Toothless Prison Design Policies

The AIA recently revised its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit its members from designing several specific pieces of prison infrastructure. The move was warmly greeted in the press and on social media. But it was a meaningless move on AIA’s part. The only acceptable ethics for AIA members are ethics that forbid any work on jails and prisons.

While I won’t speculate on who kept these changes so watered down, it’s important to remember that we architects are a timid bunch — it doesn’t take much for us to get spooked and back off. Remember, there’s a lot of money in the design and construction of prisons, and AIA’s ArchiPAC has been a strong supporter of politicians who also benefit from the support of the for-profit private prison industry.

Anyone who thinks that “prohibiting members from knowingly designing spaces intended for execution and torture, including indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact, for more than 15 consecutive days” is sufficient when you have a prison machine capable of the macabre creativity displayed in this recent article from ProPublica is pulling the wool over their own eyes. Also, I had to laugh at all the adjectives and conditions written into the definition of solitary confinement — it was clearly influenced by lobbyists. This new verbiage is designed to leave a nice, big loophole for the prison industry while giving its architects a pass. I can already see RFPs and programs from the for-profit prison industry describing rooms sized for gurneys and IV stands, but omitting what specifically the room will be used for — so that’s a-okay ethically! Wink-wink, nudge-nudge! Come on…

There are millions of people locked up in this country. We have no shortage of jail or prison capacity. What we do have a shortage of is built infrastructure that supports world-class education, technical training, quality affordable housing, and places for kids to go after school — all of which are proven to reduce crime and/or recidivism. Until the AIA puts some teeth into its policies on prisons and jails, it’s tacitly endorsing this country’s fucked-up, racist, and corrupt justice system. Let’s do better.

The ALL CAPS Top 10 Articles of 2020

Who’s ready for a listicle!? It’s that time of year when everyone everywhere is reminiscing on the best whatevers of the year. Of course, I’m getting in on that action with a list of the top ten most-read articles of 2020, the year of ALL CAPS triumphant return. Here we go…

10. Rethinking Access to the Architecture Profession

My opinions on how the three pillars of prerequisite experiences to becoming a licensed architect need to change were a popular read — even if not everyone agreed with me!

9. The Smartsheet for Rollout Development Series

It’s no secret that I ❤️ Smartsheet and I was happy to see that you all liked this series on building the absolute best friggin’ system for managing rollout development! (seriously, all other systems suck and this one rules)

8. A Spoonful of Content Makes BIM Exchange Absurd

People love venting about the closed BIM world created by divergent objectives and proprietary file formats. I do too, so I did…in this article!

7. Information-Driven Design: Distributing Design Criteria Via Smartsheet – Part 2

More Smartsheet! This look at the direct pipeline of information exchange between Smartsheet and BIM is my favorite Smartsheet trick!

6. Revisiting Software Costs

I did my own take on a cheap tech stack to try and help Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost’s fuzzy math work better…and I did it! Just not using any Autodesk products. Sorry, Andy!

5. The Mike Brady Compensation Index

We all like to see how much others are making, and I was happy to lift the veil that had long been concealing TV architect Mike Brady’s earnings from us. Turns out Mike is a cash machine! 🤑

4. On Architects Being “Good at Math”

It’s the question for the ages: do you need to be good at math to be an architect? I hate this question. You love this article!

🥉 3. Grab a Drink! Let’s Peruse Architecture’s PPP Data

The Paycheck Protection Program was one of the few morsels of good news we had in 2020…until we saw who was taking all that dough. In my tabloid-esque look at who got what in architecture, we see that there’s some architects out there making Mike Brady look downright poor!

🥈 2. Searching the Soul of Your Software Developer

There’s no question that THE STORY of 2020 for the AEC software world was the angry architecture firms’ open letter to Autodesk. It was real tip-of-the-iceberg shit. One of my favorite things I wrote this year was this article, so I’m glad you guys liked it too.

…and now, the most-read story of 2020 at ALL CAPS…

🏆 1. The Software Obituaries of an Architect’s Practice

This was one of those article ideas I felt really satisfied with, and it was a lot of fun to think back on all these titles. I had to dust off a lot of old spreadsheets and notes to find all the failed software. Every architect knows the struggle of finding good digital tools to get the job done.

