Category Archives: Editorial

Empowerment by Design Series: Maximize ROI by Maintaining Discipline

Employing a clear “go/no-go” decision-making process will help maintain discipline and lead to greater ROI.

by Steve Whitehorn

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in the Empowerment by Design series by Steve Whitehorn of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., providing A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.

During the worst years of the sluggish economy many firms took absolutely any work they could get in order to keep afloat. As the economy improves architects are finally beginning to see the projects flowing in, and again, the temptation is the same — grab up any projects possible in order to grow the firm and increase the bottom line.

So why should a firm resist the temptation– isn’t all work good work? The short and the long answer for firms concerned about their ROI and reputation is no! The principle for both fat and lean times remains the same: maintain discipline.

Exercise a simple go, no-go decision-making process to maintain discipline and adhere to the firm’s objectives.  Go/no-go is a term that comes from the tool and die trade, and refers to a simple gauge tool used to test a workpiece- there are only two outcomes: go or “go/no-go”.  When selecting work for a firm the two most important considerations to test with “go/no-go” strategy are client selection and project selection.  The criteria evaluating clients and projects must be grounded on the firm’s goals. Here are some pointers for maintaining discipline in your practice.

Establishing Goals

Firms should establish clear financial and reputational goals and stick to them. Principals should have a shared design philosophy, and a clear vision of how the firm should present itself in the marketplace.  Determine the firm’s financial goals – make the 1-year and 5-year plans. Be pro-active and creative in meeting financial goals but above all maintain the discipline to stick to the firm’s established standards.

Client Selection

Establish common ground with potential clients – make certain they share the firm’s values and motivation. Does the owner have the money to do project, and realistic expectations? Is the contract reasonable and have timely payment terms? Does the contract make the architect responsible for contractor performance, or design changes? Is the client known to be litigious?

Project Selection 

Project selection should be based on a thorough ROI evaluation based on both financial and reputational goals. Is this a project that fits within our firm’s creative vision? Has the firm done this kind of work before? Do we have the capacity? Can we do a good job and meet our financial goals?

If a firm has established clear goals and maintains the discipline to stick to those goals, making a decision on a project can be as simple as “go/no-go”.

Steve Whitehorn is the author of the upcoming book, Empowerment by Design and creator of The A/E Empowerment Program.® He is also Managing Principal of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., which helps its clients create a more significant legacy and empowers them to achieve greater impact on their projects, relationships, and communities.

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Editorial – Proposed IDP Changes

In reviewing the proposed revisions to the IDP program I believe that both the short and long term measures are problematic and can ultimately be detrimental to the profession at large.

Phase 1 abridges the minimum reporting hours from 5,600 (3,740 Core Hours + 1,860 Elective Hours) to only include the 3,740 Core Hours. The contention that the elective hours do not necessarily demonstrate an effective means of developing competency in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public is fair. The response to eliminate literally 1/3 of the apprenticeship period (reducing the approximate 3 years of training to 2) is misguided, unbalanced, and reflects poorly on the perception of our field compared with other established professions.

  • The definition of a “professional corporation” typically is reserved for lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, and certified public accountants. Here is a brief synopsis of the educational / training requirements encountered for these other professionals.
    • Lawyers – 4 year undergraduate degree + Law school (typically 3 years) + licensing examination
    • Doctors – 4 year undergraduate degree + Postgraduate degree + Postgraduate training depending on specialization (ranges from 3 year to 6 years)
    • Engineers – 4 year undergraduate degree + 4 years qualifying work experience + licensing examination
    • Certified Public Accountant – 4 year undergraduate degree + 1-2 years of work experience + certification examination
  • In reviewing these estimates it is clear that those professionals whom have the greatest relationship to preserving HSW are those that uphold a post-graduate training or education period of no less than 3 years. (CPAs manage finances which I would contend is not a fair comparison).

I believe that the crux of this argument is to further enable an expedited licensing process for young design professionals. It is important to nurture talent and keep this younger generation engaged in the practice of architecture. The ongoing problem with many leaving the profession due to a lack of jobs in the marketplace or lower wages will not be ameliorated by getting licenses in their hands faster. If anything it will hurt them more because a company looking to hire will expect to pay more for a licensed architect than they would for a draftsman but concurrently they will expect a greater degree of knowledge. Those that elect to pursue independent practice on their own will be more susceptible to act quickly without necessarily understanding the consequences of their decisions because their training was never really completed.

