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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Happy Birthday, Ms. Lin!

One of my friends just posted a birthday note about Maya Lin, an architect who as a student designed the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC.

It's hard for someone outside the design field to appreciate just how amazing her acheivement with the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial was. Winning the competition was the easy part - it was by far the best submission. What was harder was what she had to endure to see it built - criticism of everything from the design itself (which architecture students endure every day) to her patriotism and her ethnicity.

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial has become the standard against which all modern memorials will be judged. I've visited the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania last year; it's not complete yet, but enough of it is complete that the scheme is apparent, as is its connection to the VVM. The use of earthwork and landscape, combined with hardscape and little to no formal statuary, strong geometry inspired by the event, a feeling of solitude.

In comparison, the WWII Memorial, though it's thirty years newer, feels dated (though it does have some very strong elements in it). But then, maybe it's appropriate that the WWII Memorial would choose to tell a more straightforward story in a traditional way. WWII was, in most ways, the last straightforward war we ever fought. Since then, we've had "conflicts" and "police actions" and a "war on terror" - whatever the hell that is.

To be clear - this says NOTHING about the men and women who fought these battles on our behalf, whether we (or even THEY!) agreed with them or not. To the warrior, it doesn't matter what the fight is called. It's war.

Our warriors deserve their memorials, but they also deserve memorials that inspire and question as well as memorialize.

Ms. Lin has raised the bar for us all.


Photo from Acheivement.org

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Art of Procrastination

“There is no ‘try.’ Do or do not." – Yoda

There’s a fine line between waiting for inspiration and just putting stuff off. There’s a time to wait and a time to just do it. There’s a time for deliberation and a time for decisive action. Success might hinge on being able to properly identify which is the proper course.

When designing, a graph of the energy of my process is sometimes decidedly an inverse bell: starting off by immersing myself in the design problem – site, program, users, doing research on precedents – and then leaving it behind to pursue something else entirely, followed by a burst of production in the last part of the phase or project to document and communicate the solutions.

Some may say that’s just a symptom of an attention deficit, which is at least somewhat true in my case, but I firmly believe we have the ability to subconsciously process information in the background. I’ve spoken to designers who almost rely on this as part of their process, while others insist nothing happens unless they are actively (reading; writing; but for architects, typically drawing) attending to the problem.

There’s a great story about Frank Lloyd Wright involving the design of his 1935 masterpiece Fallingwater for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann. The story has been told often by the Taliesin Fellows who worked with Wright at the time. Kaufmann unexpectedly called Wright at Taliesin North in Wisconsin to advise he was in Milwaukee (at the time three hours from Taliesin) and on his way over to see the first drawings for his proposed creekside summer house in rural southwest Pennsylvania. Wright reportedly responded, “Come on over, Edgar; we’ll be waiting for you!” The Fellows panicked, never having seen one drawing of the house to date, even though Wright had had the site survey in hand for some time. Wright, hanging up the phone, sat down and within three hours had produced rough versions of the floor plans, major elevations and a building section of the three-level, stepped-back and cantilevered house. Kaufmann arrived, Wright shared the drawings and then took Kaufmann to another part of the house for lunch while the apprentices produced the famous colored pencil-on-trace perspective from a viewpoint below the falls over which the house is perched.

Is it possible that Wright produced the building completely in his mind before he ever picked up the pencils that day? I think most creative people would agree that it quite possible, though it’s unlikely to be very common.

Over my career in design, both in training and at work, I’ve experienced both scenarios wherein a design solution would be developed almost on its own with little conscious work while another project would only respond to constant attention and effort. I’ll say there is something quite satisfying in the flash of awareness that says “I got it now; I understand it completely – all I need to do is get it on paper!”

Of course, this process of latent development can be a problem in professional practice where concrete results and steady progress are expected by partners and project Owners. Billing cycles, banks, investors and markets don’t wait for flashes of inspiration. While we designers may be comfortable with what’s in our heads, clients only know what they can see and respond to.

This may well be why some architects are most comfortable in boutique practices with a more patronizing clientele. They aren’t being irresponsible or lacking in ambition; it’s more likely that they prefer to respond to their internal schedules and seek out clients more open to this kind of process.

