Signed, Sealed, Delivered

It's been over a year and a half since I started testing, but I can finally say that I'm done:  I passed the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) on Saturday.  (Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm an architect, though - until I get my papers back in the mail, calling myself an architect is still a criminal offense, as the license application itself helpfully points out.)  Here are a few thoughts about all that.

The Prep

As soon as I finished IDP, I applied for CSE eligibility.  That process took from August until October.  Once I was eligible to schedule an exam, I gave myself six weeks to study and scheduled for November.  I used the materials we had in my office:  the 2012 edition of the David Doucette suite of materials and the 2011 edition of the Archibald Woo study guide, plus some flashcards of unknown source.  I thought both sets of materials were underwhelming, to the point where I seriously considered going through them with a red pen and mailing the results back to the authors.  The Woo guide lacked basic editing for grammar and sentence structure -- I found the grammatical errors so distracting that I had a hard time concentrating on the material.  The Doucette guide suffered from terrible formatting -- it was annoying to read and had very little material per page, since it's basically formatted for the web.  Both guides were out of date, lacking updates for the 2013 code cycle and other basic information (for example, the California Department of Fish & Game has been renamed the California Department of Fish & Wildlife since 2012).  I would strongly recommend getting the latest version of the materials, to avoid the confusion I had trying to figure out what information was still correct and what was outdated.  I think both Woo and Doucette have updated versions available with the 2013 code updates.  In any event, I went through all the materials I had available.  I thought the practice questions for both guides were particularly bad, since the answer keys were poorly written and made me question the validity of all the answers.  As it turns out, the questions also didn't reflect the actual exam questions very well.

Exam Day

The California Architects Board (and probably all the boards within the Department of Consumer Affairs?) contracts with Psychological Services Inc (PSI) for their licensure exams.  If you want to image what a PSI test center is like, picture the worst Prometric test center you've ever been to, then bump it down several notches on the classiness/cleanliness scale.  This place was downright depressing.  It was in a nameless office park that was so hard to find, I passed it while driving by it very slowly even though I knew roughly where it was supposed to be.  The only potentially positive aspect was that they did have lockers, despite the warning e-mails I received to the contrary.  So no, you don't have to leave your wallet and phone in your car for someone to steal.  The test center is so unprofessional, though, that they use binder clips on the locker keys, with the locker numbers printed out on regular paper and then cut out and taped to the binder clips, instead of key fobs like they have at Prometric.  Very classy, PSI.

The CSE is 3.5 hours long and is administered without any breaks.  Apparently it is also much longer than all the other exams administered by PSI, since I was one of the last ones seated for the 9am start time, but was the only person left in the test center by the time I finished.  The exam is in three distinct parts, so there's really no excuse for why there aren't any breaks.  Does CAB just like to torture us?  In any event, as you can see from the e-mail you receive from PSI when you schedule your exam, there are actually two project scenarios and one general section.  If you have an old study guide like I had, which claims there is only one project scenario, ignore it.  You still have one hour per project scenario section, so it's one hour for scenario #1 (30 questions), one hour for scenario #2 (30 questions), then 90 minutes for the general section (70 questions).

My experience was that the questions were significantly harder than the practice ones I studied, but not, as the study guides claimed, because they were confusing or poorly worded (that, in fact, was my experience of the Doucette questions, not of the actual exam questions).  Rather than simple "what is X" or "when do you do Y" type questions, they were generally scenario-based, asking what you should do in different situations.  I wish I had studied the AIA contract documents more, studied the California state agencies less, and studied the building code more.  I tried to keep track of the questions I really didn't know or felt very unsure about, and noted about 20 to 25 of them.  Based on the Woo book, I thought I could pass if I missed about 20 at most, so I assumed I would be right on the edge of passing.

The Results

As soon as you complete your 210 minutes of torture, and emerge from the exam room around 12:30 pm sweaty and shaking, having not had a chance to eat, drink, or use the bathroom since 8:45 am, the test center guy has you sit down while he pulls up your results.  Small talk isn't really possible at that point.  Finally he turns the screen around and points at your results.  In my case, by some miracle, it said "Congratulations" and I nearly collapsed on the desk.  Immediately I blurted out, "That means I won't have to come back here in six months!" to which the guy managed a laugh.  Thanks for that, test center guy.  I didn't really mean to insult you, even though your test center is horrible.

