Passing the Test

I have literally no advice for anyone taking and passing the Architectural Registration Exam today.  I am sure that was not the intent of this month’s topic, but I took it so long ago…

How long ago was it?

I am glad you asked.  It was so long ago the Vitruvius only had seven Books on Architecture at that point.  John Ruskin only had five Lamps of Architecture back then.  They were just digging the foundation for This Old House…

From my yearbook…

Alright, it wasn’t that long ago, but I did begin in 1999.  It was version 1.0 of the fully computerized test, I believe.  I couldn’t wait to get it done.  I think the fact that I didn’t know what to call myself until I did finish the exam pushed me.  I was once introduced to a client as “an intern” after a few years on the job.  Then the client asked when I went back to school.  Come on, man!

I completed my hours for the Intern Development Program (now called AXP) in the minimum amount of time possible and registered to take my first division of the test.  I resolved to take one division per month until I passed all of them.  There were nine divisions then.  I took the first exam in October 1999 and finished the last in June of 2000.

There were two other interns in the office taking the exams at the same time.  I remember the three of us rummaging through the mail bin to try and find our letters from the State Licensure Board to see if we passed or not.  You see, you used to have to take the exam at the testing center and leave without knowing if you passed or not.  What’s more is, notification was snail mailed to you and, looking at the postmarks, we had to wait a full month after sitting for the exam whether or not you passed.  It was a painstaking wait!

This is all we got and we had to wait about a month to get it!

Older architects would regale us “newbies” on the merits of taking the entire exam over the course of several consecutive days in an old Post Office in Philadelphia, with T-Squares on old doors.  But being in the first generation of computerized testing was also a challenge.  The design software was available for download for practice for the Building Planning and Site Planning portions of the exam.  The software was was rinky-dink and fussy.  Otherwise, the tests were more or less multiple choice on the computer, which sounds easy, but I recall only leaving one exam with a feeling that I definitely passed it.  I was lucky enough to pass them all the first time, but there was one which scared to devil out of me.

Ah, the good olde days.

I forget which test it was, I think it may have been Materials and Methods, but I was at the end of one section of the exam.  Back then the computer saved each section before loading the next section  you were going to take.  After the second of three sections I pressed the “Save and Go to the Next Section” button – and I got a Fatal Error.  I had to get the test administrator to restart the computer.  The administrator couldn’t tell me whether the saving “took” or not.  I was left to complete section three of three not knowing if the first two sections saved properly or not.  That was a long month to wait for a Score Report.

Never a good thing.  Really not a good thing on an exam.

Fortunately it came back as a “PASS”.  But that is all they tell you in the test report.  If you failed, there was no indication on what you didn’t do well on in order to study for the next time.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is “The Architectural Registration Exam” and was led by Meghana Joshi.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
What is the Big Deal about the ARE?
Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
what A.R.E. you willing to do
Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Take the architect registration exam, already
Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
ARE – The Turnstile
Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
the architect registration exam

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
I forget
Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
The Architecture Registration Exam
Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
What is the Benefit of Becoming a Licensed Architect?
Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Every Architect’s Agony
Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
To do or not to do ?
Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Test or Task
Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Part 3!
Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
How to Become a Licensed Architect in Italy
Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Seven Years of Highlighters and Post-it Notes

A Little Ugly Never Hurt Anyone

Credit:  Getty Images

Everything in moderation, or so the saying goes.  In my opinion, this holds true for both beauty and grotesque in the built environment, for without one, the other holds no meaning.  For this month’s ArchiTalks, I will let my pictures do most of the talking.

You may look at the picture on the left and see nothing of merit.  How on earth can anyone help this double occupancy room?

The second picture is the same exact room.  There was potential in the room from the first picture.  The designers just had to coax it into existence.  We call it re-invention.

What’s wrong with a little decay?  It may be my rural roots, but all I see is a field of new pumpkins next year.

Speaking of decay…  Actually, this one kind of hurt.  But once the damage was done, this building in downtown Lancaster held an eerie beauty.
Before this building was worked on (and inadvertently destroyed) no one ever knew about that painted advertisement on the side of the wall.

Most old buildings are drafty, aren’t they?

 Speaking of painted advertisements…  I love these barn billboards.  Yeah, yeah, chewing it will give you cancer….

But just looking won’t.  Hey, tobacco was a cash crop here.

