Category : practice topics

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Flexible engineers ROCK!

Why is working with engineers important? What is the purpose of forming solid relationships with the engineers? Why is it important to create a history with an engineer?

Randy, Jon, and I sat around the conference table and talked about Randy’s experience with engineers.

In the process of design, there is a time to discuss issues such as; mechanical, electrical, structural, and civil. Throughout Randy’s architectural career, he has worked with many engineers that were way too rigid and set in there ways-  they have one way of doing things – my way or the highway.  Finding a consultant who is open minded and is willing to compromise is difficult.  Visionary and creative……….priceless.   So when Randy found an engineer who would make joint decisions, he develops solid relationships with them.

While working with engineers, it is important to develop strong relationships.  Good relationships between the architect and engineer are significant for multiple reasons. The first reason is learning to work together.  In Randy’s case, he developed a great relationship with Infrastructure structural engineers, who we are using on the Kobe project. Because of this understanding, the consultants will seek solutions that please everyone. They work with us to create the architecture and solve the problems in ways that improve the architecture.  This leads to a better design.

Another reason it is important to develop a solid relationship with the engineer is to create a history. Randy can ask the consultant to figure out a detail similar to a previous project they have both worked on.   This history allows the consultant to have a better understanding of what Randy is trying to accomplish. Having this history helps communication.

Engineers and Architects think in different ways and from different perspectives. Architects like to design and think in an artistic way, whereas engineers think in a functional and logical way. Continuing to work with the same engineers builds a working dialogue. An example of this happened this week. We have been working with a civil engineer on a site plan and came upon a few issues. The civil consultant wanted to reorient the dumpster because it made sense in his mind. But, if the dumpster moves in orientation it would affect the building design, the spatial idea from the street and the signage area. After explaining the purpose of how we had detailed the dumpster, the civil engineer considered our idea and made it work with his grading and concrete pavement water movement.

History can created a greater understanding of what is wanted in future projects. If you have worked with an engineer on many projects it will become easier for the engineer to understand the ideas described to them. Communication between the architect and engineer strengthen with each project.

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Lawsuits SUCK!

What are the lessons learned from a lawsuit?  Why is this so important?  How can Randy Brown Architects prevent a lawsuit from occurring again?

The question was discussed in a relaxed meeting format in the studio. Randy, Jon, and I were all involved in the conversation.

On Wednesday April 14, 2010 Randy sat in court for numerous hours because of a lawsuit. RBA was suing his former client because they refused to pay the architecture fees.  Randy was suing them for only $17,000 of their $40,000 contract. They claimed the original (conceptual) design that was done as a feasibility study for $1,500 fee was perfect!!!! but the construction documents were not the same as the concept drawings from the feasibility study. Also, they stated that Randy had told them the costs in the beginning of the project and by the end, the costs was much more expensive. The client’s also argued they never received any drawings.

The number one lesson learned from this unpleasant incident was to communicate to the clients better. The former client’s tried to argue that the feasibility concept drawings RBA showed to them were not the same as the construction documents. RBA needs to make sure the client understands the difference between a feasibility study and construction documents.  We should have clarified feasibility and concept drawings as simply an idea or concept in the contract and Randy did a good job on the contract to clarify that construction documents the reality of the concept.

RBA also needs to communicate to the client a cost estimate is not the same as the hard bid construction cost based on construction drawings. The former client tried to say RBA said “the cost estimate of the feasibility concept design is the final cost of the project.”   RBA can only estimate a cost from historic information at the beginning of a project.   Most information comes from the cost of similar structures. Randy wants to stress the difference of a cost estimate and the hard bids construction cost to future clients, as a way to prevent this from happening.

The second lesson we have learned was to save all documentation. The Friday before court Randy, Jon, and I spent hours searching the network and dead files for the former clients files. The day became very stressful because without those documents to defend Randy’s argument, the case may have been thrown out. Fortunately, Randy was able to find the files on the external hard drive before the court date. One example that RBA communicated to the Hrdlicka’s was through e-mail. He was able to save these documents to the hard drive. When he found the e-mails on the hard drive he was able to use them as a way to justify his case.

