A hard lesson in project management from a maid service

There are two truths in any project.  A project that is managed well, however lovely the experience, is unspectacular.  A mismanaged project, on the other hand, is like a car wreck.  Everybody talks about it. I was reminded of this recently when I used a new maid service.  House cleaning is a simple exercise in project management.  Like any complex project though, it's about planning, managing the tasks, the time, the expectations, the big picture and the little details, and instilling confidence in your client that they are in good hands.

Here's the scoop...

A few months ago I decided to try out a new maid.  I gave Paula the details of my house, she walked through the rooms with me, quoted a price, said how long it would take her, I agreed, and we set a date.

I've used a professional maid service before - 2 people arrive, equipped with their own cleaning tools and supplies, tag team the tasks, and be out in 2 hours.  That's why I don't keep a full stock of cleaning liquids or gadgets.

So when Paula arrived at 10am, hands-free, and asked me where my vacuum cleaner and mop was, I was unprepared.  I dusted off whatever I could find, told her where everything was, and left her to it saying "I have a meeting to prepare for, let me know if you need anything else."

Two hours later, I came out of my office to get lunch, to see that the kitchen was a bit upside down.  Paula was in the middle of it.  I made small talk as I fixed myself a sandwich and offered to make her one.

"How's it going?" I asked. "Good" she said, huffing and panting.  She looked like she could use a cold drink.  At this point, I'm looking around to see what her plan was.  I asked if she'd been upstairs, and she said "No, I started in the kitchen".  OhhhKKK. "You've been cleaning the kitchen for 2 hours?" NO....I didn't say that!!  But I was getting worried. How in the world was she going to clean the rest of the house in another 2 hours? I bit my tongue and just said "Well, I'm going to be on a phone call for an hour, so could you do my office last".

My call went longer than an hour and I was hoping that I wasn't holding Paula up!  But I needn't have worried because she had just made it up the stairs to the first bedroom.  The downstairs was still in disarray.

Around 4pm, I decided to take a break from work, and talk to Paula.  I made some Indian tea and as we sat there drinking our chai, talking about her family, I asked her very frankly why it was taking her so long.  And she said the house was bigger than she expected and she bit off more than she could chew.  Clearly, she was in over her head.

I didn't retort with "but you walked the house" because I felt SO bad for her.  Paula worked 8 hours that day!  FYI, she never made it to my office.  8 hours of hard manual labor!  Not to be a stickler, but the results were less than sparkling.  Still, I paid her 50% more that she quoted.  Needless to say, I have not asked her clean my house again!

Project (Mis)management

I've never really thought about the efficiency and planning that goes into a 4 hour cleaning job.  Sweet as Paula was and hard as she tried, it was clear that she did not have the experience or a method to handle this cleaning project.  When she quoted me a price and how long it would take her, it was a stab in the dark.  It was in line with market rate, but she underestimated the project and overestimated her abilities.  She did not have milestones or a plan of attack.  She took twice as long as a pro would have and it eventually cost me more.

Talk about bad project management!!

I cringe as I tell you this story, because a)I'm reliving that uncomfortable afternoon and b)it's the kind of tale my mom repeats.

But I promise you I have a point.

My point is...

Anyone can clean a house.  It's a low skill job.  The real skill lies in managing the job of cleaning a whole house.  Someone who does it everyday has systems in place, the tools to do the best job possible in the shortest amount of time, know the difference between what works and what doesn't, and the experience to be able to plan the attack and hit the mark.

It's the difference between an amateur and a professional.

Because, really, good project management is critical for better business management.

We're all adults.  We know this!  But every so often, we need a reminder.

How does this apply to residential architecture and construction?

I've talked to many who are of the opinion that anyone can design a house, how hard can it be?!  Or that anyone can build a house.  Truth be told, it's not rocket science. But DIY (Do It Yourself) is a 3 letter curse word.

When you talk to a professional (architect or builder), remember that you're not just paying for their skills, but a well managed delivery of their skills.

Design Services vs Project Management Services

Design is my technical skill.  And designing a house is most certainly not a low skill job.

Project management is my functional skill.  It's also my superpower.

Although the two are intricately connected together in my professional services, I like to talk about them distinctively, because both are important components for a successful project.  And each takes time.

Without getting into an argument about the (subtle!) differences between hiring a maid and hiring an architect or builder, let me ride my point home.

That...without good project management, a sparkling clean house is a non starter.





What's better than architecture after school? #ArchiTalks

As I've mentioned on #Architalks posts before, kids and architecture are a match made in heaven.

After-school activity:

Now that everyone is back to school, parents are wondering what their kids are going to do between when school lets out and they get picked up.  What better than a little architectural exploration after school?  Bring a little artistry from the art class, a little knowledge from science class, a little creativity from the heart, give it a good mix, and see what happens.

That was the thought that prompted me to offer an architecture afterschool program at my daughter's elementary school.  I figured that if 5 kids signed-up, my daughter included, I would have a viable class - viable for their sake!  I originally planned to either teach a class on Mondays or Fridays - whichever got more interest.

Holy cow! I got 30 sign-ups in less than a week, meeting my planned max class size for both days!  Now, there's a waitlist!  The response was overwhelming, to say the least!  I guess parents were itching for a class that didn't fall into the normal range of after school offerings.  Everyone is so excited for the program to start.  Parents tell me "this is right up Jill's alley - she's always building", or "This is awesome, we are super excited, he's going to love this".

No Pressure, right!

School vs. education:

I guess there are more kids who straddle the right/left brain-divide in these early elementary years than I thought.  Why allow that superpower to get squelched under the rigors of school?  Was it Mark Twain that said "Don't let school get in the way of an education?"

As I've written in a previous post, I was good at school and always got good grades, but it wasn't till I went to architecture school that I had that thirst to learn more and passion to immerse myself in my field of study.  The only explanation, besides the fact that architecture is so fascinating, is that I could have one foot in the creative world and one foot in the analytical.  So yes, I can relate.

So, what's the class going to be like?  I don't really think about it as a lecture series.  Yawn!  Rather, I believe in the idea of encouraging curiosity and sustaining inquiry.  Not coincidentally, this is the central idea at Magellan International School.  Perhaps, that's another reason why my Architecture After-School program appeals to so many of the parents and their kids.

Topics of interest:

The challenge is not really what to talk about, rather where should I stop? The sky is the limit.  I taught a couple architecture classes over the summer at ACE Academy that I cleverly called "Through the looking glass - How this modern material changed the face of architecture", and "The Big Feat - Design and Construction of Olympic Facilities".  So, I've got a theme going with a twist on children's' classics story books.

This fall, my program is titled "No place like home" borrowing from the classic Wizard of Oz.  I'm taking the kids on a tour of homes from around the world, exploring the idea of home and what it means to different people.  We will study different methods of construction and technologies, design aesthetics, environmental effects, factors like culture, community, lifestyle that affect forms and neighborhood arrangements.  Kids will wonder at the diversity of what people consider home - from the cramped high rise apartments of Hong Kong to luxurious grounds of the Buckingham Palace;  the favelas of Rio to the exquisite victorian row houses of San Francisco...The idea of home means different things to different people, yet we all find love and comfort in our home.  Kids will engage in activities such as sketching, model building, and design projects.

Right now I'm deep into the lesson planning phase and really looking forward to meeting all the kids!  Their enthusiasm is sure to make this semester a very educational and fun experience.

Want to stay updated? Like and follow the ArchiKids facebook page.



This post is a contribution to the #ArchiTalks series of blog posts.  For other blog posts on “Back to School”, please click on links below.

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) What Have We Learned? It's Back To School For #ArchiTalks 21

Mark R. LePage - EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect) Back to School: Marketing for Architects

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/i-wish-i-were-going-back-to-school/

Cormac Phalen - Cormac Phalen (@archy_type) Back to School Again

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch) Designing Back to School

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) ArchiTalks: "Back To School"

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) 4 Tips As You Go Back To School

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch) Back to School!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) good to go back to school

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) #architalks 21 "back to school"

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu) Back to School: Seoul Studi

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Back to {Architecture} School

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) Back to the Cartography Board

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz) Back to School

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley) #ArchiTalks / 15 Ways to Make the Most of Your Architectural Education

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w) getting [schooled] again

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL) Back to School...

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) Let’s Get Back To (Architect) School …or Work.

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) Back to School...Suckasssssss

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign) bettermenTen

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch) [ArchiTalks #21] 10 Things Architecture Students Say Going Back to School

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey) Back to School? It Doesn't Stop there for Architects.

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung) 10 Things I wish I knew about Architecture School

Glass in Architecture - Summer Wonders #ArchiTalks

Phew! I made it through 2 whole weeks of summer school.  You see, I've been busy teaching a class for Summer Wonders at Ace Academy, a local school for gifted kids, called "Architecture Through The Looking Glass".  Here's a peek into my class about glass in architecture. The course introduces young kids to a world of architectural studies, where the boundaries between science and art are blurred, just as much as the separation between discovery and imagination.  It's a space where I believe kids thrive. They effortlessly juggle reality and fantasy.  And that makes for a great architect.

Course curriculum summary

Over 10 days, we wove the history of glass with the history of architecture, threading the past with the present, and imagining the future.

What is glass? What are its characteristics? What is it made of? Is it available in nature? We studied natural glass in contrast to manmade glass, and made the journey from ancient glass-making to modern glass manufacturing - all in the context of how this magical material has transformed architecture.

What is the role of glass in architecture? What was architecture before glass vs. now? From medieval castles to elaborate renaissance cathedrals to contemporary skyscrapers, the exploration of glass as a building material has played a critical role in the evolution of architectural styles through history.

What did we learn?

We traveled through time to see the ancient architecture of Egypt, India, and the Americas; the innovative designs of the Greeks and Romans; and their evolution to Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

“Let there be light” got a whole new meaning when glass rondels and stained glass windows were incorporated into the churches and palaces. We’ve come a long way since then in just the last 150 years.

We explored the fascinating art of blown and spun glass as seen in the amazing creations of Chihuly, and finally the mass manufacturing of float glass as seen all around us in our present day.

The kids learnt about the post-industrial-revolution era of glass buildings and the green house effect. They constructed their own version of the Crystal Palace. They were introduced to modern architecture and the minimalist period, when the 'Glass House' designed by Architect Philip Johnson was made possible, thanks to the wonder of glass. We studied the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, and Apple's flagship store, also known as the Glass Cube, in New York City.

Today, we live in the glass age.

Is glass breakable? Bendable? Stronger than steel? You might be surprised to learn that our traditional ideas about glass are being shattered as we speak.

