A new path

So I tried to run a bit from it, but it looks like the inevitable will still find you, one way or another.

Well, that perspective, now that I write it down, probably has rubbed off on me from reading too many of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas novels over the past few weeks.  In it, the character has some clairvoyance to him – he can see dead people.  Its been done before (a lot), but in this case, as with most writing that I enjoy, his perspective on life is the reward for spending my time reading these books.  One recurring theme is this: everything has a natural order to it.  Even with his “supernatural” skills, he has learned that trying to trick fate into doing something else typically just postpones it at best.

Several months ago, I decided to strike out on my own… but then I didn’t.  I got an offer to come on with another firm – they let me finish some projects that I had already started on the side, and all was supposed to be good…

But of course, it wasn’t.  I know it is always typical when someone woos somebody on with promises that not everything is delivered… but it turned out rather quickly that the situation we cooked up did not fit.  So this week, we adjusted that.

The adjustment is this: I can now fully pursue what I want.  This has effectively let me start off on my own.  I still office with them, I still work with them.  I will maintain key clients.  But, I have more than I want to do than pure architecture, and in order to follow those dreams, I have to go off and do this – if anything, just for me.

It’s a little scary.  I have enough work to pay my bills, but of course your perspective changes very much so  going off on your own – your outlook changed from 3 months ahead to 3 years.  There is plenty to be nervous about, but plenty to be happy about.

So what do I want to do?   I want to develop.  And I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ve made my first multifamily acquisition already, but will be looking to build some small for-rent and/or sale product.  I have big dreams of other projects; some might be what I might call “game changers” in the market here in Dallas.  But… One has to keep their sights.  Even though I am an architect, broker, and I have built my own designs before as a general contractor, the stigma of being an architect is a hard one to overcome – especially when starting off of on my own.  So, after some soul searching, I have decided to start small.

I figure this – if I can make a living designing small projects, I can make a living developing small projects.  And move forward from there.  I might take on partners, but…  I’m not making that a barrier to going ahead and starting.

So, there you have it.  My official launch date will be September 1, 2013.

To new days ahead.

 

Sun rises over ruins a few hours outside of Mexico City.  I took this picture nearly two years ago, and it was about that time I was starting to find some purpose in what I wanted to do.

Sun rises over a small town and some ruins a few hours outside of Mexico City. I took this picture nearly two years ago, and it was about that time I was starting to find some purpose in what I wanted to do.

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Design: relevant?

So I receive an email today from our business development guy: “the reason your lost work with [your client] is because your work was not timely and accurate…  Good design is irrelevant.

I design neato things I can’t talk about until they’re almost under construction. So you get a massing model of something that doesn’t look like anything.

Now, we are doing another project with this client.  I had thought we had lost it.  Turns out he meant another project, which, honestly, we did not have the bandwidth to do at the time.  So after several hours of worry burning a hole in my Saturday afternoon, that got clarified.  I had not lost a project for reasons unknown.

But it got me thinking: our industry is pleagued with people screaming about what’s wrong with our business. The most common crap I hear is that our work is becoming “commoditized.”  I started reading one book which began with a mantra about commoditization and how technology was going to “fix” that.  I stopped reading.  Lets start here:

Commodity:

1: an economic good: as

     a : a product of agriculture or mining;

     b : an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment; or

     c : a mass-produced unspecialized product

2: something useful or valued 

3: obsolete: quanitity, lot.

4: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price

5: one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market

(source: Merriam-Webster dictionary; m-w.com)

I am guessing that the whining comes from definitions 4 and 5.  The funny thing about architects is that we think we are special: the fact is, all industries struggle with this every day.  Even, say, manufacturers who produce items in high saturated markets, like common raw materials or whatever widget you want to think of.

Something else that looks like nothing

So a service industry is screaming worrying about the trouble of being commoditized?  Are all of you saying that price is the only driver?  Surely not.  I used to work at big firms.  Those firms do not charge small fees.  But people keep coming back to them.  So price, in itself, it not the issue.  All of this complaining about our fees not being big enough due to “commoditization” – to me – is just crap.

How do you add value?  Isn’t that what being in a professional service business is all about?

Hmm.  How about listening to your client?