I'll never know if I passed by a high or low margin, but overall I felt poorly prepared and extremely nervous throughout the exam.  I wish I could have been better prepared if only so I wouldn't have had to feel so terrible for the entire 3.5 hours.  Alas, I don't know of any better study materials, so I hope any future test-takers out there can find some!

And Now?

The big question - what's next!  First of all, thanks to all my family, friends, and co-workers for supporting me through this crazy 20 months of almost non-stop testing.  It's hard for me to believe it's really over!  I hope now to have more time to devote to writing less-terrible posts here, and finishing up some other projects that have been lying around the house forever.

Once I get the official papers delivered in the mail, I will finally be licensed, and I will also get to order my stamp.  Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for what icon I should put in place of the stars on the typical California stamp design.  A tiny Millennium Falcon perhaps?


On the Border: Part I

This past July, I traveled to the US/Mexico border with a group of folks from First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto.  Our goal was to learn about what happens at the border, what it looks like there, and what, if anything, we should do about it, including whether to become a sanctuary for undocumented individuals (see Sanctuary Movement below).  We were a group of high schoolers, college students, younger adults, and older adults, and we were mostly unfamiliar with US border security and what life is like at the Arizona border; we discussed what we knew before the trip, and it was just things we'd read in the news.  Despite this limited knowledge, we were eager to learn more.

My own interest stemmed from my 2012 trip to Israel/Palestine, where visiting the wall was one of the most powerful experiences I've had.  The border wall separating the occupied territories from Israel is an architectural weapon, used deliberately and actively to acquire territory, restrict development, and deny access.  I wanted to know how my own country uses its border walls, although admittedly the situation here is different.  We are at peace with Mexico, although one might not guess that from the way we treat our neighbors.  I didn't even know what our border wall looked like, but I was determined to find out.

July 12th-13th, 2015

Arriving at the Tucson Amtrak Station

We started our journey by spending 24 hours on an overnight train from San Jose, CA, to Tucson, AZ, changing trains in Los Angeles.  Most of us spent the time reading The Death of Josseline, a nonfiction account of various aspects of the Arizona border situation.  Looking back, it was amazing how many people and places we saw that were described in the book.  I would recommend it if you want a more journalistic take on what we saw.  As for Amtrak, I hope I never have to take a train overnight again - at least, never again without access to a sleeping car.  It was pretty miserable, and none of us slept well.  We arrived early Monday morning at the Tucson train station where we were met by our intrepid guide, Indira, from BorderLinks, the nonprofit educational group who organized our trip.

The BorderLinks facility in Tucson is a humble affair, a converted office building that still has stained acoustic tile ceilings, converted cubicles for dorm rooms, and no sign on the outside.  Inside, there's an office, a kitchen where the staff prepares vegetarian meals for the visiting groups ("delegations"), the dorm area, and some showers.  The group's sole purpose is to educate visitors like us about life on the border, and provide us with ways to meet the people who really know what's going on.  All the staff members we met were enthusiastic about their mission, knowledgeable, and ready to help us learn more about Tucson and immigration policy.

Southside Presbyterian Church

Our first meeting was with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church  in Tucson, who was one of the leaders of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s-90s.  This group risked imprisonment to help asylees from Central America find new homes in the US.  At the time, thousands of Central American refugees were fleeing violence in their home countries, some of which was partially funded by the American government.  The US government, because of its involvement in the upheaval, refused to recognize these refugees as legitimate, claiming they were simply looking for better jobs.  In fact, some of the individuals who were caught by the US authorities and returned to their home countries were later killed.  The churches on the Arizona border, recognizing this injustice, decided to defy US law and harbor the illegal refugees, assisting them in traveling to other cities or to Canada where they were relatively safer from being deported.  John spoke to us about his experience and the history of the movement.  Though retired now from ministry, he is still an activist and meets with groups like ours to keep the memory of the former movement alive.

Today, a new Sanctuary Movement has formed around the unjust policies that are used to deport individuals with no real reason to be deported - those with families, including American citizen children, who have lived in the US for years or decades, are upstanding community members, and some of whom have even been trying to gain legal status for long periods of time.  The new movement seeks to halt deportations, rather than to move people to safety.  Southside Presbyterian is still at it, and has hosted several people since they re-started the Sanctuary Movement in 2014.

