Tag Archives: design

What is architectural design?

As an architect I am in constant flux of what it is I do. I don’t construct buildings or fund projects — I design. But what the hell does that mean?

The architectural profession has done a horrible job of conveying A) what it is that architects do, and B) why we’re even necessary to society. We can postulate the essence of architecture, and we can criticize architecture on both a theoretical and substantive level, but can we even define what architectural design means?

At least at this point in my life, and this place in time and space, I define architectural design as problem solving by adding value. To try to break it down to its most simplistic state, we design to solve a problem. But design goes beyond just solving problems. I solve problems in my black-belt Sudoku puzzle book (truth be told, I’m more like an orange belt), but that’s not design. Where’s the value to society? Who really benefits by me sitting in the bathroom filling out squares with a number between one and nine?

There’s always been that faint distinction between art and architecture (at least by my turtleneck-wearing brethren), but the true difference is that art doesn’t solve a problem. Sure, it inspires the uninspired, and it ruminates the people who can’t tie their own shoes, but it doesn’t solve a problem. Likewise, architecture that doesn’t solve a problem, such as not fulfilling the intended program of the building, becomes art. If people can’t use the building, then what problem was solved? (Yes, you’ve kept the elements out, and bears are deterred from attacking the inhabitants, but if the program is not fulfilled then the building’s not very useful.)

I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks architecture should fulfill its utilitarian purpose and be good. I think every piece of architecture not only can inspire but should inspire. To make bad architecture into great architecture takes a little more effort (although it typically takes a whole lot more talent).

That is what good architects do, and that is what I do — solve problems and add value.


Images of suburban sprawl

Art for art’s sake –  it’s a phrase that comes up in architecture quite a bit. Architecture is supposed to have a balance between what works and promotes the intended program of the building, and what is pleasurable and enriches the soul. If architecture is merely an enclosure that fulfills a function, then it fails. If architecture only looks globular and theoretical, then it also fails. There must be a balance.

This balance also works at the macro scale of community development. If the design of a neighborhood or city reflects only the intended function (like providing areas to live and work, and circulation paths connecting these areas) without providing spaces for civic pride or a connection to the local landscape, then it fails. If the design represents curvilinear sweeps across the landscape without any meaningful connections between live, work, and play, then the design fails as well.

A photographer named Christoph Gielen has taken photos of suburban development that, in a way, almost reflects the same attitude in city planning that some contemporary “starchitects” have taken towards designing buildings – form follows form. The photos reveal a level of haphazard geometrical form making with little regard to functional attributes to form making such as local climate or societal connections. I have spent a good portion of my life living in suburban developments, and I have asked myself the same question over and over – who the hell laid out these streets?

A sign of good development is not the overbearing geometrical pattern consuming the macro scale of the environment, but rather the meaningful connections that promote a healthy lifestyle at the micro scale.

Fast food chains and LEED – Green building or green washing?

I guess I’ve reached that point in my life where I’ve started uttering sayings that somewhat come across as poetic. I don’t know if this happens to people when they’ve developed the ability to succinctly convey their wisdom from their cumulative experiences, or if it’s that their minds are fried and they really don’t have the answers to anything so they spout out clichés with the hope that no one calls them out on it. It’s probably somewhere in between.

My experiences with working for some unprofessional and unethical people has allowed me to develop this piece of advice – it’s easier to judge people based on what they do rather than what they say. It’s very easy to say all of the right things (especially when life is going well), but it’s so much more difficult to do the right things (especially when life is not going well). Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character. (Consider that my second piece of old man advice.)

I came across this article stating how fast food chains are pursuing LEED certification for a handful of their stores. The quotes from the representatives of these chains include words like “smart” and “social responsibility” and “commitment to the environment” and efficiencies”. Of course these are all of the right words to say, and I’m sure some if not all of these people truly believe everything they’re saying. But again these are just words.

Starbucks has 11,068 locations within the United States (16,635 worldwide). According to the article referenced above, Starbucks has 9 LEED certified locations. Another way to state their commitment to LEED, approximately 0.08 percent of all of their locations are LEED certified.

There are over 31,000 McDonald’s in the world. Two of their stores are LEED certified, which means 0.006 percent of all of their locations are LEED certified.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. (You can thank Lao Tzu for that piece of old man advice.) Yes, it’s great that these corporations, who by their sheer size make an influential impact on our built environment, are beginning to implement design and construction practices that could potentially promote a more sustainable environment. But isn’t it a little too early to say that these corporations are demonstrating their commitment and passion towards social responsibilities?

