“Architects who sought to be skilled with their hands without formal education have never been able to reach a position of authority in return for their labors, while those who relied upon reasoning and scholarship were clearly pursuing the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both like men fully armed have more quickly attained their goal with authority.”
– Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, 1st century B.C.
I am an architect living and working in Minneapolis. To practice as an architect, one needs a professional degree in architecture and years of experience working under a licensed architect – an apprenticeship – so to speak. After gaining the necessary years of experience, one may sit for seven comprehensive examinations, and, upon successful completion of these exams, may refer to oneself as a licensed architect.
In all of the education and training required to become a licensed architect, one critical component is missing in my opinion, the portion Vitruvius was advocating for back in the 1st century B.C.:
a clear understanding of the building process and how the various building trades interact in a choreographed sequence to translate the architect’s concepts on paper to the built environment.
A few years back, while on site during the construction of a project I designed, I got into a disagreement with one of the framers. They had disregarded my drawings, and were constructing a portion of the ceiling two feet from where it needed to be. I walked in just as they had finished framing. I pointed out the error to the project manager from the construction company I was walking around with, and the framing foreman overheard my discussion. In a voice and tenor that could only come from a man who had cut steel studs without eye protection for thirty years, said, “son, you ought to spend some time in the field before you make pretty drawings.” According to the contract documents, I had every right to request the incorrect work be modified to match what I had drawn. But the gentleman did have a point.
I have always considered myself a “maker.” It is a loaded and overused word, held by many as the call sign of those rebelling against the hyper-intellectual discourse that pervades graduate programs and professional publications. That being said, I don’t believe that “making” and critical design are mutually exclusive. I would simply prefer to make the thing I design, rather than hand it off to be fabricated by someone else unfamiliar with the nuances embedded within the design.
As a senior in college, I designed, built and tested a small liquid propellant rocket engine as my final thesis project for my physics degree. In that process, I learned how to weld, use the metal lathe and machine various components from copper, brass and stainless steel. The engine even worked, albeit with a minor explosion during the first test run (thankfully out of sight from the authorities and fire marshal – I was testing it on the college soccer field without college permission – I knew what the response would have been if I had asked the college for permission to test a rocket engine on campus). Of course, I could have hired out the fabrication of the components to various machine shops…but where was the fun in that? How would I learn how copper likes to be cut, or how fast to move with a MIG welder to ensure even penetration?
My architectural graduate degree program had a wonderful program in which we designed and built a small house. While this experience certainly was rewarding and informative, two things were lacking. First, with two shifts of twenty students working on the project, it was difficult to develop a comprehensive understanding of each construction decision being made, and the impact of those decisions on the downstream work. Secondly, large portions of the work, such as site work, electrical and plumbing were performed by sub-contractors, limiting our exposure to the work. Architecture school, however, is not the place to teach one how to build. It is the place to teach one how to design, to think, and most importantly of all, to be able to communicate design concepts in a clear and compelling manner.
…back to my morning on site being chastised by the framing foreman. I was convinced that in order to truly understand the construction process and the myriad decisions that are made on site each day by the various contractors, I needed a project that would allow me to do everything, by myself, and at my own pace. What I did not know, I would figure out as I went. I just needed a client who was patient enough to withstand my three-hour trips to the lumber yard and my obsessive research into means and methods and building codes….
My wife is a fine artist and college professor. After graduating with her MFA, she immediately began renting a small shared studio space in the city. It was important for her to establish a space to engage in regular and sustained investigations into her work – a studio practice. Her paintings are quite large, and controlling the environment in which she was working was difficult in a shared space. After renting cramped space for six years, it was clear that she needed her own studio.
One crisp spring afternoon last year, as we were enjoying a lovely hike, our discussion turned towards our dilapidated garage/rhombus/lean-to/insurance risk that came with our house (we purchased our first home – a 1920’s structure – from a “flipper, ” a hearty subject deserving of its own blog someday). “Why continue to pay rent to someone else for your studio when we could be improving the value of our own house?” I asked. Not a groundbreaking concept – but it was to us. We have never had a garage to park in, so we wouldn’t know what we were missing if we demolished our “garage” and replaced it with a studio space. And just like that, I had a project to both design and build with my own hands. I didn’t know how we would find the money or time to do it, but, as in any problem, there is always a solution if you are creative and diligent in the solving process.
Why devote every waking weekend hour since July 2012 to this endeavor? Re-read the quote at the beginning of this post and then follow my progress.