Accrediting bodies will not be the ones to fix the “brain drain” effect, only practicing architects that can give them opportunities to grow, learn, and mature in the profession while still making a living wage will fix this problem. Current academic practices do not teach to the Architect Registration Exam nor does actual work experience always translate one to one, however each provides components that inform the material of the ARE. We would do a disservice to younger designers by rushing this process while devaluing the body of knowledge that we have fostered over generations. If anything the abridgment reads to me as a surreptitious means of getting more people to qualify to test sooner, resulting in a larger body of people paying to take tests that they are likely less prepared for but which would result in more money flowing to NCARB by way of testing fees.

Time in internship matters. If the argument is that 1,860 hours of service are irrelevant in the current system because they cannot be quantified empirically as useful, the response should be how do we rethink 1,860 hours of service. A simple answer would be to keep them as elective hours but evenly distributed over each of the (4) experience categories. If upon further review the argument arises that some experience categories are more valuable than others, the 1,860 hours can be divided proportionally according to perceived value. Alternately, the hours need to be reapportioned within the (17) experience areas. It is of paramount importance that NCARB cease the endless litany of decisions whereby problem resolution occurs solely by means of total elimination of the problem (eg. the drafting software for ARE vignettes is outdated and fails to match with tools used in daily practice, the response is to eliminate the vignettes in lieu of fixing the software.)

Regarding the Phase 2 plan to revise the (4) experience categories to (6) that each align with the ARE exams is a logical direction to go in however the proposal goes too far. Trying to maintain multiple systems of documenting experience (one via the workplace and the other via testing) is burdensome and can be confusing for interns. It is a good idea to match experience categories with examinations however if the suggestion is to overhaul the system eliminating the (17) experience categories, then once again we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is imperative that these specific categories be structured into the (6) larger experience categories rather than removed. It may be prudent to even expand upon these categories as a means of reapportioning the 1,860 hours described previously. While I agree that the complexity of the current system exists, the problem lies in the broad definitions of the experience categories themselves. Personally I do not agree that reducing complexity results in fewer categories I think it translates to more categories with less ambiguous definitions. The ultimate key though is that the categories of experience match firmly with the intent of the associated ARE exam. The broader focus presented in the narrative explicitly states, “the current 17 experience area of IDP, in combination with their respective minimum hour requirements, reflect an extremely specific and detailed format that keeps internship focused on the details rather than the broader picture.” Even Mies van der Rohe knew that “God is in the details.” We as architects live through details. It is only through rigor, passion, and a commitment to details that we can effectively uphold the health, safety and welfare of the public. We do not need a holistic, feel-good approach that won’t adequately prepare the next generation, we as practitioners need to better mold our workplace to foster their growth so that they can thrive and be successful both at the apprenticeship level as well as throughout their careers.

 

Respectfully submitted,

  Andrew W.J. Kollar, Associate AIA

  

The above article is an Editorial submitted by an AIA-NJ Member, views expressed are not the views of AIA New Jersey.

 

Diversity is an Attribute. Difference is an Action.

By Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA

The following article is a personal piece written by Jason to help understand the benefits of ‘diversity’ when building teams.

Diversity is a state of being that describes the similarities and variations people have— in essence, it is a contextual characteristic that does not define you! Think about each attribute as just one tool in in a larger tool bag. Tools are catalysts for change; however, if you swing around the same tool for every job, you will most likely never achieve your goals.

Diversity is both having the right set of tools for the job and being able to borrow the tools you don’t have from your neighbors. If you want to make a difference, you and your neighbors need to work together. Continue reading

New Series: Empowerment by Design

By Steve Whitehorn

Introduction

These days, owners are expecting more and more for their investment dollars.  Unrealistic owner expectations can lead architects and engineers to experience greater risk and anxiety with every new project.

In my new series for AIA New Jersey – Empowerment by Design – my goal is to help you, the A/E professional, to create a greater sense of clarity in your practice, to establish standards that will protect you and to make you more confident practicing in this ever-changing economic landscape.

It’s not my position that what you’ve been doing is wrong, but that there are more effective strategies – both internal and external – that can empower you and your firm to succeed in today’s marketplace.

