Don’t Listen… Engage.

cartoon_chocolate cheese

I was walking downtown a few years ago to grab some lunch, and what appeared to be a somewhat mentally incapacitated man dressed in rags ran up to me and yelled, “Why can’t I have chocolate cheese if you can have chocolate milk?” Much to his surprise, I responded:

Me: “Hmm.. that sounds amazing!”
The man gets a huge toothless grin on his face,
Man: “See, I know what I’m talking about!”
Me: “Well, if you ever find any chocolate cheese, you let me know and we’ll try it. My treat.”
Man: “You all-right, girl…. You all-right.”

If I had just walked by, listening but not engaging a conversation with this person, I would have never had the new lifelong mission of finding the perfect chocolate cheese. This act of actually passing words back and forth is hugely important in the field of architecture, and while we likely all agree with that, it’s often forgotten.

(Raise your hand if…) As a young intern I would be asked to go to meetings to listen and take notes, but I don’t think I ever felt like I was learning much by sitting quietly just writing down what was said. This isn’t how most of our “creative brains” learn. After a few months I became more confident in the office, and I would still get asked to “come and takes notes at the meeting”, but I found myself asking questions about the project while note taking which not only helped me relate to the client’s needs, but also helped me remember why they needed bookshelves that were exactly 28” high and a conference room that held 14 chairs. The added benefit that I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was also getting to know the clients on a more personal level which led them to start trusting me even at the start of my career. This trust from the clients developed into trust from my employer, who let me be involved and even manage the bigger, and what I thought would be the more enjoyable, projects – all from simply asking small questions and engaging the client.

Having my own firm now, I of course have to engage with clients on a daily basis if I want to maintain any type of reputation with them, but for me that’s one of the best parts of being an Architect. However, it’s something I’m seeing in many firms that isn’t being taught, or even worse, discouraged. I’m not sure why an owner or manager of the firm wouldn’t want to show that they have bright, energetic, curious people working for them who are genuinely interested in what the client has to say. But I’ve been to a number of meetings where the younger intern is expected to sit quietly and listen, and then have the client ask why they are even brought to the meeting in the first place. This is not a mentoring or learning situation and doesn’t gain trust from anyone. Young architect/intern community, if your boss isn’t giving you opportunities, then you need to take charge, speak up and engage yourself with the client, consultant, and others around you. If you are told not to speak during a meeting, you’re likely not in an environment that’s going to advance your career and it’s time to have a candid talk with your employer and/or look for a firm that actually supports incoming architects. For the rest of us, please don’t tell your interns to just listen and take notes!

And as Citizen Architects, we need to focus not only on clients, but also the community. I have attended a number of community meetings for people affected by the forest fires these past couple of years. Engaging with the people of the community who attended these meetings has made my understanding and appreciation for what they need help with far greater and allowed me to focus my energies into designs that work for them. And it’s ok to talk with people who are outside your comfort zone – they are likely the ones to have some of the biggest impacts on your day, if not years to come. There was a “traveling lady” (this is what she called herself) who was hanging out in Colorado Springs for two weeks or “until someone told her to leave”. She had a cheap disposable camera and said she was taking pictures of all the people she met on her journey. We would walk our dog past her camp nearly every evening and say hello, and on one evening she took my husband’s picture with our dog. Three days later she came running over with a photograph with a big smile on her face excited to see us. She had this set made as doubles just so she could give us a copy of the photo she took. It’s one of my very favorite pictures of my husband.

Don’t just listen to people around you, engage them. You’ll be a better Architect and a better person for it!

Christy Riggs, AIA, LEED Green Associate |  308 LLC

The Art of Failing

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 8.45.39 PM

This past week, I was tested on many levels. Our Path21 office was moving across town (I was the “moving coordinator”), I had an important meeting with an out-of-town client (in the middle of the move), and I was waiting for my ARE Schematic Design test result, while preparing to take Site Planning on Saturday. It was one of those times where everything was moving at 100 mph and I had to keep up.

