On the topic of homelessness… (Part I)

Most will agree that the Denver transient population is difficult to ignore. Take a stroll down the famous 16th Street Mall and you will be confronted by the situation on every corner and multiple times in between. Drive up Park Ave. from downtown to I-70 and you will see some of the highest concentrations in the city centered around the Denver Rescue Mission. Even in neighborhoods that are more removed from downtown have an ever present population of homeless persons in parks and in back alleys. This issue is not unique to Denver and is, in fact, a fairly common scene in larger cities. However, it has become a highly contentious issue and is debated in various venues from city hall to neighborhood bars to the netherworld of internet comment sections.

When it comes to homelessness, almost everyone can agree that it needs to be addressed, but the method in which it is addressed becomes the main concern. There is a general sentiment that people do not care to have a high transient population in close proximity to their everyday lives. People do not want to be confronted by panhandlers on every corner, nor do they want to be on edge walking down the street for fear of being physically or verbally assaulted. It is unfair to paint an entire group of people with the same brush, but recent incidents around Denver have tainted many people’s views on the matter and have thus caused great unrest.

There are really two prevailing strategies to the issue: provide assistance through shelters and programs or move the transient population away from highly used areas. One could make arguments as to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) for either approach. While shelters and programs are noble causes and, in most people’s view, the right move, many of those living on the streets are unable or unwilling to take advantage of them for various reasons (lack of space, check in times, inability to bring all personal belongings into the shelter, etc.). On the other hand, simply relocating homeless persons away from certain areas doesn’t solve the issue, it only moves it. By taking the “not in my backyard” approach, the issue is just moved to another person’s backyard and starts all over again.

While either approach may be effective for some, they are both usually focused on temporary fixes. Often, a person living on the street may only be concerned with the next meal or the next place to rest, but as citizens in this city that do not have to worry about these problems, we should take it upon ourselves to look at the bigger picture for more holistic answers.

It is highly doubtful that there is, or ever will be, a “one size fits all” solution to the question of homelessness. The issues that lead to people living on the streets vary from financial struggles to mental health to substance abuse. The resolutions are as wide ranging as the issues that these people are confronting, which makes the task even more daunting. However, as architects and designers, I believe that we have a role to play in finding those answers. Whether that be through our buildings and designs, community action, civic engagement, or simply volunteering our time and skills, we can begin to set efforts in motion that address these multi-faceted and complex issue. We may not be able to solve everything ourselves, but we certainly can bring valuable insight to the conversation.

As Robert De Niro once said: “…you’re either part of the problem, you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

The Architect and Design Thinking; Navigating the business sector’s eager adoption of architecture’s iterative process and language, and architects’ potential role in its acquisition and deployment…

I recently edited an interview for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” magazine featuring a conversation at the 2016 AIA Convention between Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA and national President of the AIA in 2015 and Virginia E. Marquardt, AIA.

When asked what changes Richter would like to see 15 years from now in architectural professional practice, she replied, “ We [architecture professionals] have talked about expanding our services so that we don’t bracket ourselves within ‘just’ design. Architects need to find ways to apply our set of skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems creatively.  I think being able to find options is one of our main strengths as architects.  We are not formulaic and that’s what makes us so valuable when it comes to weighing options and helping our clients sort through whatever issue might need a solution.”   She proceeded to say that, “While architects shouldn’t bracket themselves, it’s very important to realize that architects build.  We build buildings, we build spaces.  We can’t forget the core of our profession.”

Richter’s comments regarding the architects’ ability to think iteratively and in an option-oriented manner highlighted one of my favorite aspects or our profession. When approaching a design problem, we already know that there is no one perfect solution, but rather, a multitude of options that must be studied and explored in order to build consensus regarding which option is most appropriate given a specific array of constraints and overarching project goals.

This past week I began to think through the potentials of diagramming a site for a new project. Wrapping my head around how I might create 4 distinctive options that solved a similar problem but in different ways was teased out in a quick sketch exercise, followed by study and some preliminary testing, conversation, and of course, more drawing.  The results felt exciting and latent with potentials that will continue to be tested against our client’s vision, needs, and long-term goals.  Already I am excited to see which scheme has the most promise, and do not feel married to a specific parti in favor of recognizing that the iterative process needs to once again be fed through a literal feedback loop that will garner new strategies and results.

Having returned this past May from C2, a conference in Montreal geared towards “Commerce and Creativity,” it seems that “big business” is also seeking this type of iterative thinking– and with great marketing gusto and enthusiasm.  During my time at C2 I attended a Master Class taught by a partner with Deloitte Digital, a self-described “digital consultancy” that “brings together all the creative and technology capabilities, business acumen, and industry insight needed to help transform our clients’ businesses.” The class was titled “Innovation in the Digital Era,” and focused on “exploring how leading innovators are able to disrupt their markets.”

Not sure what to expect, I was amazed to find myself in a class that was teaching principles and strategies of design thinking and prototyping paired with product development and outcomes. When I met someone in the class that worked for Deloitte Digital, they mentioned that some of their staff was comprised of architects, and that these individuals were achieving success in their new roles.