This column will also provide you with information as well as, I hope, inspiration.  The kind that helps you step outside of your comfort zone, away from the mindset of “this is the way we’ve always done things, ” and toward a more confident approach to risks and rewards.

Professional boxer Jack Dempsey used to say, “the key to a good offense, is a great defense.” It seems to me, that for the past 40 years, our industry looked at risk in this way.  In my opinion, this hasn’t been the best approach; architects and engineers get sued all the time, and not necessarily with good results.  That kind of uncertainty leaves you always on the balls of your feet.

But what would happen if you learned strategies that helped you get paid, on time, every time?  How about setting standards that empower you to refuse to accept substitutions?  How about discovering the power to keep contractors from running circles around you?  You may find operating and negotiating from a position of strength has its payoffs.

We believe it’s time for change and that your credo as an A/E professional should be, “the key to a good defense, is a great offense!”  That’s what Empowerment by Design is all about.  So go confidently in this new direction, dear reader.  We’re here to help you find greater clarity, greater stability and, above all, greater success.

 

Create Greater Clarity to Empower Your Firm

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in the Empowerment by Design series by Steve Whitehorn of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., providing A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.

As an architect, what are your top career goals?  Fame?  Creative freedom?  Respect?  More money?  Having worked with hundreds of architecture and engineering firms over the past twenty-five years, I have learned that there are many paths to a successful career in architecture.  But each path has one common guide that lights the way: clarity.

So what exactly do I mean by “clarity”?  In the context of observing it in successful firms, possessing clarity means having a detailed understanding of the responsibilities of each person’s role in the firm – from principals to associates to assistants, and so forth – and developing a greater awareness of how each role affects the other.

Why?  Because design is a team sport.  In baseball, for example, coaches typically say that their best hitters are “seeing the ball well.”  In other words, they have achieved a sense of clarity: they can see what’s coming at them and they’re confident they can knock the ball out of the park.  In the same way, the greater clarity firm principals have, the greater positive impact it will have on the firm.  Clarity is a stepping-stone for success, as it will improve and guide the firm’s projects, relationships, and overall economic stability.

Unfortunately, a lack of clarity is a distinct flaw that shows up in many areas of a firm.  I have found that most of the fears and anxieties that my clients possess ultimately can be traced back to a lack of clarity. The resulting uncertainty and apprehension leads to a domino effect of confusion among their employees in their respective roles.  Thankfully, finding greater clarity within your firm isn’t as elusive as it may seem.

The following are a few ways in which you can empower yourself to bring more clarity to your firm, your projects and, with it, more peace of mind for yourself:

Be selective.  You may find that you spend only 20% of each day actually designing and the other 80% lost in tedious tasks.  This is because you lack clarity and you’re not making the right business decisions. In school, you learned how your designs could change the world, but what you didn’t learn were strategies necessary to attain the work you desire. When you’re clear about what you want, how you and your team are going to execute tasks, and you’re selective with clients and projects, it’s likely that you’ll end up with more projects you want and can reasonably manage.

Create a gameplan.  You must establish a clear understanding of scope for each project; from the owner’s perspective, your perspective, and the project team executing the project.  Creating a game plan for your team – one that clearly states which team member is responsible for which tasks, and so forth, from the start of a project to its completion – will relieve you as a principal from feeling like you have to control everything and accomplish everything yourself.

Beware of micromanaging.  If you find yourself worrying about what might go wrong if you don’t have your eye on each and every task within your firm, or about what an employee might do without your knowledge, nothing in your firm will be accomplished.  In this case, you’re too busy planting doubt within your firm and those who work for you.  Clarity comes when you learn to let go of the worry of losing control.  In fact, you will have greater control in the end because you will be able to focus more clearly on your vision, passion, and creativity, while knowing who’s executing tasks and how the work is getting done.

Clearly define post-design phase responsibilities.  Lacking clarity, especially during the construction process, prevents employees from practicing with confidence.  For the construction phase of a project, clearly define your firm’s responsibilities, as well as each of your employee’s responsibilities.  Additionally, confidently express expectations to the contractor in terms of their responsibilities for the project, and, above all, always hold them accountable.