This is a building in Lancaster as well, but it has been abandoned for as long as I can remember.  It was once the largest silk mill in the U.S. During the War, they made parachutes there so the windows were blackened to keep Nazi bombers from seeing it.  Over the years it settled into a state of decay that fascinates me.

Utilitarian in its nature, it is simple and brutal beauty in my opinion. The AEG Turbine Factory by Peter Behrens in 1909.

Architects have always been fascinated with decay and ruin.  The Romans built upon Greek ruins, and in turn, the West built upon Roman ruins to develop Neoclasicism.

My misguided fascination with decay may have its origins here. The picture to the left is where I studied architecture for 5 years.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is “Ugly” and was led by Jeremiah Russell.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

–>Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
ugly is ugly

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Ugly Architecture Details

–>Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
unsuccessful, not ugly: #architalks

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Ugly is in The Details

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Ugly, sloppy, and wrong – oh my!

–>Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
[ugly] buildings [ugly] people

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is My House Ugly? If You Love It, Maybe Not!

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
the ugly truth

–>Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Ugly or not ugly Belgian houses?

–>Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
ArchiTalks #30: Ugly

–>Larry Lucas – Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Die Hard: 7 Ugly Sins Killing Your Community

Fresh Eyes

The start of school, the approach of Fall, that says one thing to me.
I help review drawings before they go out for pricing, bidding or permitting.  I like the fact that I get to contribute to nearly all of our work in this way.  It does come with its challenges though.  While I ordinarily look at parts of the projects in the early stages, I don’t always have a full understanding of all the projects until I see them in their almost 100% complete form.  I have, depending on project size, only a day or up to a few days to really learn all I can about the project.  It is a challenge, but I look at it as a dry run for the permitting process, where a plan reviewer only has a limited amount of time to understand the entire building prior to issuing a building permit.  Things that may be taken for granted by the design team may not be clear to someone looking at it “with fresh eyes”.  Sometimes you can look at certain things for so long, you don’t take notice of them any longer.
I invariably uncover some things that might be able to be shown a little clearer for the contractor or the plan reviewer.  I am a firm believer that if you are intending to use an exception in the Code, write it down.  Not only does it clear any questions up for the next set of eyes to look at the job, but it becomes a record for the design team to remind them of the conditions of the exception.  Other times, I uncover a mystery that not even the design team picked up.  Recently I was reviewing a large set of drawings, nearly 300 pages, soup to nuts.  I had been through all of the architectural, food service, structural, mechanical and plumbing drawings already.  After three days of nearly constant review, I had gotten to the electrical apartment unit plans, nearly the last things I would see.  All of a sudden, I looked up and said, “Ooohhh, are all these apartment unit plans named after apples?”

Name that apple!

The design team working on this project happened to be sitting right where I was reviewing the drawings.  They all looked up and cocked their heads, as if they were trying to do long division in their heads.  After months of working on these apartments, it had never dawned on them.  Granted, they are not all traditional names we may think of for apple varieties, but some are.  At first the names made me think more about New York, although the project is located in Virginia, which I didn’t think was known for growing apples.
Empire, Rome, Cortland, Braeburn, Cameo…  I think many of us have heard of these.  Baldwin, Breeze, Liberty…  these were varieties I was not previously aware of.
I saw this one at a local farmer’s stand.  I want to live in the Rambo apartment!
Sometimes it just takes a fresh pair of eyes.


I live and work in the same zip code that I grew up in.  Aside from my college years and about 12 months after school working in the greater NY metropolitan area, I have lived in the same school district my whole life.  Our kids now go to the schools I attended.  I like to tell people I didn’t get very far.  This flippant comment hits really close to home, though.

The current office (in red box) and environs.  Photo Credit:  Google Maps.  The farm I worked for is to the left.
An enlarged image from within the red box above.
I was just having lunch with several coworkers and we got on the topic of first jobs.  Recollections were fairly straightforward:  ice cream shop, mowing lawns and landscaping, sandwich shops…  My first job was no more unusual than any of the others, given that I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  I worked on a farm, picking strawberries, peaches, and of course:  sweet corn.
The unusual part of my story was the location, not the vocation.  We sat in our “new” four year old office.  The view out the window, had it been just five or six years earlier, would have been much different.  Our office sits on a lot that previously had been planted with corn or soybeans for as long as I can remember.  It is in those fields where I first worked.