As a project manager who sometimes produces the design solution himself rather than guide others I often struggle with the desire to process in the background while having to produce drawings and a report for the Very Important Meeting at 8 AM Monday. I keep wanting that Fallingwater experience but find that since I don’t own my practice and am not the World’s Greatest Living Architect (as Wright once billed himself), I don’t have the luxury of dictating my schedule or output.

To be sure, the solutions are not always Fallingwater-grade nor even aesthetic in nature. Sometimes the problem is purely functional – making space needs and adjacencies align to make a cohesive floor plan is a common issue – but no less important for it. A project requires dozens of similar moves; the solutions may arrive holistically or piecemeal and one solution will drive another. One has to be open to the ebb and flow but always keep in mind the greater overall theme – all parts must work toward the whole.

The challenge to a creative professional is in balancing these apparently oppositional needs. I believe it’s possible to manage one’s time and energy in a way that allows for both – processing subconsciously and making demonstrable progress. In a human-centered practice, it’s the most responsible way to act. Project Owners can either be educated to understand the creative process - or not - as they see fit. It’s up to the project team to understand the Owners’ attitudes and adjust its process accordingly.

One can make room in his or her project schedule and day to allow inspiration to happen. It often comes at odd moments anyway – in the car or shower, or in the middle of some other completely unrelated task or event. Sometimes the inspiration is triggered by something about the unrelated task; sometimes it’s allowed to come to the surface by the chore’s undemanding nature (washing dishes and mowing the lawn have worked for me on several occasions!). Maybe the answer lies in creating the time and space in which the serendipitous might happen.

However, the tasks of creating project milestones and managing fee and time budgets around this process are complicated and stressful, itself creating a barrier to truly creative work. This may be one reason why architecture is ranked somewhere near oil field work in terms of mental stress! That stress is also hard for others to understand, which has the unfortunate effect of adding yet another layer of stress in a negative feedback loop.

There’s no ready or easy solution to this problem, but firm and project leadership can do much to create an atmosphere that supports the team members’ personal work styles. It might involve including quiet spaces in the office or better even encouraging the team to leave the office completely to fuel reflection and creativity. Project managers can work with the team and project Owners to define milestones in a way that allows for flexibility in both schedule and presentation (we tend to box ourselves in by narrowly describing deliverables – X kinds and Y numbers of Drawings delivered by Z date in the stated interest of managing expectations and fees, though I suspect the result is often great ideas left behind in a young designer’s frustrated mind).

It’s interesting and a little sad that a profession that touts its creativity seems very disinterested in really exploring this gap between creative desire and practical professional needs. It’s not very different from its slowness to embrace the newest technologies and delivery methods that might have within them the keys to bridging this very same gap.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Clear and Present Compassion

The rain was starting as I left the office.

It had been one of those days where I stayed close to my desk, so I wasn't aware of the falling temperatures and rain that had sprinkled the city all day.

I left the office around six; not really late by architect standards, though I had arrived at the office at 7 AM. It had been a busy, productive day and I was tired, looking forward to the decompression of the drive home.

As I walked to my car, I heard her through the breeze and traffic, the call forced through sobs.

"Excuse me. Sir?! Excuse me!"

Shields up, Mr. Sulu, my brain said, though a part of me was embarrassed for my brain's reaction. I stopped and looked down the alley to her approaching, carrying a cloth tote. Her clothes were clean and mismatched; her hair dark and short. She was wearing a too-large warmup jacket over her T-shirt and sweat pants.

I said hello and she poured out her story, the story I was positive was well - honed to shame the listener into giving her a few dollars: stranded here by my boyfriend who took my truck and debit card, eighteen, three months pregnant, hadn't eaten for two days,sleeping under a bridge for two nights, the shelters are only for men or battered women. It was every panhandler story ever told - almost over the top in its depth and delivery, the Neil Peart drum solo of begging.

I've been in this place before...you can't work in a downtown without interacting with the homeless population. I will either engage them or ignore them, with the usual rush of mixed emotions both good and bad no matter what I do.

But for some reason, in this case, it rang all too true. I watched her eyes and face and gestures as her story unfolded, the tears and gulps and shivering...and the bulge in her tummy that was a little too round to be malnutrition.

At that moment, I really had no choice. I steered us toward a nearby overhang to get out of the rain.

"What's your name?" Allyson and I shook hands. "Allyson, what do you need?"

"I haven't eaten, and the hotel I've stayed at before will rent me a room for $20 a night. The lady from the church gave me clean clothes but I want to take a shower before I put them on..."

