All You Need to Know

My last blog post highlighted a recent California court decision in which homeowners had sued architectural firms over allegedly bad window design and materials.  The question presented to the California Supreme Court was essentially whether an architectural firm who makes recommendations but not final decisions on construction owes a duty of care to future homeowners with whom it has no contractual relationship.  The Court concluded: yes, it may.

As I trolled the sites reporting on the decision, the reaction of design professionals generally read like the SNL skit REALLY!?!  If the architect had no control over the final decisions on construction why should they be responsible for those decisions? Really!?! I empathize.  In what universe is it fair to hold the architect responsible for problems caused by changes made during final construction over which they had no control? It is not. But whoever said our legal system was fair?

However, the Beacon decision did not state the architect was responsible.  Merely that it may be.  All you need to know about design professional liability is this: Control = Responsibility.  Juries and the Court just want to figure out who had control and could have prevented the defect.  They will bear responsibility.  This is where an understanding of the Spearin doctrine and a companion principle expressed Balcom Industries, Inc. v. Nelson come in handy.

The Spearin doctrine comes from an ancient case involving the design and construction of a government shipyard but the principle articulated is alive and well today: subcontractors (including designers) will not be held responsible for consequences of defects in plans or specifications provided by the owner.  The converse is also true – and Balcom steps in.  It is essential that construction was accomplished in conformance with the plans and specifications provided by the designer for liability to attach to the designer.  It seems more fair that responsibility arises only when there is at least a modicum of control.

Admittedly, perceived control versus actual control is a morass best left for another time.  Also, contract provisions or differing delivery methods can turn these principles on their head.  So proceed with caution- and preserve your job file!


“Have you tried the new, locally sourced, artisanal pickle shop?”

handcrafted logo

Tongue-in-cheek statement aside, this is not an uncommon group of words to be found together these days. In the past handful, or so, of years, there seems to have been a dramatic spike in products and shops that showcase handmade, crafted, and trade-based items. Twenty years ago you might have only found a blacksmith in a colonial reenactment town filled with lots of costumes and muskets. Compare that with today. If some one said that they held a job as a blacksmith, it would most likely be followed up with, “Wow that’s so interesting. My friend just started a taxidermy shop that focuses on rare pheasants”.

Clearly I am going way over the top here to try to make a point. There has been a wide spread trend across our society harking back to craft trades. They may not even be an age-old crafts; it may simply be deciding to make things by hand or through a small manufacturing process run by a few people instead of a corporate factory. Although we see an increasingly digital world and our lives are daily being made more convenient through these advances, there is also a shift, although much less in the mainstream, away from the technologically based life style. It’s becoming much more commonplace to seek out the smaller, local shops or the handmade product in contrast to the global corporations that mass produce the items that we have sought in the past.

This brings me to this thought: if our technology has made things so very convenient, fast, and efficient, why do we strive for these elements that yield varying product quality, take more time to create, and more than likely cost more? I believe, and I may be wrong on this, that we strive for the human touch in our lives, as we increasingly seem to be losing it more and more everyday.

I know, this is a very melodramatic claim to make, but that doesn’t make it less true. If we are constantly being inundated with automation and a digital world, doesn’t it seem to make sense that there would be a bit of push back by way of the human hand? This further begs the question of: what can we as architects and emerging professionals do to capitalize on this movement within our profession?

If we look at the craftsman style movement of the early 1900s, we see that there was a similar shift in thinking and priorities. Architects were “master builders” and designed buildings all the way down to the unique and finite details, much of which was literally “handcrafted”. However, later on in the same century, the international style became much more in vogue. The idea that any building could be placed anywhere on the planet without regards to geographical context. These buildings were “machines for living” and the human was just an element to occupy the building. Now that we have moved beyond this, is it possible that we are starting to see another shift back towards one that creates each building, as it’s own distinctive and individual entity?

I am not saying that we need to brush off all of our old drawing boards or pick up a hammer and chisel and start chipping away at a block of marble nor am I saying that we all need to strive to be Frank Lloyd Wright. However, we have already begun to use the advances of this digital age to create highly unique and customized forms. Is it possible that we can further the idea of the “handcrafted and artisanal” in architecture to create more of the human element in our work? After all, we create these objects for people, so shouldn’t we, in some way, shape, or form, show that they were designed and built by people?

