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As Promised

SSFbuilt.jpg

As you've probably seen in recent posts our portion of the Stinson Municipal Airport Tower project suddenly materialized last week. The "wings" we had designed along with Work5hop were manufactured in Arizona and last week they were shipped to San Antonio where all eight panels were then lifted into place.

Architecture takes a long time. In many ways this project was no different: we won the "design improvements" competition back in 2015, we completed our portion of the design documents in 2016 and construction on the tower itself didn't begin until 2017. That said our portion of the project really materialized over the course of only a few days. Normally the transformation from rendering to reality does not happen so quickly. There's still work to be done: the cables that secure the wings to the tower need to be tightened and the lighting inside the wings still needs to be calibrated and scheduled. But man, we're close. 

And the renderings that we produced years ago were pretty close, too:

 The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

$711

$711.jpg

As a small business owner I watched closely as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was pushed through Congress at the end of last year. Naturally I was curious about how the bill would impact HiWorks but it was hard to tell - in the final stretch the bill changed from day to day and even after it passed I wasn't sure. HiWorks does not have the luxury of employing a team of accountants to crunch numbers in real time but when it came time to do my taxes for 2017 (the new tax code applies to income earned in 2018) I asked my accountant to see what the difference would be if the new tax code was applied.

All totaled HiWorks will pay $711 less in taxes.

To be fair my tax burden was reduced by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 as promised. But $711 does feel more than a bit underwhelming - especially when I was told “There’s never been tax cuts like we’re talking about.” Given that this tax cut is projected to add one trillion dollars to the deficit next year alone it would seem some businesses are getting more than $711. It would seem the promised tax savings were not as equitably distributed to small businesses as promised

The fact is I can't hire a new employee with $711. I can't increase productivity by buying a new computer. I suppose could put that extra $711 into my daughters' college savings account but at the end of the day it really doesn't amount to much.

Some might say what I need to do is invest in a better accountant but what I'm starting to believe is that what I really need to do is invest in a better Congress.

A Note About Our Residential Work

hilltop.jpg

At HiWorks we do a lot of different types of projects. Yes we do theaters and control towers but we also do private homes. Out of respect for the privacy of our Clients many of these projects aren't publicized on our website. Even so we are incredibly proud of this work and always feel honored to be a part of the journey that leads to a new home.

One of these homes was recently photographed and the Client graciously gave us permission to make the images public. The house was designed to offer expansive views of the outside world while at the same time providing a private refuge from it. By using a combination of natural wood and stone we created an addition to the hilltop that feels like a natural extension of it.

In the coming weeks we'll be adding this and other projects to the "What We Do" section of our website. So by all means, do stay tuned.

HiWorks at Five

HiWorks5.jpg

Data from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that about half of new businesses don't survive past their fifth year. HiWorks is now officially five years old so, well, I guess that means we're awesome.

Of course one interesting (and telling) thing about this particular anniversary is that I totally forgot about it. Legal documents say HiWorks was established on November 1st of 2012. November 1st, for the record falls right smack in between Halloween and one of my daughter's birthdays. This year it was particularly busy in that we were preparing for a birthday party and had a dance performance to attend. All that is to say the anniversary came and went and I didn't even realize it until a week later.

I suppose it's a good thing that the survival of my business enterprise is no longer a noteworthy event. HiWorks today is a lot different than I would have expected five years ago. It'll be interesting to see where we are five years from now.

Three Cheers for Thursday

TGIT.jpg

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 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. 

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.

Or I could have just spent all that time here

Before starting HiWorks in 2012 I spent ten years working for other people. That's how it's supposed to work: in addition to the Architect Registration Examination aspiring architects must also spend years "apprenticing" with established firms to learn the necessary skills do design buildings.

And so after I graduated from architecture school I naturally wanted to work for firms that reflected the values I had as a nascent architect. And so I moved to Chicago got a job with Perkins & Will because they believed architecture "Had the power to transform lives." A couple of years later I moved to Dallas and worked for Max Levy because I wanted to learn what he knew about how design can "connect people with nature". After I moved to San Antonio I spent the better part of a decade working for Lake|Flato because they believed "first and foremost that architecture should be rooted in its particular place."

I learned plenty form each of the offices and if I had it to do over again I don't know that I'd do anything differently.

That said, every once in a while I come across a building that so completely embodies my values as a designer - a building that is such a perfect act of architecture - that I think if just spent long enough looking at and studying and experiencing the building, I would have learned everything I needed to know.