"Where's the hotel?" She mentioned a place a few miles outside of downtown. "The lady from the church gave me bus passes so I can get around;" she showed me a stack of passes. This was starting to add up.

Trying to remain cautious, I was still becoming more comfortable with the situation. The rain cleared and the warm sun peeked through the clouds as we walked to a nearby sandwich shop; she was only able to eat a third of the large sub, probably because her stomach had shrunk from not eating, I teased her. We chatted about our families and homes; I learned she had been in college in Rhode Island, wanted to be a pediatrician; her parents had passed away but she had uncles she could live with once she got back. The church she was working with was raising money to get her back there - she didn't like our city.

I encouraged her to eat as much as she could for her baby, but she neatly wrapped the remainder of her sandwich and stowed it in her bag.

"Where will you get the bus to the hotel?" Allyson mentioned a nearby park. "There's a large group of homeless people there, and the lady from the church brings us clothes and blankets and things."

I insisted we walk there together so I could meet her "neighbors." I wanted to be sure, as much as I could, that she would be safe - and ensure Captain Kirk up in the bridge that at least some part of this story was true.

On the way, she told me about two of her fellow homeless who watch our for her - an older lady and a young man whose dog really loves her. Sure enough, as we entered the park and approached the community who were starting the process of settling in for the evening (Allyson told me this was one of the parks where the homeless felt safe), a little pit bull mix shot out of the group and ran up to Allyson, jumping up against her, leaving muddy pawprints on her gray sweat pants.

Allyson introduced me to Joe, a sturdy fellow who looked in his late twenties. He had clear eyes and a good handshake, though he glanced away a lot as we spoke. I imagined what was going through his head.

We talked a little while Allyson and the dog played. Yes; Allyson has been here a while but she's okay, and he'll take care of her.

I turned back to Allyson, whose pants were now really muddy. I gave her the rest of my money - enough for her hotel room and another meal or two.

"Allyson, I'm going to leave, since you're here with Joe and your friends. I'm going to ask you for just a couple things, okay?"

"Take care of yourself and your baby. No drugs. No alcohol. Eat as well as you can."

She looked at me intently, her face firm, her eyes clear, steady, locked in.

"No sir."

"Last: when you get on your feet, maybe when you're a doctor - whenever. Do this for someone else. That's it. That's all I'm going to ask in return."

We parted on a handshake and wishes for God's blessings. As I walked the few blocks back to my car and my way home, I decided that it was time to fish or cut bait.

I'm not a Christian; I'm squarely agnostic on even the idea of a god. But I believe in the reality of Great Teachers - Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mom, Dad. They all teach the same lessons:

There is nothing greater than Love.
Compassion is how that Love is expressed.
Compassion requires that we not judge.
You reap what you sow.

When I've given money to beggars I've had people insist I've been ripped off, lied to, the money used for booze or drugs. I've come to firmly believe that's not the point. If I was deceived, I'm only out the money. The other person has lost his integrity and (see above) will have to face the karmic music.

I'm done judging. I'm tired of comparing myself to others. It wastes energy and time I could spend on more productive efforts, like working to make other people's lives a little better through design, volunteering, or just trying to be a little bit more like those Great Teachers.

I'm not there yet; there's still a lot of work to do - there always will be, but I think I've made a start with Allyson.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Skeptical EV Driver

Bjorn Lomborg's recent take on EVs and their total impact is somewhat overhyped (befitting the venue) but his basic argument is solid: EVs aren't a panacea and that unless a user makes some very specific decisions about recharging and use, any claims to overall environmental superiority are suspect - especially where carbon footprint is involved.

They do reduce air pollution at the point of use, and that's important.  Lomborg acknowledges this. But that's not the same as making broad claims about overall emissions.  The EV makers are conveniently vague about this. There's a call for transparency about this, which Toyota is just barely starting to address.

The batteries are not benign. Lomborg is fair to call them out, though it's hard to assess his numbers without digging into his sources. That might come later.

EVs are currently a  "statement" like Prii were in 2002. We Prius drivers are over that now, thankfully. One day the EV users will be, too.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Revisiting Past Work

I've promised everyone I would try to get back to writing. I never said how I would do it! In my usual way, I'm going to be all over the place. But I'll start here by revisiting a poem I wrote a while back after taking a walk through the Red-tail Nature Preserve and Cardinal Greenway in Muncie. I've cleaned it, tightened it up and made the stanzas the same length, though rhythm and meter...well, I never said I was trained in this!

