Past Lives


This week, for all the electrical and architectural students, I decided to share a little of my background for them instead of teach English.  Not only because it is in the same field, but because it doesn’t seem like these kids get lessons on life very often at school.  Not having a portfolio since my real one got stolen during a move, and since what little I had electronically is a now defunct and archived website, I poked around on the internet to gather what I could, and got all nostalgic.

I told them how, when I was 17, my grade point average was 1.8 because I didn’t care about school, because there was no hope, and how I left my family, got on a plane and traveled to California to live on my own and had to pay for my own rent and food and nearly starved while still going to high school and working nights.  How I even quit school altogether for awhile.  And then how I got married while still in high school, and how after that school just seemed so easy compared to real life and I got a 4.0 my senior year.  I told them how I had babies at 19 and 21 and how my husband was an alcoholic and I had to work at Burger King and cleaning toilets and even picked through trash for cans to turn in for recycling for extra money.  Again, school is play compared to real life.  And then I got the job at the shipyard as an electrician apprentice for 3.5 years and was able to get a divorce.

CNG-36 California

Having lunch on the mast of this guided missile cruiser with Mudshark the welder was a fond memory – we’d climb climb climb up to the top and he’d pass me a pair of John Lennon sunglasses and we’d eat there on the roost, kings of everything, and he’d play his flute and life was beautiful;  as was having a date with Ray the pipefitter on a barge, past the docks, drinking contraband wine with fruit and cheese, the entire fleet of ships like silent servants attending…

for fun facts on the Nimitz, click on the image

…and getting a private escort by the captain of the Nimitz from the captain’s bridge and across the hangar while the entire crew of enlisted men were standing at attention was also unforgettable!

Here’s a little clip showing what it’s like to work on a ship in drydock.  Interesting to me how someone deemed this experience worthy of creating two t.v. shows, Carrier and Drydock, which I didn’t know existed until this week!

I also worked on several submarines and can’t remember the names of them.  Spent a whole year in one and I can’t remember it’s name…I worked on more subs than most people there:  because I was small they would send me on loan to the other subs whenever there was a job nobody else could be crammed into.  This was a big reason why I quit, actually, they were the worst and most unpleasant jobs that made even grown men shudder to think about.  One of which was on a Trident nuclear sub, where me and this other small man worked mostly upside down over the weekend, saving the government over $400,000.  I got a flashlight.  I quit about two weeks later!

I actually really really enjoyed working there.  There’s nothing like having tools, and power tools, knowing how to use them, understanding technology, be a specifications geek, being strong and fit and using your body as well as producing craft-work you can be proud of.  But I was too miserable during the process of expelling my alcoholic husband and also was part of a scandal in which people understandably thought I was a Monica Lewinsky to someone important there, though I actually never allowed that to happen, though I suppose it was still some sort of relationship.  I was still just a little girl and hadn’t had the opportunity to learn about people and relationships yet, so I was reckless and didn’t understand how my own actions affected others.  And I’d also decided that maybe there was a way for me to get through college after all, and if I didn’t move on right then, then me and my kids would be trapped in that small-minded town forever.

So I went to school. My ex. was finally out and on his feet and with my savings and his child support and financial aid, it was possible.  At first I was going to major in social work, but working as a case aid at CPS cured me of that. But only $50 of child support ever materialized (EVER), so I eventually had to get help from the state.  And then I wanted to switch to a childhood love of Architecture, which had to be approved by the state.  Fortunately, at that time, the state still allowed women to get a real secondary education.  Thank God for them.  I feel so bad for the women on welfare today with deadbeat dad ex-husbands, whose only future is under employment.

Architecture school was wonderful, it combined my love of drawing, my technical nature, my exposure to construction, and my notions that our spaces can heighten our appreciation and connection to nature and therefore our own humanity.  You know Project Runway?.  It’s like that, only every day:  intense and exciting, only there’s no finale or grand prize…if there was a grand prize I won it, by getting accepted to Yale’s Graduate program:  too bad my parents crushed that possibility.  2 more attempts at grad school at the University of Washington, and they wouldn’t accept me because they needed the higher tuition rates from foreign students…So I had to settle for being an intern and doing it the long way.  Only by the time I was halfway there I decided that the profession wasn’t worth getting credentialed for.    Architecture is still wonderful – it’s how it’s practiced that isn’t.

