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The Top 10 Things an Architect Learns from Vacation

By Jeff Pelletier
August 7, 2012

Let me get this right out there...

I'm not your typical architect.

That's sort of a "duh" statement in many ways as it should be apparent from a lot of my writings.  It isn't something I'm necessarily proud of, but not fitting into a lot of the standard architect stereotypes has been something I've noticed in me since my days back at Cornell.  I love being an architect, of course, I just don't seem to check all the boxes.  For instance, I don't wear turtlenecks, I hated (and tried to avoid) all-nighters in college, I'm pretty flexible in terms of architectural styles (my only preference is that is isn't ugly!), I can't keep track of which Starchitect designed some museum 5,000 miles away, and most importantly to this post, I really love taking vacation.

And for the record, a vacation means truly not working.  Turning my work brain off is something that I've found to be a complete requirement in keeping myself sane.  How people do otherwise is a mystery to me.

When I started Board and Vellum early last year, my biggest concern was how I was going to take time off.  Every book I read about starting my own firm made it clear that I wouldn't be taking a vacation for a decade at least.  I'd miss out on opportunities, have projects collapse, and end up sinking my firm. All I could think of upon reading these pronouncements was how sad the person's life must be and I really feel pity for their significant others.  The rules we live by in life have to be our own or we'll end up regretting so much.  When I'm on my death bed I can promise you that I will not wish I had worked that extra week instead of taking some time off.  And even though it means not being able to provide 24/7 client service for part of the year, I know that my clients will end up appreciating a slightly calmer and more composed Jeff because of it.

All this is, of course, a prelude to a discussion of the things I've re-realized upon getting back from a three week trip to Scandinavia.  Coupled with the fact that my partner and I have a baby on the way in December, this trip served as a great chance to pause and reflect on my needs, both as an architect and a person (they're often not the same thing), for vacation. 

Here are my top 10 things an architect (especially this one) can learn from a vacation:

  1. Neighborhoods are better in Europe. There's just no getting around this one. Seattle, in particular, is getting better, but the mix of shops, restaurants, pedestrian streets, and public transportation just makes walking around so much more pleasant.  I'd like every one designing a mixed use building here in Seattle to spend a week walking around Stockholm and see how ground floor retail spaces should work.  While we are nice and pasty here in Seattle, I can guarantee you that the awkward spaces we design to so easily hold sun tanning salons will be far less beneficial to us than a mix of smaller retail and cafe spaces  But, of course, I've said this before.

  2. Americans should be proud of our bathrooms. Realizing that this whole blog is subjective, I get to proudly state my version of a fact; the bathrooms in Europe are ugly and hard to clean. I can never get behind the curbless shower.  I have no idea how they keep that floor clean and after having to change my wet socks enough I know that I don't care to know.  It is almost like they got indoor plumbing so late that they just gave up on trying to integrate it well.  An upgrade in their finishes wouldn't hurt either.

  3. There are books and magazines beyond design. As a rule, I refuse to read design magazines or books while on vacation.  Architecture is something that I think about 24/7 so the more I can do to pull away from it on vacation the healthier I stay.  Reading a good book can help exercise your mind and help you be more focused when you do get back to architecture.  Or, if I'm being honest, sometimes a stupid science fiction book is just plain fun to read.  So that said...

  4. Having fun is OK. There's a belief out there among certain architects that everything we do, think, or build is designed by us.  Now, I certainly do think about pretty much everything in terms of how it looks or laid out, but sometimes it is really helpful to just have fun and not think how it looks.  In Copenhagen, there was this amazing trampoline installation at a park along the waterfront that we all just stopped and spent thirty minutes jumping on and acting like idiots.  It.  Was.  Amazing.  And even though it was killing me to not think about it in terms of design (it was brilliant but easily outside America's liability centric comfort zone), I was content to just jump.

  5. (Many) American liability, codes, and laws, suck.  As an architect, I'm tasked with knowing a lot about a lot of codes, laws, and regulations.  They're apparently done to keep us all safe.  Fine.  I'll follow their rules but that doesn't mean I get to like them.  There are so many wonderful things I saw in Europe that just would never pass muster in Europe because of liability issues.  And there are so many things that were perfectly reasonable there that would be against our codes here.  I guess there isn't much to learn on this one besides a sense of crippling depression.  Whoops.  So, um, don't forget point number 4.

  6. Europe does stairs better. OK, this is technically part of number 5 but it is one that drives me crazy.  There are very specific rules on designing stairs in America.  There are slightly different rules for stairs serving single family residential projects versus commercial or multi-family, but the rules basically come down to this; even if it is in your own home and you are comfortable walking up and down the stair, the people who write the codes believe they know better.  Years ago, a 30" wide staircase was OK in a single-family residence.  Now, not so much.  36" is as narrow as you can get and if you want to try a nice space-saving technique such as a winding stair you're basically screwed.  It drives me crazy that I can't design a narrow winding stair for the right circumstance.  In Europe, they're everywhere and the person is assumed to be smart enough to be aware of their surroundings.  So, again, nothing to learn here except to see inside my mind and the things that drive me nuts.

  7. Legoland is awesome.  I'm a big fan of LEGO (see here), and I think every architect should make it to a Legoland once in his life.  I had never been to the original one in Billund, Denmark before.  I finally made it and it was awesome.  Every architect should go there once in their life and re-kindle that joy that comes from playing with or looking at cool LEGO creations.

  8. The world will fall apart a little when you go on vacation.  Sadly, it is a fact.  There's something cosmic about the fact that when you go on vacation all hell will break loose in your absence.  It happened to me and had I been here the issue would have been mitigated more easily.  I wish I could say otherwise but the sooner you acknowledge this the easier you can just accept it and move on.  The lesson here is how you resolve the issue when you return, NOT that you opted to be gone in the first place.

  9. All hell actually won't actually break loose.  Wait, isn't this the opposite of the last one? Yes...and no.  Problems come, they get solved, and the cycle repeats.  If we don't take the risk to recharge our batteries and take time away, that's when I believe the real hell will break loose.  Perspective on everything is really key.

  10. It is your life to live. Well, duh!  What does that mean?  Well, it means a lot to me.  Starting Board and Vellum I was very clear starting out to write my objectives down and make a whole strategic plan (see here for that post).  One of those goals was to work with great clients where I could provide them with the same level of service I'd want if I hired someone.  I also aimed to be their fierce advocate for their goals, and work in an environment where I could bring my full self to the table.  Part of that was bringing my love of travel and need to take vacation to the table and working with that as a non-negotiable.  Taking vacation, as most Americans SHOULD be aware of, is basically a crime in this country.  We could learn a lot from Europe on this front.  This is truly sad and is a far worse condition in the field of architecture than in most other fields.  So if my taking vacation and being more than a stereotypical architect meant that I missed out on some projects, then so be it.  In the end, I'm just a guy who loves designing and working as an architect but also the person who loves jumping on a trampoline and acting like a big kid in Legoland.

And because of all of this, this guy is a damn happy person. 
Trust me, happy architects are better than the alternative!

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