Structural glass buildings, intelligent glass, laminated glass decks and stairs, building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) glass panels, etc., celebrate advancements in glass technology.  We build taller and taller skyscrapers clad in glass curtain walls, no matter the climate.  As seen in the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, which holds the record for the world's tallest installation of an aluminum and glass facade. The architectural glass provides solar and thermal "protection" as well as an anti-glare shield from the intense desert sun, extreme diurnal variations, and strong winds.  Sigh!

So, what does the future hold? What innovations can we expect to see in glass technology in the coming years? Last but not least, the kids participated in a design exercise where they have to imagine and design the buildings of their future.

Multi-sensory learning

The idea acknowledges that kids learn in different ways and that students learn best when information is presented in different modalities - visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. In that spirit, the course was peppered with visual presentations, discussions, and hand-on activities that resulted in a lot of projects.  Projects with large footprints. Sorry parents!

Learning by doing - glass in architecture

Kids love making stuff.  Of course!  They learn by doing!  And what's an architecture class without some model-making.

The kids built post and beam structures, pyramids, and tepees.  They built green houses, and skyscrapers.

I was amazed at how fast they were able to decide what they were going to make. They were always eager to head down to the treasure room to pick up materials from the piles of recycled everyday stuff. I found myself repeating the concept of planning vs. doing. But, they didn't waste time planning, they immediately got to work.

The kids made art with sugar glass. They designed and created rose windows.

Learning visually - glass in architecture

The kids loved the slideshow presentations and videos.  Below are links to some of the short videos we watched.

Blown Glass - Genuine Rondels Rolled Glass Float Glass Greenhouse effect The Glass Age - Who doesn't love the MythBusters? Part 1 & Part 2 Our Future - glass in architecture and our lives

Overall, it was a great experience for me.  And the kids, I hope!

As a mother of 2 young kids, I'm no stranger to the unbounded energy and passion that children posses.  But, teaching K-6th graders from 9am-3pm took my understanding to another level.  I have a renewed appreciation for teachers and what they do to for our children.  Walk a mile in someone else's shoes, right!  So, my heartfelt thank you to all you teachers out there, for your hard work, your creativity, and for pouring your heart into our kids future.



This post is a contribution to the #Architalks series of blog posts.  For other blog posts on “Summer”, please click on links below.

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch) Summer is a Great Time To Market Your Architecture Firm!

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/summer-is-for-the-young-at-heart/

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) Summer : A Review

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) summer working, had me a blast

Evan Troxel - Archispeak Podcast / TRXL (@etroxel) Lake Powell

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) Seasons of Summer

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect) The Dog Days of Summer

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) Summer -- Architecture Imagery

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) #Architalks 20 "summer" and architecture

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC) 4 Secrets To Getting The Most Out Of Your Summer Internship

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz) Summer Surprise

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley) An Acrophobic Architect's Illuminating Summer of Roofs

Brinn Miracle - Architangent (@architangent) 4 Reasons Solar Power is a Hot Topic

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia) Seasonal change

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) ... and the livin's easy

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) Summer Rhythms

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum) Do I Need to Hire an Architect?

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch) An Architectural Spark for your Summer

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu) Summer in Seoul

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign) [Dis]Connected Summer

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch) 5 Things to Make the Most of Your Summer

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey) An Architect Summer


One last thing before you head out on vacation

Have you a taken a break this summer?  It's that time of year, when everyone I know is either out or leaving soon before things get crazy again and life has to go back to routine after school starts!  I just got back from a much needed vacation with my family.  And while it's fresh on my mind, I thought I'd share the one precaution I take before I lock the house and head out the door.  If you are going out of town this summer, be sure to take this simple measure to safeguard your home and avoid coming back to a bad situation.

Prevent catastrophe, avoid costly damages

I'm generally not a worry wart. I don't have a pre-vacation checklist that's as long as my arm.  But more than a decade of homeownership and working in the home building industry have made me cautious about the two things that are catastrophic when it comes to your home - fire and water.  Everything else can be easily fixed.

Let's talk about water damage

As I mentioned in a previous post about water damage to buildings, "most of the water damage and moisture damage in buildings occurs from ‘bulk water intrusion’ - rainwater being the #1 external source and plumbing failures being the #1 internal source."  This is corroborated by the fact that a majority of homeowner's insurance claims are related to water damage as a result of burst pipes, or leaks due to wear and tear.

I've been in that situation where we got back from a weekend trip to a flooded kitchen, because the dishwasher broke while we were out.  I know a friend who lives with warped wood floors because their faucet connection burst open in the middle of the night.  I've worked with clients who've had to demolish their house (or what was left of it) and build new, after a fire or flood caused irreparable damage.  I've worked on remodels where the water heater blew up through the garage roof . There was also that time when a braided hose (the flexible pipe connecting the sink faucet to the shut-off valve at the wall) tore open in a brand new house, flooding the second floor just after my clients moved in.

Perhaps, it's better if these accidents happen when we are out of the house!!  But the damage can be extensive if left unchecked.  These events are so common that we started building in cautionary details in our new houses - like floor drains near toilets, floor recesses with drains under dishwashers and washing machines.  Over the top? Maybe! Maybe not!

Depending on the amount of water, length of time, and location, the destruction can affect framing, drywall, electrical wiring, light fixtures, flooring, baseboards, cabinets, furniture and other stuff.  I for one would like to avoid spending thousands of dollars in water damage and repairs, not to mention a large water bill and the hassle.

Vacation Precaution

That's why I make it a point to shut-off the main water supply* to the entire house when I leave town.  This is my non-negotiable.  This and turning down the thermostat on the air-conditioner.  My husband worries about the other 25 things!


#1 If you do shut the water supply off, be sure to think about your water heater as well.  Without a continuous supply of water, your water heater tank is at risk.  Depending on the type and setting of the water heater, the heat source, and how long you're gone, the damage could be as minimal as a burnt heating element or more severe with a pressure build-up issue.  Since my house is all-electric (i.e. not a gas/propane/oil fired water heater), and it is the middle of summer, I turned the water heater off at the breaker and that was that.  If you have a fuel fired water heater, set the water heater to 'vacation' mode or 'pilot'.  Turning off the gas supply is not generally recommended, unless you are an expert at reigniting the pilot light, which you will have to do when you get back.

#2 If you have a pool in your backyard, see if you the pool water supply is isolated and only shut-off the water to the house.  You probably want the pool pump running and the filter keeping things clean.

#3 If you are gone for more than a week, you're probably going to want to run your irrigation/ sprinkler system or else your lawn and plants will bake in the summer heat.

#4 If your house has a fire sprinkler system that is tied to the house water-supply, then obviously, turning off the water main is not for you.


If shutting off the main water supply is not an option for any of the reasons listed above, simply shut-off the water supply valves at each appliance and plumbing fixture. That includes the dishwasher, clothes washer, icemaker, all sinks, and toilets. Yes, that's a lot of valves.

And don't be tempted to run a last load in the dishwasher or washing machine when you leave.

Where is the shut-off valve?

This depends on your water source and plumbing set-up.

*If you are on city water like me, your main shut-off is the big gate valve at the water meter in the yard box buried near the street.  If you can locate where the main line enters your house (in the garage or basement), you might find a ball valve at the entry point, either inside or outside.  I don't have this set-up at my house, so I shut the main at the street.

If your house is supplied by a well or rainwater cistern, then the main shut-off is most likely at the pump-house.

If you are building a new house, discuss these scenarios with your plumber or builder or architect.  You might want separate shut-off valves that isolate each separate use. This is highly unusual, so I provide a diagram (shown below) to let the plumber plan his installation accordingly.  This set-up also allows for easy installation of a water softener or water filter in the future.

How to turn it off?

Simple!  Turn the valve clockwise to close, and counterclockwise to open.  Remember, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.

Yes indeed, the list of things you need to take care of before you can take that break can be long and tiring.  It's ironic how stressful those days before heading out on vacation can be!  But whether it's a long-weekend jaunt, a 10 day getaway, or a 4 week trip overseas, do one last thing.

Turn your water off!



p.s. think I'm paranoid? Let me know if you do the same.


A summer of architectural sketching in Italy

This summer marks 15 years since my study abroad program in Italy.  It's a time that is very special to me, not only because it was 3 months in food/ culture/ fashion/ landscape/ architecture heaven, but it's when I really refined and owned my architectural sketching skills. It has served me well all the years since. So, to commemorate, I would like to share my collection of sketches from Italy. Not just the best ones, but the scrappy sketches as well, because they tell the story of a rough start and how I got good.

Italian splendor

Churches with domes, arches, columns, spires, rosettes, crenelations, piazzas, hill towns, cityscapes, streetscapes, intricate facades, window shutters and planter boxes - everywhere you turn, the scenery is rich with sketch frames.

Study Abroad for the win!  How did I get there?

I learned about the summer program in Italy when I was in my second semester at the University of Texas at Austin. I was an international student on a shoestring budget, paying my way through grad school on a meagre stipend as a teaching assistant. I had no savings and no financial support to go gallivanting through the Italian countryside just to tickle my wanderlust.

But...but...the program sounded so amazing. We were going to be living in a quasi education center called Santa Chiara, in a little Etruscan town called Castiglion Fiorentino in the heart of Tuscany.  And we would travel to Milan, Florence, Rome, and Venice, not to mention all the little towns near Castiglion, to study the art, architecture, and history of the cradle of the renaissance. I'm no history buff, but tell me you don't want to check out the seat of the Roman Empire or the center of the largest and oldest religious institutions in the world! Not just visit the Sistine Chapel as a tourist, but really dive deep into what, why, and how.

Oh, and my professor was doing an architectural sketching studio and we would draw every afternoon. S O L D.

I borrowed money and paid up. I was able to return my debts over the course of the next year. I've never been back, because sadly, I haven't had the time. Work and life...

The immersive education that a study abroad program affords sure is a singular experience. I highly recommend it.

Pantheon, Rome, Italy

This sketch of the Pantheon is my favorite. I did in less than 5 minutes. I remember walking up to the Pantheon with our whole group and everyone wanted to get inside in a hurry, because that's where the magic lies. I wanted to capture the exterior of the building and the life of the piazza outside.  But, we had strict instructions to stick together. So, I took out my sketchbook and did this quick sketch as the other students were scurrying past me, and then ran inside to catch up.

I wasn't always that adept with a pen and sketchbook. In fact, pen and ink used to terrify me.

Drawing, a skill or a talent?

I've always been able to draw, ever since I was a kid. It was my only hobby, besides reading. The closest I came to taking my talent seriously was when I dabbled in weekend art competitions. My dad was good at it too and he nurtured my aptitude. My mom and sis were not, and showed no interest in learning. So naturally, I grew up thinking either you have it or you don't.

I never had any formal training, until I went to architecture school. We spent the entire first semester of studio, sketching and painting, which was arguably the best prelude to 5 years of architecture school. In later years, we learned to create one point, two point, and three point perspectives.

