Somewhere Between Architect and Planner; The Argument for Interdisciplinary Work

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work has been a hot topic in architecture recently. Firms developed interdisciplinary teams to make it through the recession and found that the model worked quite well. Students have started to pursue double degrees to make themselves more competitive in the job market. Personally, I was one of those students. And yes, I did pursue a second degree because I believed it might give me an edge on other candidates. But the main reason I decided to become a multidisciplinary student was mostly to expand my knowledge and gain a better understanding of architecture as a piece to the whole built environment.

So often we hear critiques of fellow design professionals.

“Architects don’t understand that is impossible to construct” 

“Planners don’t understand basic architectural principles”

“Developers don’t care about design, they just want money” 

Depending on what programs were in your school’s Architecture department or what disciplines you have worked with on projects, you may have heard a few of these. I could go on. In school, architecture students are taught to think outside the basic box. We are taught to express our ideas through space and proportion. Planners are taught to think rationally about planning theory and its applications and understand the implications of policy and law within a municipality. Business majors (of which a few also earn architecture degrees/planning degrees) are taught to understand and develop a pro forma. In general, each discipline is trained within its own silo. 

As an undergraduate student, I spent four years dedicated to the architecture program, rarely venturing into the other disciplines (although I did take water aerobics for an elective credit). As I started my graduate program in architecture, I felt underwhelmed. Sure, I loved architecture. It was my passion! But I knew there were so many other components to actually constructing the built environment. This is when I decided to pursue a dual degree in Architecture and Urban & Regional Planning at UC Denver. A funny thing happened though. I no longer fit into a “group” of students. I had started my architecture degree with a class of studio mates. We got drinks, we celebrated the end of critiques, and we poured tears and blood into the same studio projects. As soon as I started in urban planning, my course work changed and I was on a different schedule than my fellow architecture studio mates. I made planning friends! The other fascinating thing about being a multidisciplinary student is that your “side” in a classroom debate is greatly altered. I was no longer just an architecture student. I was a planner. In planning, I wasn’t just a planner. I was an architect. Don’t get me wrong. This is the spot I wanted to be in. I had chosen this path for myself. But the frustrating part is both architects and planners were having the same conversations, just separately. Sure, we both held some varying opinions based on the influences to our selected professions, but I truly felt to best understand our influence on the built environment we should be having these conversations together.

I do believe that each professional is an expert in his or her own field. If we all pursued architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and development we risk muddying the waters and devaluing each profession. However, it is important to keep interdisciplinary lines open and work with other professionals to learn the importance and the value of the way others think and work through problem solving. It is important to have our conversations with others outside of our architectural circle. In fact, the Emerging Professionals Coalition for AIA Colorado has gotten together with design industry emerging professional groups and created an event where all disciplines are brought together to network and form relationships. This year is the second annual “Meet the Dark Side” event on October 30, 2014 at the Viewhouse in Downtown Denver. I would highly suggest going. I would also suggest broadening relationships and understanding what motivates these other professionals. In the end, we are all here to create a better built environment.

A year out from graduation, I still identify somewhere in the middle of architecture and planning. I am currently in the process of trying to become an “expert” architect, but the influences from my planning degree have helped me to examine the architectural profession differently and think through critical problems using a varied lens. With the fast-paced progression of technology and global nature of our profession, our ability to solve problems as designers can be much more influential. I do believe that we can solve these problems much better working together with experts in other design fields.


Denver Startup Week- “If you build it, they will come…”

Gensler Denver's panel discussion regarding "the Creative Office," featuring Alden Globe, Miguel Buenrostro, Ken Pinnock,  Michelle Liebling, Robert Reich, and Sandy Vanderstoep, moderated by Joy Spatz

Gensler Denver’s panel discussion regarding “the Creative Office,” featuring Alden Globe, Miguel Buenrostro, Ken Pinnock, Michelle Liebling, Robert Reich, and Sandy Vanderstoep, moderated by Joy Spatz

For those who might have been hiding from the twittersphere, 16th Street Mall, or Downtown Denver Partnership newsletters and e-mail blasts, last week was a week I’ve started to look forward to each September—Denver Startup Week.

Started in 2012, the event has grown from about 30 sessions taught by varied industry professionals to an event that draws over 8,000 people (both locally, nationally, and this year, internationally) and boasts about 300 free sessions of content, making this not the biggest Startup event in Colorado, but—wait for it—the largest Startup week in North America.

Not bad Denver, not bad.

Having known I wanted to get involved after attending several sessions last year related to design and.. well… socializing in interesting spaces and places with creative people, I worked with the Design-track organizers, Justin Martinez and Castle Searcy, to submit and work with my co-workers to create a panel of extremely different, seasoned perspectives on the do’s and don’ts of creative office space—an on-going conversation that will only continue as floor plans transition from closed to open, wellness at work becomes a priority, and headphones continue to become what Robert Reich (one of our speakers and the founder of Boulder New Tech) and the dev shop Made Movement has coined “the new corner office.”

