The Restaurant Dining Room Design Dilemma – Part 1

I’ve resisted writing on how restaurant design could be modified during the COVID-19 pandemic even though I’ve been keeping myself up-to-date on all of the latest science and design trends out there. The science of how this disease spreads and case examples are fascinating to me. But this science also reveals a harsh new reality when it comes to the restaurant dining room.

The Bad News

It’s not that I haven’t tried writing about designing restaurants for safety in a pandemic — I have — multiple times even. It’s just that I come to the same conclusion each time: a restaurant dining room is no place for anyone to be during a pandemic, period.

That’s the depressing truth and unless some new scientific discoveries are made around how COVID-19 spreads, it will remain the cold, hard truth. Few spaces that architects design are as ideally suited to aid in the transmission of a wildly contagious disease that spreads though airborne respiratory droplets that people naturally expel (and inhale) like a restaurant dining room. Everything about dining rooms are ideal for COVID-19 transmission: lots of people packed into a room for a few hours at a time, lots of talking or even shouting over the din of background noise and music, and no way to use face masks. We shouldn’t be using dining rooms in the time of coronavirus.

I didn’t always feel this way, but as I dug into the science and tried to apply it to design, I quickly changed my mind. Spending time rejiggering dining rooms with shields and spread-out tables and whatever else is a waste of time.

Based on the current understanding of how the virus spreads, outdoor dining is a workable idea in theory, but it could quickly devolve into a situation almost as dangerous as the indoor dining rooms. Some of the ways outdoor dining becomes unsafe include:

  • Lax discipline in seating layouts. Spacing groups is super important, even outdoors. Restaurant operators have always had a tendency to pack people in to maximize seating — that’s a tough habit to break.
  • Restroom facilities can quickly become virus spreaders. Restrooms are always the weakest link in outdoor dining and poor management of the movement of people in and out of them can make it even worse.
  • Restrictive tent structures. It’s important to understand how tents, canopies and even large umbrellas impact natural air circulation around a patio dining area. The most aggressive approaches use tents with side walls which is no better than an indoor dining room.
  • The longtime trend of opening up dining rooms to the outdoors using articulated wall products like NanaWall does not make those spaces “outdoor dining.” But if you try to tell that to any operator who dropped change on these designs, you’ll get shot down faster than you can say respiratory droplets.

The Good News

We’ll be able to use restaurant dining rooms again someday, hopefully sooner than later. In the meantime, we need to combine the energy and resiliency of the restaurant world with the creativity of restaurant architects. Pour all of this energy and effort into everything BUT dining room modifications!

When considering how architecture can help restaurants get through the pandemic without using their dining rooms, it’s important to keep in mind what we understand about how long this outbreak will last. No one can say for certain when it will be over, but all of the informed guesses out there suggest it’s not going to be over in 2020 or 2021. Even if a vaccine is developed, that will take considerable time to deploy and then for populations to then develop herd immunity. My point is, we should be considering design interventions and investment in those interventions that reflect longer terms than just a few months. Whatever we design will be a solution that we need to live with for a while. Avoiding coronagrifting must be our top priority when brainstorming alternative ways for restaurants to make up for the lack of on-premises dining. Otherwise, everything’s on the table.

The reality is that unless restaurant dining rooms are banned outright by some level of government, some restauranteurs will continue to be tempted to make a go of it, despite safety concerns. This too is a design opportunity, because everything we come up with as an alternative to the dining room should be evaluated against the way that dining room worked under the original business plan minus whatever impact from operating at a reduced capacity. Those that work within or even exceed in-place business plans are the alternatives we need to start rolling out.

Part of the good news here is that the kitchens are generally safe places to work during the pandemic — they have all the necessary infrastructure for avoiding the virus since they were designed to be well ventilated and sanitary from the start. Add in some specific protocols for COVID-19 and you can still crank out food for take-out or delivery quite safely. So, with these parameters in mind, we can explore alternate uses for those dining rooms that still drive income or relieve expenses.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at one possibility that I keep coming back to as I reflect on alternate uses for the dining room.


The month of June at ALL CAPS has been a month focused on how the architecture profession can become more accessible, authentic and equitable. As I move forward with the blog, my plan is to try and bring this month’s focus into my future writings, regardless of the topic. I’m still reflecting on how it all translates for my own one-person practice, so I’ll provide updates on that as my thoughts evolve.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be diving back into AEC technology and of course: design for the world of restaurants, who aren’t going to let a pandemic take them out — slow them down, maybe.

More to come! ✌🏻

Opportunities for Equity in Architecture

I wanted to wrap up our informal series on accessibility, authenticity, and equity in the architecture profession with a summary of everything I’ve put out there and how it all ties together.

Architecture is a profession with a lot of steps to it, and I don’t mean the practice of project delivery, which certainly has lots of steps too. I’m talking about the steps involved in going from a young person in primary or secondary education that thinks, “hey, I want to be an architect when I grow up” to actually becoming a licensed professional architect. Every single one of those steps is an opportunity for architecture to open its arms to that young person who dreams of becoming an architect — or not.

Inspire and Welcome a Diverse Group to Become Architects Through Authenticity

We started the series with a look back at my experience with Sekou Cooke’s outstanding exhibit, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture.” In the Hip-Hop Architecture movement I saw an ethos that could push architects to become more authentic, which in turn could make our profession more accessible to all sorts of people, including those considering architecture as a career. Embracing Hip-Hop Architecture could also be a way to make design easier to relate to and more engaging for everyone, as I witnessed first hand. The exhibit and what I learned from it where a clear call to action to get real about equity in architecture.