Pencil vs. Pen

I've always been very comfortable sketching with a pencil. With a soft (graphite) tip pencil, lines are looser and much easier.  You can control the weight of the line with the force of your touch. You can start with a light touch and outline the shape and proportions before you fill with more detail. There is plenty of room for error.

You don't even need to know how to draw a straight line. See these sketches of David below - no straight lines! In fact, the looser your hand is and less perfect the squiggles, the better.

On the other hand, if you want to draw buildings, you do need to know how to draw a straight line. And also understand angles and perspective. All of which I did. And yet, my first few architectural sketches in Italy looked something like this. I was at a loss. Why couldn't I draw what was in front of me? (See still life vs. real life below.)

That was the good thing about being in a class. You are committed, you show up, and you don't give up. You have someone to guide you and show you the way. Almost every afternoon, we would go out to the neighboring towns for architectural sketching expeditions. With more regular practice, I graduated to these sketches.

And then to these.

I was getting better. But I did not dare use a pen to sketch.  'Pen and ink' terrified me. In my mind, using a pen meant that there was one chance to get it right. Each stroke left an indelible mark.

So I challenged myself. I wanted to be able to draw with confidence, using pen and ink! I started out using a pencil to outline, and then I would trace over with a pen. Not great, but baby steps, right. This was my first sketch, just pen to blank sheet of paper. What's the worst that could happen?

Pen and Ink Sketch - Il Duomo di Firenze, Italy

Then, more confidence.

Finally to these.

Still life vs. real life - architectural sketching

Sketching still life is one thing and sketching real life architectural buildings, spaces, and piazzas is quite another. The vastness and amount of detail in the picture in front of your eyes can be overwhelming. So, you have to make it your goal to capture the scene with the fewest lines possible. Just the most essential elements.

Like this sketch - just the shadows and our minds fill the rest.

Spire in shadows, Church of Sant Angelo, Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy

With a lot more practice and observation, I graduated to the level of architectural sketching that comes with ease and without trepidation. It looks something like this.

I left Italy with the confidence that I could sketch anything.  And the understanding that sketching, just like anything else, can be taught and learned - it's a skill that gets better with practice, even for the talented.

I even did some watercolor, which is my current obsession.

Hope you enjoyed this tour of Italy. Drop me a line if you were at Santa Chiara on a study abroad program. And if you did the architectural sketching studio, I would love to see your sketches.



Note: All images of sketches and paintings are copyrighted © by Sharon George and may not be downloaded or reproduced. The use of any image from this site is prohibited unless prior written permission from the artist is obtained.




How safe is your house from water damage?

My neighborhood listserv is ablaze with people asking for help with repairs due to water damage. The recent rains are a good reminder that Austin gets an average 32.5" of rain every year, which is to say that our buildings are pretty susceptible to rainwater damage. It's common sense, yet, everyday I see houses built using risky construction details and building designs that ignore this significant element of our weather. How you deal with bulk water* at the roof, walls, and foundation (near grade) is very important to the durability of a building. If you are in the process of building your house, pay close attention to the weak spots identified below.

Water Intrusion at roof:

Most people recognize that roof and grade are obvious areas of weakness, when it comes to water intrusion. You've probably lived in a house that has had a leaky roof, most likely leaking around the chimney during a storm. Even if it's not literally dripping water from the ceiling, but just a wet patch or a watercolor stain, you've got a problem on your hands.

Water Intrusion at or below grade:

Perhaps, you live in a house that got flooded in the recent torrential rains. Yes, that was a lot of rain. But, if storm water accumulates outside your house in a downpour and gets precariously close to coming inside, then you may very well have a drainage problem on your lot, or your floor/ slab is not high enough. I've lived in that house and it's not fun.

How about the crawl space under your house that is a pond in a rain event. What about your damp musty basement?

But walls?

Just think of all the people who walk out in the rain with a small umbrella and rain boots to protect them from getting wet. They've covered their bases - doesn't matter that their leggings are getting sprayed a little. Now imagine that you're wearing an expensive suit or a special outfit to dinner. Or you're going to be out in the pouring rain for a long time. You'd make sure you wear a trench coat and use the biggest umbrella you've got, wouldn't you?

The one good thing about the drought that prevailed over central texas for over 3 years was that our buildings didn't age as much. Because unlike human skin, which ages faster in the absence of moisture, building skins age faster in the presence of moisture. So if you are wondering why your house that was built in 2012 looked great for 3 years and now it looks like @*&#, then you've probably got unprotected walls that are aging from getting wet.

Water intrusion at walls:

The most commonly used exterior building materials such as stucco, brick, and stone do not repel water, but instead they absorb and hold water like sponges. That's why you see growth of mildew, algae, lichen, moss, fungus, etc on masonry walls that are exposed to rain. Not only is this a high-maintenance situation from an aesthetic standpoint, it's recipe for water damage to the innards of the wall.

Notice in both examples, that the part of the stone veneer that has water damage is at the base - the part most unprotected by an overhang. The umbrella isn't big enough. The taller the wall, the bigger the umbrella has to be. Also notice that these walls are more exposed because of their slope/ angle i.e. they are not vertical.

A good power-washing will take care of the mildew and unsightly discoloration on the stone. But if there is any wood framing behind that stone, it needs a good weather barrier and flashing at the base to protect from rot. You need a good trench coat.

In the pictures below, it's very clear what areas of the wall get the most water - it's where the water runoff from the roof hits the wall. Gutters that direct the water away from the wall are highly recommended. Also, the larger the roof area, the more the runoff - so size the gutters to handle the amount of water.

 Water intrusion at openings:

The condition is worse when there is an opening in the wall, such as at a window or a door. The picture below shows a very common condition - where roof runoff hits the corner of a window. How long until there is water damage behind that path of water? Even if the window flashing is done well, this is condition that tests the limits of the materials and installation. It's risky.

Water damage at openings

Best Practices:

There is no single solution, but mainly to acknowledge that rainfall is part of our climate and design for it. Include redundancies. Design a large roof overhang, avoid flat roofs, install correctly sized gutters, avoid large expanses of walls and unprotected windows, a good weather barrier installed shingle style, coupled with through-wall flashing and flexible flashing membranes around openings. If you can afford to, cover the wall with a material that sheds water - materials like metals or other large panel products.

*Bulk water - water damage vs. moisture damage

Most of the water damage and moisture damage in buildings occurs from 'bulk water intrusion', the main source for which is rainwater. Other sources being plumbing failures.

'Bulk water' implies large amounts of water, whereas 'moisture' implies trace amounts of water.

When left alone, both can cause significant damage in wood frame buildings. It's the rate of damage that varies. Depending on where the intrusion occurs and how much water enters, it may manifest immediately as a leak (as in dripping water) or wetness, OR it may take years to manifest. Typically, the longer it takes to manifest, the worse the damage. As we all know, we take immediate action when there are extreme conditions such as a leak, whereas a stain on the ceiling takes less priority in our busy lives.


No matter how well built your house is, you need a maintenance plan to keep things from getting out of hand. Question is, would you rather have a low maintenance house or a high maintenance house?




Architecture and Kids #Architalks

Last Summer, my 5 year old daughter attended a camp at Ace Academy in Austin called Summer Wonders.  I had heard great things about the program and it had won "Best Summer Camp in Austin" for 4 straight years.  But what convinced me that it was an absolute must-do, was that they were offering a class in architecture.  Specifically, "art in architecture".  Teaching kids architecture? Oh, what fun! I regularly indulge in sketch and design exercises with my kids.  We've designed playgrounds, neighbourhoods, pools, doll houses, etc. It's usually a 15-30 minute endeavour, and ends up looking like this.

Clearly, they are not developing advanced design skills, but it amazes me how much this quick exercise can attune them to their surroundings.  Needless to say, their imagination is not weighed down by the baggage called "we've done it this way for 30 years". It's part of what makes teaching kids architecture such a joy.

I have no secret wishes that my kids become architects when they grow up, nor do I have any grand schemes to brainwash them into loving architecture.  I just want them to have an exposure to architectural thinking, a lot sooner than a formal education at a college level. Much like foundations in science, math, language, art, music and sports, kids are never too young to learn a thing or two about architecture.

I have, in the past, done short presentations kindergarten classes about what informs architectural design. But this summer, I am going to teach 2 two-week sessions at Summer Wonders.

See course descriptions below for the 2 classes I have come up with.  If it sounds a little heavy for a summer program, don't worry - I've been assured that the kids ("gifted" or not) will lap it up.

Summer Wonders Session 1 June 20 - July 1 Architecture through the looking glass Did you know that lightning striking sand can create natural glass? This discovery was humanity’s first exposure to this magnificent material and we have had a love affair with it ever since. Used in architecture as decoration since the Middle Ages, its use is now ubiquitous - it allows sunlight in, opens up space, and even defines architectural style. It is considered the epitome of technological innovation. Learn about glass manufacturing, different types of glass, and the effects (both positive and negative) of using it in buildings. Let's discuss the greenhouse effect, experiment with colors, and discover it's limits. Explore how glass has been used in buildings throughout history, then design and construct your own model using this amazing material.

Summer Wonders Session 2 July 11 - 22 It's not easy being green Is green building about a home for Kermit? Or is it about designing buildings that work with the surrounding environment.  Learn about the history of the green building movement and it's current state of affairs. Find out the relationship between climate and human comfort. Discover what lies at the intersection of building science and architectural design. Understand the technologies that help us and that fail us - photo voltaics, rainwater collection, shading devices, cooling and heating systems. How can we make our living spaces more comfortable without paying a penalty?We’ll work on projects that illustrate how architects solve these problems using good design.

If you are looking for a summer camp in Austin for your kids, I strongly recommend that you check out all the courses offered and sign up. Registration is now open.

How I wish I were a kid again!

If you have tips for me, suggestions on class activities, or how to make this fun, please drop in a comment.



This post is a contribution to the #Architalks series of blog posts.  For other blog posts on “Architecture and...”, please click on links below.

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) Architecture and Photography

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) Architecture and a Future Without Architects

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) architecture and __

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) Architecture and Travel

Collier Ward - One More Story (@BuildingContent) Architecture and Storytelling

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect) Architecture and Gaming

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) architecture and m&ms

Rosa Sheng - EquitybyDesign [EQxD] (@EquityxDesign) Architecture And the Era of Connection

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) #ArchiTalks 18: architecture and... the bigger picture

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA) Architalks 18: Architecture and Mathematics

Amy Kalar - ArchiMom (@AmyKalar) Architalks 18: Architecture and ... Parenting

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) Architecture and Yoga

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) Architecture and Ego

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley) Architecture and Ego / The Architect's Unique Struggle with 'Good' Design

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia) Architecture and More

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Architecture and the Myth of the Master Builder

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum) Architecture and Interior Design

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch) Architecture and Wrestling

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign) Architecture + Memories

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch) [#ArchiTalks 18] Architecture and Strange Travel Etiquette

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey) Architecture and...my Generation.

