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Why Does Your City Build the Same Building Over & Over Again?

Insights from an Aspiring Architect

Same Buildings, Same Cities, Illustration made by Author

When I used to be in school I used to villainize the citizens for the repetitive buildings around me. The rhetoric of school makes it seem like “the people” don’t want innovative architecture and that you can only achieve that through these mystical one in a lifetime wealthy clients who are willing to break the mold. As an architectural intern I quickly realized that is far from the truth. Since then I have done a lot of informal polls through social media to see what actual citizens think about their cities and built environment. I was pleasantly surprised that citizens throughout the U.S are not only wanting better architecture, they are craving for it.

So, if it’s not the average citizen’s fault as I had believed — why do we build the same buildings over and over again? Well, I bet you won’t be surprised to hear that it all has to do with money. I will break down — very broadly some of the economics that involve building things in the United States of America.

A conceptual representation of parcel lines that are often found in survey maps old and new. Illustration made by Author

Land Acquisition

This is the first-ish step. I say -ish because there is a lot of research and admin work for a developer to choose a site and then decide to purchase it. The developer already knows the building type they want based on market studies and desired profit margins and the analysis that drive those decisions deserve and article all on their own. During their land search they have to look at zoning and if the land they desire doesn’t have the appropriate zoning they have to make sure that they could potentially rezone the land to fit their purposes. If that is not possible then the financial plan they have presented to the investors won’t pan out and the whole idea will crumble. There are many more considerations and struggles to be had in this process but for the purpose of the article we are going to bypass that, and just assume it was a simple monetary transaction that perfectly fit all their zoning needs. It is important to know that when you acquire a piece of land there is plenty of paperwork to be done and all of this costs money and time — therefore before they even call the designers the developer is already on the red.

Preliminary Site Analysis Work

For the architects and engineers to get to work there needs to be a land survey and a soils report that is certified so we know scientifically know what the land has to offer and is capable of doing. Is the soil sturdy enough to support the intended structure? What is the topography like? How much dirt do we have to move around to start the process? Is there demolition work to be done? These are just a few questions that need to be addressed before design is even on the table. Usually though, developers have an idea of what they want in terms of programming, size, and shape the designers & engineers need to take that and make it into a reality.

Soils reports are done by inserting a hollow tube and pulling a cylindrical sample in which determines the percentage of soil composition. Illustration made by Author

Design+Collaboration

This is the part where the designers do the heavy lifting. The quality of your client relationship will dictate their overall comfort level with new ideas. Some more seasoned developers are more aggressively set in their ways and know exactly what they want, but most of the times developers are open to some (cost saving) innovative ideas, within reason. And this is where both the developer and the designer fail. Very few times is a firm only working on one project making the need for projects to be “churned out” as fast as possible. From the architects and engineers perspective the faster the project gets out the better because we can tackle new projects and the client is happier. The is developer is in huge hurry because the more time they sit on an empty lot the more they have to wait to get paid in addition and so they look at it as loosing even more money if projects to stay on schedule (which they rarely do). So everyone is in a hurry and often times there is little time to let things sit. Permit Set reviews can take 3–12 months depending on the city so just because you have finally solidified a design doesn’t mean the city is automatically going to accept it, comments will come back and you have to re-do this process until you are finally approved. The architects and engineers get paid and the developer is still on the red.

Reasons behind Form, Program & Material Selection

While I have had the pleasure to work with both money hungry developers and developers who really care — both are very concerned about money and hesitant to spend it on things they don’t understand. As a designer on the field and an academic I am aware of so many amazing products that are revolutionary and would really benefit the built environment as a whole but are the developers willing to invest in the time taken to properly research it for this application? Are the engineers/consultants going to increase their fee exponentially because of it? Does the firm have time to properly research these new applications to properly guide the contractor? And most importantly, do local contractors and builders know how to make this happen?

I spoke with the head of sustainability in the city of Denver at the beginning of 2020 and asked her why don’t they offer free classes to builders to get acquainted with new sustainable technologies? Her response was they did but nobody showed up. They considered these attacks to their livelihood — why couldn’t they just keep doing the same thing they’ve always done? Why was the city trying to change the ways things were always done and wasting their money making time with classes?

