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Rules for an Architect’s Blog - Guest Post on Life of an Architect

 

A few weeks back, Bob Borson, AIA asked me to do a guest post on his Life of an Architect blog. Bob's blog is a favorite of mine and one of the few architecture blogs I follow regularly. The post, titled Rules for an Architect's Blog, is about the history and philosophy of our Modative blog.

The post even briefly covers the blogging history of some of architecture's greats like Frank Lloyd Wright.

frank lloyd wright blog

I encourage you to check it out and stay for a while. Bob's blog is full of great content for both architects and those trying to learn more about architects.


5 Things Architects Should Do Instead of Entering Open Competitions

 

Obviously, not everyone agrees with our last post "Why Architecture Competitions are Bad for Architects". A day after our post, archdaily, posted "Why open architecture competitions are good for Architects, a counter argument". 

The archdaily post, some blog comments, and a few twitter posts claim that our argument against competitions is an attack on creativity and passion within the architecture profession. This couldn't be further from the truth. A few questions to ponder:

Do open competitions have a monopoly on creativity?

Are competitions the only way to progress the architecture profession?

Absolutely not.

Open architecture competitions actually take much of the creativity out of what architects do. They provide everything: the site, program, objectives, and deadlines. Then they judge your work in private, without any back and forth collaboration.

It's comforting for architects to have all of this delivered to them. It's exactly how architecture school works. All the architect has to do is design in a bubble. I can certainly see the appeal.

Many architects will never be convinced that open competitions are bad for them and that's fine. But I would feel bad ripping on open competitions without providing some viable alternates. 

Architects will at some point inevitably find themselves with free time and/or needing a release from the daily grind. Instead of doing what architects have traditionally done (open competitions), consider one of these options instead:

1. Pro Bono Architecture

Pro bono work is more rewarding and has far more upside than an open architecture competition. And there are plenty of non-profit organizations that need an architect's help, but can't afford it. 

The 1% program website is a great starting point to learn about pro bono architecture and connect with with non-profits looking for architects. The 1% program asks that you donate at least 1% of your time to providing free or deeply discounted design work. In exchange, you get a rewarding experience working with people and building connections. Your work is also likely to be constructed and the publicity and experience you'll receive can lead to future paid commissions -often times in project types where you previously had no experience. 

2. A Design Intervention

This is how the 1% program got started. Public Architecture, a firm in San Francisco, decided that instead of entering another pointless competition, they would use that time and energy to improve their neighborhood through actual design interventions. They took an unused portion of the street and made it a temporary public park. The project was built with donated materials and labor. The neighborhood praised their efforts and the Mayor of San Francisco spoke at the project's opening. Now that's a great use of an architect's time.

mayor at architectur event

Mayor Newsome at the opening of Public Architecture's Pavement to Parks Project. Photo from Public Architecture's website.

Your Mayor doesn't give a shit about your open architecture competition entry.

A design intervention is essentially like doing your own competition. If you're going to do free work, you might as well do it for yourself and for something you're passionate about. Find a problem in your neighborhood, your city, and solve it. Get the community involved. Publish the process and the results, even if it never gets constructed.

3. Non-Architecture Projects

If you want a release, try out your design skills on something new. A few ideas:

Furniture - A coffee table for a modern lifestyle (laptops and ipads).

Building Materials - I have yet to see a building facade system that can be easily removed and recycled (like carpet tiles).

Products - Why let Karim Rashid have all the fun?

Karim Rashid Designs Stuff

Karim is laughing at you because you're letting him and Phillipe Stark design all the cool stuff. Photo by Roman Leo, New York

Textiles - There's a serious shortage of great modern rugs. I know, I've looked.

T-Shirts - A flooded market, but an easy one to get into nowadays.

4. Architect as Entrepreneur

Architects should be more entrepreneurial. We have some of the best problem solving skills around, yet we mostly wait for the phone to ring to get projects. We wait for the problem to come to us.

Imagine how much better our cities would look and function if more architects got involved in real estate development. Creating their own projects and developing them. Well, you don't have to imagine. Jonathan Segal, FAIA and Sebastian Mariscal have been doing this for years in San Diego with great success.

