Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best People

The inimitable Rosie Nice.
Any primer on running a successful business will tell you it is axiomatic that the best companies employ the best people. Assembling the right mix of talent and more importantly staff members who enjoy each other’s company is critical. This is particularly true for small companies since each employee figures so prominently in determining business success or failure. 
The overwhelming majority of architectural practices are small companies. With a current staff of fourteen, the firm I work for (Robertson/Sherwood/Architects) is no exception. To say we’re like a family is not hyperbole. Many of us have worked together for decades. We’ve shared our professional triumphs and failures, and our personal ones too. I attribute the good fortune we’ve enjoyed for so many years to our genuine affection for and ease with one another. It’s because of the people I work with that walking through our office door each day is as comfortable as slipping on an old shoe. 
Because we employ the right people, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects has a distinct personality. Definitely first among equals in this regard is our soon-to-be retired, longtime office manager Rosie Nice. More than anyone else (aside from principals Jim Robertson and Carl Sherwood), Rosie has been synonymous with Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. By force of her character—and she is nothing if not a character—Rosie has shaped our office culture in immeasurably positive ways. 
Rosie came with the office when Jim and Carl purchased it from founders Don Lutes and Ron Sanetel in 1986. In fact, with the exception of a brief time away in the mid-seventies, Rosie has been the firm’s office manager, receptionist, bookkeeper, gadfly, chief cook and bottle washer for nearly forty years. During her time with us, she has provided our clients and visitors with their always memorable first impression of our office. She’s kept the ancillary aspects of our operation running smoothly so that we’ve been able to focus on service to our clients and creating the best architecture we can. 
Jim and Carl recently hosted a big party to thank Rosie for her inestimable contributions and celebrate her pending retirement. Well over a hundred of the professional colleagues, friends, and acquaintances she’s come to know during her long career were on hand. Everyone had a great time reminiscing with Rosie. Carl shared a tribute the members of our office composed for the occasion. It largely took the form of an affectionate and sometimes irreverent list of adjectives and nouns to help describe what Rosie has meant to us: 
For our uniquely. . . 
. . . beautiful, awesome, fabulous, fun, colorful, spirited, cheerful, witty, hilarious, friendly, memorable, authentic, raucous, one-in-a-million, genuine, obnoxious, outgoing, direct, indomitable, pushy, boisterous, stubborn, strong, spunky, scheming, considerate, thorny, cattle-prod-wielding, irreplaceable, technology resistant, warm, dedicated, loyal, persistent, brassy, loud, nutty, bodacious, caring, dependable, unfiltered, opinionated, full-of-life, huggable, kind and loving . . . 
. . . friend, partner, MVP, coworker, confidant, big sister, mom, rascal, shoulder-to-cry-on, listener, gad-about-town, hootenanny, kick-in-the-pants, bull-in-a-China-shop, handful, artist, treasure, character, heart-of-our-clan, piece-of-work . . . 
. . . and brightest will be missed! 
We love you, 
Carl, Jim…and the Gang! 
Jim Robertson (left) and Carl Sherwood (right) fete Rosie at her retirement party.
Rosie officially retires on December 31 but she’ll continue to help us out on an as-needed basis (Rosie’s relishing the opportunity to bill her services to us at a yet-to-be-determined exorbitant rate per hour). She’s been grooming her successor, Sherry White, since this past October, so we expect the transition to be smooth. Sherry brings a similar energy and enthusiasm to her work as Rosie always has, and is a great fit for our office. 
Personality traits—such as whether an employee has integrity, resiliency, self-confidence, and a strong work ethic—matter as much to employers, if not more, as one’s educational background or initial skill set. I’m pretty sure Robertson/Sherwood/Architects is not alone in this regard. Every firm has its own unique office culture. I’m so glad Rosie played an outsized role in shaping ours for so many years. 
All of us at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects wish Rosie and her husband, Tom, the best as she opens a new chapter in her life. We love her and will miss the undeniable energy she brought to the office each day. There’s no doubt about it: Rosie is one of the best people you could ever have the privilege to know!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Responding to Place