Make the Path to Licensure Much More Accessible

Next, we explored the topics of education, licensure, and continuing education. Making the three experience prerequisites of licensure (education, work, and exam) and the means of maintaining a license more equitable and accessible is key to helping our profession become more diverse. We saw that learning doesn’t have to happen in an expensive, long-winded school experience. There’s also room in the ARE for it to cover the important topics that let candidates show their understanding of the diverse country for which they’ll be designing buildings and spaces. Continuing education is a prime example of how we can rethink what health, safety, and welfare are all about — let’s not lose HSW for buildings, but instead add HSW for people and communities to our CE requirements. All of these topics are opportunities to capture data we can use to monitor our industry’s progress towards equity and accessibility.

Train Our Emerging Professionals Better

How we train architecture professionals, whether it’s their first job or fiftieth (I know that’s a lot, but I bet it applies to someone out there) offers another great opportunity to make architecture more equitable and accessible. There are other industries that combine good training with a welcoming approach to diversity and architecture should draw inspiration from these approaches. Ridding ourselves of toxic attitudes around hiring and training is yet another opportunity to be better and level the playing field for everyone.

Stay Away from Racist Clients

The United States’ prison machine is an instrument of racism and abuse. We reviewed the myriad of reasons why architects keep working on prison design (hint: 💰). We can’t talk about making the world better while our profession continues to make it worse by designing prisons.

Make the Business of Architecture Equitable

There’s plenty of opportunity when it comes to the basic business model that most firms follow. Thinking about opportunities in the business of architecture leads us to look not only at the biz models, but also project delivery methods, and of course compensation. An equitable business is a diverse and fair business for all.

It’s Time to Move

It’s embarrassing that architecture is a profession that’s mostly white and mostly male.

It’s embarrassing that we put colleagues in charge of our educational institutions, businesses, and trade organizations that perpetuate our industry’s lack of diversity by focusing on all the wrong things.

It’s embarrassing that architects are talking about the change we can design into the built world as a part of our country’s efforts to end systemic racism before we resolve the systemic racism in our own profession.

We need to get real about the opportunities that are out there in each step a person takes on the path to becoming an architect. It’s going to be hard because we’re set in our ways, because change is hard, and because we have a lot of other things on our plates too. But all it takes is focus and goals to get there. Let’s make architecture a profession to be proud of not for what we design, but for who we are and what our community of professionals represent.

The Business of Accessible, Authentic, and Equitable Architecture

If you couldn’t tell from the recent posts on here, my thoughts have been almost exclusively focused on how the architecture profession can make itself more authentic, accessible, and equitable. Much of what I’ve written about recently are thoughts and ideas that have been on my mind for a long time now. Recent events have been a great motivator to get these thoughts out of my head and into articles. I’ve been thinking about a few other areas of practice, mostly related to the business side of things that we could positively impact, so here’s a list that may inspire some ideas for you or me later on…

Business Models

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how the basic, core business model followed by firms (which revolves around wrangling work and getting it going, then keeping it going so you can invoice and cash flow while you wrangle more work) might contribute to inequality within the architecture profession. There are problems with this business model anyway, and we’ve explored some of those in earlier articles. Truly confronting and finally dealing with inequality in our industry will likely force our collective hand in creating new business models or mimicking those of other industries where some sort of disruption has occurred. I’m hopeful that alternative ways of making an architecture business profitable will also enable more sole proprietors and small firms to compete with larger firms in ways that they can’t today. Maybe change will even encourage more architecture professionals to start their own practices where they might not have otherwise chosen that path. This is where my mind always drifts back to technology as a means to enable new business models (doing more with fewer people for less money — stuff like that), which in this case, could make tech a great equalizer.

Project Delivery Methods

Something else that comes to mind when thinking about better business models is project delivery. I can imagine a future where some form of integrated project delivery, which today kind of seems like it’s exclusively for super mega AEC corporations and their super mega clients, could evolve into a means of project delivery that allows small firms and/or sole proprietors to band together to form project teams capable of competing with much larger firms — where they can act like those big companies when it comes to project delivery. Getting newer and smaller practices competitive with larger, established practices is vitally important to architecture becoming for accessible and equitable, as it’s no good for the industry to consolidate and be dominated by a few big, bland corporations.


Unionization in architecture is a topic that excites emerging professionals and sends established firm owners into fits of rage. Regardless of how you feel about unionizing architecture professionals, it’s important to remember we wouldn’t be talking about this topic if we were fairly compensating everyone like Mr. Philips did (actually, we don’t need to go that far) and we weren’t abusing overtime work. For every firm that’s doing the right thing with compensation and work/life balance, there’s another that’s run by assholes who fuck over the people that are making them money. In between those two extremes, there’s a lot more people who hit glass ceilings, feel stuck at some level in firm hierarchy, have work/life imbalances, or are watching people who look different from them earn more and/or get promoted faster.

Compensation is a topic that should be closely tied to the conversation around architecture education. There’s an increasingly bad ratio of time and money spent on architecture school versus initial earnings once one joins the workforce. I don’t think schools will bring down costs since they essentially have a monopoly, which is one more reason why we should be reintroducing apprenticeships as a means to learn — give the schools some competition, force them to lower their prices, and get that ratio back to where it needs to be relative to compensation.

Fair and equitable compensation may very well be the first issue of equity and accessibility we must address, simply because it positively impacts everyone already working in the profession and big change starts from within. The ideas and conversations out there on this complex subject have a recurring theme around the need for transparency. It’s important for staffers to be able to see how they can progress in an organization and what kind of pay they can expect when they get there. Lots of professions are looking at this topic, but what if architecture took the lead and in doing so became the most transparent profession, the one setting the example?


