Still a loser...


A little over a month ago I reported about how I lost a competition to design an accessible route to San Antonio's City Hall. Today I'm proud to report I've successfully lost another competition: this one to imagine a reuse for an abandoned church on Chicago's South Side.

Every year or so the Chicago Architectural Club sponsors a design competition to address some existing design issue in the city. The challenges are usually pretty compelling and I've submitted entries into past competitions. For this year's Burnham Price Competition I proposed converting the old Saint Stephen's Church into a new National Cemetery for the city of Chicago.

The rapid growth of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a dense urban landscape that was unable to accommodate the traditional “garden cemeteries” favored by the National Cemetery Administration. But just as it pioneered the concept of the skyscraper by building up to contain the living, it seemed natural that Chicago would embrace the idea of building down to house the dead. The church's main worship space would be restored and a fabric “reflector cone” would be suspended inside to evenly distribute daylight onto the inside surface of the existing dome. A circle of lilies would be planted around a large hole cut into the floor to allows light to filter down to the twelve levels of crypts below. 

Like most competitions of this sort there's no chance than even the winning entries will be built, but it was still fun to imagine what could be. As an architect, that's something I get to do almost every day.

At any rate, you can download a PDF of our entry boards here.

Three Cheers for Thursday


In an another month HiWorks will be celebrating the fifth anniversary. I could write a book about all the things I have learned along the way. I'm sure some of these lessons are similar to what every small business owner experiences whereas some are unique to those in a design profession. Some of the trends I've encountered are universal whereas some are probably just coincidental. 

For example it seems that whenever I start to wonder about what I'm going to be working on for the next few months I'll get a random phone call from someone wanting a house or a coffee shop or a community theatre. To a certain degree that is the nature of the architecture profession: you can market all you want but at the end of the day you have to wait for a client to hire you.

But the interesting thing is that those random phone calls always seem to come on a Thursday.

I have no idea why this is but it happened again yesterday (a Thursday) and I am grateful for it. I don't know what magic exists between Wednesday night and Friday morning but I am content to take full advantage of this phenomenon be it a legitimate pattern or a random fluke.

Either way I get to end the week with new opportunities on the horizon.

The Screened Porch

At the beginning of this year we finished work on a screened porch for our house. It is something we had been thinking about for as long as we've owned the house (which for the record has been about a decade). The house had an existing back porch but after we demolished it we made the counterintuitive decision to make the new porch smaller in order to make it more functional. By pulling one side away from the house, prevailing breezes could more effectively flow through and cool the space. The addition of a built-in concrete bench and a hammock ensured that the space could be used throughout the year. The lines of the original house were maintained so that the addition felt like an integral part of the original structure.

We've been using the screened porch quite a bit for outdoor meals, birthday parties and simple relaxation. We've also used it in ways we could have never imagined.

Episode 21


Back in march I promised that new episodes of "The Works" were coming soon.

"Soon" is a relative term and although I thought I was going to have this one ready to go the spring it turns out it has taken me until the middle of September. Better late than never, I suppose.

At any rate, on this episode of the podcast we talk about domes - specifically planetarium domes and the magic that occurs under them.

As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

To Build Up You Start By Building Down


The Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower is officially under construction. I can't say it's "out of the ground" yet as it's still technically a hole in the ground. But it's getting there.

For the record it's been almost two years HiWorks along with Work5hop designed the winning submission for the competition to propose "design improvements" to the original tower design by AJT Engineering. Architecture is not career for those desiring instant gratification.

At any rate, the "wings" of our design are being manufactured by International Tensile Structures in Phoenix, Arizona and we'll be making a trip out there this fall to see how work on those structures is proceeding. The tower itself is scheduled to be operational next year.

Acts of God and Acts of Men


When Hurricane Harvey made landfall late last week San Antonio was forecasted to receive a foot and a half of rain. Due to the mechanics of hurricanes and the geography of the Texas coast (hurricanes here rotate counterclockwise and so the storms tend to be much more damaging in their "northeastern quadrant") the vast majority of rain associated with the storm fell to the east and the Alamo City received less than three inches of rain. A little under three inches of rain fell at my home. Parts of Houston received almost 52" inches. It has been hard to watch all the images of the devastation.

