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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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:

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

Inspired Innovation

I like to draw parallels.  Literally and figuratively.  Literally speaking, it's a habit from doing line exercises in first year architecture school.  Figuratively speaking, it is comforting to see what lines up, who is on track with you, the familiar, that which follows expectation.  On the other hand, it is very interesting to see where things starts to veer off in another direction, why and how, the twist in the tale!  Is it new?  Is it novel?  Is it exciting?  Eyes peeled, ears perked up, everyone wants to know, we make the time to find out. Last weekend, I went to see the world premiere of Belle Redux/ A Tale of Beauty and the Beast, a modern ballet produced by Ballet Austin.  It was very different from anything I had seen before or expected in a ballet performance.  It was no familiar fairy tale.  Quite the contrary.  It was dark (literally and figuratively), daring, layered, interpretive, inquiring, lingering.  In an encore following the ballet, director Stephen Mills talked about the project, the process, and the result.  The directive was to be innovative, plain and simple.  No small feat there, but I think they hit the mark.  And I say that not because they used multi-media or donned contemporary costumes, although that certainly set the stage, but because of the power of the narrative.  It's been 4 days since, and I am still thinking about the performance, and digging up the story behind the stage.  I'm still peeling the onion, exploring the interpretations, and thoroughly enjoying myself.  Isn't that the purpose of art?

There are three things that have been lingering on my mind - the act of innovation, the subjectivity of beauty, and the fruit of criticism.

Mills describes innovation as "the act of making something better, more interesting, or more useful."  I cannot help but draw a parallel to the art of creating architecture.  Architects are known to be creative people; innovative, however, not the first adjective that comes to mind. Why the heck not?  We make things better, more interesting, and more useful!  Well, some architects certainly do, more so than others.

Aren't creation and innovation intricately woven together, being two sides of the same coin?  In the context of architecture, what exactly is the difference between an innovative idea and a creative idea? Is innovation so intimately tied to processes, execution, and well, technology, that it seems irrelevant as a concept in architectural design?  Where do you draw the line between creativity and innovation in the arches and vaults of ancient Roman architecture?  Would you say that creative architects gave us the likes of the Sagrada Familia and innovative architects gave us the skyscraper?

Some might argue that innovation lies in the process of turning creative ideas to reality, and while an idea might come from a single person, it takes a team to innovate.  Any creative person, scratch that, everybody knows that ideas are aplenty; turning that to reality is the mountain ahead of you.  Was it Edison who said "Innovation is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."  Every practicing architect knows the long journey from concept drawings to getting the keys to the building - you don't get from point A to B without team work and collaboration.  Solo architect is a misnomer.

In my work in residential architecture, it is very evident that the client sitting across the table from me is there because they want something better.  From the initial bubble diagram, there is an opportunity to be creative and innovative.  Perhaps it's a challenging site or orientation, a personal pet peeve that needs to be addressed, the building material selection, the construction detailing, a project delivery method; there are opportunities at every step of the way. Maybe it's not the concept or the design, but the client's experience working with the architect that was the best aspect of the project.  Or maybe the waterproofing detail is the most innovative thing about the house.  It is simply better than it could have been.

Something that Stephen Mills said after the ballet resonated with me.  He said, "Who decides what is beautiful and what is beastly?" and then of the show he said, "some people might love it, some may not get it, and some might hate it, and I'm okay with that."

In the architecture profession, there is a lively debate about architectural style, with the architects in one camp bashing the others.  Our work is criticized by our peers, the public, and the media.  Have you ever seen the show "Extreme Homes" on HGTV? They showcase houses from all over the world that range from bizarre to spectacular, low-tech to ultra-modern, mundane to beautiful, yet extreme in some unique way.  I like to watch it, mostly because it's interesting to see what personal architecture looks like in other parts of the world, but also to understand what motivates different people and how it reflects in their built environment.  One size does not fit all.  Standing at the curb, it's easy to pass judgement on the aesthetic choices or the architectural style.  But if you get to know the narrative behind the facade, you might not be so harsh.  Indeed, you might be inspired.



Architects in all shapes and sizes - architect avatars

This should come as no surprise, but not all architects are created equal!  I'm not referring to the product of their work, but the process of their thinking, the difference in the "kind of mind".  Broadly speaking, on one end of the spectrum, there are the architects who design using their right brain, and on the other end of the spectrum, the architects who use left-brain processing to solve problems.  No matter where an individual is on the spectrum, he/she brings value to the architecture profession in general and their projects in particular. Most architects fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and put on different thinking hats while juggling aesthetics, purpose, functionality, opportunity, construct-ability, durability, cost, etc to make design decisions.  However, every architect has either one strong avatar or several avatars that exemplify their core competency.  Based on my own personal experience, having worked with and for different architects, I've made a list of architect avatars. They are not listed in any order of importance and is by no means exhaustive.  Read on to identify your avatar.