Ahh, yes…the ongoing debate over the relevance of architecture and architects. I can make this one short and sweet. It’s well past time to give someone other than old white men a shot at making the case for architecture to: the youth, the business world, and the public at large. ‘Nuff said.

Next Up…

For the next post in this unofficial series I’ll bring together all of my recent articles on accessibility, authenticity, and equity in some final thoughts on how the architecture profession reinvents itself.

The Architects of Incarceration

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible, authentic, and equitable profession. In this article, we’ll explore the complicated relationship between architects and America’s prison-building machine.

Be sure to check out previous articles in this series:

There’s a renewed focus in the US architecture community on formally rejecting any work involving jails or prisons and calling out firms who are still engaging with clients in the business of locking people up behind bars. This is great to see, and even reassuring to know that so many architects and firms refuse to get involved in the prison economy. That last word, economy, is key to why we continue to be frustrated that the AIA won’t formally denounce this kind of work. There’s money in locking up people and architects who design jails and prisons are profiting off of a sector of the economy that costs us almost $200,000,000,000 per year (I wrote out that number instead of saying $200B for impact — that’s a shit ton of money). I wanted to know more about the money that goes into incarceration and how much architects are raking in from making America number one in the world in jailing people.

Jails & Prisons are Big Fee Projects for Architects

First, it’s important to note that the rise of privately-owned and operated for-profit prison companies has caused them to follow the same path of any other type of company who rolls out locations across the country: they established in-house design departments. So in some cases, they own their own firms to handle their dirty work. For municipal correctional facility work, the traditional scenario of hiring an architecture firm still applies.

In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released an exhaustive report on the money being spent in the prison industry. They showed that $3.3B was spent on prison construction (probably more as there’s some overlap with the $3.9B in their Private Corrections figure). As we’re not slowing down our rates of incarceration, it’s safe to assume that $3.3B is even larger today. To give a sense of relative size, the 2017 spend on prison construction was closest in total to the $3.6B spent on religious institutions/places of worship construction back in that same year according to the US Census Bureau.

It’s hard for firms chasing growth to walk away from a multi-billion dollar segment of the built world, and that makes it easy to brush aside any lingering social justice and equity concerns brought about by this line of work. It’s especially troubling that having firms do the right thing and abandon this work could empower the for-profit prison companies to grow their in-house design firms and become the go-to designers.

What’s AIA National’s Role in Enabling Prison Architecture?

AIA National is a slow-moving machine, and I do hope that they will come to their senses soon and formally denounce prison work (at a minimum). The AIA Board of Directors recently issued a statement where they said “we will review our own programs” and “ask our community to join us and hold us accountable.” So, we’ll see…

The political arm of AIA’s work representing the interests of the architecture community is ArchiPAC, their political action committee working with members of Congress. I’m pragmatic about PACs and I realize that sometimes you have to hold your nose and work with a lawmaker that otherwise makes your skin crawl in order to accomplish something good, or maybe even favorable to your industry. But what’s missing from ArchiPAC is some clear, concise guidance on what rules out a campaign contribution, no matter what we lose out on because of our lack of support. ArchiPAC needs some scruples. ArchiPAC says part of their mission is to support candidates who, “promote positive solutions for the built environment” which would seem to imply that anyone receiving a campaign contribution shouldn’t also be accepting contributions from the prison industry, right? Wrong.

For the current 2020 cycle alone, ArchiPAC has made contributions to the some of the largest beneficiaries of the prison industry’s dirty money:

Representatives Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Bacon (R-NE)
Carter (R-TX)
Cuellar (D-TX) 💰
Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
Granger (R-TX)
Huizenga (R-MI)
Katko (R-NY)
McAdams (D-UT) 💰 (it appears the ArchiPAC contribution was returned)
Nunes (R-CA)
Reed (R-NY)
Upton (R-MI)
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


Senators Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Hyde-Smith (R-MS)
McConnell (R-KY) 💰
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


That’s definitely not promoting positive solutions for the built environment. Rather, it’s enabling some people to continue to profit off of locking up other people at a higher per capita rate than anywhere else on earth.

How Do We Get All of Architecture Out of Prison Design?

We all need to agree to not do something. Good luck on that, right? Well, if we look at the US prison system for what it is, and do so very visibly, then it becomes socially unacceptable. If we can do that, then we might be able get our industry to stop profiting from imprisoning our people. It all starts with clear and ethical leadership from folks like the AIA setting the tone and making it clear that these potential clients are ones we all turn down.

Better Training for a More Accessible Architecture

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible and authentic profession. We’ve previously looked at education, licensure, and continuing education. We’ve also looked at how the Hip-Hop Architecture movement can be a gateway for established architecture professionals to be more accessible and authentic; and also a beacon for some who might not otherwise consider an architecture career. In this article, we’ll dive into how training contributes to an accessible and authentic profession.

I was going to write about this from the perspective of mentorship, but that’s kind of a limiting perspective. This profession moves faster and faster as time goes on. We accomplish things in a few hours today that used to take days or weeks to get done. There’s more pressure than ever to be productive and therefore profitable. People move around jobs with ever increasing frequency. All of this puts a lot of pressure on the traditional vision of what mentorship is for architecture professionals. I’m not saying that mentorship is bad (endangered, maybe) — I think it’s the best way to learn. But the dynamics of today’s practice mean that we should speak more broadly and instead talk about training, knowing that a few points here apply to mentoring as well.

