Travel through a different lens

As much as architects photograph buildings, I think we tend to live our lives in more detail than most.

I am not what you would call a world-weary traveler. James and I tend to visit the same locations again and again, and I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on two hands – possibly one. And some of those have been on ships, so I don’t know that they really count. Can you immerse yourself in another country in a few hours of walking around?

However, looking back at the traveling I have done, I often wonder if I’m seeing the places I’m visiting as other travelers would see it. Or only as an architect would see it.

As much as architects photograph buildings, I think we tend to live our lives in more detail than most. And if you go back and look through our photos, architects will have a lot of detail shots most people wouldn’t take or wouldn’t notice.

When James was in London for work, his apartment could not have been better just short of being inside Buckingham Palace. Just off Fleet Street, you could walk out the door and go left to St. Paul’s and the Tower. Or turn right and head to Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey.

Naturally I came in for a quick visit. And yes, I got all of the requisite shots. The Tower. St. Paul’s. Buckingham Palace. However, what really caught my eye wasn’t the bigger pictures.

Instead, it was the inside of an ATM lobby.

That’s right. An ATM lobby.

Double volume space. Ornate columns. Wood coffered ceiling. Oval windows with carved wood trim. And incredibly detailed hand-thrown tile everywhere. Everywhere. Walls. Naves. Ceilings. Even the columns had tile applied. Absolutely stunning. How could that not catch my eye?

I even did this while touring the Hemingway House in Key West. Not a single photo of the exterior of the house. What I kept snapping shots of were the details. Bathroom tile. Ceiling medallions. Fireplace surrounds.

Photos taken at the Hemingway House in Key West.

After 20 years of moments like this, James is completely unfazed. I think it started on our first trip to Vegas when I made him stand on a hot sidewalk while I snapped photos of the naked steel structure being erected for the new Aria hotel.

For everyone else – bank employees, other tourists, locals – I probably look pretty odd. Why is this guy so interested in the lobby? Or so close to the bathroom tile? Or in the case of one friend, laying in the middle of the sidewalk in NY?

But for the other architects around me, they’ll know exactly what I’m doing because they’ve been there themselves. Yes, I’m enjoying touring the city. Yes, it is fun being in a new place. And yes, the buildings are really cool.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about the details. Even if the regular traveler doesn’t see it.

Really Unreal

Wouldn’t it be nice though to open a copy of Architectural Record and see a home photographed the way the owners really use it?

Turn on HGTV’s Property Brothers with an architect in the room, and you’ll hear: “Seven weeks my ass.” (Just ask my husband.) Because we know full well that renovation isn’t taking seven weeks. Seventeen maybe, but not seven.

But that’s the fun for architects – rolling our eyes at these programs (while still watching) and complaining about how difficult they make our jobs. And then sharing stories about how unreality TV has really screwed up our clients’ expectations.

But have you picked up a copy of Architectural Record, Architect, or Architectural Digest? Because HGTV isn’t the only one painting pretty pictures or setting unrealistic expectations.

I love picking up an architecture magazine, looking at the photos, and being wowed at the imagery. And there isn’t a building that’s not beautifully shot. Whether a high rise or a house, architects make sure their work is presented in the best possible light.

My favorites, however, are the celebrity spreads in places like Architectural Digest. Take Ricky Martin’s house in the February 2018 issue for example. Nice spread on his family’s home. Everything is perfect. Pillows in their places. Coffee table books expertly arranged. Bouquets of flowers.

Incredibly beautiful.

Incredibly unreal.

Because you can’t help noticing his two sons included in the family photos. And if you can’t remember how you were at 6 or 7, ask mom or dad. I don’t know if I can recall a time when our house was that put together. Or if it was, not for long. I can’t count the times my mother cussed because she had stepped on an errant Lego. By all accounts, Ricky’s house should have had toys scattered across the living room. Maybe an odd pair of underwear on the floor. Even the boys’ room in this shoot was flawless.

But as architects, we set that expectation and that unrealistic image. I can recall looking at proofs for a high-rise apartment project and being amazed at the awesome sunset outside the client’s 6th floor living room. Especially given that there’s really a multi-rise office building next door – close enough to wave at whoever’s working that day.

Wouldn’t it be nice though to open a copy of Architectural Record and see a home photographed the way the owners really use it? Dishes in the sink from the night before. Shoes taken off and left in the front hall. Maybe a muddy dog sprawled across the couch pillows.

Or better yet, open Architectural Digest and see a real celebrity spread? Maybe Mariah Carey’s bedroom with an unmade bed, pillows scattered, a TV remote next to a half-empty cocktail glass on the side table, and the remnants of some late-night Cheetos?