The great news is that I passed the first exam, which makes that three for three. The bad news is I did not pass Site Planning. It was my first fail when it comes to the ARE’s. This isn’t unheard of. In fact, a lot of people fail. My first instinct was to be very upset with myself. I ran through all of the typical thoughts. “I didn’t give myself enough time to study.” “If I can’t pass this one, how will I pass the last three?” “I just can’t fathom studying for this thing again!” I know this negative conversation I was having with myself would lead me nowhere and it was only one exam. My homemade Keurig coffee wasn’t going to cut it today so I decided to get a “fancy” latte and head into work early.         Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 6.10.13 AM

As I was driving, I honestly couldn’t help but to let my mind drift to this exam and the situation surrounding it. I had moved through the stages of failed ARE grief and started to remember a particular scenario when I arrived at Prometric on Saturday morning. The Prometric Testing Center is housed in an office tower and is typically very quiet on a Saturday. As usual, I felt my nerves were so loud that they could be heard. That might be why the other woman in the elevator asked me if I was going to take a test. We started chatting and continued to do so while we waited in line to check in. We discussed which tests we were each taking and how this was my fourth time at this testing center. Typical to how many people react when I tell them I have to take not one but seven exams, she reacted in awe and with a little bit sympathy. Just as soon as she had let this sympathy linger between us, she retracted it and said, “Well I suppose if you are going to be designing the buildings we are all in, I would want you to have gone through a rigorous process.” This statement is why we take the ARE’s. This statement is also the reason that I was finally able to cope with this fail. Failing one of these doesn’t mean that I am inadequate in any way. It doesn’t mean that my degrees have failed me or that I am going to have to go back to school AGAIN because I can’t cut it in architecture. The ARE is a measure of our ability and knowledge to be responsible for the health, safety and welfare of our fellow citizens, friends and family when designing the built environment. And that is an immense responsibility.

As much as passing or succeeding is a great feeling, failing teaches us just as much, if not more. We work within a profession where failure is common. We may fail to get short-listed, fail to get selected for that career-altering project, or fail to get the perfect job with the perfect firm. Herein lies the art of failing. When this occurs, the only way to move forward is to learn from these failures and adjust our portfolios, resumes or study habits for the next time.

Among other things, Malcom Gladwell has written about failure. He asks, “What do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.”




Design Build at the Lama Foundation

This week we are featuring another blog post from one of the AIA AEF Traveling Scholarship Recipients.


During the summer of 2013, fifteen students enrolled in ENVD Praxis Design/Build Studio to work with the Lama Foundation to design and build a small shelter. Instructors Jade Polizzi and Stephen Eckert led the group on this eight-week design and construction experience. Students sourced materials, produced construction drawings, worked within a budget and completed each phase of the construction.

The tiny hut is nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains near a campground used by Lama Foundation retreatants. The location is Questa, New Mexico, about 30 miles north of Taos and the client, the Lama Foundation, is a non-profit educational retreat center. Inside the structure views abound and the bright desert light refracts off the interior wood, creating a cozy and peaceful ambiance. The structure is 108 square feet, yet with high ceilings and attention to detail it feels much larger. The interior contains a full size bed, a fold down desk (which also houses a cabinet for the solar electrical system) and a bench for removing one’s shoes.

The final product is simple, durable, and made with many recycled and sustainable materials. The wooden 1-constructioninterior is adorned with colorful mismatched hooks, a whimsical wall etching, exposed trusses and a tiled mandala mosaic on the floor. It is a tiny functional building with beautiful details, built with care and pride.

The class utilized the CINC (Center for Innovation and Creativity) facility to finalize the Buff Hut design and pre-fabricate some of the time intensive construction elements. During the first four weeks, the class built the lenticular truss chords and webbing, framed the walls, and cut the tiles for the entrance mosaic.