What I’ve learned through my initial participation in Startup week is that why it is so progressive is that it is not just for people involved in the tech industry or startup organizations. Instead, Denver Startup Week whole-heartedly embraces the idea of “all things entrepreneurial.”

When considering how most fortune 500 companies have started (take the ever-popular Apple, for example,) we must consider the process and challenges of the guys tinkering in their garage, and embrace the many phases of business models, experiences, growing pains, and life lessons the company, its founders, VC’s, employees, etc. have taken to arrive at the Norman Foster-designed campus/office park/lifestyle in California Apple currently resides in today.

Denver Startup week embraces this idea of evolution and adaptability of the entrepreneur (whether a lone entity or a major conglomerate) by featuring talks, workshops, panels, presentations, networking and social events that fall into “tracks” – this year featured Business, Design, Tech, and Manufacturing (in addition to what the Colorado Technology Association and their partners consider “Headline Events,” “Social Events,” and the amazing concept of “Basecamp,”—a homebase on the 16th Street Mall in which attendees of Startup week can stop in any time to meet with mentors and mentees, network, plug-in, or learn more about information about Startup week’s many opportunities, partners, and sponsors.)

Having unfortunately only a select amount of time to attend sessions, I signed up for several evening events including a PechaKucha held @ the event venue City Hall this past Thursday. For anyone who appreciates quick presentations with snazzy visuals and a concise message, this presentation format of 20 slides/20 seconds is an ideal medium to share ideas, humor, and messages of inspiration – all content that came out of the Denver Startup Week PechaKucha featuring speakers that included Creative Director Max Goodwin, Steve Nash from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Miguel Buenrostro from Tijuana, and many more.

My takeaway from the highly varied presentations and content was the overarching message of the night to pursue your passion – regardless of risk, comfort zone, or initial funding. For an architecture audience, I would relate this idea to “if you build it, they will come” (with “it” being an idea or a proposal that might ignite a spark for action, a kickstarter campaign, or a design for people to rally around and fundraise for…) Designers and social entrepreneurs Justin Martinez and Miguel Buenrostro spoke to this idea by providing insight into reactivating spaces that had been blighted and turning them into places for community, co-working, and resources for communities. Virginia McAllister, CEO of Iron Horse Architects, spoke to the challenges and triumphs she’s faced as the owner of an architecture firm, most importantly exemplified by her ability to create “legacy” through creating opportunities for her employees to learn and grow as professionals that are helping contribute to their city’s development and legacy.

I left feeling inspired and ready for action, and am hoping Denver Startup Week’s energy and enthusiasm for the city’s development, design, and discourse will continue to manifest itself through the collaborative and innovative design and decisions the city will continue to make to cultivate creative industry and community.

Great Expectations… and the AIA Colorado Conference

We are on the last leg of summer this week, even though it still feels like the height of summer with some of these temperatures. We are also closing in on one of the most anticipated AIA Colorado events of the year — the Practice + Design Conference in Keystone, CO. Whether you have been going for years or contemplating going for the first time, we are hoping our next few blog posts will convince you that it is an event that cannot be missed!

This week we are featuring Ken Andrews, AIA from Arch11, Inc. K_Andrews_Headshot

Great Expectations … and the AIA Colorado Conference

Like so many architects, I continually find the end of the year approaching and I need to complete my continuing education requirements to maintain my license and standing with the AIA. I had never been to the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference until a few years ago, but I had received very positive feedback from the community.

It was the perfect opportunity to complete a year’s worth of continuing education in just three (3) days. At the time this was ideal, my practice (Arch11, Inc.) was very busy while teaching graduate students at the University. I don’t recall having great expectations going into the conference beyond obtaining my credits, but my opinion drastically changed after attending.

The Practice + Design Conference has been an invigorating break in my very busy routine for several years since. Not only is it a fantastic way to obtain credits, but in the process a spectacular way to intensely focus on design and our profession. Through sharing of ideas as a community with thought leaders from around the world, I always leave the conference invigorated.

The past several conferences have been very impressive; the caliber of speakers and the relevancy of conference themes with regard to the issues the profession face today have been invaluable in fostering greater design conversations in AIA Chapters, our design community, in my practice and teaching. It is now an event that I look forward to every year.

Ken Andrews, AIA

Arch11, Inc.

Arch11_303_1 Arch11_303_2

Fear Not – California Decision Against Design Professional Less Than Hype

Beacon Residential Community

Blogs serving the legal industry, design professionals, and insurers have been a-buzz since July 3, 2014 with news from the California Supreme Court.  A number of headlines sensationalize the holding in Beacon Residential Community Assn. v. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – but what impact does it truly have on the construction industry and architect liability in particular?

In Beacon, a homeowners association on behalf of its members sued a condominium developer and various other parties including two defendant architectural firms alleging the homes were unsafe and uninhabitable for significant portions of the year.[1]  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.

