Help me help other architects! This blog is an excerpt from the first draft of my book: Breaking the Box: Explode out of Architecture School to a Successful Career as an Architect. You can help by leaving a critique in the comment section below. And if you are just starting I suggest you check out the table of contents for an easy road map. Thx you rock! -Steve
This is a story about Public Speaking.
This is a story about Failure.
This is a story about what we can learn from Failure.
One of my roles as an architect is to present our designs to the City of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review (The BAR). The BAR is a group that evaluates the aesthetic appropriateness of new buildings and renovations in Charleston's Historic District. At each meeting, the BAR makes a vote to approve, defer or deny each project. It is a very critical step in the permitting process.
Most cities have a design review board process, as do many smaller jurisdictions. You may even find a design review board in your neighborhood that mandates certain materials for your house as well as the height of your new fence.
Presenting to the BAR and other groups is one of the most challenging and critical tasks, I perform as an architect. These presentations have the ability to move projects forward or halt them in their tracks. Over the years, I have improved my public speaking ability and gained confidence however I will always reflect on one BAR presentation that went sideways. It was a doozy.
The Beautiful Project
In the fall of 2013, I found myself in a very familiar spot. I was preparing a BAR presentation for a mixed-use building in downtown Charleston. The project was similar to other mixed-use buildings we had designed with residential units stacked on top of a ground level of parking and retail. However, this project was unique in one way.
This building was 10 stories tall topping out at just over 100’. In Charleston, a 10-story structure is considered a very tall building. To give a comparison, most of Charleston’s historic fabric averages 2-4 stories.
When we prepare for a BAR presentation we try to anticipate the critical issues with the design and craft our presentation towards addressing those issues. We try to 'head em off at the pass'.
Since the building was on the taller side for Charleston, we anticipated the height to be a sticking point for the board. For that reason we spent a considerable amount of time tailoring the presentation to emphasize that a tall building was appropriate for the site. This site was in a transitional zone that was ripe for density and redevelopment. A taller building was the jump-start that this street needed.
The night of the BAR meeting I had sit through 90 minutes of presentations from other architects before it was my turn. The room where the BAR meetings are held resembles a small courtroom. There are about 10 rows of seats for the public. Each applicant stands at the front of the room to present to the judge, except there is more than one judge in this courtroom. There are six judges at a BAR meeting: five BAR board members and one city architect.
The six judges sit at a long table shaped in an arc. You could look at the arc as a cradle or a swarm depending on the outcome of the meeting. There are three television monitors that broadcast the presentations. In relation to the applicant, the monitors are at 9 o’clock, 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock.
Finally our time had come. An image of our site appeared on the television monitors. The city architect provided a short introduction of our project and then asked, "is the applicant here to present?"
At that point I stood up and said: "Hello, my name is Steve Ramos and I am here to present this project on behalf of my client and my firm."
I began my presentation sharing a thorough overview of the context. I showed a series of site photographs highlighting the increased construction activity and growth of the area. The site for the building was in between Meeting Street and King Street in an area dubbed "Upper King." This was an area experiencing a tremendous amount of change and growth. It was once a sketchy part of town with vacant storefronts, open sites and wandering vagrants. Now it was experiencing a renaissance with the hottest new restaurants, new hotels and the streets a buzz with new life as well as wandering drunks. It was becoming the place to be in Charleston.
Our team felt it was the perfect time to inject this area with higher density and a taller building like ours could add to the synergy already occurring in this area.
Apparently, my site overview was a little too thorough. As I was reviewing the site photographs BAR member #3 interrupted:
"Mr. Ramos, can you just tell us about your building!"
“Sure.” I responded. In my head I was thinking, “Whoa…what was that about?”
BAR member #3 would be my menace that evening. For the remainder of the post I will refer to BAR member #3 as #3.
#3 had a very impatient inflection to their voice. It was their way of saying, "We know about the site so let's speed this thing up. I've got dinner plans."
I had never heard someone interrupted during his or her presentation. #3 clearly had some bone to pick. In fact, after the presentation multiple audience members told me that #3 looked at their watch at least 5 times during my presentation.
This first interruption startled me a bit. It messed up my flow and I could that #3 was not a fan of the project and certainly not entertained by my presentation.
As a result, I started speeding through my next several slides. As I sped through the slides abbreviated and excluded large portions of the presentation I had rehearsed earlier in the day. I had finished presenting the building plans and had just started sharing the the elevations when:
"Mr. Ramos, you have 3 minutes left." - BAR member #3
“3 minutes!.....3 minutes…..shit!!!” I was thinking. I still had a big chunk of my presentation left and it was the best part. I still needed to present the sexy 3D perspective drawings and animation we had prepared. “Only 3 minutes….we are screwed!” I was thinking in my head.
For perspective, the BAR typically allows 10 minutes for presentations and additional time is granted for larger projects. This was definitely a larger project so I thought there would be some professional courtesy. No courtesy would be given that evening.
I rifled through the remaining slides. This fury was unfortunate because these last slides were the 3D renderings, which were the strongest images. If I was going to take my time with any part it would be the 3D renderings.
But I didn't.
I rushed right through them. I finished my presentation, said thank you, and took a seat in the front row. I was upset with my presentation and could see the writing on the wall.
Unfortunately, it would get worse.
Welcome to BUILDINGS ARE COOL!
Hello, my name is Steve Ramos. This site is about what it's like to be a young architect in Charleston, South Carolina. In 10 years, I will write about what it is like to be a middle-age architect.
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