The third lesson is to make sure to send and save transmittals to the clients about drawings and meeting notes.  RBA is a small firm and we do not have much time dedicated to re-typing meeting notes. Instead of re-typing the notes we can send an e-mail to the client that sums up the meeting.  After we send the e-mail we should print in and place it into the job file, as well as, save an electronic copy of it in the network job file.  RBA should also use the same technique for the reply from the client.  Fortunately Randy is the keeper of the office files so all of the hand written meeting notes, emails and office schedule were admitted into evidence.

Placing dates on every document is the forth lesson. RBA always  dates  every document, whether it is a sketch or a note from a phone call, is very important. Randy says having dates on the document is direct evidence of when the work takes place.

The next lesson is to make sure to keep a paper trail. We want to make sure there is evidence of drawings being approved to move forward.  The former client’s stated to the jury that they did not want to move forward with the project. But from paper trails, it clearly explains the former client was an active participant in the design and construction drawings and bidding process.   E-mails that are saved on the external hard drive proved this point.

From this discussion I have learned documenting work and saving information in a well organized manner will help prevent legal problems.  Also, making sure your client understands the process of design is essential to avoid confusion.

Listening to Randy, I could tell he wasn’t just explaining to us the lessons he learned by this; he was explaining to himself how he was going to improve his firm’s organizational skills even more. I have learned a great amount about office organization while working at RBA. The lawsuit was a prime example of why it was so important to be organized, physically and electronically. Randy would have been less stressed if he knew exactly where all the electronic and physical files were located. But he would have been more stressed if he did not have the documents from this project.

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Websites for tomorrow

Why is it important for RBA to have a projective website? What possible advantages / disadvantages does having a firm website possess? Keeping an up-to-date website is crucial to a success, how does RBA stay ahead?

The question was held as an open discussion between Chris, Meg, Jon and myself.

Randy decided that this practice topic would be a good one to talk about and would pertain to what we were learning in the office at the moment.  The first questions: why is it important for RBA to have a projective website?

He gave us a brief run down on the history of the current RBA website. The firm introduced the first website 13 years ago. It was considered more as an “paper brochure” on the screen than an actual website. It was interesting that Randy thought of the fist website as something similar to a television set. You just sit back and watch. There wasn’t any involvement or ways to engage what was on the screen. Comparing that to the way most websites are today, they are night and day difference. Full interaction is achievable on any recent website. For example, the ability to leave your mark on a website in the form of a blog is something that couldn’t be done when websites were first introduced.

Since I started working at RBA, we have been gearing for the change of abandoning the current website and creating a new identity through a new logo, new letterhead and cards and a new website.   The future website promises to be completely hands on and illustrates to everyone who visits the site what we are about. The way Randy is constructing the new website will keep any first time and returning visitor always coming back for more. If the site is exciting, visitors will tend to be more interested in the work that is done and become a fan, similar to be a fan of a sports team. It might sound strange to think of it this way, but if you are a fan of Richard Neutra or any other architect, you probably have all of their books and are inspired by their work. Same goes for a great architectural website. You become a “fan” of the firm, you follow their work and receive inspiration from the work they do. For instance, while I was researching potential firms for internship I went to their websites and unintentionally decided by the first impression if I was fan. I didn’t realize until this discussion that I had subconsciously done this. The website was the first impression. If it was boring, too complicated, or just plain unappealing, it didn’t make the second glance. Comparing this to school, they teach us to design everything. If an architectural firm doesn’t design a functional website, it tends to show a lot about the work they do there.

The new website for RBA will be sure to give everyone a positive experience. It is going to be a fully interactive website that is constantly evolving. By this, it will have areas to blog your ideas/thoughts about all the projects shown. Since the first week, Randy has been talking about all of us in the firm writing blogs to upload to the new website. I think this would be a great opportunity for outside visitors to learn more about RBA through what we write. The website will also have a client portal. This will be an ideal way for a client to see the most up to date status on their specific project. For instance, drawings, pictures, proposals, etc. will all be loaded daily to this portal so questions from the client can be answered right on the website. This won’t single handedly rid the need for in person, client meetings, but it should help to answer quick questions where a meeting wouldn’t be as necessary. The new website will have areas to watch behind-the-scenes footage of projects through phases of construction. Referring back to the first weekend working for RBA, Assassi produced a short video of the award winning Data project. This film along with many more, such as the HGTV Extreme Homes video will all be available for viewing on the new website.

With the website well on its way to completion and most of the kinks worked out of it, I predict that this will be a very appealing website. I know from going to school that when you put as much hard work into something like RBA has with this website, only good things are to come from it.

