Thursday, August 20, 2015

Avoiding Isolation: Step One, Stay Connected.

For a solopreneur, remote communication is key.

OK, so first off, clearly I missed my intention to post last week.  Please accept my apologies – I was busy and got focused on other tasks, and did not treat this one with the dedication I had hoped for.  I also got a little overwhelmed by my own topic, and realized I will have to break down tools into a few posts, probably more spread out over time. 

One task that I have been working on is getting my new website formatted and set up.  It is taking a lot longer than I hoped, and I am looking forward to getting it all done.   

One big reason for that?  Well, it is how I communicate what I do to the outside world when I cannot talk face to face with someone.  And frankly, what I have left up on the web the past year is (at best) not doing me any favors, or (at worst) hurting me.

Which brings me to this week’s topic – communication and staying connected.  Now, a few folks have written a lot more than I on what apps or software they use, and why.  And I have tried a bunch.  And I will likely update this as time goes on, because what was great a few years ago is sadly out of date today.  I want to give you my take on what is necessary, and what I like or don’t like.

So, to start, of course, we need all the basics: a phone, email, a chat program, and preferably a web preference.  To me, as a business person, those are essential for just getting through the day. It doesn’t matter what brand, version, etc.  What matters is that it works, it is compatible with your other systems (and hopefully customers’ systems), and that you are familiar and comfortable with it.  Especially if you are starting out, or trying to keep expenses low, there is no need to spend money on things that you do not need.

So, phone.  Pretty basic, yes.  

Maybe (probably) you start with a smart phone these days.  Maybe, though, you don’t want to share that number with everyone.  So you look for alternates.  There are a few good options to consider: Google Voice is one I have used, and it is pretty good, as long as you have wi-fi.  The transcriptions that they send (which is a huge bonus), are getting better, but are still laughable.  Don’t trust the text, listen to the message!  Other services include Grasshopper, which I tested, and they have several pricing options.  I like it, but it is not for me yet.  Or, you can add a second number to your phone, which is a great option (such as the Line2 app).

What about the ‘water cooler chats’ – that informal stopping by someone’s desk that makes you feel connected, and that you have colleagues?  

That is the part, as I said in the last post, that is hard to do without.  For my taste, this is a chat program of some sort.  Twitter works well, but I find that I get distracted by it, so it is not my prime choice.  I tend to use Google Hangouts (used to be Chat, and some others).  It is easy, it can be used on the computer or your phone, its free, you can save or email a transcript.  Love it all.  If you are a mac user, iMessage has you covered already.  I know some people have ramped up to using Slack, which looks intriguing, but again is more that I need right now.

For actual meetings or conference calls: the big ones have been GoTo Meeting, Cisco’s Webex, Google Hangouts, and Skype.  Now, other than Google, these all have free options and paid or pro options.  The knock I have against Webex or GoTo Meeting is that they seem to take a large amount of bandwidth and memory when they run – mostly (I think) because they can be very robust and have services that the typical meeting does not tap into.  And you are remoting into a server.

For my money, if it is a team conference call, I am using Google Hangouts – it is free, easy, and understandable.  If it is a little more formal, though, I am heading straight to Skype for Business (formerly Lync).  Here’s why – I used Lync when I was in a larger company, and Microsoft rolled it out.  It integrates with outlook, you could video chat or type chat, and you could remotely control someone’s desktop!  Now that it has become Skype for Business, there are some different pricing plans.  If you are a business owner with Office 365, it is probably included.  Anyway, the mid-tier plan brings in the ability to remotely control someone else’s desktop, you have chat, audio and video conferencing, and file sharing directly in the chat.  You also have ‘the whiteboard’.  You can look up more here: .  I am not being compensated, by the way, just a happy user.  I’ll return to this, and share how I have used this to share redlines, show someone remotely how to do something, and create and save/distribute notes on the whiteboard in a future post.

So, for now, that is it: phone, chat, and meeting hosting.  With those tools, you can have pretty effective meetings, redlines, chats, and conversations – even face to face.

All my best

all photos from adobe stock, and are licensed 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Isolation - a pitfall of the Sole Practitioner

What is the Hardest Part about working on your own?

I get asked that question a lot.  I don't like to face it, but it is a valid question.

