AISD: Spending Real Money

This is True #624 Mentioned a newspaper article in the local rag, the Austin American Statesman, concerning Kealing Middle School getting a $9 million facelift. The facelift includes new student lockers, even though the current student lockers have been sitting empty for 10 years. The principal of the school banned their use due to ‘contraband’ and other excuses. The new lockers will cost $60,000, and they will also sit unused.

Citizen appeals to re-allocate the money had fallen on deaf ears. Which doesn’t surprise me, having dealt with AISD and their construction staff several times in the past. Logic isn’t something that they seem to have an abundance of over there.

As an example, my last job…

…The architect I was working for came up in rotation for a couple of schools that were going to be renovated. As I had experience with AISD renovation projects before, I was asked to lead these projects as well. My employer stressed to me that I needed to take the initiative here, that I needed to make sure and handle everything that needed to be done, because “that’s how you keep the AISD project manager happy, making sure that he doesn’t have anything to do”.

Which I found quite interesting, at the time. I happen to know that architects who work for AISD make well above market average for the experience that they require, having applied for some openings at AISD in the past (openings for which, I’m quite certain, my politics excluded me from consideration for) so the concept of doing all the work for a better compensated (twice as much as I was making) government employee, just so he would be happy, didn’t sit well with me.

After all, the whole basis of public schools comes from the concept of Kantian-Fichtian selfless service; i.e. school district employees should be doing their jobs for the good of the community, and not be expecting any compensation in return, much less compensation at a higher rate than their privately employed peers. However, reality works in line with the Objectivist-Capitalist rewards system, and nobody is easier to fleece than a willing, tax-paying public; therefore public servants generally do get paid better than any other group.

So I go out with my employer to visit the sites and discuss project scope with the AISD representatives. As I’m walking through the schools with this Gucci & silk shirt wearing reprobate, I notice the extremely dilapidated condition of several of the portable buildings that the children will be housed in. A good portion of the schools in Texas have entire little shanty towns of these buildings parked behind the brick and glass permanent facilities that front the streets; putting their best face forward, literally. They hide these buildings from view like the eyesores that they are, and I doubt that most parents realise that their children are even in them. As a professional who is tasked with public safety as a part of licensing, I can’t get away from the fact that children are housed in them day in and day out.

So I mention the state of the portables to this Gucci & silk shirt wearing reprobate, this public servant that is nothing of the kind, and suggest that perhaps the renovation money should be used to build additional buildings, rather than be used to do cosmetic upgrades to the existing brick and mortar structures (which housed less than half the children at the schools in question) and the landscaping that is also visible from the fronting street.

His reply? Can’t do that, it would take real money to build new buildings. His exact words; real money. Now, I have to admit that it would have taken more than the million or so dollars that they had set aside for these little cosmetic upgrades that they were doing. However, you spend a million here and a million there, and pretty soon all the real money is spent on things that aren’t important to the big picture. That big picture being the education of Texas’ children.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the pleasure of working on those projects. Actually, I was fired not too long after that walk through. Coincidence? Most likely. All I know is, I’d rather be an unemployed architect than a knee-crawling toady for a public servant that doesn’t know the meaning of the term.

Generating Power

Every time I hear someone lamenting “But what will we replace the oil with if we don’t buy it from the Middle East?” I run across some other way that we can generate power without relying on imported oil.

Methods like this one http://www.oceanpowertechnologies.com A proprietary system that converts wave energy into electricity. Or maybe you just want fuel for the car? Check out Biodiesel. Want to heat your house? Vegetable oil can be used for that as well (Stumbled across this process just recently. Garbage into Oil. Another obvious process) Then there is always the sexy solar panels and wind turbines.

As an architect, I’ve always been fond of the earthshelter home, myself. Position your home correctly, with just the right amount of soil built up around it, and you have a home that stays cool in the summer and warm in winter, with little or no need for air conditioning. Combine that with rainwater harvesting and a decent photovoltaic system, and you’ve got a potentially self sufficient home.

As I stare at the electric bill that my standard builder home gifts me with each month during the typical Texas summer, I can’t think of a more beautiful dream than to not have to write that check anymore…

Rebuild ’em

Stumbled across this group the other day http://www.twintowersalliance.com/

This was my first thought after watching the towers fall. We need to rebuild them, taller and stronger than they were before. Nothing will show our resolve more clearly, than to reconstruct what was taken from us on that day, as best we can.

No other construction or memorial on the ‘ground zero’ site will ever equal the statement that restoring the twin towers will make.

Minding the Details

Back when I worked in a big architectural office, I was generally relied upon to generate details for whatever section of the project was my responsibility. Inevitably, when I would bring some suggested details to the Project Manager’s attention for discussion, someone would repeat the old axiom “The Devil is in the Details”. In the course of my 20+ years in the architectural field I have heard it quite a few times. Most of my co-workers hated detailing. It’s slow work when done right; and if the detail doesn’t work, you can guess who gets the blame.

