This is a story about failure and how we can learn from it.
In my 8 years as an architect for LS3P, I have spent a lot of time presenting projects to the City of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review (The BAR). Just about every 2 weeks, LS3P has a project to present.
For those not familiar with Charleston's BAR, this is the group that evaluates the aesthetic appropriateness of new buildings and renovations in Charleston's Historic District. It is a critical step in the building permitting process and at the end of each meeting a decision is made by the BAR on whether a project can continue.
All cities have some sort of design review board like this as do many smaller jurisdictions. For a good introduction to the BAR and Design Review Boards check out:
I have had a pretty good run at the BAR and have slowly built up confidence over the years. Of course there are ups and downs, but if I had to guess my batting average would be around .750.
But there was this one night.....
Yeah....I'd say it was definitely my worst moment at the BAR.
This is a story about getting your project denied at the BAR. This particular denial had an interesting twist. And although I left that meeting feeling pretty lousy, I learned some very valuable lessons.
At the time it was the worst meeting I had been to, but it has turned out to be one of the most important.
I learned many valuable lessons which I will share with you.
But back to the story about me failing............
The Project: Woolfe Street Residential Building
This was back in the fall of 2013. The project I was presenting was the Woolfe Street Residential Building. It was a 10 story condominium building with 110 condos at approximately 160,000sf.
The significant thing about this project is that it topped out at 100' tall. Height is a very sensitive issue in Charleston and at that time a 100' tall structure was extremely significant. In fact, 100' is still very significant.
I was presenting this specific project for the first time at the BAR. The first time you present a project to the BAR you are asking for Conceptual Approval of Height, Scale, Mass and Architectural Direction.
I believe the Conceptual Approval step to be the hardest of the 3 main BAR meetings, but I will get into that in a later post.
Whenever we prepare for a BAR presentation we try to anticipate contentious issues with the design. During our presentation we will address those issues prior to any comment. Kind of a 'head em off at the pass' kind of thing.
"It's too tall!!!"
For Woolfe Street, we were sure that people would take issue with the height of the building and say things like: "it just seems too tall." Or..."it's just too big." We get that a lot. "It is too______."
These are my least favorite criticisms. The "too ______" comments. They seem overly subjective and are not at all helpful.
Because of this height fear, we based the presentation around selling the idea that a tall building was appropriate on that site. After all, the BAR's job is to evaluate the 'appropriateness' of a design for a particular site.
After preparing the design drawings for months, the day had come. It was the night for the BAR presentation.
After sitting through 3 other presentations it was my turn.
City Architect Dennis Dowd did a short introduction of the project flipping through the slides.
After Mr. Dowd was finished with his introduction, the BAR Chairperson asked "is the applicant here to present?"
At which 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 LS3P."
I began my presentation by doing a very thorough overview of the context. The site for the building was in between Meeting and King Street in an area dubbed "Upper King." This was an area seeing an influx of development. Sort of a renaissance.
I showed a series of aerials and context photos highlighting the increased construction activity and future growth of the area. The goal was to highlight the tremendous opportunity that this area offered and that density and larger buildings would be the future context.
Well apparently my site overview was a little too thorough. During my presentation of the site, BAR member #3 shouted, "Mr. Ramos, can you just tell us about your building."
Ouch. Didn't expect to be cut off.
This was Bar member #3's way of saying, "We know the site so let's speed this thing up. I've got dinner plans."
In fact, after the presentation multiple audience members told me that BAR member #3 looked at their watch at least 5 times during my presentation.
That interruption shook me up a bit. Not only did it mess up my flow, but I could tell by the tone of their voice that they were not a fan of the project and certainly not entertained by my presentation.
As a result, I then started speeding through my next several slides. Abbreviating or deleting large portions of the presentation I had rehearsed earlier in the day.
I had made it through the building plans and was in the middle of presenting the elevations when:
"Mr. Ramos, you have 3 minutes left." - BAR member #3
3 minutes! I hadn't even gotten to the sexy 3D perspective drawings yet!
The previous applicant had presented the demolition of a 1,000sf structure and he got the same amount of time. Couldn't I at least get a little leeway on this significant project?!
Now I was really messed up.
I rifled through the last slides, which was unfortunate.
These last slides were the 3D renderings, which were by far the best drawings. If I was going to take my time with any part it would be the sexy 3D renderings.
But I didn't. I was rushed right through them.
The BAR Question Portion
After the architect has presented the project, the BAR will typically have a few questions. At every other BAR meeting I had been to, the questions were clarification type questions. For example you might get:
- What type of material is that on that wall?
- Where is the main entrance?
- Are those windows operable?
But not on this day.
The question I got on this day went a little deeper than a simple clarification.
"Mr. Ramos. Can you tell me how your building is beautiful?" - BAR member #3
Have you ever seen one of those commercials where someone is getting berated by their spouse or their boss and as a result they start to physically shrink? By the end of the commercial they are the size of an infant.
Well, that's how I felt that night. With each comment from BAR member #3, I felt like I shrunk a foot.
So what did I say to that beautiful comment?
My response: "umm.....well.....I don't use the word beautiful to describe my buildings." - Steve Ramos the idiot
"Well maybe you should." - BAR Member #3
What the heck was I thinking?
Right? I didn't exactly nail that response.
