The Month in Buildings: February, 2021

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.


From before we branded these micro-apartments…

Fire stations…

Plants on balconies…

Space invaders…

Colors and shapes…

Absence of colors, but still plenty of shapes…

Coke decor…

Aside

January, 2021 Beer Can ABI Starts the New Year Off with Sub-50 Numbers and Crappy Beer

It looks like the first Beer Can ABI for 2021 has arrived with the same crappy beer we suffered through in 2020. Didn’t we just decide we’re all workers and nothing more? Pick up the pace, people so we can drink like the good ol’ days of 2019!

Profit and Loss

Lately I’ve been thinking about a couple of events in my life that I never previously thought about together and it’s kind of interesting.

First Anecdote: Yeah, About That Bill…

In the rapid downfall of real estate development that precipitated the Great Recession of ’08/’09, my employer at that time had been working with a developer who abruptly closed up shop and walked out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of the firm’s bills. The people behind this development company had other ventures in different markets to fall back on and today operate all sorts of random businesses around town. Almost every architect eventually runs into a client that walks out on all or part of a bill. If you’re diligent and lucky you can file a lien and maybe you’ll recover pennies on the dollar for that debt in a couple decades as a part of some transaction on the client’s property. In this instance, the developer client’s unpaid bills caused extra harm to the firm at a time when most of the other clients were having to call off or indefinitely pause their projects too — layoffs and pay cuts were the worst they’d ever been in no small part due to this client’s enormous outstanding debt — people were put out of work specifically because of these unpaid bills. Such is the way, and it’s one of the many risks of our business. You’ll even find opinions that are sympathetic to the client as their work dried up and they went out of business — it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “it’s an unfortunate situation all around” or, “nothing you can do in a catastrophic economic collapse like that.”

Second Anecdote: Go Directly To Jail

Here’s a story from even further back in time. In the early years of my architecture career (we’re talking more than 20 years ago now 😳) I worked a lot of overtime. The extra pay was helpful to my situation as a working young adult who was still living with and financially supporting a parent. One weekend I had to skip the OT on a big project in order to drive out to the edge of town to pick up someone from jail. This person ended up there after a depression-fueled perilous financial situation made them desperate enough to write a few bad checks for things like groceries and gas; and those checks added up to a sum just large enough that it was a crime punishable by a short jail sentence since they were broke. I had a lot of time to think on the long drive out to the jail. I wondered what it was like in there. I wondered why a few days in jail was considered a suitable punishment for this particular wrongdoing — it felt like a medieval holdover, something a king’s court would order upon a commoner. Of course, I wondered what this jail was going to look like (I could ask about what the inside looked like too). There were lots and lots of questions, I’d never had to do this before.

The jail and attached buildings were a relatively new government campus at that time. The exterior was done in Minnesota’s trademark Kasota limestone, and like every half-assed Kasota design before or since, that meant it was paired with a red clay brick. It’s an enormous property, with courthouses and other government infrastructure and all the bells and whistles. There’s no doubt it was a big, big project for the firms who did the original design and the subsequent remodels since my visit. I navigated the sea of asphalt and signage pointing me in every imaginable direction all at once and eventually found the sidewalk where this newly freed person waited and helped them into the car. I asked about some of the stuff I had been wondering on the way there and I learned that they were in a corridor of jail cells where there was no one else around for the entire time they were in there. It was very quiet, but also incredibly lonely. A guard would come by with food (sometimes it was fast food drive-thru burgers), and that was about it for human interaction unless you count a TV. They said everything was painted white and the cell they were in was smaller than any bedroom they’d ever had. They kept referencing how lonely and isolated it made them feel. We ended up changing the subject for most of our ride back to civilization because they were feeling really stressed out by the ordeal and needed to think about something different, so that’s about all I learned. In the months following the jail stint, this person ended up spiraling deeper into poverty and was even briefly homeless before they got help to rebuild their life. Such was the impact of those few days sitting in the brand new jail out amongst the farm fields past the edge of town. I haven’t shared this story in a while, but whenever I tell it, there’s a decent chance someone will say something critical like, “they did basically steal so that has to be punished in some way, right?”