While I’ve heard “The Devil is in the Details” thousands of times, I’ve always had a different view of the problem. The prestigious parts of a project’s design (exterior and interior appearance) are generally either fought over by the team leadership, or handed to some design guru to give his special ‘flourish’ to. The rest of the tasks are handed out the team, usually with some grumbling about who ends up with what, and most of them look forward to the day when they can paint with broad strokes and not have to worry about ‘the details’. No one wants them, except people like me. Design is design, and the joy of creation is in the details as much as it is in generating a building exterior that has ‘street appeal’.

It’s a lot like writing, in a way. There is something I need to say, how to say it? There’s something this widget needs to do, how do I make it work? Sit there and puzzle over it, lay out designs and discard them one after another. Consult some references, lay out more designs, and sit and puzzle some more. Finally in the end it all comes together in a flash of inspiration, and Viola! The joy of creation, doing work that the average clock-puncher looks down on as beneath them.

The old axiom does carry a grain of truth. If you don’t mind the details, if you don’t sort them all out for yourself, then you leave that part of creation to chance. Murphy is a hard task master, and gremlins don’t have a bad rep because they fix things when you aren’t looking. Chances are, if you leave the details to chance, you won’t be pleased with the outcome.

“Mcmansions” or just a sign of the changing times…

Only in Austin would they spit on revitalizing downtown residential districts, and call the resultant housing ‘McMansions’. Everywhere else this epithet is used (and rightly, in my opinion) it is applied to the overly large, over priced, housing that springs up in the suburbs. As an architect with a family to feed, I can share the blame for a good portion of that type of housing. Most of the families who moved into houses that I helped get built were quite thankful to have them. To each his own, I live in the central city because I like the convenience of being near downtown.

Based on the complaints of disgruntled neighbors, the Austin city council took action last week and suspended all pending permits for construction in established neighborhoods, subject to review and possible further restriction by ordinance. (how is this not Ex Post Facto, is what I’d like to know, but let’s not get off on a tangent here) Anyone who thinks this isn’t about the same ‘no-growth’ issues that Austin has always been preoccupied with needs to take a crash course in the history of Austin politics.

All you have to do is see which side the usual suspects line up on. The Austin American Statesman is foursquare against the ban, as can be seen from the multiple Op-Ed columns and letters on the subject. Too bad they don’t consistently side with those interested in preserving property rights. This time the property rights (and values) argument is what is being offered by the builders, so that’s the tack that is going to be taken by those who follow the chamber of commerce side of the argument.

On the other end of the spectrum is the champion of no-growth, the Austin Chronicle. At least they are consistent in lamenting the halcyon days of Austin in the 70’s, back when the city was a town, and it was empty when UT wasn’t in session. I wish these people would wake up and smell the coffee.

That Austin has been gone for so long, it was only a memory when I moved here in the late 80’s. The no-growthers got what they wanted way back then, except they found out they didn’t want it when they saw what it was. Property values crashed, jobs went away, projects were left rotting and half completed. They got it again when they passed SOS and successfully killed development in areas outside the city.

This problem is also of their own making. The traffic congestion which is a result of blocking most of the new freeway work that had been proposed 20 years ago, makes living in the suburbs an almost intolerable commute if you work downtown now. Many people who do so would (like me) like to live close enough to avoid a long commute. This (along with other factors) produces higher demand for housing in central Austin. The resultant rise in land prices (also an offshoot of the FACT that Austin isn’t a sleepy little town anymore; but a full fledged city of more than 500,000) has lead land owners to capitalize on property investments.

Now, horror of horrors, “the growth is happening right next door to me!”, not out in the suburbs. “Gotta call my councilman, and put a stop to this.” That’s how it always starts, and it never turns out like they planned it.

If you don’t own the property in question, you don’t have any right to dictate to the current owner what gets built on it. That won’t stop most people from trying, but what usually ends up happening is the development happens anyway, it just ends up costing more. This is what comes from relying on zoning and city officials to do a job that could more reliably be done with restrictive covenants and/or architectural planners who have a clue about what makes sense land use wise.

But then the chamber of commerce types wouldn’t be able to ram through the developments they want when the tables are reversed…

Common Sense Alternatives

It’s my curse to see them, and then spend my time arguing with complete buffoons about them.

Like the smoking argument, the solution the the drinking and driving problem isn’t less alcohol consumption, or more expensive drinks; just as the solution to problems with second hand smoke isn’t keeping people from smoking. It’s architectural; or in this case, a zoning issue. If it was possible to set up neighborhood pubs or sidewalk cafes as they do in other places, it wouldn’t be necessary to drive down to the pub to get a pint, or to the cafe to get a taste. You could walk there.

De-stressing the forbidden nature of alcohol would go along way in stopping teenage drinking as well.

But I don’t expect anyone will listen to this argument any more than they have to the other ones I’ve offered.