An Architecture Story

One of the things I always wanted to do from the time I was a small child was write an autobiography. I’m not sure why this was, maybe it was my fascination with reading and my exposure to the autobiographies of Winston Churchill & Bertrand Russell at a young age, but it was something I always wanted to do myself and never managed to do.

Writing an autobiography in longhand was never even a consideration. Dysgraphia saw to that long before I even knew I had it. Writing in a computer interface is magnatudes easier for me, something I utilized to increase my production on the job in earlier years. But being able to work more at architectural design was the other reason that writing an autobiography never materialized until recently.

I was many things before I was afflicted with Meniere’s.  A father.  A husband.  One of a number of siblings; the oldest after our brother was killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of 21. Four of us grew up together, with a fifth who was raised almost as an only child because of the complexities of modern marriage.

I was also an architect for a brief time.

It’s what I knew I wanted to do from when I was a child. I would explore construction sites every time I stumbled across them (still do if I have someone with me to watch my back) built structures with wooden blocks to test them, then carefully disassemble the failed structures to see what caused the failure. Dreamed of being an archaeologist long before the name Indiana Jones was a thing.  All things constructed by humans fascinated me. I would disassemble broken electronics just so I could see what secrets were inside them.  I wanted to know how everything worked.

It was a drafting class I took in high school as a senior that gave me an avenue into my chosen profession. It had never occurred to me that everything man built had to be documented first. This is true even today, especially today, with the ease of design using computer assisted drafting. Even simple projects benefit from time spent designing in advance of construction or fabrication. Every piece of furniture purchased at IKEA has a set of documents to illustrate it’s assemblage; and every page of those documents has to be created by somebody.  The illustrations have to be crafted by somebody with an eye for what perspective will best show how the assembly occurs.

Motorola MOS13

I was one of those people.  I took great pride in my documents. While my name isn’t on any assembly documents for furniture, I did do a stint in a cabinet shop. I worked for a civil engineer for a brief period.  I learned how to pace out yards with reasonable accuracy while carrying a large load of sensitive equipment. But my love was for buildings first and foremost, so the majority of the work I took on was for home designers, builders and architects.  I had a hand in the renovation of the main building for Zilker Gardens here in Austin (my favorite project) I worked on several school buildings. I designed several parking garages. I researched and documented every door in the Motorola MOS 13 building project.  Fifty-four(ish) details in all, just for the doors, including a faraday cage isolation room and an explosion-proof door for hazardous storage.

It takes a college degree to become an architect these days.  If you want to be a structural engineer it takes a degree and 10 years of apprenticeship.  I couldn’t afford college without work, so I took classes for drafting from a local trade school, and eventually ended up moving my family to Austin to be near a university with an architecture program.

When the Wife got pregnant, I gave up the idea of college and taught myself enough architecture to pass the exam, then worked for architecture firms long enough to qualify to take the exam. This was the apprenticeship approach to earning a professional license, a common practice in years gone by.  For centuries apprenticeship was the only way to earn the right to call yourself an engineer or an architect, and  Texas was one of the last states to allow this form of professional training.

I just made it in under the wire, having to retake the only portion of the exam I failed after the new rules went into effect.  Funny thing was, I figured out that I had failed that portion of the exam while reviewing my work walking to the car after the exam ended.  It took 6 months for the state to inform me of this fact, and by the time I went back in to retake the exam the next year it was given on computers instead of requiring applicants to draw everything by hand.

That was how fast computer assisted drawing (CAD) took over the architecture field. I was being told “we’ll never have computers drawing for us” by architects in the field one year, and knowing not one but three different CAD programs within the next 3 to 5 years, and the test to become an architect only offered on the computer shortly after that.

Architecture is a high-pressure field. Lots of time stress. Computers being introduced to the design process increased the time pressure by an order of magnitude, at least.  I always worked long days (10 hours at the shortest) but with CAD the effort to produce drawings became something that could not be easily substantiated until the end of the process and all of the drawings were printed for approval.