2004 aerial photo.  The striations in the green there show early May corn where the office currently sits.
My first real job, one where I clocked in and out and had taxes deducted from my check, was as a farmhand, picking corn on the lot where I would work in an office 25 years later.  I worked between May and August 1989 starting at 5:00 AM, pulling corn off their stalk in the near dark.  The scratchy leaves of the stalks and sticky silk of the ears still held on to significant amounts of water, making it impossible to stay dry just minutes into your day, even in a drought.  I learned to pull “ready” sweet corn off the stalk in the dark, just from the feel in the hand.  You can imagine the contempt I feel today when I see people peel back the husk on every single piece of corn at the grocery store before they bag it.  Amateurs…but I digress.
This was the view from my window one morning.
Our former office, the one we used for 25 plus years and I spent 15 years in, is only 2 miles from our current digs.  But there was something serendipitous about the new location literally occupying the same earth I worked as a 16 year old.  The new office property contains a significant amount of unbuildable land due to the presence of wetlands.  Because of this, the view from my desk is nearly unchanged from when I toiled in the fields 25 years ago.  There are cat tails, wild flowers, and the same clump of trees that follow the path of the muddy creek cutting the property in half.  The back half of our property is a veritable wildlife preserve, home to snapping turtles, birds of all kind, a herd of young deer and we even have sighted a red fox a few times.

Typical summer time view from my window.
That is a red fox in the distance (winter view).
So is it really a homecoming when you never really left?  I think so.  While I now work literally across the street from where I lived in high school, our office has clients all over the country.  I have worked on projects in Oregon, Colorado, New York, New Hampshire, Georgia and Texas, just to name a few.  But the greatest thing about working here is that it feels just like home, for more reasons than just the geography.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is “Homecoming”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

–>Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Coming Home to Architecture

–>Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
looking back i wonder

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Coming home as an architect

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
9-11 — A Look Back

–>Michael Riscica AIA – Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
Homecoming & Looking Back

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Homecoming Memories

–>Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Letter to a Younger Me

–>Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Homecoming, in 3 Parts

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Just give me a reason : Homecoming

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

–>Gabriela Baierle-Atwood – Gabriela Baierle-Atwood (@gabrielabaierle)
My Ode to Fargo

–>Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Looking Back Through the Pages

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

–>Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Looking Back…Was Architecture Worth It?


Photo Credit: ABC Television

Maddie Hayes: Wipe that stupid grin off your face.
David Addison: This is the smartest grin I know.

Moonlighting, or outside professional practice, is prohibited by the firm for which I work.  It has never been a problem for me, as I never felt like I didn’t have enough to do in my day job.  That is not to say that I have not been asked for help by friends or family.  The closest thing I have done to moonlighting is writing about my experiences as an architect, but that is a far cry from providing architectural services.

There are certain liabilities that comes with working for friends or family (not to mention the risk of losing such friends…).  I am not insured for such activities – at least that is an excuse I can use that won’t hurt someone’s feelings.  I don’t really think I want to work for friends or family.  To me, that sounds about as good an idea as loaning your dead-beat uncle some cash.  It probably won’t end well, and it will make Thanksgiving dinner really awkward if you expected that money back.

Cue television flashback harp music:

My parents were set to build a house in New Mexico a few years after I graduated from college.  I had only seen the land in pictures, and it wasn’t really pretty.  It was rocks, sand and scrub.  My step father had this grand idea that he wanted a log cabin.  In the desert.  No amount of logic from a kid in his mid-twenties would sway him.  “Where are you gonna get the trees, Al?”  “How’s that log cabin gonna do in 120 degree heat? – I don’t care if it is a dry heat, that’s actually worse!”

This is either a view from the Viking Spacecraft or a view of my mother’s lawn.  (Photo credit:  NASA)
So with all of the diplomacy of a newly minted architect, I gently suggested that my parents start by talking with some local home builders.  This was a climate that I was unfamiliar with.  I was not familiar with the appropriate building materials or the prevailing HVAC systems for that area.  All of this was essentially true, but it was not information that I could not have gathered had I really wanted to.  I knew that a parent was not likely to yield to the sensibilities of their former ward.  Let some experience builder tell them they are crazy.  I walked away.
This is an actual view of my mother’s home. The amount of green is deceptive from space.  (Photo Credit:  Google Earth)
So they were convinced.  Log cabins were not the way to go.  Guess what?  Adobe!  Well, stucco anyway, was the exterior choice they made.  Flat roof.  Spanish colonial sensibilities.  All this they thought they came up with themselves.  Not from the kid with a minor in architectural history.  Not from the kid who was working on a job in Phoenix around that time.