After our meeting with John, we went to Southside and met with current pastor Allison Harrington, and with Rosa Robles, the woman who is now in sanctuary at the church.  Rosa has been there over a year, having failed to receive a stay of deportation after being found to be in the country illegally during a minor traffic stop.  She's been living in Tucson since 1999, has two young sons, and no criminal convictions.  Southside is working to get her deportation case closed so she can return to a normal life.  Rosa graciously met with us for a few minutes, sharing her story, as she must have done hundreds of times to friends and strangers alike.  It was her birthday, and as we were leaving, congregation members were setting up a few flowers and balloons.  She is not able to leave the church building, and cannot attend her son's baseball games, school events, or other normal things -- so even her birthday is celebrated inside the church.  She described how difficult it is to live day after day inside, worried that by stepping outside, she could be arrested and deported.  Current US policy allows situations like hers to happen:  Her deportation order could be closed by a judge or ICE official, since her case falls under prosecutorial discretion, but until some official takes that action, she has an outstanding order of deportation.  By longstanding unwritten policy, immigration officials will not enter the church to remove her, so she stays inside, waiting for some official action that will allow her to leave.  ICE officials have stated that they are not interested in deporting her, but without any papers allowing her to be here legally, and with no way to gain legal status, she is stuck in limbo.

After meeting with Rosa, we met with her lawyers and helped make signs advocating for her, in honor of her one year in sanctuary.  Her legal team was working hard to create some motion in her case, hoping that with enough signs and community support, the right person would make the decision to close her deportation order.  It has worked for them before in other cases, although so far, not for Rosa.

While we were there, I met an activist who asked what our group's story was.  I told her I'm an architectural designer who's interested in the ethical aspects of architecture.  She was curious about what that could be, since she knew another architect who seemed uninterested in the kind of activist work that she did.  I described my understanding of how architecture can be used for good, or for bad ends -- think of prisons that are used unjustly to incarcerate large numbers of low-level offenders, especially young Black men, or the border wall used to divide families.  I asked her about the Mariposa Land Port of Entry, which was recently featured in Architect magazine.  She noted that while it's much better than what was there before, it still treats pedestrians like criminals, forcing visitors to walk through caged areas.  (We didn't get to visit it ourselves, so I can't confirm for myself, and the GSA doesn't share the floor plans, for "security reasons.")  I think she was surprised to consider buildings in this way, and said she would share these ideas with her architect friend.  I hope she does; I think more architects need to be activists in our involvement in which buildings get built, since they are such major expenditures of our capital, talent, and resources.  I hope I can help more people to think about the ethics of architecture in this way.

To be continued in Part II.


Want to take action?  Here are few things you can do:


Post-Apocalyptic Architecture

This post has been bobbing about in my brain for a long time now, and I've yet to fully nail down what it is I want to write about, so enjoy this loose association of thoughts turned into a post.

Architects (and others) seem to have a thing for watching their work come undone.  From Shelley's Ozymandias to "ruin porn," and everything in between, we modern humans seem to have a fascination with the decay and ruin of our greatest works, especially architecture.  English architect John Soane famously had his Bank of England shown in a state of ruin, displayed publicly upon his completion of the project.  (To be fair, partly-complete and partly-destroyed buildings can look quite similar.)  Renaissance and Early Modern painters, especially Panini, loved producing "caprices" showing the ruins of ancient Rome.  Today the artistic way to celebrate decay is with a camera, and Tumblrs-full of photos of Detroit can be found across the web.  I even have some of my own!  Observe:

This is of an art project, so it's not a very good example, but we did see plenty of poorly-tended vacant lots during our trip. I'm just not a very good photographer and didn't want to take photos out of the car window.

I suspect that some of my personal obsession with bad disaster movies (à la Day After Tomorrow) has to do with this same fascination.  Today, not only can we see real ruined buildings in the world, we can watch buildings get destroyed before our very eyes on a giant screen, in an accelerated fashion!  It takes centuries to build a city like San Francisco, but mere minutes to demolish it in San Andreas.  I can work for my entire life to raise a single building, while animators can (virtually) raze it to the ground with a few weeks of 3D modeling.

One of my building projects, under construction.

And yet, even knowing that the movie destruction is all in fun, and while suspecting that our contemporary buildings will look much less attractive in their ruined state than Soane's, the fascination with real ruins remains.  A site I have returned to again and again (in imagination, not in person) is Centralia, Pennsylvania, a city abandoned thanks to an unstoppable, decades-old mine fire that continues to release toxic smoke into the area.  The city has been officially abandoned, the highways to it left unrepaired, and its ten or so remaining residents will be the last, their land taken by eminent domain once they are gone.  The fire will continue to burn below ground, but the town above will be extinguished.