The whole reason I got that project was good design…  I took a new look at a project that had already gotten all of the way though CDs.   The new development team wanted to take another stab at it because the original program didn’t match their requirements, but at the end of the day due to a down and dirty exercise between planning and building officials I was able to pull out $2 Million from the project due to pulling off an entire floor while removing full subterranean parking.  Does that mean the other architect was bad?  I don’t think so.  There are many reasons why designs end up the way they are and I always give the benefit of the doubt – there was a reason why it was the way it was.  In fact, because of the timing, the zoning had changed and the density was able to be increased after that design was done (so I did, actually get more units with less floors).

So I thought that was relevant.

I still think it is.  But, it did take me a while to complete.  There was lots of back and forth with the client.  There were a lot of late nights, tense conversations, negotiations with authorities, to get it done, and it took a while.  And I was just starting a company.

So it was hard, and we produced.  And we grew.  We hired some great talent that made a tense situation much better.  I thought things had improved until I got that email… Then it turned out things had improved, I had just taken it the wrong way.  However, it got me thinking: do I KNOW what my clients want?

I think I do.

I was told good design was irrelevant.  I don’t think it is.  But: do I KNOW what they want?

Everyone is different in this industry. I’m amazed, for instance, at the time for design and construction that is given for people in the high end residential sector.  We don’t have that luxury in the commercial business for the most part.  Being given a year to design an office building… is unheard of.  So one has to expect that every type of client is different and each set of priorities is different.  The trick is knowing what those things are.

There is a lot of market data about high volume sector like retail or B2B organizations or whatever.  What about smaller service oriented businesses?  Typically we work with people on a very personal level: you’re almost friends.  Sometimes you become friends.  Sometimes you start as friends and are never the same thereafter.

How do you know what your client wants?  What is important to them?

Oh Dear God.  You have to ask.

An architect learns to sketch – Part 1

On September 25, 2010, I decided to take a short class at the Dallas Center for Architecture on notational drawing.  As someone who wen to the school of hard knocks for architecture, my graphical skill, I feel, is my largest gap in my skill set.  I have always had an interest in cultivating it, but never thought it was completely necessary.  I had previously scoffed at architects who said that “you have to draw to be good.”  I usually cast the idea aside, since typically these comments come from an older generation of professionals who started their careers drawing by hand, took their exams with pencil and paper, and spent much of heir academic career working on “real” drawing.

To be honest, I still feel that way.  Architectural drawing is a skill; not a talent.  I don’t feel like someone cannot be a good designer simply because they cannot draw well by hand.  However, I also had a similar feeling about licensure: many of my peers are well into their 30’s and 40’s without a license, and are principals at architecture firms.  Why get licensed?  All that meant to me at one point was over a grand in annual dues and education costs.  However, after going through the licensure process myself, I understood firsthand that the process of studying for and taking the exams is not only a right of passage, but is also a rewarding experience that makes one a better architect.  Perhaps, so it goes with drawing.  Maybe  this skill, just by the practice of DOING it, makes one a better architect.  Who better to experiment on but myself?

Kevin Sloan with Kevin Sloan Studio gave this class at the DCFA.  He is a landscape architect who also teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington.  I attended another lecture of his, called Parallels, so I knew this guy is someone to listen to.  For the first session, he went through his slides, showing many of his annotative drawings – basically a record of a building, seen by an architect’s eye – and described his process as a conversation with the original designer – how did you do this? What proportion is this and how does it relate to the whole composition?  He said this process helps the drawer see the building in a whole new light.  At first, our small group had little to say after taking all of this information in – then there was a lot of talk of the new generation of professionals who can’t draw and what that meant.  I sat quietly and listened to the banter.

The second part of our session was to be the next day, but it rained.  Hard.  We sat outside at the Lily Pad at the Main Street Garden and discussed a few topic here and there, and I asked my big question – how does someone like me, a licensed professional, fill in this gap of knowledge?  He gave me a list of things to do, starting with a rather simple one – divide the page into 1” squares, then fill each of those squares with alternating vertical and horizontal parallel lines at 1/16”.  Thus began my first drawing drill:

Drill #1. Meh.

Not great by any means, and I certainly had a lot of issues as I divided the page inch by inch as the grid moved to the lower right corner.  Even still, I went with it and filled it all in.  This process did get me to feel more comfortable with the page, and I am ready to continue.  This may get embarrassing after a while, but I stopped caring about such things after I bought the smart car.

So, we will see how it goes.  I am going to try to draw something every day.  I’ve got a list of drills and other exercises to do first, so I have enough subject matter – and some will take quite a while to make, I’m sure.  But I’m ready to push ahead.