No matter the type of schooling or degree earned, we all come into our first jobs having some level of familiarity with the practice of architecture, but little to no idea of how to apply ourselves. This, of course, is where training comes into play. Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of people who were new to the profession about their experiences with being trained, and more often than not those were bad experiences. For those who had bad experiences, sometimes it bothered them to the point where I could see it had stunted their growth, and other times they turned inwards and stumbled through by teaching themselves. An anecdote for sure, but I’d love to see some research into training in architecture as I have a hunch it’s a significant contributor to who stays and who goes in our profession. When your trainer is a white male (as it’s likely to be now and at any time in the past), the perspective of that training may unconsciously tilt in ways that marginalize the trainee (especially if they aren’t a white male). Compound that with degraded training quality due to being in a rush on a project where the budgeted hours and schedule were established by another white male who last did production work when drafting tables were where the computer workstations are today and well…you can see how training could really suck ass for the new person.

From a business perspective, this is insane. It’s expensive and time-consuming to put out a candidate search and do interviews and make an offer and finally hire someone. But it keeps happening. Firms that are bad at this stuff have a myopic focus on brining work in when it’s slow, and then keeping their noses just above the water line when it’s busy — there’s no planning, even though we’re supposed to be planners. During economic booms, labor needs get so bonkers that you end up with new hires being trained by other slightly less new hires. Not only does this frustrate staff, but it contributes to the profession being inaccessible since no one is trained properly. No one is learning anything.

This is a good spot to bring up that we all need training. Even if we’re not new to the profession, we’ll need to be trained at a new job as there’s always new stuff to learn about the firm, the standards, and the clients’ projects, to name just a few topics. So this is yet another opportunity to get training wrong for all of the same reasons noted above, even if the trainee previously had good training experiences elsewhere.

Fixing Training

The first step in fixing training is to document training procedures for incoming staff that are new to the profession and for staff that are simply new to the company. I know from experience that just creating the training documentation alone will trigger better training. But we don’t stop with the documentation. This is where I changed my own views of training based on experiences outside of a traditional architecture firm setting.

Identifying staff members to become the go-to designated trainers is the next step, and one I borrowed from the restaurant operations staff I worked with during my time as a corporate design professional (the restaurant industry has great approaches to training new hires). These designated trainers have regular jobs within the firm and should have a designated backup staffer to fill in for their day-to-day work when training needs arise (part of the training procedures need to include the ramping up for this handoff to the backup). The identified trainers need to have great emotional intelligence and an open mind, all coupled with the patience to be good teachers. They should also be capable of providing objective evaluation to the hire’s supervisor(s) so the assigned work can be aligned to the new hire’s skills; at least in the beginning as they get settled into their new role. The trainer will work side-by-side full time with the trainee for a period of time set forth in the training procedures, and end that time by providing their evaluation to the supervisor.

Another thing that the restaurant training staff I’ve worked with do well is getting a diverse group of people to both function as, and feel a part of a team. They do this by being open and flexible with their understanding of people and their personalities, which is going to be challenging for some architecture professionals; at least in the office setting where it seems like we don’t always present our true selves (or where we’re even directly or indirectly discouraged from doing so). Restaurants seem to bring out the authenticity in people more easily, which may be a function of the hospitality of that industry — this is a big deal and is key to success — it’s going to be difficult for architects to cultivate that hospitable environment. It’s not necessarily about the “family atmosphere” that you see some firms brag about on their websites because a lot of that stuff is a reflection of the lack of diversity within those firms.

Toxic Attitudes Around Hiring & Training

So documenting training and using talented designated trainers is a big step forward, and the smaller the firm, the bigger the step that’s going to be due to deeply embedded bullshit mindsets. There are so many toxic philosophies out there about training, many of which are tied closely to hiring practices. From thinking you shouldn’t have to train experienced hires to using software proficiency tests in the interview process. Another one is the probationary period for someone to learn software or get to a certain level of productivity — this one really gets me because if you just trained people properly to begin with it goes away (they’re basically paying you less to not train you and let you stumble along). We need to reframe how we look at all of this bullshit: the firms that engage in it are actively making their firms and our profession less accessible, less diverse, and less equitable.

When people are trained well, not only are they more productive, but they feel more connected to the organization and the profession. We don’t get this right because we don’t manage the ebb and flow of workloads. We just react, and training is directly impacted by that poor reaction. That’s not appealing to outsiders looking to come into the profession, and all the HR diversity initiatives in the world won’t help if training sucks. Let’s fix training and the toxic mindsets that so often come with training and hiring.

The Month in Buildings: May, 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly (and sometimes late) occurring series, I bring you the best of architecture pics and drawings from the wonderful world of tumblr.

An access panel to the past…

Lots of intricate facades captured my attention last month, like these superblocks in eastern Europe…

Bedroom telephone booth…

Fenestration as clean, geometric expression…

Bundled tubes…


Chaotic massing…

Half-timbered heaven…

A monument to MEP…

Rethinking Access to the Architecture Profession

As we continue to reflect on what exactly the profession of architecture is going to do to make itself more accessible and authentic (hopefully as a part of a broader reinvention of America doing the same thing), a lot of the initial chatter on Twitter has turned to education, licensure, and continuing education. I have some thoughts…


In my mind, education is the single biggest barrier put up by architecture. Education experience is one of the three pillars of prerequisite experiences alongside work experience and exam experience that every architecture board has in place for people wanting to become licensed architects. We need to honestly examine if a NAAB-accredited bachelors or masters degree is the only path.