Much in the way that IDEO and other companies that aim to use design thinking as a lens with which to solve problems, architects’ process of working iteratively to generate quick solutions to evaluate and refine is being adopted and celebrated across industry sectors and various forms of media.

When I asked Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, a social impact design firm based in Boston, about the concept of “design thinking” being appropriated across a wide range of business sectors as a tool for re-thinking existing issues or initiatives by engaging users directly and prototyping potential solutions, I appreciated her initial response “they [the corporate sector] stole our words!” She then countered by adding, “The design process allows for uncertainty and creativity, which is deeply optimistic and imaginative.  To see examples of that being valued in the world outside of design is something I feel great about.  Design thinking as the marriage of ethnography and open-ended problem solving is a great process that can produce great things.”

As for my personal opinion, I second Richter that architects’ unique academic training instills a certain juxtaposition of rigor and “what if” that helps facilitate diverse, rich dialogues and thinking that hopefully result in, as Richter reminds us, amazing built work. What I also hope is that architects continue to sit at the table in multidisciplinary settings, where the rigor of the design process might add value to problem-solving even when built solutions aren’t required, not only as a means of generating unique solutions to various problems, but demonstrating a certain level of rigor and process that goes beyond the adoption of sometimes ambiguous or slippery words like “innovation.”

And I think it will: it seems like there has never been a better time and appetite to think iteratively not only in our work, but  in the diverse and applicable ways architecture professionals may want to utilize their varied skill sets.

Trouble with the (Learning) Curve

Recently, I have had the privilege to experience a project from beginnings to final permit drawings to construction. This multi-acre, multifamily project is designed for low income families and underserved seniors. The hundreds of units will add a much needed housing typology to the area and create a vibrant new neighborhood for those in need. At least, these are all the things that we say throughout the process in order to justify the long hours and endless headaches. While they might be true, by the time the last unit receives it’s certificate of occupancy, this project will have lasted over three years, seen it move from sketches to full construction documents, and gone through hundreds of hours of back and forth with contractors, consultants, clients, and internal vetting in order to realize this project through to the final product.

This is the first large scale project that I have been part of from inception through completion. Currently the first few buildings on this very large site are nearing the point of being completely framed out which, as most will agree, is one of the first points on project where a person really starts to feel like the things that they sketched months ago are starting to become realities. However, to get to this point, and especially at this point, the questions and shortcomings of our documentation process are being highlighted and pointed out to all parties involved. This won’t be news to anyone that has been practicing for years and it wasn’t especially surprising to me once it started happening, nor is this an indictment of other team members on this project, but this is a brief “lessons learned” bit for those about to embark on a similarly long project venture.

Every project that anyone ever works on will have its fair share of “what were we thinking?” moments. No one is perfect and no project will ever be perfect. Coordination can always be tighter and decisions more thoroughly vetted. However, there are always opportunities to learn; where we think to ourselves “I will never do that again” or “hey, that was a good idea and I should remember that for the future”. Whether that be a BIM coordination issue, initial decisions that were held on to for far too long, or just general project structure and management style, these lessons will resonate with me for the entirety of my career.

Among the countless lessons I have learned throughout the process, one particular aspect that has had an incredibly lasting impact on me is the value of the people that we work with on a project. It would be easy to go on incessantly about the merits of working with a housing authority and those that we serve with the final product, but instead I would like to focus internally. I had the privilege of working with a team that showed me the importance of working with others and valuing one another not for hours worked or documents produced, but more for how various individuals can work towards a common goal.

Ultimately, the value of the architecture that we produce stems from a team of people with wide array of principles and goals. We cannot assume that all people have the same values and are striving to reach the same end. However, I have learned that it is crucial to view team members as people first and not as a means to a production end. Managing various personalities and sets of values, and above all else, viewing one another as people first will lead to a successful project and team dynamic.

The team that I worked with taught me the value of viewing one another through the lens of treating one another first and foremost as a fellow team member that I would go out of my way for. Ultimately, we are all pulling in the same direction and when we are presented with the opportunity to help one another, whether that be with BIM issues, picking up some extra slack, or recognizing that people have lives outside of the office, it is crucial to the success of the project to be there for one another and help others whenever the opportunity presents itself. This not only leads to a more successful and thoughtful project, but also allows those relationships to resonate throughout our careers.

Everyone will have different project/CA experiences and maybe no one else will take these same lessons away from theirs. I could have spoken for pages and pages about the merits of early coordination, constant vetting, and being overly critical of execution and decision making, but ultimately it is those around you that will get you over the finish line. If we look out for one another, the project will look out for itself.

So you Wanted to be an Architect?

In any given social situation, the most frequently asked question is “What do you do?” Whether it’s a networking event, at a baseball game or Lyft Ride you can almost guarantee that you will be asked this question. I think all architects can agree, the most heard response is “Oh, I wanted to be an architect!”