Thanks for reading! In my look back at the site’s statistics I found one article that doesn’t have a single view! I’m not saying which one because now I’m paranoid that it’s really bad! 😂

Understanding the Regulations of Universal Design

My favorite movie of 2020 was Crip Camp. This documentary follows the lives of a group of disabled teenagers and young adults who met at a summer camp for the disabled in the 1970s and went on to form the movement for universal access and rights for disabled Americans that eventually led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. For me, the ADA is the greatest design movement of the 20th century, as it caused sweeping changes to the ways civil engineers and architects design sites and buildings — it opened up these spaces to everyone for the first time in our country’s history. It’s easy to forget what our built environment was like before ADA, and the numbers of architects who practiced in that pre-ADA world are shrinking every year. In Crip Camp, the inequalities of the pre-ADA world are laid out in deeply personal terms by the campers. We learn about the lived experiences of people with a wide variety of disabilities too — it’s not all about wheelchair access. The filmmakers do such a good job capturing the importance of this overlooked movement for equality that Crip Camp should be required viewing for all architects and architecture students.

The movie also got me thinking about an aspect of practice that I’ve seen a lot of newcomers to architecture struggle with over the years, and that’s how to juggle the overlapping accessibility requirements of the ADA with state and local codes and regulations on accessibility. I see a lot of people mix up these overlapping requirements when they’re starting out, and most frequently, the mistake is that the state and local codes get followed to the detriment of ADA’s requirements. Sometimes, that’s okay if the state and local codes are more stringent, but most of the overlapping requirements represent a little bit of this code and a little bit of that ADA requirement — you’ve got to blend them together in your design to make sure you meet all the regulations.

Here’s how I look at ADA versus state and local codes and regulations:

For those I’ve mentored over the years I use this approach to explain the regulations of accessible design, and it seems to help people get past their misunderstanding of this topic more quickly.

Beyond the dry topic of law, code, and regulation you have the larger landscape of universal design. It’s rarely enough to simply implement accessibility law, code, and regulation. The most impactful part of Crip Camp for me as an architect was getting to see the discussions the campers had about their frustrations not just with the built environment, but with the way the world perceived them and their value to society. The design insights provided by these conversations provide powerful lessons in universal design for architects. It’s certainly changed the way I think about the access and usability of space, especially the weight of those considerations versus everything else one considers when turning a program into a design.

The Month in Buildings: October, November, December 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly occurring series, we look at pictures and drawings of buildings from the wonderful world of tumblr.

Gawd is in the deets…


Inverted cones…

Window wrappers…

Boolean unions…

Places to poop…

Atom smashers…

Being Steven Holl before Steven Holl…



November, 2020 Beer Can ABI Plunges — We’re Running Low on Cheap Beer

The November ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI took a step in the wring direction following months of progress towards the land of actual good beer. At this point, we’ve been so down for so long that we’re running low on cheap beer options. If only Costco still made Kirko Sigs Light…

A Spoonful of Content Makes BIM Exchange Absurd

The absurdity for me began back about a decade ago — I can’t remember the exact year, but I’ll never forget the sequence of events. A client reached out to have me send a bunch of content from the drawings we had prepared for them over the years to a guy at Autodesk. After what I can only assume based on personal experiences was a full-court-press sales job, the client had decided to migrate their design criteria from AutoCAD to Revit and Autodesk was going to build them a template and a library of content on top of signing them up for rent-a-license annual fees.

In a rational world, this would be no big deal for me as my firm had already been producing this client’s projects using a BIM authoring tool for several years at that time. They would be catching up to me and maybe they actually start using the ever more powerful BIMs my team was producing. In turn, I could help them out with sophisticated content that was already up and running. Side note: since our contract obligated us to provide what some well-meaning, but ultimately poorly informed attorney wrote in as “AutoCad R.12 files” we simply exported our beautiful, smart BIM to dumb DWG files for the client’s records up to this point. The BIM was really just a more efficient design and production tool for us at that time.

But 21st century BIM practitioners do not operate in a rational world; we work in a world of daily absurdity. My offer of BIM content was rebuffed, most likely because Autodesk had mostly walled off any of Revit’s potential model geometry sharing capabilities ever since it acquired the software from its original developers. All they wanted was some DWGs, and to this day it still makes me laugh that my content went from Archicad to AutoCAD to gawd-knows-what to Revit. That. Is. Absurd.

I don’t mean to make this all about Autodesk walling off the rest of the industry either — even though that’s exactly what they do. The real point, the real absurdity, is the basic approach to BIM collaboration happening here.

My area of practice as an architect focuses on working with chain concepts on rollout development, especially with restaurants and retailers developing dozens or even hundreds of locations nationally here in the US every year, so that’s the perspective I’m writing from with this article. In conversations with other BIM practitioners, I’ve found that we chain architects share the same absurdity with those who work on larger one-off projects like campuses, stadiums, and high-rise buildings where the client has an extensive and very specific EIR.