The construction was completed with two 10-day trips spent at the Lama Foundation. Students camped on site and integrated construction with the daily routine of the Foundation. During the first trip, the foundation was dug, formed and completed. Next came the structure; the deck, walls, and trusses were set into place. Before returning to Boulder the building was dried-in with sheathing and a roof deck.

Between the two trips to New Mexico, time was spent building the interior furniture and finalizing a plan for completion. The second trip to New Mexico resulted in the building coming to life. This included: soffit framing, installation of windows and doors, interior and exterior siding, roofing, and furniture assembly. The space now came to life.

In the end each student gained construction experience taking part in multiple aspects of the building. Whether it was mixing concrete for the piers, nailing siding with the pneumatic nailer or cutting tiles for the entry mandala every member of the team was necessary for the success of this project.2-students

The final hut is beautiful both inside and out yet in the end all construction is temporary. What was really created over the period while design and construction unfolded? We traveled many miles together, spent countless hours collaborating on a common creative goal, and learned to use tools and muscles in ways many of us hadn’t before.

There is something less tangible and much more important that was created while working together on this project. Laughter was shared and tears were shed. A partnership was developed between two organizations that on the outside seem to share different worlds and outlooks. And, best of all, new friendships were formed that will last a lifetime.


Teaching Up; Learning from our Summer Interns

Just yesterday, our summer interns gave a final presentation regarding a Denver-specific research project they have been working on in tandem with project work for the entirety of the summer.

 Upon first initiating the project, our intern committee’s hope was that the research might be used as a vehicle for collaboration as well as a chance to become acquainted with one another and the city of Denver.

 After the presentation, and hearing the interns talk about their experience, it seems the research exceeded our expectations. Serving as a vehicle for sharing ideas and skill sets, the project became an important opportunity to merge and acknowledge different work styles, processes, and modes of thinking amongst students from different disciplines including architecture, interior architecture, interior design, and illustration/environmental graphic design.

 Not to get too warm and fuzzy, but the interns smiled as they described their experience working together on a shared project as transitioning from “difficult” to their new team description—“four hearts and one mind.”   This Captain-planet combining of forces, skills, and viewpoints led to a cumulative design that articulately blended their different ideas and disciplines into one cohesive design—a feat I wasn’t entirely sure could be pulled off in the brief interlude of summer, but is now under consideration for potential realization.

 Watching them present was a refreshing reminder of the importance of teamwork, and the beauty of the multidisciplinary approach to design. When asked how the interns combined their work, they talked about looking for “the most important aspect” of their preliminary designs, and finding ways to prioritize the inclusion of these ideas while formulating a cohesive design. As my coworker mentioned, this provided a design solution based on the importance of function, rather than aesthetics.

This reminder of approaching group work as a chance to extract the most salient design ideas of individuals, and bring them together as a group to solve a problem was both refreshing and reaffirming.

While most of us have been taught to work in partners, groups, or teams since college or graduate school, I have found professional practice to be the ultimate litmus test for collaboration. Whether a project is a month or two years, the changing nature of project teams, the delegation of roles and responsibilities, as well as the mixture of different personalities often feels like experiencing one sea change after another.

I am always excited when a new project starts, as working with different people and clients is an inherent opportunity for growth and exposure to new work styles and ways of thinking. With that said, the nature of professional practice at times can lend itself to efficiently living within the confines of certain roles and responsibilities—a navigable but at times stifling way of working. What excites me about the intern presentation is that it reinforces that the best idea should, and must win, regardless of source or origin.

 Today is the interns’ last day—we are sad to see them go, but happy that they have “taught up” in providing a stellar example of what productive collaboration can yield- both in terms of building relationships as well as creating amazing work.



Wanna get started? Get Organized.

We would like to welcome another writer to the AIA Colorado EP Blog.  Christy Riggs, AIA is a licensed architect in Colorado Springs with her own practice, 308 LLC.  She has a diverse architectural background starting with a B.Arch and B.Art from Ball State University in Muncie, IN in 2002.