What happens when towns or neighborhoods are wiped away not by state action or economic downturn, but by natural disaster?  Parts of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans look a lot like Detroit, except that its residents did not leave willingly and are still struggling to return.  Flooding was the primary cause of ruin, but failed policies are the continuing cause (among other things).  Other parts of New Orleans look a lot like cities I've visited outside the US, in less-developed countries.  It's amazing to me that in such a well-known city in such a wealthy country, there can be so much decay.  Maybe it's for the best if we do not rebuild places that climate change will make increasingly untenable, but being in New Orleans makes me want to help build it back again.

Piety Wharf, at a recently-opened city park in New Orleans, aestheticizes an old burned-out pier.

And yet.  It's easy to look over the post-apocalyptic landscape and see the beauty instead of the failures.  It's easy to be fascinated with watching our heroic efforts fall apart, in Bladerunner-style urbanism, instead of with the quietly successful urbanism of Her.  I don't have a real conclusion to this post, as I warned at the beginning, but if I did, it would be something like, post-apocalyptic architecture isn't really architecture but its unraveling, a glorying in our own insignificance and the undoing of all things.  Let's keep it as an art form, but not let it get in the way of making better cities for people.

Hunger and The Hunger Games

I know I'm a little late to the Games here, but after watching Catching Fire I finally got around to reading the trilogy.  And what surprised me the most wasn't the first-person present narration of the books (although that was both surprising and annoying) but the persistent focus on hunger.  Having only seen the movies, I had no sense that food, hunger, and poverty played such an important role in the novels; that part of the story isn't easily translated to the screen, so in the films it gets passed over in favor of the flashy action sequences.  But hunger is a thread woven throughout The Hunger Games, from Katniss's hunting expeditions, to the stark poverty of the District, to the lavish fare of the Capitol, to the search for food and water in the arena.  Katniss and Peeta's relationship is defined by his gift of bread when they are children, just as Katniss and Gale's relationship is defined by their shared struggle to provide food for their families.  Author Susan Collins paints elegant portraits of the food that Katniss tastes on the train, at the training quarters, and throughout the events of the novels.  Specific foods are given symbolic value: the burned bread, the katniss tuber known to Katniss's father, the lamb stew with dried plums, and the roast pig at the Gamemaker's buffet.  I think only the Redwall series of young adult books has a more thorough focus on food, and there's a cookbook for that series!

With the final installment of the movie trilogy-turned-tetralogy set to be released just before the Thanksgiving holiday next month, when the cultural focus is so much on food and feasting, I hope a few folks will pick up the books and find out why they're called the "Hunger Games."  I have to admit that I didn't understand the title at all from watching the films, but it was clearly the right title after reading the books.  The novels are all about the relationship between food/hunger, politics, the media, and power.  The Roman allusions are also harder to trace in the films, but Collins got it right: panem et circenses - bread and circuses - is one way to satisfy the masses.  The Hunger Games is about what happens when those in power try to control the masses instead by restricting access to bread and making the games mandatory.  Since many of the nuances of her political and ethical arguments get lost in translation to the blockbuster form, go read the books!  Then go to the theater and enjoy the spectacle.


More Thoughts on the Studio Model

"Architectural education" was a hot topic for debate when I was in school two years ago, from conferences on exactly that topic, to the annual architectural school rankings, to my own dean's comments as he prepared to step down from his post after a decade of leading the school.  I think "design thinking" is still a hot issue, and within architecture, the pertinent questions seem to be whether architecture school prepares you well for practice, whether it's similar to practice or not, and whether it should be.

The Stanford d.school, a project built by my firm (Cody Anderson Wasney Architects); image courtesy of the d.school

Mark Wigley, the architecture theorist and aforementioned previous dean of GSAPP, told one of my classmates - our class representative, who was questioning the lack of career services provided by the school - that students came to GSAPP to "join the think tank," not to prepare themselves for a career of practice.  My classmates and I found it difficult to believe that the dean of a professional school, which grants accredited degrees that lead to licensure and, thus, practice, could have such a limited view of what should happen in architecture school.  Architectural research is great (at least, I think it is), but I think the true test of a design idea is when it gets built and real people have to use it.  Since architecture is a very practical art, getting to practice it is, in a sense, the goal.