The artist architect -  these architects are primarily artists. They are sculptors who view buildings as their medium, using its three-dimensional form to express their ideas. To them, buildings are monumental sculptures in the landscape. They are the visionaries, the dreamers, the trend setters, the trail blazers.  They capture your imagination with their doodles, abstract thinking, and inspiring narratives.  We celebrate these architects whose buildings stand as a testament to their creativity.  Frank Lloyd Wright (and his Falling Water) is an iconic example of this avatar.  Contemporary architect Frank Gehry is known for his sculptural deconstructivist forms and his abstract sketches.

The philosopher architect - they are the explorers, the thinkers. They see architecture as a benchmark in civilization, and take a world view to ponder on the merits and demerits of architecture on society, its cultural statement, and it's long-term effects on humanity.  They question convention, push the boundaries of tradition, and redefine the paradigm. Their ideology dictates their practice and product.

The green architect - a subset of the philosopher architect, they care about the environment and are conscious about how buildings tax the earth's resources.  They make educated decisions to help lower the ecological footprint of the building and users, integrating passive architectural strategies and active energy-efficient systems.

The building scientist architect - they think about buildings as machines.  Buildings are certainly expected to perform like machines with modern amenities like air conditioning, electrical, low voltage, plumbing, and fire suppression systems.  Water management, thermal dynamics, insulation, etc are all topics that they geek out on - understanding the science behind the details allows critical thinking in a variety of applications. They have a strong aptitude for the sciences and math.  They love calculations, and enjoy a technical challenge.

The tech-savvy architect - this is the gadget girl and gizmo guy.  They strive to incorporate the latest in automation and technology.  Their buildings can be secured, monitored, and controlled by smart phones from across the earth; touch screens and low voltage wiring coming out the ears; audio-video systems and home theatre incorporated; motorized shades and solar control everywhere; everything from the fire-pit to the water fountain can be controlled remotely; so much so that a single family residence requires a low-voltage room for all the equipment.  Okay, maybe this is a client avatar.

The designer architect - they have a strong passion for design and their work exemplifies the true meaning of design. They delve deep to identify the crux of the problem and find inspiration in unexpected places.  Their work is innovative and awe-inspiring.  I like to share this TED talk by architect Thomas Heatherwick of London as an example of the quintessential designer architect avatar.

The builder architect - These are the architects who care foremost about how buildings are put together. Their designs are limited by the question, "is it construct-able?"  They take great pleasure in figuring out how something will be built, and detail the crap out of their project, all the nuts and bolts figured out, on paper, before ever breaking ground.  Or he/she is at the job-site ready for some hands-on work!  They most likely grew up with builder parent(s), spending weekends on the job-site!  They are the tinkerers, the practical people, the tether to the ground.

The artisan architect - a truly skilled craftsperson, evident in the artistry of their architectural drawings as well as their designs; they revel in the labor of their hands and minds/ imagination; their products are works of beauty.  Their talent lies in their ability to imagine the artful and translate it into a tangible three-dimensional object. They crave creativity in their day-to-day. Their hobbies might include model-making, carpentry, pottery, glass work, bread-making(!), and other crafts. The work of architect E. Fay Jones comes to mind, although I have no idea how hands-on he himself was in the construction of Thorncrown chapel or any of his other buildings.  Having been to Thorncrown myself, it's hard not to appreciate architecture that allows such fine craftsmanship.

The structural architect - This category includes the architects who like to show off the structural components of the building.  I might also call them turtle architects, as they take what others like to hide and expose it and express it in the most unimaginable and impossible way.  Santiago Calatrava exemplifies this avatar - of course he is an architect and a structural engineer, and his designs are beautiful expressions of ingenuity.

The shallow architect - those who care only about the aesthetics - proportion, composition, cool factor, and sacrifice function for the looks (functionality is overrated anyway, right!).  They let the consultants work out all the other stuff - the systems suffer because the design failed to accommodate it.

The lazy architect - these are the architects who conform. They are so conservative and risk averse that they regurgitate what looked good and worked historically. They repeat what was successful in their last project, or worse, they copy what is trending in the latest publications. They develop a recipe.

The master builder - an architect in the age-old traditional sense of the greek word "arkhitekton" meaning "Chief Builder", being the artisan, builder, designer, engineer, superintendent, manager, estimator, and every other consultant involved in a modern building project.  I think it's safe to say that it's the rare Architect who can pull off this avatar.

Did I miss any?

All architects aspire to be artist and master builder, at once being on different ends of the spectrum. It's what you are conditioned to believe as your destiny after you graduate architecture school. But the truth is that the rigors of everyday practice of architecture put you on a certain path, and lead you in a direction. Not to mention, your personality and aptitudes get in the way.  And despite your best intentions, one of the above (less sought-after) avatars becomes your legacy.

We all need a small dose of external inspiration, and there is no shame in admitting that you are  going to adapt an awesome detail you saw in an open house, or are inspired by an incredible picture in a recent magazine.  Fact is, artist architects have patrons, all other architects have clients, and builder-architects have customers.  Let it not be said that you were led blindly down your path.