Well, for me there are several, but they all seem to revolve around 2 things.  Face to face communication, and does time get spent.  Humans are social mammals.  We thrive when we have people around us, we shrink if we are isolated.  Personally, I think that ideas grow and get better when they are shared, instead of being developed by 1 person.  If you work by yourself, though, most of your interactions that are not spent getting work or doing work have to be carefully measured.  Otherwise, you find yourself working late, or not working enough.

So, whether I am working at home in the ‘Office’ or at the office in ‘The Dark Internal Room with No Windows’, as a sole practitioner, I find myself at loose ends a lot during the design phase.  I mean, it helps a great deal to pin something up, or spin around in a chair and ask someone for their opinion, and then continue to sketch away, or trade pens, or have someone scan your monitor.  I find that when I am in design mode, it feels like I either set an arbitrary limit of time on design, or just decide, this is the best I have.  There is no one to bounce that decision off.  As a sole practitioner, what is a person to do?

image via unsplash, by Green Chameleon

Well, here is what I have tried (and some of the perils associated with each).

First, where I have my dark office, there are other designers and architects also renting.  So I CAN go ask them.  But they are not working on the same thing, and it takes some time to get them up to speed, and then you spend a bunch of time talking about stuff that is not applicable.  (AND, just to be totally transparent, sometimes you see the awesome commission that they just got, and the 3D model that they have, and you spend the rest of the afternoon wondering why YOU didn’t get that commission…..).  On the good side, they get your situation, and often give you feedback.  Unfortunately, sometimes the feedback is what THEY would design, and why you shouldn’t do what you are doing.  Positives: Intelligent (?) responses, commiseration over situation, another opinion; Negatives: potential to spend too much time getting a response that is not really helpful.

Second, you can ask a good friend to take a look.  Now, said friend is NOT an architect, so the typical response is (in my experience) either: ‘What am I looking at?’, or ‘That looks awesome.  I wish I could draw like that!’  The response to the latter is, ‘Yes, but what do you think of the design?’; ‘Um, I don’t know? It looks….nice? What am I looking at again?”  So, positive reinforcement: you have a cool skill; negative: time spent, no actual help.

Third, you can ask your daughter’s stuffed animals.  Yeah, you heard me.  Positives: They don’t talk; Negatives: They don’t talk, and you [hopefully] realize you are talking to stuffed animals.

Fourth, Your spouse (this may not apply to everyone).  Now, in my case, my wife is also an architect.  And a professor.  So, I get helpful critique and feedback, although I sometimes have to frame the TYPE of response I would like. (ie, please tell me the elevations look nice, and then let’s talk about the shape of the dormers…..).  Positives: Warm, supportive, intelligent (!) feedback; Negatives: NONE (you know she reads this blog).

Fifth: Online/Virtual sharing.  I think that there is TRUE potential here, but I have not yet found it to be the best solution right now.  Things get better every time a company updates their app or program, though, so even over the last 18 months, things have really improved.  I am not talking about just the typical file sharing programs or sites, though.  Those work well for keeping documents, sharing documents, and allowing collaboration.  I am MORE interested in what might allow that quick feedback interaction that is taken for granted in an office.  That “Stop by my desk when you have a minute, would you?  I’d like to bounce a few ideas off of you” type of interaction.

IS there an equivalent?

I hope that you’ll come back next week and find out what I’ve tried, and what reactions I have had to them.

Until then, 

Friday, July 31, 2015

On Coaching, Mentoring, and Where Life Takes You

Coaching, Mentoring, and Where Life Takes You

Good afternoon Folks, and here is to a Happy Friday!

Starting next week, I will be starting what I hope/plan to be the regular day for my posts – Thursday!  Mainly because I felt like being overly clever as I tried to talk myself into the accountability of it all.  So, Thursday, huh?  Thursday Thoughts….Thursday Talks….Thursday Thirst for Inspiration…etc.

PLUS, and here is my own selfish, brutal honesty – a lot of my colleagues and friends post on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I have a TON of meetings every Wednesday.  And I actually like to read my friends’ posts.  And I already post the ‘#HouseOfTheDay’ posts on Monday.  So, I felt that I would be ‘safer’ or at least more likely to keep up with a schedule if I made it on Thursday.

So, that leaves me thinking about this past week, this past month, etc. and what I’d like to share for today’s thoughts.