Greg Croft - Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory) Architecture and Real Estate

Topics on the blog

Being an architect is like being a photographer - you are constantly zooming in and out, looking at things near and far, trying to find your spot and focus to crisp perfection. You are thinking about the big picture and the minutia, the future and the past; understanding the world, people, culture, and space; being a scientist, an artist, and the conductor of an orchestra; and trying to find new and better ways to communicate your ideas. It's like being a landscape photographer and a macro specialist at the same time. It's about bringing the important things into focus and blurring the rest, and just like bokeh, the results are beautiful. And that is what I want to write about in this space. Not photography, although there might be some photos, but architecture.

New Year, New Business

New year, new beginnings. I am excited to announce the launch of my own architecture practice in Austin, Texas.  Watch this webspace - Architecture By George is officially open for business! I have submitted my resignation at work and I am wrapping things up in the chapter of my life titled 'employee architect'.  Over the last 16 years, I've had many titles - Intern, Architectural Intern, Intern Architect, Project Manager, Project Architect, Lead Architect, Senior Architect, Director of Architecture, in that order.

As fancy as the title "Director of Architecture" sounds and is, and as many opportunities, responsibilities, and authority it has given me, I slowly realized that it came with a price.  The stress of directing so many projects and so many people was sapping all my energy.  And my time!  As I've written before in another #Architalks post Work=1/3 Life, my work was consuming me.

I recognized that this was not a sustainable situation.  Or a very enjoyable one.  I was at the top of the ladder and the horizon looked grim.  The forecast was 'overcast with a 100% chance of burn-out'.

Worse, I was missing out on my kids.

After some extrospection of the architecture profession, a lot of introspection, conversations with encouraging friends and family, I came to a conclusion.

That, if I want* to practice architecture for the next 25 years, do all the things I want to do, and live my life to my fullest potential, I would have to launch my own architecture firm.  That would give me the freedom to pursue my interests; have control over my time, to be involved in my kid's day-to-day lives; and wake up each morning with purpose.

*Read this #ArchiTalks post to see why

What now? I want to reignite my passion for architecture; shed the husk that developed through being the good employee; put all my talents and skills to use (not just the ones that an employer wants to use); find inspiration and joy in the work; connect and share with my community; learn and grow, always.

I have worked in the custom residential market for a long time.  I have always found great pleasure in meeting new people (especially those who are different from me), and learning about them.  Being able to design solutions for their ideal way of living and define their sense of home is an incredible honor and an opportunity.  It's also a favorable time to discuss and impact their future health, comfort, energy-use, life-style, and their legacy.

I have titled myself Principal Architect at Architecture By George.  But that's a joke, because my role will be that of Business Development Manager, Social Media Administrator, Marketing Director, Office Manager, Web Designer, Graphics Designer, Blogger, Content Creator, Designer, Chief Building Scientist, Energy Analyst, BIM Manager, Render Artist, Project Lead, Intern, Production Team, Spec Writer, etc.  At least, for a while.

Is there a title that covers all that?  "Small Business Owner wearing multiple hats" just does not have a zing to it.

The B word  Notice how I said "New Year, New Business"!  If I was doing this a few years ago, I would have said "New Year, New Firm".  Subtle? No!

I owe thanks to the preachings of my friends Enoch Sears at Business of Architecture and Mark R. LePage at EntreArchitect, who emphasize the things that are significant for success as an architecture business.  They have posted numerous free resources, shared their knowledge, connected people, and started important conversations - things that will strengthen our profession as a whole.

I also found Eric Reinholdt's book, Architect and Entrepreneur: A Field Guide to Building, Branding, and Marketing Your Start-Up Design Business (Volume 1), to be incredibly helpful. These resources have been great for mental preparation, as well as creating the long list of things that need to be considered, in order to launch an architecture business.

I've been fortunate to work at architecture firms that were run well, by owners who were mindful of the business side of the practice.  I fully recognize that that allowed me, as an employee, to do what I love to do (practice architecture), get paid, and stay employed during the recession.  But I also realize that grounding will ensure that I will never get paid like a lawyer or an engineer.

As I crunch the numbers for launching my own business, I understand the low salaries, why there was an emphasis on efficiency over creativity, production over creation, and all those long hours, in these firms.  The margins are slim, the work is tedious, the profession is undervalued.  I sincerely hope that I don't fall prey to that mode of operation.



[archifooter linkblock="new_year_links"]

'Tis the season...for allergies - Indoor Air Quality

A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible feeling that I couldn't breathe.  Very soon I realized I had a terribly stuffy, itchy nose, and a sore throat.  I've been suffering from these symptoms for a few days now.  While everyone in my household has taken a turn at a viral fever over the last few weeks, I know for a fact that I am suffering from allergies, not a viral infection. It's that time of year again, when environmental airborne allergens are high.  Having lived in Austin (the allergy capital of the world) for 15 years, I am very familiar with seasonal allergies, especially sniffles caused by hay fever and cedar fever.  I myself developed nasal allergies just a few years ago.  For me, it usually starts in late December/ early January, when juniper (mountain cedar) pollen is at it's highest, and continues through late spring, when oak pollen abounds, and everything in the city is covered in yellow dust.

Austin Allergy Calender

Of course, most people start out experiencing allergies in one season, that then expands to two seasons, and soon they have year round allergies.  All too common in Austin.

So, if you call Austin home, and you are allergy-free, count your blessings!  Also, make the most of it, because, rumor has it - there is a high probability that you will be under an allergy attack in a few short years.  And then, brace yourself!

Along with my nasal steroids and anti-histamines, I arm myself with an app on my phone that alerts me on the allergen of the day and it's count.

This time, the culprit is mold.  Mold is a perennial allergen that thrives in moist conditions that are prevalent outdoors after rainfall or indoors in wet areas.  Mold sporulates in the darkest hour of the night, as opposed to pollen which is highest in the wee hours of the morning (which explains why I woke up feeling suffocated at 2am).

Mold - allergy count in Austin

Is your indoor air cleaner than outdoor air?  When outdoor allergens are in the red zone, the common recommendation is to stay indoors.  But the truth is, you are not as protected indoors as you would think.

There is plenty of exchange of air between the inside and outside of a house, even when your doors and windows are closed.  The older the house, the higher the chances are that the inside is not sealed from the outside.  Even houses that are built today are not as airtight as they could be.  There are gaping holes in the walls, ceilings, and roofs.  Vents, lights, plumbing and electrical penetrations, gaps around windows and doors, fireplace chimneys, connections between different materials, etc, all puncture the in-out barrier and unintentionally let the outside in.

Moreover, the mechanical system is (intentionally) mandated to bring "fresh air" from outside into the house to meet ventilation requirements.  This air is seldom treated or controlled.

Then, there are the allergens generated inside the building - dander, dust, mold, etc.  All this affects the quality of your indoor air.  There are visible and invisible particulate matter suspended in the air you breathe.  There are also chemical contaminants, which is another topic.

What is and what should be. Your air-conditioner is supposed to "condition" the air that it circulates through the house.  Condition, meaning to clean and disinfect, in addition to cool and dehumidify.  But most a/c units, specifically mechanical systems installations, are designed to do one thing most effectively, and that is, cool the air.  The rest is done inadequately.

For effective results, it's a good idea to take care of each task of air-conditioning separately.  So, if you are replacing your indoor air handler unit, you have an opportunity to upgrade your system.

The best way to make sure that air recirculated by your air-conditioner is clean, is to get the best filter you can afford.  Look for a thick pleated (accordion) air filter with a High MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating (ranges from 1 through 16).

The last time I upgraded my system (previous house), I got an 7" thick pleated MERV 10 filter, located in the air handler unit, in addition to the filter at the return air grill on the wall.

The filter is the first (and sometimes only) line of defense.  It blocks particulate matter before it enters the air handler unit, thereby limiting the debris on the evaporator coil and blower inside the unit.  Dirty coils and blower leads to efficiency loss and also contamination of condensate pan below, which then leads to clogged drain lines. Imagine a dirty broth at the bottom of your unit (inside).

There are other techniques and products available to purify and disinfect air.  Selection depends on target - UV lamps, adsorption, Ionizers, Ozone generators, etc.

Maintenance My allergy attack reminded me to replace my AC filters.  And it was as yucky as you can imagine.  Unfortunately, I only have the protection of a regular 1" thick household filter at the return air grill in the wall.  I sorely miss the 7" thick pleated filter at my old house.  I would have liked to clean out the condensate pan, but the drain line coming out of my AC unit was not set up to allow that (i.e no clean out, T-fittings, or valves).

When was the last time you did any house keeping or maintenance on one of the most important systems in your house - the one that is controlling the air you breathe? (This is not a guilt trip?)

If you haven't already done so:

  • change the air filter at each return air grill in the wall or ceiling, every 3 months
  • if you have a thick pleated air filter at the unit, replace that once a year
  • if you have a UV light in your return air chase or inside the unit, change it out every 2 years
  • clean out condensate pan and drain line, once a year with bleach water (if you have the right set-up)
  • set up an annual a/c maintenance and they can take care of all of the above along with other stuff

Building new?  If you are building a new house right now, take a step back and discuss your indoor air quality, especially if you suffer from environmental allergies.  How are you preventing outdoor air pollutants from entering your house?  And what are you doing to mitigate indoor air pollutants?

You may not have allergies, or asthma, or any related health issues now, but what about the future? What about your kids?

Your health and comfort are at stake.  It pays to take a comprehensive approach to the design and construction of the entire house, in addition to thoughtful design and installation of mechanical systems.



Talking to kindergarteners about architecture

I went into my daughter's kindergarten class today to talk about architecture.  I wanted to share my love for architecture with these wide-eyed 6 year olds.  My intent was to whet their appetite for creativity and design. Maybe one of these kids might get inspired to become an architect.  As you might have heard "it's hard to become what you don't see".  Actually, as I write this I am realizing that in 20 years, when these kids are 25-26 (and I am 60!), I could be hiring and working with one of them!

I also wanted to create an awareness about what architects do, much in keeping with the purpose of this blog.  Of course, they didn't need me to tell them that architects design buildings.  They already knew that. So, I talked to them about what informs architectural design.

They have been learning about 'the environment and human societies'; inquiring about 'who they are' and 'how they express themselves'; wondering about seasons and 'where they are in time and place'; 'simple machines' and 'how the world works'.  These are their 'units of inquiry' thus far in kindergarten.