We had a client whose home would have been a perfect fit for Architectural Record. And the first time I walked through was just jaw-dropping. Incredible design. Uber-contemporary. The multi-floor plan that took complete advantage of the sloping site.

And not a thing out of place. As if someone came in to shoot the house for a magazine and just left the rooms that way. Absolutely unreal.

Until we went up to the wife’s private office. Then you realized just where all the clutter was in the house. But no one was ever going to see that room.

Perhaps that’s the reality at the Martins’. Beautifully shot, except you’ll never see the day before when everything was shoved into closets and under beds.

Except that’s what clients need to see – the reality behind the glam.

The really unreal.

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Anyone want a cookie?

I would like to say we wanted more space just because we like to cook. However, based on how the island looks when we get ready to box up everything, I really think we both had Christmas in mind.

December for most people means time for the holidays. Parties. Shopping. Decorating. Seeing family if you’re into that sort of thing.

But if you’re a member of our family, or a close friend, December means something different.

Cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

I’m not sure when or how the tradition was started, but this time every year James and I are diving off into cookie-making. Last year we started mid-November (thank you Mr. Freezer!) but usually right after Thanksgiving we’re pulling together the list for the year.

And by list, I mean LIST. Most years we have around 30-odd recipes, most being made in double batches. Old favorites. New recipes. Repeats from the previous year and requests from individuals. There’s always sugar cookies for my sister. Fudge for my step-mom. And cake balls for my niece.

This year of course is no different. And like every year, I’m amazed when James comes home from the grocery store toting in supplies. I’m secretly terrified about the amount of butter and sugar we go through.

What’s more amazing, though, is that we used to do this in an 8-foot-long galley kitchen. I’m not sure how we fit everything into the space. Or how we did the measuring, pouring, mixing, and baking without killing one another. But somehow, we managed to turn out a ton of cookies.

Which made a larger kitchen and a large island all that more important when we did the renovation. I would like to say we wanted more space just because we like to cook. However, based on how the island looks when we get ready to box up everything, I really think we both had Christmas in mind.

And what better way to use an island?

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The Road to Renovation Redux

Is This a Good Time?

I am tired. Really tired.

In the four months since the first day of demolition, I have travelled more than I ever have in one year’s time.  Chicago. Las Vegas. Atlanta. New Orleans.  And James has been on the road as much.  Denver.  Philly.  New York.  (Not to mention Las Vegas and New Orleans with me because who wouldn’t want to go to either one?)

Consequently, I’ve spent the summer getting on and off planes and wondering if we couldn’t have picked a worse time to start construction.

Then I remember our original plan which was to begin construction at the start of last November.  Looking back, we’re so grateful that did not happen.  James had to board a plane to London the week before Thanksgiving and he proceeded to travel back and forth until the end of March.

How exactly was I supposed to make that work?  Drag him off the plane on his return, run him to the job site and force him to make finish material selections for a week before sending him off again?

Understand, we never really had a specific start date in mind (unless you count sooner than later).  Or thought too much about what was going to be happening in our lives at that point.  Just starting, no matter when, would feel like a triumph.

However, most of our clients ask at some point:

“Is this a good time?”

Spring?  When the kids are in school.  But what about spring break?  And weather?  Will we get done in time for summer?

Summer?  Weather is better (usually).  But the kids are out of school and most likely to be at home while the contractor is hammering and sawing.  And then we take family vacation.  What happens while we’re gone?

Fall?  Kids are back in school, but the holidays are just around the corner.  And will they be done in time for Christmas? (FYI – you’ve just jinxed your project the moment that question is asked.)

And then it’s winter, and who wants to start then?  You know nothing is going to be done between Christmas and New Year’s!

No one time is better to start than another.  There will always be challenges in balancing a work life with a personal life while construction is going on around you.  In addition to juggling family and work, you’re going to be coping with noise, dust and that porta potty in your front yard.  You cannot avoid these elements no matter which time of year.

Remember, I do this for a living (and only have a husband to contend with), and I couldn’t!

The Road to Renovation Redux – Part 2

I Said I Wouldn’t

One of the biggest challenges architects and contractors face during the construction process is a daily visit by the client. Such a visit is often distracting for the contractor. There is also the likelihood that the client will give opposing directions to a subcontractor.

Simultaneously, architects may find themselves fielding more questions and/or complaints than originally planned. Clients living in the house during construction can sometimes make that worse, and on more than one occasion I have told the client they wouldn’t be living there. Easier for them. Easier for me. And easier for the contractor.

I vowed when we were getting ready to start construction that I would not become the client that swings by their house every day. After all, I had spent way too much time on the drawings, so nothing should come as a surprise. Not to mention having been through the process with numerous clients. Plus we were not going to be living next door or even down the street, so going by would not be convenient.

