Wednesday, March 31, 2010

U.N. conference on Haiti a farce?

A former presidential candidate in Haiti says the United Nations' donor conference in Haiti will be "a farce" without proper input and feedback from the people it affects. Representatives from more than 100 donor countries gathered in New York today to hear Haitian President René Préval unveil government plans to spend $3.9 billion rebuilding government offices, health centres, schools and courthouses over the next 18 months. Today's session represents the first phase of a 10-year, $11.5-billion reconstruction effort meant to shift more of the country’s population and economic activity away from Port-au-Prince.

We've had several articles looking at Haiti's rebuilding efforts in The Zweig Letter since the earthquake on Jan. 12, with the most recent piece in the March 29 issue noting that officials in the U.S. should also be doing a better job in preparing our buildings for such a disaster.

What do you think about the U.N. conference? Should Haitians have a say in where the money goes?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Does AIA need to do a better job?

Apparently, the level of discord in local American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters is on the rise. Many who responded to a poll say they don't get the help they need out of their membership and some wonder if there are other alternatives.

What's your experience been with the AIA and its local chapters? Are you a satisfied customer?

Issues with EnergyStar

Does a gasoline-powered alarm clock deserve an EnergyStar label? It was one of more than a dozen possibly bogus products slapped with the famous tag last summer. The EPA says there has been no fraud in awarding the EnergyStar distinction, but the agency issued two statements in recent days saying the program needs to be strengthened.

Does your firm rely on EnergyStar products? Will this controversy make you second-guess that going forward?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dating yourself with incomplete resumes

Apparently, there's been an increase in job seekers sending potential employers incomplete resumes as they try to break back into the market. By choosing to omit college graduation dates and even the years during which they worked in previous jobs, some people believe these job seekers are being deceptive - either on purpose or by accident - and they're simply pitching their resumes, further extending the job seeker's time on the unemployment line in many cases.

Have you run across this issue at your firm? How do you handle it?

Billings remain in slow decline, turnaround coming?

In “another plain vanilla month,” the American Institute of Architects’ monthly tracking of design activity showed some signs of life, jumping more than two points to 44.8 in February, up from 42.5 in January.

Despite the increase, the sub-50 score in the AIA’s Architectural Billings Index still reflects a decline in billings activity for the month. New project inquiries continued their trend of scores above 50, at 52.0 for February, but AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker says he’s still waiting for that to translate into new work for the industry.

“We got back most of what we lost (in January), but (the ABI) has been in the low to mid-40s for almost a year now,” Baker tells ZweigWhite in an exclusive interview. “We’re still waiting for something to put it over the top.”

Baker maintains “a feeling in my bones” that the ABI will return to scores of 50 or higher in the middle of the year, based largely on “encouraging signs from the broader economy,” and the history of the three most recent recessions. In those, Baker says, it’s taken about two or three quarters for a turn in the stock market to reach the bottom of the economic barrel, another two quarters to register an uptick in the labor market and payrolls, and another two or three quarters for design activity to turn around.

“There’s nothing we need to resolve,” Baker says. “All that’s missing is a general feeling of confidence that the economy is going to continue to recover. This recession is somewhat unique in how severe it’s been, but it’s not that different from what we’ve seen and been through in the past.”

Baker sees April and May as the likely months for growth in employee payrolls, and expects design activity to increase soon after that happens.

“Once companies start bringing back their employees, they’re going to start thinking about adding space,” he says. “That’s the process we’re looking at. We’re on a path for this to play out in a fairly typical recovery pattern.”

As for the shape of this recovery, Baker sees no reason to fear the worst, as some forecasters do.

“Everyone’s nervous that we’re going to see a W-shape or a U-shape, when really I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that,” he says.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Non-traditional living brings satisfaction, problems

Bill Lewis, the senior editor of ZweigWhite's newsletters group, chimes in this afternoon with a look at the growing trend of co-housing:
"Cohousing is catching on in U.S. urban areas. The movement, a cooperative living arrangement imported from Denmark in the 1980s, has spread to more than 100 developments in the U.S.

"In cohousing, families, couples and single people live in communities of 30 to 40 households apiece. 'Living independently,' The Boston Globe reports, “residents share common spaces, meet regularly for operational and social purposes, and make decisions by group consensus on issues large and small, from roof repairs to all-vegan communal dinners.'

"Residents say they like the sense of community and sustainability, but also face some of the same problems encountered in traditional housing. Among them: Living green can be expensive, and credit is tight for those looking to establish new cohousing developments."

Monday, March 22, 2010

New app for AEC

For those who haven't heard, there's now an application that lets you carry the latest news from the AEC industry in your pocket wherever you go. Developed strictly for those in the AEC industry, this app contains content from some of the most trusted and well-respected industry publications and websites. In one iPhone app, you will receive the latest industry news headlines, marketing ideas and tactics, commentary on industry legal issues, green building trends and news, announcements on industry networking events, and free training videos you can watch directly on your iPhone or iPad. You can also email articles to friends and colleagues and add them to your Twitter account.

