Resolute.

There’s an old joke about quitting smoking; it’s very easy to quit, I’ve done it a hundred times.

I guess it’s very easy to make resolutions. Or create a blog, for that matter. It’s the tenacity to stick with it that wavers, and we’ve all fallen prey to it. In that vein, I’m just going to make a list of ten things I’d like to do more (or less) of this year.

1.  Sketch more.

I’ll take this one from my college friend Bob Swinburne over at Vermont Architect. Sketching helps to put things in perspective (pun not intended) and freshen up your skills. We all stare at the screen too much every day, and it’s certainly easy enough to keep a notepad in your back pocket. We architects always have pens in our pockets anyway. It helps your mind work in three dimensions, which is what our clients want and the world sees anyway. It also ties into the next point:

2. Integrate SketchUp more fully into the design process.

We use SketchUp a lot here at the practical office, but it’s not totally integrated into our workflow. I’d like to begin to use it more fully as a design and documentation tool instead of just a presentation medium. It’s come a long way since i first started using it and it’s an amazing program.

3. Take more photos, and learn to use Photoshop and the full range of my camera.

Things that go hand in hand. Well, the box has been sitting here for a long time now. I need to bite the bullet and learn to use it. That way I can better prepare marketing materials and get some great photos of some of my projects.

4. Update my marketing materials and finally get a web site with a gallery uploaded.

Pretty straightforward. What better use of a slow economic time than to get your ducks in a row and improve your public face. Learning Photoshop will help advance this goal.

5. Detail more.

Time to update the detail library at the practical office, and standardize a few sheets that can be easily adapted for different project types.

6. Re-write our basic specifications package.

I’ve been dreading this one forever. It’s at the point now where it’s like Windows XP – ten years old, on its third service pack and held together by constant updates and patches. It needs a comprehensive rewrite to include a better set of green specifications and to weed out redundant items.

7. Procrastinate less through better organization.

Well, we always have to start somewhere. I’ve started with a (semi) clean desk and a couple of notepads for ideas. I developed a system in the last year that mostly works for me (and my ADHD, lol). I’ve gotten much better at keeping organized and following up on things, but there’s always progress to be made. Streamlining my process and workflow have helped, and I have a lot of ideas on how I can improve turnaround time without sacrificing the quality of our product.

8. Blog and write more.

Pretty obvious that I’ve been away for a while. Not for lack of motivation or inspiration, but mostly due to my inability to get my thoughts on paper. Writing things down certainly helps, and if it leads to more frequent and coherent blog posts, all the better for it.

9. Read more about the profession, and that includes the huge unread pile of magazines on my desk.

Part of the reason I hate reading about Architecture is the pretentious way much of it is presented and described; I tend to stick with the construction trade journals like Fine Homebuilding, the Journal of Light Construction and their ilk. So many of the glossy trades are all ads or are plastered with whatever commercial project du jour has been completed by Gehry or Zaha Hadid (I just like saying ‘Zaha Hadid’!). Couple that with all the negative news about our profession that has been in the news as of late and it makes for some depressing reading. But, there is much to be learned about the technical side of things in those magazines as well, and many of the modern glossies like Dwell or Green Builder have a lot to offer. I’m still on the fence about the AIA’s choice to go with ‘Architect’ and ditch Architectural Record after 20 years, as I am about the AIA itself (more on THAT in another post). Last time this happened, it resulted in the death of two excellent publications, Progressive Architecture and Architecture Magazine. There are a lot of books on Architecture and the profession that I’d like to finally get around to reading, and I’m not talking about the Hunger Games series.

10. Make Money.

Well, who wouldn’t want to make money instead of just breaking even. Architects have seen their profit margins deteriorate over the last several years to the point where they are razor thin. Not like they were huge to begin with, but at least there was a little room to move. One good thing about this recession has been the internal weeding out and constant evaluation of every part of the process and business. You simply have to learn to do more with less while maintaining your core service – produce a great set of plans at a reasonable price without sacrificing design or client expectations. This year will see more of the same to maintain the status quo unless things increase, which at least around here seems possible!

What are the things you are focusing on this year?

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Back to Business.