The Economy of Building — Effort post Design

The labor done by architects, engineers, and development teams are no small feat. Without it there definitely wouldn’t be buildings as we know them today — but hats off to the people who actually do the work, interpret our drawings and build the thing. The structure of builders revolves around one key figure: the contractor. The contractor are the brains of the entire building operation, they direct, organize, source, pay, and manage all the subcontractors that specialize in the different areas (like electricity, mechanical equipment, plumbing, roofing, fixture installers, tile installers, wall applications, framers, etc.) that make up a building. The best contractors really imbibe the drawings, don’t make any assumptions when things are unclear, and strive for a good relationship with the subcontractors, architect and client alike. After they do all of this work they have to generate an Owner’s Manual that explains basically every function installed on the building as well as all the warranty information. The contractors are hired based on their previous experience successfully achieving something similar as the aspiring finished product. They almost never market themselves because word of mouth gets them plenty of work. So using a lot of innovative new materials, unconventional forms, and complicating things by using cutting edge mechanical equipment is a lot of effort that might even require further education for subcontractors, possible errors with material that would require ordering additional stock and all of these items would be at the contractor’s expense and to be managed by the initially quoted fee.

Conclusion

Simply put, building the same thing over and over again is the most inexpensive, fast tracked option for everyone involved. From the planning scale its easier to leave antiquated unequitable building codes than re-write them, even if they were generated with racist and classist principles carried over from the 20th century. This has been prescribing developments in ways that are often rooted discriminatory practices and outdated data. Then the process of real estate is incredibly costly influencing the developer’s desire to keep a tight purse through the entire design and building process — since they’re profit could be 3–5 years away (sometimes even more!). The schedules are so tight because of the city’s absurdly long review times, making the workflows of all the consultants involved have added pressure of the developer- due to land sitting idle is costing them money without tangible return on sight . After all these obstacles are bypassed and you finally get permit approval from the city and you have to hope that there is a contractor willing to build the ideas within your drawings and hope they do it to the best quality possible at a reasonable, budget friendly fee. So obviously market logix will dictate that is absolutely way easier to just build the same thing over and over again, regardless what the actual users and citizens want out of our cities and spaces.

Solutions

For every new development there needs to be a minimum of 1–3 community meetings. This is a process done by the building department as a very crucial step for developers to get their things approved. I have personally attended multiple as a designer accompanying a developer and more often than not (actually all of them but one) nobody showed up.

As a citizen you hold incredible power, and it is your job to keep yourself informed on the built environment, show up and be vocal. Demand what you want out of your city officials and local designers — people have power even if everything around you is trying to convince you that you don’t. Next time there is a design related conversation go ahead and listen and be part of it. Voice your opinions, open your mind to learn about the local construction industry, and become an advocate and co-author of your city’s futre built environment.

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5 Reasons You Should Book a Staycation Immediately

I promise it is not a waste of money.

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I got a new job! My husband and I were extremely excited. But how to celebrate? I had wanted to go to Chicago, but who could doggy sit? Did we want to go through the trouble/exposure of flights for two or three days? No… Ok. So what to do? “Why don’t we just stay here? In Denver? At an awesome hotel that is beautiful and pet friendly?” he asked. To be honest, I was a bit against it. I thought it to be a waste of money — we already live downtown! My husband promised me that it was going to be relaxing and fun — apparently this was something he often did with his mother and siblings! I trusted him and went with it. This is what I learned.

Your city as a resident is not the same as your city in “vacation mode”

Key elements here is to really cater your experience. I wanted a nice tub to do a “spa day”, so when we searched for a room we made sure it had this feature. Whatever matters to you — indoor pool, gym, living room area, tub, a nice shower, an incredible view, a desirable location, amazing room service— whatever it is make sure it is a treat and something you don’t get to usually experience. Once the day arrives make sure you get in “vacation mode”. Relax. I promise you will see your city in a completely different way than what you see as a resident. At least for me, it helped me appreciate where I live a lot more.

You don’t have to worry about “seeing it all”, and focus on things you’ve never had time to do

Sometimes when we travel to new places we are so worried with fulfilling the touristic list that it can be more stressful than relaxing. How many times have you been in vacation and need a vacation from your vacation? Staycations are all the relaxing and zero the worry. Bring your easel and paint set you got for Christmas and never actually used. Finish that 1000 piece puzzle you want to glue and frame, finish that book with the cup of wine next to a window like your dreamt of — in essence, use this staycation to really indulge in the things you’ve been putting off because when you are home you are either working, homeschooling, cleaning, doing laundry, washing dishes and beating yourself up for not learning Spanish and doing yoga every morning like you promised.

Not having to do chores for a couple of days can be incredibly rejuvenating

I am a very happy wife and I love keeping my house beautiful and clean — specially since I have such a collaborative and engaging partner that helps me achieve it! But not having to do any chores was incredibly relaxing and exciting. It was a weekend of garbage T.V, delicious food and snacks that we bought at the nearest grocery store, and of course — our Spa-Day. The lack of worry of the keep up, while simultaneously being surrounded by an impeccably clean and empty space that I didn’t have to worry about the upkeep — was an incredibly freeing and consequently relaxing experience that left me rejuvenated.

