What scares you as a creative?

Happy Halloween everyone!  Tradition has is that Halloween is the start of a transitional time when we are more connected to the spirit world- next stop is All Saints Day, when we look to our spiritual guides followed by All Souls Day, where we honor our ancestors, friends and mentors who have gone before us.

Keeping with the spirit of these three days, I wanted to take a little time as your virtual mentor to reflect on releasing the fears that hold you back, identifying your inspirations, and finding people willing to help guide you on your path to fulfillment. I love this infographic I found at Design Taxi for its humorous (precisely because it hits on some core truths) look at creative phobias.  That's the trick part- the way that we talk ourselves out of going for the things that we really want in our careers.

Now for the treat:  I am developing a series strictly related to mentoring and am looking for your input on the issues that are most important to you.  Please take some time to post in the comments section about your pressing career dilemmas.  You don't have to get personal or overly detailed (if you want to do that, please email me at thepatronsaintofarchitecture@gmail.com for a one-on one coaching session), just list some of the basic hobgobblins blocking your path to success.  Those career cobwebs' days are numbered.

Making People Better

Being engaged as a creative person involves being willing to look outside of your own experience and give back in a way that utilizes your talents and passions.  On week three of the Change the World Novena, we look at making a difference in your community, as an individual and as a business.

Pro Bono work is not a new thing for many architecture firms.  However the desire to consistently give back to the community is something much more rare.  I recently attended a presentation called Teach a Man to Fish  at the Healthcare Facilities Symposium and Expo in Chicago because I thought it would be interesting to get the presenters’ take on how architecture could empower a community.  The session featured an intern architect named Elise Drakes, and I soon realized that she was an example of how an architect can empower people, not just through a single effort, but through the way community service is a part of the way she lives her life. 

Main Entry of the SOS Clinic
Elise, who lives in Orange County, CA, has consistently tried to find volunteering opportunities related to healthcare and architecture.  She has been a mentor for the past five years with Big Brothers Big Sisters as well as a volunteer at an art therapy program called Art and Creativity for Healing.  She realized that her efforts could have greater impact if she expanded outside of what just one person could do and so she took her interest to work.  TAYLOR, a California-based architecture firm, had done pro bono work in the past, but not to a significant extent.  Shortly after joining the firm in 2007, TAYLOR empowered Elise to take on “give back” initiatives.   At first she identified small projects, including the remodel of a child’s room for the Make a Wish Foundation.  Then came a defining moment.  Hoag Hospital, one of Taylor’s clients, contacted them and asked if they could help with a project for a non-profit organization called Share Ourselves (SOS).  Taylor agreed, and Elise coordinated the architecture effort.

Share Ourselves is a Costa Mesa based non-profit providing social safety net and healthcare services to low-income and homeless residents of Orange County.   TAYLOR joined three of the region’s construction companies and collaborated with Hoag’s Real Estate, Construction and Operations department to redesign and build a new facility for SOS.  Originally intended as a cosmetic improvement project, the team soon determined that what was needed for SOS to provide the best services to the community was a full scale renovation.  “It’s easy to drop the ball on a pro-bono project,” Elise notes.  “However, in this case it was less about what was donated than the commitment of individuals from each organization and the leadership they brought to the effort.”  Hoag provided coordination for the project as well as some of their business partner contacts so that the team could solicit donations.  They also have helped on the PR side helping to make sure that the community is aware of the resource and that they story of this effort is told. 

“This project was different from other pro bono work because it was a long term project and many of the donations were used to fund construction, not a particular item with naming rights,” says Elise.  “I was in awe of what people were willing to give both in their time and in in-kind donations.”  In addition to TAYLOR’s donation of architectural services, a local artist donated a week of his time to produce a community-based mural, and other artists loaned work to the project.  Questar stepped into the GC role while Suffolk Roel also provided contracting services and RTKL designed branding/graphics.  “I called up total strangers and asked for things the project needed and was amazed by the response,” says Elise. Their generosity was especially notable to her because, “These donations were not about recognition.  There is no donor wall.”

Elise was enthusiastic about  her efforts, but also stressed that this was something other firms can and should take on.  Her insights on how to build a successful pro bono process:

Respect the character of the organization The team looked comprehensively at SOS as an organization and provided a design response that reflects their culture and practices.  Some of the existing features that worked really well, such as the community planter garden where residents are educated in small scale gardening were prominently located at the front of the building.  It is also different in that the non-profit has collected data for exiting conditions and is using that as a benchmark for determining what design measures were successful in the new space. The team observed systems and processes in the existing facility and took steps to enhance them in the new design.  “We provided countertops in a cueing area to allow people to complete paperwork while they wait in line,” observed  Elise.

1+1 can equal 3 By looking beyond what just a bunch of architects could do in their spare time, Elise was able to successfully expand the project and involve the construction community as well as local businesses and artists.  A more comprehensive effort lent the project more credibility, which made it easier to continue to get donations. The team also told the story of the project to the construction workers to help them understand the value of their efforts.

The project doesn’t stop when construction does It’s great to help out, but to make meaningful change, you have to follow the metrics so you know what to apply to the next pro bono opportunity.  SOS tracks data on the people they serve and now can track improvements related to design elements in the new facility.  This data will continue to inform the project team on where their efforts were most successful.  Elise felt that the team was a powerful element in implementing the project and following up after construction.
Elise’s passion as an architect is operations impacts (she’s currently working on an MBA).  Forming a community partnership to benefit area hospitals was something that she was happy to take on, although she was surprised that more firms are not already doing this type of thing.  She hopes that by sharing the SOS story, more will.  “This can be done by everyone,’ she stressed “It’s all about the people and the passion they had,  That’s what let us keep going on this project.” 