Wow, where does the time go? I swear that yesterday it was February and there were two feet of snow on the ground. Time to tackle some spring cleaning around the practical office! Every year at this time we take stock of our software needs and try to budget out what our hardware purchases for the year will be [I think this will be the year that we finally commit to using dual monitors on our workstations. Yay!]. I’ve had several conversations with others recently about the computer hardware and software we use in our small office, so i figured I’d share.

Computers: Currently, we are running a PC office. Our workstations are Precision 390’s with 19″ LCD displays, running Windows XP. Our file server is a Poweredge 800 running Red hat Enterprise Linux 5. We have had this configuration for several years and it seems to be working well for us and for our computing needs. XP, you say? Not Windows 7? Yup. We do have some legacy hardware (mostly printer) issues that are not supported under Windows 7, so for now XP is just fine. We will most likely upgrade OS’s as we replace our workstations in the next few years.

Printers: Our main plotter is an HP DesignJet 1050c, and we have an old HP DesignJet 750c as a backup, just in case. Both are 36″ spool fed. The last time I was going to get rid of the 750c (which still works like a champ), the big plotter decided it needed a prolonged vacation. I’m glad I kept it. For smaller printing we have two 11×17 printers, an HP 1220c and a Canon BJC-4550. Both of these are legacy units but for dependability and output I haven’t been able to part with them.

I also have an HP Laserjet 1020 printer and our Canon copier is networked as a laser printer. The latter also does 11×17. For a paperless office we sure can produce our share of recycling.

Software: For everyday 2D drafting and design we use AutoDesk’s AutoCAD Architecture. When I first started in solo practice, I used DataCAD as it had a much lower price point for entry into the CAD market. From there I jumped back into Autocad Architectural Desktop and have stayed there ever since. I’ve been in several discussions recently about the benefits of BIM (Building Information Modeling) and have seen several other offices switch over to REVIT, but I have yet to be convinced of the efficiencies of this for a small firm.We have been looking at other 2D drafting options (DoubleCad XT and AutoCAD LT for example) but are staying put for now.

For 3D modeling no other program comes close to Sketchup. I have been an avid user of this program since version 1.7. The ease of use and consistent output is a huge benefit to the small office. We do very little 3D in AutoCAD.

Throw in Podium as a rendering package and you can get presentation quality equaling some of the bigger offices.

For an office suite, we are still using MS Office (2003 and 2007) as it has proven to be cost effective and dependable. If cost is an issue for other firms, I would recommend checking out either Open Office (Free) or, if you’re into cloud computing, Google Docs (Free or Subscription).

Other programs we utilize on a regular basis are StruCalc for beam sizing and EnergyPlus / ResCheck for energy modeling.

Accounting is done using QuickBooks by Intuit; one of the best pieces of advice I got early on from my accountant was to set things up correctly from the beginning. It has made it much easier to go back and compare things historically. It can also be used to track time, although we have had mixed success with that feature.

I don’t know if this has been helpful in terms of giving a little insight into what we use, but I’d love to hear what other architects and small offices are using for their everyday workload.

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Practice: Specialization or Diversification?

I read a post recently by an architect friend of mine, a sole proprietor, who was bemoaning the fact that on the perfect project they would be able to utilize all the proper consultants as they should be used and have the fee structure to do the same. My first reaction was ‘yeah, that’s right’. My next thoughts were about how many different specialties there are in the architectural consulting arena, and how the profession of architecture has really led down two divergent paths of practice: specialization and diversification.

I was lucky enough to work in a small firm, under a great boss, while I was still in Architecture school. I continued with the firm for several years after before striking out on my own, and took many lessons along with me. From the beginning, everyone in the office was expected to handle multiple roles. We handled pretty much everything in house except for MEP and civil/structural engineering. Occasionally we used other consultants (Landscape architects, kitchen designers, etc) but we handled the bulk of the design work ourselves. We had an interiors person on staff and we chugged along for many years in this fashion. One architect also handled the IT duties (we were pretty advanced as far as CADD goes, starting with AutoCAD 9 or 10 in the late 1980’s) as we transitioned from hand drafting into the world of computers. We were also flexible as a design firm, working on everything from small residential projects to large multifamily, commercial and industrial developments. This balance helped us to survive the economic downturns of the late ’80’s and again in the ’90’s. The firm had a couple of commercial clients that provided us with steady work in that time, which allowed us to keep everyone in the office when other firms were laying people off. A lot of people I graduated with went into unrelated fields due to the economy at the time and the lack of jobs in the architectural profession.