Exposure to new architecture, new styles and creature comforts

As an architectural designer and aspiring architect, I am very cognizant of the spaces around me and the effect they have on myself and others. Even if you are not aware of such things to the same degree, you are definitely affected by it. Being surrounded by new environments can be incredibly stimulating for your brain and senses. The more high end the hotel you stay at (within budget, of course) the more new state of the art creature comforts like lighting design, innovative bathroom layout and technological features are included. Being surrounded by such a curated experience can inspire you to re-design parts of your home and give you a boost of motivation for the upcoming spring cleaning.

A strong motivator

My husband and I had been struggling for a year to find a new place to live. We love our apartment layout but hate the amount of natural light that comes in and the lack of amenities within our community. We had no idea what the next step would be, or what exactly was it that we were looking for and so were set on just renovating our lease. After experiencing a high-rise room, amazing amenities and gorgeous views — we have a better idea of what our next apartment will be, and we are motivated and focused on the kind of experience we want going forward. If you already have your home, staycation can motivate you and your partner to appropriate certain parts of the house that are unused, give you stylistic ideas, or really clarify what you want for your upcoming renovation.

Overall staycations may seem like a waste of money that can be best used for new stuff or even a vacation further away to unknown territories. A couple of weeks before I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly. After going through the experience and really enjoying how I feel after the fact — relaxed, rejuvenated, and inspired, I cannot recommend it enough. Often we explore the places we live in the least because we are trapped in the daily grind of life and we assume we know everything about it because of it. Take the opportunity to contribute and stimulate your local economy and really look at your city in a new light. Most importantly make sure you check-in with your “vacation mode” on. I promise you won’t regret it.


Originally posted on Medium.

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What It Means to Be an Architect

It’s a little bit more complicated than just designing buildings.

Illustration by Abstract Memento

When you start architecture at any college they will be quick to talk to you about Vitruvius. Vitruvius was an eloquent man with many talents, circa 1st century BC . He wrote “The Ten Books of Architecture”, which as far as we know, is the first series of architecture books in history. To be honest, I don’t think anyone really reads them in its entirety, just the first chapters, but in that first part, he states the key words to being the best architect you can be: As an architect it is your duty to know a little bit about everything, never pretending to know more than the actual masters in their craft, but enough to be competent, engaging and capable to intelligently contribute to a conversation if the subject matter were to arise.


This is indeed an ambitious creed, but one that has endured the test of time not only in the field of architecture, but as a constant personal goal. As an architecture student, you are trained to be a Master Designer. Not only must you learn and understand the concepts of the built environment but a way of problem solving that allows you to design from an entire building, to the smallest detail on a corner beneath a crawlspace. An architect is trained to be a designer of experiences, of moments, of a home, of place of worship, a place to play, a place to heal, of furniture, graphic design — all in all, you are trained to define, think, and solve design problems of all shapes and sizes. You aren’t taught a specific style, program or scale — you are taught to design everything and anything, and as your career progresses and you make your choices in life based on who you are — you find your niche and adjust your efforts accordingly. But out of school, you have to have the capability to do it all — in terms of design.

As architects in the modern age we learn how things are built by getting thrown into the deep end. Your first job will teach more about how to build things than any school you could ever pay for. The main reason for this is the act of building and the implications it may bring are 1000% directly correlated to your context. How you build in Miami is nowhere near how you build in California or in Denver or Savannah or San Juan, even if it’s the same country abiding by the same laws. I’ve been exposed to all the aforementioned markets, and while you can adapt your existing skills to the imperative of those places there is a definite and palpable learning curve due to many things like material price due to sourcing, climactic imperatives, client type, social imperatives, perception in luxury goods, market economy, and soil quality — to name a few.


Another reason to know a little bit about everything is because your role as an architect doesn’t stop at just designing. Architects are the coordinators, contact point and the ones that collate all the work and efforts of interior designer, engineers, client, contractor, manufacturers, consultants, and any other specialist relevant to the project. And then after all that we have to do construction administration to ensure the project is built as intended. How are we supposed to communicate the interests of all the stakeholders if we have zero grasps on what they do and how it affects everyone involved ?
The power we hold must be used responsibly to ensure the success of projects and keep happy customers. We have to know our history, the technology of the time, be tastemakers and connoisseurs of all things luxury and common goods alike, keep up with news and economy to understand the shifting values of prime material costs to be aware of how budgets may\ need to be adjusted, while also honing rhetoric and public speaking skills to deal with the backlash of when things go wrong. As the nucleus of the entire operation, you can imagine we definitely get “yelled at” a decent amount.


So in conclusion, architects need to know a bit of everything to be competent at all the different phases that our daily life incurs. Which if you’re passionate about what you do, every day will be exciting, fun, and full of unimaginable challenges.