In my recent trip to Arizona I had a chance to revisit one of these buildings. The Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was designed by Mary Colter and built in 1932. Yes it enjoys an amazing site, but it is so perfectly rooted to it's particular place that it looks like an outgrowth of the canyon itself. The observation rooms and galleries connect people with nature while also connecting people to the cultural traditions of the Hopi People who once called northern Arizona Home. It has the power to transform lives as it certainly transformed mine.

An Open Letter To My Contractor Friends

Dear Contractor Friend-

I hope you are doing well and that your 2017 is off to a good start. I know we don't always get along but I wanted to reassure you that I really do like you. You take our drawings on paper and coordinate the construction of that design so that it exists as a real thing in the world. That's really cool. I know how hard it is to do that and I have a great deal of respect for what you do. Your job is not an easy one.

Of course, our job isn't a cake walk either. We have to balance and give form to our clients' needs, wants and desires and create a design that adheres to local laws (zoning, codes, etc.) as well as universal laws (beauty, gravity, etc.). We have to anticipate everything and document it in such a way that you can build it.

We of course do make mistakes from time to time. I admit it, and I'm sure you'd admit the same thing. But at the end of the day we're all on the same team: we both share the common goal of building something good for our client.

So here's why I'm writing you: if you see something in the drawings that doesn't seem quite right, could you pick up the phone give me a call? You're a smart person: if something seems wrong, it probably is. So if, for example, 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. I would appreciate it.

Sincerely Yours-

Brantley Hightower

Just Don't Call Them Blueprints

 this is a blueprint - it is quite old as we do not make blueprints anymore

this is a blueprint - it is quite old as we do not make blueprints anymore

Back when I was in high school I had the opportunity to spend the day with a group of firefighters. We rode out on a couple of emergency calls and for the record, riding in a firetruck with the lights on and the sirens blaring is just as awesome as you might imagine it would be.

I remember most of the rest of their day being spent inside the firehouse waiting for calls to occur. The men (and they were all men) would their check equipment, cook their meals and when there was nothing else to do, they would watch movies on HBO. As might be expected, action movies were a particularly popular genre and my mustached friends seemed to derive great enjoyment in pointing out that most all explosions were depicted incorrectly. Apparently there is far too much fire in most Hollywood fireballs.

As an architect I similarly enjoy the occasional chuckle when films get something wrong that I'm in a unique position to understand. Air conditioning ducts, for example, are rarely large enough to crawl through and even so aren't designed to support the weight of a person. And so things would have not gone well when John McClane crawled into that ventilation duct in Die Hard. And as we've already established, the subsequent explosions would have looked much less cool.

But movies are movies and fudging some details to tell an engaging story is completely understandable. But there's one thing I really can't stand. Part of me dies on the inside whenever a character makes reference to a "set of blueprints."

The issue is that this particular term has made it's way into the general parlance. A client, for example, will ask "How long will it be until I get a set of blueprints?" The problem is the term is both inaccurate and imprecise. It would be like asking an author for "a stack of mimeographs" when what you need is a copy of their manuscript.

To be technically correct, "a blueprint" is a reproduction of a drawing made by shining light through a drawing made on a translucent material (such as vellum) onto a second sheet of light-sensitive paper coated with a mix of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide. The light-sensitive paper is exposed differently depending on where the light was blocked by the lines of the original drawing and a negative of the original is created where the white of the original is replaced with a dark blue of the copy - hence the name "blueprint".

"Whiteprints" were introduced in the 1940s. The process was similar to that of blueprints but simpler and less expensive. And instead of the resulting copy being produced with white lines on a blue background, blue lines were produced on a white background. These whiteprints were easier to read and you could write notes on the white background much easier than on a dark blue one.

When I was in architecture school in the late  1990s, we still used whiteprints (although just to make this story a little more confusing, we called them "bluelines"). There was a large diazo copier in the basement of Goldsmith Hall and one of my main tasks at my first summer job at an intern architect was to run to Miller Blueprint on West 6th Street to make copies of drawing sets.

It should be noted that Miller Blueprint has since moved and rebranded itself as "Miller Imaging and Digital Solutions".

Anyways, even when I went to Miller as a student, technology was already changing again and places like Miller began offering large format photocopies. In addition to being even simpler than earlier methods, the xerographic process is much more permanent (whitelines, for example, tended to fade when exposed to daylight on a job site).

Of course, another common mistake is to refer to a set of drawings as "plans". Plans are a type of drawing, but a typical drawing set contains many others (elevations, sections, details, etc.). But that's another blog post for another day.