A small handful of states currently offer alternative paths, with some requiring a 4-year college degree of pretty much any kind, and others allowing a high school diploma plus documented work experience in lieu of any college degree. Alternative paths like exchanging work experience for school are great ways to be more accessible, as it lets people earn money instead of pay money to learn the trade. If you’re poor coming out of high school, you’re often working to help support your family (that is, your parents and siblings) at that young age, and no amount of scholarship money to offset the enormous expense of architecture school is going to help with that because you need a job and income now. Sitting in classes and studios for the next five to seven years that absorb all of your time and energy just to get through won’t help that. This is personal, it was me; and there are more people in similar circumstances all over the country today, it’s a very real barrier.

It’s time to bring back apprenticeships, and we have plenty of national organizations who could set standards to protect apprentices and incentivize practices to engage in apprenticeship. Part of apprenticeship is the formal titling of the apprentices — we could finally embrace the architectural equivalent of the EIT with such an effort. If something like this moves forward, it will be equally important for our industry to avoid creating castes based upon level or method of eduction. The toxicity of professions with castes (looking at you legal profession) is critical to avoid, as we’d end up right back at an inaccessible profession. So there are challenges here, but if we’re truly open to considering change, we can work through them.


Tied closely to education is licensure. If we move forward to open up the means by which people get an architecture education, then we must allow those new methods universal access to licensure across the country. This will be extremely tough to achieve, but if we create a wave of change with architecture boards that are ready to make practice accessible, then we’ve seen how other movements can make change spread from state to state.

All but a small handful of states in the US require a NAAB-accredited degree in architecture in order to fulfill their education prerequisite to sit for the ARE and get a license. The rest of the states either require some sort of 4-year college degree or a high school diploma at a minimum; and most of these states have experience-based equivalencies that a person can use to demonstrate they’re ready for licensure, despite the lack of an architecture school degree. These are great examples of making licensure more accessible, and the rest of the states need to follow. Who are we trying to serve by restricting exam access? Who do we keep out by restricting exam access?

The ARE is central to the topic of licensure and it needs to change to be more accessible. Right now it’s focused on being broad and general, which is definitely how architects need to be. But we should pull back some of that which is of limited relevance and reclaim it for test content that’s focused on demonstrating an understanding of equity and social-awareness from the perspective of the designer and the leader of the project delivery team. This new content should be aligned with the same kind of content introduced to continuing education requirements, too (more on that below).

I’ll mention the work experience component of licensure here as well. The beauty of apprenticeship is that it fulfills that experience component. Schools have already started pushing students to start NCARB’s AXP while they’re still in school. These efforts help move the work experience component along, and get people more capable faster. Like I mentioned for the ARE, the AXP and apprenticeships should have to include training focused on equity and social-awareness topics from the architect’s point of view. Additionally, all of the currently required volunteer hours should be switched over to have this same focus.

Continuing Education

The idea of including requirements for learning about equity and social-awareness content such as unconscious bias and multi-cultural communications to continuing education is important. Some states already require ethics as a CE subject, and that should become a nationwide requirement too, as ethics topics dovetail nicely with equity topics.

Where it’s currently required, ethics training is tracked independently from HSWs or LUs. Equity and social-awareness training needs the same breakout from the existing CE categories. Leave HSWs for building and occupant safety, with the “social heath, safety and welfare” content separated due to its importance.

Tracking and Reporting Progress

Key to making sure this effort doesn’t dissolve into more talk without meaningful change, or that an emerging movement doesn’t fizzle out, is continuous tracking and reporting of our progress.

Our profession needs to start reporting workforce diversity in greater detail and with more frequency — the schools need to do the same. There should be staff at AIA dedicated to studying metrics and providing regularly-scheduled interpretations of the numbers — basically an ABI, but for diversity. A big, big challenge will be additional tracking and reporting of firms’ interactions with clients where we follow the kinds of projects with a focus on the ends of the equity spectrum with projects that actively promote inclusion and equity at one end versus projects that restrict or even hurt inclusion and equity at the other end. This client and project tracking will be critical to understanding how well architects serve society and would need to be interpreted and reported regularly, just like the diversity data for employers and schools.

Get It Done

We’re at the start of a conversation about making architecture more open, accessible, and authentic. It’s vital that we don’t lose momentum. It’s probably best to start on these changes at the local/state level with the various industry boards and organizations and build the momentum from there to make things happen nationally.

Accessible and Authentic Architecture is Equitable Architecure

I’ve been delayed in publishing new articles as this past week has kept ALL CAPS HQ in Minneapolis pretty sleepless and occupied trying to keep calm and help neighbors. While our neighborhoods are heavily damaged, even completely gone along some blocks, I’ve been uplifted by how much everyone’s thoughts refuse to turn away from the unjust death of George Floyd that preceded all the destruction.

When I restarted the ALL CAPS blog a few months back, one of the things I wanted to write about was my experience working the “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture” exhibit organized by AIA Minnesota last year at Springboard for the Arts near downtown St. Paul. This time last year, the exhibit was in full swing, and I’ve been struggling to figure out just how I wanted to write about my experiences.

In the midst of trying to get through some pretty rough nights this week, I saw a tweet from Hip-Hop Architecture practitioner Michael Ford that instantly brought into focus what I needed to write about from my experience with the exhibit…

Michael’s tweet emphasizes an important disconnect and reluctance within the architecture community that even publicly-traded corporations and their CEOs now embrace. My impression is that while architects who focus on social responsibility get some attention here and there, they’re mostly on the periphery of our profession. I don’t need to go into where our focus lies in this article, you can open any architecture magazine and see that.