THEN, I looked at the dates on the construction photos I’ve been taking. June 1st. June 3rd. 6th. 10th. 11th. 19th.

Oops!

I would like to chalk my visits up to professional curiosity. Or a need to answer questions for the job superintendent. Or the opportunity to take some photos and share them with family and friends. However, James just rolled his eyes at any of those comments so I must now confess.

LP & SS.3
Larry with his very patient contractor.

I am that client. I said I wouldn’t, but I just can’t seem to help myself. I want to see how work is progressing. I want to see if what is on paper is what is happening at the job site. Are the spaces working? Is the shower big enough? Should we re-think any of the layout? Are they keeping the house secure?

You can laugh at me all you want. I’ve been doing the same. (Not to mention Holly and Laura.) Luckily I have a contractor who is understanding and takes everything with a grain of salt. And he knows full well that I’m going to continue dropping by.

Even though I said I wouldn’t.

The Road to Renovation Redux – Part 1

An Architect’s Home

With several clients heading down the road to their own renovation, I thought I’d reach back into my past and re-share my personal experience with renovating a house. My house. Well – mine and James’ house. It’s hard to believe that we finished the work almost four years ago, and that we managed to not bury either of us in the process. HGTV makes the work look pretty easy, but the reality is that every project has its own challenges – from the extent of work being done to normal day to day life that add its own special stress.

Join me as I step back over the next few months and delve back into The Road to Renovation, beginning with this post: An Architect’s Home.

Most professionals will tell you not to do business with friends or family. Things never work out well. So what do you do when it’s both?

After ten years in our home, and a remodel to the front half in 2004, my husband, James, and I decided the time had come to finally change the rest and create a Master Suite we both could enjoy. Our old Master Bath was barely big enough for one with just a shower, toilet, and pedestal sink. And the Master Closet was so small the closet rod supporting James’ clothes collapsed one day under the weight.

DSC07587
One galley Kitchen. Two people. Two dogs. Christmas cookies everywhere. Not sure how we ever did it.

If we had only stopped there.We started the initial project in January of 2012, and here we are at the end of May 2014 and we’re finally to the point of starting construction. What started as a simple addition to the Master Bedroom to create a true Master Suite morphed into a second floor to house the Master Suite and Office and a reconfiguration to turn the existing Guest Bedroom into a Laundry with Garage access.

News came in early 2013 that James would be working from home full time, so we ditched that idea, went back to our original addition plan, and added an office, guest room, and bath on a second floor.

Dealing with bids, lenders, and appraisers ultimately resulted in a much simpler project, still giving us what we need, but not overdoing it. As an architect, watching clients dream bigger than their budget is not unusual.

Amazing how much you ignore that with your own project when you’re the one telling your spouse “No.”

GUEST BATH 02
We didn’t even get the cool 1950s pink tile with an accent trim. Just blue and brown fish scattered around the tub.

At one point we were even having “the-cobbler’s-children-have-no-shoes” moment, and my “client” was getting fussy about getting drawings done and construction started. In that moment, I thought of just hiring a friend to finish the drawings. However, I knew I’d find the time somewhere between dealing with my own clients and running a practice to “pop out” some drawings.

And it only took two years.

Check back in as we start down the road on our renovation. Please try not to laugh as I get to experience this as both the client and the architect. And learn firsthand if I can do business with friends and family – even when it’s me.

Gym Thoughts

Because this is normal, right?

I made the courageous decision recently to dive off into the world of core exercises as part of my gym routine. Enough time had passed (4 years I think!) that I figured I’d better get on it while I could still stand up on my own.

Now if you’re married to an architect – or know someone who is – you know we don’t see the world quite like most people. I always tell people if you walk into a room and someone’s staring at the ceiling, they’re probably just an architect checking out the lighting. Don’t be alarmed.

Consequently, as I’m laying on the mat at my local Y, staring up at the ceiling, what do you suppose I think about? How many crunches I can do before being carted off in an ambulance? Will anyone notice if I cry a little? I don’t recall my abs hurting like this before. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea?

ceiling
My view at the gym. Stunning!

Of course not.

I’m looking up at the ceiling and noticing they’ve used steel roof deck for the exposed ceiling. And now we’re off to the races.

“Did they fill the deck with lightweight concrete?”

“Or is there rigid foam insulation on top?”

“They must have run the electrical for the lighting inside the pans because the light fixtures are attached directly to the ceiling. Who had to lay all of that out? That’s a lot of time on a scissor lift.”

I would love to lie and say none of these thoughts shot through my mind. But I can’t. I’m an architect.

Besides – it’s better than worrying how big a scene I’m likely to create getting off the mat.

Maybe I’ll just lay there a little longer.