This diverse experience has given my practice some tools to keep our business afloat in these uncertain times. I’ve seen many small firms and sole proprietors fall by the wayside in recent years due to their dependence on certain markets; specifically the residential and office planning fields. The residential market dried up in late 2007 and has only recently begun to show signs of life, at least in our area. It has been my experience in previous downturns that when the residential market drops, the commercial market tends to pick up, so a balance works well. In this extended recession, that was true for the first year or two, but the markets haven’t sprung back as they have in the past. Being optimistic, this spring looks like it is showing signs of life again. While today’s diversified firms are a long way from the Architect ‘Master Builders’ of the past, they have an ability to justify their existence and attract new clientele through their expanded practice. The down side of this, one can argue, is that you become a ‘jack of all trades, master of none'; this can work both for and against you.

The opposite side of the spectrum, specialization, has also provided some businesses with a path to stay afloat. Green building, for example, is a huge industry and a relatively short learning curve for a small firm to become proficient in it. The trick is finding people willing to invest in the additional expense of a green building project. Many large firms, especially the ones handling government contracts and schools, have been able to survive due to the funding sources of those projects. However, even those projects are now facing increased budget scrutiny and cutbacks. Other firms have added expanded, related services under their umbrella, such as construction management, interior design or another specialty, to increase their marketability and attract new clients. I’m not against specialization as a path of practice, but I have always felt personally that you have more exposure in a down economy to the whims of the market if your niche evaporates.

Which path has your firm followed? Are you a multitasking organization? Or a specialized niche firm? Leave me a comment for more discussion.

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5 Question Book Review – 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Title: 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Where did you find this book and why did you pick it up?
This book was recommended by an architect friend after I spied it hanging out of his briefcase at a P&Z hearing.

Who is the target audience for this title?
Pretty much anyone interested in learning a little more about architectural theory and the inner workings of an Architect’s brain, but specifically anyone who is in architecture school or wants a refresher on a some of the basics.

What did you take away from it?
I thought there was some good tongue-in-cheek humor and great line drawings, and while I won’t spoil the list of things in the book there were more than a few that I found myself nodding along with while reading. The book covered quite a wide range of topics, from famous quotes to presentation graphics and basic design theory. It’s certainly no in-depth tome but a good quick read. I also loved the last ‘thing’, it gave me hope yet!

What did you find the book was lacking?
Five years of paper cuts, ammonia burns, X-acto knife scars and coffee stains! I’m sure everyone who has been to Architecture school and reads this will finish it and say ‘what about this or that’? It certainly is not a complete list, nor is it intended to be, but there were a few points in the book where I was scratching my head and wondering why things were included or left out. I bet you could write a whole series of these (on Architecture school alone, the author has co-written several other books on different professions) without too much of a stretch. Overall, a fun quick read.

Is this a must have book for your shelf?
No, but it’s a fun book and something to keep in your briefcase for when you are stuck on the train.

Link: Purchase this book at Amazon.com

Every week I will pull a random book off my shelves and give it a quick review. If you have any books you think I should be reading, or are worth a look, do not hesitate to email me your recommendations!

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Where to begin?

There are several pieces to successful firm growth and management. While I’m going to address many of them in time, I decided to start with a basic, but often overlooked, concept: communication.

Communication? Bah! I communicate with my clients and my peers every day! They understand what I mean without me having to drop my polysyllabic vocabulary and industry jargon, I’m sure of it!

Communication is one of the most valuable skills we learn not only in school, but in life. Reading, Writing, Drawing, Gesturing. All parts of a set of tools that we can use to describe things and interact with others. In fact, once you start down the path in architecture school, a student’s communication skills are broken down and rebuilt to better serve them professionally.

Your handwriting is broken down to its core components in graphics class to emulate a standard ‘architect’s writing’ that even the untrained eye can pick out. It emphasizes the importance of documenting the environment around us by making one feel that they have to work to begin using that writing style. That importance carries into every drawing a student of architecture ever produces, contrasting even the most creative and artistic design with the formality and structure of not only the written word, but also the form it takes. Whether a well-worn fat 2b pencil or a Mont Blanc fountain pen is your writing implement of choice, design and structure are forever woven together by one of the simplest elements. Even the most organic, flowing shapes and intricate patterns must somehow be explained through the written sketch and word. Every individual has their own unique drawing style; graphical communication must be able to convey the essence of a design clearly. This is a concept that I will continue to discuss in other posts.