5. Go to a Bar

You are more likely to meet a stranger at a bar that will hire you to design them a real building than to win an actual architectural commission from an open competition. And even if you don't, you'll at least leave happy and having spent less money than you would on a competition.

 

If you have any additions to this list that you'd like to share, please add a comment.

Let's keep in touch - subscribe to this blog via email (top of right column) or RSS (for the techies).

Modative Architecture Joins Homeless Housing Competition Team

 

We're big believers in incorporating personality and creativity into our professional brand. In our Rethink Your Resume guide, we encouraged integration of personal interests and photos into professional resumes.

But a resume is just one step in a career. There are so many opportunities to use this strategy.

Once such opportunity was our recent team application to participate in the Urban Land Institute's 1,000 Homes Competition for Housing the Chronically Homeless in LA County.

This annual development competition asks young professionals with different backgrounds to form teams of four to eight members and submit a group application. From those applications, the judges  select five teams to participate in the competition.

Our team, called Team HETED (Homeless Empowerment Through Efficient Development), consists of five members with a variety of experience in development, construction, real estate finance, social work, and architecture. While we were confident in our chances of being selected based on our backgrounds (resumes were part of the application), we took no chances and got creative and personal with our statement of interest.

Instead of the typical, bland, corporate sounding group statement, we split our statement of interest into short blurbs about our individual personal interest in entering this competition. Our statements also include our role on the team, education background, and a small picture.

Here's a sampling of our statement of interest page for the competition application, reformated for this post:

1,000 homes homeless housing competition

Team HETED homeless housing competition
The decision to enter this competition is very personal for each member of Team HETED. While our goal is to combine our skills to create an innovative solution for the homelessness issue in Los Angeles, we feel compelled to share our individual motivations for entering this competition.
Jed Tarr Developer
Jed Tarr  Development + Project Feasibility
William Warren Group
Development Associate

Arizona State, B.A. Economics + Real Estate, 2007
I think this competition will be a great exercise and experience working together as a team and with the various city agencies to confront a serious issue that not only affects city budgets but more importantly people’s lives.  I personally expect this program to inspire my career as a developer, to include non-profit and low-income projects. I bring to the team experience in overall development, including project feasibility & management.
 
Connor Humphreys Finance
Connor Humphreys  Finance
Budget Finance Co.
Director of Acquisitions

Emory University, B.A. Sociology, 2006
This competition provides a chance for me to expand on the real estate related community work I have been involved with in Los Angeles. The competition will allow me to use my expertise and experience in order to provide a valuable service to a section of the community that often goes overlooked. Through my work in residential mortgage finance, I have been involved in efforts to provide counseling and housing solutions to Los Angeles communities that have been hardest hit by the recent wave foreclosures stemming from the mortgage crisis. I have done extensive work building financial models and projections related to real estate and mortgage investments. I hope to bring this skill set to my team to strengthen our project through building a solid financing foundation for our development. I am excited at the opportunity to work with other young professionals across different professional disciplines to bring positive change to the problem of homelessness in the Los Angeles area. I think that the wide array of expertise that each member of my team brings to the table will allow us to create a strong, comprehensive plan that will not only provide shelter for the homeless, but will provide empowerment for members of the community who have, in many cases, been forgotten.
 
Laura Leavitt Social Work
Laura Leavitt, MSW  Social Work
Columbia University School of Social Work, Masters of Social Work, 2009
                                                      
Kenyon College, B.A. Psychology, 2005
With over five years of experience as an advocate for disadvantaged communities, I have seen the life changing effects of providing housing and social services to individuals and families in need. For the homeless, housing does not simply imply having a roof over one’s head.  Housing means safety, health, community, job productivity, educational opportunity, and most of all, hope. With the same vigor that I organized a nationally recognized campaign against homelessness for survivors of domestic violence, I will use my skills in program development and community outreach to establish an innovative, comprehensive and sustainable program that will change the lives of the homeless community in Los Angeles.  My complex understanding of homelessness will strengthen our inspired multidisciplinary team and help guide the project towards a model that is both relevant and tangible, as well as effective and efficient.