The Design of Human Warehouses

The cold, hard truth is that for most careers in architecture, a lot of the day-to-day work is nothing like what one imagined it would be when they initially thought, “I’m gonna be an architect when I grow up.” Society needs all sorts of buildings and many of them aren’t fun or glamorous at all, but they pay the bills. I thought about that a lot this time that I worked on a ginormous waste treatment facility (un-ironically referred to in the industry as a WTF) that basically dried poop to be bagged up and used for fertilizer or something like that. There are many more unglamorous building types out there, but someone’s gotta design them, right? Maybe this is how one gets into the jail and prison design business — after all, someone’s gotta design those too.

The two stories I began with represent two of the ways our society chooses to deal with debts for goods and/or services that go unpaid specifically when the wrongdoer has run out of funds. For a poor person with mental health issues who writes checks for groceries when they don’t have money to cover the checks: go sit in jail and, in the process, get a stain on your record that makes it almost impossible for you to get a job or housing once you’re free. For a profitable but over-leveraged company in an economic bubble who takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of A/E services without paying for them: maybe you’ll get less money from the sale of your building that was made possible by those services; no biggie though, let’s move on from this unfortunate episode. One punishment is ridiculously harsh and the other is surprisingly lenient, but that harsh one creates a steady demand for a building type, among other things…

…As architects design more and more human warehouses (an apt term I’ll use for the remainder of this article) to put more and more people away for things like not being able to pay rent or stealing hedge trimmers or passing bad checks to pay for groceries, there’s a whole economy of businesses that provide goods and services to the human warehouses, thereby contributing to the enormous cost of keeping people locked up. It’s US taxpayers at the federal, state, and county levels paying for this multi-billion dollar industrial complex, and I’ve previously written about how much money’s out there for architects willing to do this ghoulish work. For these architects in the human warehouse economy, I’m sure it’s very good business. After all, the government ain’t gonna walk out on the bill and it wants the really large, well-built buildings that command the big fees too — that’s a win-win from a business standpoint. It’s a safe bet that the firms involved in the design and remodels of the human warehouse I visited out on the edge of town have had some great years provided by this line of work where staff got good raises and maybe even some nice bonuses. It’s the money alone that brings architects to this building type. It’s not glamorous and no one wakes up in the morning and is like, “pRiSoN deSIgN iS mY PAsSiON” before they head off to work. The problem though is not that this is unglamorous work for architects, it’s that these human warehouses do real harm to people.

How do you get something that’s really bad to stop when that something also makes people a lot of money? It’s gonna be really hard. In the architecture community, we have to make a moral and ethical choice: profit or health, safety, and welfare. So far, we’ve been unable to let go of the profit, and that is our collective shame as a community.

The Month in Buildings: January, 2021

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.


Millennial Pink…

Articulated beyond belief…

Divine venting…

Phallic fortresses…

LA Gear…

Respecting tradition…

A plethora of pyramids…

The Troubling Message Behind AIA’s “Pause” on ArchiPAC

On January 13th, 2021 the American Institute of Architects announced it was putting an indefinite pause on all ArchiPAC activities. In the AIA’s announcement they mention that the reason for the pause is because they’re conducting “further review of the political situation and to enable the development of protocols to address this and future events aimed at undermining American voters”. This is the bare minimum response that AIA could’ve provided given that they’ve not only lined the pockets of dozens of the 147 members of congress who voted to overturn the results of our country’s democratic process; but they’ve also consistently failed to meet their stated purpose, which is to give to candidates “who support our legislative agenda outlined in the [AIA’s] Policy Platform.” The AIA’s announcement refuses to acknowledge that ArchiPAC funding efforts to throw out election results is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dysfunction of the AIA’s participation in our country’s system of legalized bribery. In fact, when it comes to its stated purpose, ArchiPAC is an abysmal failure.

This excerpt from the ArchiPAC page of AIA’s website lays out a mission that ArchiPAC’s giving routinely ignores.

