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! 😂

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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…

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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.

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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 Upside Down Approach to Restaurant Design

A little while ago I wrote this thread on Twitter about how chefs with a dream need to approach design and construction of their first restaurant (or one of their first few, for that matter). I was triggered by a story in the local news about yet another chef teaming up with a firm that has a long history of shaming chefs into spending more money than they should (or even have) on elaborate, crazy expensive designs with almost no project management to steer those designs to reality on schedule and on budget.

Now I’m triggered to expand on my Twitter thread by a tweet from Carl Quintanilla about restaurant chains gaining while independents are losing during this pandemic-induced recession. Not to digress (too much), but what it’s really about regardless of whether we’re talking chains or independents is places that serve amazing food (or even just so-so food) and make it effortless to get delivered or picked up curbside will kick ass right now, no matter if they’re big or small. For example, independent fine dining will suffer if they turn their nose up at this notion of delivery/takeout. Or big chain fast/casual will suffer if they don’t quickly pivot to a tightly integrated delivery experiences with phone apps and fast, reliable service. Almost everyone will suffer this winter, so we need to float restaurants during these months of shitty weather with bailouts too. Just give the people what they want…in a pandemic without any bullshit: restaurant food without the whole going into the restaurant part of it. Anyhoo…

…All of this adds to the pressure of a chef opening a one-off restaurant. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the disciplined approach to restaurant development that’s needed by independent operators, but my Twitter thread reflects what might be a better way of saying essentially the same thing. So let’s dig into the details of that now!

First Thing: The Space You’re Going Into Costs More Than Just the Rent

Setting aside the number one most important rule of real estate (location), the space you’re renting for your restaurant needs to be able to accommodate a restaurant. That’s potentially easier if it’s already been a restaurant in the past, even if the last tenant wasn’t a restaurant. I say potentially because it needs to have the infrastructure in place (presently or at a time in the past) specific to YOUR restaurant — and that infrastructure is driven by your menu, so your architect can help figure out what you’ll need based on what you’re serving. If you’re cooking at all, then like 99% of what fucks up your budget if you pick a space that doesn’t lend itself to restaurants is cooking exhaust — getting all the grease-laden smoke from cooking to the outside. This kind of exhaust is super expensive to design, construct, and maintain, so the shorter the duct going from the cooking appliances to the outside, the better off your budget will be. Spaces that don’t lend themselves to short, straightforward runs of grease exhaust duct get insanely expensive real quick. Another space-related money trap is who’s below your tenant space. If it’s anyone other than dirt and worms, it gets spendy to put in underfloor plumbing and make sure your very wet kitchen doesn’t leak into the neighbors below.

There’s all sorts of things about a space that can make it cheap and easy to build out or expensive and difficult. It’s not sexy, and it gets in the way when all you want to do is start putting your dreams “on paper” with your architect, but having your architect perform a thorough assessment of the premises is like having a mechanic look over a used car that you want to buy before you pull out your wallet. So do this before signing a lease if you can, that way you can talk the landlord down on rent or get other concessions based on what your architect discovers. The architect will also do a regulatory assessment to understand all the red tape that you’ll need to cut through to get this restaurant to the finish line — research that saves you a ton of time down the line when a contractor is engaged and the big bucks are getting spent on the job site. All of this research is the most important (if not glamorous) step in the entire development process. Do it!

Second Thing: Everything You Don’t Want to Talk/Think About is Most Important

More unsexy stuff: plumbing, HVAC, and electrical. Restaurants have gobs of this stuff (only hospitals have more and we all know how expensive they are). Almost your entire budget will be gobbled up by the guts of your restaurant. Cold, hard fact right there. This is another place where if you aren’t careful about how your restaurant gets laid out in the space you could screw your budget up before construction even starts. The most important money-saving moves you can make with expensive plumbing, HVAC, and electrical will be related to the initial design of the restaurant. Never let the contractor design this stuff for you, because not only does that disconnect expensive stuff from a design process that could save money, but very few contractors have the foresight to understand the consequences of their own on-site design decisions, which will have them coming back to you for more moolah after they’ve realized their design choices aren’t going to fit the budget and/or schedule. You always want these systems engineered up front while the restaurant is being designed by your architect. That’s smart spending.

None of this has anything to do with finishes or layout function. An experienced restaurant architect will be able to juggle all the expensive guts while considering finishes and layout function in a way that preserves your budget by planning in great detail up front while things are cheap to do “on paper” so to speak, rather than figuring it out on the fly while you have a dozen or more laborers on site charging you thousands per day even when they have to sit around waiting for a decision to be made. This leads us to the next thing…

Third Thing: Applying Detailed Planning and Thought to Bare Minimum Documentation

Just like everything else, you need to be smart with how you spend your money on architecture and engineering services. We’ve discussed having your architect perform thorough assessments of the premises and regulatory conditions, and this is where you want to concentrate your professional services dollars because these services are all about uncovering as many of the potential money pits and schedule bombs as possible up front so that the rest of the project can be delivered with these hazards in mind and without excuses later on that blow up budget and/or schedule.