I rewrote this in song form for a project to hopefully share with some of my musician friends. Marty is also a waterways restoration expert and lives a green life on a farm in central Wisconsin. I hope he can appreciate this:

RAILS TO TRAILS (for Marty)

The morning's respite
From chore and errand
The rolling field that
Once was tilled
Now Lies quiet 
In tune with its Past

CHORUS
Footfalls steady, hard and fast
The breath from my chest and
The songs in my head...

A walk through woods
Over bog and bridge  
The level trail that
Once was rails
Now mostly silent
In tune with its Now

CHORUS

BRIDGE
A mile north
My only companions
Creatures heard but unseen
The streams of former snow...

A mile south
My companions remain
Creatures heard but unseen and
The streams of former snow

CHORUS

Return to
The rolling field that
Once was tilled
Now lies quiet 
Building our better
Future

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's Just a Car...Isn't It?


But as the first mass-produced-for-sale all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf is a pretty significant car.

It’s important to remember that electric vehicles existed before hydrocarbon-powered vehicles – by decades. Many variants rose and fell, perhaps the most infamous being GM’s EV-1, as highlighted in the film Who Killed the Electric Car?
EVs have been slow to catch on, perhaps because of the many misperceptions and biases that work against them and cars even remotely like them. Even though the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid has been for sale in the US since 2001 (and this year passed one million vehicles sold here), I’m still asked if I have to plug in our 2010 Generation 3 Prius. That option, unfortunately, won’t be available until next year when the plug-in Prius becomes available.
As fuel prices rise and household finances are stretched, the driving community is showing signs of waking up to a new reality that redefines personal transportation.
The Nissan Leaf is positioned as the first EV intended to address this reality. A mid-size car with an MSRP of a little over $32,000 (typically reduced by incentives – your incentive may vary) and fully equipped, the Leaf is not what many envision an EV to be. It’s not a golf cart. It’s not a rolling roadblock limited to the right lane or surface streets. It’s not a flimsy novelty. It’s a real car meant to perform under real world conditions for a vast majority of drivers.
Of course, “real world conditions” require some definition. According to a report of travel trends from the US Department of Transportation, the typical US commuter in 2009 drove solo in a private vehicle for about 12 miles at a speed of under 30mph. Across all trip modes (commuting, family/school, recreational) each US driver averages a little less than 13,000 miles of driving a year, for a daily average of 35 miles. Long-distance recreational travel is a relatively small portion of household driving.
With a single-charge range of between 60 and 130 miles, five-seat capacity and a top speed of 90 mph, the Leaf is perfectly positioned to perform well as a commuter or in-town car, the two modes in which most travel is done. It’s obvious that this car is not suited for households that cannot afford multiple vehicles for various missions, but as almost 70% of households now own multiple vehicles, it is realistic to assume some mission-specificity is possible. The Leaf will never match the shear utility of a minivan but it will do at least most of what a minivan will do on any given trip and do so with no tailpipe emissions.
Note that I wrote tailpipe emissions. As a pure EV, there is no combustion, so there’s no tailpipe at all. The only things this car leaves behind are water condensed from the air conditioner and tire and brake dust, which all cars emit as those parts wear. There is no exhaust, no oil or antifreeze to leak.
But the energy to make it go has to come from somewhere and here in the US, that typically means coal-fired power plants. So even though you’re not producing any pollution locally, it’s being produced somewhere. Unless you’re fortunate enough to get your power from renewables or purchase carbon offsets, you’re still polluting the air by driving your car.
This is countered somewhat in the Leaf by its EPA rating of 99 MPGe (converting kilowatt-hours to the energy equivalent of gasoline), making it a very efficient vehicle indeed, nearly twice that of the 2010-11 Prius.
Based on the above objective measures, the Leaf is a well-considered if somewhat mission-constrained choice. For most households, it’s a perfect work and around-town car, but if one must make one vehicle work for all jobs, it’s most likely not a good choice.


A couple days back, I attended Nissan’s Drive Electric Tour stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a pre-registered test driver. After being checked in, I waited until our group of about ten was escorted through a couple displays explaining the Leaf’s battery and charging system and a walkaround of the car itself.  The exterior styling of the Leaf is unique – a cross between the Versa and Juke – and is intended to evoke aerodynamics and ecological sensibility. Nissan, I’m sure, is hoping the Leaf’s shape to become iconic as has the Prius’s.