But whatever you do, just don't call them blueprints. If you do, my head might explode in a way that firefighters might not like.

 

 

On Writing Books, Building Houses and Having Sons

   
  
 
  
    
  
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image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University

 

There is a quote out there that says, "Everyone should write a book, build a house and have a son." It's one of those fun, quotable lines that's been attributed to everyone from Plato to Castro and was probably said by none of them. A few variations of the quote exist - Hemingway, for example, supposedly added that every man should also fight a bull.

I didn't learn about the quote (or supposed-quote) until well after I had become an architect who designed houses and after The Courthouses of Central Texas was well on its way to publication. As the father of two daughters I didn't comply completely with the bit about having a son but my personal view is that two daughters are worth at least four sons. I naturally found the quote self-affirming in a way that quotes like these are supposed to be self-affirming.

Of course, basing your future on a quote that was probably fabricated is a dubious proposition at best. Having kids is no trifling enterprise. It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money (and my kids aren't even anywhere near college-age yet). And being an architect, while prestigious, isn't the most lucrative profession in the world. 

And so what about writing a book?

Let's take a look at the last few weeks if the "Courthouses of Central Texas 2016 World Tour". As you may know, I installed an exhibit of drawings at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, I spoke in Boerne to the Genealogical Society of Kendall County, I spoke at a book signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston and then this past weekend I took down the exhibit in Boerne. In the process I drove nearly 700 miles and spend nearly 20 hours driving, preparing or speaking. That's a lot of time. Doing the math, I would have needed to sell 60 books just to pay for my hotel in Houston. Although sales at both events were really good, I only sold around 30 books total. And so from a purely financial standpoint, this whole book writing effort has been a fiduciary disaster.

It took me six years to write and publish The Courthouses of Central Texas. If you add that to all the lectures, book signing and interviews I'm doing now that it exists as a thing in the world, that's a lot of time and effort. When all is said and done I'll maybe have earned a couple of thousand dollars in royalties from UT Press.

Maybe.

But here's the thing - even though I continue to hemorrhage money because of those infernal courthouses, I still love them. I still love talking to people about them. I still love meeting people who share that interest and hearing their stories about why they love them. I've met plenty of architects, attorneys and county officials along the way but every once in a while I meet someone totally unexpected.

In Houston last week I met a group of students from Sam Houston State University. I was naturally flattered that they made the trip all the way down from Huntsville but I was also fascinated by their program that prepares students for careers in law, law enforcement, politics or some combination thereof. I have no idea what small part my lecture on courthouses might play in their future but I'd like to think that they'll move forward with a greater appreciation of the role of architecture in public life. As these students are a good 20 years younger than I am, hopefully that lesson will live on even after I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

And that, I think, is the essence behind the Plato/Castro/Hemingway quote. Writing a book, building a house and having kids is all about creating a legacy - planting a seed in a garden for someone else to enjoy. A book will hopefully still be read after you're gone. A house will hopefully be lived in by someone. And your kids - be they your biological children or the ones you happen to cross paths with as a teacher of some sort - will hopefully still remember an idea or two you shared with them when your paths just happened to cross at a bookstore in Houston.

And that, to me, is a whole lot cooler than bullfighting.

 

A Theatre For Fort Stockton

Fort-Stockton-Community-Theatre-Rendering

When I was in high school I dabbled a bit in theatre. I was an understudy for a play my sophomore year and had small character roles in the spring musicals (these roles, it should be noted, required me to neither sing nor dance). For something that I only did for a few years, the experience was highly influential. I've often said that even though I have not acted since I left high school, I perform every day. Now it turns out I can put that theatre experience to use in another way as well.

A few months ago I mentioned that Betsy and I have been working on a project for theatre out in west Texas. Located quite literally “west of the Pecos”, Fort Stockton is a small community of about 8,000 people. Despite its size, the town has an active community theatre that for years has performed in a repurposed brick commercial building. We were asked to assist the group in identifying their functional needs while developing a concept for how those needs could be addressed architecturally. We crafted a design that reused their existing structure while creating a new identity for the theatre that referenced both the existing downtown cityscape as well as the surrounding mesa landscape.

In one on the early meetings with community stakeholders we were asked to come up with something that was "West Texas Cool". We're excited by the fact that we were able to work with them to do just that.

Welcome to Hi.Works

So there are a lot of new things going on with HiWorks in 2016. We have a new office, a new phone number and a new website at a new web domain. Chances are if you're reading this post you're seeing the one (the new website) at the other (the new domain). There are probably some bugs and typos to be worked out but hopefully you'll find it's an improvement over the previous version. I finally got around to posting some of the work that we've done last year so be sure and have a look.