Back to that BIM collaboration approach. Basically, every chain that’s migrated from CAD to BIM in the US takes the same approach, which is, “hey, we’re using Revit (insert specific version number here) to make a shit-ton of content for you, so you have to use Revit (insert same specific version number as client here) and use all of this content as-is — oh, and that’s super easy ’cause Autodesk said so. So get it done faster and cheaper too.”

This. Is. Absurd.

If I approached someone (maybe not you, as if you’re reading this you’re probably thoroughly tainted by the absurdity already) and said they would be spoon-fed a bunch of stuff for their job…

…and this stuff was often cumbersome or counterintuitive to their workflows, (imagine fixing the same errors with each new version of the content, or reformatting the same stuff over and over with each new design made from the content) but they couldn’t do anything about that because this stuff had to stay in the same format and version it came in even if the rest of their company was working in a different format and/or version since the content had no backwards or cross-platform compatibility…

…and receiving this stuff, and working for the client would tether them to really expensive and often flawed software — the only software that can use this restrictive format — and that software stops working if they stop paying in every year — even though other software does all the same stuff and more and better for less money, oh and it has perpetual licenses…

…and despite all that nonsense, everything they create for their client will be useless in a few years because this software will be unable to open the old files, so they’ll have to do the old work all over again in a newer version of the same shitty software if the project ever gets revisited by the client…

…they would probably stop to think and say, “well, how much am I making off this?”

FAIR QUESTION! The answer is certainly no more than you did already and there will be pressure to do it all for less since the client is investing so much effort in spoon-feeding you, even though their content is slowing you down. Also, what is your sanity and freedom to operate as you see fit worth to you?

…they would then agree to do the work anyway! Why? Remember: ThIs iS aBsUrD¡

Getting back to us, the tainted-by-absurdity BIM community now. A/E firms sign up for this — we line right up to participate in the absurdity. We need the work and we don’t want to let down our clients, even if they’re headed down an ill-advised path that will fuck over our G&A budget while giving our staff (especially BIM managers) migraines. There are also people amongst us who think this is a good idea because they don’t know better, so they’ll sign up for the work too. This is what we do as poor sap architects after all, this is our lot in life. Embrace the absurd!

When Did It Become Absurd?

The story of how it became absurd is a brief one. It’s not complicated. Autodesk acquisition-ed itself into the BIM paradigm and used that change to avoid the mistake it made with AutoCAD in not having a locked-down proprietary file format. Then Autodesk seasoned that shit stew with some restrictive versioning and a shift to renting instead of owning the software licenses. We poor sap architects made like Tennille and told our Captain, “do it to me one more time!”

But here’s the real kicker, in our (I’m using this possessive determiner to be nice, keep me otherwise out of this) rush to Revit, most made the same mistake that always happens at paradigm shifts in our profession and in this case, didn’t really change their CAD workflows for the BIM world they were living in now. A few users found their way to little bim and enjoyed new levels of production automation over CAD, but not much more than that. And here in the US there was virtually no Information in BIMs early on (and it’s not much better today).

This brings us back to chain concepts (and clients with large-scale one-off projects). Autodesk sells these corporate entities on flashy BIM doing fancy Information-driven shit, but they only get to little bim (the content I’ve seen made by Autodesk is, well…crap) and settle for getting automatic elevations and basic stuff like that. Keeping those old CAD workflows on top of all this, the corporate entities (our clients) push out templates and libraries to their consultants, but it’s not like it was with DWGs where people could use a variety of versions of AutoCAD or even other CAD tools (looking at you, Microstation and Vectorworks lovers, or any of the multitude of other software that can run with DWGs), you have to use the exact same version of Revit now as your client and absolutely nothing else. Side note: the acrobatics these companies and their consultants go through when the company decides it’s time to use a new version of Revit since it’s not backward compatible are truly something, and bring plenty of unintended consequences with them. Another thing the client doesn’t realize is that unlike DWGs or DXFs, eventually these RVT files will age out, and unless you have and old computer sitting around that can run that old version of Revit, you’ll be sitting on gigabytes of worthless files…unless (per Autodesk support) you also happened to save out an IFC file with that RVT back whenever (warm up that time machine). But no one reads that part. I know because no one involved in the decision making about using Revit at these corporations seems to know much about IFCs at all in the conversations I’ve had with them over the years.

We don’t stop to consider what you actually need for legacy BIMs, which is just the friggin’ BIM itself and not all the CD set content that proprietary formats include (at least not the editable original versions of it); and that these BIMs may not be needed for ten years or longer (ten years is a common lease term for the retail industry and that’s often when old designs get revisited). Who’s to say what we’ll be using to do our work in a decade? I certainly don’t want a bloated legacy file, as all that bloat guarantees a crash on open. Thus far Autodesk hasn’t done jack shit to make sure their customers can use those RVTs that many years later. It’s enough to make an openBIM advocate roll their eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of their head.