Hurricanes are nothing new to the Texas coast but the scale of this one was unprecedented. Was climate change responsible for Harvey? No, but heightened ocean temperatures probably made it more intense. Did Houston's expansive urbanization make flooding worse? Perhaps, but over four feet of rain is going to cause problems anywhere it falls.

Acts of God can be made worse by acts of men. But men (and women, of course) can rebuild. They can plan. They can design for a world that has 100-year storms every few years. And perhaps most importantly they can have the sympathy and compassion to lend a hand to their fellow man when he is need.



I'm A Loser, Baby


San Antonio's City Hall is easy to miss. It doesn't sit in either of the city's main public plazas (Alamo or Main) and it is surrounded by mature heritage oak tress. You could drive by it and be completely unaware that the seat of government for America's seventh largest city is located but a few feet away.

The building has other issues as well: the lobby is too small to comfortably accommodate the metal detectors such buildings require and its elevated main floor necessitates visitors in wheelchairs to follow a circuitous path to get into the building. It was this latter issue that inspired Councilman Roberto Treviño to partner with the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects to hold a design competition to come up with a solution to make San Antonio City Hall more accessible.

Our solution didn't win but we're still proud of it. We proposed an act of "invasive preservation" where in order to restore the presence of a piece of historic architecture we actually call for its physical modification. In historic preservation circles that represents a pretty radical notion, but one of the great things about competitions is that they give you the opportunity to safely explore such ideas since they will probably never actually be built.

At any rate, our entry called for the 1927 entry arch - the most defining characteristic of current version of the building - to be physically removed from the façade and relocated fifty feet to the east. By transforming the existing building’s entry arch into a freestanding “Tricentennial Arch” San Antonio’s City Hall would achieve a civic presence appropriate for a city of its size. The space in between the existing façade and the relocated entry arch would then be filled with a series of ramps and landings to provide access to those in wheelchairs while also creating a platform for civic activities. Press conferences, public announcements and civil protests would have an appropriate stage on which to occur.

At any rate, you can see all of the entries in the gallery associated with this article. A description of the project is also now in our portfolio section.


Bear Buildings

On the advice of a colleague and friend Dan Wigodsky my family and I traveled to the YMCA of the Rockies located on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park just outside of Estes Park, Colorado. It was a great little vacation for us to go on as a family: there are tons of things to do there and the girls had never experienced mountains outside of those in west Texas. As beautiful as those may be, they have nothing on the Rockies.

One of the more memorable moments occurred when we took an aerial tramway from Estes Park up to Prospect Mountain. At the top of the mountain you can buy bags of peanuts to feed the chipmunks who have grown quite chubby on the daily handouts they receive. I suppose one could take issue with encouraging tourists actively interacting with wild animals, but man those little guys are cute and the girls had a blast watching them fill their little cheeks with nuts.

We were so engaged with the chipmunks that we didn’t notice a black bear had wandered into the area. While the humans retreated to the safety of an elevated walkway, the bear nonchalantly ambled from one trash can to another and stand on its hind legs to knock it over so it could rummage around inside for food.

We always think about architecture as a thing that is all about people: we design primarily for their needs and their comfort. But the built environment invariably exists within the natural environment and so it makes sense that animals other than people will interact with it. These interactions can be good (I’m thinking of the bat habitat that was accidentally created under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin) or they can be bad (I’m thinking of how skyscrapers that are brightly illuminated at night can confuse and ultimately kill migrating birds).

There are black bears in the San Antonio Zoo that I’ve seen with my children on countless occasions. But watching that same kind of bear inhabit an environment created for humans was a thought-provoking experience. I haven’t reached any conclusions about what this means or what as an architect I’m supposed to do but it did make me think about things in a way I hadn’t done before.

And that is pretty much the best thing a vacation can do.

The Future Is Not Here yet

Remember a few years ago when 3-D printers were all the rage? I do and I'll admit I found myself caught up in all the hype. As an architect the appeal was obvious: every project I do is developed as a computer model and it would be great to hit "print" and have a physical model magically appear. This was a potential game-changer in terms of producing study models for our internal use and presentation models for our clients.