derek leavitt architecture
Derek Leavitt, AIA  Architecture + Development
Modative, Inc.
Principal + Founder

University of Southern California, B.Arch + Minor Business, 2000
I love being an architect, but often feel that something is missing from my professional life. My industry is primarily geared towards designing buildings for the wealthiest sector of our population. One of the reasons I became an architect was to use design to make a difference in the lives of people whom need my help the most. This competition is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to use my design and development skills to assist both the people that lack the basic human need of shelter and the communities that seek creative solutions to homeless issues. I am enthusiastic about the diverse skills of Laura (my sister), Jed, and Connor and our ability to create an innovative and appropriate concept for the competition.
 

Our fifth team member, Idalia Santos, was added to our team after this original application was submitted. Her knowledge of development and construction combined with her passion for homeless issues makes her a highly valuable part of our team.

Going creative and personal can be difficult. The easier approach is to play it safe and go with what's been done before. However, for Team HETED, the creative route worked as we were selected as one of the five teams to participate in the competition. Our team is now  partnered up with the City of Glendale and Path Achieve Glendale and over the next six weeks we will develop a proposal for a permanent supportive housing project in Glendale.

 

What are your thoughts on professional applications?

 

 

7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm - Tip 05: Start and Stay Small

 

This post is part of the How to Start an Architecture Firm series.

In February 2006, Christian, Michael and I went to work on forming our own architecture firm. The following is tip number five of seven in our start-up strategy.

Tip 05: Start and Stay Small

Small Architecture Firms

photo credit

I've never been a fan of large companies. It's probably because I've never worked for one. Before founding Modative, I worked for three small- to medium-sized architecture firms. Christian and Michael have similar experiences, learning the architecture business in offices where you had to do it all. There was no way to pass along unwanted tasks or hide amongst hordes of CAD stations.

Christian always jokes that in one office, the first thing the boss asked him to do on his first day was to take out the trash. Experiences like this are humbling, but also critical to developing the kind of discipline it takes to start your own architecture firm.

If I don't do this myself, it won't get done.

A philosophy that clearly ties into Tip 02: Do it Yourself.

Growing a Company on Fact vs. Faith?

Many people set out on their own with intentions of growing their offices fast. Far too often, this growth is unwarranted.

Are you hiring people because you can't possibly complete your long-term billable work with your current staff?

Or, are you hiring in a panic because you momentarily feel overwhelmed at a perceived inundation of new projects in the office?

Even worse, are you hiring so you can tell people at dinner parties that your office has X number of people or so you don't have to work more than 40 hours a week?

We have faced all of these situations here at Modative. To expand or not to expand. I credit our frequent internal debates amongst my partners and I to keeping our company small and responsible when it comes to hiring.

It would have been far too easy in our founding year (2006) to grow our company based on faith in the booming economy. But as this glimpse of the U.S. stock market shows over our first three years in business, we made the right call to base our growth on fact rather than faith.

architecture firm growth

 

Technology Enables "Smallness"

When I graduated from architecture school 10 years ago, most firms were organized in a much different fashion. Architecture offices relied on larger project teams to complete the labor-intensive production and coordination that 2D CAD (and even some hand drafting) required. As technology improved, these old-school firms had a tough time changing. Their principals, often from a generation that didn't grow up with computers, would eventually come to embrace new technology, but in a slow evolutionary way, dragged down by large production-based staffs. It has taken 10 years for many of these old-school firms to evolve into technology. Many of them still resist.

Having three founders that grew up with computers and rapid technology changes, our firm was founded with a much different mentality. We embrace technology because it enables us to remain small. Our new-school firm can accomplish the same amount of work with one person that an old-school firm needed 4-8 people to complete. These two technologies help make this possible:

ArchiOffice

This program is the key to keeping us organized. It's a management system for our projects, contacts, time cards, calendar, billing and much more. Check out a prior post where I describe our ArchiOffice use in more detail.

architecture office mangement software

A screenshot of the ArchiOffice dashboard.

