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Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

As I sit here next to the ocean I can’t help but think about the fact that the ocean is never the same; the water is constantly moving, but therein lies it’s constancy.  The same can be said of generations, mentors, and the intentional transfer of knowledge.

My first professional mentor was my grandfather who practiced architecture (and ran several related businesses) in Charlottesville from the late 1920s until the late 1970s.  It was he who inspired me at the age of six to pursue the profession that has occupied me to this day.  As one might expect, he introduced me to floor plans and taught me two point perspective drawing.  Fast forward about eight years and he introduced me to the various dimension lumber sizes on the family lumber yard where I had my first job.  On another occasion, he came out to the warehouse with a steel manual and introduced the beam diagrams and formulas in those pre-calculator days.

A few years later, I was introduced more thoroughly to structural design by my future father-in-law who taught structures in the University of Virginia School of Architecture.  This allowed me to bypass introductory statics and strength of materials at Virginia Tech.  During those years in Blacksburg, there were a few professors that I considered mentors.

I was later introduced to specification writing by Thomas R. Wyant, Jr, AIA, CSI who had me writing specs about a year out of school.  He also unknowingly inspired me to join CSI, which brings me to the real subject of this column.  Mentorship involves the intentional transfer of knowledge which is arguably the most important function of CSI.

it is through attendance at CSI events and participation in the CSI Certification Program that knowledge of construction processes and documentation is transferred to the next generation of construction professionals who would otherwise miss the opportunity to learn.

CSI is the one place where architects, engineers, constructors, suppliers, manufacturers reps, and other diverse construction professionals represented in its membership can sit down at the table and talk openly and in a non-confrontational manner about their experiences.  We can’t help but learn from one another.  At some point, down the road, there will be a situation in our careers that will prompt a memory of a conversation that took place at a CSI gathering and perhaps also a phone call that will borrow from the experiences of our colleagues within the organization.

I can’t speak often enough about how my membership has more than paid for itself over the last thirty-one years.  If you’re a construction professional and not a CSI member, I would strongly recommend that you join.  If you are a CSI member, by all means bring a young professional to your next chapter member.  You will not regret it.

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I have been interested in sustainable architecture since the energy crisis of the late 1970s.  Back in the day, nobody used the word sustainability, but it was the direction that Bob Schubert of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture was guiding his students.  Recognizing that the earth is a finite system, the practice of responsible utilization of resources was simply a no-brainer.  When the words “green building” and “sustainability” became buzzwords in the 1990s, I thought of what Bob was preaching some twenty years earlier.

Fast forward about 35 years, and an old friend approached me about designing a house for her.  I jumped at the opportunity, because we share similar views on stewardship of natural resources and the environment.  We talked off and on for a couple of years until she was able to find the perfect piece of land on which to site the house.  The land slopes almost due south which is an ideal setup for passive solar design.  By coincidence, this is also the direction of the best views, so the house took on biophilic characteristics before we laid down the first line, connecting the owner with nature.20170227_161933

During our conversations, we talked about utilizing a small building footprint of approximately 1,200 square feet.  As a matter of resource conservation, I typically design around a 4’ x 4’ module (6 bricks, 3 concrete blocks, 3 joist spaces @16”, and half a sheet of plywood) to optimize the use of materials with minimal waste.  This house grew out of that paradigm.  As a result the footprint is exactly 1,200 square feet.

The house has south facing glass with appropriately positioned overhangs to keep the summer sun off the glass, but admit the winter sun when the solar gain reduces run time of the HVAC system.  Additionally, there is an operable clerestory that combined with low operable windows in the great room creates a chimney effect which keeps the house more comfortable in warmer weather without resorting to air conditioning on all but the hottest days.  The clerestory floods the house with light which elevates the mood of anyone occupying the space.

At a more personable level, the walls at the entrance are painted a contrasting color to draw attention to the entrance, since the front door is perpendicular to the street.  Because the public spaces face south, the more private areas by default need to face the north, which happens to face the street.  Again, this was ideal, because of the symbiotic need for smaller glass areas due to the function and orientation of the spaces20170227_161923.