Step out of your comfort zone.  If you’re holding on to the mindset that “we’ve always done it this way,” you’re not doing yourself or your firm any good over the long term.  Finding greater clarity will require you to try new ways of getting things done.  This doesn’t mean that the way you’ve always done things is wrong, but that there are ways to do the work more efficiently and effectively.

Greater clarity enriches your firm’s value, but it must be shared from top to bottom.  Defining scope and responsibilities, being more selective about the work you take on and freeing yourself to do more of what you love to do, will bring you and your firm greater clarity, greater confidence, and greater success.

 

Steve Whitehorn is the author of the upcoming book, Empowerment by Design, and Managing Principal of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., which provides architects and engineers with strategies that minimize risk, increase profitability, speed up cash flow, and get more work. Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., is the creator of The A/E Empowerment Program®.whitehorn-finacial-logo-w-tagline41

 

Social Media is the HGTV of DIY – A wake up call for all you do it yourselfers!

Have you ever watched HGTV and felt inspired to remodel your kitchen, bedroom, or begin a landscaping project?! If so, you may have been delusional about the results, the time it takes to complete, and yes, even its costs. Do it “yourself” really requires a team of professionals to achieve a camera ready result. When you watched that 30 minute DIY TV show, did you see the weeks of prior design work and script writing, did you see the many unnamed workers that perform the work and ask yourself, is that “budget” real, did it include installation costs, adjusted cost of donated products and more importantly did it include the host/designer’s fees? Staging items may have even been brought in during filming that did not stay with the owners. Hours went into editing, camera angles were chosen, and anything that was not perfect was not shown.  Still feeling inspired?

So when something goes viral, when you find a marketing scheme you like for your business, and when you hear success stories from Constant Contact, do you tell yourself “Hey, if they can do it so can I?” Most likely you are wasting hours trying to market your business with no results, you may have several subscriptions and utilizing marketers that are telling you that you are getting “page hits”, but are you getting real-world results?  I bet you are using every single “social media” tool in the Toolbox that is the Internet. Well every job requires a specific tool, knowledge on how to properly use it and unfortunately you are using the wrong end of the screwdriver to paint your walls.

Here are some real world tips for anyone who wants results:

  • Viral versus virus- Are you spamming or stimulating?
  • Unless your logo goes on every product you produce, no one really cares about your label. Use the “free” image that you have been using for your profile picture on social media and Google Business Listings to place an image of what you really do. If you are an architect that only does residential work, well then post a picture of one of your residential projects. That is more of an attention getter than a logo using your initials!
  • Constant Contact will only reach people you have already reached out to! Unless you are a gym, a restaurant or another business that benefits from using coupons, you are wasting your time with e-mail marketing. You are milking the cow twice and making it angry.
  • Unless your target audience is teenagers and college students, get off Facebook for your business marketing. Try this experiment- type the industry and location of your business on Facebook’s search engine. For example, sticking with the architecture theme, try typing architects in NJ. Do you come up? Unless you are a brand, Facebook is for friends.
  • Do use Google or other search engines to increase your results. A great example of excellent marketing was Andersen versus Pella. For a few weeks, when you typed Anderson Windows, the first page hit was Pella’s article on why Pella was better than Anderson.
  • Finally, social media is not “do it YOURSELF”. That defeats the purpose of “social”. No one wants to be friends in real life with someone who only talks about themselves. Nor does anyone want to like, friend, or follow anyone who posts provocative MySpace style photographs of themselves, invites them to play Farmville, Pokes them every 5 seconds, fills up their newsfeed with web cats or emails them 5 times a day without anything interesting to say. Try to market your business as you would a conversation and not a 140 character tweet.

Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA
Regional Associate Director | New Jersey Region
ss
jpeist@trmassociates.com
| @AIANJRAD

The American Dream: The Pursuit of the American Landscape

Below is an analytical paper about the American landscape and the environment written by Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA

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America! So spacious are your skies, amber are your grains, and so green are your lawns.[1] These romantic and picturesque landscapes are instilled into every child through your patriotic songs, that it is no wonder the lawn has become an icon of patriotism. In pursuit of happiness, and of the white picket fence, the canvas of American expression has long been the front yard. These quests for the perfect demonstration of wealth and patriotism come at any cost, regardless of the impact on the environment and the social fabric of the community.