Oh well, they got their house, and it was appropriate to the climate and context.  I am sure Thanksgiving dinner will still be awkward, just for different reasons.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is led by Michael Riscica and is “Moonlighting”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Should Architects Moonlight?

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The Ironic Blasphemy of Moonlighting and what Architects are Missing Out On

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
moonlighting more than an 80s sitcom

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Moon(lighting) changes with the seasons

Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
hustle and grind: #architalks

Michael Riscica AIA – Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
Moonlighting for Young Architects

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
Architects do it All Night Long

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Starlight, moonlight – tick tock

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is Moonlighting Worth It? Probably Not, But We All Try.

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Dancing in the Moonlight

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
The Howling

Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
An Alternative to Moonlighting as a Young Architect

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Architalks 28 Moonlighting

Gabriela Baierle-Atwood – Gabriela Baierle-Atwood (@gabrielabaierle)
On Moonlighting

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
There is no moonlighting. It’s a jungle!

Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Crafted Moonlighting

My Mentor

One would expect in a profession that requires an internship program that mentorship would be an integral part of most firms.  Sadly, this is not always the case.  My first job out of architecture school was at a large Japanese A/E/Construction firm in the NY area. I languished there, partly due to my inability to speak the native tongue, so this employment didn’t last long.  I returned to the firm in my hometown where I worked for a summer and at breaks.  I’m still here, 20 years later.  One of the best decisions I ever made.
Gregg Scott, FAIA, my mentor.

Many of my colleagues from school have job hopped a half dozen times or more.  The reason I never moved on again is innately related to the mentor I landed with at my current firm.  I wrote another post about how much I learned driving him around to meetings in my early years.  I didn’t just drive him.  I was a participant in the meetings to which we were traveling, but I learned a lot about the profession and leadership while he worked in the passenger seat, engaged in phone calls for at least 75% of our travel time.

 One of the most rewarding pieces I’ve written professionally was a recommendation to the Jury of Fellows for the AIA and how my career was affected by my mentor’s engagement.  It was also one of the easiest things to write, although I did work on paring it down to the essentials.  For his advocacy, I wrote:
“I became the architect I was supposed to be because of Gregg, not for the skills he taught me; but because he encourages young professionals to develop talents they may not even know they have.  The time Gregg spent on my mentorship was vital to my career development and it continues to this day – 20 years later.”
Gregg’s goals in mentorship:  Education and Having Fun!
Now, I am at a crossroads in my professional life.  In about a year, my mentor will retire.  Gregg was inducted into the College of Fellows this year.  I am now  nearly the same age as Gregg was when he took me under his wing.  I didn’t become an architect like Gregg.  More so, I developed skills he didn’t have.  Gregg is a brilliant designer, communicator and marketer.  I was never meant to be the people person as he is.  I developed technical skills and, after leading progressively larger and more complicated projects over the last 20 years, I now assist all projects in the office with code review and quality control.  Gregg never tried to turn me into something I am not.  He let me become what I was supposed to be.

Gregg can poke fun at himself, too.  His pants can ride up.
20 years later, our office has a more defined version of a mentorship program; at least more defined than a kid driving a partner around all the time.  I have weekly conversations with two people in the firm.  One has been out of college a few years, the other is quite a bit older than me actually (he made a career change later in life).  I can only hope that I can offer these two people, and other still, a fraction of the empathy, support and guidance that I received.  Because that is what it is really all about – paying it forward.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is led by Michael Lavalley and is “Mentorship”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

–>Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
This is NOT Mentorship

–>Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
ArchiTalks: Mentorship

–>Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Mentors, Millennials and the Boomer Cliff

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
ArchiTalks: Mentorship

–>Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
teach them the way they should go: #architalks

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Bad Mentor, Good Mentor

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Mentoring with Anecdotes vs. Creating a Culture of Trust

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

–>Gabriela Baierle-Atwood – Gabriela Baierle-Atwood (@gabrielabaierle)
On Mentorship

–>Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)

–>Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
The Top 3 Benefits for Architects to Mentor and to be Mentored
–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
I’ve got a lot to learn

–>Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
The Lonely Mentor

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Mentorship : mend or end ?

