Aside

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

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

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

The Month in Buildings: September, 2020

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


Retail…

Rounding Corners…

MEP…

Commitment to an Idea…

Hanging Out…

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.

Aside

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.

Music for Spec Writing

This thread on Twitter caught my attention as being exactly the same, confounding question as the whole do architects need to be “good at math” question that I recently wrote about.

Architecture and music are interesting bedmates, and some day I’ll write in depth on this topic, but one part of the aforementioned thread is stuck in my mind and I’m hoping that writing this article will help dislodge it: the question of what kind of music is conducive to writing specifications.

It’s of course a question that can only be answered subjectively. Over the years, I’ve provided on-the-job crash courses in specification writing to coworkers and I’ve never touched upon the music I think would be supportive of this type of technical writing. I infrequently have music on when writing specifications because I’m a very active music listener, so I have to be careful about the kind of music I choose to listen to while doing other tasks, especially when it comes to the tasks of the practice of architecture. It’s too easy for me to get absorbed in the music listening at the expense of the architecture-ing if I’m not careful. But I do listen to music for a lot of tasks and I appreciate the intellectual exercise of finding ideal music for the task of writing specifications.

Spec’s are unexciting, yet important. They’re extremely detailed and technical. Specifications are black and white, with no gray area — literally and figuratively. This kind of work requires focus and concentration, but also something to keep the writer engaged and alert. It’s these characteristics of the task that must drive my choice in music.

I’m thinking of something that’s not too concrete, that would be distracting for the way my brain consumes music. In fact, I’m not sure it could even be all that beat-driven. The sounds need to be soft and relaxing, with occasional brief changes in tempo and/or loudness to check in with me.

The first music I tried was what came to mind as I was thinking this through for the article. Pole’s debut trio of albums from 1998 — more specifically, I played the second album from the trio, “2” on 12” vinyl through my home stereo system. I thought this would be the perfect match, but I didn’t even listen to my own requirements as outlined above. It’s a great album but far too glitchy for proper spec writing.

I had to halt the experiment for a day as I couldn’t think of what else to play and felt frustrated, as I had my heart set on that Pole record. Then I thought of an album I got this summer and have been thinking about a lot. I played it and did some technical writing updates for my BIM template and it was, in fact, perfect. This time the source music was in MP3s which went through a DAC to the studio monitors I keep in my office which provided warm, intimate sound to fill up the room and keep me focused on my spec-writing.

The album? Julianna Barwick’s “Healing is a Miracle”, which was released earlier this year. Julianna’s vocal loops and sweeps of low-frequency, room-shaking bass are what I recommend when it’s time to write some specs. I think her entire discography would be appropriate to this technical task as well. I’ll be trying some other albums and different media formats from her catalogue to confirm my assumption. Going forward, if I ever have to train anyone else in spec writing, I’ll include Julianna’s record in that training too.

If you decide to take me up on this recommendation, don’t go and stream this work — buy the damn record and support Julianna’s amazing music properly. Happy spec writing.

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.

The Month in Buildings: August, 2020

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


Diamonds…

When DoD projects become art…

Mechanical engineer goals…

Same energy as Spruce Tree Centre (St. Paul reference)…

Relief…

Cinemas…

Underground…

Thoughts on Minimalism

My last article has me thinking a lot about minimalism. I like to master a small handful of critical software titles and try to stretch the limits of what can be done rather than relying on a long list of different specialized titles that my projects have to pass through in order to create everything I need.

An unanticipated benefit of the minimalist approach is that it can save money in this age of the software-as-a-subscription pricing model, which is probably why I thought about this after that last article’s focus on software costs. It’s become important to me to weigh the amount of stuff I can accomplish with a given software title to its subscription cost. So the higher the cost, the more I better be able to do with that software. Even if a software title did just one thing that was vitally important, but cost a lot, I would rather test alternatives that had Swiss army knife qualities. A minimalist needs their software’s capabilities to be maximalist in order to have a minimalist roster of software titles.

This raises an important point: minimalism doesn’t mean software complacency. I’m always researching the software landscape and testing titles I find interesting. This part of minimalism is a lot of work, which aligns nicely with minimalist design — it’s also a lot of work to make things look simple and…minimal. Over time my standards for what graduates from testing to use on actual projects have become more stringent because of my desire to be a minimalist. Not to digress, but open standards and open file formats are a must for minimalists, as they allow you to quickly and easily change out software without needing even more software just to make that change happen.