And so in 2014 after months of research I ordered a fifth generation MakerBot Replicator, the most expensive doorstop I have ever owned. From the beginning there were issues: the first time I started up the machine the build plate chewed up the ribbon cable that connected the extruder to the rest of the printer. I had to return the entire printer to the manufacturer. Weeks later after it was repaired a series of “smart” extruders were constantly clogging and each one also had to be returned to the manufacturer. I was not alone in my troubles: the issues were so large that MakerBot became embroiled in a class action lawsuit over the quality-control issues that plagued the rollout of their fifth generation printer.

Meanwhile I was trying to run a business. Although I knew there would be a learning curve involved in becoming proficient in the use of this new tool, there came a point where it became increasingly difficult to justify tinkering with the system that seemed incapable of producing a usable print. Although I produced a few study models that I was able to share with a client, it remained a novelty more than anything else.

In speaking with other firms that had made a similar investment it seems they typically have an intern or other employee dedicated to tinkering with the printer to nurse usable prints out of the system. As a small office those were resources I simply did not have available. Increasingly the printer sat unused and I finally decided to sell it on Craigslist before it lost all value. I was eventually able to sell it to a concrete counter fabricator out of Austin for a sixth of what I originally paid for it.

Being an early adopter of a technology always carries risks. Sometimes that risk pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The drone I invested in, for example, proved to be an incredibly tool. The 3D printer was not. Someday the technology may deliver on its promise of revolutionizing the design and construction industries, but that day is not today. 

Location, Location, Location

So the Cardinal family that we watched raise a family a few months ago has returned: they built a new nest, and they laid a clutch of new eggs. Sammy found the nest - a little lower to the ground this time - and we all were looking forward to watching another set of baby chick hatching. Unfortunately tragedy struck when something - probably our neighbor's cat - decided to have some eggs for breakfast early one morning.

I have often noted that being an adult is hard. It is, but being a cardinal in the wild is apparently much, much harder.

The Architecture of the Rink

To be perfectly honest, roller skating is something that I have thought very little about in the past several decades. The only reason I mention it now is that my daughter recently read a graphic novel about roller derby that piqued her interest and she wanted to give roller skating a try. It turns out "The Rollercade" is just a little over two miles from our house and so last Saturday I took her there so we could tie rental skates to our feet and have a go of it.

I honestly can't remember the last time I had done this but my best guess is that it was around 1989 and that it was at the "Skate Connection" in Arlington. My general impression of "The Rollercade" in the late 2010s is that it is basically identical to the "The Skate Connection" in the late 1980s. The dim lighting, the disco balls and the polished parquet floor (with a rough patch in the corner where a roof leak had warped the wood) was all eerily familiar. Some of the music was new of course - songs from Taylor Swift's 1989 were not available in 1989 - but "The Hokey Pokey" and "Thriller" seemed to be played directly from the playlist of my youth.

Although modern four-wheeled roller skates and the rinks where they were deployed date back to the mid-1800s they became a staple of the American suburb in the 1950s. The wellspring of post-war American suburbs, Levittown, naturally had its own mid-century skating rink. Roller skating underwent a renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s when polyurethane wheels improved the skating experience and disco music gave skaters something to do

Although the inline skating boom of the 1990s saw a renewed interest in skating as a sport, part of their appeal was that this type of skating could occur on any paved surface and so did not require a trip to the local rink. As a result the skating rink itself remained in a state of arrested development: the lights may be updated to LED and Tab may no longer be offered at the soda fountain but otherwise the roller skating rink of the 2010s is basically the same as the one of the 1980s. 

A roller skating rink is a singular architectural experience. Like a bowling alley or a baseball stadium it is a place whose sights, sounds and smells are instantly familiar even if you haven't been inside one for a quarter of a century. I hope the memories my daughter made last weekend survive as long as mine have.

I hope "The Rollercade" survives that long as well.