"I don't use the word beautiful to describe my buildings!!!!"
What I was trying to say is that I try to stay modest about my work and describe it in more descriptive terms.
Or maybe that beautiful is just not in my architectural vocabulary. I use words like elegant, sophisticated, sharp, and handsome. Beautiful is a term I reserve for people and fine art.
But no matter how I try to spin it, it still sounds like I was saying "I don't design good looking buildings."
By that point it was clear where BAR member #3 would be voting. And unfortunately everyone else was in that boat. Although everyone else was more mannered.
After the board deliberated for about 10 minutes a motion was made to deny the project.
All 5 of the BAR members voted yay in support of the denial.
At the BAR, you can get approval, deferral or denial. At that point I had never even witnessed a denial before.
The Beautiful Comment
In hindsight, the result of the meeting was not a big deal. We got good feedback and were able to revise the design and maintain a majority of the previous design concept.
After a couple weeks of tweaking the design, we returned to the BAR with the rendering below and received unanimous approval.
That's the funny thing about the BAR. You can bomb one day, and then return with a handful of tweaks and the design can be very well received.
The real highlight of that meeting was the Beautiful Comment. It was a total curve ball and I had a horrible response.
My Short-lived Improv Career
The irony of the situation was that I was taking improv comedy classes at that time. And in improv you are trained to think on you feet and make quick on the fly dialogue. If you can do improv comedy, you can definitely do a BAR presentation.
Well...I guess I had an off night.
At least we can laugh about it.
My colleagues and that client still tease me to this day about the beautiful comment. Occasionally I will be working on a design and someone will say, "how is that building beautiful?" Haha!
7 Essential Public Speaking Lessons I Learned From a Failed Presentation
Failure can be your best friend. It's what you do after you fail that matters. Here are some valuable lessons I learned from my BAR Blunder.
Lesson #1 - Be Brief
Having a more concise presentation could have helped me that night. I spent too much time on the beginning of the presentation and ended up rushing through the good bits because I ran out of time. Which leads me to my next point:
Lesson #2 - Show the Sexy Stuff First
Why start your presentation with a lousy site photo or plan drawing? Why not put some of your best drawings in the front?
People have very short attention spans and you want to get them hooked.
For too long, architects have been presenting in a linear fashion. Plan, Section, Elevation, and then perspectives.
Ever since that meeting I put a little bit of eye candy in the beginning and sprinkle it throughout the presentation.
Lesson #3 - Pause Before You Respond
I know this sounds like basic stuff, but a little pause would have helped me react to the "beautiful" comment.
When you are in a public setting and are being asked questions, it really helps to insert a moment of pause before a response. That second or two gives you time to evaluate the question and its intentions.
After a short pause you are more likely to give an appropriate response. Or don't respond at all.
Lesson #4 - Keep Your Cool!
Talking at these types of public hearings has become a big part of my job description and unfortunately there will always be haters. Development is very contentious in Charleston and at LS3P we take on some of the more controversial projects.
At these public meetings there are often people who are angry, people that are misinformed and people who are there to pick a fight. I have seen people say things that are ridiculous and just mean.
One of my main goals at each one of these meetings is to keep my cool. No matter how wacky of a comment or question I get, I must keep my cool, act like an adult and be kind.
Architects need to be leaders and having a cool head under pressure is imperative for a leader.
Lesson #5 - Most People Have Already Made Up Their Mind
Clearly BAR member #3 had already made up their mind before I even started my presentation. The board members are supposed to review the design drawings prior to the meeting and the City Architect already has a written script of their comments.
It's also safe to say that a majority of the audience members from the public have also made up their mind and are there with a planned agenda. Which leads me to my next point:
Lesson #6 - Be Passionate
Know why your building is beautiful.
I would definitely describe myself as someone who is very passionate about my work. The fact that I take on projects like this blog is evidence of that.
However, I suspect I didn't have it that evening. Instead of wasting so much time talking about the context I should have been gushing over the wonderful architecture that we had designed.
I also suspect that BAR Member #3 could sense my lack of passion. Your audience will sense if you are not in it.
I am not suggesting that you need to bounce around the stage screaming like Tony Robbins, but it is important that you express some excitement and confidence in your work.
Lesson #7 - Why is it important for architects to be good at public speaking?
Full disclosure. This was supposed to be the summary, but since 7 lessons sounds better than 6, I have included it as lesson #7.
I am convinced that being good at public speaking is one of the most important traits for an architect. Especially for architects who design in urban settings.
Architecture is an act of will. It is not enough to come up with a good design. In a city, you need to sell that design to a ton of people.
And if you can't effectively speak, then willing that project to happen will be a challenge.
Woolfe Street Now
So whatever happened to that Woolfe Street project?
Well.....If you happen to be walking around Upper King Street today (January 2016) you will likely hear a loud clanking noise.
That clanking noise is the sound of the 90' long concrete piles being driven into the ground. One hammer blow at a time.
The Woolfe Street Residential project is under construction and should be open around spring of 2017.
When you get knocked down, you get back up.
I had a bad night that day, but it turned out to be very helpful to my professional development. By sharing my story and 7 public speaking lessons I hope that you will be more confident the next time you have the opportunity to share your passion.
If you found this article useful I hope that you will share with a friend.