Now that I have a couple years of distance from studio, I think I can finally look back and judge whether architecture school prepared me for practice.  In many senses, the answer is yes, but perhaps not in the ways one would immediately guess.  In school, I spent a lot of time figuring out what the problem was that I wanted to address with my work, and then solving it.  In practice, the problems are often immediate and obvious: This detail doesn't work.  That product isn't available.  The design busts the budget.  The solutions are still elusive, however, and the dogged pursuit of answers in the face of complex problems is common to both school and practice.  The importance of "studio culture," of mutual support, learning from one another, and learning to work together, is another commonality (at least in the firm where I work now).  And, for better or worse, the cyclical boom-and-bust of rushing to meet a deadline and working overtime to get it done, only to be followed by weeks of inactivity during, say, the DSA review process, has continued on in practice.  The difference is that I now have many projects going on at once, so when one is dormant, the others take over, and there is no summer break.  But I do usually get to go home at 6pm (one of my complaints about school was that there were no free evenings).

The actual "design" part of the equation is harder to judge as to whether school prepared me for practice.  I think so.  In some sense, good design is the result of experience, so gaining experience in school thinking about different types of problems / programs / scales, etc, did prepare me for real practice.  And the similar type of educational training we all experienced makes it easier for my coworkers and me to work together - we share a common language, set of tools, and background.  Even if we each focused on different specific projects in school, we learned a similar way to tackle them.

Studio is the crucible in which we forge new architects, and thus, its rigor is useful and important.  Real architectural practice is difficult, involving constantly-changing technology, politics, money, multiple stakeholders (even private homes get approved by someone other than the homeowners), multiple personalities and businesses (from suppliers to installers), legal consequences, and yes, somewhere in there, a design vision.  Submitting your design ideas to the critique of your peers and professors is only a vague approximation of the real-world architectural process, however.  I wrote at length on this approximation two years ago, shortly after graduating.  I still agree with much of what I said in my previous post -- I still think the critique process in school, which generally involves only other architectural professionals, is too insular -- but I've come to appreciate more how school and practice are similar rather than different.  The remaining question, of course, is whether they should be. 

The NAAB and NCARB seem to think school and practice should be aligned.  NCARB's recent proposal to introduce licensure upon graduation is one way they're signaling that the path to professional practice should be more integrated into architectural education in the future.  On the other hand, I think "design thinking" in general is coming to be more recognized as a valuable tool in fields outside architecture (see: the Stanford d.school, linked above), so perhaps there is value in an architectural education apart from practice.  Certainly there are plenty of people who took their architecture degrees elsewhere in the recession and seem not to have returned to architecture despite the uptick in construction over the last few years.

As for me, I'm starting to think that the tension between "pure" architecture theory / research and "applied" architectural training is a productive one, and it's probably good that architecture schools invest in both.  For all Dean Wigley's comments about the "think tank," there were plenty of highly practical courses at GSAPP, from curtain wall detailing, to woodshop classes, to GIS and mapping.  I'm sure a motivated person could find a way to make nearly any class more research-y or more practical based on his interests.  That's the beauty of letting students choose their own adventure in grad school - you can get the education that you need, or at least the one that feeds your interests.  I think I was able to navigate a course that gave me a healthy dose of both practicality and craziness (design a new transit network for Tokyo!), which, in the end, served me well for practice.  If you  think that there's an inverse relationship between how much you like school and how much you like practice, that's probably because you're taking the wrong classes, and because the intense studio schedule is terrible.  Getting paid to do the work you wanted to do anyway, and not having to do it on the weekends, is admittedly pretty great.  If you can't find anyone to pay you to do the work that you loved in school, that would be equally pretty terrible.  So I can maybe see where the stereotype came from.

I will close by saying that personally I enjoy getting to do a variety of tasks: design, solve problems, write, and research.  In architectural practice, I've gotten to do all of these things, although not at the same speed of turn-over that I had in school, where I would have all of these tasks at the same time.  So sometimes practice feels a bit dull, because I spend weeks on only problem-solving, then weeks on only design, or days of only writing or research.  The constant mental stimulation of school isn't quite matched by real life.  But when I take a breath and step back from it, I can see that I'm still getting to do nearly all the same things I did in school.  In that sense, it was good preparation, and I wouldn't change it.  (I would still change the "culture" of no sleep and too much work in school, though, which sets you up to think that's ok during real life.)  There are improvements to be made, but the variety of possible experiences in school makes up for a lot of problems - if you hate your studio, you can pick a different one next time.  The studio model isn't all good or all bad, but I think it does a decent job of preparing you for practice, and that's probably all we really need from it.  The rest is up to each student to figure out for herself.  And if you really want to join the think tank, there are post-professional degrees and PhDs for that!


