architecture


[This is a version of a letter I sent to my local AIA chapter (where I am currently a board member).  I haven’t yet escalated this higher, but I am now at least making this public.  I’m not sure what my next steps are going to be.  Others have posted their own Open Letters to the AIA.  But I haven’t seen anyone else raise the issues I’ve pointed out, which I think could be embraced by both sides, as a larger issue than political side-picking.]

You may or may not already be aware that the AIA’s CEO, Robert Ivy, issued a statement shortly after the election, pledging: “The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces…”  (The full statement can be found here: http://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/11991-aia-committed-to-working-with-president-elect-trump)

In the face of such a polarizing election, to paint the entire membership in this manner is, at best, a tone-deaf platitude coming from an out-of-touch executive.

Without touching on the politics or the multitude of other reasons why the candidate-elect “has strong negatives,” the attitude of his message is galling and professionally offensive to me.  More important than what Mr. Ivy said is what he has left unsaid, and has allowed to pass without comment.

During the debates, Mr Trump was the candidate who tossed off the issue of not paying his architect with a glib line:

“CLINTON:  …  We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do…
“TRUMP: Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work…
“CLINTON: Well, to…
“TRUMP: Which our country should do, too. ”

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/26/the-first-trump-clinton-presidential-debate-transcript-annotated/)

Here he is specifically endorsing the concept of clients who refuse to pay for services rendered.  Not in an oblique way, which is the best characterization one can give the “infrastructure improvements” Mr. Ivy hopes that will include architectural projects, but in a case specifically dealing with an architect going unpaid for his services rendered.

This should be repellent to each and every one of us.  Architecture is already a field with its own internal issues (unpaid internships) in this regard, as well as an ongoing issue that firms large and small have to deal with of clients refusing to pay for completed work.  While the large firms may be able to absorb these hits, they can be devastating to smaller practices.  But no one should go unpaid for services performed.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Mr. Ivy nor the AIA has addressed this statement, which is far more important to me than sucking up to the incoming executive in hopes of forthcoming work being tossed our way.

Many issues were raised in the course of the campaign, and Mr. Ivy’s decision to address the electoral aftermath in this way speaks more loudly to me in what is left unsaid.  The organization is supporting the position espoused by the candidate-elect by going along and not raising the issue of what should be a giant red flag for an organization seeking to protect and advocate for its members.

Speaking for myself, this does not in any way resemble the attitude of an organization that I would think would represent me and my interests.

These are a few sketches for a conceptual mixed-use building which contains a small coffee shop and three 2-story live/work  units.  Unfortunately, the original program for this competition has a lot of problems with it — the kinds of things that an architect and client could examine and discuss and come to terms with what the client’s needs really are, and hopefully make it an even better project.  But as a competition, that level of discussion isn’t available, so assumptions are made and liberties taken with items that are part of the given requirements.

But even if the process has its flaws, the ideas behind it — the mixed-use building, the live/work elements, the small-scale urban building — are all an appealing mix, and it’s been fun project to experiment with, even if it’s not a real project.

coffeeshop+cloud-entrancecoffeeshop+cloud-frontoverhead

The tall stretches of glass are channel glass, which allows for very long spans, to give the verticality to the building, which is otherwise very height constrained.  Since the pieces of channel glass are each only about a foot wide, it  is also very workable for making segmented curves, like by the coffee shop entrance.

Inside, the coffee shop has room for only a couple of cafe tables and a minimal floating wood service counter and back bar.  Some materials are left raw and exposed, such as the CMU walls between each space and the exposed concrete floors.

coffeeshop overhead perspectivelofts-overheadperspective--

The studio lofts are so small that there is only room for a fold-out futon to serve as bed and seating, but the office space on the lower level could also serve as additional living space.  The bathroom is very small, as befits a studio, but there is still enough room for a reasonable galley kitchen.

This project overcomes the very restrictive height limitations through the use of long pieces of channel glass to provide much of the glazing for the building.  The channel glass also allows the creation of a curved wall at the corner to provide a dramatic and inviting facade to direct customers to the entrance at the end of the building.

