cool blog: Life of an Architect

As I wandered the interwebs in search of a deeper understanding of this critter known as "architect", I parted the sashes of the Serengeti to reveal a prime specimen: Bob Borson of the most excellent blog "Life of an Architect". While the title suggests a yawn-fest of barely-riveting tales of pencil sharpening and lost CAD files, Bob's blog is a hyperly pleasant mix of tech, goofiness, and insight. And he just so happens to live up the road in Dallas. Highly recommended!


survey says...

Just got a tree and topo survey done on our lot. In a tree and topo survey, professional surveyors survey lot limits, location of important trees (generally larger than 8 inches in diameter, although we asked to have a few smaller ones located), and slope (topography) of the land surface. This is all important stuff because you dont want the house built on top of nice trees (most architects wont want to do this, appropriately so) and knowing the topography is important for designing the foundation and considering drainage. If you have existing structures, youll need to know where those are as well.

We solicited three bids and went with the low bid in small part because it was the low bid and in large part because they were the only ones that included a detailed list of deliverables. Our tree survey quote included a dozen trees (although the surveyors went ahead and did some more, including one just off the property line [per city code nearby trees have to be considered when designing a house]). If your lot is bigger and/or more topographic and/or has more trees, survey costs are probably higher. If you get a survey done when buying the property, be sure to also get the tree and topo done. Probably saves money in the long run.

We provided each surveyor we invited to bid a copy of the pre-existing survey (no tree, no topo) we got when we bought the property. We figured the company that made that survey would get the topo-tree work since they didnt have to completely reinvent the wheel, but they didnt seem to take that into consideration in their bidding (something to consider if you go with the original surveyor thinking youll get a built-in deal). A word of advice when getting a survey: ask whether or not you get the AutoCAD file (the digital version of the survey in vector format [with all of the lines]) and then ask to get the file after the survey is done. This is something your architect is going to want and will save you a little time and money during the design phase.

Some of you may be saying to yourself Yo! Bubba! Shouldnt you have already had a survey done with all that previous designing you did with Architect 1.0? Excellent question. Methinks yes. However, in reality, this didnt happen. In fact, the survey (or lack thereof) was the first hint that Architect 1.0 was going to be a potential pain to work with. For some reason (it was never explained), Architect 1.0 chose to do the tree survey himself. At the time, I wondered about this, since he had previously mentioned that we would need to get a tree and topo survey at some point and stressed the importance of getting three bids. However, he was the expert, so I didnt make an issue of it, although it was a minor irritant because he charged us for measuring the location of the trees. That seemed odd since we were eventually (?) going to get them professionally surveyed.

After Architect 1.0 developed the initial design, I trekked to the site to stake out the floorplan. It was then I realized that he didnt have the trees properly located. Most were off a relatively minor amount and one, one he designed the house around, was off some 20 feet, its actual location in the middle of the kitchen island (which could have been a nice design feature, I reckon!). The diagram above shows the result of the recent survey in black and where Architect 1.0 had the trees by his survey. At our next design meeting, I politely noted that the trees did not appear to be in the correct locations. Good Gawd, was that the wrong thing to say. He seemed surprised and asked how I measured them. I started my answer with from the curb…” to which he immediately responded Thats wrong. We dont know where the curb is. I noted that his survey showed the location of the curb (presumably this came from the professional survey we got when we bought the lot). Nevertheless, my measurement from the back of the lot confirmed the mislocation of said tree. You cant measure that way, was his reply. I then asked where he measured from (because where else could he have?) to which he quickly pivot-pouted to The location of the trees is not important. I noted that he had designed the house around one of the trees (#58 on the survey above; see the red dot to the south of #58 to see where he placed the tree) not to mention that the house was pushed back on the lot more than it had to be due to the trees in the front and that one tree was much closer to the garage than he showed.

As a manager of some 60 to 80 people, I do not expect perfection. Perfection simply does not exist. And good, competent people make mistakes from time to time. One thing I do expect is an appropriate response to a mistake. Do you acknowledge that you made a mistake? Do you work to fix the mistake? Do you work to ensure it doesnt happen again? Its employees that refuse to admit theyve done something wrong, even when faced with unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, that are trouble. I learned the hard way early in my career that its important to own my mistakes. In fact, so few people own their mistakes that when you do so, it pleasantly catches folks off guard. Yes, youve admitted youre not perfect, but youve also shown that you can be trusted to ensure something is ultimately done right, even if mistakes are made, as they inevitably are, along the way.