–>Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Mentor5hip is…

–>Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Mentors that are in my life

–>Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
Why every Aspiring Architect needs SCARs

–>Mark R. LePage – EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
–>Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Gurus, Swamis, and Other Architectural Guides
Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Advice From My Mentor

A Dictator of the Worst Kind

I am sure all careers involve tasks that are far from exciting.  Many of those tasks surely involve paper work.  Architecture is no exception.  For me, it is writing meeting minutes.  In 20 years, I have probably written hundreds, maybe even thousands of meeting memos.  These documents record the issues discussed at meetings, obviously.  The goal is to describe what happened, who is on task to follow up, and when.  In the design phase it is usually listening to the Owner describe the program requirements, and recording decisions.  During construction, minutes can be as dry as gypsum board.  Not very glamorous, but I have spent many hours of my life dictating meeting minutes.
Dictating?  Yes.  When I started out, most people used a microcassette dictator to record their voice, essentially reading the minutes.  That’s how I did it too.  This was before your phone was your personal assistant.  A very lucky person in our clerical staff was entitled to listen to my dulcet tones for who knows how long.  We do very large projects.  Sometimes our meetings go for two days, literally.  The tapes are 60 minutes each side.  I’ve filled both sides occasionally.  You thought you had it bad.  Imagine the poor person who had to listen to me drone on for two hours.

The height of 1990’s technology.  It’s kind of like the thing Star Lord has in Guardians of the Galaxy, only smaller.

I don’t typically still dictate.  I will occasionally, but only if there is a good reason.  I can type reasonably well.  I have also dabbled in voice recognition software for punch listing.  Nonetheless, when someone has to listen to a tape of someone else and type along, there are bound to be hijinks.
I remember one hysterical typo that made it through spell check many years ago.  I was dictating the minutes of a meeting that involved a skilled nursing facility.  These buildings typically have serving pantries for residents’ meals.  What is it called when a word contains other words within it?  Never mind, just drop the ‘R’ from ‘PANTRIES’ and you see where I am going with this.  I caught the ‘panties’ in my proof read, thankfully.
I cannot help but to try and be somewhat creative with word choice.  I mean, you can only say ‘shall’ and ‘follow-up’ and ‘schedule’ so many times.  I blame it on growing up with an English teacher for a mother.  Just a few years ago, I was writing about a project to replace a critical cooling tower for an apartment building.  Obviously, one would endeavor to do this work in cooler weather rather than hot.  I could have said that.  Instead I said, “It was discussed that there would be no air-conditioning shut down in the throes of summer.”  I don’t know from where the term “throes of summer” came.  I was watching a lot of Game of Thrones at the time I suppose.  I thought it fit, but apparently, the person at the other end of the microcassette thought it was hilarious. 
Within a few days of me turning in that tape, I found this in my email:

My Fabio fifteen minutes.

A little while later, I found the photo taped to a bit of foam core and placed on our library shelves in the office, in the Mike’s Pick section.  Mike is our managing partner.  It stayed on the shelf until almost Christmas.  I finally checked out the book permanently before our client party.

The best seller’s list…

The lesson learned is, always find passion in even the minute details of your job.


For those who may frequent architect curated blogs, it may be an easy sell that design professionals can bring an inherent value to the process of transforming spaces.  Our business is all about changes, whether we are creating a new building on a bare site, or reimagining an existing shell into a client’s new vision.  

While creating a brand new ‘something’ out of ‘nothing’ is always satisfying, the most drastic and simplistic method of comparing how the world looks without the touch of talented designers may be the ‘before and after’.  That is just the visual juxtaposition of what someone used to have, and how it was changed for the better.  Clients, regardless of their ability to visualize the built environment, can immediately get the ‘before and after’.  The more drastic the change, the easier to grasp the change.

A casual dining option ‘Before’ 
The same casual dining option ‘After’

The above Cafe was renovated in the same footprint to update it.  We were blessed with high ceilings and an abundance of natural light.  Not only were the aesthetics changed, but the options and services were as well.  That takes a commitment from the operator to invest in both buildings and staff.

But what happens when someone’s preconceptions must be changed?  Of an entire building type?
In some areas of the country, the idea of a Senior Living Environment may invoke images of rest homes.  The physical environment can reinforce this idea…or it can change your perception. There are about 2,500 Continuing Care Retirement Communities in the U.S.  Depending on where you live, the current level of acceptance of this living option may be drastically different than others.  Where I sit, there are more than a dozen non-profit retirement campuses within 20 miles.  That means that the percentage of retirees that choose this option is extremely high, so the familiarity rate is also high. This is not the case in all areas.  Many have an antiquated view of the facilities and services available to them.