After graduation, Christy moved to Colorado to fulfill her IDP requirements with a multi-disciplinary firm, Pinnacle DesignWorks, in Woodland Park, CO.  She then moved to Comstock & Associates in Colorado Springs and Janitell Childs Design Group before starting her own company in 2011.

Christy is the mom to two very active girls and the wife of an architect in addition to Owner-Architect-Designer-Drafter-Accounting-Admin for 308 LLC.

Wanna get started?  Get Organized.


I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I was able to start my own architecture and design company.  The easy answer is to pay the State a minimal fee to Register a business name, another $1.00 to register your Articles of Organization, and then it’s FREE to apply for a federal Employer Identification Number so that you can pay all of your own taxes!  The difficult answer is what to do once you’ve checked the remedial paperwork off your list.  That answer is… you should have already done the next step. Get organized.

When I was employed at previous firms, I paid attention to the plans in place for everything from the way that time sheets and billable hours were tracked, to the material library sample logs, to the way redlines and yellow lines were drawn, processed, completed, and reviewed.  I would catch myself often thinking “this filing should be done by the Admin staff” or “I’m a creative person! Why am I wasting my time with this drawn out accounting system?”  But, even if I didn’t agree with it, I paid attention.  And I learned to realize that even though I might have a different way of tracking projects, having a system in place that I wanted to modify is far better than having none.  Monkeys may not be your thing, but it worked.

For me, these are the key areas that I found having a detailed organizational plan were crucial when starting my own company:

  1. Project organization. A project number and name tied together works great so that you can remember the project based on a client’s name, and when it comes time to do billing and accounting, the number is easy to plug into the accounting system. Example: 14-123_Smith in my office means it is the 23rd project of 2014 and the client name is Smith. When I do invoicing the “Smith” part of the project number is replaced with “01” or “02” to signify the number of billings sent to the client. Easy, right?
  2. Drawing organization. Have a list of standard drawings and notes that go in to every project. While this may seem inherent to doing a set of architectural drawings, there are times that work is moving fast and you can miss something like the elevation of the tile on the back of a restroom wall. Consider your drawing checklist to be like a spell check so that your work is complete before sending it to the client.
  3. Accounting organization. You don’t need an accountant, but I highly recommend at least using something like Quickbooks Online to keep track of proposals, invoices, banking, etc. Asking clients for money is definitely not one of the pleasant parts of having your own company, but it’s nearly impossible if you don’t have accurate records for what you told them the fee would be, when you were going to bill for it, and how much is remaining.
  4. Family and/or personal organization. This is one of the most important, yet it’s one that tends to be the “I’ll just wing it until I figure it out.” Make a plan for how many hours you’re going to allow yourself to work, ESPECIALLY if you are going to be working from home. Set up a plan for letting yourself have vacation days, personal days, unexpected sick days, or even “spend special time with the kids”. I think as architects we often feel that our work is important in the world, and it is, but if you’re not setting goals and limits to the amount of time that you’re spending on this venture, you will be miserable which will make your work and home suffer. When starting your own company, it’s a great idea to set up an office at home so that there is very little overhead cost and you can focus on building clients rather than paying rent. However, it’s also very tempting to just write one more e-mail after dinner, and then finish up that one detail, and then send out that one pdf file, and write that outstanding invoice, and… oh… it’s 2am again. It’s ok to adjust your plan and you won’t be able to follow it all the time, but having one in place gives you something to measure against to make sure you’re still a living person and not a drafting zombie.

It’s really quite easy to start an architecture company if you pay attention to how it’s already being done by others.  Setting up CAD standards and shop drawing logs and all the daily organizational tools are important too, but you likely already know and are using a system that works, so pay attention to it.  Getting a company organized takes thought and time, and it ends up being a lot of trial and error at first, but having a plan to test and adjust is crucial when getting started.

note: it’s also a good idea to consult Colorado’s Small Business Development Center for help in filling out the required business forms. 

Christy Riggs, AIA, LEED Green Associate |  308 LLC