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Publish or perish

How is marketing / publishing projects advantageous to the firm? What does it take to get published? How does being published in a magazine advance the architectural industry?

Marketing; what’s all the hype about? For RBA, publishing and marketing projects are tools used for numerous advantages. A few of these advantages include: getting recognition for the work, helping to spread the RBA name, leaving our legacy (in a magazine), and finally, it brings visitors to our website.

Maybe the most important reason why publishing and marketing is a good idea, is so that we can share our knowledge on a specific project with the rest of the profession. With other firms learning from the work we do and vice versa, the bar for project expectations is raised to the next level. Not to mention the competitive level for creative projects is raised as well.

Randy explained to us that he has been traveling to New York City since 1993 to meet with publishers and show them his work for potential pages in renowned magazines. A few of these magazines include Architectural Record, Metropolis, Interior Design, and Contract Magazine. He said, “Meeting with editors in person is the only way to make sure you have a chance at being published.” Randy stated that one editor in NYC receives over 100 projects a week asking to be published and of those 100 projects, 99 of them are eliminated. Moral of the story, it’s not easy to get published. So going and meeting with the editors will only help you be the one firm out of the 100 that isn’t tossed away.

When Randy said this, I referenced this back to school and sending out my resume and portfolio. With times the way they are now, I wasn’t competing for an office position between four people; it was more like 100. If you send out your resume and portfolio blindly and don’t make any follow up plans, it isn’t likely that you will be getting a call from that firm. But, if you take initiative and call them and tell the firm you want to show them why you are the right person for the job, your chances for an interview will be much higher.

Something that I can’t compare anything to is the feeling you get when you see your work in a publication. I can say first hand, it feels pretty good to turn to the next page of a magazine only to see your work right there. For instance, the first week working for RBA, Randy had Meg and myself refining the Optic House elevations for the GA Houses publication. Last week, Randy told us the issue had been printed and the work we had done was in the magazine. After seeing all the work we put into those drawings published in the magazine, it didn’t take long to see why Randy said that getting published was also an, “ego booster.” The whole studio was in high spirits that afternoon.

Reflecting back on this conversation I completely agree that marketing and publishing projects has definite advantages. From learning more by what other architects have done to using it as a recruitment tool. Many firms don’t even take advantage of the opportunities getting published has to offer. RBA has done a lot of remarkable work and some of these jobs contributed to getting RBA out into the public through magazines.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Websites are ____(fill in the blank)

What are RBA’s website goals?  Why is a website important?  What is RBA trying to do now with it’s website?

The question was discussed in a group format. Randy, Jon, and I were all participates of the conversation. This question was brought up because RBA is in the process of redesigning the RBA  website.

RBA’s first website went live in 1997. Randy compares it to paper brochure.  There was little information expressing the firms’ philosophy and values.  Little interactivity.  Little ideas.  The current website is around five years old. It is out of date. It does not tell the real story of our office and where we are going.   All our current and recent past workis missing because the current website cannot be updated easily.  RBA’s goal with the website design is to create a system that can be constantly updated.

Technology is advancing and it seems impossible to keep up to pace.  And a user comes back to the site a few times and all of the pages look the same, the user leaves because users need frsh stuff. New experiences.   Websites are a drug for those hooked and Randy wants his new RBA website to be constantly updated with new content weekly.

Randy wants the viewer to be able to see something new on the main page every time they come to the site.  RBA’s plan to accomplish this is to have a slide show appear on the opening page. But, each time you open the page a new slide show will play. It will seem like the website is constantly changing and it will be. Throughout time the website will evolve because more projects will come, and causes more information and images to emerge on the site.  Ideas will be shared on the blogs and news areas.  Randy’s speaking gigs will be updated.  The website is becoming the archiver of everything the office does.

The website is also important because it is THE major way RBA communicates with the world. The internet is a major part of today’s lifestyle.  It is a way to organize the firm. Everyone on RBA’s network will have access.  It will be a way to communicate with clients. There will be a log in area for clients and special news features for clients to view. Drawings, renderings, and models will be capable to upload on the website for clients to view and comment upon. Client meetings will not be eliminated but it will reduce the need for unnecessary conferences.