Before CAD every drawing was physical and took up space in a drawer somewhere. Every floor plan comprised of multiple sheets of Mylar or vellum, vacuum compressed and reproduced before being sent on for printing.  Drawing production was an expensive process that you didn’t embark on before getting the design of the building pretty thoroughly mapped out.  You wanted as few changes as possible to show up after you started the production documents phase of process.

After CAD, the design phase began to merge with the production phase.  With CAD, construction-like documents could be produced (given setup time to produce templates) in a matter of minutes, not months. You want to increase the size of the building?  No problem. Redesign the entire exterior while the building is under construction? Can do (did do) design began to be something that was almost an afterthought, not a deliberative phase that could take longer than construction itself.

There was an insiders joke about scope-creep that was almost meaningless by the time I left the business; scope-creep being the tendency to keep piling new things into a project, without ever admitting that you are increasing the work performed by the design professional and the construction firm.  With CAD, scope-creep becomes almost impossible to document, since no record of a change exists beyond the date-stamp on the drawing files or taking the time to compare documents line by line to catch changes. With thousands of pages to look over in larger document sets, this is a process that almost never catches all the changes.

WYSIWYG in the flesh

A consequence of this increased workload is that the days for production staff, people like me, got longer.  I went from working 50 hours a week to routinely working in the neighborhood of 80 hours a week.  Sometimes much more in one week (114 I think is my record) if that week contained a deadline near the end of it. Pulling an all-nighter became a thing outside of college, as some of my college educated co-workers noted.  The stress becomes more intense, as the pressure to produce mounts.

That’s when the symptoms started. The loss of hearing came first, long before the other symptoms. Every Spring and every Fall since 1987, I’d suffer migraines and feel pressure in my ears that I couldn’t get rid of. In the late 90’s I started getting feelings of dizziness and disorientation to go with the ear pressure. The tinnitus started to be an everyday thing, not just a Spring/Fall thing.  In 2001 the vertigo and the resultant days of brain fogginess started to be a regular occurance.  I was so blindsided by this betrayal by my own body that I probably even started hallucinating external causes for my problems. The menieres was so bad at my last job that there was not a single week where I wasn’t out for at least a day with vertigo. Sometimes two or three days.  I was able to be commended for producing an entire project’s documents in a single day and get fired for being sick too much all within the same eight month period.  That was the functional end of my architectural working life.

Because my internal balance mechanisms were misfiring so often my body re-circuited my brain, bypassing those faulty balance indicators. There is no other way to describe what has happened to me. I trained myself consciously and subconsciously to ignore certain sensory inputs. I no longer suffer from motion sickness while traveling in a car; when, before, I could not read or even close my eyes in a vehicle without getting queasy. Now I don’t even notice I’m moving if I’m not looking out the window to see it.

I lost a key portion of my architectural talent in that process. I lost my ability to map space internally. This was a skill I developed from coping with dysgraphia, an ability to retain and synthesize data without having to write it down first. Most people cannot do this but I could and I demonstrated it repeatedly. This skill was how I managed to design things entirely in my head and on the computer. I could picture all of a construction project in my head just by studying design sketches and assembling the pieces that would go into creating each and every detail of the project. I could even tell you exactly what tool in which CAD package that you would need to use to achieve the drawing you wanted to create.

Gone now. All gone now. I can’t find my way across town without a map these days, much less be able to effortlessly visualize a construction project. I doubt that the talent I need to create construction drawings will ever come back. I’m starting to accept this, although I don’t know what I will do now that I’m not a CAD guru any longer.

Being out of work, my daily routine since 2005, has been a mixed bag of experiences. I’ve been able to watch my son grow up, something I missed when my daughter was a child.  I was almost never at home when she was awake and spent most of my time with her rocking her back to sleep in the middle of the night.  The major reduction in stress levels means I can go an entire month without a vertigo attack, which is a huge blessing from where I’m sitting.  Treating the remaining symptoms is more about establishing healthy behavioral patterns than it is about anything else.  Eating, sleeping and exercising all in their appropriate quantities.

Having time to fill and not much ability to do more than type on a keyboard has afforded me a chance to at least approximate one of the other lifelong goals of mine.  You are reading a portion of it. I hope it was enjoyable.

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