Many people think of this…
…or this.  Sewing must be the activity of the day, right?
Catering to more active residents requires a change in the way services are provided to clients by the community, but may also require updated infrastructure and facilities.
Activities…before.  In the past we designed these suffleboard courts in VCT, yes.

Outdoor livin’…before.  Rocker upon rocker.

Outdoor livin’…after.  Active outdoor amenities.  Bocce, outdoor kitchen…
Roof top living amenities.
This kind of change is unrelenting.  Trends only last so long.  Years ago, all retirement facilities had several shuffleboard courts and sewing centers in their activities centers.  Now there’s bocce, and pickle ball, and water polo.  Many residents in communities still work.  Who knows what Millennials will be in to when they finally get to this stage of their lives?  I have already been involved with my fair share of renovations of my OWN work over the last two decades.  That is okay, because we should always be thinking about who will be living here tomorrow.

And don’t think that changes are limited to amenities.  Communities cater to clients like they have never before.  You have dogs?  We have a dog park.  You like to garden?  We have a place for you to do that, too.  You want to customize your kitchen?  Sure!  You like to live in the buff?  We got that, err, covered?  Or is the right term uncovered?

The large glazed area in the photo center is the master shower.
View from the shower.
That’s right.  This unit was custom made apartment for folks who wanted virtually no walls or doors within their unit.  The place was decked out with four electric fireplaces and four ceiling fans…and a see-through shower.

I am guessing the next folks to move in here may not like the layout, so certainly, I see change in the future.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is led by Lora Teagarden and is “The Architecture of Change”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Architect(ure) of Change

–>Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
Architecture of Change

–>Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
architecture of change: #architalks

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Change — The Document Evolution

–>brady ernst – Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
The Architecture of Change: R/UDAT

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Architecture = Change

–>Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
My Architecture of Change / Hitting Pause to Redesign My Life

–>Brinn Miracle – Architangent (@architangent)
Architecture of Change: Building a Legacy

–>Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
3 Things I Hope Change in Architecture

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
The art of Architecture of Change

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
The Architecture of Change

–>Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
ArchiTalks : Architecture of Change

–>Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
architecture for change

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
architecture of change

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Imagining the Future of Architecture

–>Rusty Long – Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
Architecture of Change

The Building "Doctor"

I am not a doctor – I think that much is clear.  I don’t even play one on TV.

I do have a bag in my car that I call my “doctor bag”.  Primarily because of it’s size and the fact that it contains tools for when I make house calls on buildings.  I suppose I could just call it a tool bag, but it doesn’t have the same zing.

I developed the kit over the years because I am called on to survey existing buildings quite often. In the Senior Living sector, we often add on to existing buildings and sometimes re-purpose them, which requires us to see what we’re working with.  Other times, there is a code infraction, and we need to see how to fix it.  I keep this bag in my car at all times.  It is pretty compact so it doesn’t take up too much room.  It is highly portable, which is important.  And it contains what I have found to be some essential items.

This is my bag.  The hard hat is there for scale, but it rides in the car with me all the time too.

So that is the size of it.  I could maybe get one pair of shoes in there, but it indeed holds almost anything I might need when assessing a building.


1.  So in the old days, we could show up on active job sites and no one cared if we architects had any protection or not.  Well not today.  So along with my hard hat, I need a high visibility vest unless I want to be yelled at by the Super.

#1 – Yellow is my color, no?

2.  Protect your eyes.  Whether an active job site or not, I want to keep the junk out of my eyes.  I have been in my share of attic where I can see the fiberglass floating around and above enough ceilings, where pieces of the tiles fall all over my head.

#2 – These bad boys fit over my regular glasses, so my eyes are safe PLUS I can see!

3.  Protect your lungs.  For the same reason I want glasses, I sometimes need a mask.  We keep them around the office because building buildings can be dusty or worse.

4.  Protect your ears.  Building buildings is often noisy. too.

#3 – Disposable breathing mask and #4 – ear protection.

5.  Protect your hands.  I have to climb into attics far more than I ever dreamed.  Have you ever spent a lot of time handling old fire protection treated lumber?  I have.

#5A – Heavy gloves protect from splinters and undesirable materials.
#5B – Vinyl gloves add no weight or bulk to my kit, so I threw a pair in, just in case.

