Taking Chances

When you think about architecture or design, taking chances probably doesn’t come to mind, but great architecture is all about taking chances. Now don’t worry, no one is going to get hurt by the chances we take, or at least they shouldn’t. The chances I’m taking about are design aesthetics.

Over the years, we designed several buildings for the American Public University (APUS), with the Academic Center being their first. It was a comfortable, traditional building, with the typical wood mouldings and chair rails. At the end of the project, APUS loved the design and details of the building.

Fortunately, APUS commissioned us for their Finance Center, which was twice the size of the Academic Center. The safe and easy path would have been to match the Academic Center’s aesthetics. We decided to take the road less traveled, and designed a more contemporary building. This made sense given the scale of the building. However, we took a huge chance that the new design might upset our happy clients. In fact, the CFO asked me if I was on drugs after reviewing one of our entrance concepts. In the end, they did select a contemporary building.

To be fair, this was probably too much!

Our next large project at APUS was their IT Center. Being a building to house technology, we decided to push the envelope. We packed the design full of odd ball things like a Morse code window pattern, laying out lighting to resemble Orion’s belt in the lobby ceiling, and binary code etched in the glass. The most memorable item for me is the ceiling in the open office area. Michael Summers and I were working late on the project and we thought it would look cool to slope the ceiling. Now this isn’t a new concept, but the ceiling was 2×2 acoustical ceiling tile, which is typically flat. It looked good on paper, but there is no way to know if it’s going to feel right in the space. We decided to take a chance on the idea. We liked it so much, we have used it on other projects.

The slope is subtle, but spatially nice.


Taking chances comes with risk. Will it upset the client or will it be their new favorite item? Sometimes it looks good and sometimes… it doesn’t. My philosophy is generally “let’s try it and if we don’t like it, we won’t do it again.” Great architecture is all about taking chances and trying new things.

Why Physical Models?

Why do architects build physical models?

An idea is most plainly expressed by a physical model. Unlike abstract architectural drawings which take some skill to decipher, a physical model is direct. It is, therefore, the most clear and concise way to understand a project. By building a physical model, an architect can test the strengths and limitations of a space. Because physical models interact with the user directly, they are a dynamic means of communication by which both the architect and the user can realize the scope of a project.

What are the stages of building a physical model?

Building a physical model is an indispensable learning tool. Before a model becomes a scaled example of the final product, it is a progression of many iterations. It is intuitive and free forming play that takes different materials and establishes an understanding of their capacity. It tests the elasticity of a space. Through the prototyping nature of model building, the architect can work through an idea and establish the order by which that idea can be realized. All phases of the design process benefit from the feedback of a physical model. From the basic layout of a space to the specification of more complex details, physical models show the user how a space works.

What can a physical model do for you?

In the design process, physical models elicit reaction. They allow the architect and the user to establish a straightforward and instinctual line of communication. By sharing an experience of architectural space through a palpable object, each person can describe what feels right. Consequently, the architect and the user can more easily point to and express likes and dislikes that lead to a common ground of understanding of what is necessary in a project. A model is a comprehensive way of realizing a project because it is the most direct way that an architect can bring the process of creating place out of material and space directly into the hands of the user.

Lights, Camera, Action!

As an architect, photographing your work is the best way to represent yourself to future clients. This needs to be done by a professional, not yourself, if you want your work to really shine. We just finished a photo session of one of our projects this week, so let’s take a behind the scenes look at the shoot. Afterwards you should be convinced that hiring a professional makes a difference.

The Equipment

Most architects have a decent SLR camera, so we look like a pro. Unfortunately, there is a lot more equipment needed for a proper shot. Chris, our photographer, shows up with his SUV loaded from top to bottom, with no extra room for anything. He usually uses between 2-3 flashes for interior shots. Now these aren’t flashes like you clip to the top of your camera. The flash is about 18” long, 8” diameter, and needs a briefcase-size power module to power them. Lighting is critical to good photographs, making the sun your best friend or worst enemy. No need to worry, Chris has that covered too. Included in his tools are large sheets of black fabric to block windows and tungsten lights to ensure the lighting is just right. Once he has the scene setup, Chris takes a sample shot, which we review on his laptop, instead of the small camera screen. This 15” view makes it easier to analyze the shot and make adjustments to the camera settings. Sometimes the scene needs additional props, which Chris brings along too.

It’s what you do with it

Now all of this equipment is great, but you have to know how to use it. Most people understand camera settings and flashes, but may not know how to work them well. A pro knows how to get the best out of the settings. Not only that, they also have the skills to put it all together. A professional photographer understands how the camera often washing out everything around a window, like a blinding light in your face. This is where the black fabric comes into play. Chris takes shots with and without the fabric covering the window. Later, he combines multiple images together to achieve the perfect look.