Interestingly enough, the Leaf’s 0.29 Cd is only average for contemporary cars and higher than the Chevy Volt’s (0.28) and Prius’s 0.25, still the lowest of any production car. Exterior fit and finish was quite high, though one could quibble about minor details like how the side mirrors attach to the door. A nice touch is the design of the multi-mode antenna, which carries the elliptical curve theme of the rest of the car and is evocative of a plant bud.

We were then divided up, assigned a co-driver and vehicle and took a short drive on the surface streets of Speedway. I was really disappointed that we weren’t taken on the track itself, which would have made for a MUCH more interesting test drive!
As a Prius owner I felt right at home in the Leaf. The controls are very conventional, though the displays are quite different from a gas car, showing energy remaining and power being used and regenerated rather than fuel quantity and engine speed. It’s roughly equal to the Prius’s hybrid system indicator. The touch screen multi-function display can show the status of most of the car’s systems as well as control the audio and navigation system.

The interior of the car is also conventional, using a variety of hard and soft plastics and fabric upholstery. The fabric is made with recycled PET plastic, is soft and grippy – enough to make me wonder about its durability. The seats felt a little small but would be comfortable for any trip within the Leaf’s range. The quality of interior fit and finish is reasonably high – nothing remarkable. The money was obviously spent on the power train.
The rear seat, with its high floor over the batteries – the 600 pound case is suspended under the vehicle - was less comfortable but roomy enough. Leg and headroom would be adequate for most. The cargo area appeared to be able to hold plenty of groceries or one or two suitcases. Golf clubs or a large cooler would necessitate folding down the rear seat backs.

We merged into rush hour traffic, turning west on 16th Street and got a quick dose of electric motor acceleration. It’s important to point out that unlike a gas or diesel engine that develops peak torque only after reaching a certain speed, an electric motor has available peak torque from the beginning. This makes for very brisk acceleration; the lack of noise, with only the wind and tires as cues, makes it very easy to overshoot the intended speed. I found the electric power steering to be too light and numb; the Prius has a similar lack of feedback but is at least nicely weighted. The regenerative braking is very effective though also has a feel unique to regenerative systems; it takes a little getting used to. The Leaf comes with stability control and ABS as standard equipment.
The palm-sized controller in the console allows switching between “power” and “eco” modes which can be done at any time. “Power” mode boosts acceleration (and energy consumption) significantly.
The Leaf’s low center of gravity makes up for its relatively high stance. Cornering and lane changes are handled well. Again, the IMS road course would have been a much better place to explore the Leaf’s performance. I really doubt there will be many Leafs turned into autocross rides, though Nissan has demonstrated a Leaf-derived racer at LeMans.
We returned to IMS where I parked the vehicle and talked with some of the staff. I learned that Nissan is not taking orders at the events and that registration for cars in Indiana won’t commence until early 2012. I was told Nissan’s staged rollout is intended to preclude price gouging and also permit the catching up of charging infrastructure and dealer support, but some in the community are worried that pent-up demand may lead potential buyers elsewhere. Seeing as how Volts are still only trickling onto the market and the plug-in Prius will become available by mid-2012, one must wonder if there will be too many alternatives available by the time Leafs are widely available.
As a Prius owner, I was impressed by the Leaf, but not blown away. It’s what I expected it to be – the next step of automotive evolution and a really good transportation appliance. It’s not a revolutionary vehicle by any means. Even the first Prius wasn’t revolutionary. The Leaf feels and sounds different from internal-combustion engine cars, but not much so. It does what it says it will do and does it with grace and comfort. It is transparent in that the driver can interact with its power train as desired. It will work for most trips for most households.
I wish Nissan and the Leaf well. As resources become increasingly scarce, we will need a more diverse fleet of vehicles to meet our transportation demands.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Fathers' Day!

Last week three years ago, Dad left us after a long battle with health issues. While he's with us all the time in our hearts and memories I really do wish I could speak with him face to face now and then. I could use his advice on so many topics.

But I can at least hear his voice; it's the upside of Mom's not being home, as his message is still on her voicemail...

"Thank you for calling and have a nice day!"

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I will have a good day.

Happy Fathers' Day to all of you out there - no matter where you are!