First, a follow up on last week’s post – I have continued to read, and re-read Art’s Principles, by Arthur Gensler.  It is a great read, for me at least.  I am enjoying jumping back and forth in the book, and it is fun to read some of Art’s lessons that I think I have also experienced and drawn similar conclusions about; it is equally fun to me to read about a situation that I find to be similar to my experience, to read what Art’s take on it is, and think “WOWThis is why Gensler is such a successful firm.  And that does not seem too hard to incorporate into my own practice…..” It is one benefit of having a coach, or a mentor; and this book certainly does not replace a coach, but it IS a great reference for any practicing architect or upcoming student or young practitioner.  I don’t plan on growing my firm anywhere CLOSE to what Gensler has managed to become, but even though I am hitting ‘middle age’, in the architecture career spectrum, I am still a ‘Young Architect’ – so who knows where life will take me?

That leads me directly into part 2 of what I’m sharing today.  I may not know too many things about where life will take me, but I DO know where I will be in November of this year.  I am proud to announce that I have had a session accepted at the 2015 ArchEx conference in Richmond, Virginia!  

(Richmond City, a cool Richmond Virginia Photo uploaded by: frankeys creation;

I will be presenting a session on "Creating a Small Firm With Virtual Resources," and I will be sharing my own experiences (good and bad) and resources that have helped me (or not).  I would not be able to do this without two great mentors and coaches of my own – Enoch Sears and Mark R. LePage, who have both created virtual academies to help architects grow their businesses.  Check them out at BusinessOfArchitecture (Enoch’s site) and EntreArchitect (Mark’s site).

Thanks for reading, I hope that you have a great weekend, and in the meantime, please head on over to my Facebook page at:

I also have my firm’s page here:

Friday, July 24, 2015

Architecture Matters.....

So, maybe this story will sound familiar to some of you - maybe this has happened to you, or maybe not; maybe a friend or colleague.  But this is the story of what has happened with me lately.

So, you have your own work (whether a sole proprietor, owner, or even a manager or employee in a firm).  Things are going well, then they get better, then they get BUSY, and all of a sudden, things get rocky.  And then, for no apparent reason – just because you start to get overwhelmed by what is going on - you start to get doubts.  You might doubt the direction you are going in, about what you are trying to do, about whether you are doing the right things, or doing those things well, or what you SHOULD be doing.  (I have begun to hate that word, SHOULD, by the way.)  And then things go off the tracks.  In my case, it was having a flare of my chronic diseases, and then not paying attention to the critical things, and then feeling like it would be too difficult to ‘stay the course’.  So I started cutting things out from my daily/weekly routine.  Like writing. And sketching.  And I miss those – they were a way of being creative without needing to expend a lot of effort or creative juices, and they are fun, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing those things.

Now that it has been a few months, I am finding my feet again.  I am remembering (or reminding myself) that I started this effort in order to share – could be inspiration, could be lessons learned, could be just what is going on.  I have missed writing and posting (although the facebook page here: ).  And, to be honest (with you and with myself), I never promised it would be GOOD. (just kidding, I hope).

So here’s to a renewed effort, and I have two things to share today.

First, the AIA here in Raleigh launched a new marketing campaign - the Architecture Matters postcard campaign.  It was a good reminder to me of one of the things I hope to address through my own practice, and by extension, this blog.  

Second, what I am reading.  This also happens to be a source of inspiration.  I have two books on my table.  OK, I actually have way more than that.  But here are the two that are keeping me busy the most.  

The first book is Art’s Principles, by Arthur Gensler (yes, that Gensler).  I am loving this book.  I am thinking that EVERY architect or firm owner who has practiced as long as Mr. Gensler should write a book like this.  Great stories, great quotations, fun pictures, and a lot of great advice, all in a compact little volume.  I encourage you to buy it, borrow it, share it, etc.  The book has short chapters, it is easy to jump around, it is easy to digest, you can read just one at a time and think about it, or you can read more.  It has been a real treat to read it.

The second book is The Forever Home by Kevin Harris.  I saw this book first promoted through the AIA CRAN (Custom Residential Architect Network), and managed to snag a download of the first chapter from the author.  I thought it was great.  The writing is accessible and straightforward, and I like Mr. Harris’ attitude towards the architect’s role.  I just got the hard copy yesterday, and I am looking forward to reading more.  Similar to Art’s Principles, I am finding The Forever Home to be engaging, easy to flip through and read small parts of, and I imagine diving deeper into.  It has sidebars, sketches, lessons learned from Mr. Harris’ practice and experience. 