Architecture as a job was horrible, abusive and demoralizing.  I showed the students some of my work, and they wondered why I quit.  I told them rich people were not always nice to be around, and that the U.S. economy tanked, and that I wanted to come to Korea and learn about it.  But actually, I quit because it’s such a sick culture and I wanted to be in a healthier environment.  But my last job as a contract drafter was actually quite pleasant, because it was me exploiting the industry instead of the other way around – damned economy…

Why the profession of Architecture is sick,  a few case studies:

Unnamed Firm #1

While still in school I was hired by a sweet old principal Architect based on my drawing ability, even though that was to be the end of my drawing and I’d be chained to a computer for the remainder of my time there and 99.99% of the rest of my career.  If it had just been me and him and a mentor-mentee arrangement, that would have been great, especially because he had done really thoughtful, sensitive work.  But it was a firm with multiple principals and he was on his way out.  I got the idea to have us interns enter a design contest in our spare time, and the firm told us that would be like moonlighting and we couldn’t do that and keep our jobs.  There was a huge drop in morale after that.  Welcome to corporate America.  The multiple partners was more like a barely united Federation, each vying for resources and thinking about themselves.  Some things don’t get better with growth, time, or technology.

Unnamed Firm #2

I was initially really excited to work with this architect because he rejected the AIA and wrote contracts that were based more on a design relationship with the client than a contract based on litigation prevention.   Only the guy didn’t listen to his clients.  He was only focused on his vision and rejected their input.  He also couldn’t communicate, so when my then very green abilities didn’t come up to snuff (what did he expect – I was just out of school?) instead of saying anything or educating me, he just stewed about it.  We both fired each other.  But this is also classic Architecture – the pitiful architect is so starved for opportunity that when he gets a chance, he just has to assert his voice, totally running over the desires of the person who lives in the building and pays the fee.  Since this job only lasted about two weeks, it doesn’t exist.  The only thing that exists is the memory of the architect telling me the client didn’t know what she wanted…

Unnamed Firm #3

As soon as I got hired I was put on a team and given a nice spot and a girl who’d been there for years quit shortly thereafter.  It turned out she’d never been given an opportunity to work on a good project and had to sit off in a corner by herself and was pigeon-holed as an illustrator.  (which sounds great but actually it’s hugely tedious in short order)  Her loyalty was never rewarded because she wasn’t aggressive, so she had to watch me come in and take everything she’d been hoping for for years.  Sucks.  The place had a very good urban planning focus, but its marriage to mega developments had produced a culture of volume and sales mind-set.  Business took precedence over all else and pressure to be competitive was promoted by the owner.  So designers had to make cold calls and their sales were tracked…yuck.   Morale was pretty low there, despite superficial attempts to raise it. Kinda reminded me of episodes of The Office, only not funny.

Unnamed Firm #4

At this firm I was interviewed as if I were to be an integral part of the firm, which I believe the owners actually wanted for their employees yet it didn’t match the reality of their needs, and so I was stuck in a corner cubicle totally isolated from ANYONE and my role on the “team” was only drafting.  I was the only drafter on not just the mind-numbing housing project above, but also a second equally large project.  We only had ONE team meeting on this project, where I pointed out a stairway design that didn’t have enough head-room in it and was caught in the middle of two different architects arguing about how to address the problem, so whichever way I approached it would be considered wrong…When my supervisor didn’t even know who I was after six months, I put in a request to switch to a different project, which resulted in those stairway drawings being pulled mid-being worked on and prior to resolving the problem  – which I CAUGHT –  to make a case that I was incompetent out of sour grapes because I made them look like bad people managers, which they were.  Ambitious people suck.  This is a case of too many chiefs and not enough indians on one level, and dirty dirty competitiveness and politics at a lower level.  Hiring over-qualified people for the lowest level work is just stupid, especially when it becomes quickly evident there is no room for advancement.  Things got better after I did get transferred out of multi-family housing hell,  but it was clear there would never be room for anyone new to have a voice there.