This project overcomes the very restrictive height limitations through the use of long pieces of channel glass to provide much of the glazing for the building.  The channel glass also allows the creation of a curved wall at the corner to provide a dramatic and inviting facade to direct customers to the entrance at the end of the building.
The building uses a limited palette of simple materials for a minimalist aesthetic that serves the essential needs of the building.  Party walls between units and the coffee shop are all simple CMU which provides loft-like urban sensibility and contrasts with the refined channel glass and wood panel cladding.  The exposed ends of the CMU walls help give each of the live/work units individual definition as well as providing another vertical element for the facade.
Inside the coffee shop, a minimal floating wood service counter and matching wood back bar provide necessary work space and room for storage and display.  Storage units are located beneath the service counter.  The WC and storage are in the partial height cube that projects within the back of the space.
The live/work units have front entrances on the streetfront, as well as private access for the residents from the back side.  Skylights in the roof provide additional openness to the three small studio lofts, without increasing the height of the building.

In the next few months, p s proefrock architecture is going to start dialing back. I am in the process of merging my practice into a new firm. Those of you interested in my work will probably want to follow over as a new practice is coming together and we are getting ready to launch our new firm at the beginning of next year. We’re still putting things together, so this isn’t the big, formal announcement; it’s more of a soft-launch right now. But if you are close enough to be following me in some fashion, then you’re probably someone who will be interested in knowing what’s going on.

When I first started my own firm, I was pretty sure that I was going to work as a single-practitioner. The economy was going into free-fall (though I don’t think anyone anticipated the depths of that at the time). I wasn’t sure what other things I might be doing, along with architecture, so I saw my practice as potentially wide-ranging and unconfined, in a way that a larger practice might not be able to be. And there didn’t seem to be much work going on.

CoStudio-logo-greenEvery step of the way has not been exhaustively documented, but, although there have been forays into furniture design and other related areas, much of the work has been architectural. And, beginning about a year ago, I started again in collaboration with another firm (MSK Architects). That experience has been a positive experience for both of us, and beginning in January, we are going to be combining our individual practices to start CoStudio Architects (for right now, this forwards to MSK Architects website; this note will be removed when that is no longer the case).

It’s always good to start out a new firm with a new project, and in our case, we accelerated some of our decision making about the new firm name (and we gave due consideration to advice about naming a firm) because we had a project that came up even before we started doing any serious marketing. So there will be new projects as well as our current collaboration to talk about in the near future.

We are going to have a social media presence on places like Houzz, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook (ugh), and Pinterest, but don’t expect to see a whole lot there right now.

But soon, there will be more to follow.

The Workantile Phone Booth project has tapered off as an unrefined but mostly-finished thing. I haven’t been spending as much time at Workantile for the past couple months as I would like, so it’s not something I’ve done much with since finishing building it.  But, a couple things have prompted thinking about this right now.

A recent email from someone who is part of a co-working startup asked a few questions about the project, since they are going through the same questions for their space. The whole issue of phone rooms and privacy is something under discussion at Workantile right now, as well, as we contemplate building a couple more phone rooms into the space. So it’s time to revisit the topic for a couple of different reasons.

At Workantile, the lack of enough spaces for phone calls is rising to problematic levels. More and more members want to have spaces where they can make and receive phone calls with some privacy and without disrupting everyone else. The “conference rooms” (there is a smaller one – roughly 12′ x 8′, and a larger one – roughly 16′ x 10′) are most often seemingly used by single individuals on conference calls or the like. Very few conferences actually take place at Workantile.

We have begun talking about doing an internal fundraiser for some renovations to improve this. The current proposal is to carve out two additional small phone rooms out of the large conference room and to divide the current phone room ( which is roughly 5′ x 8′) into two smaller rooms.

We seem to be favoring hard construction instead of phone booths as a solution for our need for more private conversation areas in the space. The sketch below shows how we are planning to revise the space.

Workantile-renov2013-Model

This isn’t phone booths.  This would be building new walls and creating new, little rooms people could sit in for phone calls.   But how did we end up here?

The discussion about the phone booth started when a couple of the Maintainers saw an old, wooden phone booth in a nearby sports bar, and wondered about building something like that for Workatile. This led to me looking at phone booths and starting to design the Workantile Phone Booth.

I also quickly settled on wanting to develop a design that could be a kit that could be assembled as an IKEA-like project.

There were a couple different materials I looked at. I was initially very interested in using metal for this, but the fabrication costs were extremely high. Wood is more workable and more adaptable by others, so that seemed like the better option. Even if it was a completely worked-out kit, people will want to make changes and modifications, and the wood option works better for that.

The first phone booth has been built. Doing the fabrication with the ShopBot was a great experience. I got to use our local maker-space, Maker-Works, to build this. The pattern on the sides (an interpretation of the Workantile logo checker-plate pattern with holes) was something that could only have been done with the ShopBot, and I like the detail and fitting of the corners on the box.