I don’t have an exact recipe for how any of this could find it’s way into our profession. But, I believe that it is worth noting that there has been a societal shift, even if it is a minority one, to seeking out the human element in the products that inhabit our everyday lives. If we can somehow find a way to bring this into the world of architecture, maybe we will create a more lasting mark on our profession and the built environment.

Or we could all just become shoe cobblers.

If Something Isn’t Challenging, It’s Probably Not Worth Doing…

So a quick update regarding the Architectural Registration Exam, and perhaps some dialogue around it, too.

Since my last ARE-related post, I find myself 4 tests in (past the halfway mark!) and have rescheduled my fifth several times now, but have vowed to take it on a secret date that is fast approaching (towards the end of October.) Why such a long pause, after passing 4 exams in the span of 4 months last spring?

Because I took the summer off. I was mentally exhausted between work and studying, and felt like I was unwilling to give up the luxuries of long days, warm weather, and the chance to be consistently outdoors, even for one season. Life is short, as they say.

But here I am, watching the leaves change from my perch at a local cafe as I dig into yet another study manual and take another sip of tea, pondering the exam process, and the common practice of welcoming rigor and discipline into our lives when it didn’t ask to be invited, pushing ourselves to do things that may seem unpleasant but in retrospect feel rewarding.

Casually my mind wanders to the idea that architecture is not the only profession that requires rigor and discipline.

Infact, this usually serves as a comforting reminder to me– that in many rewarding professions, the initial effort required (and often sustained effort) remains very high. My yoga teacher once said, “If it isn’t challenging, it’s probably not worth doing,” in regards to our dialogue around my progress on the long road to licensure. If I were training to be a doctor, I would be taking my boards (which must be taken every several years, opposed to the ARE’s continuing education) and likely be getting even less sleep. I should also note that my exhaustion might put more at stake than a sloppy detail or an uninspired section than a day yawning at an operating table. And then there is law. By now I would have taken the bar,  a concept I appreciate because the timing aligns more closely to academia and a regular “study” mentality.

Despite the highs and lows of the testing journey, I’m trying to rev up for the next few months with great hopes of finally passing this hurdle and reclaiming my weekends– and life– one test at a time!

If you have some tips that got you across the finish line, please share… !


Emerging Themes and Trends from AIA CO P+D Conference

Coming to you live from the AIA Colorado Practice and Design Conference! This is a big weekend for AIA Colorado and it’s members. Speakers and architects come from around the country to shed light on current trends in architecture as well as innovative design technology and theory. I have been quite impressed with the caliber of speakers and the overall quality of each session. I personally use this time every year to get re-inspired and remember why this profession is my passion.

Whether or not it is planned, themes typically emerge from presenters and presentations. As we are halfway through the conference, we’ve heard everything from winning projects in interviews to designing social infrastructure. I have deemed one of this year’s themes as team. I have been in charge of social media outreach during the conference and have taken quite extensive notes. Below, I have listed some stand out lines from our speakers:

No one project can be delivered by one discipline. – Barbara J. Jackson, Ph.D, DBIA , University of Denver

On winning an interview… Sell your team, make your client want to join your team. – Meg Winch, Communication Resources

As a semi-recent graduate, I remember the competitiveness of architecture programs and the lack of teamwork amongst students. I think this is traditionally inherent in architectural programs, but it is evident this is not the future of the profession, nor has it been for some time. Not only does working on a team bring the best possible solutions to the table for projects and clients, but it allows us to provide more value to our services when working with experts from various fields.

This term value brings me to another key theme that has emerged from the conference. The perception of what an architect does is evolving. Teamwork provides more value for clients, but value of our services is greatly needed in society and the hardest part is spreading this message to people who have no idea they need an architect. Kai-Uwe Bergmann of BIG challenges us to think outside the box or the project description. Our job as creators and designers is to give the client something they don’t know they need. We can provide them with solutions that not only solve their immediate issues of space and circulation, but can provide them with a larger solution to increased physical activity or an increase in tourism.

Barbara J. Jackson said something that really stuck with me, “we really need to get at something bigger than just a beautiful building.” Beauty of design and buildings is what draws us to this profession. But now that we are here isn’t it our job and role within the greater society to extend our value beyond just a beautiful building in the landscape?

