engineer

Unintended Consequences

The world is a complicated place.

This morning I was reading a section of the Seattle Times, the PacificNW magazine insert, which featured several homes that were built. This magazine follows a standard format of choosing a home and celebrating the architect and the largess of the people who hired the architect, often with plenty of tidbits about the homeowner’s trips to exotic places.

This sort of writing bothers me, it gets under my skin and itches. It makes me difficult to be around. So I tried some meditation methods, a little DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), but these didn’t work. I kept circling around to think about how meditation and these behavioral modification methods seem to me to be a system of pacification; how do you get a large population to accept the status quo? You give them a practical method of acceptance. It is much better to have a docile population that accepts things as they are. Even if it disturbs them to step over the homeless on their way to work, you want them to think about how to give the homeless food, but you don’t want them thinking about the larger structural elements that create a situation where you can have people making $200,000 a year stepping over homeless people while worrying about how expensive it is to live.

I know- you’re wondering what that has to do with an article about people who hire architects to design their homes.

It’s all about connections. The world, as I noted at the beginning, is complicated. Everything has its connections.

I have been in construction continuously for a couple of decades now. I have worked with designer/builders, designers, architects, and homeowners where I worked off of napkins. I have never worked on a project where one person had everything figured out to the nth degree.

Those buildings that the PacificNW magazine writers gushed over were written in good faith, written to fit a certain space. The writer needed to fit words and pictures into a limited structure that was defined by the editor. It’s a lot like construction (I’ve written for the trades, and writing is a lot like construction; you have to fit a limited space and budget). It’s a lot like construction in too many ways- the writers knew the expectations of the editors, they have a model in mind of what this writing looks like (see Architectural Digest, Lux Magazine, et al), and they met that expectation.

Here’s the thing- none of that writing tells the homeowners how a house is designed and built. Any house that gets built, especially in the custom market, is a collaboration between all the parties at the table.

Architects provide a concept. They bring the idea of what it will look like. In a perfect world they have a cohesive design with a consistent aesthetic. The architect generally (but not always) works with an engineer to ensure that what they have drawn is physically possible and is strong enough to withstand what nature will throw at it.

Their clients, the homeowners, have a part in this as they provide the requirements and their preferred aesthetics- they know something of what they want, although it may be fairly vague.

One of my favorite lines from architectural writings comes from Witold Rybczynski when he is explaining his first custom home commission. The clients explained that they were pretty flexible on the design, but that what they really wanted was a “comfortable home”. While he could have glossed over that rather open ended little request, Rybczynski was cursed with a reflective, thoughtful mind, and the phrase sent him off to educate himself on what it means to be “comfortable”.

The builder is the group responsible to take those ideas from concepts and line drawings and turn them into a physical reality.

I can’t think of any builder who does everything. There may be┬ácompanies that do everything “in-house”, meaning that they have employees who can do everything, but they are rare enough to be non-existent. Even the design/build companies hire out significant parts of any structure.

In a very real way the General Contractor is a coordinator. A person (or in the case of these complex, large, custom homes, a group of people) who keeps track of all the various parts of the project and coordinates to ensure that what is on paper (the architect’s designs) is buildable, that the aesthetic requirements of the clients is being met, that all the codes are being followed, and that all the details are completed.

What happens during a build is not even that clear-cut. There are always omissions in the design and engineering. The GC will find most of these and will be sending the architect a steady stream of RFI’s (request for information) through the project. The various trades find additional places where the design needs to be re-worked, and the architect and engineer get to stay busy through the foundation and basic structural construction re-working the design and engineering to fit the changes that need to be made.

Many of the design changes are not solely from the architect. The trades working on the house tend to have vastly more experience in their particular area than any architect or engineer, and they have suggestions, ideas, and often completely different ways of creating the look that the architect and/or homeowners really want.

This is also when the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC contractors start to weigh in. They have requirements for what they need to do, but also suggestions for other ways to get the same effect, or suggestions for new designs that may not have been considered.

This design manipulation continues through the project. Once the foundation is completed, the finishes begin, and there again the design is often light, or it doesn’t turn out to look quite as good in real life as in the renderings. The various finish trades bring ideas to the project, different cabinet designs, other handrail types, different flooring or wall coverings.

All of these various people have an impact on the life of the building. The landscaper who makes sure that water doesn’t drain into the house and makes sure that trees are planted far enough away so that their roots won’t grow into the foundation. The siding installer who makes sure that all the flashings are integrated into the weather resistant barrier. The roofer who creates kick-out flashings and advises on better roof designs. The tile installer who knows how to waterproof the walls and floors.

Building a house is a collaboration. Even tract builders, who are closer to manufacturers than we in the bespoke trades are, refine their designs and processes according to input from their tradespeople and trade partners.

This is why the writing in the magazine bothers me- it ignores the real process that creates a great house that will last and be comfortable. It’s not just a client with money and one superhero architect.