RBA’s goal of the website is to become a two way communication vehicle. Previous websites have only communicated in one direction. They stated the RBA information and showed images.  There was no interaction with the viewer. RBA revolves around interaction. The designs and the RBA studio express and encourage interaction. It would only make sense to have the website interactive. To create a two way connection Randy is adding blogs to the website.  These blogs will be written by the RBA Studio but they will allow for anyone to give their option.  Blogs are becoming extremely popular and are being used by millions. It is an easy way to describe what is going on in the world today. They will allow us to get our ideas out there and receive feedback.  Fans will be able to learn more and follow the studio’s work.

Another goal of is to express ourselves with more than text and images. We want to use music and videos to convey our ideas.  This is a way to be the innovator.  RBA is not about the past or today; RBA is about the future. Randy wants to be a leader in the technology aspect of the design field.  The RBA website allows communication that we hope will move the architectural community forward.

Sunday, March 21st, 2010


“Why have architectural competitions? For practitioners, they offer the chance of a job without the grief of negotiation or self-promotion, and they can sometimes jump a small practice to the next level. For clients, competitions provide the opportunity to choose from many alternatives, show sympathy with architecture, and – in most cases – do it on the cheap. For the public, competitions carry the seal of meritocracy, seemingly outside familiar cronyism.” (Michael Sorkin, Architectural Record, 11.03, p.63) Does your sponsor firm undertake competitions? Why or why not? If so, please discuss the risks and benefits of competitions using as an example a competition your firm has taken part in.

The group discussion on “why we have architectural competitions” included Randy Brown, Chris Turner, Meg O’Mara, and I.

Randy began the conversation by breaking down architectural competitions into two separate categories: paid and unpaid.  The differences are obvious, but a few of the things I learned from the discussion that weren’t as evident were the number of similarities they share. Chris pointed out that networking is achieved from both paid and unpaid competitions. When accepting the challenge of an invited competition or even entering an open competition, the door has been opened to get the firm’s name out and into the public. Later in the discussion, Randy stated that not only do the sponsors of the competition benefit in the end, but the architects and firms who partake in it receive something as well. Entering open competitions that we (RBA) have no prior background experience in doesn’t mean it’s going to be a slaughter house and we won’t gain anything from it. Instead knowledge gained from researching about a specific genre of projects is something that we can add to our company’s resume for later projects.

When it comes to competitions, Randy made very clear that you have to be very cautious of who is on the jury; it is vitally important to have at least one architect as a jury member.  If there isn’t an architect as a jury member, RBA tends to steer away from those competitions to avoid wasting time.

Time is the double edged sword to competitions. It never seems to fail that a competition gets added to the list of things to do at the busiest time of the year. Even if RBA is swamped with work, it can’t be justified not to enter the competition. This is because, if it’s not a paid competition, we are at least doing paid-work while working on the non-paid competition. Sometimes RBA is forced to “gamble” and enter a competition during less hectic times and take a loss. But, if we end up winning, or receive business in the end from it, it’s all worth it. One of the projects where RBA took a risk with a competition was the Judson College art school competition. This was a paid-invited competition to design a portion of Judson College outside of Chicago in Illinois.

After hearing the discussion on paid and unpaid competitions, I’m a little surprised how much thinking must take place even to just accept or decline the competition. Coming from a background experience of next to nothing of working in firms, I always assumed that anytime a firm was asked to participate in a competition that they would immediately jump on board. But what I learned was that by accepting before thinking about the pros and cons of the competition could end up as a very costly mistake. By accepting every non paid competition you get could help you expand your knowledge, but it takes money to keep a firm working and with no money, you won’t be doing any work. In the end, I’m beginning to realize the nuts and bolts that construct the way an architecture firm works, but more importantly, how to make it successful.   Measuring success is dicey but I would say RBA has been very successful, just look at the remarkable built projects, a few of which started with a competition.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Specialization, necessary evil

Does the firm specialize in one or more project types? List the firm’s project types. Have the firm’s project types remained constant or do they change over time? How does the firm make decisions about what project types to seek?

This question was discussed with Randy, Chris, Andy, and Jon as a group during an office meeting on Tuesday January 12, 2010.

The first thing out of the bosses mouth was that Randy wants to do all types of projects, but with the hurdles we face trying to constantly break into new markets, it is better to focus on what we have done best and slowly emerge from that to larger and more complex projects.  The RBA work falls into three main categories, (Randy calls them “buckets”) Cultural, Identity, and Dwelling.

