Pilgrimages and Pathways

There are great things in store for year two of ThePatronSaintofArchitecture!  In addition to weekly posts, there are some great new resources that I hope will cultivate an even more engaged and interactive community of followers:

Facebook Fan Page
Like ThePatronSaintofArchitecture on Facebook to get access to daily posts and links to useful information about design, inspiration and the creative mind.  Look for the question of the week, your chance to weigh in on issues that will be subject matter of future blog posts.  You can also add your own content and comments to posts for a truly kinetic experience.

In addition to posts about relevant topics, look for novenas, themed blog arcs that will explore a topic in greater depth.  I’m so excited about the first one called Breaking Points and Turning Points, which will deal with issues that affect our very identity as architects and creative people.  You will be able to go directly to all of the posts in each novena series to see all of the topics at once.

Coaching and Advocacy
You can now choose to work with me directly as either an individual, firm or client.   I’m offering coaching and planning services customized to both individuals and firms to help you define and leverage your true creative abilities and interests.  For clients, I am available as a consultant to help you better understand how to define and approach your project, so that you can start things off in the right direction with the proper consideration of issues, objectives and goals. 

I hope you will enjoy exploring all of these new features as you seek your higher plane of inspiration and creative expression.

Everyday Miracles: Small Steps and Big Moves

Feast Day May 26

It’s the first anniversary of ThePatronSaintofArchitecture!  A virtual festival to celebrate a year of growth and discovery with all of you, loyal readers from literally every part of the world!  I started this blog to explore the severe disconnect between the work we all want to do and what it feels like is available for us to do. 

As someone who believes that you can design a bus stop and not only have a blast doing it but also innovate the way we understand that type of space, I couldn’t help but believe that my personal crisis of inspiration had less to do with the kind of projects I was working on than the way those projects were managed both internally and externally.  My minor in business and concentration in psychology of habitation and sociology kicked in and I started to really observe how firms market themselves and execute projects. 

What I noticed was that our inspiration isn’t being squashed by all of the things we typically identify: demanding clients, changing delivery methods, new practice requirements, a crappy boss.  It’s being squashed by our own limiting thoughts about what we really want to accomplish.  With all of this floating around in my head as well as the conviction that as architects we can embrace a better way, ThePatronSaintofArchitecture was launched on May 26, 2010 to celebrate the power of design and joy of creation.  (you may now eat your virtual funnel cake).

I’d like to invite you to join the procession through some of our biggest themes of the past year (and visit the hyperlinks to explore previous posts on these themes in more detail):

Set your intention
You can’t give voice to other’s needs until you find your own.  Avoid becoming an architecture bliss-ninny by getting in touch with your values as a designer and the reason you became an architect.  What do you believe about good design?  When was the last time you felt inspired? Explore the enzymes that catalyze your natural creativity into inspiration for innovation to reclaim your creative voice and draw clients and staff into your passion for what you do.

Share the spirit of design
We often fear our clients, believing that we must appease them and started to really pay attention to that dynamic as well. However, when your work and the way you approach projects is in alignment with what you believe about design, clients are drawn to that.  Do it consistently enough and you will actually be sought out by clients who specifically embrace your vision and want you to shake a little of your fairy dust on their project. It’s confidence that inspires and we must never let our clients lose sight of the end goal- a great project

Understand the culture and the community
That pre-design phase is the single biggest differentiator of a mediocre and great project. learning how to tame the many-headed monster of a large client with lots of silos and specialty departments.  So is learning to translate between what a client really wants and what they are actually saying.

Have mercy on the end user
The best projects are the ones that resonate with the people who have to live, work, play or heal in them every day.  Understanding their point of view transforms what would otherwise just be sculpture into architecture.  Do what no other art form can do- design for the fourth and fifth dimensions (time and light).

Many are called
The practice of architecture has changed, becoming both more broad-based and more specialized and certainly more integrated- sustainability, evidence based design, biophilic design, and new construction delivery methods can actually be used to enrich design when we embrace them as part of our process instead of viewing them as distractions.  Don’t fall for the trick that design is an isolated individual experience.  You are an architect not a painter.  Your art has to work.  It s not born from late nights before a deadline and a great unveiling ceremony.  You cannot, no matter how great the talent, conjure up the perfect design based solely on your instincts.  Seeing the value of evidence based design, sustainability, integrated project delivery and many other trends affecting the design and construction industry to improve and inform the design process as well as as a means to convince your client of the value of your design decisions is the path to salvation. and dismiss the distraction of messy user requests, budget annoyances, team relationship issues.

Use your gifts
When you fail to know yourself and what you uniquely can offer, your desperation causes you to focus on winning instead of creating.  How many times has our profession been undermined from within by a relentless need to compete, to get any job at any cost? Swim to more placid waters where you can focus on creating great work that those swimming in the bloody water of the shark tank don’t have the energy to do.  Let them devour themselves consuming ever scarcer resources while you focus on the abundance of limitless possibility.