Why designing a custom house is like having a child

For starters, you cannot know before you start what you are going to end up with.  You might have a girl or a boy!  He might have your beautiful eyes, she might have your partner's bulbous nose.  Regardless, you will love your child and not ever regret having this little bundle of joy that you created.  From nothing to a whole new living breathing person who leaves an indelible footprint in your life - it's rather amazing!   Likewise, if you have made the decision to go through the effort of building a custom-house that fits your family, your personal needs, and your lifestyle, it's quite a responsibility, and it's worth it.

Your child's skin color, eye color, hair color, sleep habits, personality, talents, it's all a toss.  Well, maybe some characteristics are predictable within a certain level of accuracy based on the two people involved in the pairing.  Every child is unique and a direct result of the people involved.  Similarly with building a custom-house - the major players involved in the project have a direct bearing on the end result.  This includes the architect, the builder, and you (the client).  The hereditary gene pool for the project is established by this unique combination.

You bring your site, your aspirations, your requirements, your budget.  No two architects will produce the same design for the same set of criteria.  That's the beauty of working with an architect, isn't it.  Architectural design is a creative process, and the resulting product will be as unique as the individual doing the creating.  Heck, the same architect will come up with a different design if they sat down to design on a different day, but I will ponder on that in an another blog post.  Architects come in all sizes and shapes - that's why selecting the right architect is crucial to the outcome of your project.

Design is one thing, building is another.  Yet, the same principle is true.  Given the same set of drawings, specifications, and instructions, no two builders will produce the same building.  Most seasoned builders assemble a team of sub-contractors that they like to work with.  The process of building is still considered a craft.  While the framing might be done by any number of framers per drawings and specifications, we depend on the artistic eye of the mason installing the stone veneer, the carpenter doing the trim work, the iron guy welding the ornamental railing, the tile guy laying the floor tile, just to name a few.  Some would argue that there are talented plumbers and electricians too.

And then, there is the nature vs. nurture conundrum, which also directly applies to the collaborative work involved in designing a custom-house.  Your project develops a personality and characteristics that are dictated by conversations that reinforce or alter a hereditary trait.  At the end of the day, one cannot say whether nature or nature played a more vital role in the outcome. It just takes a life of its own.



AIA CRAN Symposium - The Architecture of Influence

I have just returned from Charleston, South Carolina where I attended the 2014 symposium of The American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network (AIA CRAN). Wow, that's a mouthful!  If you work in or run a residential practice, this is the part of the AIA that you need to follow and be involved with. I was excited about this symposium for three reasons. Firstly, I was looking forward to going back to Charleston and spending some time in the historic city, because the first time I was there, I spent most of my time on the beach.  Secondly, this was going to be my first time at a CRAN symposium and I had heard great things about the ones in the past, especially the home-tours.  Lastly, and most importantly, the theme: "The Architecture of Influence" - you cannot tell me that does not sound inviting to a bunch of architects.  Charleston was the perfect backdrop to explore this aspect of residential architecture.

"“The Architecture of Influence” will explore the importance of history and context in the design of new houses, and in particular how the careful consideration of historical architectural styles – both traditional and Modernist – can help architects design houses that contribute to established physical and cultural settings. How a new house or building looks is fundamental to how a community responds to it, and this symposium is intended to encourage an ongoing conversation about what it means to design a good architectural neighbor in the 21st century."

The walking tour of four houses (pictured below) in downtown Charleston was an excellent way to experience the city and appreciate architectural details that lend to the charm of the city - the courtyards, gardens, and south facing side porches, the decorative iron gates, gas lanterns, and window shutters, the variety of materials and colors, the weathered age and imperfection.

It was inspiring to see the work presented by architects and be part of the stirring dialogues that followed.  Particularly refreshing was the work of Khoury & Vogt Architects in Alys Beach, Florida (I wanna go there!).  Traditional style of design held the floor one afternoon, and modernist another.  The debate of architectural style was put to rest, somewhat, when Architect Julie Snow said, "the question of traditional vs. modern is a red herring. There is good architecture, and there's bad".  I couldn't agree more.

I really enjoyed the lively keynote address by new urbanist Andres Duany, but frankly speaking, I could have lived with fewer lectures.  A few were engaging, but many were a little too dry and academic for my liking.  I like to indulge in intellectual discourse just as much as the next person, but for afternoon sessions, they were long and one too many.   I wish instead, there was some discussion about matters such as how architects can shape and influence public opinion about architecture, or the role and value of historic preservation efforts, or any number of other relevant topics.

On the last morning, we toured four houses (pictures below), including the historic Vanderhost plantation, and the ocean course clubhouse (designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects) on Kiawah Island, a private barrier island surrounded by the ocean and salt marshes, known for its golf courses and mansions.  Respect for nature takes a whole new meaning when you have to design a building set in a delicate ecosystem that supports abundant wildlife, challenging soil conditions, lowcountry coastal climate, and flooding.  Not to mention, the Architectural Review Board design and construction guidelines are 80 pages long.

I'll admit these are not great photographs, as they were taken in a hurry with my phone.  The Kiawah tour particularly was very rushed.  But, I'll upload more pictures in a separate post shortly.

Also, got myself a copy of the book that CRAN released - Houses for All Regions CRAN Residential Collection.