Have you downloaded this app yet? How does it work? What's good or bad about it?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Social media tops search engines

In what has to be seen as a victory for social media, Facebook topped Google last week as the most-visited site in the U.S. Interest in social media is on the upswing at A/E firms, and clearly it's more critical than ever to be ride the wave.

What is your firm doing to capture this captive audience? How are you positioning yourselves to succeed in this new era of instant communication?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Going green for St. Patrick's Day

Considering today's date, what better topic to discuss here than myths about green building? I'm not talking about ways to trap leprechauns or what will happen to you if you kiss the Blarney Stone. This is a deeper look at whether it REALLY costs more to use green building materials in your projects or the idea that green products just aren't as good as their less environmentally friendly counterparts.

So, step away from the corned beef and cabbage and pint of Guinness for a moment and give me your thoughts. Do you see green building as a fad? Do you expect it to gain any traction with the new standards announced earlier this week?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In tough market, engineering grads doing best

For those college seniors looking for some good news as they near graduation day this spring, consider this: A new report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that eight of the top 10 best-paid majors are in engineering. It's a trend that clearly will affect the bottom lines of engineering firms and could play a role in hiring practices going forward, especially with so many talented and experienced people looking for jobs in this struggling economy.

What do you think about these findings? How is it playing out at your firm?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Are architects culprits in global warming?

There's been a lot of talk in the architecture industry about green building and sustainability for the past several years, but how much of that is just talk, and how much of it translates into action? That's the question one blogger/industry watchdog is asking in a recent post. The new standard on high-performance green buildings, which will be formally unveiled Monday, has to be seen as a step in the right direction, but can and should more be done?

What do you think? Should design professionals be more aggressive in reducing carbon footprints of the buildings they create? Are things already moving in that direction at your firm?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not just an old boys network

We had hoped to see Barbie choose architecture as her next career as one way to spur more interest from women in the design industry, but that was not meant to be. A new group dedicated to getting women in more prominent roles in the architecture industry has recently launched a website and Facebook page and written a book, from which the proceeds will go to the so-called WIA (Women In Architecture) Fund. The fund will help pay for women to prepare for the architecture registration exam, accredit themselves for LEED certification, and travel to professional meetings. The push began when the fund's organizers realized that half of architecture graduate students are women, but women make up only 15% of practicing architects.

What do you think of this idea? Does your firm do anything to recruit more women?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Saving commercial real estate

A little-noticed bill introduced by New York Congressman Joseph Crowley in January could help bring a new source of desperately needed liquidity to the commercial real estate sector: foreign investment. The Real Estate Revitalization Act of 2010 would eliminate certain taxes that were part of the Foreign Investment Real Estate Property Tax of 1980, or FIRPTA, which requires foreign investors to pay as much as a 55% tax on capital gains from the sale of U.S. real estate or shares in real estate investment trusts and real estate operating companies. Without it, economists predict commercial real estate could follow a similarly brisk downward trajectory as the housing market did a couple of years ago, and only now seems to be showing signs of recovery.

What are your thoughts on Crowley's bill? Should it be approved? How much work does your firm do in the commercial real estate sector?

Friday, March 5, 2010

We have a wiener ... uh, a winner!

We here at The Board Room searched far and wide to find someone in the design industry to craft a new form of America's favorite food after it was deemed a choking hazard last month by a group of pediatricians. As luck would have it, the winner of our first contest is a huge fan of the hot dog as well. Here's the winning entry from Joshua Carney, president of Carney Engineering Group (York, PA), an eight-person structural engineering and steel design firm:

"Well, you’re talking my favorite food here, so while we should certainly put safety first, let’s solve the hot dog's other problems as well. First, by the time you layer on ketchup, relish, mustard, etc. (don’t forget mayo and BBQ sauce…my favorites), it’s a mess to eat. I am not what is known as a careful eater, hence the tendency for my shirt to look like my plate. Second, when I have a hot dog craving, I want it fast, and if I am grilling, there’s nothing less appealing than charred on the outside and cold on the inside.

"So, we basically need a way to encapsulate the fixins for shirt protection and reduce the overall material thickness for quicker and more even heating. The overall chunkiness needs to be minimized in order to not have big pieces for a kid to choke on. God knows my daughter does not actually chew them when she is eating them.

"So I propose a new and reinvented hot dog called the hot roll. It would be a sheet of yummy hot dog, say 4” x 6” x 1/8” or so, which can be pan-fried, grilled or steamed, then laid flat on a spread open hot dog roll for application of the good stuff. Then, simply roll it up in a cross between a taco and a burrito, and dig in. The thin profile would allow for fast heating, the shape is easily extruded and could have a layer applied to skin it and hold it together, it would not have big chunks causing choking, and as far as packaging….flat pack….need I say more? It could be tailored to different shapes for different holidays, and at the end of the day, is a more efficient delivery tool for the dog."

Sounds to me like these should be served at this year's Hot Firm Conference and Celebration in Washington, D.C. Who better than a group of design professionals to test the specs on this new creation?

