You spec me to buy that?

Over the last few months, I've been working on the designs for a spec house in Houston and another in a new development in Austin.  "Spec" is short for "speculative" and the term "spec house" refers to a custom house designed and built based on speculating what a potential buyer, looking in a particular neighborhood and price point, would want in their house.  Stick to the bare minimum, and they will buy the other house; add all the bells and whistles, and you bust your budget.  The key is to find that sweet spot and a design that people will fall in love with.  They are custom in that the design is tailored to a specific site and not repeated on other lots like production houses i.e. they are unique. The firm I work at is developing both projects, which means that we buy the land, formulate the program* and size of the house, establish the construction budget and potential market value, decide on aesthetics and architectural style - all things normally dictated by a client.  Being a full service design-build firm, we are well equipped to handle all aspects of design and construction.  These are multi-million dollar projects, so it pays to scrutinize every aspect of the house with a magnifying glass. Architectural design, interior design, landscaping, pool design - everything from the floor plan to the floor tile is laid out on paper.

To that end, the core team meets every Friday, over lunch and cookies, to review and critique the progressing design.  We are a group of four architects, an interior designer, and a real estate advisor.  We talk about intent, big picture plans, small construction details, project schedule, what inspires us, contemporary work, what was successful in past projects, what was not; we make adjustments to the plan, exterior massing, interior volumes, materials, appliance package, cabinetry design; we look at interior design selections like decorative light fixtures, tile, wall finishes.  We explore design ideas that might otherwise be restricted by a client or their budget.  Sometimes it's a "best bang for the buck" or "ROI (return on investment)" conversation.  Other times, we revisit areas of the house that we were fine with for weeks, but then someone asks a poignant question and if we don't care for the answer, we go back to the drawing board.  Since it's a collaboration between different design professionals, the process is not linear, rather we go where the conversation takes us - all over the place!

We are now at a point where everyone is happy with what we've created on paper.  We are well past the schematic design stage.  We are mostly done with design development.  I say mostly, because that's never a closed chapter!  We have a long way to go before these babies are ready to go to school though.  We've only just started the the third trimester.   We are about to get into the thick of doing construction drawings.  While the architects coordinate the engineering and put the finishing touches on the drawings and specifications, others are working on the financing,  the construction team will soft start the project by getting permits and utilities setup.  Then the builder will start preparing the site for foundation.  I'm getting ahead of myself.

Being in two distinctly different markets, the design decisions made for each project are very different in order to cater to the potential buyer's assumed taste and values.  For example, the house in The Woodlands is much more formal than the one in Austin.  While every family is different, there is a common thread of needs and desires.  A well thought out spec house would be ideal for the family that does not have the time to work with an Architect, but would appreciate a house of this calibre.  Spec projects enable us to craft our brand, which by the way, we are in the process of reinventing.  All in all, very exciting work.



* A "program" refers loosely to the scope of the project; more particularly to the list of indoor and outdoor spaces that would be ideal in a building project.

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.



Architecture daily - more discovery, less creativity

Many of my non-Architect friends (some* of who went to Architecture school with me, but no longer practice architecture as they had the good sense to pursue a lucrative career) carry the impression that architecture is a field of  creativity - a profession where the creative genius roams free and untethered; that imagination is the agenda for the day; that if inspiration does not strike, there is no need to go into the office. Kind of like design studio back in architecture school - headphones, coffee, hoodies and jeans, trace paper crumpled up in the trash can, sketches all over the drawing board, books showcasing the works of celebrity Architects stacked high on the floor, large windows with sunlight bathing the room, yet a wilting plant on the window sill, budding architects lost in their computer screens ... you get the picture! Certainly, when I think of other creative professionals like musicians, writers, artists, or even other designers, I am guilty of the same perception. Are they encumbered by the mundanity of an 8 to 5 office structure? No, their creative juices flow whenever their genius strikes, might be the middle of the night or middle of a shower/ run/ swim or whatever they are in the middle of in their care-free life. Thereon they work relentlessly (in their pajamas, of course) like a madness has taken over, until the work has reached its pinnacle, whereupon it is presented to the world so everyone may appreciate the stroke of genius.

While there is a small nugget of truth in that notion, the reality of everyday practice of architecture is, I'm sorry to say, not so footloose and fancy free.  On the contrary, we labor each day investigating, exploring, discovering, questioning, drawing. Always discovering through drawing. What reveals itself when you cut that section? How tall is the space at this intersection of roofs?  Does that look proportional? What does it look like in plan view? Finding answers. Does this fireplace come in an 8' length?  Who will manufacture this custom door, and how much will it cost?  How far can I cantilever this beam?  Where can I buy this rubber membrane?  Where in the code book does it say so? But also important, asking the right questions. What exactly do you like about this picture?  Are you aware that doing "x" means getting rid of "y" which is actually a nice feature? Some answers only lead to more questions and you chase many rabbits down many holes, sometimes only to discover that the client does not have the budget for it.  And some answers bring the project to a grinding halt, such as a crippling discovery that a WQTZ (Water Quality Transition Zone)zone covers half the site meaning that our design concept and scheme went out the window.

What I am trying to say is that there is only a limited creative genius when there are real world constraints. Don't get me wrong, challenges often present opportunities for amazing design solutions that are truly inspiring. But creativity is a process and architectural creativity is a process of discovery.

There are days when I go into the office and all I do all day is review shop drawings, field questions from builders, troubleshoot consultants, and there is only problem solving. Then there are days when I can focus on architectural design. And then there are other days when the creative juices flow freely, unconsciously, and without effort,  sometimes when I am in the shower at the end of a long day of discovery, and it's just like poet Ruth Stone described her inspiration (to author Elizabeth Gilbert) -  it comes without announcement, rushing through me at a high-speed, in fullness and such vivid clarity, and in that moment I know this is genius. Then it passes almost as fast as it came to me and I fear that I will forget, and the idea will escape me, and I will be left empty.

Sharon George

*okay, I should say most, because really I've not made too many friends since those days