Cultural consist of projects such as Bellows Center for Art and art installations, Identity is work such as offices and retail. The US Data Office is a great example of the image RBA is trying to set with this focus on creating Identity for our clients. The third “bucket” would consist of Custom Modern Residential works such as the Tipp Residence (Optic House) and the DiNucci Residence.

Randy went into detail about when first starting Randy Brown Architects. He wanted everyone to think he did everything from urban design to a chair, but now he has realized he wants RBA to focus in on the work that can have remarkable outcomes.  Even though RBA doesn’t market every field of design does not mean RBA is not interested in new project types it has not done before.  If a client wanted chairs (or a skyscraper) to be designed for a certain project, that task is something RBA will take on and will do the best job possible.

We got into the details about doing great projects and Randy discussed his intention for RBA to be “a highly creative, remarkable, design firm.”

A firm that raises the bar.

A firm that makes noise.

A firm that makes great experiences for people.

A firm that cares about its clients and wants to do everything possible to ensure the client projects design helps the client achieve their business objectives.

Nothing at RBA is thrown together, nothing except Randy’s hair.  Everything is well thought out, looks astonishing, functional, take in consideration of how people feel in the space and it will (damn straight!) bring success to the client.

From this discussion I have learned a great deal about the RBA design intentions. I am in the process of being taught how to make architecture. I look forward to the learning process and how RBA strives to create the most successful projects and achieves RBA architecture and art goals by consistently surpassing the goals and expectations of their clients. As Randy said “RBA can do all types of architecture but we would rather center our attention on the modern clients who have passion for design and want to build great projects for the visual and bodily experience!”

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Studio work flow

How does your sponsor firm organize people to do work? Is the firm structured in two departments, studios, (stable work groups that function like offices within an office), or teams (flexible work groups that tend to change with each project)? Discuss the firms’ structure. Is the firm compartmentalized, what are the functions of the different departments? If the firm is organized into studios, are the studios specialized by building type? If the firm works in teams, what is the makeup of each team? How effectively does the organization appear to be functioning?

The discussion was held in group format and the contributors were Randy Brown, Chris Turner, Meg O’Mara, and I.

Randy Brown Architects (RBA) is as efficient as it is because of its organization. “Our own space has to be organized to show organized thought” said Randy.   This is vitally important in an office. The first day at Randy Brown Architects, we were preparing for this question. We organized the entire office for the upcoming year.

The firm is structured (organized) as one big studio sharing a warehouse space. Everyone is in the same room together. There aren’t any specific departments or work groups. We work and interact with Randy and then Randy individually works with us. This type of structure works well at RBA because everyone knows what they need to be doing.    Most importantly, Randy has an idea of where everyone is on the specific task all the time. Randy mentioned that in a large firm, a lot of times, the boss of the firm doesn’t have a clue what their employees are doing and will just show up to the client meetings with the drawings their employees produced. This type of disconnect is what RBA has avoided and will continue to avoid. In large firms, you more than likely won’t work with the boss hand in hand like we do at RBA.

While working in one big room, you might think there is some type of hierarchy amongst the employees, but that could not be more false. There isn’t any hierarchy of staff at his office.

At the beginning of each day, Randy communicates to us, through a group meeting, the expectations he has for each of us for the day. Working individually on projects has many advantages. Sometimes more than one person works on the same project, but usually we are all working on different things. Today I might be working on a certain project and the next day I could be working on something totally different. This is effective for me because I am learning more about the practice from working on numerous different projects. Everyone does everything. Another advantage to working on projects individually is that you feel more connected to each of the projects since you get to work on all of them. You don’t get yourself tied up in one project, like in studio; because you jump around from one project to another before they get finished. I thought this was something that was going to be hard for me to do, but so far, I think it has enabled me to work more efficiently. I don’t waste time trying to figure everything out. Each project is similar to an assembly line and everyone gets an opportunity to work on it.  But the RBA assembly line is more like an upside down roller coaster-  hang on each project is a great ride.

Something interesting I noted from the discussion was about responsibilities. It was interesting to hear what our responsibilities are with the way the firm is handled. Because all the staff works on the projects, our responsibilities may be smaller, but because we all do work on each of the projects, we have several smaller responsibilities. These responsibilities to other members of the team are what make RBA so remarkable.

From this discussion, I learned that organization within a studio is necessary for it to be successful and that having more, smaller responsibilities is an effective way to learning new things.