Our profession’s focus is reflected in how everyone outside of the profession views us. The characterizations people most commonly make about architects tell us everything about how we’re perceived, and we all know these common associations: aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable, hard to understand. If you step out of your architect’s shoes (I wanted to make a joke about the kind of shoes here — easy target — but I stopped myself 😆) and honestly assess how our profession comes off to everyone else, especially those in minority and socially-marginalized communities, we’re more often than not distant and disconnected, both in the makeup of our workforce and in a lot of the work we churn out. All of that can be interpreted as being inauthentic, which brings me back around to Hip-Hop Architecture…

“I lost touch with reality,
Now my personality
Is an unwanted commodity”

De La Soul

The hosts of the exhibit, Springboard for the Arts, had acquired their new headquarters, a former Ford dealership, a short time before the “Close to the Edge…” started. They moved in without really adapting the building (in fact, selective demolition for renovations was starting as soon as the exhibit ended). The exhibit took place in old garage at the back of the building, and it was the perfect backdrop.

Key to framing how I think we architects can get back to reality with people outside of our profession were my experiences with people at “Close to the Edge…” which were split into conversations with fellow architecture professionals and conversations with people visiting the exhibit.

I love talking shop with other architects, and I know that our surroundings in this exhibit were a direct inspiration for getting into important conversations about the inequalities of our profession. Over the exhibit’s run, these conversations covered a lot of important topics. But the single conversation that stood out most to me was about how the biased preferences for a certain kind of project manager that a big, repeat client of a firm had negatively influenced the kinds of people that firm hired or promoted when looked at through the lens of diversity. In its pursuit of stable cash flow and growth, an architecture firm is capable of embracing the discriminitory biases of their biggest clients. Architecture firms where this happens are actively contributing to inequality in our society. That’s incredibly fucked up.

The conversations with the non-architect visitors to the exhibit were the highlight of my time working the show. Many of the visitors were younger hip-hop fanatics who heard about what was happening at the old dealership, or even people from the neighborhood who happened upon the exhibit. There’s something disarming about being inside of the service bay of a former Ford dealership and surrounded by hip-hop art, music, and examples of its architecture — it’s not at all aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable (the exhibit was free), or hard to understand. For those visitors where I had a chance to ask about their interactions with architects and architecture as a topic, they all said it was a first time experience for them. Despite that lack of experience, these visitors were able to quickly grasp the ideology behind Hip-Hop Architecture and apply it to what they were seeing in the exhibit pieces. This approachability and accessibility to a design movement is a stark contrast to the morass of Euro-centric architectural history that architects are taught in architecture school — not to divide us by differing design movements either — if anything, the historians remind me of battle rappers one-upping each other with more and more obscure knowledge as they argue over Boullée or some shit like that on Twitter, of course history is important. But the approachability through authenticity of Hip-Hop Architecture is incredibly powerful at a time when architecture desperately needs to attract diverse talent to a profession that’s almost all white and is frankly out of touch socially.

It’s Time to Stop Being Studio Gangsters

In hip-hop, studio gangsters are rappers whose lyrics cover topics that they haven’t actually had to live through and deal with in their own lives, they’re inauthentic wannabes who are mocked by the culture. I like how this terminology can apply in a similar way to architects and architecture firms. I wrote those two sentences just a few hours before a prime example of what I’m talking about showed up on Twitter:

That tweet is an obvious example (and AECOM’s marketing person, who probably makes more than most architects ever will, is a hypocritical dumbass for even attempting to go there with this tweet). Architects and architecture firms are studio gangsters in subtler ways too. The example of the firm that embraces a client’s discrimination in pursuit of profit is another way. And when our industry brings up the need for diversity every damn year at every damn conference, but nothing changes, that’s all of us being studio gangsters.

“The architect, selecting the blueprints
To rid the game of nuisance” ~ Guru

While hip-hop culture was created by Blacks and Latinos in the Bronx in the 1970’s, it’s truly a global culture today. The designs and art in “Close to the Edge” represented the work architecture professionals and designers from all over the world, the work of all different races and ethnicities, the work of men and women. This makes the Hip-Hop Architecture movement an ideal starting point for architects to make real change to who we are, to what we create, and to the kinds of clients we choose to work for.

I’ve always advocated for architects to provide services and insights in non-traditional architecture-adjacent ways to show our value. I’ve also advocated for brining a business mindset to our practice as another way to demonstrate our value. I’m still on board with all of that, but the convergence of this past week’s events with my lingering memories of the exhibit brought home that being socially responsible, accessible, and authentic in practice is what needs to go at the top of the list of how we show our value to others.

If we really want to change the diversity of our profession, if we really want to be understood and appreciated by all people outside of our profession, then we need to be accessible and authentic. There’s an accessible and authentic movement out there just waiting for us to learn about, adopt, and practice through actions, not just words. We’ve got work to do.

Michael Ford wrote an outstanding piece for Azure that’s a must-read for all architecture professionals. Michael’s Hip-Hop Architecture Camp is a perfect example of accessibility and authenticity in action. Please support his important efforts with a donation.

The Smartsheet for Rollout Development Series

This is a landing page for the Smartsheet for Rollout Development articles I’ve published. Here, you can find links out to all of those articles in one convenient spot.