Do you think people would believe you if you said “I believe in this activity so much I devote an entire 48 seconds doing it!” (Forty eight seconds being 0.006 percent of a day.)

Judge people based on what they do rather than what they say. It allows you to cut through the BS much easier.

Why do I need an architect? Reason #11 – We’re trained to identify crap design

Crap is one of my favorite words in the English language. The fact the word is both singular and plural is a reminder that more of a bad thing does not make it any better. More of crap is still crap. It doesn’t matter how much of it you have, it’s still crap.

This is completely relevant to design. Of course what is considered good design and what’s bad design will always be predicated on the personal preferences and prejudices, likes and dislikes, and whether you woke up on the right side of the bed. But there’s a level for judging architectural design that transcends the aforementioned measures, and it’s based on its crap factor.

I have discovered that it actually takes years to hone in on this ability for identifying crap. I look in those floor plan magazines and see it everywhere. I see inexperienced people trying to pull off a design for a commercial space and I see it. I watch a home improvement show on television and I catch a glimpse of it.

I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, and propagate the architectural cliché that all architects are design snobs and look down at all other architects’ work. The crap I see isn’t based on design aesthetics or style. The crap I and other architects identify is a result of placing ourselves in the design and thinking about how the space is to be used, how people will feel inside the space, how much natural light and air will penetrate the space, how will people travel through the space, how will important moments in people’s lives be framed by the space, how will it be constructed and how will those materials affect the space, how will the space benefit the owners financially and psychologically, how will the space kick butt.

We architects understand the constant pull and push between the tangible and the intangibles of the design. There is a sweet spot when designing a space, and it’s not achieved by making every space bigger and louder. A space for congregating can’t be too small because it’ll feel like everyone in the room is sitting on top of each other, but it can’t be too large because the social interaction will feel awkward and disconnected. Architects are trained for finding that sweet spot.

This begins to touch on the idea of quality over quantity. Due to a myriad of financial reasons a lot of developers are beginning to build smaller homes, which is a right step for finding that sweet spot in design. It’s real easy to be impressed with big, but there is a rule in architecture that permeates into everything in life – more of a bad thing is still a bad thing, especially if it’s crap.

Your living room – Coming to a fast food restaurant near you

Despite the obvious obfuscations taking place and driving our societies into oblivion, we are living in a very exciting time. And it’s not just because most people feel like everything is about to hit the fan (thanks a lot Mayans). I tell people our societal pains are emanating from the fact that what we in the past referred to as “normal” is being redefined – our work, our lives, our perceptions, and soon our fast food restaurants.

Everyone’s used to the fast food restaurant (and they’re all the same) where you ordered quick-made food, and (if you didn’t go through the drive-thru and found yourself trying to find the fries at the bottom of the bag while merging into traffic) you sat in a Timothy Burton-inspired dining area filled with prison-issue tables and chairs that evoked the feeling of being on suicide watch. The dining area was designed with the concept that if a patron suddenly exploded that the cleanup would be efficient.

Then along came Starbucks. I appreciate going to Starbucks not because they’re located within thirty feet of other Starbucks, but rather because each Starbucks typically has an individual decorum. (The one I frequent feels like a long linear living room with lots of light. The one across the street from that one feels more like a cozy basement family room. And the one on the other side of the parking lot has a sort of country kitchen feeling, open to the exterior.)

McDonald’s has now built a prototype of what it can be in the future. As an architect I should probably be more concerned with the exterior aesthetics of the McDonald’s of the Future, Today, but as someone who tirelessly searches for a comfortable urban-inspired interior out here in suburbia I find the living room-inspired spaces more appealing. No longer will the design of spaces be driven by the need to cleanup after a Mos Eisley style mess (think Han Solo shooting Greedo) but more about people actually enjoying themselves in a space (which in turn may psychologically help make the food taste better).

Our “normal” is changing every day. I’m glad to see that the new “normal” may include a side order of a recliner.

Learning to design: Question everything

We assume way too much. We see our environment and how we interact with it, and we assume everything around us will always be exactly the way it is. We assume the things that influence our lives have always been and will always be the way they are, that is, until something better comes along. (That something better is the reason why we no longer live in log cabins with dirt floors, or ride horses across town, or walk around jamming out while listening to our Sony Walkman.)

Designer’s block is as bad as writer’s block. Sometimes it’s not that you can’t come up with any good ideas, but rather you can’t dismiss the bad ideas in order to discover the good ideas. The bad ideas are filled with the status quo, the mundane, the banal – the stuff we see every single day of our lives. When I experience designer’s block and I’m staring at a design of mine, I typically fight it by trying to design something that is the exact opposite of what I’m looking at. I honestly don’t know what the opposite of a house design is, but I do know that the opposite of crappy is great.