More, this type of writing contributes to the small thinking that damages so much of the country. It’s not an intentional thing- the writer is only intending to do well; they are praising a good design for (hopefully) interesting clients. But the end result of the writing is a stratification; it presents the idea that there is one person who is special and the rest are dispensable.

This type of writing is to buildings what the one-line political quote is to politics; reductive and simple. Brevity is great- it is fast, easy, and it is shallow.

Too often we avoid the complex because it seems hard, or it isn’t clear. It is much more enticing to find something simple, easy, and sure- if you can say it in one line, then you have a clear concept, right? Wrong. All of the one-liners, slogans, and that article that praises the architect without mentioning the people who built it? They all rely on preconceived notions. They aren’t simple, they are filled with prejudice and lazy thinking.

This avoidance of looking at the big picture is why we have people earning $200,000 a year organizing to allow for homeless encampments in their city (hopefully not in their neighborhood, though). It is easy to be depressed by the plight of homelessness and to organize to feed them. Head off to meditation, do a little yoga, feed the homeless, go to work. It’s all part of the world, right?

It is- it is the status quo. But all the organizing to feed the homeless isn’t going to do anything to solve the question of why they are there in the first place. It is much easier to think about how to get blankets to them than it is to ask why there can be almost 2,000 children under the age of 18 living on the streets in Seattle.

It is much easier to look at a 17 year old homeless kid and think “runaway” than it is to think about what they were running from. It will break your heart to meet the 12 year olds who are also living out there, but they will probably be surrounded by a bunch of 15 and 16 and 17 year olds, so you won’t really think about that 12 year old.

It’s sad, too, because the complexity of the world is also most of what makes it beautiful. Go look at an old cathedral. You are looking at a beautiful piece of the religion that it is part of, but you’re also looking at the product of many hands working together.

Go drive down the Columbia Gorge on the old highways. Look at the amazing bridges and intricate rock work. Those, too, are the creation of many people collaborating to make something; they are the culmination of lifetimes of skills passed down through generations.

When you look at the built environment you are looking at a very real history of human learning. Whether it is the blacktop road out front of your house, the bridge you drive over to work, or the trim in your brand new tract house, you are looking just as much at thousands of years of the creative process as you are when you travel to see the Taj Mahal.

Talking to my wife about this she said that she thinks of meditation as a different way to approach these things. I think she is right, for her they may be. For me, I worry that these are also the ways that people are taught to be complacent, to accept things as they are, and to think only about changing themselves.

Humanity has come a long way. It hasn’t gotten there by being happy with how things are. Every advance in technology and culture has come from people who were not happy with how the world was. Sure, some used meditation and some prayed, but they didn’t stop looking at the world and being discontented. They created saws, paper, cotton gins, and computers. We are able to support more people than ever before, and we are more peaceful as a whole than ever before. This is a good thing, it is progress, and it means we are moving in the right direction.

That direction is not defined by the status quo. By definition, the status quo is the state of society as it was, and for humanity to progress we need to continue to change. We need to move past how we were, never to return to what we once were. That edict doesn’t just apply to war or to technology, it applies to how we think and to what we think about.

We didn’t think about women’s rights 500 years ago. We do now. We think about removing barriers to equality based on gender, sexual preference, and we are starting to think that, just maybe, people with mental health problems and a criminal record might be people, too.

One of the longest lasting and most difficult struggles has been against hero worship. This is the tendency to see people in power as superior; to look at kings and queens as Gods, at the famous as having been smiled upon by Heaven, to think that that doctor or lawyer over there is a better human being because of their degree or their income.

As we have evolved, we have learned (slowly) that those people in power are not inherently special. They can be amazing, but so too can the taxi driver.

When I read those articles it brings all this up in me. I see the worship of heroes, the lazy, easy path of adoring the Architect while fawning over the possible achievements of the homeowners, while simply omitting the people who didn’t matter. It looks like hero worship to me, and I believe that is lazy. It promotes the idea that people deserve what they get, and that carries with it the idea that the people who don’t have it don’t deserve it. That they are less human, and these people are more special humans.

I would much prefer to see these articles have more about the real process of the design and building of those homes, and less selective royalty. I want to know who put the wall together, who the arborist was that showed them how to build next to a Fir tree without damaging it. I want to see the people in the trades celebrated for their ability to make other people’s ideas come to life.

I want this because it brings respect to everyone, and I think that having respect for all the people involved breeds more respect for everyone. I think that learning to have that respect will teach us how to look at that 16 year old living on the street and give us the ability to have compassion for their plight. That just might allow more of us to look beyond their appearance.

I believe that learning to have that respect will also give us the insight to look at a person who is starting to struggle and ask why they are struggling instead of blaming them for not working harder. There is no person on the streets that wanted to be there. All of us should take pause to realize that there are that many people who can say with conviction that they are more comfortable living there than they are living in the society that we are part of, that we create.

It doesn’t matter where you find the space to give respect and caring. But it does matter that you and I look at the things that promote this separation between us, that diminish the chance to feel respect for others. When we have learned to have respect, we can have an idea of how to give another the means to feel they matter.