Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our latest project rises from the ground..and fast..

For those of you who may not be familiar with my company, we develop Modern Architectural Houses in the Poconos. Although I aspire to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Eichler and Jonathan Segal (two prominent California developers) I have to come to terms with the fact that right now I am no one of importance. Furthermore, I started my development business at the worst possible time in the history of the modern US Economy. And while this may seem romantic, possibly even daring to some, I deal with rejection on a daily basis. Lenders won't touch us, most people ask me if I am stupid and I spend most nights lying awake trying to figure out how to do more with less. All that being said, our houses sell before most people even see them. Our last house sold in one day. Not bad for a depressed market, right?

Our latest project aims to beat that one day record. Before we could even get out of the ground, we started getting calls from interested parties about purchasing it before it was even complete. As of right now, we have at least three interested parties for our next project (on a side note, I find it extremely ironic that all of our buyers tend to have i-phones) and we are hoping to start a fourth before the end of the year. As the project gets further along in construction, I will post more pictures, but I wanted to share some anecdotal evidence about the process so far.
For the first two months of the project, we did nothing but wait for approvals. This meant that our land and our subcontractors basically sat doing nothing. Even though we knew what we wanted to build, we were frozen. After about two months, we got our approvals (permits) and began. In the first week, our lot was cleared and the stumps were dug up. In the second week, our septic system was installed and the basement for the home was dug. In the third week, our footings were put in and the foundation walls were nearly complete.

What we are finding is that the economy has created a buyer's market for goods and services (as well as real estate). We took the time to notify each subcontractor of our project, provide drawings well in advance, and coordinate the timing of each so that one followed the other. Because we did this, we were able to competitively bid much of the work to realize some savings over our last project. The best part is that the work is progressing very quickly, allowing us to save money by finishing the project sooner. In the end, we may find that the time for Design and Approvals may actually equal the construction time. In the pre-bubble days it seemed you were able to get fast approvals and slow construction times, because every subcontractor was so busy that it took forever to tie up all of the loose ends. Now, the tables are turned. Municipal officials are looking at the drawings more closely and doing a better job of making sure that you are building properly (another thing that did not happen in the boom). This is likely to do with the fact that there are also less projects on their desks too. At any rate, all of this is good for those who want to build. Subcontractors are working more diligently to keep your business, often at more competitive rates. We are really excited about our next few projects and I hope you check in our progress.

If you would like to see renderings of this house (known as the Rayburn) please see our website at

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Magic of Ikea

Everyone has their guilty pleasures. The things that you enjoy a little TOO much. For some it's Mallomars. For others, it may be a TV show like Gossip Girl or Project Runway. For me, I am embarrassed to admit that what tops my list is a trip to the local IKEA. Yes, you heard me right. Those Swedes have got me hook, line and SATER.

First, there is the ideology. Great Design at Great Prices. Their stores have big signs that say things like "We'll never stop making good design affordable." Right on brother. Then, there is the Environmental aspect. Flat pack to save on shipping. Put it together yourself. Genius. I think that when you go for a job interview, they should just leave you alone in a room with an EXPEDIT shelving unit and an Allen wrench and just see what happens. If you can do it in under 10 minutes, you're hired. (Just make sure you recycle that cardboard package.)

Secondly, there is the store design itself. The entire apartment in 250 Square Feet. The maze like layout with shortcuts for people in the know. It's an experience to say the least. I won't even talk about the restaurant, where you can get an entire hot meal for $4. To sum it up, they definitely get you thinking.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the sheer volume of their offerings. Other than the exterior shell of a house, they've got it. From napkins to bed frames, they have thought of everything for home AND business. And of course, everyone knows how affordable it all is. For the life of me, I can't understand why people would shop at places like Walmart and Bob's Discount Furniture when you can get thoughtful, well made products at IKEA.

I first discovered IKEA when I was in college. It was then that I purchased my first BILLY bookcase. After that, it was the KLIPPAN Sofa, the POANG chair, you know the drill. You stock up on all of this cool looking stuff and then your friends come over and ask, "Where did you get this? IKEA? Really?" And then IKEA began to grow, adding other systems and finishes to their lineups. Black-Brown began to pop up on everything from LACK shelves to kitchen cabinets. Architects in NYC started specifying IKEA kitchen cabinets for apartment renovations due to their durability and affordability. Stores started popping up everywhere.

Now I have taken my share of criticism for endorsing IKEA among colleagues in the past. Some say that the stuff is not made well. Some say that it is cheap. I would be remiss if I did not mention those criticisms. But here's the rub: No other company is focused on affordable, accessible modern design like IKEA. It's not like there are alot of other options. For a recent project, I was trying to find a sofa with a boxy shape and square armrests. I went to Raymour and Flanagan. Nothing but poofy sofas. I went to Ashley. No dice. I even went to Bob's. Total waste of time. I finally found a 79" sofa at Macy's for $699. When I told the salesperson that I would take it, he said the lead time was 12-16 weeks. I passed.