Plenum Space

I've talked before about my current office space. It's cool that it's in an old O'Neil Ford building but it's not-so-cool in that the public spaces of the building haven't been particularly well maintained. Mismatched lights, dated paint colors and stained carpet all create an aesthetic that doesn't say "creative professional" so much as it communicates "creepy".

This is something the owners of the building have recognized and are currently working to correct. In addition to updating the restrooms so that they are more accessible and smell less like pee they are also upgrading the finishes of the corridors. There's only so much they can do with these spaces due to their low ceiling heights: raising the ceilings isn't really an option due to all the services that - up until a few days ago - were run in the plenum space above the acoustical ceiling that has been temporarily removed.

The "plenum space" of a building refers to the cavity between a ceiling and the roof or floor structure above it. This void is used to run the HVAC ducts that feed conditioned air throughout the building. All the remaining space then acts as a big return air duct that recirculates air back to the air handlers. Of course all this extra hidden space above the ceiling also provides a place for wiring to be added. For an older building that has been modified to fulfill a new purpose like the one I am currently occupying there ends up being a lot of stuff stuffed up above the ceiling (see above). Between multiple telephone lines, various cabling by multiple internet providers and additional power feeds, the plenum space ends up being a solid mass of wires, ducts and perhaps a rodent or two.

But even in this extreme state the plenum space is demonstrating its value. By acting as a relief valve for new technology, the plenum space allows a building to adapt to new uses and technologies. What goes on above the ceiling might not be pretty, but it is very important.

We have a school

Earlier this week I traveled up to Argyle, Texas to help lead a "kickoff visioning meeting" at the Selwyn School. Selwyn is a private K-12 school in Denton County that was originally located on a campus with buildings designed by O'Neil Ford. They have since moved and part of our challenge designers is to develop a master plan for their new campus that acknowledges that history while allowing them to take advantage of new opportunities afforded by a clean slate.

We're especially excited to be working together with Malone, Maxwell Borson Architects as well as Peter Brown Architects. Peter and I worked together back in the early 2000s when we were both at Perkins & Will in Chicago. Michael Malone and I became friends while serving for various committees at the Texas Society of Architects and have been looking for an opportunity to work together.

At any rate, Monday's session was all about downloading as much information as possible about the culture and history of the school as well as the hopes and dreams of its students, faculty and parents. Next week will continue to work with the administration to develop a cohesive strategy for growth that takes into account curricular goals as well as architectural realities.

The rest of the summer is going to be busy, but it's going to be fun.

I Stand Corrected

Last year I penned a fictional "Open letter to my contractor friends". The point of the blog post was to speak of unity and the importance of collaboration between our two fields. The conclusion / punchline of the post was a particular set of nonsensical pool stairs I had came across at a pool at Lockhart State Park. I told contractors that if, "Your reading of the drawings implies that a set of steps going into a pool starts above the top edge of the pool and stops before it reaches the bottom, maybe next time you could give me a call and we could figure it out before the concrete hardens." My assumption, of course, was that the stair was built in error.

The error, however, was mine.

The pool stairs I had come across were in fact a set of "pool transfer steps" designed and built to allow individuals in wheelchairs to safely enter and exit a pool. The stair in Lockhart closely adheres to the design guidelines stipulated in Section 1009.5 of the Texas Accessibility Standards.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a sweeping set of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990. As it pertains to architecture, this federal law required public and commercial spaces and the amenities they contain to be accessible to those with mobility and other impairments. If the ADA states generally what has to be done by law it is left up to local governments to determine exactly how it is to be done. In Texas, this is spelled out in a special set of codes called the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). The 215-page document that describes these standards includes Chapter 10 which addresses recreational facilities. Section 9.5 of that chapter describes the dimensional requirements for pool transfer steps in addition to other, more common means of achieving pool accessibility like ramps and pool lift arms. I happened to be looking up something for a project when I came across the section on pool transfer steps. I often have to look things up because, as demonstrated by the existence of pool transfer steps, accessibility requirements are sometimes nonintuitive.

To be perfectly honest, making a facility comply with accessibility standards can be a pain. It requires bathrooms to be larger, elevators to be added and in general it makes buildings more expensive to build. It could be argued that these increased costs are not worth it given that only a small portion of the population enjoy the benefits of an accessible building.