Grass is the American carpet which provides the framework for flower beds, shrubs, majestic trees and our homes.  Grass is derived from the Aryan word ghra – the root word for grain, green and grow. The front yard is a family’s face towards society by which we can judge them and base our opinions. It is our modern caste system; the better manicured your lawn, the better off your family appears regardless of what lies behind your closed door. [2] The lawn is the barrier between two realms, the public street and the private home. It is the epitome of the American dream because it gives all people regardless of race or religion the opportunity to create the image of perfection. However, those who are truly capable of affording the perfect lawn rarely labor on it themselves; instead hire the less fortunate to do the work.

We value our grass almost us much as we value our homes. In fact the grass on our lawn accounts for 15% of the total net worth for a typical home. [2]  We must declare the lawn as ours and solely ours. It is boldly stated with mailboxes that read our names, the fences built to separate us from our neighbors, the tulip borders along our sidewalks, and the chemicals applied to prevent unwanted pests from entering our lives. Man sets himself apart from nature as opposed to being a part of it by denying life and prosperity to the organisms that use his land. Ironically, proper maintenance is crucial for the value of your home, but not only the maintenance of your lawn, but also your neighbors. Unmaintained adjacent properties can depreciate the value of your own home. To help people cope with poor neighbors, many cities implement beautification programs which mandate proper lawn care.

gfgffgdThe back yard strongly contradicts the front yard. The front yard is our formal face towards the community. It is stern straight forward and properly groomed. It is serious with defined purpose. We know the driveway as the place for the car, the porch as the transition between grass and flooring, the daisy lined walkway as the only path to the front door. The backyard is the opposite, it is silly and chaotic. We place our leisures in the back and barricade them with fences so that neighbors dare not see our imperfect side or bodies.We leave the backyard for fun for our children and our pets and as an oasis for retreat for adults. The backyard is the place for the Fischer-Price plastic cottage, the sandbox, and the Jacuzzi. Bare spots in the lawn are ideally good because they demonstrate use of the land. The bare areas show the places of dense traffic.

The suburb is a characterization of the urban and natural worlds. It takes on the idealized characteristics of each situation while ignoring the less desirable parts. The suburb keeps the close knit neighborhood like atmosphere seen in successful urban areas. They are also located conveniently close to resources. The suburb holds the being in contact with nature part of the rural landscape, but this nature is artificial, planted, manicured and heavily fertilized.

The competition for the perfect lawn leads to heavily chemical produced lawns which run off and pollute the environment. Globally in 1997 over $37 billion dollars were spent on pesticides. Rachel Carson first spoke about the dangers of pesticides, especially DDT in her essay entitled, “Silent Spring.” She goes on to talk about how DDT has put in danger the epitome of the United States, the bald eagle. The use of DDT made it impossible for the eagle to breed. “Conventionally maintained lawns are sterile, unhealthy habitat’s that consume time and precious resources and poison watersheds.” [2] The use of pesticides has rendered the United States sterile, right down to the symbol of our nation.

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Greener grass does not equal a greener environment. We impact our environment in a multitude of ways. Several issues that will affect our future are the reduction of habitat and the increasing of global warming. Lawn care is a major factor affecting our environment. Chemical runoff from pesticides and fertilizers pollute our streams and underground springs. These pollutants travel throughout the food chain and cycle back to affect us in the plants and food we eat. We change our environment by planting non-native plants that do not provide food for native species and are invasive to existing plants. By removing trees, plant, insects, and animals from our yards, we create a sterile environment that does not support a diversity of living organisms. Even by mowing our lawns, we are endangering the environment as lawnmowers require fossil fuels to run, which pollute our air. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned into discords.” [2]

Small steps towards a greener American society may aid in improving the impression for the rest of the world on America. The fact that America is a nation of consumption and abuse of natural resources, creates the opportunity for the United States to set an example of how to act environmentally friendly. America is the land of opportunity, of change and it has harvested such great ideologies of what it is to dream, that it is in fact the perfect nation to harbor a land that is pure and eco friendly. Simple steps from everyone and a desire not for materials but rather freedom may forever change the impact America has on its own land.

The new American lawn can still meet the aesthetic need of the lawn while also improving shading. Shading your property is a great way to reduce your energy bills and to promote activity. Move away from an open vast green carpet towards one that is covered and full of vegetation and life. Reduce the use of chemicals and irrigated water while increasing biodiversity. We need to move away from the industrial lawn with our preconceived notions of the American lawn and move towards the new values of the freedom lawn. We need to challenge the idea of the typical American dream and make it into a dream that is your own!