What Keeps Us Embracing the Absurd?

Fear, for one thing. We’ve been in the walled garden long enough to be worried that if we step outside we may not be able to get back in again. But on a more technical level, there’s the divergent objectives of openBIM that create confusion and frustration for people new to it that are just trying to be free to author BIMs using the tools and workflows and content that they control. This part is where some of the openBIM folks will get irritated with me, and that’s okay. We’re not letting perfect, standards-driven, Information-loaded deliverables get in the way at this point (though I do earnestly want us all to get there someday). Let’s just get ourselves decoupled from proprietary files and dumb CAD workflows for now.

If you dive into IFC, you’ll quickly get that it’s all about the ‘I’ in BIM — the Information. But in the beginning when you’re starting out with it, you really just want to be able to share model geometry with another party because that’s all anyone’s been doing to this point in time with all their RVTs and RTEs and RFAs and whatever else. This graphical side of the conversation is largely ignored in conversations about openBIM because those convos are conducted by the more advanced BIM practitioners who are simply focusing on their interests. Yes, these early exchanges will be messy and could be better with some Information coordination, but we’ll get there, just hang on. While we all need to be doing Information-driven BIM, we have to start by just making sure we can share the damn model geometry, even if it’s not perfect (it wasn’t perfect in the RVT either, so there’s that too). That’s step one for this particular project type and it’s the impure, ugly truth.

I’ve had the…uh…joy of being on both sides of the model geometry exchange: as the client’s architecture consultant and as the corporate entity, AKA the client. I’ve written extensively about the proper way to set up design criteria, which is not handing over a proprietary template and library based on your personal way of doing BIM, so I won’t go into that too much here. My client-side methodology is driven by the organizational structure I wrote about as well as rigorously documenting the Information in ways that allow for easy exchange and importation into the consultant’s BIM. The process I’ve described is definitely critical to open workflows, but it’s equally beneficial to any kind of chain rollout development efforts as it just works better for conveying design intent, and that leads to better outcomes.

This is an example of one of the client-side workflows I’ve used with great success

On the consultant side of things, I find that you need to keep things short and sweet with the client, as you’re lucky just to get a moment to talk about a different way of doing things. What I’ll do is discuss the IFC format and IFC viewers, then we’ll exchange some small, simple test IFC geometry that we can each look at the test geometry in the viewers and our BIM authoring tools. Now we understand how the geometry translates across platforms and make adjustments as needed. There’s often frustration for the client when they don’t see something exactly like the RVTs they’ve been looking at for years. I equate these feelings to the frustration one feels when initially learning a BIM authoring tool at that moment when they feel like it’s all too much work, too many settings to fiddle with, and it was just easier with CAD (but substitute RVT files for CAD in this case). I’ll explain to the client that it’s just different and that the BIM tools have settings to better control/automate imports and exports to make the software do the work for them. Like when initially learning BIM, just keep at out and you’ll grow to appreciate it for what it is: a better way of working because it lets all of us work the way we choose that’s best for us. There’s another conversation to be had with the client about the forward compatibility and reliability of the IFC format over time, and this convo goes pretty smooth as people don’t want to lose that work due to the passage of time.

I’ve found you need to give the teams doing IFC model geometry exchange time to get comfortable before you get into the Information part of those IFC-based BIMs, and some of those Information conversations will just start happening naturally when they realize the Information drives the model. After exchanging IFCs for a while, people start to make requests of each other with regard to model elements and maybe even some properties of the elements. From there, people see possibilities in working together to customize the BIM via IFCs neutral exchange and then you can start talking about including (or more accurately, cleaning up the mess of) Information embedded in that model geometry. People are shocked to find out that all the Information they’ve ever wanted from their BIM has already been asked for a zillion times in the past and that someone invented a system for reliably exchanging that Information (why hello, COBie!) and that there’s software to automate the movement of that Information between parties. It’s all baby steps to make sure we don’t lose anyone or anything along the way.

Will We Ever Not Be Absurd?

You can see how it’s easier when the client just does things openly from the start, as that trickles down to the consulting professionals and then everybody’s on board. It takes longer and requires more effort to push uphill with change from the consulting professional side of the content exchange.