I’ve been a little slow on the blogging front lately as work and the holiday season’s social commitments have taken priority. Nevertheless, I do like to maintain a pace of at least one new post a week, so being able to draw upon the rich trove of Bill Kleinsasser’s writing is always a godsend. 
The following excerpts from Bill’s 1983 iteration of SYNTHESIS succinctly capture his thoughts on the importance of responding to place—achieving connection, particularity, orientation, physical continuity, and appropriateness vis-à-vis setting. 
In today’s hyper-connected world, people are increasingly failing to appreciate the characteristics that make a place special or unique. More and more, we’re losing our sense of authentic attachment and belonging to places of meaning and significance to us. Consequently, Bill’s words ring even truer today than when he wrote them more than thirty years ago. Read for yourself: 
When a building or place is made in response to the particular setting in which it is located, it established a silent, lasting definition of that setting. In its embodiment of the tangible and intangible qualities of place, it explains the place. 
A place that has been organized and shaped in response to its particular physical context establishes an opportunity to become more aware on that context. Responding to place entails analyzing the setting thoroughly in regard to the following characteristics and conditions: 
Solving Place Problems
  • Responding to weather and climate (the heat, the cold, the humidity, the dryness, the precipitation, the wind, etc.).
  • Responding to the physical character of the land (the topography, the vegetation, the drainage, the subsurface conditions, the ecological patterns).
  • Reducing scale (creating security and shelter), if appropriate.
  • Establishing appropriate separation and control.
  • Making necessary transitions.
  • Respecting the rights of others.

Developing Place Opportunities
  • Organizing spaces to let in sunlight.
  • Organizing and developing spaces to dramatize sunlight.
  • Utilizing solar and other natural energies.
  • Establishing connections to local features and phenomena.
  • Using the whole site (treating the building as one element in the making of a larger room) and going beyond the site to an even larger room by:
    • Reinforcing a larger order by continuing or completing an existing pattern or structure;
    • Reinforcing a larger order by augmenting the collective life space—that is, improving or adding to the spaces, paths, services, institutions or other facilities needed by those who will occupy the space, including those nearby;     
    • Embodying and expressing the essential spirit of the place, reflecting in the way the new construct is made the unique and distinguishing qualities of the place; and finally:
    • Diagramming important place-response ideas so that they may be fully understood and not forgotten as other objectives are considered.

Through its embodiment and expression of its setting, any built-place has the capacity to establish connections. By being of its setting through its designer’s response, a built-place can both define and dramatize that setting, including the processes occurring there, people and their values, and even moments in time. And we need to sense the connections between ourselves and all things—how we belong to each other and to the world—for, as we do so, we expand not only our experience but also our conception of reality and life. We enlarge our image banks and frames of reference. We grow in our ability to make a better world.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Understanding Geotechnical Reports

The Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute always endeavors to provide excellent continuing education opportunities to everyone in the local design and construction industry. The WVC/CSI Education Committee’s latest offering, Understanding Geotechnical Reports, promises to be no exception. 
Literally underlying every construction project, the importance of proper foundation design cannot be overstated. Three experts on the subject will touch upon a wide range of considerations, including water table & weather issues, foundation preparation, the deleterious impact of inaccurate soils data, expansive soils, and the responsibilities of design professionals (architects and structural engineers) when dealing with geotechnical challenges. 
I know each of the seminar’s panelists well and fully expect them to deliver a comprehensive overview of the topic in three brief, information-packed hours. 
The panelists are: 
Jim Maitland, Ph.D., P.E., G.E.
Principal and Founder of Foundation Engineering Inc.
35 years experience as a geotechnical engineer 
Matt Gralund, M.S., P.E., S.E.
Principal and Owner of Gralund Engineering, Inc.
25 years experience as a structural engineer

Curt Offenbacher, B.S.
OSU degrees in Civil Engineering Technology & Business Administration
40+ years experience as site superintendent, estimator, and civil construction department manager. 
This is the first time in recent memory that the chapter has offered a seminar on this important topic. Register now in advance of the event. Refer to the event details below; RSVP soon as space is limited. 
Registration: Contact Steve Gunn of Construction Focus, Inc., WVC/CSI Education Committee Chair, to let him know you plan to attend the seminar. Call him at 541-686-2031 or email him at 
What:   Educational Seminar: Understanding Geotechnical Reports
When:  Thursday, December 11, 2014
Registration: 8:00 AM - 8:30 AM
Program: 5:00 PM
Pastries/Tea/Coffee will be provided.
Where: Baker Downtown Center, 975 High Street, Eugene, OR
Parking available in the east lot.
Credits: 3AIA/CES HSW Learning Units 
Cost: $90 (CSI members $10 off); make checks payable to WVC/CSI 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Guest Viewpoint: Steven Leuck

The following is a reprint from the November/December 2014 edition of The Documentor, the newsletter of the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute. WVC/CSI president Steven Leuck wrote the piece as his monthly message to the WVC/CSI membership. 

With Steven’s permission, I’m republishing his article here on SW Oregon Architect for the benefit of those who read my blog but who do not receive The Documentor. I admire how much he personalizes his commentary on work-life balance and the perspective the younger generations in our workforce bring to that issue. 