New design technologies introduce new software — potential clutter. For example, virtual reality and augmented reality have a boatload of software titles to make everything work. Further complicating efforts at minimalism is time it takes new design technology to sort itself out in the market. Which major player will acquire the hot new startup? When will this new hardware come down in price? Which of these two nearly identical technologies will become the standard we all use? Minimalists must learn to slow down and wait for the dust to settle before committing to new technology. Minimalists are less early adopters and more early observers.

Business software adds a layer of complexity to a minimalist software approach. You inevitably need at least one or two pieces of software dedicated solely to business rather than design. This is a tough pill to swallow for us minimalists, but there’s joy to be found in winnowing the biz titles down to the absolute bare minimum too.

For a business with more than one employee, minimalism has its benefits when it comes to training on both the software and the workflows. I’ve found that a lean software library typically leads to nice clean minimalist workflows too.

I feel stressed when I see other architects and designers using a lot of software, even if they’re getting impressive results. All that extra software is clutter to me. What do you think about my minimalist approach?

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

On Architects Being “Good at Math”

I see the back and forth of “you have to be good at math to be an architect” and “no you don’t need to be good at math to be an architect” on a regular basis. The former is stated by someone outside of the profession, and the latter is issued as a correction by an architect — not me, I wouldn’t say that — but there’s always an architect who will jump in and make that statement.

I was originally going to write about all the different math I use as an architect and ponder what exactly is meant by the phase “good at math” — is that a mathematical genius or just someone who turns around addition/subtraction/multiplication/division in their head quickly or something else? Who knows. But the vagueness of it is probably the biggest problem I have with the whole architects being “good at math” thing. This is what I want to focus on: I don’t really have a stance on “good at math” and I think (?) I want to have one. Let’s explore…

Architects come in a variety of flavors as our complex, modern times bring out the specialists in all of us. I would guess that the hands-on middle management type architects at small and mid-sized firms maybe use the most math as they have to deal with all aspects of project delivery and coordination. I’m also thinking that the techie programmer-type architects use a lot of math to help make stuff for their teams. Business-y architects who lead firms need to use business math. Geometry is foundational to designing all three dimensions of our built world, so design architects are using math regularly too. Of course, you need to do some math in order to pass a licensing exam to become an architect as well. So we’re all using math, which leads me to think that architects who say you don’t need to be “good at math” can’t possibly mean you don’t need to know any math. Next.

Am I “good” at math? I wouldn’t say “good” — maybe average or ordinary. I took math every year of high school and college and my grades were meh, so I think my teachers and instructors would agree with my self-assessment. But I know math, and if anything, using it like my job depends on it out in the real world has probably made me a bit better at it than I was in school. The most important thing about math is that the education system slowly eases you into a calculator. They like to make you figure it out the long way on paper for each type/level of math and then you’ve earned the right to do that particular math on a calculator going forward. This is an important point, because even the “you don’t need to be good at math” architects would say that being “good at math” is important for engineers. But engineers use calculators and software that does the calculating for them — and it’s this software in particular that has gotten so good over the years that a lot of math is taken out of the hands of engineers. Maybe you don’t need to be “good at math” to be an engineer anymore? I mean, have you seen how much work the computer does on a structural analytical model? It’s nuts. Of course, with BIMs, there’s math that happens automatically for architects too. Over time all this tech has had a big, positive impact on our accuracy and our ability to get the right answers.

Is being “good at math” implying that you get the correct answers to math problems? That makes the most sense, and it’s kind of important to be right for the whole health/safety/welfare part of what we do. But then why would any architect say you don’t need to be “good at math” if this were the case? Are they designing shit that’s gonna maim or kill? Damn.

This reminds me that a big, important kind of math that architects need comes from the area calculation and justification parts of building codes (actually, there’s a lot of math all over building codes, but this area stuff has maybe the widest impact over all types of architecture). The area math isn’t difficult though, I’d say it’s like junior high level algebra at worst. Here too, technology is quickly learning how to do this math for us so that someday we won’t need those mad algebra skills from 7th grade to be architects.

Perhaps this is how the “good at math” conversation will end. No one will need to know any math because technology will do it all for us. I feel like one- and two-point perspectives have essentially already gone this route since software can just let us look at any perspective of our design we want now with a click of the mouse. Even though I did know the geometry necessary for making those perspectives by hand at one time, I’d need to do a quick YouTube tutorial to get those skills out from the archives of my brain.

Where does all this pondering leave me in terms of an official stance on the architects needing to be “good at math” thing? I don’t know, except to say that I’m average at math and I’m a good architect, whatever that means.