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Trial of the Century


Pssssst….  Ever hear about the secret room in the Washington Square Arch?  Think you know what it’s for?

GENIUS ARCHITECT!  SADISTIC MILLIONAIRE!  STUNNING GIRL FROM NOWHERE!  Are these yesterday’s headlines?  The answer is no; instead they are from June 25, 1906 when Stanford White was murdered by Harry Kendall Thaw.  Newspapers touted that this was the Trial of the Century!  And perhaps, the very first such headline, considering they were only six years into a new century.

Thaw claimed that he shot White because he discovered that White was having an affair with his rather young wife, Evelyn Nesbit.  Some may call it schadenfreude, but we all certainly derive some degree of pleasure when the facade is stripped off of respectability and wealth.  And, after all, they say that Stamford White single-handedly invented the American facade of the moment.  His firm designed the icons of their day, the Astor, Vanderbilt and Tiffany mansions; the Century and Metropolitan clubs; the Washington Square Arch; and the second Madison Square Garden (now long destroyed along with the original Penn Station), where he was killed. 

Perhaps, White was so good at facades because he himself had so much to hide.  By the end of a relatively short life (he died at 52), he was over a half million in debt and faced possible imprisonment.  His most manic appetite, though, was for underage chorus girls.  He had a red velvet swing installed where Nesbit and other girls in various degrees of undress would entertain him, which became a focal point of the trial press coverage as well as a movie or two.  There are conflicting accounts of whether this swing was in the tower at the old Garden or at his Chelsea apartment or perhaps in a secret room???


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A fictional tale about an architect and his career

A fictional tale about an architect and his career

The end came for William some 1,800 miles and 26 years from where it all began.  It’s an all too familiar scene.  The partners gather, you’re “invited” to join them in the conference room.  Eschewing eye contact, you’re told what a great employee you are, how valuable your contributions have been but, alas, they have to let you go.  Can we please have your keys?

Changing the world

I think all of us believe, as architectural undergrads, that we will be the next Frank Lloyd Wright, Corbusier, or, heaven forbid, Daniel Liebskind.  The heroic image of the architect (Howard Roark?) resonates loudly as we work night and day developing architectural concepts that not only are going to one day save the world but more importantly land us a job at one of the “starchitect” firms who’s work pollutes the architectural press. From there it’s on to private practice, publication, national acclaim and turning down commissions that are not worthy of our talents. You want me to do what! Don’t you know who I am?  Reality? There’s no time for that! Like an architectural ponzi scheme the monster must be fed, illusions must be maintained and the next generation of architects must be trained on the ashes of those that have come before.


The first taste of the real world for William, the newly minted apprentice, comes during the job search.  That is when the disconnect to the real world makes its first appearance. What the architectural press does not report (or want anyone to know) is that the “starchitect” firms are built on what is essentially slave labor. “We do not pay as much as other firms and we do ask that you work day and night but when you leave here you will have the name or our great firm on your resume!” Think of what that will do for you career!  Or you can work for a second-tier firm, one that actually has work built, where you may actually learn how buildings go together who will pay you a living wage but whose name you dare not mention at architectural seminars or cocktail parties. Aah, a crossroads.  Didn’t Williams’ architectural education prepare him for this?

After many sleepless nights and endless coffee house discussions with friends about pursuing your craft versus earning a living William makes his decision.  He splits the difference.  He takes a position with a respected second-tier firm. They do good work, their drawings all look nice, they will pay him a decent salary and he could tell his friends who he work for.. I’ll cut my teeth here says Williams, than jump to the A list with my next move!

The caste system

Excitement builds, William is on his way now! This is when the disconnect to the real world makes its second appearance.  He never believed it when he heard others say that it matters where you went to school.  With my talent, it won’t matter! Aah, but it does!

There are three distinct education classes in the architectural profession; Ivy League (the perceived gold standard) private universities or, heaven forbid, state or city universities. (I know, I know, there are some good state schools out there, I just haven’t met any of those grads yet. Anybody out there a K-State grad?).  In the mid-eighties William was an apprentice at a mid-size, nationally recognized firm in New York City.  Not a “starchitect” firm but rather a trend follower that produced middle-of the road work.  As a private university grad he thought he stacked up pretty well amongst his peers except for one small thing; his lack of an Ivy League degree. 