The functionality of the design resulted in a prairie style house nestled into a hillside in central Virginia.  When viewed from the north, the horizontal lines suggest a symbiotic relationship with the Earth and that the house is of the site not on it.

 

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I just love deadlines, especially the sound of them whooshing by” – seen on a refrigerator magnet

As we near major deadlines on multiple projects, our staff is working long hours to get the work done. I have two comments for our team response to this:  1. I appreciate your effort toward producing excellent work, and 2. Take care of yourself while you work hard.

The first of these two statements is more than an exercise of good manners. Expressing appreciation for what people do is good for their mental health.  We all need to be appreciated.

The second statement is not so obvious, but is none the less true.

First of all, when we work ourselves to exhaustion, we often make ourselves susceptible to illness due to lack of rest. Studies will back this up, and I have observed it empirically over the years.

I also have found that when we keep our noses to the grindstone, we often miss the obvious. My best empirical evidence of this comes from my own experience about 30 years ago in the early days of being in practice.  In those days, when still a one man firm, I would often find myself struggling to solve a design problem – it simply wasn’t coming to me.  With no colleagues immediately available to bounce ideas off of, I would put the pencil down and go outside and mow the lawn or do some similar mindless chore that would consume an hour or two.  I would find that when I went back into the office, the solution to the problem would pretty much bounce off the drawing board at me, and I would be able to complete my task.

As a practitioner of a profession that is notorious for abusing its employees, I make a deliberate effort to safeguard the mental health of the people around me. When we sit for hours on end in front of a computer screen, and the temptation is there to do exactly that, we lose perspective.  In the effort to solve a problem so we can move on, we find ourselves tempted to settle for a mediocre solution to the problem at hand at the expense of good design. This can be avoided by balancing our hard work with a deliberate period of rest – whether twenty minutes or the occasional three day weekend.

So to my professional colleagues out there, I offer this piece of advice: work hard, but balance it with a due portion of rest, relaxation, prayer, meditation, humor, or whatever it takes to get you through the day.  It will keep your axe sharp and your product worthy.

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I’ve seen a fair amount of twitter traffic over the last couple of days regarding the documents that are handed to specifiers by architects. The principal complaint has to do with lack of detail in the drawings.  This is in step with complaints I’ve heard (and sometimes uttered) over the years about unprepared graduates coming from our architecture schools.  I was once one of them.

I’ve stated before in this forum that I was more fortunate than many in that I had an excellent mentor in Thomas R. Wyant, Jr., AIA, CSI. He filled in the many of the gaps that my professional education left void.  He also introduced me to CSI.  Tom paid attention to detail, both in terms of the documents we produced and in terms of the constructed result of our work.  For the 30 years that my practice has existed, I have made a concerted effort to pay this forward.

In spite of our best efforts, however, there is no such thing as a perfect set of construction documents. So the sketchy sections that initially go to the specifier should only serve as a conversation starter.  An experienced spec writer will see immediately what is missing and start asking questions.  It is this dialogue that results in details being fleshed out.  Assuming that there is enough time in the owner’s timetable for this conversation to take place, the construction documents should be adequate to allow the project to be built.

That said, we need to be educating all of the parties to the construction project – including the owners. Owner’s expectations should be realistic in terms of both budget and timing.  The A/E should be able to have enough time to produce the documents and make a reasonable profit in the progress.  Likewise, the contractor should have adequate time and funds to do his/her job appropriately; again at a reasonable profit.  In the end, the owner should have a facility that meets his/her needs that also provides an environment that is functional and meets the needs of the end user.

It boils down to communication, which is essential for a successful project. Such communication is possible through a common language which is facilitated by CSI formats and proper use thereof.  Individuals who hold a CSI certification or certificate will be well versed in the use of the various formats and will benefit the construction team on which they serve.

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With my last post I spoke of the necessity of members of the AEC industry to sweat the small stuff; to consider all of the issues related to putting a project together. This week, I will explore the best way to accomplish this.

We often hear about how graduates from architecture and engineering programs have very little practical/technical knowledge in their field. The complaints seem to be loudest from seasoned professionals such as myself.  In response to this, I concentrate on mentoring young professionals in an effort to pay forward the mentoring I received in the late seventies and early eighties as a young professional just getting into the field.