The same mindset that resists adopting national CAD and BIM standards kind of applies here. For example, we all know our personal standards are best, so we don’t pause to think about a world in which we never have to spend time configuring and troubleshooting software for our own standards because the national ones are baked right into the default settings. It’s a similar kind of resistance that says it’s easier if I spoon-feed everything to those who work for me and we all do it my way in my software using my content — take all the thinking and choice out of it, you know…

Another obstacle to these efforts is the software and its limitations (mostly this is Autodesk, but not exclusively). A lot of Information exchange is hindered when developers don’t implement reliable import/export methods for standards-based information. I see Autodesk joined ODA, so maybe this will change, but I won’t hold my breath. Right now, Autodesk does a lot to muddy or just outright block the road for imported geometry to become a Family, which is a constant source of frustration and wasted time in my efforts to work openly amongst teams using a variety of BIM platforms. We find workarounds that allow us to support our openBIM efforts, but it’s clunky and inefficient. There’s no question that we need something slightly less shitty from Autodesk here.

Anyway, back to converting RFAs for use outside Revit just to be able to do some architecture. Have an absurd day!


October, 2020 Beer Can ABI Brings Good Beer and Not So Good Beer

October’s ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI brought us mixed signals, with design contracts firmly over the line into quality beer territory as billings lag behind and are still sipping the crap beers.

Since Midwest firms lead the way back to good beer, we’ll salute this part of the country with Three Floyd’s legendary Alpha King. Cheers! We ain’t drank this good since February! 🍻

Architecture Policy: Talk Versus Action

Election season always means we’ll hear renewed calls from AIA leadership for politicians to engage with policies supported by the architecture community. This has me thinking about ArchiPAC again. I’m not happy about ArchiPAC, the AIA’s political action committee. Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows that too. I want to defund ArchiPAC because it is an organization that has lost its way and is disconnected from the AIA’s Policy Platform.

A question that comes up in discussions about how to make ArchiPAC better (for those that want to keep it around) is what exactly are the rules that would guide ArchiPAC contributions. Well, a good place to start is by simply making sure that politicians who receive funds have policy positions and, more importantly, votes that support the initiatives of the AIA Policy Platform. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how ArchiPAC has failed to align its giving with the Policy Platform. In this article, I’ll be zooming in on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform.

One part of the “Climate Action” Platform is “Rejoin the Paris Climate Accord”, which President Trump walked away from a few years back. It’s important to note that the President’s decision was greatly influenced by lawmakers in his party, including the 22 senators with significant connections to big oil who wrote him a letter urging him to dump the Accord. In the two election cycles since the letter was written, ArchiPAC gave money to several of these anti-environment senators:

⛽️ Oil-Loving Senator💰 ArchiPAC Contribution
Blunt, 2020$1,000
McConnell, 2020$2,500
Scott, 2020$5,000
Blunt, 2018$2,500
Hatch, 2018$2,500
Source: OpenSecrets 2020, OpenSecrets 2018

For reference, the contributions above represent 40% of all the money ArchiPAC gave to senators during those election cycles.

This group of senators also lobbied the Trump administration to rescind the Clean Power Plan in the same letter, which goes directly against each of the carbon-based pollution mitigation/elimination strategies within AIA’s “Climate Action” Platform. So by giving money to these senators, ArchiPAC is getting a 2-for-1 deal in its pro-oil-industry giving.

This is just one example of connecting politicians’ actions to ArchiPAC’s giving and looking at how that giving contradicts the AIA Policy Platform. There are plenty more connections to be made. For example, connecting opposition to Superfund site cleanup dollars to lawmakers — something that goes against the Platform’s initiative to “actively address the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental degradation on communities of color.” All of this is still just focused on the “Climate Action” portion of the Platform too — and we haven’t even looked at the “Future Economy” or “Healthy Communities” Platforms.

There’s no question that it’s a ton of work to do this connecting across a Platform and across congress, but if we think it’s important enough to have a PAC, then we must put in the work to make sure giving is aligned with our values. And if we think it’s too much work, then defund the PAC and move on to something that’s actually productive; something where our words and actions are actually aligned to do good for the health, safety, and welfare of our planet, its occupants, and their communities.


September, 2020 Beer Can ABI Continues to Languish in Cheap Beer Territory

The post-lockdown dip into the cheapo beers for the ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI continues in the latest beer can stack from September. As the Beer Can ABI enters the upper 40s, we are seeing a changeover into “ironic cool” cheap beer, which is good news, but still a ways to go in this recovery. It feels like an eternity since we enjoyed quality brewskis.

As always, remember that the more we bill, the bigger the stack of beer cans and the better the quality of those beers. 🍻

The Month in Buildings: September, 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly occurring series, we look at pictures and drawings of buildings from the wonderful world of tumblr.


Rounding Corners…


Commitment to an Idea…

Hanging Out…