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Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA
Regional Associate Director | New Jersey Region
ss
jpeist@trmassociates.com
| @AIANJRAD

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[1] Bates, Catherine. “America the Beautiful.”

[2] Bormann, F. H., Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe. Redesigning the American Lawn. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2001.

[3] Joni Mitchell. Big Yellow Taxi. Rec. 1970. MP3. Warner Brothers, 1970.

Save Thorncrown Chapel

From the desk of Robert Ivy, FAIA, EVP/CEO of the American Institute of Architects – The AIA opposes efforts to erect high power lines too near Arkansas’ jewel, the Thorncrown Chapel by Fay Jones. An online petition can be found here. Please help spread the word.Thorncrown-Chapel-E-Fay-Jones-2

metamorphAIAsis- Emerging Leaders

metamorpAIAsis image

The Intern Development Program (IDP) prepares future architects for the requirements of our profession. However, it is through the AIA that the Leaders of Architecture are made.

Every day we listen to advocacy for the profession. When you open AutoCAD each morning, when you point a major design flaw in a project and even now by reading this article, you are advocating for architecture!

It is easy for us to talk about architecture. What is not easy is talking about architects. Furthermore, it is even harder to talk about yourself. Buildings are stagnant, they are what they are. We can classify buildings by period, style, and recall a number of facts that would impress your college history professors. But can you talk about yourself in the same way, with the same passion, as you can your favorite building? If your answer is no, then you should consider becoming more involved in the AIA and its programs.

One simple problem for emerging professionals is the fact that we are not architects; how can you speak for something you are not. Let’s forget the term architect for the moment (as that is an entire lengthy discussion in itself), and replace it with the term Leader. What the AIA is good at accomplishing is evoking passion for what you do and passion is what inspires leadership. There are no state laws that prevent you from calling yourself a Leader!

As a 2nd time attendee of the annual Grassroots Leadership Conference held in D.C., I have noticed a drastic change between 1st time attendees and those who return. During my 1st conference, I followed my local chapter and only sat next to somebody I knew. What I missed was the wealth of information and mentorship every person in that room possesses. When I had the opportunity to attend the conference again, I was not shy about asking people to share their knowledge with me!

In hopes of inspiring you, I will begin my conversation with you by instilling some knowledge…

Let’s reimagine this quote by Louis Kahn where the Brick is not your building, but it is YOU!

And if you think of Brick, for instance,
and you say to Brick,
“What do you want Brick?”
And Brick says to you
“I like an Arch.”
And if you say to Brick
“Look, arches are expensive,
and I can use a concrete lentil over you.
What do you think of that?”
Brick?”
Brick says:
“… I like an Arch””

Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA
Regional Associate Director | New Jersey Region

ss

jpeist@trmassociates.com | @AIANJRAD

Rebuttal to the ‘3 Little Pigs’ as a Discriminatory Story against Contextual Architecture

Once upon a time there were three little architects. One architect built his home with straw, the other of sticks and the last of brick.

The first architect handpicked straw from the field outside his property, while the second gathered sticks from the forest floor. The final architect, well that architect ordered his custom-made bricks from thousands of miles away for just 10 cents a brick! What a steal oinked this little architect. Little did he know he would soon be facing $4 dollars per brick shipping and holding fees. Weeks passed, but still no bricks.

The first two architects received their Certificates of Occupancies within days of starting, while the only paperwork the third poor, little architect received were change orders and more bills.

Homeless and distraught, the third architect had to stay with the other architects while his site sat full of dirt. Months past, and finally boxes of bricks arrived!

“How do I build with these?!” he squealed. He picked up his phone and called Wolfe Contractors. They were at the site in minutes, and the architect hired them. Wolfe employed Union Contractors and it took weeks before a brick was even laid. The contractor huffed, and he puffed, for more and more money. Soon the architect was completely broke.

The bricks sat there dormant until the third little poor architect was able to borrow money from the other two architects who already paid off their mortgages. Finally, after more and more months of waiting, the project was complete!

