Five Years Out: advice to my past self from my current self

Over the last month or so, I have seen numerous pictures and heartfelt posts from recent graduates flooding the social media channels. It made me think back fondly of when I graduated from architecture school five years ago and even, as shocking as it may seem, made me think fondly of being in architecture school (I guess it’s true: time does heal all wounds).

This past week has proven more taxing than most as I was reminded that I still have a long ways to go in figuring out the whole “being an architect” thing and what that entails. It brought me back to my post-graduation days of thinking that I had a firm grasp on what I was supposed to be doing and how much I actually knew about architecture. This has led me here: to the ever cliché format of “what advice would I give my younger self?” So, without further ado: here are a handful of tidbits that “five years out of architecture school and recently licensed Drew” would give “just graduated and trying to figure it out Drew”.

  • It’s okay to not be working on your dream projects. Architecture school is, more or less, built around the idea of teaching us to THINK like architects, while professional practice is where we figure out all the other aspects that make up actually being an architect. It’s hard to go from dreaming up grandiose projects in school with no client and no budget and then move into the realm of construction budgets and numerous outside sources trying to influence the project with their own priorities in mind. It takes time to wrap your head around even the simplest building projects. Be patient and try to absorb the lessons that will come at you daily.
  • You won’t know how to do everything that people ask you to do. That’s okay. People are (usually) willing to help you out because they remember how it felt to be in your situation and they would rather spend the time showing you the right way to do things than have to tell you to fix them later. I spent a lot of time afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to bother people because everyone seemed so busy. However, once I decided to take the initiative and speak up, the amount of things that I learned on a daily basis skyrocketed (and continues to grow every day).
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away from thing that are not the right fit for you. We often find ourselves in circumstances, be it jobs, workplaces, project teams, or just life situations, where we know that it’s not going to work out. If you are able to walk away from these things and better your circumstances and your own mental health, do it. Change can be frightening, but it’s even more frightening to think back on times that you wasted in situations that made you unhappy.
  • Get licensed ASAP. Seriously. You probably have as few responsibilities right now as you will ever have. Find a method of studying that works for you and stick to it. Find a person or group of people that you can lean on for support and pick their brains as much as you can. Don’t waste time thinking about getting licensed. Just go for it and don’t stop until you get to the end.
  • It will take time before people to take you seriously. It won’t matter how much prior knowledge you have on a subject, people will see that you are recently out of school and immediately assume that you know less than you do and treat you as such. It will be frustrating and at times cause you great angst, but do your best to let it roll off your back. It takes time to build up a working relationship with your project teams and clients before they trust you, so just give it time and try to take things in stride.
    • Side note: I am a white male, so if it’s this way for me, there are many others that will experience this same thing ten times over and, potentially, for much longer.

These points probably seem obvious to many if not most. However, that doesn’t make them less true. I wish someone had sat me down five years ago and vehemently made these points. On top of that, these are all things that I continually have to remind myself of even today. The learning curve is ever bending and all we can do is to try to keep things in perspective and continually grow with it.

Hopefully I won’t be writing the same thing in five more years about my current self. If so, with any luck we will have time machines by then.

Denver Street Level… with a Stroller, A Guest Post from a new(ish) Mother

Nothing re-contextualizes a city’s public, street-level environment quite like having an infant in tow.  While life’s errands and events were once a seamless rhythm of transitions from home to mode of transport to destination, leaving the house as a new parent comes with an entirely new choreography.

Six months into parenthood, while I’ve eased up a bit since the early months, I still catch myself considering a list of logistics rivaling a CIA operative about to embark on a strategic mission each time I leave the house. 

What mode of transportation should I bring—a stroller or a baby carrier?   Are there sidewalks? And if so, what condition are they in? How long will I be out?  Can I run multiple errands while visiting one location?  Will this location have a changing station and/or nursing room?  Is the space I am visiting outdoors or indoors, and what additional blankets or shading do I need to temper my baby’s microclimate? 

Prior to parenthood, there were many specific ways in which I engaged with the city’s urban fabric.  As a practicing architect working near the heart of Downtown Denver, I have ridden on my fair share of entertaining mallrides, felt the warm glow of the cosmopolitan bustle at Union Station, and spent many dusky Friday evenings perusing Rino’s cultural and epicurean venues.  A fan of local businesses, seasonal markets, and public parks, I have walked and biked through many of Denver’s unique, rapidly-developing neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to early parenthood.  Suddenly my means of navigating the city has become less about novelty and more about predictability.  Prior to having an infant, I hadn’t considered IKEA’s sinuous walking paths, set amongst the backdrop of carefully-organized living environments, as an exercise and entertainment destination on a rainy day.  Nor did I appreciate the diversity of merchandise available under the roof of America’s beloved Super Target.  Despite my proximity to Cherry Creek North, I didn’t give much thought to what I now consider one of the more well-planned pedestrian environments in the City of Denver.