You may also be asking Bubba! Why didnt yall fire that dude when this happened? In retrospect, I wish we had fully explored the tree issue when it happened. Perhaps we would have fired him at that time if he had remained recalcitrant and defensive, and perhaps it would have prevented later issues that ultimately became fatal to the relationship. (This was the first time Architect 1.0 demonstrated his penchant for (1) denying a mistake had been made [the trees remained misplaced through the design process] and (2), when faced with evidence to the contrary, blaming the client for the mistake.) At the time it seemed like a relatively minor issue (Save the Hackberries!!! is not one of our rallying cries; if the tree had been an ancient oak or pecan, perhaps it would have been different...). The booboos would eventually be resolved with a real survey (something I would have eventually insisted on) and the house shifted appropriately. And working with big egos is something I do at my day job. With that, rightly or wrongly, Ive learned to work around egos and keep my eye on the prize. At this point, we had worked with Architect 1.0 for at least a year while lot-searching with no problems and were developing a healthy friendship, so we cut him some slack. Everyone has their quirks. On the other hand, this was the first time we had (politely) confronted him with something we thought he had done wrong, and his response was a little disturbing.

So to all you budding (and budded) architects out there (probably not) reading this blog: Turn down the ego and own your mistakes! Not doing so is disrespectful to your clients (my bride and I have five technical degrees between the two of us: we know how to use a tape measure) and bad for business. I also highly recommend letting the surveyors do the surveying.


the miserable truth of Mies van der Rohe

As promised from my review of Mies van der Rohe by Claire Zimmerman: Some of Mies' key projects.

[Side note: I'm getting a lot of hits on this post, probably because the post title includes the words "miserable truth". I used the words "miserable truth" because of the roots of his name (mies ~ miserable, rohe ~ truth) and because some (I'm not one of them...) consider modern architecture (of which "truth" and "honesty" is important) miserable. Enjoy!]

The first date is the design date; the second date is the construction completion date.

These first five are from Mies' "Five Projects" period, none of them built.

1921: Friedrichstrasse (unbuilt)

1922: Glass Skyscraper (unbuilt)

1923: Concrete office building (unbuilt)

1923: Concrete country house (unbuilt)

1924: Brick country house (unbuilt) The floorplan is iconic in architectural circles.

1925-1927: Wolf House 

1925-1927: The Dwelling (Stuttgart, Germany)

1927-1930: Lange and Esters Houses (Krefield, Germany)

1928-1930: Tugendhat House (Brno, Czech Republic)

1928-1929: Barcelona Pavilion (Barcelona, Spain)

1945-1951: Farnsworth House (Plano, Illinois)

1954-1958: Seagram Building (New York, New York)

1962-1968: New National Gallery (Berlin, Germany)


haiku for the book “Mies van der Rohe” by Claire Zimmerman

born in Germany,
his buildings are barely there.
less is more, he said...

Its appropriate to summarize a book about Mies with haiku: haiku is poetry thats barely there where less is, indeed, more.

Born Maria Ludwig Michael Meis in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, Meis trained to be a draftsman and eventually worked his way to Berlin and the architectural offices of Bruno Paul (in 1906) and Peter Behrens (in 1908). In 1912, Mies started his own office. Between 1915 and 1918, he served in the German military, after which he returned to his practice. His work during this period was nothing special.

A critical point in Mies career came when Walter Gropius rejected his submission to the Exhibition of Unknown Architects in 1919 for not being Modern enough. Mies used that rejection to fuel a re-evaluation of his theoretical foundation and embark on a philosophical and architectural phase between 1921 and 1924 called Five Projects by historians. Five Projects encompasses Mies full conversion into Modernism as well as his extension of it. This period includes designs of two high rises, a mid-rise, (these previous three are notable for how ahead-of-their-time they were) and two houses. None of the five projects was built. As part of reinventing himself, he rechristened himself Mies van der Rohe, the Rohe coming from his mothers maiden name. (As an aside, Mies infers, in German, miserable while Rohe infers pure, so his name can be literally read as miserable truth!)