The three legs of the AIA Policy Platform are “A Future Economy”, “Climate Action”, and “Healthy Communities.” As I’ve covered previously, ArchiPAC giving contradicts Healthy Communities and Climate Action goals when its giving supports legislators who have desires for both expanding the world’s largest prison infrastructure and abandoning important commitments to the environment in favor of profiting off of pollution.

I haven’t yet pulled an example of the damage done by ArchiPAC to the “A Future Economy” leg of the AIA Policy Platform, so let’s take a look. The December, 2020 stimulus package passed by congress is loaded with both direct and indirect support for low-income housing, which aligns with the Platform’s desire to “invest in low-income housing tax credits.” Not to mention that the package renews the popular PPP program, which many architecture firms have utilized to save jobs (including some real eye-popping ones). And of course it also contains provisions for stimulus checks too, which benefit the often criminally underpaid architecture professionals whose good work makes the names behind all those letters in the big firms’ acronyms so successful. Seems like a pretty important vote for ArchiPAC’s beneficiaries in congress to approve, right? But ArchiPAC gave $109,000 over the last three election cycles to members of congress and their PACs who voted against this critical legislation. And there you have it, I’ve kicked out all three stool legs from under ArchiPAC — note that these are just three examples, and there’s plenty more out there when you dig into the mud. If you’ve donated to ArchiPAC in the past based upon their stated purpose of bolstering the AIA’s Policy Platform through PAC giving, then you should be upset.

Members of Congress & Their PACs Who Voted Against Stimulus & Affordable Housing & Got 💰 From ArchiPAC

Name (Party – State)Contribution Year(s)Total Contributions
Kevin Brady (R-TX)’16, ’18, ’20$16,000
Steve Chabot (R-OH)’16$2,500
Garrett Graves (R-LA)’16$2,500
Sam Graves (R-MO)’16, ’18, ’20$10,500
Mike Kelly (R-PA)’16, ’18$5,000
Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA)’16, ’18, ’20$8,500
John Shimkus (R-IL)’16, ’18, ’20$6,500
Joe Wilson (R-SC)’16$1,000
Tim Scott (R-SC)’16, ’20$6,500
Mike Conaway (R-TX)’18$2,000
Virginia Foxx (R-NC)’18, ’20$7,500
Kurt Schrader (D-OR)’18$2,500
Mike Simpson (R-ID)’18(Returned)
McMorris-Rodgers American Dream Project PAC’18$1,000
Tomorrow is Meaningful PAC’18$1,500
Jodey Arrington (R-TX)’20$1,000
Don Bacon (R-NE)’20$2,500
Troy Balderson (R-OH)’20$2,500
Mike Bost (R-IL)’20$2,500
Vernon Buchanon (R-FL)’20$1,000
Buddy Carter (R-GA)’20$8,500
Mike Gallagher (R-WI)’20$1,000
Darin LaHood (R-IL)’20$7,500
Devin Nunes (R-CA)’20$1,000
Adrian Smith (R-NE)’20$1,000
Lloyd Smucker (R-PA)’20$1,000
Brad Wenstrup (R-OH)’20$1,000
Scalise Leadership Fund PAC’20$5,000

PACs can be a rather nebulous and inefficient way of maybe influencing change, which might be one reason why you don’t see ArchiPAC touting any concrete success stories. Every PAC has to be completely unscrupulous in its bribery with the futile hope that the money will bring back more benefits to the PAC’s funders than it does harm to them. Unlike a corporate PAC, an architecture PAC doesn’t even have a corresponding security on the stock market from which a member of congress could gain an (illegal) inside trader’s profit should they support the PAC’s legislative desires, so the slim odds of success in the bribe biz get even slimmer for architects. In the current era of politics, it’s not like congresspeople are out there hiding their intentions or ideology, so we’re all but assured how they’re going to vote even before it happens despite the flow of cash to their pockets. None of this seems like something that architects should be getting involved in. So many of the recipients of ArchiPAC’s money are so deeply troubling that you have to question the decision making that went into them in the first place. Over the years ArchiPAC Steering Committee and Fundraising Committee members and their firms along with AIA staffers at both the national and local levels have consistently been some of ArchiPAC’s biggest donors; they should come out and explain themselves if they’re going to keep doing this dirty job. But what I really want is for them to stop and for ArchiPAC to go away forever, and so should you.