Okay, so all I have done so far is protect myself from the building.  What’s up with that?  What do I use to actually evaluate a building?

6.  Light.  I sometimes carry other sources of light, but this one has a hook and a magnet so it can sometimes be set up so I can go hands free to make notes or sketches.  There is a band of tape over the battery case because I have actually dropped it and lost the batteries in blown in fiberglass insulation in a roof.  Trust me.  You do not want that to happen.

#6 – This thing was so cheap, but oh, so worth it.

7.  So…this next one is self-explanatory.

#7 – Take extra batteries for all devices.

8.  I just got this head lamp to augment number 6.

#8 – Additional light is always good.

9.  Measure twice, climb into the attic only once.

#9 – Old reliable, analogue measuring device.

10.  I said measure twice…  Sometimes, in an attic, you literally can’t get to where you want to measure.  So a laser measuring device can save many scraped shins.  Full disclosure, I don’t keep this in the car, I wouldn’t want it to get stolen or expose it to the hot and cold.

#10 – Such a time saver.

11.  That’s not a knife…  Yes it is.  A small Swiss Army pocket knife can be the ultimate multi-tasker. It can scrape off paint or gunk off of something you need to read.  It can see how soft a timber beam is.  It can even open a beverage at the end of the day…

#11 – Just don’t try to take it on an airplane…

12.  Electrical tape.See #6.  I wish I had this tape when I dropped and broke the back of my flashlight.

#12 – Can also be used to mark things and not damage them.

13.  Seriously, a selfie stick?  Yes.  I just got this one.  See ‘Door Labels And Where to Find Them’ for why.  Sometimes you need a picture of something you can’t see from where your eyes are.  I can reach the top of a 6′-8″ door, and maybe a 7′-0″ door.  But not an 8′-0″ door,  Not without a ladder.  And a ladder doesn’t fit in my bag.

#13 – I hope to test this out soon.  I can imagine there will be other reasons besides door labels that I would find this useful.

14.  My phone (not pictured).  I didn’t take a picture of it because that is what I use to take pictures.

15.  360 degree camera.  These are great to get all the walls, floors and ceilings of the space in one shot.  You can view the photos in a proprietary viewer, and it really does save time.

#15 – This doesn’t stay in the bag all the time either.  It, like the lase, is shared company wide.

16.  Notebook and many colors of pens.

#16 – And be sure to wear pants and shirts with lots of pockets…

So that is my doctor bag.  Maybe this will give you an idea of what to have on hand on your next survey.

House or Home?

The bulk of my architectural career has and is spent designing structures that are not considered Residential per the building codes.  Some may call it Commercial.  Much of it is Institutional by Code.  But that does not mean it is not someone’s Home.  You see, I primarily design buildings in the Senior Living sector; have been my entire career.
When I began my career more than 20 years ago, there was already a movement under way to make retirement and senior living spaces much more residential.  Even in dwellings classified as Skilled Nursing Facilities, the idea that these building should feel like someone’s home had been one that many providers had embraced.  The problem was that most of the providers (at that time) had buildings that looked like hospitals instead of your home. 
A Cruciform Church.  Early hospitals took their shapes from churches.  Thus, so did the early nursing home.

Beddington Corner Hospital. (source: )
The economy is easy to see.  The result is not necessarily a religious experience.
What can you do for an existing building?
I feel the best way to illustrate how our buildings fulfill the qualifications of “home” is by showing how we can improve existing condtions.  The difficulty lies in all of the regulations associated with a facility that provides nursing care to its residents.  The International Building Code identifies these buildings as an Institutional or I-2 building.  NFPA reviews these buildings in (almost) exactly the same way as a hospital (Health Care).  In either case, the Use Group enclosed therein is the second most hazardous category according to code.  What would be worse in terms of hazard?  Think fireworks factory.  The hazard to Skilled Nursing Facilities is exiting…someone bed or chair bound is not able to get out on their own; or not capable of self-preservation in CodeSpeak.  Also in Institutional buildings, nearly all aspects of the building have to be accessible.  So features required in these buildings are not similar to those you have in your home, nor in a building pre-1990.

So what can we do?
Sometimes an improvement to the exterior facade can make a significant impact with easier application as it is, more or less, surface applied.  However, most Institutional buildings are non-combustible construction, so there are limits.  You can’t just add anything to the exteriors.  In new construction, you can utilize scale and materials to humanize the sequential experience.  Many vintage Skilled Nursing Facilities are economic ‘blocks’.  Even modest additions to the exterior may improve the approach to a building.  