The moral of this story is hire a professional. Photography is expensive, but the best investment in your company you can make. Check out my previous blog about the importance of professional photos. Many thanks to Chris Spielmann for helping us over the last several years make our projects shine. http://www.spielmannstudio.com/

Creating Rome in a Day

It seems that whenever people associate you with a certain ability, they tap you to help with similar tasks. This happens to me at church, frequently with things like creating sets for VBS (Vacation Bible School). I love to do these sets though – it’s a fun, creative outlet for a designer. Last year we did Egypt, but this year we’ll be creating Rome. The company we purchase the program from has lots of suggestions for creating sets – even providing images that can be traced. However, creating all the items they suggest would be more than our budget can allow. To deal with this, I pick and choose from their ideas and mix it with my own in order to create something that works for our space.

“Egyptian” set from last year’s VBS.

The Basics

I need to create 5 basic areas for our VBS to happen: marketplace, sanctuary decor, jail, and a cave. The marketplace is where kids do crafts, games, and snack. The jail and cave are for the dramas to be performed. The sanctuary is used when we’re all together singing and having general fun. To create Rome for VBS, I look past the typical Roman architecture we are familiar with – like the pantheon and try to get down to a more human scale and something that kids can relate to. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about the Romans and have taken a lot of ideas/information from Professor Mary Beard’s, “Meet the Romans: Citizens of the Roman Empire”.

Marketplace – this space is easy and doesn’t require a lot of work. We use those pop up canopy tents that are 10×10 to make market stalls for each “vendor”. We’ll add some simple greenery, low tables, and blankets to finish it off.

Sanctuary Decor – We spend a lot of time in this space so it need to look good. I bought (6) – 6′-0″ tall cardboard columns. I’ll put four in the center of the room to create an implied courtyard (typical to a Roman house) and two more columns at the back to accentuate the doors. At the front I’ll reuse last year’s Egyptian temple front – a little paint and a couple detail adjustments and we’ll have a Roman facade. I’ll also hang our typical paper trees. On the floor, I’ll use masking tape in varying widths to create aisles and to make clear distinctions between “families”. Families are what each group of kids plus their chaperone are called. In the windows I’ll do paper cut outs of real Roman statues I found online.

Last year’s “Egyptian” sanctuary decor – tape on the floor with a mix of 2D and 3D trees.

Jail – The dramas/skits frequently involve a jail for some reason, but that means we already have this figured out. Fortunately, the church basement is painted CMU block. Dim the lights, put some lanterns in the space to give a little light, and reuse a homemade “jail” door, and voila!

That time Joseph was in jail…

Cave – The cave will be a bit harder to manage. I want the kids to go through a cave opening, walk through a tunnel like space, and end up in different basement room. The trick to this space is to create a small enclosed space that doesn’t frighten the kids and parents/chaperones can still walk through. The church has been collecting refrigerator boxes from local stores and we’ll use them to create the tunnel. We also have a previously created set that has a small cave-live opening in it, so we’ll reuse that.

To Color or Not

A Rome theme is actually a great place for color to occur. While we all may envision Rome as pale stone buildings and statues, once upon a time, these would have been painted bright colors. Just take a look at Pompeii, where we can see some of the beautiful mosaics and murals. I intend to bring in color on the floor by using pretty masking/wasabi tape.

Romans and color! Left – By Stuart Pinkney (Flickr: Pompeii, Italy) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Middle – By –Enlil2 15:46, 27 December 2006 (UTC) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons Right – Photo by Carlo Raso; Garden painting (30-35 AD) from Pompeii


Our building already has signage for all typical spaces like bathrooms, sanctuary, classrooms, etc. But since we will have visitors to our building, we’ll create additional signage to help them out. We’ll have some fun too! Romans were funny people – there’s even a book, Philogelos! We wouldn’t normally do additional signage, but this year it seems appropriate to put some Latin phrases around.

Sketches for this year’s Rome VBS.

This year, we are fortunate to be able to reuse many set items. But reusing sets can cause its own issues, which we’ll have to deal with creatively. Stay tuned to see how it all turns out!


You Can Take the Girl Out of Marketing…But You Can’t Take the Marketing Out of the Girl

I began my career in marketing communication, helping companies develop brand identity and determine how best to communicate it to the world. To do that, we first interviewed the company to define the words and phrases that best demonstrated the company’s personality and differentiation in the marketplace. We created what is called the “look and feel” of the company — the company message as illustrated in promotional materials, publicity, web design and special events.

Never the Two Shall Meet?