Steven happens to be one of the founders (along with Jeff Brown) of Contractors Electric, LLC here in Eugene, a company he has poured his heart and soul into. If anyone understands the value of balancing one’s career with the other things in life that matter to us, it’s Steven. He knows the millennial cohort may be young, naïve, and idealistic, but it is also like most every generation that proceeded it. Young people have always wanted to challenge the status quo and question why things can’t be done differently. We (graying baby boomers like Steven and me) may believe we know how things should be done but that’s exactly the reason why it’s good to listen to the younger professionals who work with and for us. 

Here’s Steven’s message: 

Life Balance
By Steven Leuck, President WVC/CSI

Some months ago I read an article re-posted to Facebook by my grandnephew titled “Why the Millennial Architect Won’t Be Your CAD Monkey” (read the complete article here: My grandnephew received both his bachelors and masters in architecture here at the U of O some eight or nine years ago. He felt the article had some merit. I was astounded and dismayed by both the tone and the content of the article—which was, essentially, that the “millennial” architects now coming up through education and into our ranks are not satisfied with much of the old model by which experience has been traditionally gained through the current model. 

At first I was incensed over the article and took my grandnephew to task that he would actually believe what I saw as complete drivel and nonsense. But now, some months later as I re-read the article, I am seeing some truths poking out here and there to which we should be paying attention. The main one, and the one I’d like to bring to our attention here, is that of a notion of some sort of life-balance between our jobs, our projects and the quality of our personal lives. 

While there is quite a bit of this article that I just outright reject and condemn as “stinking thinking” there is at least one aspect of it that we should be paying attention to: life-balance. Not just as it applies to them but to us as well. Those coming out of school now and joining the ranks of the building construction professionals are part of a whole new world that has changed and is continuing to change at a much more rapid pace than we have ever seen in the past. It’s not that they expect more for less—it’s that they want and expect different things to meet their needs in a quickly changing world. We need to be keen to their desires to have some sort of balance in their lives such that they (and we!!) don’t feel as though our workaday activities are sucking the life out of us. 

I am, quite possibly, the worst example of not doing better at having a quality life-balance. Recognizing what would be required to get a construction company off the ground during an economic recession, I committed myself early on to spending enormous amounts of time at work and even more time after normal work hours to build community relationships with the end goal of building a successful business. We have reached most of our goals during these first four and a half years so far. But at what cost? At the time we started out, my wife and I were empty-nesters and we mutually agreed that this would be a good time for us to start a business, because the need to have me at home was not as great as the need to have me working our business plan. Now that we’re raising a grandchild we have to adjust this thinking—drastically. 

The new upcoming generation (now officially known as the “Linkster” generation) has a much different outlook on what they need for life-balance than many of us did when we started out. Some things remain and always will but we need to listen to what they’re saying to better understand them. Do we know what it is they’re really asking? How do we respond to them? Can we apply these things to ourselves and our own situations? 

I’m not saying I have the answers. But take a moment and read the original article. As you do, try doing so through a different pair of colored glasses. Try seeing it from the view point of someone just starting out and the way the changing world is now and will continue to affect them as they travel the road most of us have already traversed. See if you can find enough in here to re-create for the better some of what we do in order to achieve better balance—for ourselves and our companies.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What is Missing?

Still from Maya Lin’s video Unchopping a Tree

Acclaimed artist, architect, and designer Maya Lin (best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC) delivered the Oregon Humanities Center’s O’Fallon Memorial Lecture this past Thursday at the University of Oregon. I fully expected to be impressed by a review of Lin’s extraordinary oeuvre. What I and the many others who packed the EMU Ballroom didn’t expect was to come away both shaken and moved by what she has described as her latest and final memorial project: What is Missing? 

What is Missing? blends art and science to raise awareness about the ongoing loss of biodiversity and natural habitats. It is a multi-media, multi-site memorial that aims to build awareness about species loss and highlight what scientists and environmental groups throughout the world are doing to protect species and habitats. Maya Lin’s intent is to bring the magnitude of the sixth extinction to our attention through artistic means. 

Many of us are fully aware that we’re on the brink of a sixth mass extinction on par with the five others that have punctuated our planet’s history. I fear we may have already passed the tipping point insofar as large-scale climate change (and its concomitant and exponential acceleration of habitat and species loss) is concerned. It is beyond tragic. What is Missing? alerts us about the very real immediacy of the crisis and how catastrophic and dreadful its impacts will be if we choose to do nothing. This shouldn’t be necessary, and yet there I was in the audience shocked again by the magnitude of the calamity unfolding before us. It’s far too easy for me—for all of us—to ignore or forget our responsibilities to protect our planet when our day-to-day concerns are so distracting. 

What is Missing? debuted in 2009. Since then Lin has continuously been working on the ambitious undertaking in the form of multiple permanent and temporary art installations, more than 70 videos, and the What is Missing? interactive website(1). Among other things, she uses her work to emphasize the importance of preventing deforestation as a way of reducing emissions and protecting animals and habitat. She engages her audience through interactive media, asking visitors who view (and listen to) her work to contribute their own stories of loss and or recovery in the natural world.

