go get it – learn

17 September 2014

industrial house 1

It is back-to-school time and as many of you know I teach part-time at a School of Architecture here in Pittsburgh. In fact I’m privileged to teach first year studio – I am their first experience with architecture at a university level (**gasp**).


For those you who are students or those considering architecture as a profession perhaps I can lend a bit of wisdom or rambling – you decide. It is been said that one attends a university in order to learn how to learn. What I have always prided myself in my college education was that I went away for six years and received an education not merely training. There’s nothing wrong with educational avenues where the goal is to train someone to do specific job and do it well. Moreover, not everyone is wired for college or a university setting. Nevertheless, my focus is on a university setting.


It seems obvious to me; however, it apparently needs to be stated that one needs to make the most of their education. In other words one should not just be a passive bystander soaking in whatever information is doled out by instructors and what is determined to be on the curriculum list. There ought to be intent and focus on the part of student; even at 18 years of age. This may be very difficult since many are not confident in their career choice so early in life. I hate to say it, but maturity seems to be happening later and later in life. Yet, as the semesters go by, areas of interest beyond the limits of the classroom ought to emerge.

I can’t say I was always cognizant of this as a student (I was often half-awake), but I knew that my education was costly financially as well as my time, blood sweat and occasional tears. I knew that I needed to be an active participant in it. Many of the things needing to be learned were not necessarily going to be professed from the front of the classroom. There was the opportunity and a responsibility on my part to research things of interest and discover things at the same time. I needed to make it my business to figure out what information was necessary to be successful as a practitioner and seek out those opportunities. If you are now in practice, you’ll agree this still applies.


When one looks at a situation as a means to learn, then one’s attitude towards the instructor or people involved should change for the better. One becomes less critical of the instructor’s style or instructor’s knowledge specialty and can see that this person knows something. Everyone can teach us something or be a vehicle to get there (not the Ides of March version though).

Several years ago, I went through my college portfolio with a mix of emotion. I looked at it with a bit of disappointment in comparison to the portfolios that my students are putting together today. Students of our digital era produce graphically intense and amazingly rendered images through a collection of media used to show their work. My drawings look painfully simple (plan, section, elevation, axon) and less visually appealing in comparison – but my models kicked…ah, you know. In the old days (in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s) our presentations were largely conventional architectural drawings and well built physical models – I mean ‘Swiss-Watch’ level models. I suppose that made me smile (another cheap music reference).

If there was time or room for splash then some attempted it (we used air brushes). I suppose in all my drawings there were some elements of visual interest but the onslaught of digital tools has made it easier to quickly augment drawings with richness – and at times bury the bad design with eye wash.


As I continued to review my school work, I also had a feeling of satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment with the content of the work. I believe our work, where I attended school, was complete and resolved. The programs made sense, the programmatic relationships were well considered, the properties in section were dynamic and the formal gestures were appropriate (most of the time). The relationships to the site were thoughtful, yet I we frequently pushed the boundaries (like when my friend Fritz put lights in his colored model when we were required to build an all white model in 2nd year).

What emerged from the memories emanating from the photos and PMTs or photostats (who remembers those) was a revelation that I had separate agenda for every project. I am not sure I totally got it at the time, but every project gave me an opportunity to explore something beyond the stated project specifications. Some of the things were formal explorations, some of them were programmatic explorations, and most were theoretical. In fact I remember being criticized that my city hall didn’t look like a city hall. I really didn’t care about that at all. I was more interested in the relationship between law and freedom (I read John Locke) and how it could manifest itself in the space and program. That is just one example.

It seemed that I saw each assignment as a chance to learn something of interest to me. Every project was a chance to go beyond the limitations of what the instructor wanted and gave me a chance to test something. I spent much time reading and sketching if you haven’t guessed.


I can’t say that every experiment yielded a successful result, but architecture school should be less about a product and more about learning a process. I acknowledge and understand that a really sharp portfolio is essential in getting a job. Yet a wise person taught me that I need to show what I can do far more than tell what I can do. This presents a dilemma you’re thinking. I must admit many of us went back and cleaned up our drawings and made a better portfolio after graduation. That still happens today. You can’t show what you can do unless someone takes a chance on you and hires you – right? After you’re hired, your school portfolio fades and your current work needs to carry you.

Simply put, education requires a relentless pursuit. In every assignment, there is potential to learn beyond the obvious and beyond the minimum. If you only give the minimum, you’ll never get any further than you are now. Figure out what it is that excites you and go get it.