Elise Drakes, Assoc. AIA is a project coordinator at TAYLOR and a passionate advocate of bridging the industries of architecture, healthcare and non-profit organizations. She is involved in all aspects of hospital projects at TAYLOR, from schematic design through construction administration. Additionally, Elise is extensively involved in the community. She has engaged with non-profit organizations such as Art and Creativity For Healing, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Project Tomorrow, Make-a-Wish Foundation, and ACE Mentoring. In 2011, she received the Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship at Chapman University and is now pursuing her MBA with an emphasis in finance. She is a co-founder of The Benefactor Foundation, a non-profit corporation established to create college scholarships for deserving students. Elise’s role in The SOS Project as a designer and project manager was an opportunity to make a significant impact in her community. The positive life change that each team member experienced was an unforgettable gift.


Week two of the Change the World novena takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore the concept as space as a basic human resource and the leadership role architects can play in making sure everyone has access to a supportive built environment.

 L'Ecole de Centre de Emmanuel: View of Courtyard
Leslie Nepveux is a young architectural designer.  Her story begins not unlike that of most young architects.  She worked hard to earn her degree in architecture from Oklahoma State University, graduated in 2005, got a job, and got laid off five years later.  Like many of us, Leslie was also searching for deeper meaning in her career and not so much finding it in a traditional work setting. A casualty of a bad economy and the old experience conundrum (no one wants to hire you without it, but if they don’t hire you, you won’t get it), Leslie took the bold step of deciding that she wasn’t going to wait around for the career-defining experiences she wanted to come to her.  She ignored all of the conventional wisdom and wrote her own set of rules.  Then she went to Africa. 

She wanted the work she did to make a difference, and she knew something about the needs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from her parents, who had served as missionaries there.  So, she emailed a contact of her father’s who is based in DRC and asked if they’d like to have an architect on the team.  If you’re thinking, “of course, they said yes, and it was probably like volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, only in Africa,”  you would be wrong.  What Leslie brought to the table was something only an architect could: vision. 

The local community non-denominational church in Kinshasa, DRC serves the region through a series of sister churches. They had identified two pressing needs related to the built environment; an addition to the three room school in Kinshasa and a prototype clinic/school building that could be constructed in more rural areas.  Because the area is so impoverished, waiting to raise the funds to hire a local architect would only delay the much-needed work.  Leslie’s offer to volunteer her time couldn’t have been better timed.  After sending out letters to friends and family to raise funds to pay for her flight and lodging, she set off on a two-week trip to Africa to meet with the Building Committee, explore the site and collect information from members of the community and conduct traffic studies and site observations.  She also took the time to learn about local construction methods (buildings are made of bricks formed on site utilizing excavation soils). 

Leslie’s skills are in management and production, but she had to pull together a planning and design team to respond to the project.  She assembled a team that included interior designers, structural engineers, and architecture professors and conducted a twelve person brainstorming session to generate big ideas.  What emerged was a concept that emphasizes the community’s needs for flexibility and leverages the functional and physical location of the school as hub of the community.  Multi-function classrooms also serve as office or meeting space when necessary.  An open outdoor courtyard space can be used for gatherings or performances.  Throughout the design process, she kept in touch with her clients in Kinshasa electronically, making tweaks to the design (the courtyard shape went from “L” to “U”), while also making sure that her construction details were simple and allowed interchangeable local materials.  For example, while the design calls for the classroom walls to be constructed of stone with a rebar foundation, that locally made adobe can be substituted, to make use of the excess soils on site as needed.  Leslie is currently in the process of helping her clients obtain a more complete cost estimate, which will then lead to fundraising efforts in order to begin construction. 

Leslie has volunteered all of her time to the projects in Africa and supported herself over the past two years doing contract work.  Like many who have had to cope with losing a job, she has also struggled with balancing earning  a living with being able to devote herself full time to doing the work in Africa.  When I asked her what the most significant things she has taken away from her self-directed internship, she had these insights:

It’s more about the concept than the design.  Especially in a third world country, materials and methods can be very fluid and dependent on availability of resources.  It’s important to stay flexible and that means that the concept driving design has to be that much more powerful and relevant in order to survive through construction.

Engaging the community is important.  Without their buy-in, the best efforts can be derailed, or your work will not have it's intended effect of helping people.
 You can (and should) work with an architect.  Leslie hopes that her work has helped to increase awareness of the value that architects bring to a project.  “Communities need to know that they are capable of hiring architects,” she says. Outreach efforts certainly help.  In addition to her experiences in the DRC, Leslie went with an engineering team in October of 2011 to Ghanna for a two week master planning charrette.
Leslie has recently been named a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop, a non-profit community design center doing work she loves, partly due to her self-sought experiences, which gave her the specific skills and expertise she wanted to cultivate.  Leslie’s message to her piers is very profound, “ As bad as the economy has been for employment, it has helped us grow and realize other areas of our life where we can practice architecture.  Being diverse is important and we get one-dimensional from our training.”  Seven years out of college, she has worked internationally, made a difference in several impoverished communities, learned about vernacular building techniques, managed a schedule, budget and design team, worked with clients and user groups.  She gave herself the career path she wanted, instead of hoping that opportunities would come along if she just took a job “for the experience.”

More than once during our interview, Leslie said, “I wish I could do more.”  If you’d like to help her design vision become a reality, you can make a donation to the Congo Projects

Leslie Nepveux is a 2005 graduate of Oklahoma State University. She is currently a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop and only a few exams away from completing the ARE. You can see more of her recent work in Africa at cargocollective.com/congocollective