That said, new graduates and young professionals come armed with the most recent thinking on theoretical issues and solutions to some of the issues we all face. They have so much to offer, that we need to listen to what they have to say.  We need for mentoring to be a two way street, as we can all learn from one another.  Example: the seamless transition of our practice from hand drafting to CAD back in the nineties was made possible by a young professional with knowledge that I didn’t have.  She made it possible in a two week time span to have our electronic drawings look like our hand drafted work.

The best way I know of to make the two-way intentional transfer of knowledge happen is through CSI. In order for the two way exchange of knowledge to take place, we have to make certain that we get the young professionals to our meetings.  The invitation needs to be made on a personal basis, regardless of how the invitation is delivered (face to face, e-mail, social media, or even (gasp) a phone call.  The future of the industry depends on it.

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We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff” which is good advice for daily life, but is it appropriate for us as design professionals to apply this to our professional lives? I would argue that this advice can’t apply to our work.  All too often, documents are released for construction with dimensions missing, slopes that don’t work for one reason or another, unsupported loads, or poor coordination in general.

Within the last hour, I’ve been asked to review center line dimensions on a foundation plan and elevations on a site plan related to accessible slopes. Both are easily overlooked, particularly within a profession that has a reputation for being more concerned with aesthetics than functionality.  Overlooking these issues can result in unnecessary expense during construction or liability on the part of the design professional.

Over the years, I’ve seen multiple coordination errors between disciplines such as site plans indicating backfilling against a framed wall, slopes that do not comply with accessibility guidelines, pavement that is too flat to adequately drain. I have also seen multiple cases where structural drawings didn’t reflect what was indicated on the architectural and similar issues with HVAC, plumbing, and electrical.  In other cases, headroom over stairs and similar issues have been ignored by designers not thinking the design through in three dimensions.  And I haven’t even mentioned the project manuals produced by repurposing the previous project’s specifications that may or may not be appropriate for the project at hand.

Granted, it is not at all easy to manage the competing priorities of the various design criteria. For example, it is essential to maintain accessible slopes on a site.  This is difficult to do in rolling terrain, but designing for runoff is relatively easy in these locations.  On a flatter site, designing for accessibility is easy, but in grading parking lots, avoidance of birdbaths because design slopes are too flat becomes a problem, especially in freezing weather.  Ensuring the integration of ductwork and plumbing with the structural system becomes an issue when the budget requires a low floor to floor height.

Use of BIM as a panacea for document coordination is not the answer. The model/documents still have to be checked and carefully coordinated by an experienced professional.  All of this is further complicated by the fact that Owners often do not want to pay sufficient fees to support this level of detail, but better to spend the money on document coordination than on demolition and replacement of components in the field.

Bottom line is this, every one of us on a project team needs to be diligent in coordinating the documents. I would encourage design professionals to do their due diligence in coordinating the documents to minimize RFIs.  Constructors, if you have questions, I would encourage you to issue the RFI or ask the necessary question(s).  Attention to detail on the part of all parties will result in better communication of the design intent.

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Several years ago, I received a binder from a window manufacturer in response to a contact I made at Construct. The size tables in the catalog indicate which window units are in compliance with emergency egress and rescue requirements.

Fast forward to last week. Because of the age of the binder, we went to the manufacturer’s website to ensure that the sizes we are looking to use are still available.  What we found is that there are a wider choice of sizes available than there were eight years ago, but several of the windows that were labeled as egress compliant in the old catalog did not bear that designation on the website.  This is complicated by the fact that with the 2012 edition of the IBC, Exceptions 1 and 2 to Section 1029.1 have been eliminated.  Put succinctly, fully sprinklered buildings and buildings with two means of egress are now required to have emergency escape windows that were unnecessary under the 2009 IBC.

We contacted the manufacturer who steered us to an obscure feature on the website that allows the user to check the clear opening of each window size. The user is then left to make his/her own determination of whether the window complies with Section 1029.  Yes, this information is available via the website, but it is not readily apparent to the first time user.

So Mr./Ms. Manufacturer, please consider this your wake-up call. If the information is available, please put it where we can find it on your website.  Otherwise we will likely go to your competitor who has the information in a readily accessible location.

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