Doesn't all that sound like the perfect set-up for a presentation on what informs architectural design? It's like sowing seeds on a freshly plowed field that is all set for a ripe harvest.

We talked about Roman architecture and the exploration of innovative construction systems that gave us the arches, barrel vaults, and domes.

We talked about settlements in different climates around the world - how density of built environment is a response to climate, culture, and construction materials.  We contrasted dense urban areas to the typical american sub-urban neighborhood,  The kids remarked about the abundance of greenery in suburbia and I tried to draw attention to the abundance of paved road area.

We talked about architectural styles, sloped roofs and flat roofs, what works for extreme climates and what doesn't.  I had to tell them about Frank Llyod Wright and Falling Water!  6 year olds are not the only ones who get excited about a waterfall through a house.

We talked about the different climate zones in the US. We talked about heat, humidity, and comfort. We talked about how the sun's path in the sky in the summer and winter are different and how we can take advantage of that when we design buildings to keep us comfortable.

Did I lose them? Did I overload them with too much information? Maybe!

Or perhaps, this is the moment (s)he will talk about when (s)he receives his/her Pritzker Prize in 50 years :)

These kids are the architects of the future.  Even if none of them choose architecture as their career, they will design and shape the world in their own way.

Architecture is a very versatile field.  It engages right and left brain.  So engaging in architectural pursuits is prefect for kids of all ages who are trying to explore their gifts and interests.

I love the inquiry-based learning environment in my daughter's school.  Every time I do one of these projects with her class, I wish I was a kid all over again.  The school outlines 'units of inquiry' that delve deeper and deeper at subsequent grade levels.  What I (selfishly) love most is that they encourage parents to come and present their expertise and knowledge - much more stimulating (not to mention inspiring) than listening to your teacher drone on about something that might be on a test.  After all, the parent body is a vast network of people with real-world skills and a variety of talents, people from different backgrounds, every single one contributing as citizens of the world.

Viva La Education!




My First Project - The First Solar Decathlon #Architalks

I suspect this Architalks topic was meant to induce nostalgia - shuffle through some old pictures (remark on how young and thin we were back then), dig up fading memories, and reminisce about good times.  Why else would one want to revisit their first project? Well, I would like to talk about my first-ever design project that got built.  It was a competition project that I was involved in when I was in graduate school.  We slogged over it for 4 long semesters, including a sweltering summer of hands-on construction.

At the end of that project, I was tanned beyond recognition, had calluses that a rancher would envy, and knew a lot about energy production and efficient building systems design.  This is where my math brain really came in handy.

It takes me back 15 years to the year 2000, right at the turn of the 21st century.  I had traveled from a far away land (India) to be part of The University of Texas at Austin.  I was working on my Masters at The School of Architecture, which was one of the few schools that offered a "Design with Climate" graduate degree program.  The future was full of promise.  It was going to be awesome.

Solar Decathlon The US Department of Energy (DOE) had just announced a national collegiate competition.  Their purpose was to raise public awareness of energy-efficient design and construction as well as to foster innovation in multidisciplinary fields of clean energy.  The competition challenge was to design, build, and operate a solar powered house, completely off-the grid.  The entries would be tested and evaluated based on 10 different contests.  The criteria included aesthetics, affordability, innovation, energy efficiency, comfort, livability, commuting, etc.  They called it the Solar Decathlon.

The first-ever Solar Decathlon was held in October 2002 and teams were to assemble their houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C.  It was such a huge success that the competition has since expanded to include other countries, and occurs biennially.  The 7th Solar Decathlon took place this past month, October 2015.

Team UT We (the grad students in the "Design with Climate" program, under the leadership of Professor Michael Garrison) teamed up with Pliny Fisk and his Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (also called Max's Pot), here in Austin.

Solar Decathlon 2002

Our design We designed a home-office that harkened to the old dog-run style houses.  Since we had to produce our own power using clean energy (solar photo-voltaics), we did not want to spend it all on air-conditioning.  Also, in the hot-humid climate that we experience in Austin, a summer breeze can do much to keep you comfortable.  So, a dog-run style breezeway created opportunities for outdoor spaces to enjoy a cool morning or evening in the shade.

The most unique feature of our design was that the kitchen/ bathroom component of the house was fulfilled by an Airstream (à la, true Austin Weird).  Brilliant, right?!  This way, we eliminated having to build one of the most complicated systems in a household (plumbing, installing appliances), we isolated the parts of the house that produce the most heat and humidity (kitchen and bath), and added the convenience factor (if you take a trip, you take your kitchen/ bath with you).

The south facing roof was fitted with 3.6KW of photo-voltaic panels that harnessed solar energy that we stored in batteries.

I was in-charge of the production of hot water.  We looked at several solar water heating options, including the old-fashioned flat plate collectors, but the numbers did not work out.  We eventually found a more high-tech product in the Thermomax evacuated tubes. This also allowed us to use hot water for space-heating.  The glass tubes with the copper pipes and filaments looked so beautiful, gleaming in the sunlight, that we decided to expose the underside and use it like a pergola.

For ease of construction, transport-ability, and easy assembly at the competition venue, the house was comprised of a kit of parts.  The layout of spaces followed a modular structural grid.  We built the house at Max's Pot over the summer semester.  We then disassembled it, and packed it all up, and sent it to D.C. in a trailer.  We had 2 days and 2 nights to assemble the building on the national mall, and have systems up and running for the week-long competition.

Sure enough (Murphy's law), we had cloudy days when we were running our tests and taking measurements.  Of course, we had taken this into account for our photo-voltaic and hot water design.

We did not win big!  But it was quite a project and quite a build-experience, not to mention a great team-building exercise.  I've run into some of the people on the team who have stuck around in Austin, but I wonder what everyone else is up to.

The future is now. It's exciting to see the competition still going strong.  Although energy-efficient design is still not mainstream in the American home market, it's encouraging to see the continuing push for new programs, building technologies, and incentives.  For more resources, check out http://energy.gov/eere/buildings/building-technologies-office.

I for one think, we need a new energy paradigm.



This post is a contribution to the #Architalks series of blog posts.  For other blog posts on "My First Project", please click on links below.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) My First Project: The Best Project Ever Designed That Wasn't

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) My "First Project"

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) My First Project - Again

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) first project first process

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect) Our First Architecture Project [#ArchiTalks]

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) #ArchiTalks: My first project

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect) my first project: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) The First One -- A Tale of Two Projects

Rosa Sheng - Equity by Design (@EquityxDesign) Why every project is my "First"

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) "My First Project"

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) The Early Years of My Architecture Career - My Role

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) I Hate Decks

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w) [first] project [worst] crit

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA (@egraia) Project Me

Daniel Beck - The Architect's Checklist (@archchecklist) Fake it 'til you make it

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Define First

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent) my first project

Lindsey Rhoden - SPARC Design (@sparcdesignpc)

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) My First Project

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum) Top ten tips when faced with a challenging Architectural project

Aaron Bowman - Product & Process (@PP_Podcast) Community 101

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch) 6 Major Differences between my 1st School Project & my 1st Real Project

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu) My First Project – The Contemporary Cottage

Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC) The Question of Beginning

The future is now with high-performance homes

If you were shopping for a new car or computer, you would check it's specs and ask about it's performance, wouldn't you?  What about when you buy a new appliance?  You expect it to not only do what it is supposed to do, but do it at a high speed/power for best fuel/energy/work efficiency.  Oh, and look good while at it. In other words, you expect functionality, performance, and aesthetics.

Why not think about your house (or your office, school, any building) in that same way?  Your house is a machine, much like your car and your computer.  You should expect it to perform well.  I know you already expect high-function and beauty.

Your expectations of your home should go above and beyond the traditional idea of providing shelter, protection, status (for some), and a sense of home.  Humans evolved well past these basic needs centuries ago when architectural expressions became the hallmark of civilizations.

Today's architecture has to go above and beyond basic needs and self-expression.  It has to leverage technology and our understanding of climate and science.  It has to invest in advancements in building materials and building systems.

We cannot design and build today like we did a 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.



Citizen Architect #ArchiTalks

If you are wondering what "citizen architect" means, and I had to look it up too, below is how the AIA (American Institute of Architects) describes it.  Sounds like a soapbox kind of topic, doesn't it.

The Citizen Architect uses his/her insights, talents, training, and experience to contribute meaningfully, beyond self, to the improvement of the community and human condition. The Citizen Architect stays informed on local, state, and federal issues, and makes time for service to the community. The Citizen Architect advocates for higher living standards, the creation of a sustainable environment, quality of life, and the greater good. The Citizen Architect seeks to advocate for the broader purposes of architecture through civic activism, writing and publishing, by gaining appointment to boards and commissions, and through elective office at all levels of government.

American Institute of Architects

Well, I just recently became a US citizen.  It seems only appropriate that I contribute to the #ArchiTalks post from that perspective.  Four seemingly unrelated topics on my mind are:

  1. Gratitude
  2. Context
  3. Diversity
  4. Opportunities

Firstly, Thank you I am extremely grateful to all the people who have welcomed me, included me, made me feel integrated and part of the american society.  Starting with my husband and his family, my professors and classmates, my employers and colleagues, and last but not least, all the clients I have worked with - a big thank you for opening up your lives and your homes.

In doing so, you have helped me understand the american psyche - your desires, motivations, aspirations, concerns, needs, lifestyle, etc, which enables me to be a better architect.

Context  Architectural design is highly contextual.  It is intimately tied to a place and people; culture, history, climate, economy, and technological capabilities, dictate the design, not to mention construction methodologies.  But sometimes, one is blinded by familiarities.

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard "we've always done it this way", or "we've done it that way for 30 years", or "we've never done that before", I'd have a paid vacation.  You're probably thinking those words were spoken by contractors, and you'd be right.  But I'm here to say, I've heard architects utter those dreaded words.  And to me, that's like dragging your nails across a chalk board.  It's bad enough coming from contractors, it's sacrilege when an architect says it.

On the contrary, if you were given a design project in an unfamiliar context, what is the first thing you do?  You start by asking questions, right.  The more unfamiliar the context, the more questions you have.  The outsider's perspective puts a new spin on thinking outside the box.

I happily tread that tight rope between the familiar and the strange.

The D word: Diversity I was struck by the diversity at my naturalization ceremony.  There were 950 people from 99 different countries who took the oath of allegiance with me that day.  The MC started out by saying "What does an American look like? Look around you."

I could not find the speech Kirk Watson gave that day, but this one he gave back in 2013 is pretty close.

Every one of you has experienced things I haven’t experienced. You’re familiar with issues and challenges that I might not even know about–would have difficulty comprehending–and you have ideas about how to solve problems and capitalize on opportunities that haven’t ever occurred to me.