Here at the start of 2021, ArchiPAC’s annual fundraising competition remains active, as does its online donations portal. It’s giving for the 2022 election cycle had already begun prior to the so-called pause. These are important details because, according to the Federal Elections Committee, a PAC can only shut down when it no longer receives contributions and it no longer makes expenditures. It’s clear that all the AIA wants to do is wait for the uproar over ArchiPAC to subside and then quietly go back to business bribery as usual, which means ArchiPAC continues giving in ways that undermine AIA’s Policy Platform. This is why I demand that we #DefundArchiPAC, and it’s why I need all of you to speak up and demand the same. It’s time to end ArchiPAC forever.

Aside

December, 2020 Beer Can ABI Remains Stuck Below 50 — This Beer’s So Weak We Can’t Get Drunk

The December 2020 Beer Can ABI numbers were delayed a day due to the inauguration, but they’re so bad it would’ve been better to bury the lede and just put them out that day and no one would notice. So we remain in the realm of beer so cheap and weak that cases of it couldn’t get us drunk, which is exactly what we need when getting slapped in the face by these depressing numbers.

Guest Post: Unfrozen Caveman Architect Takes Issue with Our “Modern” Drawing Techniques

I’m thrilled to bring this provocative guest post from a fellow architect with strong opinions on how we draw and the importance of traditional methods and tools. Also, if anyone out there with mad cinematographer skills would like to help me make this into a piece for the next AIA Film Challenge, hit me up! We would definitely win.


Greetings! My name is Glorp. It’s quite a culture shock, to say the least, when one is unfrozen and reanimated by a mad scientist some 10,000 years or so after getting iced over during a particularly frosty winter next to a herd of mastodons. As I’m sure you, my fellow architects, are well aware we never truly retire. I wanted to get right back into the swing of things, pick up some new clients, design them a cave of their own, and maybe string together enough projects to get a firm going with some other unfrozen cave people.

I was thankful to quickly find a group of architects who helped me get up to speed with what architecture practice means in the 21st century. You don’t have to worry about me being out of touch or irrelevant — these architects explained that the proper, indeed the dominant, style of today is called “classical” and is based upon design concepts first developed in Europe a couple thousand years ago (boy, am I glad that today’s pace of progress isn’t much faster than it was back at the dawn of the Holocene). They helped me learn the modern, high-tech drawing and drafting techniques of today as well; so I know all about t-squares, vellum, and pencils, all good there.

At this point, I’ve given these pencils and vellum a shot, but they are vastly inferior to the techniques of my time. In fact, this new pencil-on-paper technology really interferes with a caveman architect’s ability to properly design, which is the last thing an architect wants from their tools. Perhaps the nutty clans who designed and built those ugly, new-fangled stick-and-leaf huts may like the precision of these modern tools, but they’re not for us real architects.

With the pencil and vellum, There’s no longer a need to carefully consider one’s next move of the hand because these tools take all of the thought out of that act and you can simply erase if you make a mistake. None of this elevates the architect to the respected position of finest artist in the cave. Since we cave architects didn’t do much else thousands of years ago, where does that leave us!?

Your pencils, with their synthesized graphite encased in precise, machine-honed wood and tipped with rubber to conveniently undo what was just laid down are cold and completely disconnected from my traditional tools. Do you think this stupid graphite is going to stand the test of time like my generation’s work? Hell no! What are you going to do if you erase something only to later realize that you needed it? You can’t get it back now, it’s gone forever! FAIL!

I’ll be continuing to use my clay and stones on cave walls because, unlike today’s high-tech architects, I understand that being an architect is all about design concepts freely flowing through one’s entire body to convey ideas in beautiful cave-drawn form in unison with nature. The clay ochre tipped flint stone comes from Mother Earth, just like me, and is an extension of my body in the creative process. You have no such unity with these damn machine-made pencils so you do not have real architecture, it’s that simple.

I hate to cut this short, but I have someone coming to the cave shortly to help me get all these words on the cave wall into something called the Internet for you to see. Thanks, and please join me in a return to traditional drawing techniques.

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.