To briefly summarize this great series, I ❤️Smartsheet and think it’s a fantastic way for architects to build databases (outside of the BIM) that inform project delivery and show our value as the head of the project team. I share a detailed example of how to do that in this four-part series and the example is a database for a restaurant chain to track their rollout development of multiple locations across the country. Once you see how it all works, you’ll quickly come up with your own ideas of how Smartsheet can imporve any technology-driven architecture practice.

Part 1

This introduces the tools I used and provides an overview of what I built with Smartsheet.

Go to Smartsheet for Rollout Development, Part 1

Part 2

Here, we get into the details of what each template sheet does for each project in the database and how they link together to help visualize all the data.

Go to Smartsheet for Rollout Development, Part 2

Part 3

In Part 3, I cover the technical details of how the build comes together, and I also get into managing change.

Go to Smartsheet for Rollout Development, Part 3

More articles on how architects can leverage Smartsheet are on the way!

Do You Have All the Plans You Need?

Of course that new project of yours has floor plans, reflected ceiling plans, roof plans, even more — no shortage of plans. We always make sure we’ve got all the plans…for the design and its deliverables. What about the plans we need for everything else the business of architecture throws at us?

Do you have a plan for…

…how you’ll deal with the lowest bidding GC who plans on leveraging (non) RFIs to make up for their low-ball bid?

…what you’ll tell your client when the person next to them on their flight turns their head to a new firm that’s “much more capable” than yours?

…what you’ll say when the CM asks if the vendors can pull information from your BIM to help with their procurement?

…when the RFP says you need to talk about your firm’s diversity initiatives?

…how you’ll engage the young staffer who expresses frustration with their current work and wants to be more involved in the big decisions that go into the project?

…when the FM asks to utilize the BIM after substantial completion?

…what happens when your file server(s) get locked up with malware and you need the files on them for the big deadline?

…when the client asks you to provide a database of their projects with visualization of project delivery performance?

…what you’ll do when your software vendor sunsets your apps?

…how you’ll stay on top of the underperforming project team member who could derail budget and/or schedule?

…where you want to be with your architecture career and/or business in the five to ten years?

…what happens when a state of emergency requires all staff to work from home instead of going to the firm’s office? (oops, too late)

…how you could improve the efficiency of your project delivery process to remain competitive in a market where fees are being greatly reduced across the board?

…when the client who loves your work asks you to help R&D non-building design problems?

…everything else? (and there’s lots more)

If you are seeing your workload lighten, what a great time to work on all the plans.

The Work Letter: Managing the Unmanageable, Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed what work letters are and how they get screwed up, as well as how to build a good work letter template. In Part 2 we’ll look at putting all the prep work into action.

The Workflow

Now that you have an awesome template, don’t screw it up with poor implementation. Everyone needs to follow the workflow to make sure money isn’t lost on the deal. Here’s how:

  1. 🔍 Discovery: The real estate team identifies a new deal and provides cursory information about it to the design team — at least enough information that the design team can evaluate it against the terms of the work letter template. This means that the design team may need to provide some guidance to the real estate team on the bare minimum amount of information needed to craft work letters.
  2. 🤔 Preparation: The design team reviews the deal information and prepares a deal-specific work letter using the latest version of the template. A big part of this is using the highlighted/coded verbiage in the template that we discussed in Part 1 to quickly make those deal-specific edits, though more than that kind of editing may be needed.
  3. Verification: The construction team reviews the work letter with the design team to make sure both team are in agreement on the content and terms. Then the work letter is issued to the real estate team.
  4. Change Management: As changes to the work letter are negotiated, the real estate team brings the proposed changes to the design team for review or further editing. This step repeats until there’s agreement between the landlord and tenant on a final version of the work letter.
  5. 👍🏻 Final Check: At a minimum, the final draft of the lease agreement is provided by the real estate team to the design and construction teams for review and comment. This step repeats if changes are made.
  6. 🕺🏻 Party Time: The lease is executed. We’re high-fiving and popping bottles! 🙌🏻🍾

Perfect, right? Well, as I’ve mentioned, this is an attempt at managing the unmanageable, which is better than doing nothing. So try your best to be organized and linear in your approach, and practice some frequent deep breathing as you go through the process of getting a lease executed with your project team because someone on the team who will go unnamed will probably go off script somewhere along the way, but you still love them, right?

What I’m Thinking About in Architecture Right Now…

Lately, I keep coming back to a couple of old thoughts I wrote about years ago for the Shoegnome blog. One was about redefining what design is, and the other is my thoughts on the relevance of architects.

Both of these articles are such great reminders to me that we architects must bring technical prowess along with skilled aesthetic design to our solutions, especially today when traditional work is way down, but our clients aren’t short on problems and need help in ways a new buulding design may not necessarily help. Offer services outside of the traditional.

The Month in Buildings: April, 2020

Who likes looking at pictures!?! In this semi-regularly (and sometimes late) occurring series, I bring you the best of architecture pics and drawings from the wonderful world of tumblr.

This tower from Japan was my favorite of the month…

Borg-like cubism here…

I don’t understand one bit of the description, but I like what I see in the pics…

Carpet in the bathroom is the least interesting thing in this space…

Look at this thing!

World Expo pics are always gold…

I need to know more about this one…

Euphoric massing…

That’s all for April! We’ll be back next month for a look back at May’s best building pics and drawings.

The Work Letter: Managing the Unmanageable, Part 1

Let’s start by making one thing clear: real estate professionals who work for/with chain concepts that are reading this will probably hate it, which means I’m doing something right. 😉

An Introduction

A work letter is a document that’s an exhibit to the lease agreement between a landlord and a tenant which details which of those two parties will be responsible for performing all of the necessary improvements to the tenant space (for ground leases, work letters address improvements to the land). Most commonly, the work letter focuses on work which is the landlord’s responsibility and leaves the tenant’s work to be outlined elsewhere in the lease. Work letters typically cover utility work, common walls, building envelope, hazardous materials abatement, HVAC, restroom facilities, and that sort of stuff.