On the other hand, as a nation we are based on the idea of equality ("All men are created equal...", "We the people..." etc.) and so even though we may individually start life with different circumstances, abilities and disabilities, we do our best when we make our institutions - be it buildings, education or healthcare - truly accessible to everyone.

The Armadillo

If you lived in a world where armadillos did not exist and suddenly had one thrust upon you, it would be natural to assume this bizarre thing was some sort of alien creature from another world. Indeed, it is an animal like no other.

Of course growing up in Texas the armadillo is merely a part of the normal landscape like bluebonnets and an overabundance of firearms. They are the butt of jokes (re: the Texas speed bump), an important part of the music scene (re: Armadillo World Headquarters) and can even be used as a musical instrument themselves (re: the incredibly disturbing charango).

At any rate, a fez of armadillos recently started hanging out in in the front yard of my in-laws home and like honey badgers, armadillos don't care. When I arrive to pick up my girls in the afternoon they are out and about rummaging around in the dirt for bugs to eat (the armadillos are the ones eating bugs - not my daughters). Unlike other animals, they don't seem to mind that that we are watching and taking pictures of them while squealing with joy (my daughters are the ones that are squealing - not the armadillos). They go about their business, protected as they are by their thick skin. And if they get into trouble, they merely roll up into a ball until the problem goes away.

We could learn a lot form the armadillo, regardless of what planet they come from.

MC Brantley

As part of my ongoing effort to sell copies of my book I try to do one courthouse-related event per month. For June I gave a quick talk at the San Antonio Masonry Contractors Association Golden Trowel Awards Banquet. The "Golden Trowel" (in case you didn't already know) is an award that identifies projects that make exemplary use of brick, block or stone. I particularly like how this award is given because it recognizes everyone involved in the success of a particular project; architects, contractors, masons and material suppliers. 

At any rate, in addition to brief lecture on the role of masonry in Texas courthouse design I was also asked to "emcee" the event. This was my first time to do something like this and although I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon, it was a fun way to spend an evening. After reviewing photos from the even I see I need to smile more (see above). I also clearly need to invest in some Hammer Pants.

C: None Of The Above

Life often presents us with what appear to be opposite, binary choices. Something is good or bad, black or white, left or right. As I grow older I am constantly reminded of how things are in reality located on a spectrum. Something can be both good and bad. Almost everything exists as a shade of grey.

Being a father reminds of this fact every day.

Take my youngest daughter, Darcy, for example. At four-years-old she can be an absolute terror. And she can be an absolute joy. She wakes up ungodly early in the morning and yet I can't wait to see her and give her little body a big hug. She is stubborn and illogical and yet she can be incredibly sweet and see things in a way I never could as an adult. She doesn't see the world in terms of "A" or "B" but instead she sees all the possibilities that exist in between. Rather than choose to run up the ramp or take the stairs she chooses to climb the wall that separates the two.

This is but one of the many reasons why I love her and her big sister.

Kicking Asphalt

The street in front of our home was resurfaced yesterday and watching the process over the last few days has acted as a fascinating reminder of how cool (or rather, how hot) the process really is. 

In the case of our street the old asphalt surface was first scraped and hauled away to a facility that will process it so that it can be used again (in the United States, almost 99% of the asphalt removed from road surfaces is reused). After that a thin layer of gravel was laid out to act as a fresh substrate. Finally, the new asphalt surface itself was spread out over the roadway by an asphaltic concrete laying machine: basically it's a mobile furnace that attaches to a dump truck so that a constant supply of asphalt and gravel mix can be heated and then laid out to create a new road surface.

For the record, this machine is so cool a version of it was featured in the first Cars movie and you can buy a die-cast toy of it so your kids can conduct infrastructure improvements of their own. 

All that is to say our street now has been completely resurfaced with a gloriously smooth asphalt finish. 

On Flying Drones and Carrying Handguns

As I mentioned last week I've been in the process of acquiring an "Airman Certificate" from the FAA that would allow me to operate a small unmanned aerial system for commercial purposes. I'm happy to report that I passed the exam and have been issued temporary paperwork: my official license will arrive in the mail sometime next week.