ArchiCAD

I've worked with ArchiCAD, our CAD software here at Modative, on and off for nine years. ArchiCAD's BIM (building information modeling) technology enables "smallness" by taking much of the grunt work out of drawing production, allowing us to focus on creativity. Virtually constructing projects before they are built not only creates pretty pictures to show our clients, but it also drastically reduces expensive construction conflicts.

los angeles architects bim software

An example of how our virtual building models contain information on the structural systems, reducing potential drawing errors.

 

Stay tuned as we fill in the last two tips of our 7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm.

los angeles modern architecture firm

7 Tips for Starting an Architecture Firm

00 architect firm

00 Bootstrapping

Not a tip, but a critical theme in our start-up adventure.

posted 12.03.09

01 architect firm

01 Be Cheap

posted 12.08.09

02 architect firm

02 DIY (Do It Yourself)

posted 12.18.09 

 
03 architect firm

03 Get Advice

posted 12.22.09

04 architect firm

04 Learn from the Bad

posted 01.22.10 

05 architect firm

05 Start and Stay Small

posted 03.03.10 

06 architect firm

06 Stay Flexible

posted 04.05.10
07 architect firm

07 Plan It Out

posted 03.13.12

Want to stay up to date as we post the 7 Tips to Starting an Architecture Firm?  Subscribe to this blog by adding your email to the subscribe form on the right.

 

4 Goals for Our Architecture Firm in 2010

 

Instead of publishing my personal resolutions for 2010, I thought I'd fill you in on what Modative has in store for 2010.

1. Integrated Project Delivery

Here at Modative, we're never mistaken for traditionalists. I'm not just talking about our architectural style, but the way we do everything. This is why we are committed to further moving away from the traditional design-bid-build process into integrated project delivery. We feel that this new way of delivering projects to our clients not only distinguishes us from the competition, but makes the process easier on our clients, contractors and even us.

 

problem design bid build

 

And since we're not looking to procrastinate on our 2010 resolutions, we've already added a section on Integrated Project Delivery to our website so you can see what it's all about.

2. Beyond Architecture

In more and more of our projects, clients have been asking us to go beyond our core architecture services to provide them with many of the other things that go into getting a project built.

Why? Because coordinating with one person (Modative) is much easier than coordinating with ten different consultants. We also prefer this one-stop-shop service because it further enables us to deliver the finished project as envisioned.

A glimpse of what we can provide can be found on our  services beyond architecture page.

architecture services

3. Modative Build

When we founded Modative, one of our primary company goals was so important to us that we put it on our business cards. Instead of "Architecture", we used the tag line "Design, Develop, Build." And while we have assisted with development decisions on the Venice Boulevard Urban Dwellings and Fay Avenue Art District Dwellings, we haven't yet acted as the contractor on one of our projects. That will soon change as I'm proud to announce that Modative Build will be launching this year.


 

 

 

 

 

 

design develop build


4. Small Lot Subdivision

When I tell people I'm an architect, they often ask, "So, do you do houses or (commercial) buildings". "Both" I answer.

Our firm has always kept our project types diverse: a fairly even split between residential and commercial. And within the residential category, there has been a healthy mix of single-family and multi-family projects. However, if there's one project type that we've done more than any other, it's clearly Small Lot Subdivision, which is really a hybrid between homes and condos. We've continued to pursue and take on these Small Lot Projects because we believe in them as the future of residential development in Los Angeles (and a lot of other places).

Small Lot Subdivision Blog Los Angeles

To show our further commitment to this unique project type,  we've expanded our Small Lot Subdivision online presence with a new Small Lot Subdivision Blog and a free guide on the basics of developing Small Lot Subdivision Projects in Los Angeles.

 

small lot development guide

 

Sample diagram from the Small Lot Subdivision Guide

10 Qualities of Good Design

 

Over the weekend I had a chance to dive into one of my favorite design magazines: Metropolis. The beauty of Metropolis is that it crosses boundaries. It's not just an architecture magazine, but covers all aspects of design.