Unnamed Firm #5

While looking up this firm to show the kids the kind of stuff I’d worked on in the past, I was surprised to see my hand drawings still up on their website.  Shortly after I’d been hired I was asked to look at a really severe federalist-style home exterior and see what I could do with it.  This is what I produced in a couple days:

I changed the material from clapboard to shingles, gave it relief, made the transitions of materials more proportionate, softened the roof-line, gave it generous northwest over-hangs, and added the curves that shingle-style wants to have.  I turned a stern schoolmarm into a graceful dancer.  During the time working on this project, I also figured out and drew all of the exterior details and made the whole house work.

Not once, during my entire time working there, was I ever introduced to the clients or allowed to sit in on a meeting with them.  They never knew I existed.  I don’t know what they even look like.  And I never got any appreciation for my contributions, only irritation from the pretentious project architect.  I was given the impression when hired I would be part of a team, but ended up only being the drafter, possibly because he resented me making the exterior of his building better the first week I was there.  There were a lot of bruised egos there and another case of too many chiefs and not enough indians.  I was told I could be moved to another project – a remodel of a home that had grown in a very complex way, which would have been right up my alley, but they gave it to a new hire who totally struggled with it.  There wasn’t a lot of testosterone in that office, but there was a lot of over-compensating for the lack of it.  I’m convinced if I’d literally had gonads things would have been much much different there.

The students asked, seeing all these sumptuous projects, if architects make a lot of money and I told them no.  But that’s not exactly true.  They COULD make a lot of money if they actually DID work as a team, if they actually had IDEAS, if they knew their own creative process better, and if they knew how to use their tools.

This firm is a perfect case in point.  Here’s just one example of many:  We used a computer program which was geared for 3D designs which automatically adjusts itself everywhere.  But the architects insisted we use the program as a 2D pencil.  The same elevation (the exterior drawing above) I did by hand in two days they wanted re-created in the program.  The Architect looked at the texture on the computer drawing and told me to re-do the entire thing because the shingles were too close together.  Never mind that this texture was borrowed from previous projects and it had been used repeatedly…Never mind that I had to CREATE a whole new texture to do this…Never mind that this is only a diagram to the contractors which says, “put shingles here.”  Then, whenever there was the slightest change, the other architect would tell me to change the elevation, like switching from a 12″ exposure shingle to a 9″…Never mind that the elevation is only a road-map to the details and the 3″ change could be written as a note.  Later, that same project architect complained that I spent too much time on the elevations…On this same project the pretentious architect who had to control everything insisted the entire design be based upon the width of pre-manufactured windows.  And what windows were we using?  He didn’t know yet.  So as a result of putting the cart before the horse, every line and every dimension of every plan and detail had to be re-drawn multiple times.

This is why Architects don’t make money – because they have OCD about things that don’t matter or don’t contribute to the final product or that just aren’t logical, they don’t know their tools, and they waste the talents of their employees.  They hire over-qualified people who can’t possibly be happy doing beginner work, they don’t give opportunities to young people to advance and they never share the joy or credit.  They spend thousands of hours re-drawing drawings because it’s more important to appear as if progress is being made then to take your time up front and have a sound design to begin with.  Narcissists and egomaniacs dominate, and those who aren’t narcissists must become narcissistic if they are to compete for the roles in which there is some autonomy or control.  Obsessive compulsive social misfits are also attracted to this profession, and that’s fine if they’re specialists in areas of the profession that require those traits, but too often these people – by luck or connections or conniving become designers, and budgets skyrocket as they correct bad ideas or the world suffers for their lack of imagination.  Because they are often bankrupt of ideas the client spends and spends and the architects burn up most of their profits floundering and re-designing.