American currency is definitely one of these everyday objects that we assume must always look the way it does. Ever since you were born (especially if you’re younger than 120 years old) our money has looked pretty much the same. Sure a few years ago the Presidents’ heads became larger (which has been an ongoing occurrence since Nixon), but isn’t it really the same? Maybe a few more safety attributes to deter counterfeiting, but it’s really the same.

What if our money didn’t have to be solely colored green? What if it was made of plastic? What if we used images of American accomplishments on our money? What if our country was better represented with people other than Presidents? What if, like our coins, our paper money was different sizes? (This would make it impossible to counterfeit a hundred-dollar bill from a legitimate twenty-dollar bill.)

Check out the images of American currency designs. (And do so without getting hung up on political differences and prejudices, which seems to be the norm in our current society.)

We have at our power a device that can help you find your destination, find the price of a good or service, and (if you’re lucky) can help you get a date. That device is called the question mark.

Use it.

Man space (our need for a Fortress of Solitude)

I believe man’s need for a man space began thousands of years ago, somewhere in southern France when early man realized that his paintings needed protection from the elements. He painted images of the animals he killed (and knowing him I’m sure he elaborated the number a little), and the first time he visited his buddy’s cave and saw how well detailed his buddy’s animal paintings were he went back to his cave and elaborated some more.

Building a man cave has become the definition and measurement of manliness. Everyone (and not just men) need his or her Fortress of Solitude, an escape from the doldrums of reality. There are those people who define themselves by widely accepted societal perceptions, sort of like how a commercial for a pickup truck makes you believe that owning their truck is the only way to convey to the rest of society that you’re worthy of manhood. (Side note – does anyone else truly believe that Denis Leary, an incredibly talented comedian born of Irish immigrants living near Boston, and spokesperson for Ford, has never owned a truck?)

The examples in this talk by Sam Martin show originality in how men convey their passions, and thus define their manliness in their own words. Being a man means not being afraid to define your own self in your own terms, and to not be defined by popular caricatures that offer the perception of true manliness. (I’m staring right at you Home Improvement television show.)

I think everyone should, at a minimum, write down their requirements for their Fortress of Solitude (or Bat Cave for all of you that prefer the Dark Knight over The Man of Steel).

The problem of customization

The practice of architecture has a lot of problems, but the one problem that is sometimes an asset is the issue of customization. Look around at where you live, what you wear, what you drive, and everything else you consume and you’ll discover that hardly any of those things are truly customized for you.

You probably live in a developer built neighborhood, and before you purchased the home you got to tell the builder what kind of cabinets you wanted, if you wanted wood floors are carpet, or if the basement was to be finished or not. But the truth is the family that lives two doors down from you have the same house as yours (oh, but they went with the additional single-car garage with the optional man-cave work bench). Your car. your clothes, and even your food was selected from a predetermined “menu” that allowed minor level of customization (like picking the color of your car, the size of your shirt, or the amount of crushed pepper on your steak).

This idea came to me while reading an essay called “Innovate or Perish: New Technologies and Architecture’s Future (David Celento) in the book Fabricating Architecture. (Link to book) The problem with customization is that it’s time-consuming, typically more expensive (more time = more money), and generally hard to get right. It’s usually easy to make a decision when you only have a handful of choices, but when the number choices creeps towards infinity things get very complicated.

An interesting argument the author makes against the case of customization is the concept of branding. There are a multitude of reasons why we buy the things we do, and one of those reasons is the perception that the product conveys. If you’re familiar with Consumer Reports, you’ll know that Range Rovers are the biggest pieces of junk on the road. Look at the reliability chart and the road test scores for any Range Rover model, and they will typically rate well below any other manufacturer’s model. But people still buy them, because Range Rover exudes a sense of financial success.

(You can probably attribute Range Rover’s success to its marketing department, and the fact that they sell their vehicles at a premium price. If Range Rovers sold for twenty thousand dollars they would be considered crap, but since they sell for over forty thousand dollars they’re an exquisite status symbol that’s a piece of crap.)

The problem with having a truly customized item is that there’s nothing to compare it to in regards to status. Having a house customized for you does exude a status symbol worthy of the patrons at the local country club, but is it more than the person that bought a house in a newly built New Urbanism neighborhood that was furnished with Martha Stewart finishes?