That precluded William from ever landing a coveted “designer” position, (which would have allowed him to walk around the office with a black sweater on his shoulders and Corbu styled glasses hanging around his neck discussing the tenets of post modernism). Or from designing a three-story nursing home addition that neglected to consider that the existing buildings structural system may impact the design until a column showed up (pointed out by a state university grad) in the middle of the door entering the addition (on all three floors and the entire building had to be shifted to the right). From a Yale trained architect.

Instead, he was relegated to “project architect” status, producing construction documents while directing a team of drafters (again, state university grads). It takes a while before what is happening to you sinks in.  You convince yourself its good experience, you’ll have your opportunity to design your own projects at your next job.  So you jump ship, looking for the Holy Grail.

The Quest

The next job is always going to be different.  After three or four jobs come and go the little voice in Williams head grows louder.  I can do this! Look at all the idiots I’ve worked for! None of them were as talented as me.  Maybe I should open my own practice. How hard could it be?  Then I’ll be free to design what I want when I want it.  I’ll show them! So he takes the plunge and starts his own practice. 

The excitement is palpable.  What’s so hard about this? He sets up his “studio”, hangs his licenses and private university diplomas on the wall and waits for the phone to ring. You convince yourself that you are different from the thousands of other firms providing the same services as you. Why is your firm better?

Because it’s yours!

The work starts to trickle in, run-of-the mill stuff but yours none the less. It won’t be long now! This may last or year or so, and the glow of the start-up is still burning.  William pretends not to hear that little voice in his head. After a year or two, he’s still not doing the work he wants to do, still compromising, but hey, he’s got to put food on the table. This goes on for several years with varying degrees of success. Smaller projects are published, prestigious institutional clients are added to the firm roster and William becomes an “expert” in a project type that he didn’t even know existed prior to starting his practice. But the signature projects aren’t there, the ones that will land him on the pages of Architectural Record, and no matter how hard he tries the engine just won’t turn over. And there’s that voice again…

Reality Disconnect three

It starts to dawn on William that making a living working at architecture and creating works of architecture (or being able to look yourself in the mirror) are two separate things. “I’m not sure if it is the same in other professions but there is no correlation in architecture between talent and success” says William. Some of the more successful architects (in financial terms) that he has been associated with couldn’t even draw or think three-dimensionally.  One would think that those attributes would be prerequisites for an architect, but a well trained low paid intern, tracing paper and a copy machine are adequate substitutions.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian responsible for the “You might be a redneck if….” comedy routines and joke books.  You can do the same thing with architects says William. “You can make a living as an architect if….

-You are willing to compromise any values you may possess

-You have no problem with clients coming to you to “execute” their ideas (here’s a photo of another project we like, can you do this?)

 -You recycle your designs (but change the corner roof hats to something “contemporary”)

 -You have no problem undercutting your competitor’s 3-4% fee just to get the job

 The Reversal

The architect hangs his hat on the adage ‘architecture is an old mans profession”.  So we toil for years working for others or in our own practice waiting for the opportunity to show that we are not like the rest. We have talent damn it!  It’s what keeps us going.  And you would be surprised how long one can fool themselves thinking that the next one is going to be the one.

After several years in private practice, the little voice in Williams head starts to bellow.  Is this all there is? Can I do this for another 25 years?  He starts to think that private practice may not offer access to the once-in-a-lifetime commission he craves.  Maybe it’s time to join one of those A-list firms?  After all, look at all of the experience I have running my own practice?  Who wouldn’t this expertise on their team? Well, as it turns out, pretty much nobody.

In the world of architecture leaving a private practice to once again become an employee is seen as an act of failure.  Partners and principals distrust your motives, and staff can’t understand why anyone would want to give up working on their own to work for someone else.  (I can understand that thinks William, it is a sentiment he shared as a young intern.) But he decides to give it a shot.  “What else am I doing”, he thinks to himself? And then he realizes that after all these years nothing has changed. Architects are still being slotted based an educational bias, the people in charge don’t really have as much talent as him (if any at all) and the young generation of designers and architects leaves much to be desired.

William believes the profession has collectively suffered a death by a thousand cuts.  Piece by piece our role of master builder has been dismantled. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.  First it was construction management.  What do we know about construction?  We can’t possibly be committed to designing a project with constructability in mind, or seek creative ways to reduce a project’s cost without sacrificing functionality.  Instead, we opened the door to having an intermediary injected into the architect-client relationship. What about energy efficient buildings?  After all, before the “green movement” architects had been designing energy efficient buildings for thousands of years.  As architects, what could we possibly know about the planning and design of “green buildings?.  Obviously not much, as the profession sat idly by and lets LEED accreditation get fostered on ANYONE who can pass the exam.  Need a green building designed? Call your neighborhood LEED accredited plumber!