The March 09 issue asks the question, "what is good design now?" From this profound question they list ten qualities that are hard to argue. For architects, this list makes a great checklist as you move through the design process:

1. Sustainable

The problem with sustainable design is that it's easier to talk about than to do properly. Unfortunately, green washing and marketing spin are often substitutes for real change.

Architects can't hide anymore. The word is out. The buildings we design and the energy they require generate more carbon dioxide than cars. Yes, the auto makers that we all complain about have less impact than architects and their clients. It's time to do the right thing.

2. Accessible

What is good design if it's only available to some. Here in the US, detailed codes dictate that our built environment be accessible to those with disabilities. Often times it is important to look beyond these minimum standards.

3. Functional

This should be the simplest attribute of good design, but it is often the hardest to achieve. Apple makes products that look great, but at their core, they are successful by creating easy to use hardware and software that surpasses the competition.

4. Well Made

Architects don't make anything. Our say in how well a building is built is limited to a set of instructions we provide. The end people that actually build it have little to no actual interaction with the architect. This means our instructions better be good, and just as important, easy to understand.

5. Emotionally Resonant

People rarely forget the feeling of walking into the Pantheon in Rome. Now compare that to the bland sameness found in the bulk of our suburban developments.

Not every building can be the Pantheon, but every design should be an attempt to stir the senses.

6. Enduring

Buildings need both structural and aesthetic longevity. It's important to innovate, but you don't want a design that looks outdated before that last coat of paint dries. 

The time frame for enduring is uncertain. No question the Pantheon (126 A.D.) is enduring. Is Gehry's Guggenheim (1997) in Bilbao?

7. Socially Beneficial

Whether you like it or not, all architecture is public architecture. Architects have a responsibility to look both within and beyond the walls of our buildings to see what we can do to help.

8. Beautiful

Beauty is subjective, right?

9. Ergonomic

Buildings must relate to the scale of the people that inhabit them. Often this idea is lost in the the array of 3D computer modeling technologies that architects use these days. Stop and take a step back. Put a person in that model. Even if they're digital.

10. Affordable

This is one of the hardest for architects. The reason is simple. Architects typically get clients by waiting for the phone to ring. Someone with money, land and an idea that wants our services. This client type represents a small portion of society, yet makes up almost all of an architect's clientèle.

Creating affordable architecture is more difficult. It involves entrepreneurship on the part of the architect. An upfront investment to invent an affordable solution that the masses can afford.

 

So now that we've covered good design, what about great design? Great design is harder to quantify. There probably isn't a list.

Using Old Jeans to Keep Your House Warm

 

One of the major components the energy efficiency of any building is insulation. Insulation is critical to maintaining comfortable indoor temperatures by either keeping the heat in or out of a building.

Green Insulation

As sustainability gains momentum in the building industry, new products are available that rethink insulation. One of these is recycled denim insulation. Yes, old jeans. One of the leading manufactures of this green product is UltraTouch.

 

recycled insulation jeans  safe green insulation

It even looks like your old jeans. (images from UltraTouch & Victor Insulation)

Don't Eat the Pink Stuff

UltraTouch Natural Cotton Fiber Insulation is targeted as a replacement for traditional fiberglass insulation - the typically yellow or pink soft looking stuff you see between the studs during construction. Yes, you're probably also picturing the pink panther. If you haven't had the pleasure of handling traditional fiberglass insulation, don't. It's not pleasant stuff to to touch (itchy) or breath (can cause respiratory problems). I definitely wouldn't wear pants made of the stuff. UltraTouch on the other hand is made of safe, easy to handle, recycled denim.

green building products

UltraTouch comes in rolls and is easily installed. 

Product Info

So aside from this obvious point that it the product is safer for people to install, here are a few other interesting factoids:

  • The insulation is 85% post industrial recycled fibers.
  • Has acoustic ratings approximately 30% better than traditional insulation. Less outside or neighborly noise.
  • The cotton fibers are treated for fire resistance - Class A rating.
  • No VOC concerns - those little particles you don't want to breath.
  • Good mold resistance.
  • Obviously helps with LEED certification points.