Does this mean that the future of practicing architecture involve working at design firms associated with high-profile branding icons like Martha Stewart, Candice Olson, or one of those contestants from the myriad of reality design shows? Are we as a society perfectly content with three choices and are no longer interested in having anything customized?

My unintended summer vacation, and my need to be a smart ass

For the past couple months I’ve taken a break from parts of my weekly routine to spend more quality time with my son before my wife and I ship him off to the harsh world of preschool. (Harsh for my son, who is a self-proclaimed crazy guy who doesn’t like to share, not harsh for my wife and me.) I’ve discovered two things when hanging out with my son, who I love dearly: 1) Hanging out with a four-year old is like being sober and hanging out with a drunk person, and 2) my opportunity to be myself (i.e. a smart ass) has diminished at the same rate as my son’s knack to assimilate my words into his vocabulary.

I’m sitting here writing as my son sits on my lap watching toy train videos on YouTube (probably the absolute best reason to have two monitors plugged into a desktop computer), and as I’m watching various Autodesk programs downloading for some upcoming teaching gigs I’ve attained I came across this article about a nearly 14,000 square foot glass house (it’s a very short article).

In short – the house is big, it has a lot of glass, and it’s pretentious. The glass house has been done before, so the design didn’t move me at all. But, like with all the other glass houses done before (see Mies, Johnson, Eichler, Neutra), there are the typical quotes from the designers of these styles of homes:

“I have complete privacy”

Yes, you do. As long as anyone within a hundred yards of the home is legally blind. The sense of privacy is an illusion based on seclusion, and that seclusion is based on no crazy neighbor setting up a blind in the trees and checking you out through his high-powered binoculars.

“It allows you to be one with nature inside the house.”

This one is also an illusion. You can see nature from inside your house, and the expansiveness of glass minimizes the framed views that are created by the position and size of a window. But you’re still sitting inside a conditioned space artificially modified to accommodate your desired level of comfort. Saying that nature is inside your glass house is like walking by a large aquarium and telling people “I swam with all of the fish.” The experience may have given you the illusion of being with the fish, but at no time were you ever in danger of being bitten by the shark in the exhibit.

The glass house – an aquarium for people.

Why do I need an architect?: Reason #5 – The Building Department

The foundation of society is based on order, and order requires rules. We have rules for everything in life. There are good rules to follow (like don’t kill people) and there are bad rules to follow (like the new overtime rules for the NFL). And there are rules for constructing a building.

First rule about constructing a building: You can’t build whatever the hell you want. There are many rules about designing and constructing a building, but most of these rules (as stated in the building code) refer to public safety and diminishing the odds of people perishing in a building. There are rules about buildings being able to withstand fire long enough for people to get out of the building before it collapses, rules about not having electrical outlets in a shower so that people don’t fry themselves getting ready for work, and rules about not having your garage open to your kitchen (because carbon monoxide adds a little kick to your cooking).

When it comes to designing and constructing a building the building code is the rule, and the building department is the seer of rules. The building department interprets the applicable building code (typically in a good manner, but I’ve seen some weird interpretations), and after they review the drawings they will either bless the drawings or request modifications (or simply an explanation of something they don’t understand). These rules are not in an effort to deter construction (the building department loves it when buildings are being constructed). They’re there to assure safety when people are living/working/worshiping/playing football in them.

Another attribute to the rules of construction – they can be confusing as hell. People working in the building department are paid to know the code. Architects are required to design to the code. Contractors are required to build to the code. Does anyone who is not a related to the field of architecture really want to read a thousand pages of text, graphs, and charts to discover which rules apply to their project and which of those rules has exceptions that allow for something not as stringent as the original rule?

The building code is a language all to itself. Everyone who ever wanted to build a house/office/church/NFL stadium has to deal with the building department, and if you don’t speak the language you may have to spend more money and time on your project.

Recently a friend of mine visited the local building department to obtain a permit for a garage renovation. The building department representative gave him a list of requirements that needed to be fulfilled before he could receive a building permit. Of course my friend doesn’t speak the language, so of course he became frustrated at what was required. But because being an architect I speak the language I quickly realized that these requirements seemed a little extreme considering the scope of my friend’s project, so I spoke with a higher-up within the building department and told him about what my friend intended to do for his project. The higher-up agreed with me, and now my friend will have no issues obtaining the permit.

Speaking “building code” is sort of like speaking Latin – I’ll learn it only if I’m required to learn it. If you are not related to the design and construction industry, definitely don’t learn it. But if you ever travel to the realm of house construction, you’ll be much better off if you get someone who speaks the language.