An Unexpected Shortcut Through IDP

NCARB's decision to reduce the required number of hours for IDP (the Intern Development Program) couldn't have come at a better time.  Good on NCARB for making these important changes -- shortening the ARE and now IDP!  "IDP Streamline," as it's known (not to be confused with the much more sinister Operation Streamline), has reduced the required hours by 1/3, by eliminating the "supplemental" (read: pointless) hours that were required beyond the "core" hours.  Those extra hours could be in any category of work; they were just filler to make IDP last an extra year.  But no more!  Now once you finish the core hours, satisfying all the requirements for breadth of experience, you're done.  Thankfully, California follows the national IDP requirements, so as soon as IDP Streamline took effect in July, my target date for getting licensed moved up by about a year.  Thanks, NCARB!

And so it came to pass that on August 15th, I filed my final hours report, which, duly approved by my supervisor, granted me the ability to file additional paperwork with the State of California allowing me to take yet another exam and then, if I pass, file for my license.  So, you know, I'm getting there.

Lest anyone think that the new IDP regime is too soft on us younglings, keep in mind that the "core hours" requirement is still pretty onerous.  While only 3,740 core hours are required, due to the nature of the category requirements, I ended up logging 4,847 hours in my attempt to satisfy everything.  Believe it or not, my real life work experience didn't line up precisely with NCARB's categories, so I had to work a few extra months beyond two years in order to finish.  And I got lucky, since many folks don't have jobs that allow them to take on such a wide range of tasks in such a small amount of time.  Fear not, old school architects:  We're still subject to an overly-burdensome set of licensing requirements.  As of 2012, the median time it took to get licensed after graduation was about 8 years.  Even though that's coming down, as of 2015, it's still taking about 5 years to finish IDP and 2.5 years to finish the AREs.  (Check out NCARB By the Numbers for more stats and previous averages.)  The average age of someone getting licensed is still about 33 (the previous high was 36 years in 2008).  I don't think it should take that long!  And as for me, even though I have a master's degree from an accredited school, more than two years of work experience, and have passed all seven difficult exams, I'm still not an architect in California.

But I might be one by Christmas.

To those still laboring to fill up those IDP categories, remember: the IDP Guidelines gives you the descriptions of what fits into those categories.  Read those descriptions well!  Many of them may be broader than you assumed, or some tasks you would normally lump under "construction documents," like reviewing consultant drawings and coordinating their work, should really be placed in other categories.  Don't sell yourself short by throwing everything into one category, like I did for the first year or so.  It's probably easier to do it right when you're filing reports weekly, but if you do bulk hours reports like I did, make sure you track all the relevant categories.

My next step is to get California's approval to take the CSE (California Supplemental Exam).  Look forward to future posts on that!

And now, for something completely different, here is a list of famous ex-architects, who took their architecture degrees and ran away with them into different fields.  (Ok, fine, I admit it - this was a separate post that I just tacked on to the end here.  Enjoy.  There's probably no architect out there who hasn't thought a few times about giving up and entering a less bureaucracy-ridden field...)


Few professions prepare you to do something other than what you're trained to do quite like architecture.  We architectural professionals love to think of ourselves as generalists, a little bit good at a lot of things, and this tends to draw us in many directions at once.  Here are some of the more famous figures who got their training in architecture but jumped ship for other (inevitably more lucrative) pursuits.

"Weird Al" Yankovic:  A Cal Poly graduate, this famous parodist has been assaulting the airwaves since he interned at his college radio station in between studio crits.

Charles Eames:  Famed designer and half of the Charles & Ray Eames power couple, Eames is best known in non-designer circles for his chairs and short film "Powers of Ten."

Natasha Case:  You might not know her name, but you may have had her ice cream.  Together with her friend and former real estate developer Freya Estrella, Case created the ice cream truck Coolhaus, which serves ice cream sandwiches inspired by architects.  They now have trucks in three cities & two retail locations, and sell their sandwiches in many high-end grocery stores.  True story: I had a sandwich from their truck in NYC and it was tasty.