When I made the career change to interior decoration and design, I wondered if the two worlds would intersect. I quickly discovered the strategy I employed to create look and feel for marketing materials applied directly to the strategy for creating interior design concepts.

Like marketing concept creation, when I create a design concept for a professional space, I first interview the client in depth to understand color and furniture tastes and preferences, as well as company personality, culture and image. Next, I review the company’s website to see how the colors and photos might inspire a color scheme. I note the shape and form of the artwork in the website to see how these elements might influence materials type and furnishing style. If, for example, the website layout, photos, fonts and artwork have clean lines and reflect a modern style, the jumping off point for furniture and accessory selection might be more modern.

Colors from a company’s website can inspire a complete interior color scheme.

Design Dilemma Solved

For an MSB Architects private school client (we are designing a new performing arts center), I initially received the floor plan and school logo as tools for developing interior paint finishes and flooring materials. A good start, but a black-and-white room layout and two-color logo left me stumped on how to create a color palette for an entire building.

From the school’s website, I discovered an array of complementary colors from the banner running along the bottom of each page of the website. This lead to our calling the school’s marketing department to obtain the marketing style guide. This helpful document outlines the exact color tones for any and all of the school’s advertising materials, including the website.

Voila! I now could select from a full range of colors the marketing team had created expressly to reflect the school’s personality. I incorporated these colors as accent walls in the new performing arts center practice and lesson rooms, not only adding energy and excitement for the kids, but linking the interior design with the school’s brand personality. I used tints, tones and shades of these for the custom terrazzo flooring materials, as well as the method for connecting color room-by-room.

Marketing and Interior Design. An unexpected marriage, but a lasting one.


Follow the F’ing Drawings

You might be surprised to hear that architectural drawings are a source of exasperation for me. My issue is probably not what you think, though. Designing a building for construction is a complicated process, involving multiple consultants and a LOT of paper to describe every aspect of the project. It’s not uncommon for the set of drawings to be over 100 sheets, with several hundred additional pages of specifications. Yet despite the volume of information provided, it’s not uncommon for contractors to proceed without consulting the drawings, and it seems to be getting worse. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where we have developed an unofficial company motto and posted it in our studio. Please–just “follow the f’ing drawings!”

The subtle reminder in our office.

This isn’t saying the drawings are perfect or don’t need interpretation. No, what I’m talking about is making changes to details and products clearly shown on the drawings. Let’s take one of my personal pet peeves, storefront window details as an example. Storefront windows are the ones you typically see in retail today, usually large pieces of glass with a shiny aluminum frame around the perimeter. The aluminum frame is typically 2”x4” and our detail makes sure all of the frame is exposed. Makes sense, right? Well, most drywall contractors will cover the frame with the finished drywall, but only on the top and bottom. This is maddening for someone who has specifically said ‘I want to see aluminum around the entire window” well in advance.

Not following the details is just one area of problems. We also see products being substituted that are not what was specified. There are plenty of times where we allow substitutions, but they are required to be equivalent to the item we selected. For example we had specified a modern bathroom sink and modern faucet on a recent project. When the plumbing contractor submitted his shop drawings, he had a standard sink and faucet, which were lower quality and a different look than what we selected. Fortunately, we noticed the substitution before installation. It’s like ordering a nice steak and getting a turkey burger instead. Sure, it gets the job done, but it’s not what I wanted.

Unfortunately, we see this kind of thing on a regular basis. Arguing with someone who has bought 50 turkey burgers about why that doesn’t work gets frustrating, which is why I want to shout “follow the f’ing drawings!” I don’t think it’s malicious, but a lack of attention to detail in a fast paced environment. It also reinforces how important it is for your architect to be involved from start to finish on your project. We took your steak order and wrote it down and we will do our best to make sure your don’t get the turkey burger.

So, what do you do? : The never ending answer.

“What do you do” is always an odd question for me to answer because describing everything that goes on for me day to day is nearly impossible. The reason it’s almost impossible is that each day is so wildly different. No two days are ever the same, we’re constantly tackling new and varied problems, and that’s one of the things I love about the profession. Yet having just passed the one year mark of working here at MSB Architects, I thought I would attempt the impossible.

Scott has written previously about the stages of architectural careers and what each entails, I’m currently embarked on the journey to licensure. That means I’m gaining experience in the field and fulfilling 3,740 hours of required internship time while studying for six exams that I will have to pass before I can get my stamp and officially be considered an architect. Meanwhile, the MSB docket is full of varied tasks, as my stack of Monday morning meeting to-do lists can attest.

Project Lists

Every Monday we of MSB Architects gather to go over tasks for the week with handy-dandy project lists. They fill up quickly!