But you still need some documentation to go and get a permit and health department plan approval. This is where your architect can develop a bare minimum set of drawings to get you through these pre-construction entitlements. All of the important knowledge gained from the assessments can inform a simple, spartan architectural floor plan, reflected ceiling plan, and room finish schedule. The engineers will add a plumbing plan, HVAC plan, and a power and lighting plan with necessary schedules. That room finish schedule and reflected ceiling plan will include bare minimum finishes for the kitchen and restrooms to appease the health department, with all other finishes to be determined later. Spatially, the architect can still layout an interesting front-of-house in anticipation of finishes. Light fixtures can also be placed based on some desired level of illumination and then left to be specified later. Basically, the last thing that will happen on your restaurant project from a design perspective will be selection of finishes, furniture, and light fixtures because we’ll back into what you can afford for those things after two big milestones: 1.) signing a contract with a GC; and 2.) getting through the rough-in stage of construction. Getting through framing and utility rough-ins is a critical stage of restaurant construction because if there are any more unpleasant surprises to be uncovered once construction starts, they’ll likely all of been found (and more importantly, paid for) by this time. Then, and only then, do you have a sense of what kind of money you’ll have left over for all the fun stuff you envisioned when you first had the idea to open your own restaurant.

A quick note on what happens in between finishing those bare minimum construction documents and starting construction. You’ll go and secure your permits and approvals yourself and you’ll do that feeling well-informed thanks to that regulatory assessment your architect did a while back. At the same time the permitting is happening you’ll want to bid out your project to GCs. Talk to your architect about the pros and cons of having them involved in your bidding process. It all depends on your comfort level and willingness to not bend on the contract after your GC is underway with construction. Sometimes it’s best to have your architect go over bids with a fine tooth comb and make sure there are no omissions or other surprises while also qualifying the GCs. Other times, it’s better to have the owner play “dumb but firm” and if a GC comes back after contract execution saying they didn’t include something that owner can force their hand — it all depends on who you are and how willing you are to be firm.

Fourth Thing: Everything Else That Wasn’t Important Earlier in the Development Process

What the bare minimum construction documentation does is embed all the intelligence gained from detailed research into a quick and cheap set of documentation that can be quickly permitted and built. In a worst case scenario, you use up your entire budget just getting to the point in development of having a built out space with a raw dining room, but you’ll have an operating restaurant — even if you have to start delivery only or fill the dining room with card tables and folding chairs sitting on bare concrete like a garage, this joint will be up and running and able to generate revenue — let your great food and hospitality speak for itself.

But it’s more likely you’ll have a little bit to spend on finishes and furnishings. In exchange for a meal or three at your new joint, your architect would be happy to steer you towards selections that are appropriate to whatever’s left of your budget and schedule at this point. The best part is that this is all stuff you can likely order direct and even install yourself if you have to in order to save time and money. Because your architect planned everything so carefully up to this point, you’ll get good results with their guidance to get you over the finish line too.

In Conclusion: Don’t Fall for the Trap

The trap is anyone: architect, contractor, investor, whoever — that focuses you on the daydreamy part of your restaurant (think: sexy dining rooms with stainless- and copper-clad exhibition cooking lines roaring away in the background) rather than the harsh reality that this shit is expensive; and no, we’re not talking about the contract quality imported furniture (though that’s expensive too). The most important thing when you’re starting out is to get open fast so you can get cooking so you can get revenue so you can stay open. Don’t screw up the opportunity before you serve that first meal because of poor choices in the development process. Let an experienced restaurant architect help you avoid the pitfalls.

Everything in the process outlined here can be done quickly and inexpensively. Remember: the less you have to spend, the more carefully you have to consider and plan out each design decision up front.

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The ALL CAPS Beer Can ABI – August, 2020

Let’s visualize AIA’s ABI as beer cans. Here’s last month’s ABI alongside this year’s previous numbers. For as long as we’re below 50 on these numbers, we’ll be stacking the cheap cans.

If you have a preferred (canned) beverage, let me know and I’ll include it in future visualizations. Remember: the more we bill, the bigger the stack of beer cans.

Lessons from the Corporate World

I spent three years working as director of design in a corporation — a startup. It was a wild ride and I learned a ton. Going corporate is definitely something I recommend all architects try.

There’s a lot I can write about my time in the corporate world, but the most important takeaways from working with business professionals all center around lessons on agility and flexibility, whether to meet the changing needs of the marketplace or to adapt the corporate structure to a new business plan.

