One of the great perks of writing this blog is that I am constantly meeting new people as well as catching up with old friends that I have not connected with in a long time.
I enjoy chatting with creative folks and love hearing their stories and learning their tricks and secrets. The blog has been a great conduit for this type of dialogue.
The BAR Guy
If you have been to the City of Charleston's Board of Architectural Review (BAR) in the last 4 years, then you probably have come across this guy. Jay White sits on the Large BAR, which has jurisdiction over the projects 10,000sf and above.
Jay is often the most vocal member of the board and is typically the member who makes a motion for approval, deferral or denial. This puts Jay in a very influential spot.
But Jay White is much more than just the BAR Guy. And I wanted to learn a little more.
So who is Jay White?
A couple fun facts.
- Jay is a award-winning architect and principal at Liollio Architecture where he has been for 16 years.
- He graduated from Auburn University in 2000.
- He regularly lectures at Clemson's Architecture School.
- And, he scored a 72% in 12th grade P.E.
Lots of good stuff.
Jay and I talked for about an hour and a half. And we drank beer instead of coffee. Don't judge! It was after 5pm and we happened to be at Kudu, which serves beer and coffee.
Jay told a ton of great stories and had many words of wisdom. As a result, I have broken this interview into two parts. Part 1 focuses on Jay's origin story and his work with Liollio. Part 2 will delve more into the BAR and Jay's most favorite project. I think you'll be surprised on what that favorite project is.
One thing that I will point out is that this is a transcription of a real conversation between 2 real people. So it is chock full of grammatical errors that I have purposefully left in. There are even a couple of 4 letter words. Gettin' R-Rated on Buildings Are Cool!
Without further adieu......
S: I always like to start at the beginning. When did you first know you wanted to be an architect?
J: You know I really don’t know actually. I think I probably knew at least with some degree of understanding by the time I was maybe 13 or 14. I grew up in a family of heavy DIY folks. So we were constantly renovating houses. Not really flipping them in the modern sense. But I lived in about 9 different houses in my childhood because of that.
You know what’s funny is that you get that question a lot. You know, “like when did you first start thinking about it.” To an extent we both have an answer to that question. But too an extent it is somewhat besides the point, because you know when there was a point when someone introduced this to you in your first year of architecture school.
You suddenly realized that, “this shit ain’t nothing like I thought it was.”
So the real origination for each of us as a design professional is that moment in the early months of our architectural education when we realize it was drastically different than everything we had ever thought from looking at Southern Living magazine and watching my dad tear down stud walls and rebuild them.
And we realize that it was drastically different and we like it better. You know? You probably remember that.
That for me actually came in my 2nd year. (at Auburn)
S: So you went to Architecture School at Auburn. Did you go participate in the Rural Studio?
J: I didn’t. I regret it. I had to make a choice between taking a quarter off and doing the rural studio or going to Europe and travel for 3 months. Europe was the choice I made. I really do regret it.
When I was there the Rural Studio was just coming into its notoriety. Sambo (Samuel Mockbee) was still alive. They had had several very successful projects published. They were starting to attract some national level corporate sponsorship which was valuable. And Auburn was getting advanced in the laurels of it all. They were getting a lot of positive press from it.
It colored the whole program in a really beneficial way.
But I really regret that I didn’t do it. Especially because I would have had a chance to do it when Sambo was around.
Funny enough, Dinos and Cherie Liollio who I work with went through Auburn in the mid-70’s and they were contemporaneous with Sambo. He went through school maybe a year or two ahead of them.
They said he would just come in the night before the project was due and roll out a big sheet of butcher paper. And just start sketching and painting from one end of the paper and just keep spooling it out until he had the design and drawings done.
And of course the faculty would just die for it. Because what he would do is portray his entire creative process on one continuous roll of butcher paper.
It was almost as if the way he could draw and convey visually so well that even his bad ideas looked beautiful. Showing all of that creative process in one fail swoop was pretty compelling.
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S: How did you land in Charleston?
J: I had the sense that I was going to leave Alabama. My family is not originally from Alabama. I was actually born in Greer, South Carolina. We moved to Alabama when I was an infant. My father was in the textile industry. And at that time there was still a textile industry in the south. So we went to Alabama.
By the time I graduated (from Auburn) just about everybody from my family started migrating back to South Carolina. And I decided on Charleston because I wanted to be in the city and I didn’t want to be landlocked.
S: Can you talk about what your role is at Liollio Architecture?
J: (Jay Chuckles) Well I don’t know. And nobody else knows.
Well I think pretty much everybody at Liollio wears 3 hats, to an extent. And the way we have always been taught to think of it is that those 3 hats are: Getting the Business, Running the Business and Doing the Business.