Look for some exciting new features and resources in the next few weeks, including ways to work with me to sharpen your own career vision or the vision for your next project.  I hope you will continue to share your insights and stories with everyone (use the intentions page to help our community manifest your answers) as we look for guidance in navigating a profession that for many of us is actually a vocation. 

Fear of Failing

We hate to fail so much that we go to any lengths to avoid it.  Even when that means holding back our potential, leaving ideas unexplored and not trusting our inner voice.  We forget that failure is how we learn.  Just watch your average baby learning to walk and you can see that.  The desire to try new things and work at them until we get them right is hardwired into our biology, and yet we spend so much of our time trying to suppress that when we become adults.  Would you tell a child learning to ride a bike that they should never expect to fall?

There is an old adage that you should take action now and apologize later, often paraphrased as asking forgiveness instead of waiting for permission. I take issue with the words apologize and forgiveness, because they imply that if you take a risk and fail, that you should somehow be sorry for what you have done.  Maybe you shouldn’t be sorry.  When we fail, it is because we are doing these three things which ultimately are critical to our success:

Connecting the dots
Seeing the bigger picture and pattern within it is key to understanding a larger need that your design should meet.  If you myopically solve the small problem right in front of you, your solution is like to create more problems through unintended consequences or quickly become obsolete. Reaching out beyond the culture of a firm, interacting with non-architects in your community, building social bridges, all lead to opportunities and experiments.  Launching a new venture or bringing that possibility back to your boss can seem scary because it is so experimental.  So can convincing clients to go down an unproven path.  However, seeing relationships between conventionally unrelated elements leads to greater design relevance.

Moving outside of your comfort zone
It’s really easy to do what others expect of you.  It’s really hard to go beyond and do what you expect of you.  You may have buried your own goals and aspirations so deeply after years of working that you can’t even remember them anymore.  So, while you complain about the slow death of your creative spirit, you also pull up your chair to the comfy fire that is the boundaries of other people’s expectations.  Being willing to take a step back and challenge conventional assumptions is the only path to innovation.  Having the courage to challenge yourself and make a bold move is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time because you just don’t know what will happen.  People with inquiring minds look at a situation but are not blinded by all of the rules that govern that situation  By seeing the world differently and asking they arrive at ways of defining a problem that no one else considered.

Taking a stand
When something really matters to you, you want to be an advocate for it.  Whether that is a common goal you share with a client or pro-bono work you wish to do to help your community or the planet.  You might be pretty good at this outside of the office, but what would happen if you incorporated these same passions and beliefs into your work?  Would it make you more passionate?  Define you as an architect more fully? Attract some really great clients?

You didn’t become an architect to slog away at mediocre tasks fixated on minimum standards and  simply meeting expectations.  The world needs you to innovate and soar and give them great spaces that support the way we live work and play.  In fact, when you look at risk taking from this perspective there is no such thing as a failure, only a learning experience that brought you to a major career breakthrough.

Thoughts on Commencement

Graduation ceremonies are marked by commencement- a ceremony that celebrates not the ending of the educational process, but the beginning of a new life as a professional.  But what exactly are these new graduates setting out to do?  In the spirit of the season, I wanted to take on some of the myths that are born in our architectural education system and carry forward into professional life:

Myth #1 Winning is everything
No matter how many group projects are assigned, the fact that our individual grades make or break us can lead many students to be more concerned with proving their own worth than harnessing the power of collaboration.  That is a lesson that has no place in the working world, where your fellow staff members and you are all on the same team. Yet, many managers, principals and other firm leaders did not get this memo.  So while they pay homage to the idea of interdisciplinary collaborative work, the culture of the firm is set up to reward individual achievement, and the design process is sliced and diced into so many factions that no one has a grasp on the whole project.  As we train young professionals to negotiate their success, are we teaching them to do it through collaboration or compromise?  Schools never discuss this nor do they address the real “career questions” that many young architects face: Will you be placed in the management track, the coveted designer/primadonna track, the business development track or the construction administration track?  Perhaps you are best suited to production, specifications and detailing and will remain a background support person.  Just like choosing a major, pick your specialty now and stay with the program if you want to get ahead. 

TIP: Reject this mindset now, no matter what stage of your career.  Collaboration has been shown to be a much more powerful negotiating tool than compromise, and a collaborative approach isn’t competitive, so it brings out the best in the entire team.

Myth #2 Time + Energy= Creativity
My Dad used to always tell me “work expands to the time allotted” in a scolding tone whenever I complained about the long hours I had to spend getting studio projects done.  Despite many discussions about its abolition, the all-nighter remains a staple of students’ academic experience.  They sacrifice most other coursework for studio and many professors also perpetuate the myth that spending more time on an assignment is critical to a successful outcome.  We whisper about the student who “hasn’t been in studio at all over the weekend,”  or who “left at 9:00 pm” the night before the deadline.This expectation that our time and energy have no value and that creativity is a byproduct of lavish overspending of both moves with us into the work world where interns work long hours, often for no extra pay.  This carries forward- with the expectation that senior staff is available on-call 24/7 and that overtime will be worked to meet impossible deadlines.  While the staff grumbles, they don’t bat an eye because they are conditioned, as are the firm owners, that this is the proper way to work.