I spent a little over a week studying for the exam and now know quite a bit about how the United States manages its airspace. I also understand better how the FAA regulates the use of drones and how to operate one safely so as to minimize the danger to people and property. The process seemed reasonable given the relatively small threat to public safety posed by the kind of small drone I am now permitted to fly (for the record, we're talking about this kind of drone as opposed to this kind).

At any rate, how I felt about this process was in stark contrast to how I felt after earning my Concealed Handgun License last year.

For the record, I don't carry a concealed handgun nor do I personally feel I have a compelling reason to do so. I don't have a particular problem with someone else "carrying" provided they do so in a responsible manner and that the process of acquiring a CHL is reasonably rigorous. 

I was curious how difficult it would be for me - someone who had only fired a handgun a couple of times in his life - to show up completely unprepared for a CHL class and walk away with a license. That's more or less what I did last year when after a few hours of classroom instruction and about 15 minutes on a gun range I had all the paperwork I needed to file for a license to carry a handgun in the state of Texas.

It seems odd to me that it is easier to acquire a Concealed Handgun License than to acquire a Remote Pilot Certificate. The civilian drones I'm now allowed to fly aren't designed to kill people. Handguns are designed to kill people.

Yes, drones they can hurt people (i.e. Enrique Iglesias) but only if they are operated or interacted with irresponsibly. The same is true of motor vehicles which is why we have a thorough process to make sure those who choose to operate them are able to do so safely.

Of course our right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution - a document that says very little about our right to keep and operate drones. Then again the first few words of the Second Amendment include the term "well regulated" but that's a different discussion for a different day.

In Praise Of The Sectional Chart

Last year the FAA established new standards for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones, etc.) in US airspace. What that meant for me was that I could no longer use my drone for what I had originally purchased it for without obtaining a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airman Certificate. I am in the process of doing that now and have spent the last week or so studying for my Aeronautical Knowledge Test.

I've spent about a week studying the material and like most exams (the ARE, the bar, etc.) some of the material covered is of dubious importance. For example, I've learned all about runway markers even though my quadcopter doesn't need a runway to takeoff. Still, I now know what the colored markers mean that are pictured on the left side of our rendering of our design improvements for the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. The yellow "B" on the black background indicates that is Taxiway B and that the white "32-14" numbers on a red background indicate that taxiway is about to cross runway 14/32.

One thing that has been worthwhile to learn is how to read a VFR Aeronautical Charts (see above). Produced by the FAA and updated every six months, these so-called "Sectional Charts" are designed to give pilots the information they need to navigate under visual flight rules. As such they illustrate and label landmarks that would be visible from the air (cities, roads, lakes, etc.). But overlaid on top of that are several layers of information that is completely invisible.

For example you also see the multi-colored concentric circles you see describe the various classes controlled airspace that surround various airports. The solid magenta circles you see around San Antonio and Austin are for the "Class C" airspace that surround San Antonio International and Austin–Bergstrom International Airports. This type of airspace exists as "inverted layer cake": the inner circle represents a layer that goes from the ground all the way up to 4,800 feet whereas the outer circle represents a layer that starts at 2,000 feet and goes up to 4,800 feet.

Plenty of other information can be found here as well: control tower radio frequencies, the location and height of large obstructions and areas where the military conducts low-altitude operations. Almost everything a pilot needs to know can be found on the charts. Even current weather conditions can be found by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast whose radio frequency is provided on the Section Chart. 

The density of information is part of what makes these charts so compelling. Seeing your world rendered in a way you don't normally see it is equally fascinating. It's like looking at an aerial photo of where you live in Google Earth: the landscape it renders is both familiar and foreign at the same time. It is also abstracted in a way that I would argue is beautiful.

For an even greater level of abstraction, check out IFR Aeronautical Charts (see below). These documents are for pilots using only their instruments and so provide no visual reference to what's happening on the ground. Instead all that is rendered are the invisible airways and waypoints that crisscross the sky above us.