In terms of getting it (the business); I lead our preservation market. In terms of market place expertise, my role is to project the firm’s expertise in historic preservation. That often bleeds over into complex public projects with a lot of stakeholder investment.
Highly politicized environments. I am use to that as you might imagine.
Detailed complex relationships between owner, occupant and community. And a lot of what you see at the BAR.
As far as running the firm I am a principal and I also serve as senior project manager. On a pragmatic level, I’m helping the various project managers in the firm maintain adequate resources and making sure that the projects stay on some relative sense of schedule. Making sure that each project maintains its projected billings. We project those out on a monthly basis.
S: Are you project manager over all of the projects?
J: No. I have my own projects to manage and I’m essentially the backstop for all of the other project managers. I don’t lord over them and say, “you’re not billing enough….I don’t really care frankly what your project schedule is, but if your saying that your going to bill 80k this month and 2 weeks out I notice that you’ve only progressed about 15k worth of whip I will ask you if you are going to be able to bill that much?”
And then a lot of the times it is a mediation role. You know.
I have two different project teams that need the same resource; the same person, the same amount of time. To that extent as an extension of that in the past several years I have led all of our recruitment; figuring out if we do actually have vacancies to fill. New positions to acquire. And then shortlisting, interviewing and making recommendations for hiring. At almost every level.
S: That was going to be one of my questions farther down the list, but let's jump to it. You are involved with hiring. For the young folks out there, what are some things you look for in a candidate?
J: You know It’s weird. Do you know Andy Clark in our office?
J: He and I have gone to several of the Clemson Job Fairs. This past year we went to both Clemson and Auburn because they were back to back job fairs so we made it this big road trip. And it’s so weird because you go to those things and I don’t know if you’ve been to the one at Clemson?
S: No. I haven’t been to a job fair since I was a student.
J: So you are a student and you sit down and you have this portfolio that you’ve sweated over; and you lay it out and you are sitting down at some folding table across from two people you’ve never met in your life.
The whole thing is just a level of intimidation that is just really absolutely unnecessary.
And so we end up falling into these rambling little conversations with people that are just trying to relax people; to get them to stop sweating so much. And there is almost always a point at which somebody is going to say “Well, do you want to look at my portfolio?”
And we routinely say, “no.”
Because we’ve already seen them online. They send us links to them already. We already have a list of everybody that we’re going to talk to and I’ve put an asterisk beside anybody who has a portfolio that is worth reviewing. And when we’re talking to those people we already know what their work is like.
But what we want to know more than anything else is what are there interpersonal skills. What are their soft skills like?
The most frustrating thing in the world is having an immense talent that is trapped inside an asshole’s body. You just can’t get it out.
We’ll often say things that seem to be a little bit non sequitur. We are trying to see how they will respond. How they will react to somewhat complex social engagements with near strangers.
That is usually how we figure out who we are going to hire. It is usually based off of somebody’s soft skills. Because you really can’t teach people those things. You can teach people the technical aspects of the job, but you can’t teach somebody how to be creative when they are just innately not.
But we can usually vet that with a high degree of accuracy through the content of the portfolio and talking to professors before we get there. And maintaining relationships with faculty figuring that sort of thing out and they will tell us who they think the top candidates are right off the bat.
S: Once these new employees join the practice, what are certain skills that elevate them within the firm?
J: I think the one thing that especially in a small firm that is immensely valuable besides the ability to interact positively with people is just flexibility and adaptability. Because the unfortunate thing often times with architecture school, is that despite your professor’s best efforts, you do get the impression that this should be in its purest sense a linear process. And you know it never is.
Your professor introduces a curve-ball or sets you back. It’s partly to refine the work and it's partly to introduce you to the fact that this isn’t linear. There is backtracking, there is looping. There is iterations.
And despite all of that it is really always surprising how many young professionals coming right out of school feel like the goal is pure linearity.
S: It’s what?
J: Pure linearity. It just doesn’t happen.
Or you go to the BAR and you have sweated upon hours upon hours and you show up with what you think may actually be the seed of your magnum opus and some jerk like me shoots it down.
So you have to be able to adapt to those scenarios with a very realistic attitude. And um…It’s really not anything very surprising. A lot of it does fall down to attitude.
S: A good response. And a good segue into the BAR. You have been on the board for about 4 years?
J: Yeah….I’m going to need another beer before the next one. You want one?
S: Yes, please.
That wraps up Part 1 of my interview with Jay White. In part 2 we dig into the BAR and also get to the bottom of that 72% Jay scored in gym class.
Jump ahead to part 2: http://www.buildingsarecool.com/new-blog/jay-white-part-2