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 had time to do.
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. 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 handwritten by somebody. The illustrations have to be crafted by somebody with an eye for what perspective will best show how the assembly occurs.
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. Worked for a Civil Engineer for a brief period. 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 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) Worked on several school buildings. Designed several parking garages. Researched and documented every door in the Motorola MOS 13 building project. Fifty-four (ish) details in all, just for 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 my 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 it. It used to be possible to apprentice your way into a license. This was almost universally true, being the method that most professionals learned their trade in previous centuries. Texas was one of the last states to allow this form of 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 knew I had failed 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 human nature to keep piling new things onto a project, without ever admitting that you are increasing the work performed by the design professional, 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. 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.
A consequence of this is that the days for production staff, people like me, get longer. I went from working 50 hours a week to routinely working in the neighborhood of 80 hours. 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 dizziness and disorientation. The tinnitus. The vertigo and the resultant days of brain fogginess. I was so blindsided by the betrayal of 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. Generally two or three. I was able to get commended for producing an entire project’s documents in a single day, and get fired for being sick too much, all within the same 8 month period. That was the functional end of my working life. So far.
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, 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 (like going to bed early and getting enough sleep. I suck at that) than it is about anything else. Eating, sleeping and exercising all in their appropriate quantities. It gets quite tedious.
However, having free time 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.