Borrowing Bob Dylan’s words, things have changed.

As a new mother that aspires to remain an active, urban-dweller throughout maternity leave and beyond, here are several planning features that might facilitate a positive parent outing/ experience.  While most of these planning principles cater to universal design strategies, these features have quickly become important enhancements to the quotidian routines of early parenthood.

  1. Wide, flat sidewalks with curb cuts and generous indoor circulation paths.

Many Colorado parents opt for all-terrain strollers that support the state’s “active lifestyle.”  These strollers tend to have a wide frame and impressively-large all-weather tires.  While navigating narrow, cracked sidewalks and jumping curbs might appeal to those that enjoy testing their strollers’ off-roading capabilities, a smooth and barrier free experience remains preferable while pushing perhaps such precious cargo.

While the Denver Post recently reported that the City of Denver’s 2017 operating budget has earmarked $2.5 million for new or fixed sidewalks on city-owned property.  Perhaps more challenging is how Denver might provide assistance in improving neighborhood sidewalks that fall within the responsibility of the homeowner.

This principle also applies to the idea that indoor spaces have wide circulation paths that might accommodate strollers in aisle-ways and areas surrounding displays in retail environments.

  1. Mixed-use retail environments that mimic the urban microcosm.

Three months into parenthood, I’ve appreciated mixed-use developments that necessitate only one trip via car or public transportation.  Upon arrival, being able to accomplish many activities and tasks on-foot without having to open and fold a heavy stroller or strap a sleeping baby in-and-out of a carrier numerous times creates a more enjoyable experience for all participants involved.

My new-found appreciation of Cherry Creek North stems from its rich diversity of programming and thoughtful attention to the pedestrian scale and public space(s).  In many ways creating a parallel to a small village, one might meet a friend for coffee or a meal, pick up groceries and other household items, fit in a workout, stop by the library, and/or engage in a round of retail therapy all in one trip.  These activities are enhanced by a pleasant pedestrian scale that boasts wide sidewalks and pedestrian-preferred crosswalks, ample landscaping and benches, continuous stretches of active, ground-level retail, and fairly inexpensive metered parking.

  1. Clean, sanitary restroom facilities that go beyond code. 

On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by the universal design features in the majority of public spaces, transportation hubs, and cultural institutions.  Besides the elaborate electric toilets with multiple cleansing options, each accessible stall had an infant seat in which a child under six months could be placed while their mother used the facilities.  This small addition to public amenities would make a seemingly simple need safe and less awkward for parents out with their child.

Upon expecting, several new mothers I met told me of their appreciation for Nordstrom bathrooms, which boast comfortable couches and areas for privacy in nursing/resting while shopping with an infant.

A little extra care and investment in public restrooms for functions such as nursing and changing enable parents to feel more comfortable in leaving the house for extended stretches of time.

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of public, urban parks.

During the first two months of life, a newborn is not vaccinated, and it is typically recommended by the Pediatrician that parents avoid confined areas.

So where to go to get out of the house?

Public parks and open spaces within walking-distance of neighborhoods are critical resources for exercise, fresh air, and an opportunity to “reconnect” with the outside world.

I can’t count how many times I walked around Washington Park during the first few weeks of my child’s life (sometimes twice in one day,) but I know that this beloved public park served as a savior of both my sanity and post-pregnancy recovery.

While babies grow quickly, the first several years of life provide parents with numerous considerations that seem counter to a spontaneous, out-the-door approach to small and large outings.  My hope is that as Denver continues to grow, design features that demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to parents with young children might be incorporated in new and existing public spaces, cultural institutions, and neighborhoods and mixed-use developments.

 

What’s in a name?

Intern. The term that has been the source of debate, ridicule, scorn, and general hair pulling for years. Until this past December, the AIA regarded all unlicensed persons practicing architecture as “interns”, much to the dismay of… just about everyone. The term was seen as demeaning to those who go to work every day and put in the time and work at a professional architectural practice. It was seen as a title that should have been left behind as soon as that person walked across the stage and was handed a diploma from their NAAB accredited program. Finally, though, there is movement forward.