Go on, that’s all the more permission you’ll ever get.


first and last photos are a model from a third year project of mine where the entire semester was to develop an industrial school campus based on a tight grid…i found that constricting. the model is of a single housing unit (one of ten). the pavilion and school were also…cranky. I managed to keep that model and it is in my office today.

all other photos are from stock photo galleries on FreeImages.com – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions)

industrial house 2


Like most issues, why can’t we find balance? The reason for one side of an issue is often due to the excesses of the other. It’s cyclical, it’s annoying. Taking an extreme position is all too common and in most cases unnecessary.

This was evident to me recently with respect to building codes and related regulations affecting commercial facilities. People are either militant in enforcing the codes; others act offended that they even exist. I work with many people and occasionally poor attitudes on both sides of this issue come out – and it’s not pretty.

Last week a current project in a nearby municipality drove me to research the particulars in the codes for a unique issue for a common building type. How’s that for evasive? The rumor is the local inspector’s position was quite strict on the issue. I’ve heard the rumor enough for there to be something to it.  I currently have two projects of this building type that required me to research it on my own – to get the real answers, finally.

I am not a fan of big government and I’m not a fan of being overly regulated. I have even been guilty of complaining about codes, zoning and other regulations. Therefore, I don’t care for the hyper-zealous building official who is overly strict and whose interpretation is always in favor of making their job easier rather than know and understand the intent behind the codes. My current situation unveiled an interpretation that was truly in favor of the inspector because it made their ability to inspect easier by reducing options. We had a conversation.

I believe I found the truth in my research, but it was also troubling when I spoke with the inspector and learned his rulings were conservative at best. He couldn’t even name the specific location of the regulation. That was disturbing and yes, I was angry. No really. Fortunately, I think my efforts are actually helping educate…again.


I am okay with regulation because usually I understand what it’s trying to prevent. Yet, if codes allow for multiple means of compliance, then the building owner deserves the opportunity to choose. An inspector can’t be concerned about getting too many calls to his office with alleged violations. Look, we don’t put governors on our cars to prevent us from going over the speed limit. We are given a choice and if we break the rules, we risk the consequences.

I’m not done yet.

On the other side of this issue are people who are so offended at the amount of regulation (and there’s too many) that they feel compliance should be their choice based on their own criteria. In other words the choice to comply is based on whether they feel it is reasonable (i.e. cost), not whether it affords basic life-safety or equity. Otherwise, it is deemed as being expensive, arduous or unfair (or unconstitutional in some cases). I often find this adolescent mindset of “does that apply to me” in adults of high stature. It’s an embarrassing part of American culture. Public safety cannot be judged or arbitrated based merely on one’s opinion of what is affordable. Affordable is impossible define and no matter what the cost is on some issues, many people will always find it to be expensive. Sometimes there is crying involved.

We also have to distinguish between liking and agreeing with a regulation and choosing or accepting to comply with it. My opinion of how much I send in to the IRS each year is not equivalent to theirs. However, if I choose to send less, I might be living…elsewhere. As architects we guide our clients through this process and it is fair for them to ask questions. Then it’s time to stop complaining or fighting and time to find solutions (not ways of getting out of complying).


We have regulation in place because common sense does not prevail nor does good faith towards others in the community. People will always be self-seeking and self-protective of their own before others. Admit it, our culture is one of the individual first and not community. It’s also part of human nature and that is a completely different debate.

To me the best way to maneuver through this without going crazy, comes down to attitude. What is our attitude towards it?

I believe people have the right to ask questions and to choose building features within the choices that are legally available. If there is more than one way to achieve compliance, then people should be given all of those options. However, we cannot take a position on the other side and feel that regulation to maintain public safety is somehow unfair or unnecessary or un-American. Nor can we fault our clients if they elect not to implement items that go above and beyond the code (did you read the first half?).


How’s your attitude been lately? I bet you have similar stories.

photos are from stock photo galleries on FreeImages.com – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions)


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…keep reading

think again

8 August 2014


Think again -Tell us about a time you made a false assumption about a person or place.

…keep reading


As usual, my mind associates day to day experiences with my world as an architect. I really don’t plan these things. Yet, even a trip to the phone store at the mall can remind me of analogous aspects of the profession. Call it a gift.

…keep reading


25 July 2014


Dear architect, how do you get projects? In some way, they all come from referrals.

Dear client, how do you find an architect? In some way, you get a referral.

…keep reading


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