After looking at a number of possibilities, the best idea for a door seemed to be a heavy cloth curtain. That would do more to muffle sound than any kind of hinged door, and the construction would be simpler and less expensive, too. At the moment, though, the only curtain is a thin, single sheet of material we found during cleanup a while back. Adding a door and hinge is something that can be added, but the curtain would be cheaper and easier for a first version.

Some things remain unfinished. The full number of screws haven’t been installed, and instead of putting a continuous base in place, I just used a couple of blocks, since it if needed to be broken down or moved it would be easier with fewer fasteners in place. But, it’s finished, at least as version 1.0, and it’s available for use.

wx-phonebooth

So, what’s wrong with phone booths?

Firstly, let me say I think phone booths can – and do – work, but they have to be used in appropriate places and in appropriate ways.

trek-workexA couple of Workantile members found an old therapy chamber at the University’s Property Disposition, and that serves as a phone booth for the upstairs Loft area (photo by Brendan Chard). That works for short calls, but gets uncomfortable after more than a few minutes. Since this was originally a 6-figure piece of medical equipment (picked up for under $100), it is pretty airtight, and that helps limit sound transmission, so it’s noticeably quieter than if someone outside the booth is talking at similar volume. Airtight is good to prevent sound transmission, but it’s not very comfortable.

Thinking about the acoustics, a phone booth for a coworking space or an office of any kind is fundamentally the exact opposite of a traditional phone booth. The idea wasn’t to keep inside noise from getting out, but to keep outside noise from getting in.

The classic 1950s phone booth was something located on a busy, noisy streetcorner. The soundproofing it provided (to the extent that it did any) was to keep the outside noise from reaching the inside. You needed some noise reduction to be able to hear the person at the other end over the background noise that was around you. Muffling that noise and lowering it somewhat makes it easier to hear the other end and to have them be able to hear the person in the phone booth more clearly. That’s how it works in the sports bar, as well. It’s an oasis of relative quiet in an otherwise noisy place.

A phone booth in an office or in a co-working space is the exact opposite. It’s a fundamentally quiet space. The person having the conversation is far louder than background, even if they are talking quietly. Someone talking in the space is a noise mountain in an otherwise silent desert. If they are in a phone booth, it’s reduced somewhat, but it’s still the biggest thing in the area. That calls for it to be a completely different thing.

For acoustic separation, background noise actually helps. If there is enough other activity in the space, other conversations are going on, background music is playing, etc., then the phone booth works better, since it can drop the noise level to a point closer to other noise in the area, and the conversation is not dominant. But when there are just a few people all diligently working heads-down on their own projects and someone gets a call, it’s a huge spike in the noise level in the space.

One of the things I’ve suggested for the new phone rooms is to install bathroom-type vent fans in each of them. While this was originally an idea to reduce the cost and difficulty of getting ventilation ductwork (which might not work especially well, in any case) to these small spaces. But, in addition to circulating air, the right fan will make enough white noise to help obscure some of the voices in the area.

The fundamental problem with the phone booth is that it doesn’t do enough (and probably can’t do enough, in any comfortable fashion) to knock down the noise level of a conversation in an otherwise quiet room.

Three things help with noise reduction: separation (barriers), distance, and masking (other sounds). If conversation is 60 dB, and the space is otherwise library quiet (40 dB), that conversation is 4 times as loud as the background sound level. Even with really good construction that cuts noise in half (which would make it 50dB), it’s still going to be twice as loud as the background. Short of heroic measures (which would be both costly and unwieldy), a ‘Cone of Silence’ solution is unlikely.

So then, what should be done? The barrier helps, but only somewhat. Having more background sound will help to make other people’s conversations less obtrusive. At Workantile, there is an AirPlay system in place that anyone on the network can tap in to (if they have an iTunes account) and play music over the speakers. And when the place is busier, with people talking and moving around, that helps, too.

The other thing is to move the phone booth out of the main work space. Getting phone calls out of proximity to quiet work areas can also help make phone conversations less of a distraction to other people in the space.
(The fact that Workantile is a very ‘live’ space with two large brick walls, a hardwood floor and ceiling, is a further complication to all of this, but that’s a whole separate topic for another time.)

The Workantile Phone Booth needs to be relocated to a more appropriate location; that has been held up in large part due to the art show that is on the walls right now. If it was near the Kitchen (red square on the plan above), it would be by a spot that no one spends a great deal of time (unless they are using the sink, which provides fantastic white noise).