Those things, those experiences, those ideas that make us different are the very things that make this country strong.

Texas Senator Kirk Watson

There is much conversation these days about the need for diversity in architecture.  If you are wondering what the fuss is all about, I think the above words might clue you in.  If architecture is about ideas and problem solving, we need diversity.  If we don't want buildings to all look alike; if we want to address issues that we are not even aware of; if we want to break out of the mold, then we need diversity.  We need architects from different cultural and economic backgrounds; we need architects with diverse experiences; we need architects who can transport solutions from across the globe.

Opportunities I've had many opportunities in life.  Sure, I've experienced bias and prejudice, but more often than not, my story is one of privilege.  I've known this idiom and it's meaning before, but I've never quite wrapped my head around it, until now.  I think it's because it is a state of mind.  I am happy to say, I finally feel like, the world is my oyster.

Thank you USA.



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AIA CRAN Symposium - A professor, an architect, and the green police

I was in Minneapolis last week, attending the 2015 American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network (AIA CRAN) Symposium, "Elevating the Art of Residential Design and Practice". I was CRAN last year and have to say that this years talks were well-rounded and very relevant to modern day architectural practice.

I particularly enjoyed the following three lectures that discussed sustainability and green building.  A professor, an architect, and the green police presented:

  1. How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing, by Thomas Fisher
  2. Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction, by Peter Pfeiffer
  3. A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware!, by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

I'm told, these lectures will be available on www.houzz.com/CRAN2015 soon.

How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing by Thomas Fisher

The 30,000 ft view: Fisher's talk gave the big picture, the long term projection.

The gist: Architecture, architects, and the future - the status quo is unsustainable.  Sigh!

Tom Fisher identified the four drivers for the paradigm shift in the way we live, work, play, travel, create, learn, bank, and consume - Technology, Values shift, Economic realities, Environmental pressures.

He spoke about:

  • the current trend towards a peer-to-peer/ sharing/ collaborative economy (Kickstarter, Uber, Getaround, Lyft, Airbnb, etc)
  • Driverless cars and how that's going to change our cities
  • Millennials, who are looking to live in downtown and the inner city, because they value experiences more than the idea of buying a single family home with a big yard out in suburbia
  • the third industrial revolution of mass customization
  • our ponzi scheme with the planet

While he made some very salient points, pardon me, I don't share in his prophecy of doomsday and collapse.  I have since listened to several of Fisher's lectures (available online), and I'm afraid they all carry the same Malthusian critique and predict the downfall of our world and planet.

On the contrary, I think we humans are an ingenious bunch.  Most individuals and systems make life and our world better.  If you don't share my optimism, check out humanprogress.org.

No doubt, driverless cars are going to change our lives.  If people are willing to spend 1 to 2 hours per day driving to work now, I can't help but think that driverless cars, along with home delivery meals, and telecommuting will only exacerbate urban sprawl, not alleviate it.  Better services and infrastructure will incentivize people to live further away from town.  If the industrial revolution gave birth to cities, the third industrial revolution is going to spread population out, along with wealth.  P2P and sharing economy is leading to horizontal distribution of wealth, and generally millennials are wealthier than their parent's generation.  It may be true that millennials value experiential purchases more than material consumerism.  But, once they start having families, do you think they will want to live in crowded expensive inner cities when they have a choice to live elsewhere.  Heck, they will be wealthy enough to own secondary lakeside (or other destination) vacation homes that their driverless cars will take them to (as they relax and watch a movie in transit, no less).

Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction by Peter Pfeiffer

The 3000 ft view: Pfeiffer reviewed his thoughts on green building through his lens as a practical architect.

The gist: Design like you give a damn about the environment and green-by-design is more economical than green-by-gizmo.

Full disclosure - I was a Project Architect at Pfeiffer's architecture firm for more than 8 years.  Suffice it to say, I subscribe to the philosophy of green-by-design (passive first, active next), and know a thing or two about high-performance buildings.

Pfeiffer talked about the benefits of high-performance buildings.  As always touted, reduced environmental impact and consumption; but equally important, improved health, enhanced comfort, and low cost of ownership.

He also presented the green design pyramid, which follows the logic of the food pyramid.

Green building pyramid

  1. Design for Climate (the base): Design decisions and choices made early in the project (pre-design or schematic phase) provide maximum impact for minimal cost. For example - site selection, siting and orientation (responsive to climate- breezes, sun/shade, views), programming and zoning (for a/c), house sizing, etc are passive strategies for a more energy efficient design.
  2. Building Science and energy conservation: Building envelope design (roof system, insulation, wall system, glazing, etc.), HVAC specifications, water saving fixtures and appliances, energy efficient light fixtures and appliances, material selections, etc
  3. Energy production (the top):  Also called "green bling", this tier includes photovoltaic arrays, solar hot water, geothermal, and wind turbines that generate power/energy and get you closer to net-zero.  Even with the federal (and city utility) tax rebate, this bling can set you back several grand. They are the cherry on top or lipstick on a pig, depending on the project.

One would think that is an easy sell to a group of architects.  It puts more power into the hands of the architect, the inspired generalists, and positions us as leaders of green building.  And yet more builders and product manufacturers command that space than architects.

A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware! by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

The 300 ft view: Up close look at the green building products available on the market.

The gist: Don't get caught up in the hype; know your building science.

Anschel and Seville (the Green Police duo) talked about green washing and presented the 8 sins of green washers: lack of proof, worshipping false labels, vagueness, false conclusions, hidden trade-offs, fibbing, lesser of 2 evils, irrelevance.

Building green is a matter of juggling the following: site impact, community impact, resource efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, durability and maintenance, ease of use, practicality of installation, noticeable improvement, and last but not least, beauty.

If you are lost in the quagmire of green building products out there, a) you are not alone, b) look into using Pharos Lens to make more informed choices, and c) try not to get hung up on the products, unless you have particular health concerns or sensitivities.

There's also this documentary film (Greenwashers), which is now on my watch-list.

Just remember, there are 50 shades of green and you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.



Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis

Work = 1/3 Life #Architalks

Three-day weekends with no particular plans are the best!  I didn’t clean out the garage like I planned. But I feel refreshed and revived. Burnout averted!

Note: The following is how (the-about-to-burnout) I was going to start this post about work/life.

Whoever came up with a 40-hour workweek, or particularly an 8-5 work schedule, had no responsibilities other than to one’s self, no kids nor a commute, but was a single-minded workaholic who was cutting the rest of us a lot of slack! There are, after all, 168 hours in a week, and man only needs 8 hours a day to be fully functional, which gives you a whopping 72 hours to live the rest of your life! Put yourselves to some use people! Now, if you want to start talking about US GDP in comparison to France’s (35 hour work week), talk to the hand.

Now that that is out of my system, let’s engage in some productive talk.

Busy bees My husband and I both have full-time jobs and we have 2 young kids.  Weekdays are long and hectic; weekends are filled with play-dates, kid's birthday parties, gymnastics classes, laundry, grocery shopping, tidying house, ... you know, stuff of life, just like everybody else.  Did I mention, I write a blog and pursue some other interests that can eat up as much time as I give it.   Needless to say, we have very busy lives.

That's a good week.  When one of us is out of town or someone falls sick, all hell breaks lose.

I've been feeling more and more overwhelmed lately.  There are things on my to-do-list that I just can't seem to cross off.  It's September already, for Christ's sake.  Some things have been on the list since January.  I tell my husband it's because I am super-busy while I am at work. You know, normal business hours when you call to make a doctor’s appointment, or take your car in for service!

I lead the architecture department at an architect-led design-build company.  We have 7 projects in various stages of construction and 5 projects in different phases of architecture.  60% of my time is spent doing CA (Construction Administration – responding to RFI's (request for information) from builders, reviewing shop drawings, project schedule meetings, change orders, etc.), 40% managing the architectural team and our deliverables, including writing specifications.

By the end of the day, I suffer from “decision fatigue”. When my husband asks me what we should do about dinner, it’s often “I don’t care - anything”.

Is it really that bad? For this post, I did a little exercise.  I chalked down my week.  (I had a little help from my 5 year old.)  Sure, each work day is pretty intense.  But, it’s not so bad when you consider the week as a whole.   There's some semblance of a balance between work, sleep, and rest of life.

Work life tally, and by The Perfect Day I mean a day when everything goes according to plan

Then why does it feel so overwhelming?

Because, the truth is there are very few perfect days, when everything goes according to plan.   My kids spend an exorbitant 10 hours each work day away from home.  Theyeat more crap than I care to admit.  We recently moved and are yet to meet our neighbors. I ignore my health.  My relationships hang by a thread.

This is the reality of my modern-day work-life, and it sucks.

Like it or not, work spills over into life. If not literally, then figuratively. If you had a bad day at work, it spoils your evening.  Stress is tangible. For better or for worse, my work affects my being.

Work-life integration    Increasingly the concept of work-life integration is taking over the traditional idea of a balance between the two.  Many industries and companies recognize that work and life are not two separate things. Not in a globalized economy, not in this day of smart phones and wi-fi connectivity.

Certainly, for most architects, work is life and it’s our life’s work.

For example: I visit starchitect designed buildings that are up to 2 hours away from my vacation destination.  I take pictures of interesting architectural details while I'm not at work.  I jot down project to-do lists at 3am when I wake up for no apparent reason.  I agonize over small things that only perfectionists care about.

So I have to ask - Why have architecture firms not embraced a flexible work schedule to allow work life integration?

Every architecture office I have worked at has had a very defined work schedule; right down to the specific time that employees are allowed to take their lunch break!  It is not just in the employee manual, it is strictly enforced.  8-5pm; 12-1pm lunch.  And while the 5pm often blurs to 6 or 8pm, the other time stamps are sacred!

I say this to my friends who work for tech companies and other businesses and they laugh.  They say "I could never work like that". I have worked like that for so many years now, to me, it is normal. They think I’m too industrious. They don’t get into work till 10am. S l a c k e r s ! To be fair, I know these folks work 50-80 hours a week – just not at their office desk.

My husband has a pretty flexible work schedule.  Thankfully!  He picks up a lot of my slack. I think it’s safe to say he does more than his share of the household and parental duties. (Thank you dear!)

If our son gets sick at daycare and needs to be taken to the doctor in the middle of the day, he does not have to be apologetic about it to his boss.  If our daughter's class has a parent reading session, he can make himself available from 8:40-9:00am. Me? I have to calculate - If I volunteer for next week's reading, I will get to work by 9:15am, which means I am -1.25 hours for the day; I can work through lunch and stay till 5:15 and it'll be fine; as long as I don't have a project meeting; I should email everyone; and hope to God there's not bad traffic in the evening or else I'll be late to pick up my son.

U n n e c e s s a r y   s t r e s s !