I’ve been triggered to write this by all of the recent reporting out there on how architecture firms think they’re locked in with Autodesk, who’s been ripping them off for decades. My corporate time taught me that anything can be changed if it pencils out economically (and basically everything except the most batshit crazy nonsense will pencil out). Not nearly enough architects or firms take a dispassionate look at big changes to their practices, nor do they have independent boards of directors pushing them to do so and asking tough questions along the way.

Great businesspeople are more creative than architects in an important way: they can dispassionately look at every part of their business and ask tough, honest questions with seemingly unattainable answers; then get super creative in pulling off plans to make the unattainable a reality. In architecture, we get so romantic about so many parts of our practice that we let any business judgement get clouded by these romantic notions of how we do what we do (see any discussion ever amongst architects about hand-drafting or sketching by hand). Businesspeople don’t get particular or sparkly-eyed about how it gets done, so long as it gets done on time, on budget, and it’s done correctly. Meanwhile, architects go on diatribes about shit that doesn’t matter in the production process.

As creative professionals, I can see granting us a little, tiny bit of space for our hangups preferences on how our production process works; but surely the first boundary around that space is economics. When something in your production process doesn’t pencil out because it costs too much money or time, I don’t care how hard you think it will be to change (and it’s never as difficult as you think it will be), it’s time to move on from a business standpoint.

It’s all one more reason why I laugh at these conversations in the wake of the angry open letter to Autodesk. In a corporation a conversation would’ve ended any attempt to even send an open letter in the first place:

Employee: “We want to issue this open letter complaining about license costs to our biggest software vendor. It’s cutting into profits and the software doesn’t even work that well.”

CEO: “Have you talked to this vendor before you considered an open letter?”

Employee: “Yes, they offered excuses and then ignored us on subsequent attempts to communicate. They also just raised prices…again.”

CEO: “Assholes. Let’s dump them. Someone else makes software that does the same thing or better for less, right?”

Employee: “Well…yes. But it would be too much work to switch, since everybody knows the other software.”

CEO: “How different can the two softwares be if they do the same thing? Pull together an ROI analysis and transition roadmap for Monday’s meeting before you go sending open letters out. Let’s figure this out.”

This is the spot where the employee would pull together numbers with their team and realize that the change pencils out rather reasonably.

Instead, I’m counting the days until the newsfeed brings us a story about a firm tacking on an Autodesk Surcharge to their fees to cover them getting gouged because, well, Revit is just such an integral part of their practice and it’s what people know. 🙄

PS
This isn’t about being anti-anything in terms of software, it’s about whiney architects being chickens. Design however the hell you want to, just don’t expect to get taken seriously when you choose to let a software vendor key to your design process walk all over you because you think change is impossible. I ain’t afraid to make a change when I realize the time has come to do so.

Revisiting Software Costs

I saw this recent article speculating on Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost’s claim that his bullshit license costs for Revit did not represent a significant portion of revenues for the firms in the now-famous open letter to Autodesk. Not that we needed any analysis to know that Autodesk is full of shit, but it helps.

We know that architecture firms are too chicken to switch BIM authoring tools, which is why it doesn’t matter what Andy or the angry architects say to each other, but I thought it would be fun to see how low we could go with annual costs and see if we could match Andy’s claim that licensing fees equate to only 0.63% of revenues for the complaining firms (in this exercise it won’t be Revit’s fees though as we’re not going to get the math to work with their insanely high costs).

I’ll base my math on the same fictitious firm as the other article, which requires five licenses of everything. I’ll align my software selections as best I can to these categories which were created by the author of the other article:

Here’s my visual representing the annual software costs:

Everything here is US pricing in US dollars, excluding tax. Here’s my breakouts and footnotes for those costs:

  • Archicad: $800 x 5 = $4,000 2
  • Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo, Affinity Publisher: $0 3
  • Freshbooks: ($20 x 12) x 5 = $1,200
  • Twinmotion: $0 (included with Archicad)
  • Linea Sketch: $29.99 x 5 = $149.95
  • Google Drive: $0 (included with G Suite)
  • G Suite: ($6 x 12) x 5 = $360
  • Smartsheet: ($25 x 12) x 6 = $1,800
  • Freshbooks: (see above)
  • Google Chat: $0 (included with G Suite)
  • Google Meet: $0 (included with G Suite)

The annual costs related solely to the firm’s BIM authoring tool licenses (Archicad) come out to 0.62% of revenues (you’ll recall from the original article that annual revenues were $650K), slightly ahead of Andy’s claim for Revit. I was able to get the total software licensing costs down to 1.2% of the fictitious firm’s annual revenues. Maybe Andy was talking about his competition’s costs instead of Revit??? 😉


Footnotes:

  1. I was truly baffled by the inclusion of this category and especially SketchUp in the original article, so I put in my favorite sketching app figuring this is kind of what they meant with this category 🤷🏻‍♂️
  2. Archicad has an initial cost per perpetual license around $5K which represents one-time up front costs
  3. The Affinity apps have initial costs of $49.99 each app, per perpetual license that are one-time up front costs