I’m proud to say that we come from an economically booming part of the country. Firms are hiring and producing great projects that are something bigger than just buildings. We witnessed this at the Design and Honor Awards Gala last evening. The projects that won showed not only beautiful design, but benefit their community in some way.

This conference is providing exactly what I come here for: it’s providing me with some needed and valuable continuing education credits, it is helping me to engage in the larger design community and I am inspired to go out and make sure our profession provides value.

If you are in attendance, enjoy the rest of the conference. If you aren’t, plan on attending next year to see what the themes might be!


This week Joseph Vigil tells us about the creation and journey of Workshop 8…

In the fall of 2009 the small firm (VaST architecture) I started with my wife (Brandy) in 2000, was hurting. Work had steadily been declining for the last two years and we were trying to either sell or rent our house, sell our second car, and sell or rent our commercial building. Life was pretty scary. The custom home market was dead, and who was going to hire a mom & pop shop to work on anything other than smaller projects? Especially when everyone else was vying for the same work.

That October we attended the AIA Colorado annual conference because I was on the North Chapter Board and was required to. If I hadn’t been on the Board, there is no way we would have spent the money for such a luxury. It turned out being a very influential and informative couple of days.  I attended a presentation about the amount of work being performed by large architectural firms versus small firms, and how the percentage was increasing for large firms and decreasing for small firms. This was pretty scary stuff for a small firm on the brink of bankruptcy. However, the presenter went on to talk about joint-ventures and collaborations. As we re-capped this presentation, Brandy and I started talking about how we could survive given this trend.

The birth a new architecture firm

We started contacting other sole proprietors and small firms about the possibility of collaborations or joint-ventures, and maybe even merging. Our original concept was to talk to as many disciplines within the field of architecture as possible and try to create a diverse pool of professionals. We talked to interior designers, landscape architects, energy consultants, LEED consultants, general contractors, graphic designers, architects and even structural engineers.

The first person we pitched the idea to was an interior designer we had previously shared office space with. We were surprised how readily and enthusiastically she joined up! That gave us the motivation to contact others and by the end of 2009 we had a small group of people who were meeting on a weekly basis, talking through what this new entity might look like, and how we might operate. In March of 2010, Brandy found a national design competition and pitched it to the group.I recall sitting around the table when Brandy made the pitch and the room kind of lit up. None of us had anything better to do, so we eagerly agreed to enter, mostly as an exercise to see how well we worked together. The next few weeks were a complete blur. There was a lot of pent-up energy and an excitement that was palpable. We were trying to create a good design, but more importantly, we were trying to impress each other, and forge a longer term working relationship. Not all of the original participants stayed with the group, the people who left had good reasons to do so, they definitely thought we were crazy for putting the amount time into the initial design that we did.

The name WORKSHOP8 was generated at some point between midnight and 2:00 AM, over a flurry of emails without a lot of debate. We needed to incorporate and present a somewhat professional front.

Getting Pregnant on your first date

To make a long story short, we won! We beat out other national caliber and highly qualified firms. Our first thought was pure joy, quickly followed by complete panic! We were just a group of designers, we didn’t have a common work location, no insurance, no past working relations, no operating agreement, no graphic standards, and no common software/hardware.

The project had a very tight deadline, as the client had received an ARRA grant (American Recovery and Reconstruction Act) and the funds needed to be spent in a short timeframe to help jumpstart the economy. We needed to have our 100% construction documents completed by mid-September, less than four months away. It was an incredible process, from the crazy start, to the surreal start of construction, and finally the joyous inhabitation of the structures. The process changed us all forever, it will be a pivotal point in all of our lives and one we talk about in our retirement.


Spoiler alert, stop here if you want the Cinderella ending.

The original WORKSHOP8 partnership lasted about four years. Ultimately we did not give enough forethought, nor put in enough ground work into the business entity. We operated without any sort of working agreement and only a generic set of bylaws. If, from the outset, we had put a little more effort into the legal/business entity of WORKSHOP8, I believe it may have survived in its original form.

In the early Spring of 2014, WORKSHOP8 Inc. bought out three of the partners. So, it is back to Brandy and me. We are planning on bringing additional partners on board, we are definitely not a mom & pop shop anymore!

Well, actually, we kind of still are.

C. Joseph Vigil, AIA