doing both may in fact be possible.)

I graduated nearly two decades ago from one of the finer architecture schools in the western U.S., and have been practicing my craft ever since.

I've owned and managed my own firm now for over three years, and I just might actually make some money this year. At least that's the theory and prayer (truer than I want to admit).

I've designed churches and houses, huge sports arenas and school gymnasium additions, hospitals and outpatient clinics, sprawling office buildings and $10,000 kitchen remodels, greenhouse complexes and toxic waste disposal facilities.

My favorite projects? Churches and houses. My favorite clients? Those who pay on time... and don't yell at me if I screw up.

Finally, I'm married with three sons and I live in a western state (of mind). That's it. Everything else will have to be inferred from future posts. (Inferred? Did I use that word correctly? Who cares? I'm an architect. It's a wonder that I can even spell!)

I hope that I make this interesting for my readers. I think I mentioned earlier that I have a lot of stories to tell. Let's remain hopeful that I succeed. If not, then it should still be good therapy.