Here's Josh's winning entry, followed by a rendering by ZweigWhite's resident architecture school grad and marketing coordinator, Sarah Nasznic. Apologies to those who didn't win. If you think you can do better, we'd love to hear from you. We'll be sure to launch another contest soon, so do stay tuned.:

Big Apple bites back

Robert Scarano Jr.'s days as an architect in New York appear to be over following one too many violations of the city's zoning and building codes. A judge ruled Scarano had been submitting falsified drawings that made his buildings appear smaller than they actually were and he was told this week not to bother filing any more construction plans in the Big Apple.

What do you think about Scarano's work and his approach to design? What do you think about the city's response?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Engineering interest at a young age

It's never too early to plant a career seed in a child's mind, so Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. (Waltham, MA), a 420-person structural and building enclosure engineering firm, will spend a day later this month teaching sixth graders theories of math and science in an interactive experience they call Engineering Day. The students will come to SGH's headquarters to hear about beam theory and construction, physical testing in a lab, heat flow in buildings, pulleys and cables, the effects of fire, and material fractures. The kids will also form a human bridge to learn more about the science behind them.

Does your firm host similar interactive days for kids? What else do you do to get young people interested in becoming engineers, architects, and environmental consultants? Have you ever hired someone who you first met on one of these school field trips?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Signs, signs, everywhere signs ...

We've all complained at least once in our lives about confusing road signs leading us down the wrong path - and often the road never traveled. A series on the history of road signs unearths some pretty interesting finds and has some in the design world wondering why signs here in the U.S. aren't as simple, helpful and useful as those overseas. In the first installment, an architect talks about how she and her husband got lost on their way home from the airport in Philadelphia because the signs were changed while they were on vacation. This came after a trip that had them marveling at how easy it was to follow signs in Spain without speaking the language.

Is your firm involved in designing road signs? What can be done to make them less confusing to the average driver? Or is it just a case of trying to multi-task?

Redesigning the hot dog

As a reminder, we're seeking entries for our first (and hopefully not last) contest here in The Board Room. If you haven't heard the hullabaloo about redesigning the hot dog to make it less of a choking hazard, it's must-listen radio. The prize is quite unique, something you definitely can't buy in stores, or even on eBay. Tell your friends, but don't let them beat you to the punch! Let me know if you have any questions. Good luck!

Killer quake in California?

Following two deadly earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in a six-week span, naturally the talk has turned to the potential of a similar natural disaster rocking the U.S. and whether we're prepared for the impacts of such a jolt. In the Room For Debate blog, Chris D. Poland, the head of Degenkolb Engineeers in San Francisco, says 80% of California's buildings were completed before our safest quake-resistant construction practices were put into effect; 10% of those structures will collapse and kill people, and the state's utilities and transit are quite vulnerable to long-term outages. Several other regions around the country "are facing major earthquakes and not doing enough about it," he writes.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bunning's Hall of Fame stall tactics

Now, the U.S. Senate can probably understand how opposing batters felt during Jim Bunning's Hall of Fame 17-year baseball career. These days, Bunning is a Republican Senator in Kentucky, and is being charged with single-handedly holding up a $10 billion transportation bill. The now-expired bill would have extended unemployment benefits and other programs to 100,000 people; also affected by Bunning's stall tactics - tied to the request for "unanimous consent" are 41 transportation projects across the country, which are now suspended.

What do you think of Bunning's stance? Is it just "politics as usual?" Is your firm affected by this stalling?

In Chile, building standards pay off— for some

Bill Lewis, senior editor for ZweigWhite's newsletters group, chimes in with this look at the differences and similarities in the aftermaths of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile:

"The effects of last weekend’s Chilean earthquake and the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti illustrate the benefits of earthquake preparedness, as well as the punishing effects of poverty in both countries.

"Even though the Chilean earthquake was much stronger than that in Haiti, the death and damage tolls are much lower. There’s been a sense of earthquake consciousness in Chile for a half century— ever since a 9.5-magnitude quake struck the country in 1960. Building codes emphasize earthquake preparedness and schools hold periodic earthquake disaster drills.

"Still, both earthquakes show the vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters, whether they’re in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, or in a relatively developed country like Chile. Architectural and engineering standards come at a price, one that’s apparently too high for the poorest areas of Chile. While the Chilean government initially declined offers of international disaster relief, it changed its mind two days after the quake, apparently underestimating the level of death and damage in the nation’s poorest urban and rural areas."

Monday, March 1, 2010

If these walls could talk ...

A South Korean design collaborative says it's found a way to change the size of your living quarters based on how friendly you are to Mother Earth. Called Data Formation, apartments would start at 90 square meters, with a system of sliding modules stretching the space according to how much energy each dweller uses and saves. Bespoke furniture would be designed to fit the size-shifting rooms. Now, if only we could throw in flying cars or meals in a pill, we'd be one step closer to meeting George Jetson.

What do you think about this idea? Do you think it will catch on? Are U.S. design firms too conservative to follow this lead? Is this a trend or a fad?