I could check email before the reading, which is what I do when I get into work anyway! But, negotiating a flexible work schedule for myself would be unfair to the rest of the company.

Work-life separation But the status quo is not fair to my husband. His flexible work schedule comes at a price.  He has to work some evenings after the kids go to bed or when he is on-call, he gets paged in the middle of the night.  He may not work 8-5pm, but he works more than 40 hours a week.  There is little work-life separation.

On the other hand, I do. Whatever doesn’t get done by the end of the work day will have to wait till the next day. There is an inordinate number of emails to read and respond to, each requiring me to open up at least 4 different drawings. The definition of “getting your work done” is very vague.

You have to Choose: And therein lies the conundrum. Would you rather work on a schedule and not have to think about work when you are out of the office, or would you prefer that work hours are flexible but be on email alert?

But before you choose the former, consider this: Peak hour urban grid-lock Are we going to keep building more 10 lane highways to accommodate millions of urbanites who all have to be at work at 8am and leave at 5pm.  If you think that you just need to live closer to your work, consider that every time you change jobs or your office location changes, you will be uprooting your kids from their school/friends/environment, not to mention upsetting your partner’s commute to work. Living close to work is a reality for few and luxury for many.

Or are we going to embrace a flexible work schedule and integrate work and life?

Choose to be the architect of your own life and design it to be the best life it can be.



This post is part of the #Architalks series.  Aptly, for labor day, the topic was Work/Life. Read about how other architects handle work and life - click links below.

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch) Work Life

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) Work | Life - Different Letters, Same Word

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch) Work / Life : Life / Work

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) Work/Life...What an Architect Does

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) The One Secret to Work - Life Balance

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) work | life :: dance

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect) Living an Integrated Life as a Small Firm Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) #ArchiTalks: Work/life...attempts

Collier Ward - Thousand Story Studio (@collier1960) Work/Life

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect) what makes you giggle? #architalks

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design (@modarchitect) Turning Work Off

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) Work/Life -- A Merger

Rosa Sheng - Equity by Design / The Missing 32% Project (@miss32percent) Work Life Fit: A New Focus for Blurred Lines

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) Work Life

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA) Architalks: Imbalanced and uninterrupted

Amy Kalar - ArchiMom (@AmyKalar) ArchiTalks #12: Balance is a Verb.

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) I Just Can’t Do This Anymore

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC) An Architect's House

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) Brady Ernst - Family Man Since 08/01/2015

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz) Father, Husband, Architect - typically in that order

Tara Imani - Tara Imani Designs, LLC (@Parthenon1) On Work: Life Balance – Cattywampus is as Good as it Gets

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w) midnight in the garden of [life] and [work]

Daniel Beck - The Architect's Checklist (@archchecklist) Work Life Balance: Architecture and Babies - 5 Hints for Expecting Parents

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Work is Life

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent) studio / life

Lindsey Rhoden - SPARC Design (@sparcdesignpc) Work Life Balance: A Photo Essay

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) Work / Life

Check your bias blind spot #EQxDGetReal

It starts at the very beginning – girls vs. boysThe societal problem became crystal clear to me when I had my first child.  All the pink toys, princess dolls, and kitchen sets screamed - GENDER BIAS.  At first, it was just an interesting observation, harmless really, compared to some other egregious offenses.  But it's not so benign, is it?  

A year after my epiphany, Sheryl Sandberg gave her popular TED talk about women leaders.  A few years later, I discovered Equity By Design [EQxD].  I am glad there is open dialogue about the challenges facing professional women.  If there was such conversation and solidarity when I joined the workforce, I was not aware of it, and perhaps, I would have had better tools to deal with bias in the workplace.  As it was, I had a very lonely journey.

Growing up with bias and privilege As a female raised in India, gender bias is not a strange concept to me.  It is widely prevalent and deeply rooted in the patriarchal society.  On the bright side, I grew up in a large city, my parents are well educated, forward thinking, and middle class.  My biggest privilege was access to education and freedom to pursue my career goals.  (Millions in India, especially girls, do not have such opportunities.)  Moreover, I had the means to accomplish my dreams of higher education in the United States.

Bias in America     I thought I would be escaping old-fashioned ideas of gender norms when I moved to America.  After all, isn’t America a progressive melting pot, where social reform took place over a century ago, and women walk with their head held high?

So, when I hear comments or see behavior that exhibit patronizing attitudes towards my age, race, skin color, gender, or intelligence, I am taken aback.

I have been making excuses for people who treat me with prejudice - that it was an isolated incident, or the one person’s attitude, or their social ineptitude, or their insensitivity.  Things got better as I got older, but looking back on 15 years of excuses reveals a sad and fundamental truth: Sexism is alive and well in America.

Bias in the professional world When I was a young college student, I had the courage to snuff out prejudice.  But when I entered the professional world, I was at a loss.  I was a foreigner in the early stages of culture shock, with family 10,000 miles away and friends that I could count on one hand, searching for my place in a not-very inclusive community of professional cliques.

How do you build relationships in the proverbial boy’s club, when only the male employees are invited to lunch, golf, and conferences?  How do you ask for equity when only the male architects are given the high-revenue, complex, prestigious projects?  I had no answers and no support, and had lost all courage, confidence, and verve.

‘To a certain extent, all architects struggle to survive in a profession where the educational preparation is long, the registration process is rigorous, the hours grueling, and the pay is incredibly low.  Yet, many underrepresented architects face additional hardships, such as isolation, marginalization, stereotyping, and discrimination.’

Designing for Diversity, Kathryn H. Anthony

Overt Vs. Implicit Bias I came across the Implicit Association Test a few years ago when I read Ask For It.  Most people are not sexist or racist or discriminatory.  But everyone has subconscious bias.  And that is the silent killer of equity in professional settings.

I did say most people – I have personally experienced blatant sexism and racism.  I’ve had an employer ask me in an interview when I plan to get pregnant; if, as a mother, I can focus on work and be productive; I’ve had a colleague ignore me for 3 years; etc.

But more often, I am a victim of implicit bias.  It is so subtle that you feel awkward about raising a flag – maybe’s it’s just your my head, right?  It is body language!  The male intern who sits in my project-team-meeting is treated to more eye-to-eye contact and a respectful handshake.  The white project manager at my construction-site-tour is assumed to be my superior and gets all the questions.  I am invisible!

The core issue - intelligence bias My husband and I talk about these issues often.  We compare our cultures, professions, and the 'bias baggage' we carry.  He is an American, a computer engineer and a self-proclaimed geek.  One day, he showed me this xkcd comic and said, there is this notion in America that girls are bad at math.  As someone who excelled in math and science, I was fuming.  Despite all the gender bias that is prevalent in India, I had never before heard that sentiment.

But that is how it works, isn’t it?   The unwritten memo says:                 Women are incompetent, until proven otherwise                 Men are competent, until proven otherwise

Competence and Knowledge: I think the ridiculous notion that ‘women are not as smart as men’ speaks volumes.  And it strikes at the heart of the issue facing women professionals in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Mathematics) fields.

People are very comfortable with women in an Interior Designer role.  Furthermore, people are comfortable with me as an Architect talking design related issues.  No offense to designers, but somehow, seeing a woman as the Project/Principal Architect is a big leap?

Is it because conversations about architecture typically include technical and practical discussions about construction, specifications, energy analyses, structural engineering, that I cannot worry my pretty little head with?  Is that why I have to ‘prove myself’ over and over again, every time I meet a new builder/ structural engineer/ lighting consultant/ energy rater?

A young designer on my team recently asked me, what she can do to make her colleagues take her seriously.  As her manager, my immediate answer was ‘be really good at what you do’.  I was simply repeating what I told myself when I was starting out - work hard, dig deep, and earn respect.  Nothing wrong with that except….do young men have this problem?  I would like to have a better answer.

It seems like the conversation about equity in the workplace is coming to a head.  Recognizing what discrimination looks like and knowing that it’s not just happening to me, but to many like me, is powerful knowledge that tips the balance towards action.

Active action may be speaking up, spreading awareness, sharing stories, opening dialogue, checking your own biases, etc.  There are numerous organizations, all over the world, demanding women’s rights through active action.  I have listed a few of my favorites below.

Some people are more comfortable with passive action.  They listen, take their talents elsewhere, look for alternate careers, or set up their own workplace and their own rules.  But no one is an island - sooner or later you have to collaborate with others.  

I constantly have to check my attitudes and revisit my beliefs.  Not just for my own sake, but for my son and daughter.  I am sure that I have unconscious biases too.  I better get unpacking.



Taking Active Action: http://themissing32percent.com/ http://archiparlour.org/ http://www.3percentconf.com/ www.leanin.org http://www.goldieblox.com/pages/about http://therepresentationproject.org/ http://www.genderavenger.com/ https://www.ted.com/topics/women http://www.theinclusionsolution.me/ http://educategirls.org/

Note: This post was written as a contribution to the EQxD Get Real Challenge series, on the topic "Bias and Privilege".  Head over to their blog to see other contributions to the topic.

Continuing Education as an Architect

I spent the last 2 days at the AIA Austin Summer Conference, which was chock full of a wide variety of topics.  It was unlike some other conferences I have attended that are filled with fluffy topics (sometimes too academic) that cater to 'the theme' of the conference and make you feel like you are on a professional vacation (or worse, back in architecture school).  Thankfully, this one was very education-oriented, relevant, tangible, with many practical ideas and take-aways.  The only unifying theme was that it was all related to local happenings and people. I attended sessions that discussed the City's initiatives to address our unprecedented growth through Imagine Austin; new building code updates (sigh!); perfect wall, insulated concrete wall, healthy construction; also, business development and legalities of professional practice.  It was encouraging to see what some others are doing with Building Information Modeling (BIM), which I have been using since 2007.

I thought it was worth my time (and money).  There was just one afternoon session that was a waste of my time - but, that was simply poor choice on my part.  It would help if the 'brief description' was more accurate to help us make better choices.  Bonus - I was able to meet a good chunk of my continuing education requirements.  If you missed it, check it out next summer.

Continuing Education Requirements: As a licensed/registered Architect in Texas, I have to meet the continuing education (CE) requirements set by the state licensing board.  These change over the years and are different for each state.


I am also a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a national professional association for architects in the USA.  AIA also has continuing education requirements, that are different from the state.


The things that Architects need to know, and pay attention to, are vast and complex.  But, that's what makes the architecture profession so fulfilling.  It feeds your curiosity.  Some professionals choose to reach far and wide, others choose a deep and narrow focus.  Either way, you've got to keep your antennae up and stay involved in the conversation.  This was always true, but even more important today, when things are changing and evolving at a rapid pace.  The challenge is to keep up with it all and still be present in your day to day goals and accomplishments.