In December of 2016, the AIA opted to pivot away from using intern to describe all unlicensed persons working in the field of architecture. Instead, it will now only refer to those that are still in school and working at a professional architecture practice. Those that are unlicensed will now have the titles of architectural associate or design professional. I cannot speak for everyone, but it seems that this shift is a long overdue step in the right direction.

Without doubt, these two titles will not please everyone. In my own experience at work, the title “associate” is used to describe someone that has been elevated within the firm to a position of leadership, so using that term will most likely not work for our office or a great many other offices. The term of design professional indicates a level of professional aptitude, but omits any reference to architecture, so is inherently vague, which is possibly by design so that it encompasses those not directly working in the field of architecture.

Each term has its own positives and negatives, but all in all, the move is a positive one. A person that is forty years old and has been practicing for fifteen years, moved up within the profession, and is highly regarded by their peers, but never got around to taking their tests should not be referred to as an intern the same way that a twenty year old student with three months of experience is. It defies logical reasoning.

Regardless of how the architectural community responds to the change, it is a positive step for the AIA to be taking. The organization has taken its share of backlash over the years and even more so recently. However, the American Institute of Architects still holds, and will continue to hold, major sway in the architecture community, with government entities, and with the general public. The name carries with it major influence and represents a wide array of members. While AIA may be a bit tardy in catching up with the shift away from outdated terminology, steps are being made to set things on the right track. That being said, I will leave you with this: the best way to ensure the AIA is representing architecture and all members is to continue to stay engaged, demand accountability, and to relentlessly push forward on the issues that matter. This change would not have come about if not for a strong push from members. It’s a small step, but it is indicative of the influence that members have and will continue to have.

Inclusive Growth

By definition, gentrification is the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper and middle-income people, which ultimately improves property values but displaces low-income families and small businesses.

As architects, planners and urban designers we often struggle with the idea of gentrification. Specifically, in Denver, we are often attracted to the eccentric neighborhoods that exist because of the diversity of families, lifestyles, cultures and businesses. This in turn attracts many people to those neighborhoods; therefore, becoming more attractive places to develop and build new homes, apartments and businesses. What we may often forget or deliberately choose to forget, is that when we develop these neighborhoods with the uses that stimulate the economy, we are displacing families and businesses because of the rise in property values, residential rents and commercial rents.

The question then remains; how do we create economic opportunity in our neighborhoods while remaining inclusive?

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This week, the Downtown Denver Partnership hosted their annual CityBuild event “CollaborEAT”. For one night, the CityBuild team activates a space in the city to demonstrate how activity can influence our urban spaces. This year, they turned a surface parking lot between 26th and 27th on Larimer into a four-course dining room. The event featured speakers from the RiNo Community to talk about the very issues of inclusive growth. As an Art District, RiNo’s mission is to smartly grow the district, but maintain the quality, culture and artists within the District. As you can imagine, this hasn’t been an easy task. There have been a lot of partners involved in the development of RiNo as it is today.

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It can be argued that RiNo is not affordable. Part of the CollaborEAT event was sitting and mingling with strangers, discussing how we preserve art in our communities, while also strengthening it. One of our table mates described how her boyfriend had been pushed out of his current RiNo location and priced out of other options within the District.

As our communities continue to evolve, develop and grow, we need to find strategies that allow for inclusive growth. Often development occurs to stimulate economic growth in an area. How can we advocate for inclusive economic growth?

Just this morning I read an article by CEOs for Cities about the role of Economic Development Organizations (EDOs) in Inclusive Growth. This article underlines a different aspect of inclusive growth in communities: jobs. It argues that sustainable communities and inclusive ones exist when communities invest in job creation, job preparation, and job access. The article also outlines three major strategies for ensuring and achieving inclusive growth. These strategies being:

  1. EDOs have a vital role to play in achieving inclusive growth.
  2. Inclusive growth is not an add-on to business as usual.
  3. Inclusive growth requires a good ground game.

I feel there are contrasting strategies that can be employed to ensure that the neighborhoods we love, maintain the people, character and culture that exists within them today. First, as residents, activists and artists, we must work together to support strategies and policies that work towards this goal. Second, business owners and Economic Development Organizations need to work together to provide opportunities and jobs so that residents can stay within these communities.

It seems the bottom line is, there is no one strategy to mitigate gentrification. But if we all work together to improve our communities, we might just be able to strengthen the aspects of it that we love.

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Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

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Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.

 

My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.

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Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.