I haven’t conducted professional data collection on this, but my informal surveying says that 50% of people thought about being an architect at one point in their lives. According to NCARB, in 2013 there were 105,847 licensed architects in the United States. This is less than .03% of the population that are architects.

We often discuss a perception issue we have within architecture. Whether it’s the perceived value of hiring an architect, or being seen as only designing high-end residential homes, it has made me ponder this statement even more so than usual. If so many people thought about being an architect, what is the disconnect here?

I have changed my approach in how I respond to this question. Instead of commenting, “Yes, so has everyone else.” I have started asking, “What changed your mind?” To this, most respond that they were inadequate at art and/or math in school. While both of these are important qualities and personally drove me to pursue a career in architecture, it seems funny that a middle school or high school student had to make a decision that they could never learn these skills in order to pursue a career that highly interested them.

Most people have a fear of being inadequate and this in turn directs their personal career choice or path through school. As a freshman in college, I struggled with my Physics course (which was required by my Architecture curriculum) and more than once a week thought “I am going to have to quit architecture”.  However, since working professionally, I have not needed to use F = MxA or any derivative.

The architecture profession is facing a shift, both technologically and in our labor force. As a country, we are facing large infrastructural issues and will need architects to help find the solutions for the cities we care about. We are working more collaboratively with experts to produce highly complex solutions to these problems.  We need a diverse body of architects that come from a variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and interests.

Having now worked in firms of various sizes and project types, I have found that there is not one way to be an architect. Each person has a very specific set of skills and this makes for well-rounded teams to complete the best projects.

Last night, I had an opportunity to share a Lyft Line with a guy who responded to my most frequently asked question with “Oh, I wanted to be an architect”. To this, I asked him “Why didn’t you pursue it?” And he responded that his school counselor told him his math skills weren’t strong enough. We shouldn’t blame our school counselors for turning this student away from architecture. But as architects, we should work with our school counselors and instructors to share with them what qualities an architect might possess.

After all, if it turns out that a student who might have been interested in architecture doesn’t ultimately pursue it, haven’t we just created a more educated and accepting client who understands the importance of architecture?

Denver Design Week Recap (and still time to register for the closing event tomorrow night!)


Photo courtesy of Modern in Denver’s facebook page.  Denver Design Week Moderator and Panelists (from left to right) Beth Mosenthal, Jeff Sheppard, Brad Buchanan, Jonathan Alpert, and Tobias Strohe participating in a discussion, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of our Built Environment”

If you haven’t checked your social media feeds this week or driven by a downtown streetscape where large foam letters spelling “DDW” sit boldly outside an event space, you might have missed one of Denver’s most trending topics regarding the city’s inaugural week-long series of events; Denver Design Week.

Denver’s first design week is described by the founder and organizer, Modern in Denver, as “a showcase for the region’s best architecture, interiors, art, brands, and technology. Eight days of education, home and studio tours, demonstrations, presentations, conversations, inspiration, collaboration, and a launch party that might be the highlight of your summer…Denver Design Week celebrates and elevates design because it shapes our lives. Good design has the power to change the world in real and meaningful ways, and better design leads to better living…Dozens of cities around the world host design weeks, bringing creative communities together, promoting a wide array of design industries and organizations and connecting the public to local design ecosystems.”

Throughout the week, I was able to attend and participate in several of the events offered. From a launch party in RiNo’s Glitterdome industrial-event space that combined social interaction with the artistic and experiential to discussions with various thought-leaders in the community regarding topics ranging from rapid urbanization to driverless cars to a dynamic discussion regarding on-going issues of equity in design, each event was thoughtfully-curated and well-attended by a diverse cross section of Denver residents.  Many events accommodating 100 or more people sold out, identifying a desire from Denver’s broader community to connect and learn more about various aspects of design and Denver’s design community.

At an event I participated in on Tuesday, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of Our Built Environment,” I found myself sitting next to a youthful and engaged husband and wife. After brief introductions, they explained to me that they were attending due to their 13 year old son’s burgeoning interest in architecture, engineering, and design.  They wanted to learn more about the design community, and were curious about different organizations and events in Denver that they might attend with their son to continue to facilitate his developing interest.  To me, this was an important moment in my design-week experience.  As a design professional, their presence and enthusiasm at the event felt very significant to me, and to the broader intent and positive implications of an initiative such as a city-specific Design Week.

Providing opportunities for connection and direct dialogue (almost all sessions involved an audience Q&A) between design professionals and members of the community helps demystify the inherent value of design in cities, while also creating greater access to residents’ concerns, priorities, and aspirations for the places in which they live, work, and play.

If you’ve missed the events thus far, there is still a chance to attend Friday night’s keynote with special guest-speaker Andrew Zolli, founder of Brooklyn Design Week and forward-thinker that “works at the intersection of global innovation, foresight, social change, and resilience.”

Much like Denver Start-Up Week, Modern in Denver’s first Denver Design Week has been a huge success, and will hopefully continue to grow and create more meaningful connections and opportunities between the city and the design community (and its outcomes) in the years to follow.