A phone booth can transform an otherwise under-used area into a phone space. The Kitchen nook isn’t a good phone space as it currently is, because it’s also a hallway and too many people go through it for it to be a comfortable phone space. But it’s away from the other work areas, and it could be a place where one might take a shorter phone call. Right now, though, it doesn’t seem appropriate to stand in the Kitchen area to do that. The phone booth could make a space in an area that otherwise serves another purpose, so that someone could have a conversation on the phone with less worry about disrupting the rest of the space.

Think again of the 1950’s phone booth on the street corner. It takes a public area (much like the hallway and kitchen nook at Workantile) and carves out a small space for a more private conversation to take place in the midst of that. In this way, the phone booth is as much (or more) a social marker than it is a technical solution to noise. It’s a way of making it comfortable for a person to have their conversation in what would otherwise be an uncomfortable place.

Neither hard constructed rooms nor phone booths are going to be the perfect solution for all phone privacy needs. Both options have their place, and each has benefits and disadvantages.

This is a screengrab from a Cleveland TV station (who sent a reporter to Ann Arbor to investigate a city without a daily newspaper; here’s the source article).

They did their interviews with Dave Askins (pictured) and Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor Chronicle at Workantile.

In this picture, in the background, you see the phone booth I built for Workantile as well as the AIA board for AADL Pittsfield (a project I did while at Luckenbach|Ziegelman Architects) with my photograph of the building.

cleveTV

There are a couple of new projects on the horizon, and although I’ve been working as a sole-practitioner the past couple of years, the new things are looking to be collaborations with other people. This is not a bad thing. Some of it is building on previous work on a project I started a couple years ago, and another is an opportunity to collaborate with another local, sole-practitioner.

Following on with the very successful addition to the Corner Brewery (and the significant energy efficiency building upgrades that were carried out) several of the people involved in that project are continuing to work together to provide consulting services for other beer-making operations. There was enough press about the project for the Corner that other breweries have called them to find out about doing similar sorts of things for their own facilities.

By way of a little backstory, one of the things I had thought about doing as a possible thesis project when I applied to grad school was something involving a brewery. The law had recently changed in Michigan at the time, and the first brew pub in Ann Arbor was getting under way. I thought that my recent interest in homebrewing might lead to working on brewpubs as a specialty, and I think I harbored some hope that I would be able to work on the first brewpub in Ann Arbor, though that didn’t happen. (I was working in a print shop before going back to grad school, and some of the early plans for Grizzly Peak came through the place while I was there. It ended up getting built while I was off at school.) Still, I continued as a homebrewer, and I really enjoyed it when the opportunity to work with the Corner Brewery came along, especially since it was a project that combined two aspects that were (and are) of particular interest to me: brewing and green building.

That whole experience had me thinking once more about working on breweries and related projects. It turns out, as I mentioned, that Jarett Diamond – the guy who served as the project manager for the entire Corner Brewery renovation project (and the storage addition I worked on was just one facet of that whole larger undertaking) – has gotten some inquiries about consulting on other projects. It’s something he wants to pursue, as well. The two of us have talked about working together on some of these things. He has gotten a lot of first hand experience with a number of the mechanical systems involved, for both the brewing process as well as building operations. He’s also gotten very familiar with the incentives and programs to encourage energy efficient building and renovation. My contributions to the team will be in providing architectural and building-related expertise, energy modeling, and other general green systems knowledge. There are a couple other people we’ll work with who have specific knowledge about brewery operations and brewing equipment (which is an order of complexity above and beyond simple homebrewing).

The other collaboration that is starting is with another local architect with a sole-practitioner practice. Maria Kook and I have a lot of parallels in our professional lives. We both came to Ann Arbor at about the same time, although neither of us attended the University of Michigan. We both worked for different firms in town, and it’s a little surprising that it took so long for us to cross paths with one another. She has been working on her own for about the same period of time as I have, and, in addition to working on AIA-related activities, we’ve been getting together periodically to stay in touch about running our respective firms.

[last paragraph removed for editing and revision; to be returned when re-written -psp]

Starting to go through the pictures from this weekend’s photoshoot of the JK Residence, and this one is good for giving an overview of the addition.

The project incorporated an extension of the back of the house, with a new kitchen and a new laundry room (out of view to the left). Existing kitchen and a small room (nicknamed “The Vortex”) were torn out and extended to create the new kitchen, dining area, and TV area for a family of three.

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