Yes, I also looked at Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, and the local furniture stores. I found nothing that was less than $1000 for what I wanted. Room and Board came the closest, but had an 8 week lead time. Still not happening. Only IKEA offered the product that I needed. A boxy brown leather sofa, in stock for under $500. Sold.

So, I admit it. I love IKEA. I wouldn't say that I would go out and furnish an entire project from there, but I do selectively purchase staple items and then use the savings to splurge at other stores. And the best part is, they continue to get better. They improve the systems that are lacking, and stick with the systems that are great. They understand what people are looking for, and find a way to deliver it to them on budget without compromising Design. As a company, they act responsibly towards the environment and pass those responsibilities along to the customer. What more could you ask for? How about a free Cinnamon Roll with that Swedish Meatball lunch? Now you're talking my language...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Can You Design a Better Government?

Architects by nature are problem solvers. Give us a site, a problem, a program, and a budget and we go to work finding solutions. I often wonder why there are not more Architects in Public Service. Sure, you might find one on a town planning board, but you never hear about notable Architects running for Congress. And since I think that anything can be Designed to be better, why not a better Government? Let's explore some hypothetical concepts using some Design based thinking and see where we land.

In order to simplify things, let's imagine that our country is one big hotel with lots of residents. The hotel was built a couple of hundred years ago (give or take) and has had several additions put on over time. Currently, the hotel is pretty run down and in need of some upgrading. Now, don't get me wrong, the hotel still has some pretty luxurious suites, but the people who rent those rooms don't come out much and don't really care that the corridors and the lobby need work. In fact, they are pretty much against any renovations to the common areas if it means that the price of their suite will go up. We'll call these people the 'preferred guests' because they pay the most money per room and they typically get the best service.

The next part of our client base is the 'bargain shopper'. These are the people who shop all the web sites and want to pay the least amount of money to stay in our hotel. They want the place to have a nice fitness center and pool and they want a free breakfast included with their discount accommodations. In short, they don't want to spend one cent more than they have to and they are the most demanding guests you can have.

Lastly, we have the regular paying customer. These are the customers that make reservations, pay the market rate for the room, eat in the restaurants and respect the property. They would love to work their way up to 'preferred guest' but by following the rules, it takes longer. The paying customer is the best guest that the hotel has.

So the current management tells me that they want to fix up the public areas of the hotel to attract more Paying Customers. They are not concerned so much about the rooms because the Bargain Shoppers won't care so much and the Preferred Guests have the nicest rooms as it is. With respect to the Paying Customers, they want the public areas to be so nice that the Paying Customers don't stay in their rooms. They come out of their rooms and spend money in the restaurants or at the bar. In fact, they want the Paying Customers to be so happy with the amenities of the hotel that the Paying Customers insist on renting the hotel for big meetings and conferences. Lots of new Paying Customers will come to the hotel for the meetings and everyone will be eating and drinking and socializing in the renovated Hotel. Life will be great.

So I get the job to do the renovations and I start by putting together some schematic plans and estimates. Despite the fact that these are not final drawings, everyone starts to go nuts. From the cost of the light fixtures to the price of the carpets, management slashes the construction budget by 40%. The leather on the bar stools becomes vinyl with a faux leather grain. The original artwork in the lobby is changed to framed prints with non-reflective glass. And finally, the walls that were to be clad in wood panels become vinyl wallcovering. We have saved a fortune and management is happy. We issue the drawings and start getting bids on the work. The numbers come in close to budget and construction begins.

What happens next is the most curious part of the process. The management sees the work progressing and they think the renovations look cheap. They say the carpet doesn't feel luxurious (probably because we changed the specification from wool to nylon to save money) and the vinyl wallcovering looks institutional (duh, it's vinyl). Even though the decisions they are unhappy with are theirs, they blame the Architect. They start saying that the Design is flawed and must be changed. They want everything swapped out to the more expensive materials and they want the Architect to pay for it. Since the Architect's fee is minuscule compared to the cost of the project, I can't afford to give up any of my fee. My only hope is to appeal to the contractor for some charity. And so begins the juggling act between charity, contract work, and change orders. Eventually, the hotel will get done. It will look better than before, but will not be great, and the guests won't really care either way. They probably wouldn't have cared if the renovation didn't take place at all because none of the items on their 'wish list' got addressed anyway (can we get Wireless in the restaurant please?!)

So, can you figure out who's who in our story? The funny thing is that the above story is a totally real account of a job I did not too long ago. When I listen to all of the pandering and spin surrounding our political process, one thing is very clear to me. No one really cares about the guest. The guest is never at any construction meetings. The management and contractors both THINK that they are helping the guest, but really both are looking out for themselves.