Joseph Kosinski:  Director of the films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion (of which he was also writer and producer), Kosinski gradated from Columbia GSAPP and apparently has taught 3D modeling classes there.  When the new Tron came out, a bunch of my classmates and I went to see it.  I can't say I was overly impressed, but hey, that's a project seen by way more people than any project I've yet to complete as a designer!


An Open Letter to the Tiny House Movement

Dear Proponents of Tiny Houses,

First off, I respect what you're trying to do here.  Today's average American single-family houses are gigantic compared to houses only 40 years ago (and getting bigger)!  Why are we wasting all this money, energy, time, and effort on giant homes?  Let's return to smaller footprints, cheaper mortgages, fewer rooms to clean, less stuff to worry about, lower bills to pay, more time to spend with our families.


I would like to point out that even the tiniest, cutest, most DIY-est tiny homes might not be the amazing panacea that you seem to think they are.  (Not to mention that there are some hurdles to face even to build them in the first place.)  Let me explain.

I consider myself an urbanist, someone who's interested in cities and thinks that density is an important tool we have to make better places to live and work.  Based on my studies in graduate school of housing density, the environmental impact of buildings, and energy use in cities versus suburbs, I've been persuaded that dense, urban living is the most environmentally-friendly way to live in the developed world.  Greater density means more pooling of resources, more efficient land use (by building up instead of out), more energy efficiency (through sharing of infrastructure, for example), and better access to work, school, goods & services, etc; not to mention, it's easier to get around in a more dense place, since you can walk wherever you need to go.  I would strongly support creating more small apartment units, and smaller apartments can be a part of your "tiny house" movement.  These micro unit apartments can be in the 300 SF range (quick summary of micro units if that first link was too intense).  Personally I have lived in 450 SF and 650 SF apartments, and thought that the 450 SF was a great size.  I don't really know what to do with the extra space in my current 650 SF apartment, so we have a lot of empty floor space.

My understanding of "tiny homes" is that the movement is promoting smaller single-family houses, which I certainly support.  There are lots of good reasons to build smaller single-family homes.  But what concerns me about this movement is that you seem to be getting only half-way to the goal, because while smaller houses are great, they aren't nearly as great at all the things I mentioned above as apartment buildings.  Multi-family housing by its very nature is more dense; it's really hard to build as many tiny homes on the same piece of land as you could build units in a six-story apartment building.  Additionally, some tiny homes folks seem to be excited about taking their tiny homes into virgin forests, rural land, and other places that I think should be kept free from houses.  If what we're really interested in promoting is environmental sensitivity, then I think apartment buildings are by far better than the tiniest single-family homes.  Building new power lines and sewage tunnels out into the wilderness so you can move there with your tiny house seems like a tragic mistake.  Obviously none of you would do that - you would go off the grid, and avoid all that mess - but when you show your house on the back of your truck, driving off into the sunset, it's good to note that some people will try to follow you there without your rugged independence, and it could end badly for everyone.

Now, if you think that getting to live in the most-sustainable-possible single-family home is the goal, rather than the truly most sustainable option, tiny homes seem like a good direction, and might be the best option.  But if you just want to minimize your carbon footprint, an apartment in a city is the best option we have now.  Cities consistently use less energy and carbon per capita than other types of places (suburbs or rural areas).  Reducing car use is another big way to reduce carbon use, and that's usually only possible in cities.

Like I said, you might already know all of this, and you're interested in tiny homes for other reasons - affordability, portability, being able to build it yourself.  Maybe you want to start a tiny house commune and actually increase density in your single-family neighborhood (here's another example)!  I just don't want people to think that tiny homes are the very best solution in terms of carbon footprint.  As we say in architecture, the "greenest" building is the one that's already been built - the energy has already been spent on it (more on historic preservation & energy use here).  My best guess is that renovating an existing home or living in an apartment are both "greener" than building a new tiny home.

So, my tiny house friends, please continue promoting smaller houses, for all the good reasons you already have.  But when someone asks you, "Is this the best way for me to reduce my environmental impact?", please remember to tell them that there are better options than single-family houses.  I think that our planet will thank you if you do.

Best wishes,

PS:  Thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti's A Country of Cities for influencing my views on these topics.  I'll finally get around to posting a book review here soon.