Cost

A common question, as with most green products, is does it cost more? Well, yes, it does. How much more depends on the size of your project and the construction market. However, the short and long term benefits of this product far outweigh the upfront costs. 

At Modative, we are now specifying this or similar products instead of traditional fiberglass insulation. If you are concerned about the cost, we're happy to help you compare the cost of this green product to traditional insulation.



 

The Case for Modern Architecture

 

Last week at a small ULI meeting I gave an informal presentation on our firm. The presentation was simple; our story, philosophy and a review of a few projects. In a brief Q & A afterward, I was asked a common question: "why does your firm only do modern style work?" I love this question because I feel the answer really defines who we are as a firm.

The first part of the answer is that I don't really consider "modern" to be an architectural style, but more of a way of thinking. So in the simplest terms, to us, "modern" means designing and thinking that are of our time and place.

So in this sense, modern is the absence of style because it has no rules other than being relevant. There is no set style we must follow. A building designed for California will look different than one designed for Colorado. A building designed in 2009 should look different than one designed in 1709.

contextual design Example of designing for a place: The Perry Residence - designed for one of the rainiest spots in the USA in Kauai, HI.

So are there stylistic choices we make in our work? Yes, of course, but the primary goals of all of our designs are to relate to their location and to utilize the best available technologies today to make them more efficient and environmentally responsible. Last and definitely not least, our architecture has to relate to the people that will use it in these fast changing modern times.

An Architect's Website Breaks from the Norm for the Public's Good

 

If you've spent any time perusing architect's websites, you'll probably notice one common theme: architects like talking about themselves and their projects. Does this mean architect's are self centered ego maniacs? Well...long pause...not necessarily. Architects, like most businesses, are somewhat obligated to tell you about themselves; show you their work, and give you a feel for if they are the right firm for you.

Unfortunatly, all this "selfish" architect behavior has left us with a world wide web that is pretty void of honest useful advice for all the non-architects out there(ie. our potential clients.) Most people have the feeling that in order to get an architect's help one must hire them first.This approach seems a bit suspect, since few people, have any experience in hiring architects or understanding what it takes to start a project.

So we have to ask ourselves, does all this uncertainty make people want to hire an architect?

The answer: Not really.

This unfortunate reallity has caused us to make a bit of a change to our site here at Modative. A shift away from architecture website norm.


Yes, our site will still mostly be about US with images of projects, profiles of the partners, and a bit about firm philosophy. However, we have added a new section called resources that is dedicated to YOU, our current and (hopefully) future clients. Our hope is that this section will help alleviate some of the uncertainty associated with starting a building project and deciding on an architect. New free resources for non-architects will be added in the coming months that will be available to anyone with a computer and internet access.

An architect's website about you. How's that for some out of the box thinking?

Opportunity in a Down Economy

 

Our long time friend and professional collaborator Kayo N. Libiano found a great quote very relevant to today's times and passed it along. I will now pass it along to you.

"Never before in the history of America has there been so great an opportunity for practical dreamers as now exists. The six-year economic collapse has reduced all men, substantially to the same level. A new race is about to be run. The stakes represent huge fortunes which will be accumulated within the next ten years. The rules of the race have changed because we now live in a changed world that definitely favors the masses, those who had but little opportunity to win under the conditions existing during the depression, when fear paralyzed growth and development.

We who are in this race for riches should be encouraged to know that this changed world in which we live is demanding new ideas, new ways of doing things, new leaders, new inventions, new methods of teaching, new methods of marketing, new books, new literature, new features on radio, new ideas for moving pictures. Back of all this demand for new and better things, there is one quality which one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it."

-Napoleon Hill, from "Think and Grow Rich"
First Published in 1937

With all the doom and gloom in the media today, it's refreshing to rethink these times as times of opportunity, innovation and courage. When the economic downturn all shakes out, will the winners be the ones that ran and hid?  Just like back in the 1930's, sticking with the status quo will not lead to easy success. The optimists and innovators will will use this time wisely and hopefully change the world for the better in the process.

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