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Hiding Behind a Mouse

Depending on your age, architecture is something you started practicing with a mechanical pencil and paper at a huge inclined desk, or, in front of a computer monitor. I’m in the first camp, and today I intend to invoke the respect-your-elders clause. I am going to get up on my soapbox (which I designed with a mechanical pencil and paper at a huge inclined desk) and talk a little bit about CAD.

Computer Aided Design software is absolutely essential in conveying concepts to clients and contractors, because it allows us to take a lot of the guesswork out of architectural design. Today’s powerful software can represent ideas and options quickly, beautifully, and accurately. The interactive drawings and renderings help clients visualize the destination and therefore enjoy the journey. CAD software has given our presentations and paperwork sizzle, and I love it for this reason.

I think the important thing to keep in mind is the second letter in the CAD acronym. Aided. The software doesn’t do the design for the architect, it merely illustrates the concept of the design. Quality in, quality out; garbage in, garbage out. An architect must have a fundamental understanding of the concept he is trying to convey long before he sits down at a computer.

You’d be surprised how many young architects have never been to a lumber yard. When I talk to young people, I ask them to tell me about something they have built. Not designed on a computer, built with their hands. It matters. I’m not saying you have to be old to be successful in this field, I am saying you have to have an up-close-and-personal understanding of how stuff works. The kind of up-close-and-personal you experience when you do things by hand: with a hammer, saw, and yes, with a mechanical pencil.

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What comes around, goes around.

In the first half of the twentieth century urban areas were compacted with residential, mercantile and industrial in close proximity to each other. There are many fascinating cultural and economic reasons for this orderly system, but I think you can chalk it up to the philosophy of the time, which was a place for everything and everything in its place.  Then in the second half of the century the residential moved out from urban centers to create the suburban areas and then there was distance between mercantile and industrial moved.   People entered and exited realms of life, literally on and off the clock, using their automobile to transport them between functions. Did it work at the time? I guess it probably did.

People have changed. The way we work, when we work, how we play, how we source goods, how we learn, how we get around has all changed dramatically. One of the most valued resources in today’s society is time, and our environment is changing in response. People and businesses are trading in urban sprawl existence with its separation and associated commutes, for walkable, mixed-use environments where work, play, learning and shopping are overlapping and constant. People want to do everything everywhere, all the time, which has ushered-in a very different looking neighborhood. Today’s planners are creating mixed-use neighborhood centers that foster community interactions and support all of life’s functions. All things here, now.

I wonder if in another 50 years, society will find this type of urban planning intrusive and claustrophobic. If perhaps they will have had enough “togetherness” and will re-value privacy and “thinking time” to and from activities. I don’t know, that will be for others to decide, but I do know tomorrow’s architects and urban planners will always be ready to respond to the cultural, social and economic demands of future generations.

At what point do you have too much experience?

Stores, wineries, churches, clinics, court houses, apartments, personal residences, fitness centers, breweries, schools, universities… and one dumpster enclosure. These are among the architectural projects we have worked on here at ESPA. As we serve repeat clients and meet new ones, the question comes up, at what point to we have too much experience? If a client is looking for an architect to design a church, is it better to have designed ten, or one? Does having more experience in a particular project type make you more familiar with the client’s needs, or, are you less likely to arrive at a unique and customized approach?

There is an architect in another part of the country that specializes in designing dentistry facilities. That is all they do, and they do them all over the country… hundreds of them. Would we want them designing our dental office? No.

Having familiarity with an industry is helpful, but it’s having an intimate understanding of this client’s specific work processes and needs that will determine the success of his project. Having done work in so many sectors gives us helpful perspective and uncanny problem-solving abilities. We have seen so much, that we are very rarely surprised by anything. We have worked for so many kinds of clients that we can offer suggestions and ideas that apply across the board, no matter the industry. We have seen things succeed and fail in such a variety of environments, which is why we get it right the first time for our clients.

Experience matters, but breadth of experience makes all the difference.

With architectural design, nothing is arbitrary.

Why do we do it that way? Do we just make this stuff up?

Architects get a lot of grief from owners and contractors about our role in mucking-up what is perceived to be an otherwise streamlined process. It’s true, the Design Development phase of the design process can stretch out timelines a bit, but rest assured, the time invested up front is worth it in the end. The decisions we made at the front end of the process prevent the all-too-common event of ticking off the client with change orders. Design processes are based on experience, knowledge and yes, memories of a past job that fell short due to cut corners. See? There is a method to the madness.

Bridging the gap between conceptual ideas and detailed execution requires commitment to details. Someone has to sweat the small stuff, because if no one does, we all lose- especially the client. There was a stunning new medical clinic in a local market that incorporated great lines, excellent building practices with cutting edge technology. Unfortunately, the client purchased computer equipment without consulting the design team, not anticipating the HVAC adjustments that would be needed in response to the heat generated by the new equipment. As a result, several offices and patient suites were unusable because they were either too hot or too cold. HVAC is an issue that needs to be addressed during the design development phase of the design process. After occupying the space it was too late to address the issue economically, and sadly, patient and physician discomfort came to define an otherwise well-done project.

So, the next time an architect requests time for Design Development to do some extra research or schematic drawings, take a deep breath. The commitment to doing it right the first time ensures an excellent outcome for all.

Congratulations to Our Affordable Housing Client for Award

Help ESPA congratulate our client, Beacon Management for receiving the 2013 CAHEC Award for Outstanding Preservation for Affordable Housing. CAHEC (Community Affordable Housing Equity Corporation) is one of the nation’s largest regional nonprofit equity syndicators covering eleven southeastern and mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia.

The award is for Colony Place, a 1970’s 100 unit multi-housing project in Fayetteville, NC. ESPA had the pleasure of working with Beacon Management on rejuvenating this community by completely renovating the existing housing and adding a beautiful and functional clubhouse.

Beacon Management is one of five recipients for the 2013 award from a field of highly competitive candidates. Again ESPA is honored to be a part of such an exceptional development team.

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