Manic Monday

One day there are three separate client meetings, all with design changes and presentation images that had to be prepared beforehand. During the meeting there are on-the-fly changes and can we actually model correctly while other people look on. In between meetings, there’s some schematic design work that can be done, and why won’t that stair work quite the way you want it to in the space?

Manic Monday, The Bangles

(Left) Making changes on the fly is stressful but fun! (Center) Presentation images for various projects. (Right) Schematic design work.

Ruby Tuesday

One day there’s field measuring an existing building, and that’s every nook, cranny, window, door, wall, ceiling, everything, and is that a snake skin in the corner? Then there’s taking a project through bidding, and putting out addenda to answer questions. Reviewing office standards, best practices for using Revit, and how to correctly model projects. Round out the day by choosing which carpet, wall base, cabinetry, lights go best in a space.

Ruby Tuesday, The Rolling Stones

(Left) How do we measure that corner completely blocked by trees? Oh yes, send the intern to crawl in! (Center) Yes, this basement had about a two-foot snake skin, we didn’t see the actual snake but Janelle and I didn’t hang around long either. (Right) The faces of “Can we make Revit do that?”

 Any Wednesday

One day there’s on-site construction progress meetings with field reports, and issues that arose since the last meeting. Next up there’s working on redlines, both marking up drawings and correcting drawings other have redlined. Finally, there is some time at the end of the day to work out if this other project has to have fire suppression, how many bathrooms do we need, and what type of construction (wood, steel, heavy timber?) are we talking about here?

Any Wednesday, Royal Guardsman

(Far Left) I got many odd looks for taking a photo in the construction meeting but here the team is working to finalize a detail. (Center Left) Building under construction! (Center Right) Some beautiful red lines from Janelle. (Far Right) The books that hold all the answers you never knew you never wanted.

Sweet Thursday

One day there’s a scramble to prepare images for a client that unexpectedly wants to stop by the office. There’s learning about specifications (don’t I just have to read Scott’s blog on that?). Preparing construction document’s to be submitted to the permit office, followed by actually dropping them off to the permitting office. Then there’s reviewing project submittals, shop drawings, and requests for information from contractors in the field.

Sweet Thursday, Johnny Mathis

(Left) Project submittal lists, some pending another meeting. (Center) Specification sections. (Right) Shop drawings to be reviewed.

Friday, I’m in Love

One day there’s working on converting a schematic design to construction documents (floor plans, sections, reflected ceiling plans, door schedules, window types, and so many details). There’s a lunch-and-learn during mid-day, and do we know the correct viewing angle for a screen in a conference room versus an auditorium? Then there’s meetings with engineers, reviewing consultant drawings, and coordinating information across disciplines.

But then there are some days with bubble wrap, “reminding” Kim to order more paper by taping the box to her door, updating the music playlist, trying to learn how to finally solve a Rubik’s cube, or picking out our movie list for a late late night at the office. I’m also very sure that I am forgetting to mention many things that go on in the office. Each day is a unique set of challenges, but also immense fun because I love architecture and all that it entails.


(Left) Scott enlisting help to tape the paper box to Kim’s door. (Center) Nothing is wasted in this office, especially not bubble wrap! (Right) We have fun with our playlists, trying to update the theme every month. this month is TV and movie music, and its pretty awesome.

The Music of Architecture

For those that follow our Crescendo Fund, you understand the role music plays in MSB’s architecture and how important it is. What does this have to do with architecture? Music aids in developing spatial relations and creativity–the cornerstones of architecture. “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” a quote from a German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sums up the relationship between music and architecture best.

Like music, architecture contains patterns, rhythms and hierarchies. This all sounds nice but visual’s are easier to understand. Below is an image of sheet music.  You can see the pattern of notes between each measure, the space between the vertical lines, and then they repeat.Let’s look at a building facade as a comparison.  Notice the windows are equally spaced a repeated on each side of the main building entrance, just like a the music score above.

The repetitive pattern of music or theme helps move you through the song.  As the patterns change the song hierarchy changes.  The next piece of sheet music shows a series of notes building towards a peak and then come down on the other side.

Architecture uses the same techniques.  In the building below, it illustrates the same peak we see in the sheet music above.  The theme of the building or main exterior walls are all the same height but the entrance raises in height.  This hierarchy of space, just like music, creates a focus on the entrance.

Most people can’t read sheet music, it looks like funny circles and lines, but we all emotionally connect with music when we listen to it. Just like music, most people don’t understand architecture but certain buildings or spaces create the same emotional connectivity.  Next time you are in a space or looking at a building that speaks to you, look at the arrangement of windows, shapes, and flow and see if you can read the architecture sheet music.