Work letters are major drivers of development cost for chains, like huge super-major big-time drivers. They are technical documents full of AEC industry jargon where if it’s off even slightly, one side of the deal is getting screwed and is out thousands of dollars, usually after the lease has been executed and construction is getting started. Work letters are negotiated between two parties, the aforementioned landlord and the tenant, where the representatives doing the negotiating frequently understand very little about all that AEC jargon. There’s a recipe for disaster if there ever was one, right? Well, I’m here to tell you we can manage this unmanageable situation…sort of, I mean it’s gonna be herding cats.

How Not to Do Work Letters

I feel like the best way to explain how to do this right is to talk about what goes wrong, and I’ve seen a lot go wrong with these over the years. Generally, you can break down errors into one of two categories: one is using outdated versions of the work letter in the final execution of the lease agreement; and the other is when vagaries or nonsense gets written into the final version.

With old versions making their way into leases, more often than not the tenant ends up shorting itself necessary infrastructure. Old versions happen because the path of least resistance for the real estate folks is to just “save as” whichever version is sitting on the desktop of their computer.

When vagaries or nonsense gets written into a work letter it’s because the deal negotiators just want to seal the deal, so they quickly scribble something down that probably made some sense to them in the heat of the moment. No one on either side understands what it means once it’s time to perform the work and once again, that usually means the tenant gets something it doesn’t want (if it gets anything at all).

It’s less common, but previous drafts can make their way into leases too, which is often a coin toss as to which side gets shorted in the deal. Gotta love it when you look at an executed legal contract and a page in it is filled with handwritten notes and scribbles in red ink. 😬

All of this can be fixed by putting rigorous processes and checks in place. But if we’re being pragmatic, it’s the enforcement of those processes that will be problematic, and downright unmanageable. I think this is because real estate culture is fundamentally different than design or even construction — it’s more casual in the way communications are handled because being personable is important to the art of negotiations. None of this is an excuse for not having good process in place though, which is what I’ll cover here.

Role of the Design Professional

A chain concept’s design team has the ideal skills to bring (some) order to work letter management. Architects are generalists who bring together project teams to get things done, and in-house architects can reach out to and organize the many interests of real estate, design, and construction to craft clear work letters. How do we do this? Like so many things architects do, it all starts with a great template.

The Work Letter Template

To make a good work letter template requires a deep understanding of the concept/building type/space type the work letter is representing. One must come to an understanding of the needs and wants of that concept as they relate to architectural elements as well as plumbing, mechanical, and electrical services, but also to the specific eccentricities of the concept (which could extend to other disciplines such as structural or civil). For example, maybe the concept needs to be in spaces that accommodate drive-thrus or maybe it needs a certain amount of overhead clearance inside the tenant space to accommodate tall fixturing, perhaps it’s essential that the floor be able to bear immense weight — it could be anything, just make sure you know all the needs before you start. Architects will see this is essentially a programming exercise, which makes it the logical first step of the process: learn what is needed. Once you understand the concept’s needs, you may realize you need more than one work letter template to address different site and/or shell building situations, and that’s okay.

With the concept’s needs in hand it’s time to start writing. As this is a technical document that describes what is to be designed and then built, the words need to come from the design team. Make sure that all of the players in development have a chance to review language as it’s drafted and that they understand what it means. Include external design and construction consultants in the reviews the template drafts as these people often deal with work letter screwups first hand. As the template is being written, highlight or otherwise code variables in the language as needed to write deal-specific edits , this makes it easy to adjust the template verbiage to those specific deals (more on this in Part 2). If it seems worthwhile, write a plain language guide to accompany the template(s) as an internal document to help people use the template(s) properly. Every “ask” in the work letter should be individually numbered, which makes it easy to reference later on during negotiations. Each of these asks should have a simple title that briefly explains what the ask is about, this titling makes it easy for the negotiators to understand the range of things being asked for at a glance.

This sample gives an idea of the composition of the work letter template

How you write a work letter is obviously important. It should be written in the imperative. It should be as concise as possible, which will take several rounds of revision. Specificity is vital, not just the specifics of what you want, but saying who does what and when they do it is equally important. Something else that comes into the writing of the work letter is that the style or approach of your real estate team may dictate that certain things that an architect or construction manager may want to leave open-ended (because the certain thing can’t be specific until a space is designed) really need to be specific in the work letter to accommodate a preferred approach to deal making, which requires a big dose of creativity from the design team to resolve.

Start a document version system and imbed it into the template(s). This is key because as you start using the new template(s) you will have updates and corrections, especially in the beginning. Having the version number of the template out there on documents in the wild helps everyone quickly know what they working from as the evaluate the deal (this is super important when corrections/updates to subsequent versions improve deal terms) since the template that starts the deal typically has to be used all the way through lease negotiations, which can drag on for a long time. You may even want to hide the version number or make it as inconspicuous as possible to avoid it getting edited out of specific deals — this is a big problem as the work letter gets handed off from the real estate folks to the attorneys who are…let’s say pedantic, about tinkering with document formats. Make it clear to everyone to leave that version number alone, it’s part of the deal as far as they’re concerned.

In Part 2, we’ll put all of this preparation into action. All of these details help us build a workflow that’s speedy, as time is of the essence when it comes to negotiating a lease.