During the architect’s house warming party, a major earthquake struck. The area was prone to such occurrences; fortunately for this architect, he had already included seismic calculations into his design. However, this earthquake was unlike any earthquake ever felt before and it shook and it shook the three little homes. The straw and stick house stood intact with a few stray straw and stick pieces gone astray. The poor brick structure stood, but a large crack ran straight down the center of the building. That night was an extremely cold, wet night. The expanding and contracting ice split the brick house in half and it was condemned.

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peist noahFairy tales utilize anthropomorphism and whimsy in order to tell their tales which engrave moral undertones in the minds of young children. In such cases, vestigial feelings remain such as in the story of three little pigs, where the material that could withstand the huffs of a wolf is brick. This leads to the assumption that brick is always the right material to select because no “wolf” can penetrate it.

Brick has always been revered for its strength and symbolic meaning of fortitude. Even today, brick homes sell for more than wood stud homes. Is this because subconsciously we worry that someone will knock on our doors and start blowing it down?!

Brick is not without its disadvantages:

  • Brick does not do well with extreme shifts such as mentioned in the story above. Being porous, water can easily penetrate the bricks and begin cracking when it turns to ice.
  • Bricks need repointing in order to replace loose mortar.
  • Brick cannot be laid during inclement weather such as rain.
  • Efflorescence can form making the bricks look like they are covered in chalk.
  • Brick buildings can easily shift from their foundations and are not great for seismic areas or areas that do not offer a solid rock foundation.
  • It is a lot harder to move or repair a brick building versus wood construction.

For centuries homes have been built of sticks and even hay and they are still standing today. Log homes are very popular in wooded areas with inclement weather. Early colonial towns would come together to build a new log house by harvesting nearby trees and using mud to fill the gaps of the wood.  Despite the misconception that building your home out of a flammable material such as wood is a bad decision, it may come as a surprise that some heavy timber homes will remain standing longer than unprotected steel buildings! This is because heavy timber takes a longer time to burn, where unprotected steel, due to its high thermal conductivity, quickly heats up and loses strength during fires making it prone to failure. Heavy timber construction even has a special class of construction called Type IV.

Straw-bale construction is a building method that uses bales of straw as structural elements and/or insulation. Straw is a naturally fire retardant with a very high insulation value. When combined with clay, its biggest disadvantage- rot- is greatly reduced making it an ideal choice in farmlands over the centuries. The dry straw that makes up the bale is very combustible when loose, but compressed in the form of a bale, the straw does not trap enough air to allow easy or rapid combustion.

In the story of the 3 Little Pigs, the two other pigs are referred to as being lazy because they built their homes from easily accessible materials and even had time to sing and dance. In today’s sustainable based society, these two pigs would earn LEED credits and be celebrated for their architectural choices, while the carbon footprint of the brick home would be criticized.

There is a reason for regional contextual architecture. For centuries people have already experimented with building for climate. They did it without central air, automatic window blinds, sprinkler systems and heating. Years of perfecting natural smart design choices are thrown to the waste side with new technology. One can build an ice igloo in the Mojave Desert and use cooling systems that prevents it from melting, but is this the most intelligent, sustainable method to architecture?

Now, let’s take a step back and imagine that for arguments sake the Wolf’s name in the ‘3 Little Pigs’ is Sandy! Sandy hit unexpectedly and caused massive destruction leaving many homeless. We should look at why certain homes were destroyed and why others survived in order to build a more “wolf” resistant area. This should be the focus and moral on rebuilding after Sandy struck. For example, small wood-framed homes that survived have a major advantage in rebuilding. They are easier to repair, elevate and place on piers versus a large double-story brick McMansion. Eliminating basements and switching to pier buildings can ease the damage caused by these unexpected forces and prevent homes from being dislodged from their land. Replacing all windows with hurricane windows will reduce potential dangers caused by the wind and debris breaking glass and harming the occupants inside. Lastly, rebuilding natural barriers such as sand dunes that have protected these areas for centuries will bring contextual architecture back to its rightful place.

With technology, overpopulation, and ease of building, we have stripped away all context from where we live and how we live it. The boom of construction through cookie cutter homes have littered the landscape with inefficient outdated inappropriate “brick” homes. We should not look at architecture as just build it right, but rather build it suitable!

Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA
Regional Associate Director | New Jersey Region

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jpeist@trmassociates.com | @AIANJRAD

Lessons From New Orleans

NJIT Lessons From New Orleans

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