During his theoretical explorations, he wrote We know no forms, only building problems. Form is not the goal but the result of our work. There is no form in and for itself... Form as a goal is Formalism; and that we reject. Nor do we strive for a style. ...it is our specific concern to liberate building activity from aesthetic speculators and make building again what alone it should be, namely BUILDING. (When I read this passage to my bride, she swooned. Mies is her favorite architect.). Mies further called for ...absolute truthfulness and rejection of all cheating. And, in an indication of how much fun he was at cocktail parties during this time, he wrote that The nature of the technical is determined in its fulfillment... He who builds a factory as if it were a temple lies and disfigures the landscape.

By 1926, Mies had come to realize that aesthetics and creativity had a place in architecture and that how people responded to space was as important as the space itself. His response to this realization was creating structures that allowed flexibility of interior space, explicit connections to exterior space through glass walls, and choreographing the architectural experience. In 1927 he showed a Glass Room at a Stuttgart exhibition that earned a lot of attention and noteriety. Other notable efforts in 1927 were the Weissenhofsiedlung apartment building [also in Stuttgart] and the Wolf House in Guben, Germany. He expanded on the concept of a glass room in 1928 with Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, and in 1929 with the German Pavilion in Barcelona (Mies also designed the chairs for the pavilion, now known as the iconic Barcelona chairs) and ultimately perfected the concept with the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, in 1945 (for a house) and with the New National Gallery in Berlin in 1962 (for an institutional structure). It is through what he learned and developed in 1926 and 1927 that guided much of his career afterwards.

Starting in 1933, with the rise of Hitler's National Socialist Party and its preference for neoclassicism, many German Modernists left the country. Mies remained until 1938 (running Bauhaus out of a warehouse for a short while), when restrictions on his work and concern for his safety led him to Chicago and the directorship of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies reputation in the United States had been established by Mies inclusion in Philip Johnsons influential International Style exhibition at MoMA in 1932 and Johnsons continued fascination with Mies.
Mies and the United State were, in many ways, perfect for each other. With decisions primarily directed by the almighty dollar, Mies almost pure utilitarian approach with an emphasis on flexibility of space fit perfectly. Under these conditions, Mies helped invent the modern skyscraper, first exploring his vision with the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago in 1948 and perfecting it with the Seagram Building in 1954.

Mies continued to work and explore his tenents of Modernism until his death in 1969 in Chicago. Although not mentioned in the book, Mies is credited with coining the phrases Less is more. and God is in the details. He also said of his own work My architecture is barely there.
This is the first of the Taschen architect series that I bought (picked it up at the Marfa book store which has a far better architecture section than any bookstore in Austin) based in large part on the recommendation of Bob Borson over at Life of an Architect (a wonderfully witty blog, btw!). The books are smallish soft covers but only 10 bucks and chock full of info including a biographical overview, vignettes on critical projects, career timeline, maps, further reading, and gorgeous photography. Highly recommended! Im hoping Santa baby brings me more!

status update

I haven't written much about the Architect 2.0 search in part because I want to wait until we've made a decision before writing about it. But here's a quick update without the gory details.

We've talked to four architects now: Architect 2a(i) and Architect 2a(ii) (yes, we're going to tattoo the underside of their lips with serial numbers like race horses...), Architect 2b, Architect 2c, and Architect 2d. Architect 2c, although quite lovely, is unfortunately way too much of a financial stretch to work (and yes, we tried stretching). Architect 2a(i) was recommended by a friend, but he has joined forces with Architect 2a(ii), hence the complicated sub-numbering of the specimens. We have one more (Architect 2e) to talk to before making a decision, something we plan to do over the holidays. Was it Mae West that said "So many architects, so little time!"?

Got a topo and tree survey done (post coming soon) but still need to get geotechnical done.

(photo by mwah, Terlingua, Texas, November 2011)


san antonio modern homes tour

This Saturday. See the Alamo and then see some blocky stuff:


(photo scarfed from tour site)


mmmm Marfa: I cube you

Every year we head out to Far West Texas, my favorite part of the state, for Thanksgiving with my bride's folks. Marfa has become a destination spot for minimalists, in large part due to Judd's presence and the ensuing Donald Judd worship that ensued after his death. My bride and I dream about retiring and opening a motel for New York hipsters with individual units based on Judd's concrete blocks and serving literal "square" meals for breakfast. At the very least, we expect to build a Judd-style picnic table for our Austin backyard...

(photos by mwah)