If you’d like to learn from some great practitioners, I think that these two books are a great way to start.

I am looking forward to getting back on a regular posting schedule, and I hope that you all have a good weekend.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What's My Story?

What’s Your Story?

At the latest AIA Convention in Atlanta GA this past week, AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter challenged architects to share why they entered the profession, and tell others “What’s Your Story?”.  To be honest, why I entered the profession is lost in memory, and now made into a story.  I’d rather focus on why I STAY in this profession.

I continue to practice Architecture and Sustainability because I believe that I can make a difference in people’s lives, and I believe that I can make a difference to our environment.  I believe that what keeps me going is my passion for design, for sustainability, for researching issues and passing on information to clients, students, co-workers, peers, friends and family.  I love to help people create or update their residences and places in which they work through design – to make them healthier, and/or to make the spaces more responsive to the needs of those who inhabit them.  

I believe that Winston Churchill spoke well when he stated that “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

Recent studies indicate that US residents spent up to 90% of our time indoors.  Think about that.  What would YOU change to make your house or place of work better, knowing how much of your life you spend in it?

It is my mission to make the spaces we inhabit as healthy, as pleasing, as responsive to people’s needs as I can through design.

So, this is why I continue to practice:
  • I believe that architecture is a craft.
  • I believe that our drawings should be as beautiful as the end product.
  • I believe that everyone has a right to dignified housing.
  • I believe that design can impact everyone’s life.
  • I believe that architects can help improve people’s working and living environments through design.
  • I believe that there is a direct link between our physical health and the environments in which we live and work.
  • I believe that it is better to have connections (visual, physical, or both) from the inside to the outside in our built environment.
  • I believe that we can improve health and wellness of people, places, and continue cultural traditions through architecture.
  • I believe that ‘doing less harm’ in the built environment is the minimum we should be doing as humans.
  • I believe that creating sustainable and regenerative buildings should be the goal for every building.
  • I believe that we need to create Living Buildings in every community around the world as inspiration for what we can achieve.
  • I believe that the most successful architecture is not a judgement based on style, but based in the craft of design and the quality of construction, and judged by how people respond to the building and its spaces.

 So, what about you - what's YOUR story?

Friday, April 17, 2015

#ILookUp for Architecture Week

Hey there, folks.  Its #ArchitectureWeek, and its Friday, so I wanted to share some of my recent thoughts on architecture. It is spring, and flowers are out, trees are blooming, and cranes are moving.  What better reasons to Look Up?

Now, The US Architects who are reading this are probably aware that the AIA started a new campaign recently, called #ILookUp. For those not familiar with it, The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has begun a three year campaign to promote architects, architecture, and the process of design.  The website is, if you’d like to check it out. 

I tend to like the phrase featured there, too: “Before beginning to design, architects look up. They look up to see what isn’t there and to envision the potential for what could be. Architecture surrounds us in our daily lives. Look up and be inspired.”

At first, I started the blog today this way:
"My name is Sean, and I am an Architect, I am a member of the AIA, and #ILookUp.”  There was a lot of hullabaloo in print and online media when the campaign started, and it felt like I needed to be in a group session introducing myself to subscribe to the AIA’s campaign.  In fact, I was disappointed, and downright surly at times, that many columnists took to writing articles insinuating or even declaring the campaign a failure, or a stylistic error, and that architecture is failing, on the brink of collapse, etc. after the FIRST ad in a three year effort was launched.

It made me wonder, after my initial surge of emotion, why are these people so against this campaign?  What a wonderful invitation to everyone - look up! What do you see? 

Here is what I see:

When #ILookUp, I see trees blooming, birds migrating, hawks gliding, clouds passing. I see the seasons at work in the reflections off of buildings. I marvel at the cranes on construction sites, and the effect that weather has had on construction. I look up to see wonderful marvels - fireworks, airplanes, etc.


Professionally, #ILookUp to see the context around me.  Architecture and urbanism are not professions that live in the moment. These are long range professions. I design homes and buildings that I hope will outlast me. That will give families shelter for decades at least. I have no control over what else gets built, and I hope that it will not be homogenous. I hope to see a range of styles, eras represented; I hope for renovation, preservation, and rehabilitation around our communities. #ILookUp to see how those interactions have been dealt with by others, to learn (whether to emulate, imitate, or avoid), and I gather inspiration.