Now, I HAVE  had some good experiences in Architecture, only I was suffering from grass is greener syndrome and I blew it.  AND, none of them did the work I wanted to do.

CDA Architects

OK, this commercial firm had horrible aesthetics and the boss was a little crazy, but he gave his clients what they needed and he was also really great about giving young people a lot of responsibility and learning trial by fire.  He took my giving notice to move on to greener pastures personally and blew a gasket and I left immediately instead, but I still value all the great experience I got there and know that his volatility was also balanced by generosity.  I’d highly recommend to new architectectural interns to do some time at a place that does fast basic buildings to be exposed to the whole process multiple times and get a good handle on the big picture, coordinating consultants, the assembly of drawing sets and tried-and-true construction practices.

Odell Design Group

Jack Odell is now retired, but I will sing his praises anyway.  He was an impossible man!  A neurotic megalomaniac!  (which, strangely, became endearing)  But he believed in me, gave me the best opportunities, and was a good designer in that he always had a vision (albeit pretentious one), solved problems well, and treated everyone as part of the team.   Plus it was great to have the opportunity to work on the most intricate custom details, and I helped one client win a lawsuit and  was pivotal in helping another client win a variance in Medina, perhaps THE most restrictive planning office in the U.S.  (thanks to Bill Gates building his complex there)  Jack was great – he made me the project Architect in the office and put drafters under me  as well.   I was juggling about five projects at a time for awhile there and enjoying it.   I left mostly due to our stormy/strange father/daughter relationship, but I certainly regret it.  And he was kind enough to give me outstanding references afterward.  I actually really love the guy and miss him a lot.

Here’s only one of the many projects I worked on for him.  Did all the exterior details on this.

McNelis Architects

Lisa was great.  Low key, relaxed.  Listened to her clients, usually had a vision, and really put her head into providing solutions to problems.  Might never win any design awards, but that’s because the clients she has are regular folk with regular non-glossy-magazine problems and regular budgets.  And the solutions she came up with were always really thoughtful and appropriate and always above and beyond their needs and expectations.  She was handicapped in not knowing her tools well, but that’s endemic in Architecture, and at least she was honest about hiring people for the work they were actually given to do.  An architect without ego, providing a great service to her clients, and unpretentiously helping people of all income levels truly enrich their lives by making their spaces work better for them.  She’s an unsung hero, in my book.

Wabi Sabi Studios

This was my own little attempt at sole-proprietorship.  Unfortunately, it takes connections to keep a business going and I had none.  AND I suck at business and self-discipline, so I took down my shingle after one project.

Before – a Federalist-style building with weird additions:  very dark inside.  The upstairs was un-livable.

After – I added an entry foyer, turned the stairway 180 degrees so it opened onto the view of Lake Washington and didn’t force you upstairs the instant you opened the front door, removed the walls enclosing the stairway, opened up the treads and put a skylight overhead.  Significant improvement in the quality of life.  If I had been a more competitive person I should have knocked the entire house down and done some magazine worthy design, but I thought the remodel was more challenging and better for the environment.

this room once ended where the stairs begin, now it's double the size
and extends to these windows, which is now the dining area overlooking Lake Washington
for the spiral stair my client found a recycled one!
this ipe (a.k.a. "iron wood") deck will never rot and will turn a silver color with time.
this used to be the dining room - the former kitchen was buried between the garage and the stairs, which is now the laundry room.
this used to be a dark hole
a light-filled shower for a Northwest master bath

Anyway, maybe one day I’ll go back, not to the profession, but to truly design – for friends or family.  But I’m really happy to know I can do the entire process and do it well.

Now to tackle learning to drape and tailor in Las Vegas…and then on to painting…at least that’s the plan, if I don’t get side-tracked!

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2 thoughts on “Past Lives

  1. Thanks!

    Yeah, remodeling is really a trying experience! Congratulations on surviving your last one,

    Cabins and weekend retreats are easier to bite off and less emotional!

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