TIP: It turns out that Dad was right. The myth that quality, let alone creative or innovative, work is linked to exhaustion has been dispelled in numerous studies from sleep researchers to business performance analysts.  You will be happier and better performing in general, not to mention more creative and willing to try new ventures, when you have a balance in your life and actually take care of yourself.  Your clients and colleagues will notice the change in your attitude and be much more receptive to your ideas.

Myth #3 The task knows no limits
Sure, you can always do more, but didn’t our pal Mies van der Rohe  already prove that to be a blind alley?  This is a bit of a corollary to Myth #2, but how we define the problem goes a long way to what it will take to solve it.  Often, students are not taught how to define a problem at all.  As they toil away during studio class, they are visited by their professor who will often ask a series of questions or react to an unfinished scrap of idea at their drafting table, then move on.  Because the student does not have a clear idea of what to solve, let alone how to solve it, they can’t communicate with any clarity, and the professorial reactions only serve to muddy the waters further.  Instead of developing a concept and building on it through design, the student embarks in a series of tailspins hoping for a eureka moment during one of those all night sessions.  Isn’t that what we do with our clients too?  We freak out and prepare dazzling overkill presentations instead of taking the time at the front end to clearly understand their needs and gather the proper information to define the project properly and in terms of their time and budget constraints.  We get caught in the redesign loop, frantically hoping to impress them, just like we hoped to impress without knowing why during all those crit sessions.

TIP: If you were really paying attention in all those studio classes, you should have learned that aesthetics are secondary to how well you defined the problem presented to you and what design measures you took to address the issues you identified.  If you couldn’t present a good argument for the design measures you took, it was all too likely you were going down in that crit regardless of your impressive manipulation of “architectonic elements”.  This works with clients and employers as well.  Take the time to clearly define the problem, the stakeholders in its solution and what role each, including yourself, will play in achieving the solution.

My congratulations and best wishes go out to all who are graduating this spring, as well as anyone ready to embark on a little career commencement of their own.  With self-awareness, clarity and conviction, you will achieve your  dreams.  Please share updates on your commencement experience with the Patron Saint of Architecture community.

What We Really Learn from Benchmarking

It’s typically one of the first steps taken when designing a new healthcare facility.  We look at data from facilities modeled similarly to what our client wishes to consider.  There may even be tours, surveys or interviews with staff from the comparative institutions.  This knowledge ostensibly helps our user groups to understand clearly the pros and cons of a given design model and sharpen their own vision for the project at hand.  But....benchmarking is relative.  Unless you presume to be in the prototype business and use post occupancy analysis and benchmarking to keep improving your model, nothing you look at with a client will be exactly like what you design for them. To avoid going astray with your efforts, observe the following benchmarking protocol:

Determine what "best" really means
The idea of benchmarking is rooted in comparison- ideally you find the best performer in the industry and look at ways to compare their results to your own.  Where you are lacking, you look to the means and methods applied by the benchmark and try to incorporate them into your model.  In the design world we have a small problem with that idea- who is really the best?  There are so many variables that might make a given hospital a good performer that may be unique to their circumstances. These same strategies may fail miserably if applied within your client’s market and culture.  Make sure that you spend time defining the needs and wants of your client and developing a discrete list of objectives. Place only institutions that dealt with these issues in design and operations on your benchmarking list.  Because you can learn from failure as much as success, it is important for your benchmarking to be based on a set of predefined criteria that has been addressed by every hospital you study. 

Understand your extrapolation
It’s unlikely that you will literally copy design features straight from another facility. You will be instead applying elements and concepts to your design problem.  Make sure that you understand what made something work for the benchmark facility- was it a combination of placement and protocol?  If you don’t understand the dynamic behind the result, you can copy design elements and not achieve the goal. Create a matrix that lists facilities across the top and then contains rows of your client's design objectives. In each cell, discuss specifically how a particular facility dealt with that client objective.  Leave room at the bottom to expand the objectives if a particular benchmark inspires the client to change or add a priority. 

Don’t exploit the process
Many times, we want so badly to sell our client on a given design solution. If they are not on board, benchmarking of similar institutions is used as a brainwashing technique.  Ethics aside, you may be very sorry later when the design you ramrodded down the client’s throat doesn’t perform well for them.  It’s equally as important to not allow administration or staff to become enamored by a facility and want to emulate it if it won’t provide similar benefits for their organization. Use facility tours to look at trends and filter out what will have lasting benefits vs. quickly becoming outdated. 

Benchmarking is a useful tool, but only after clear needs, goals and priorities are set by the client.  It is about setting standards for best practices, and that can be a highly subjective undertaking.  The Evidence Based Design process embraced by the Center for Health Design champions benchmarking as part of the initial research needed to define the problem.  I agree that benchmarking belongs firmly in the learning phase of the project, a source of information and a contributor to how the design problem at hand will be defined.  How have you successfully used benchmarking on a project and how did you work to remove bias from your facility selections and review of data?  Please join the discussion and share your thoughts.