Mennonite Home Exterior – Before
Mennonite Home Exterior – After (Obviously).  The addition to the right created a one-story, human scale.
But let’s face it, the folks who reside in these buildings spend nearly 100% of their time inside.

What about the interiors?
In new buildings, it is much easier to provide open, residentially scaled rooms on the interior with connections to the outside.  In the many, many renovation projects of nursing homes we have done, it is much more of a challenge.  Traditionally. resident rooms line up in a continuous 8-foot wide corridor up to 120 feet from the original nurse’s station.  One way to bring some residential life to these facilities is to blow out a couple of rooms to allow the addition of a living room with access to windows.  Many of these buildings are non-combustible, as I said earlier, so exterior and corridor walls are often concrete block and they do not have tall ceilings.  You can see the challenges.
Corridor – Before.  Hard and highly reflective surfaces are not atypical in vintage nursing homes.
Corridor Concept Sketch 
Corridor  – After.  Sometimes all you have to work with are finishes and lighting.
Another issue is that whether there are 15 or 50 residents, they all need to eat in a dining room.  No one has a dining room with seating for 50 (well, no one that invites me over for dinner anyway).  These rooms need to be broken up visually into human scaled rooms.  Some times that means providing a serving (residential looking) kitchen with several smaller rooms around it for dining.

Dining Room – Before.  No connection to the outside or the community at large.
Dining Room – After.  Here we had the opportunity to add skylights to add natural daylight.
Adding just a bit of privacy and homelike environments can also do wonders for one’s main living area.  This is especially true in a double occupancy room.

A Double Room – Before.  Only the thin curtain between you and a neighbor.
A Double Room – After.  There is still a curtain, but the interior window provides a more substantial barrier.
FYI: the window wall is not a full height wall so as to not trigger sprinkler revisions.

There has been a more recent movement for skilled nursing called the Green House Project © about 10 years ago.  And while the word “house” is in the name, the feeling of “home” is what is intended.  This method limits the occupant count to 10, favors a universal worker for more homelike care, and has strict spatial rules.  This project is an actual Brand-name developed by a doctor and requires a lot of staff training.  The concept has a lot of merit and you can learn a lot more about it on their website here:   The Green House Project
It turns out that concepts we (not just my firm but others, too) had in the 1990’s have only just made it to the Code books.  In 2012, the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code addressed the ability to allow a kitchen to be open to the corridor (with a whole lot of provisions).  Nearly the same provisions made it to the 2015 IBC.  In fact, the Commentary shows a floor plan illustrating the open kitchen concept with a plan by our office in 1995.  For twenty years, we had to convince State and Local jurisdictions that it should be allowed, so that is a little sweet reward to be the example in the Code Book!
ICC used this 20 year old project of RLPS’ to illustrate a brand new concept in the 2015 IBC.

While many may not consider what our office does as “residential”, I would argue that it is extremely important to our end users in the buildings we design that the spaces, “Look like, act like, feel like home.”  This quote is attributed to one of our clients, who had the vision to create the first freestanding Hospice facility in Pennsylvania.  That’s another topic in itself.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series (led by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect ) where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is led by Keith Palma and is “House or Home”.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
The Designation between House and Home

–>Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
House or Home? It’s in the story.

–>Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
House or Home? A Choice of Terms

–>Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
house or home: #architalks

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
House or Home — Discover the Difference

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
“house” or “home”?

–>Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #24 : House or Home

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
House or Home? – Depends

–>Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
House or Home? Train for One, Design for Another

–>Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
House or Home

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Designing a House into a Home

–>Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Making a House a Home

–>Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
I don’t design homes

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
#ArchiTalks #24 House or Home? #RefugeeCrisis @GrainneHassett mentioned

–>Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
A Rose by Any Other Name…

–>Mark R. LePage – EntreArchitect (@EntreArchitect)
Emotional Marketing for Architects: House or Home?

–>Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
ArchiTalks: House or Home?

–>Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
House or Home? The Answer to Everything

–>Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
A Rose by Any Other Name…

–>Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
6 Ways to Make your Architecture Studio feel like Home

–>Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Dwelling on a Macro scale

–>Tim Ung – Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
Architalks – A House is not a home

–>Rusty Long – Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
House or Home