As for the blog, I've decided to give it a name. "HiLights" might be a little corny and not terribly original (The High Museum in Atlanta gives HIGHlight tours of their facility every Thursday through Sunday - that's where I stole the idea) but it's better than just calling it "The Blog". I think I was able to successfully migrate the content of the old blog over to the new site, but some of the links may have been broken. For what it's worth, the old blog will remain up in its original location.

Anyway, the content of the blog will remain the same and I look forward to continue to post whatever interesting news or observations seem to be worth sharing.

Thanks To The Cloud

this is not billable time - but that's perfectly OK

There are many things that we can do now that we couldn't do ten or even five years ago. Thanks to the interwebs and the cheap availability of both high speed data connections and online data storage, it is now possible for Betsy and I to work together even though we live nearly a thousand miles away from one another. It also allows me to work from home on occasion when I feel like it or when the developer with whom I share my office is being especially loud or when his dog has pooped next to my desk.

When I was home on Wednesday of this week I was pleasantly surprised when my in-laws stopped by with Sammy after school. There is about an hour in between when they pick up my eldest daughter from school and when my youngest daughter is let out, and on this particular day they decided to swing by the house. Luckily I was wearing pants and Sammy and I enjoyed an unanticipated playdate.

There are both advantages and disadvantages of working for one's self. You may work harder and be paid less but all that buys you flexibility. It buys you the freedom to pursue the work you want in the manner you want. It affords you the ability to pursue interests outside of your main line of work. It buys you time to play Legos with your daughter for a few minutes on a Wednesday afternoon.

Before And After

This is what the Keystone Central Quad looked like before...

The built landscape always exists in close proximity to the natural landscape. As such whenever we design a building we try and play close attention to how the architecture interacts with and is enhanced by landscape. Sometimes the landscape dominates the architecture and this is by design.

For the Keystone School Centra Quad project we worked with Studio Balcones of Austin to that to create an outdoor learning environment that would act as the beating heart of the private school located in the Monte Vista neighborhood of San Antonio. We're really proud of how the built part of the project turned out, but we're even more proud of the landscape. The transformation is truly remarkable and Studio Balcones recently posted a series of "before-and-after" photos that clearly illustrate how much of a difference the new quad has made.

...and this is what it looks like now.

Go Keystone Cobras. Go us.

Betsy In Boulder

these images are not to scale

Betsy and I have been working together for the better part of two years now. Our collaboration is not particularly newsworthy at this point but what might not be so obvious is that although I am in San Antonio, Texas, Betsy is in Boulder, Colorado. This type of remote working relationship would have been impossible ten or even five years ago, but thanks to the cloud, screen sharing and nationwide long distance phone plans, today it isn't that big of a deal.

Although there are times when it would be nice to be sitting next to each other to doodle on the same drawing or to weigh in on weather or not deodorant needs to be reapplied, having presences in different places does provide some interesting opportunities. For one it means HiWorks now has the ability to execute projects in both states. If you've been holding off on building that new ski lodge in Aspen, now's your chance.

Betsy is an extremely talented architect and has a unique ability to manage the complexities of translating a design idea into a real building. She's also fun to work with and be around - virtually or otherwise. These last few weeks have been particularly busy for Betsy who in addition to becoming a licensed architect in the State of Colorado (she was already licensed in Texas) she's also now teaching a design studio in Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado. Go betsy, go.

Oh, and for the record, it's worth reiterating the fact that I'm working with this Betsy Johnson as opposed to this one.

Happy accidents

As an architect, you spend a lot of time trying to imagine what a finished building will be like. You constantly work to anticipate how it will function and the kind of experiences people will have inside of it. You can't anticipate everything, however, and sometimes "happy accidents" occur. Many times these unintended results are ephemeral - the setting sun will reflect off a pool of water and animate an otherwise blank facade. Or in the case of the Connexa Energy project, a window will align perfectly with the construction site's port-a-poty.

I totally meant to do that.

Who are these people?

photo by Mark Menjivar

Ever wonder who the slightly blurry people are in architectural photographs? Well, when we had Mark Menjivar shoot our recently completed Network Operations Center project, we asked the entire project team to act as models. On the one hand, it was a great way to reunite the team to see the result of all our efforts. On the other hand, I don't think this is going to launch our modeling careers.

Perhaps we'd best stick to designing buildings.