Once you start to describe your environment and your designs, good communication skills are paramount. As students learn the ins and outs of presenting in front of their professors, then their peers, and finally complete strangers in larger critiques, they must learn to describe their projects with not only the written but the spoken word and do so simply and concisely. Language and terminology among architects and designers tend to become more complex and, well, wordy. It’s one thing to present to a room full of Architecture professors or critics, and quite another to present the same design concept to a volunteer building committee for a school .

All too often, I hear complaints about architects that ‘don’t listen to the client’. The flip side of that is the complaints from the architects that ‘the clients don’t appreciate or understand the importance of the design’. I think part of this disconnect comes from an inherent reaction to defend one’s` design. Somewhere in the middle is where good communication skills pay off. Being able to give and take, to use written and verbal communication to make sure that everyone understands the ideas at hand, is a critical skill that will only serve to help you and your clients in the long run.

Over the years I have presented to many different groups of people; building committees, Municipal Review Boards, contractors, commercial developers and average residential clients. It is important to realize that the success of a design ultimately depends on your ability to communicate successfully with those involved in the project. It is also important to understand that communication is a two way street; it is just as important to get your ideas and thoughts across as it is to listen to what other parties have to say. I have seen architects present their designs very eloquently only to be unable to answer simple questions put forth by members of the audience. Being able to boil the essence of a design down to its simplest terms is a skill that sometimes does not come naturally. Some would argue that it is the ‘dumbing down’ of a design or a concept; I would argue that what you may really be doing is making Architecture accessible to a wider audience, and that in a nutshell is really what your job is.

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A few practical thoughts.

A small firm, while offering many opportunities for design exploration, requires a certain amount of discipline and structure to operate smoothly (and successfully). Even before I went to architecture school, i was biased to some degree by my upbringing. The son of an electrician and building inspector, the grandson of a plumber and the great grandson of a mason, I was thankful to have a great deal of hands-on experience with construction while growing up. Summers and winters off from school were spent working for several local contractors and learning the nuts and bolts of the trades and how they interact in the field. I have always felt that this both helped and hindered my development as an architect; it wasn’t until a few excellent professors challenged me to think outside the box in studio that I really learned to rationalize the realities of building with the theories of design. This balance has helped me to become, in my opinion, a better Architect.

A voracious reader since I can remember, I have always turned to the printed page when I was looking for a solution to a particularly fussy problem. One of the things I hope to accomplish is to review some of the many books on construction, architectural design and business that I have collected over the years and offer some insights on how they have impacted my practice.

The disconnect between designing and building is greater today than it ever has been. Historically, the architect was known as the ‘Master Builder'; today the profession has been marginalized by plan houses, design-build firms, contractors offering ‘design’ services and many other forces. Working smoothly with contractors and building departments and knowing codes as well as modern and proper construction methodologies can go a long way in adding value to your firm.

I often joke that there are three things that they never teach you in architecture school:

One is how to draw, read and write upside down. The second is marriage counseling.

The third is how to run a practice. A large percentage of the 100,000 or so architects practicing in the United States are either in a small firm (less than 10 people) or a sole practitioner. Everyone has to take a professional practice class in architecture school, but most of the time is spent on learning about contract documents rather than sound business practices. A guest speaker when I was in college told us that a successful firm needs a good designer, someone who can put the nuts and bolts together to make it work, and someone who can run the business. These may all be the same person, or it can be several people, but those are the three major pieces that must be addressed. Hopefully this will become a forum where these topics can be discussed. I’d like to offer some insights on all of these subjects in one location, and would like to try to create a repository of tips, tricks and bits of useful information.

I have always wanted to teach, but the opportunity has never presented itself. Along that vein I finally decided to start this blog; not to instruct but to share some of the things I have learned over the years in the hopes that it could help other architects or students in their professional pursuits. I would love to hear from anyone out there with any questions or thoughts about the profession!

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