A number of posts have made worst-case scenario predictions for the future of design professional liability based on the Beacon holding.  However, it is important to note that Beacon involved a demurrer at the trial court level meaning that on appeal the Supreme Court was accepting the facts presented in plaintiff’s complaint as true.  The Court was not examining defenses pled by the architect firms, proven facts of the case, the parties’ discovery, nor did the Court offer an opinion as to whether the defendant architectural firms in fact had liability.  Rather, the opinion focused on whether contractual privity was necessary for the HOA to pursue claims against the architects.  The court held that the design contract was not the sole source of the architects’ duty and the case was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

A number of posts interpreting Beacon appear to have a chicken-little type quality.  In my opinion, Beacon does not deserve the hype.  At least in Colorado, prime designers have long owed an independent duty of care to homeowners/future users and have faced liability under the Colorado Construction Defect Action Reform Act for defective residential design even where they do not make ultimate construction decisions.  Moreover, the California Supreme Court’s opinion does nothing to diminish defenses otherwise available to design professionals such as apportionment of liability and defenses based upon failure to follow the design.  (My next blog post will address exactly that – liability and defenses for claims involving improper specifications or failure to follow design).

While Beacon may continue to make headlines this summer, it should be business as usual for design professionals.  Design professionals should remain vigilant about documenting changes to the plans made by the owner, value engineering recommendations, and input during the Construction Administration phase of the project but Beacon does not signal the beginning of the end.

[1] As it relates to the architects, plaintiffs alleged the window selection and ventilation design made the units unbearably hot during the summer months.

QuillenContributed by Casey A. Quillen, Esq.

The Job Transition – A Love Story

Not too many years ago, it was fairly common to meet someone that had been at their first job after college for thirty years and never considered leaving. These days, many people will switch jobs about as often as they switch allegiances to their local coffee shop. It very well could be that it stemmed from necessity due to the recent recession, but it is also just as likely that it has become a bit of a generational anomaly. For the sake of argument, we’ll go with the latter.

Recently, I went through a job switch. I left an office where I had been at for over a year to go to another firm here in Denver. When it came down to it, I felt like it was just time for a change of pace, I saw an opportunity, and I went for it. My wife is in the midst of her final two weeks at her current office before moving to a new firm in downtown Denver and is moving on for very similar reasons. In fact, it wouldn’t be a ridiculous stretch of the imagination to estimate that, of those 55 (or so) people that were in our graduating class from the University of Arizona in 2012, those that are still with their first post-graduate architectural job are in the vast minority.

It seems that, even though the sample size is small, this is fairly normal. Within this spirit of transition normality, the whole process can be broken down into three distinct time periods of emotions that everyone goes through:

  1. The Awkward Breakup Period – Quitting is never easy. Being fired is worse (or so I am told). Having that conversation and then walking back out to your desk without having a horrible outburst of emotions is nearly impossible. But, getting through it quickly and professionally is the best way to go about it and the sooner you can face it, the better it is for all parties.
  2. The Lame Duck Period – So you have given your two week’s notice, now what? Wrap up any projects you were working on and/or transition them to other people? Now what should you do for the next six days you are supposed to be here? Answer: try to make yourself as busy and useful as possible. Keeping a good face with the firm you’re leaving is essential. In our industry, everyone knows everyone and you never know which bridges you may need to cross again. On that note, some people will be very warm with you, want you to succeed, and will be sad to see you go. Others will be upset with you and feel like you left them out to dry. Others may be happy to see you go. Regardless, you don’t want to make any situations worse, so put on a good face, show up, do the work, and be on your way.
  3. The First Day of School – The nerves and anticipation will show up anywhere from a few days before your first day to a few minutes before you walk through the front door. Regardless, they will be there in some fashion. Everyone faces this sort of situation in different ways. The most important thing to take from this nervousness though is that your new office wants you there; otherwise they would not have hired you. They are also going out on a limb for you so it is beyond crucial to show that you are a hard worker and willing to pull more than your fair share of weight. Once you get through the first day, it only gets easier.

This all being said, I’m sure we have all heard from different people that leaving a firm after only a year, especially if that is your first office after graduating, is seen as “disloyal” and something that is frowned upon. While I can understand this point of view, it seems to me that exposing yourself to a variety of professional environments and creative processes will only strengthen our base as emerging professionals.

Job transitions are inevitable. Whether they come about freely or are forced upon us, they are bound to happen. They should not be feared, but rather seen as an opportunity. The more perspectives and methodologies that we can be exposed to, the better we will be able to conduct ourselves and adapt to situations as professionals. With every office that we pass through, we take that knowledge with us to the next place. One of the most important aspects that an office can provide to a young professional is the opportunity for growth. It is important to not only have the opportunity for growth within the confines of that office, but also growing as a professional in general and as a contributor to the built environment. During a job transition, we must also embrace the opportunity for self reflection and acknowledge what we could have done personally to have made our previous jobs better and what we hope to gain from our new positions. As long as we constantly strive for the kind of expanded knowledge and professional development that brought us here in the first place, we will help to create a strong and well rounded next generation of architects.