To me, this campaign is NOT just about architecture, or design inspiration, or the connection between architecture and nature.  #ILookUp to see what is going on around me. I look away from my screen. I look away from my phone. I look away from the newspapers. And I focus on what is around me instead. What do I see in my community?

As I walk around my neighborhood, I see people growing more food in their front yards. I see people walking more than ever. I see neighbors interacting.  I see festivals, farmers markets, and people looking to help each other.

Behaviorally, #ILookUp so that I don't get stuck in a rut, doing the same things every day.

#ILookUp for hope. And for inspiration. And to remind myself that the world is a great place. Yes, we all face challenges, and there are problems around us all.  Architects tend to be problem solvers, though. And we work well in teams, and in communities. So when #ILookUp, I don't just see what IS there, I also think about what COULD be there.

Call it idealism, optimism, naivete, hope, or inspiration. Call what you will. 
THAT is why #ILookUp.

What about you?  What do YOU see when YOU look up?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Collaboration and Craft

Architecture is a profession, one that is first a service-based business; however, in my mind, the greatest architecture involves craft.  Our buildings would be nothing but ideas and pictures unless they got built.  Architects cannot always draw or document the conditions of a building unless they understand how the building goes together, and the pieces get assembled; architects don’t always know what they need to document in order to allow another person to fill in their part of the work without interacting with the people doing the work.  And architecture cannot be built without the input of a client, a patron, a user (even in spec projects, SOMEONE has to pretend that they are the client).  This collaboration, this knowledge, these skills – that is the craft of architecture.

So one of the things that I love best about working as an architect is that every project involves teamwork.  To me, Architecture is a collaborative process, and that is the only path to a successful project.  I love the interaction between team members, I love the learning opportunities.  What is amazing to me is that every project can be different – from the same drawings, two different carpenters can interpret a detail, or the way to assemble something.  It makes me aware that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  We still rely on the skills, expertise, and craft of those who make our designs into realized buildings and projects.

We as architects sometimes add our own labor to a project, especially if the process is design-build.  Often, however, our craft can be found in the way we design spaces to flow, the way the building will shape someone’s life as they inhabit the space.  Sometimes, our craft can be revealed in the materials we choose (or recommend), or if we have a particular affinity for detail.  We might imagine how something will feel in hand, or the emotion that a space or design element can evoke. Other times, the architect’s craft can be revealed in the drawings we provide.  These may be sketches to a client, sketches to a contractor or craftsperson, or even the construction drawings.  The way we think about projects are often revealed through these drawings, and sometimes the drawings are influenced by the people with whom we work and collaborate.

I’d like to highlight one craftsman in particular – Kent Bloomer.  I first met Kent as a freshman in college, as I had expressed an interest in majoring in architecture.  I took classes from Kent over the next four years.  I stayed in touch, and have had the privilege of working with him on 2 completed projects and a competition.  These interactions with Kent and his team at The Bloomer Studio have been some of my favorite experiences as an architect. On one project, the Jones School of Management at Rice University, designed under Robert A.M. Stern Architects, had several place holders in our design. Kent and his team fashioned column capitals, decorative heads, bronze doors, and even a bull & bear to create a narrative for the building.  It was an amazing experience to see each piece be designed, shaped, and modeled at different scales.  Some pieces affected the design, and I would tweak drawings to accommodate the changes; other times, the design would affect what could be done by The Bloomer Studio.  The end result was fun, sometimes whimsical, and powerful.  The students and faculty related to the ornament, and I feel that the ornament highlighted parts of the architecture.

Please check out Kent Bloomer’s website here:
and on Facebook at:

The other project I collaborated on with Kent is the Truman School, in the New Haven Public School system. 

I love including place specific art and details whenever possible.  These root the building in place, and relate it to its surroundings, or help tell the building’s story. They encourage using local craftspeople who know the project area, its history, its materials, its story. 

Just by happenstance, this month’s #ArchiTalks series is on the theme of being ‘Crafty’.  Due to the focus I put on specific ‘craft’ mentions, I would like to direct the readers to the following blog entries especially, but all are worth reading.

From Studio MM, 'Why I love my craft"

From lee Calisti architecture + design, "Panel Craft"

From Matthew Stanfield, FiELD9 architecture, "On the Craft of Drafting"