I’m surprised I wasn’t previously aware of Maya Lin’s What is Missing? project. I like to think I’m pretty well-informed when it comes to the activities of the most notable thought-leaders in the design universe but I obviously wasn’t paying attention to what may prove to be her magnum opus. 

Lin did not devote the entirety of the lecture to What is Missing? She initially offered a brisk overview of her career’s work, glossing over her most familiar pieces (such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, the Women’s Table at Yale University, and the Wave Field at the University of Michigan). She did dedicate more time to the Confluence Project, perhaps because of the relative proximity of that series of outdoor installations and interpretive artworks to Eugene. Of these, I found the yet-to-be completed Celilo Park site the most intriguing, in part because of my familiarity with its important story(2)
Celilo Falls, before the falls were flooded by The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Maya Lin is obviously brilliant. She’s been blessed with opportunities to deliver her messages in ways that are impactful, perspective-altering, and thought-provoking. She is the rare personification of a total artist, equally at home with a variety of media at all scales. What is Missing? may be her “last” memorial but I fully expect she’ll never finish it, at least without the confidence that humankind has taken heed of its message. 
Click the link below for a video of Maya Lin’s complete November 20 lecture:

(1)    Curiously, the What is Missing? website appears to be inactive at the moment.

(2)    Years ago, my wife worked as an archaeologist on digs in the vicinity of where the now-lost Celilo Falls once served as a gathering place for thousands of Native Americans and an important salmon fishery.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2014 Eugene Gingerbread Competition

Are you ready for the holiday season? If not, you need to be because the third annual Eugene Gingerbread Competition is quickly approaching! This year's event will take place on December 13 at The 5th Street Market.
AIA-Southwestern Oregon or CSI WillametteValley chapter members can enter a gingerbread creation into the Professional Category, vote for their favorite entry, buy a house during the silent auction, or simply enjoy the festive atmosphere. The Professional Category is for teams or individuals that include architects, landscape architects, bakers, contractors, or designers. 
My firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, proudly submitted an entry for the first contest back in 2012. Cleverly disguised as a fun time together, designing and assembling our sugary sweet project proved to be a great team-building exercise. We didn’t take home an award but we thoroughly enjoyed the agreeable distraction from our workday concerns. 
As with the 2012 and 2013 editions of the contest, the competition judges will bestow awards based on the creativity of approach, quality of construction, and observation of the rules. The awards may include the following: 
  • People’s Choice
  • Best in Show
  • Most Unusual
  • Most Economical
  • Most Innovative use of Materials
  • Most Accurate Recreation of an Existing Building
Entry forms are due on Friday, December 12. Register your entry online at: Act quickly as there will only be room for the first 50 submissions.

Start drawing your plans, heat up your ovens, and join what has become a delightful and welcome holiday tradition in Eugene!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Architecture is Awesome #7: The Process of Discovery

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 
Like most creative pursuits, the practice of architecture is fundamentally a process of discovery. Each new project seduces us with its promise. Inherent in every design problem are possibilities, inventions, and an order of systems waiting to be revealed. The means of their discovery necessitates the exploration and study of concepts. Ultimately, the process rewards architects who embrace opportunities, brave the unknown, and dispel preconceptions. 
Paul Laseau described the process of discovery as consisting of two parts: 1) invention; and 2) concept formation. In his book Graphic Thinking for Architects & Designers, he explained how invention seeks the basic discovery—the original idea for the project—whereas concept formation converts the discovery into a graphic and verbal statement that can give basic direction to the full development of the project. 
But the process of discovery is much more as well. Its course is seemingly capricious, full of twists and turns. There are often surprises along the way. Some are welcome epiphanies. Others are roadblocks, obstacles that momentarily frustrate progress. Along the way, the journey is its own reward, its route marked by leaps of understanding and creativity. There is a great deal to be learned, and the learning is achieved by doing. 
The greatest thrill comes to us when the process suddenly reveals a clear and obvious path toward the solution we have been seeking. What was previously inscrutable swiftly and surprisingly becomes a simple, elegant, and robust design concept. This is our eureka moment, that exhilarating instant of the judged truth being laid bare. The process of discovery has coupled the thrill of creative effort with the joy of achievement. 
Because it can so often be unpredictable, exasperating, and difficult, the process of discovery is inherently challenging. Then again, it is also a voyage every architect willingly embarks upon. Like inveterate explorers, we repeatedly seek knowledge, insight, and answers to questions of great importance. Architecture is as much about how we arrive at our design solutions as it is about the designs themselves. We trust the process of discovery to get us where we want to go. 
Next Architecture is Awesome: #8: Transitions