So, the question remains, Can You Design a Better Government? The answer is Yes. But you need to cut out the Management and the Contractors and develop a dialogue directly with the Guest.

I remember one time, I was Designing an office space and the Client gave me the new seating plan of where everyone was to be located. As I was doing a survey of the floor, the workers in question were trying to get a peek at the plan. It was clear that they had not seen it or had any input in its creation. I set the plan down on a file cabinet so that I could take some measurements of ceiling heights and came back to find a small group surrounding the plan. Before I could take the plan back, comments started flying at me. In a matter of minutes, the staff on hand had proposed several re-organizations that were far more efficient and cost effective than what the management had come up with. I made a note of their suggestions and brought them up to my Client at our next meeting. When I suggested that perhaps we lose some of the copy rooms and add a networked printer in the open floor, he asked me why I would suggest that. I stated that some of the staff came to me and suggested it. To this, he replied, "If we were going to let them make decisions, I wouldn't need to manage this project."

"Exactly" I thought. And so goes the Political Machine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Love/Hate Relationship with HGTV

Recently, our cable company sent us a simple message: Convert or die. Up until now, we only had a basic analog signal and that gave us about 50 or so channels of basic cable. We believed them when they said that we didn't have to do anything during that whole changeover that happened in February. Now we were being told that if we didn't get some digital converter boxes, we would lose everything. Now my first inclination was just to drop the cable altogether. Neither my wife nor myself watch very much TV and I certainly not up to speed on my Lost, Mad Men, Survivor, or whatever reality show passes for Prime Time TV nowadays. After weighing all of the pros and cons of keeping the service, we could come up with only one major thing in the plus category: HGTV.

Now for those of you who may not be familiar with Home and Garden Television (aka HGTV) it is one of those channels that you have likely skipped by on your way to Comedy Central or the E! Network. Most of the content features people walking around some unfortunate looking house with the intention of either buying it or fixing it up. The shows have titles such as "House Hunters", "My First Place", "Divine Design", "Spice Up My Kitchen", and my personal favorite "Designed to Sell." On 'Designed to Sell' all of the magic happens in the beginning of the show when they bring in the 'real estate expert' to tell the homeowners why their house has not sold yet. Perhaps it has something to do with those four uncleaned litter boxes on the kitchen floor. Trust me, you don't have to be a real estate expert to figure this one out, but it's entertaining at the very least.

After you've seen enough shows on HGTV, you can pretty much divide each show into one of two categories (or at least I do). The first category is the Design Documentary. These shows follow a project from beginning to end, over a realistic timeline and give you a sense of how to complete a normal home improvement project. They follow reasonable time lines and often show real Architects and Designers working with the Homeowners to achieve their goals. I love these shows. I love it when every project goes over budget. I love it when it takes twice as long as it's supposed to. I love these shows because they offer a glimpse into the real life challenges of being a Design Professional. The editors cram months of hard work into a neat little half hour package that I can digest in little bites and feel totally satisfied. I could watch these tiny morsels for hours.
Now the other category is all together different. I call these 'Time's Up' shows. These shows are typically taped over a very short period (usually two or three days) where the entire project from start to finish happens right before your eyes. The crew always has to meet some fictitious self imposed deadline ("the open house is in one day!') and you see people racing to throw together some half baked Willy Wonka color parade. In two days, paint goes a long way. On a show like "Design to Sell" most of the dramatic improvements are made just by taking all of the Homeowner's crap out of the space so that you can see the floor. On other shows, they try to sell you on homemade art pieces and MDF furniture that is both cost effective and attractive. It is these shows that are like Poison to those of us in the Design profession. It is these shows that exemplify the disposable society in which we live. I can assure you that going down to Home Depot and buying a $50 Chandelier is not going to make your dining room more valuable. But if you hot glue some fringe to that fixture, now you've got a custom touch that screams chic. Give me a break.

I want to share with you a quick story that gives you some perspective on my experience with these shows. I had gotten a call from a prospective client who owned a very nice house with alot of potential. The house was in an area where homes commonly sold for over $1M and the buyers had purchased a fixer upper for around $700K. I was referred to them by a previous client and I went to meet with the Homeowners on a Saturday afternoon. During the meeting, they asked me questions like, "How many people do you have in your crew" and "Do you think you could do the work while we are on vacation?". I tried to explain to them that I live in a world with liability insurance and permit drawings, not the TV world of weekend transformations and artwork made on their front lawn. They looked at me as though I did not understand what they wanted and that I must not be very good at my job if it would take months to do what can be done on TV in three days.

And so continues my love/hate relationship with HGTV. When people watch movies, they can pretty much tell what is real and what is movie magic. I await the day when the same is true for Home Improvement Television, but I won't hold my breath.