William comes to realize that clients view architects as nothing more than a commodity, a means to an end. There is no holy grail out there, no Fallingwater, Guggenheim Museum or clients with vision. Just the same get it done and get it out of here mentality. The fire in William is extinguished as he realizes that it is nothing more than what it is.

Sometimes you get little opportunities to make a difference, over time maybe they add up to something.  But you don’t see those projects as opportunities until they’re in the rear view mirror. That’s the problem with looking for the next best thing; you can’t always tell when it’s right in front of you. Maybe it’s just learning something about yourself, about what makes you tick. I don’t know, but I’ve got another 25 years or so to figure it out.  I’ll get back to you.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m wanted in the conference room.”  

Don’t laugh this could happen to you….

This article was first published in 2009. It’s still relevant.

Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com).

And he is not William.

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Does being an architect imply you’re creative?

Does being an architect imply you’re creative?

I had someone remark recently that using the phrase “creative thinking” in my firm description was redundant because being an architect implies creativity.

Is that true?

We’ve all been in and seen our share of uninspired buildings that don’t deserve to be called architecture. A majority of the built environment is comprised of buildings. How can we all be so creative and wind up with the built environment we do? Isn’t there a distinction among architectural firms, those who fall in the more creative side of the spectrum (think Gehry, Hadid) and nuts and bolts production firms?

Doesn’t a market exist for both buildings and architecture?

If so, are there creative and non-creative architects?

Can creativity and creative thinking be quantified and marketed as a service?

Or is being an architect enough?

Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)

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Architecture jobs start to bounce back

Online job ads for architects up 20% over year

arch model 4 Online job advertisements for architects rose 20 percent during the last 90 days compared to the same time period in 2012, according to Wanted Analytics, a firm that tracks online job ads. There were a total of more than 16,000 architect jobs advertised in the past 90 days.

New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Houston topped the list of metropolitan areas with the most job ads for architects.

“Autodesk AutoCAD” was the most commonly required skill in architect jobs. In the past 90 days, 5,500 jobs required CAD skills, representing about 35 percent of all hiring demand.

The most commonly required skills in architecture jobs include:

Autodesk REVIT Architecture

Oral and written communication skills

Detail oriented


Project management

Organizational skills

Bentley MicroStation

Microsoft Office

Adobe Photoshop

Watch a new CCTV America video from the AIA.org website that highlights 7 consecutive months of gains in the industry

Temporary hiring takes center stage

U.S. temporary employment jumped by 20,300 jobs in March, compared with the previous month, and the year-over-year growth rate ticked up, according to seasonally adjusted numbers released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the number of temp jobs added in February was revised upward by 22,000 jobs.

Year-over-year growth in temp jobs had been decelerating since November. However, the number of temp jobs rose by 6.4 percent year over year in March, up from the 5.3 percent increase in February.

Further, the U.S. temp penetration rate rose to 1.94 percent in March from 1.93 percent in February.

However, the U.S. added fewer jobs overall in March than February. Total non-farm employment rose by 88,000 jobs in March compared with an increase of 218,000 in February –  Sending a clear signal that firms are exercising caution, temporary hires outpaced permanent hires for the same period.

The U.S. unemployment rate still fell to 7.6 percent in March from 7.7 percent in February. The college-level unemployment rate, which can serve as a proxy for professional employment, was unchanged from February at 3.8 percent.

In other industries, construction added 18,000 jobs in March. The BLS reported construction has added 169,000 jobs since September.

Click on the chart below to enlarge.


Click on the chart below to enlarge.

This post is a composite of articles from Staffing Industry Analysts and AIA.org websites

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Zombie Clients

I received a call a while ago from a prospective client we did some preliminary design work for a concierge assisted living facility years ago.

It did not go well as a lot of these fliers we take in pursuit of work go often do. We have experience in this building type and tried, in vain, to educate our potential client not only about what we do but about the subtleties of the building type. The client would have none of it, coming from a family of contractors and developers imbibed with the “we know more than you about building gene”. Forget about “architecture”, they clearly weren’t interested.

Fast forward four years. The phone rings and it’s the client. “How are you? Do you remember me? For the past four years we’ve gone ’round and ’round with our property. We can’t find a buyer so we’re going to try to resurrect the ALF. We we’re looking at the concepts you did for us and we were shocked. They were very good! We should have listened to you back then!

My interest is piqued, but my radar is up because this is most likely not a good client. And then they drop the hammer.