Why I am an Architect, when I could have been a Mathematician #ArchiTalks

The short answer:- I am good at math and I like to draw!*

To draw, draw, raw, aw…. Not only do I like to draw, I can draw well, a talent I inherited from my father.  That skill came in handy when I had to draw a still life, to prove that I was worthy of attending the College of Architecture.  I remember sitting at a drawing board in a studio, alongside a batch of other applicants, sketching the objects that were carefully arranged on the table in front of us.  That was 21 years ago, so I don’t know if they do that anymore, but it sure set the crowd apart right at the outset.  I should mention that this was before we had personal computers!!!  (If you’re trying to do the math and it doesn’t make any sense, it might help if you knew that all this happened in India, in the middle of the dark ages!)  So if you cannot draw and you made it into architecture school (dumb luck or reservation politics), you were screwed i.e. you would repeat first year architecture for a long time!  But as it was, it was a class filled with kids who were well endowed with artistic talents.

Good at math, at math, math, ath, th.… Before architecture, I spent a semester dawdling in mathematics.  That’s right!  I wasn’t kidding when I said I am** good at math.  But being good wasn’t enough.  I had no passion for it.  While going from trigonometry to algebra to calculus to analytical math all day long was all fun and games, I had no idea what I was going to do with a B.S. in Math.  Does anyone?!  I was no math prodigy and I had no intention to be the next Ramanujan. (Dad - let’s not go there again!)

** I should correct that to was good at math. Those brain cells have long since atrophied.

Say what?! I spent most of my schooling secretly hating the abstract concepts and intangible theories of the sciences.  I could not wait to go to college to focus on real life learning!  Things I could touch and feel and see.  (No disrespect to my physicist friends.)  Perhaps, I forgot that part when I signed up for being a math major, because by definition, math is an abstract science.  Architecture, on the other hand…except for that one class I had in grad school that was so academic, we were reading Marx and Engels.  Worst.  Class.  Ever.

I preferred applied math to pure math anyway.  And now, I'm just looking at the problems from the other side of the lens.  These 10 amazing examples of architecture inspired by mathematics showcase what I mean.

Why I enjoy doing architecture: I am one of those people who use their right and left brain almost equally.*** The practice of architecture fans the flames of my artistic/creative side and feeds my analytical/logical mind.

***Of course, this is not a requirement.  Take this test to see where you stand.  And read my post architects come in all shapes and sizes, to identify your architect avatar.

Actually, these are reasons why I became an architect and why it’s a good fit for me.  They are not why I continue to be an Architect.  And that brings me to…

The long answer:- You see, at several points in my life I’ve taken the opportunity to question whether this is the right career path for me.

  1. Right after I graduated. 85% of my friends who graduated with a B.Arch degree branched out into other fields – advertising, industrial design, graphic design, landscape architecture, construction management, business, engineering, etc.  5 years in architecture school and they had had enough.  I did the opposite and decided to spend another 2 years in (grad) school!
  2. Right after I decided to pursue licensure. I found out that my undergraduate degree was not recognized by NCARB (if you don’t know, you don’t need to know), and my graduate degree (from UT!) was not accredited, so I had to accrue 8 years of work experience before I could start the ARE (Architect Registration Exams, i.e. the licensing test).  @#*$!!!  I waited patiently (silently plotting) and then took 9 exams in 9 months (one during every month of my pregnancy) and got licensed.
  3. Right after I had my first child. I realized that the firm I was working at was not very family friendly and I either needed a new job or a new career.  I had just got my license!  So I got a new job.
  4. Right after every dreaded “salary talk”. Ugh.
  5. Right about now! Hind-sight IS 20/20.

I have, on a couple of occasions, talked about changing careers - that usually lasts until I get over my funk.  I am either too persistent or too stupid.

Or I found my real reason WHY.

THE BIG WHY? If you’ve heard Simon Sinek’s TED Talk Start with WHY, you know that the core reason WHY you do something is a very elusive thing.

I like to think of architecture as ideation.  Architects create ideas.  Small ideas and big ideas.  Ideas that can change our energy consumption, enhance our quality of life, stimulate our senses, connect us to our family, friends, and neighbors, beautify our surroundings, solve our mundane and most gruesome problems, and in so doing, change our lives and our future.

The end: Architecture is a tough profession.  You don’t make much money, you have to work really hard (it takes a toll on your body too), and there are no fast results - much like anything worth pursuing in life.  It’s the long game.

I like being an Architect. I love the practice of architecture. It's my craft.



* Read Bob Borson's post on Life of an Architect, Architecture and Math (it'll shed some light on that reference)

This post is my contribution to #ArchiTalks series organized by Architect Bob Borson, who writes Life of an Architect. To see other architect blogger’s musings on "Why I am an Architect", click on links provided below.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect @bobborson Why I am an Architect (and not an Astronaut)

Marica McKeel - Studio MM @ArchitectMM Why I am an Architect

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect @LeeCalisti Why I am an Architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC @L2DesignLLC Why I am an Architect

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design @modarchitect Purpose in the Profession

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect @mghottel Why I am an Architect

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC @MeghanaIRA Why I am an Architect

Michael Riscica - Young Architect @YoungArchitxPDX Why did you become an Architect

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL @sramos_BAC I like to make and create

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect @bradyernstAIA The Agrarian Pantheon

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect @bpaletz I am what I am

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - @egraia Why I am an Architect

Replacing the "I" in "FIRM" with "WE" - acknowledging the team

I struggled with this post, not just because I am expressing a personal frustration, but because it goes against the grain of the way of things in the architecture profession (and all creative fields), as revealed by my survey of 100 architecture firms websites.  Is that worth writing/reading about? The trigger: Last week I came across an online posting showcasing a project that I had worked on a few years ago.  It was a custom residence for a retired couple, empty-nesters, expatriates.

As their Project Architect, I got to know them pretty well over the course of the year that I worked with them, and deliberated over all the details of their dream home.  Naturally, when I saw the finished photographs of the house, I had an awesome sense of pride and achievement.  They had really made it their home - with carefully arranged furniture, pictures, and accessories.  I could "see" the clients using these spaces - kicking back in her reading nook, the two of them enjoying a home cooked meal on the deck, their family huddling together by the fire on the covered porch, etc.  It felt good.

The post was all praise for the house and “the firm”, with a glowing testimony from the client about how the design process was enjoyable and how their home is everything they wanted and more.  But, as I finished reading, an uneasy feeling started setting in.  I could not put my finger on it.  I went about my day, and after a while, it occurred to me.

The issue: There was no mention of me - The Project Architect!  The one who did 87% of the work*, the one who was as invested in the project as the client, who lived in the trenches, who sweated the little stuff and the big.

*The work - what Project Architects do: A Project Architect oversees the entirety of the project and works closely with the client from start to finish.  Depending on the size and structure of the firm, as well as the size and scope of the project, the Project Architect might be the only one doing all the work or will direct a team of architectural staff.  As in many small firms, I was solely responsible for all aspects of the project - developing the design; educating the client and coordinating their needs with what their budget can deliver; making sure that it can be built as drawn; that it complies with building codes, land development codes, and neighborhood guidelines; producing clear construction drawings and specifications that a builder can use to do his job (bid and build); managing outside consultants (structural engineer, interior designer, lighting consultant, landscape designer); conducting all meetings; and while the project is under construction, site visits, respond to RFI's (request for information), approve shop drawings, etc.  The whole shebang.

For that matter, there was no mention of any of the other professionals who were instrumental in bringing the project to life - the interior designer, the landscape architect, the builder, etc.  Instead, it was as if "the firm" had waved a magic wand with an invisible hand and the project came to fruition.

Project Timeline - Project Architect involvement

The story ends the same way for all projects that I have put my time and expertise into.  So, I wondered.  Is this an isolated phenomenon, specific to "the firm" or is it common practice?  After all, my name is not on the door.  I do not pay the bills/ worry about making payroll/ shoulder the liability.  I get that.  But, I do my part!

Is this just my ego talking?  Perhaps.

Am I the only one who has the audacity to want more?  Probably not.

What do architecture firms showcase? I did a quick survey to see how many firms explicitly acknowledge their (project) team members.  And by quick, I mean I looked at 100 websites of architecture firms that I am familiar with, mostly local, mostly small.

Architecture websites - a survey

Every firm has an online portfolio, of course; displaying professionally photographed pictures of the project, painstakingly listing awards and publications; but not one identified project team members.  And even if this is not a true reflection of the firm’s day-to-day work culture and how they treat their employees, it sure sets the bar pretty low.

Why would publications and the general public care who comprises the "we"?  They are the invisible minions who are not talked about.  This is the formula that gives rise to the "starhitects" and "starchitecture firms".

The reasoning is probably what everyone I talked to suggested - the client hired "the firm", and the work was done under the purview of "the firm", who paid the project architect and the architectural staff to do the needful, and therefore the credit goes to "the firm", not the individuals who did the work.

Well, isn't that just a cop out?!

Acknowledging the work of your collaborators does not take away from the firm's accomplishments.  For a profession that is obsessed with “errors and omissions”, this seems like a big omission.  If you are an architect or have ever worked with an architect, you know that a fantastic design is only one piece of the puzzle.  The execution of said design is just as critical for the success of the final product.

Sharing the spotlight: I was most impressed, and encouraged, by the following unique acknowledgements of individual contributions.

1) Mel Lawrence Architects lists former employees.  Because really, the fact that a team member has moved on does not negate the value they added to the team or project.  Also, read their note of thanks to all the people who usually go unmentioned.

2) MF Architecture lists outside collaborators, who have contributed to the success of their projects.


But that’s it. 2% that went above and beyond.

“I strongly believe in a collaborative design process. I think pure, singular, and original authorship is not only unobtainable, but not an interesting way to go about making new things. Our rule is everyone brings their differing talents, voices, and opinions into whatever project they are working on. We have small, intensely creative teams that work on projects from beginning to end.”

Architect Michael Hsu

I’m sure you are familiar with the long list of credits at the end of a movie.  Or heard Oscar award winners thank a number of people, including their inspiration, spouse, and children, until the music starts to play and they are escorted off the stage.  "I couldn't have done it without you," is a common statement.  It’s not that they can’t thank their spouses and kids for their support when they kiss them goodnight.  They do it on stage, in front of the whole world.

So, here’s my plea. As architects, we take great pride in our creations, and we make sure we showcase them, wherever possible, in the best possible light.  Take as much pride in your people.  (If you don’t, maybe you need a different team!).  But if you do, showcase them.  Give them credit.  Acknowledge their hard work and their tireless efforts.  Thank them for their dedication.  Not just at their yearly performance review.  Do it in front of everyone.

Share the glory.  Pay it forward.  And your team will take you to new heights.