“We did some sketches over your drawings and we’d like to send them to you to see what you think. Maybe you can give us a price for “doing” the architecture.”

Zombie clients.

Some things should remain forever dead.

Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)

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So you want to be an architect?

May I ask why?

Aah architecture. The grand old profession of Wright, Sullivan, Mies and Kahn. The ability to shape cities with one’s own hands, to change lives and alter the course of history. To be Howard Roark of the Fountainhead, dreaming of blowing up your own creation because the client, a necessary evil of the profession, doesn’t share your noble vision.

So very romantic.

And so very wrong.

In the last five years the profession has shed about 60,000 jobs. They’re not coming back. Firms lucky enough to have a backlog of work make up the manpower shortage through technology. Profit margins, traditionally minute in the best of times are non-existent. Consolidation of mid-large size firms is rampant and sole-practitioners are an endangered species. The construction industry is not far away from engulfing architects in the construction process because architects use building information and drawing technologies like CAD, Revit and BIM. We’ve been commoditizing the profession for the last 20 years. That tide is not turning.

Our colleges and universities still eschew teaching the business of architecture, and graduates are ill prepared to deal with the realities of a profession in decline. And don’t dare ask them to draw. A pencil? What’s that?

Then of course there are the clients. The noble benefactors who embrace the architect for his vision, his ability turn their dreams into reality! More likely they’ve shopped around, solicited ten proposals then negotiated two or three firms down to the coveted 3-4% of construction cost fee that fits so well into their bottom line. And the architects fight tooth and nail to see who’ll reach the bottom first. Work is work.

Here’s my advice. Architecture, in its most pure form, is an art that few can understand, enjoy and appreciate. It is exhilarating.

It is not nor should it ever be a job!

It shouldn’t be bought and sold. Be passionate about all design. Architects are inherently creative. Pursue creative collaboration with other design professions. Cross pollinate. Design objects, think creatively at all times and tell everyone you meet that design matters. But practice “architecture” for yourself. Design spaces for yourself. Live in them, work in them, and dream in them. Don’t sell your ideas, your soul, your heart, to anyone. Be selfish because they don’t get it.

If you have to find another way to support yourself.

I’m sure Starbucks is hiring.

Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)

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The race to the bottom

Architects and their fees

A short while ago we submitted a proposal for a fairly large, two building flex-office space complex. A simple project, not much if any design work but the kind of project a firm would do to generate cash flow and keep the company pro-forma in the black.

Our proposal was to include the fee of the consulting structural engineer. Like most of us we work with consultants we’ve used before and work with each other to see that the work is procured. In conjunction with our consultant and after much hand wringing we submitted a fee proposal that was lean but one which, if we were efficient at our tasks could make a small, emphasis in “small”, profit. I was a little uncomfortable with the fee because I felt it was at the low end of what I would consider to be an acceptable fee range for this type of work. Call me old school but I have no desire to be the low bidder on any project. Rather, in my fantasy world the fee is but one component the client uses in determining the best team for the project.

We we’re notified this morning that we did not get the job. Miraculously, the fee which I thought “to low” was somehow 20% higher than the low bid. The client, a developer, took the low bid.

Some quick back-off-the-envelope calculations show that the “winning” bid is about 1.5% of the estimated cost of construction, including the consulting engineer.


What are we doing to ourselves!

These are not sustainable fees. Doesn’t the profession see the bigger picture in play here? The next time it’s 1%, than 1/2% than what, free? Nobody wins in the race to the bottom. Conversely, we all lose. No one likes to see red ink on their pro-forma. But low balling fees to keep busy is insanity. And it continues to devalue the role of the architect.

We don’t respect each other.

Why should potential clients?

Robert Vecchione is an architect/designer and principal of the multidisciplinary firm Cobrooke Ideas-Architecture-Design (www.cobrooke.com)

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New Job Openings. Immediate Start!

Arch 4+ yrs.
April through Oct.
Revit skills required, experience in Higher Education market segment preferred but not required. Experience in SD through CD phases of documentation and 3-D/Graphic presentation skills.

Arch 4+ yrs.
Approximately mid April start.
AutoCAD documentation skills. Ability to translate/apply existing Construction Documents and Details to a new plan configuration. Health Care experience preferred.

Interior Designer 2+ yrs.
Now through May
Presentation Documents (3-D Graphic Presentation Skills, Assist in Furniture and Finishes selection and documentation. Assist in assembly of Materials Palettes.

Send resume and samples to [email protected]
Reference job description in email

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