Build Pittsburgh 2014

As regular readers know I have acted as a correspondent of sorts for the AIA Convention over the last few years, first from Washington D.C. for the 2012 convention, then from Denver last year. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to Chicago this year as it coincides with my best friend’s wedding. But stay your disappointment! There are other conventions to report on, starting (and probably ending) with Build Pittsburgh.

Build Pittsburgh is the regional equivalent to the national AIA Convention and as such it’s predictably smaller. But, as I have been reassured many, many times: size isn’t everything. The nice thing about Build Pittsburgh is all of the familiar faces. The networking connections made at Build Pittsburgh are more immediately valuable given that everyone lives and works in the area. Think of National as Bob Dylan and Build Pittsburgh as Pete Seeger: equally influential, just working at different scales.

Keynote Speaker: Ray Gastil

I wasn’t just an attendee at Build Pittsburgh, I was helping out with the event as well. My name tag even had a fancy ribbon to prove it.


In addition to helping staff the Young Architects booth I was also handing out the information to the people who were checking in. Architects have many virtues; punctuality is not historically one of them, so I was still handing out folders while the keynote address was being given. Not a huge deal, I know by the guy’s first name that he has chops. But just to be sure I talked with a few people about what they got out of lecture, and I pieced that together with some stuff that I overheard some people talking about from far away, so I’m pretty sure I have an accurate picture of what all went on.

This year’s keynote speaker was Ray Gastil, Director of the Department of City Planning for the City of Pittsburgh. He’s been on the job for just a few weeks now, having been named to the position in early April by Mayor Bill Peduto. He’s an Ivy League guy, earning his undergrad at Yale for literature before studying architecture for his graduate degree at Princeton. Having previously worked in the planning departments for New York City and Seattle, Gastil is a world-class city planner and hypnotist. He started off by talking about his work in New York which focused on revitalizing the waterfront areas.

Then he freed a woman of her desire to smoke and made some guy think he was a dog.

From there he talked about his work in the planning department in Seattle. I’ve heard Seattle compared to Pittsburgh before, mostly in relation to the weather. I’ve never been, but if it’s true I think we as a city owe him an apology. While in Seattle he continued his work with exploring ways to bring new life to waterfront areas, such as the Pioneer Square competition. Overall, the past work seems good and relevant to the city given the ongoing efforts to reconnect with the rivers here in Pittsburgh. It sounded like people were a little disappointed that they weren’t teased a vision for the future, but the guy has been here less than a month, so cut him a little slack.

He concluded with a motivational mantra and led attendees in a walk over hot coals.

Like I said, I wasn’t there, but I’m like 99% sure on all that.

The Booths

The exposition part of the show is probably the part that felt most different. The floor at national is vast and crowded at all times. People attending Build Pittsburgh are mostly there for the education credits (architects need to get a certain number of education hours every year), so the area with the booths is pretty dead while people are in the classes. Still, there were some good products on display. There seemed to be a lot of lighting, like these fixtures by Modular International.

BP2014_Booth Modular Intl

My phone really hated taking a picture of this display. What you can’t see is how closely these fixtures hug the ceiling, like that donut one in the middle that comes with a remote control for dimming. Lighting controls were also big over at the Lutron booth.

BP2014_Booth Lutron

They have a system for your house that is all battery powered switches so there’s no need to rewire your whole house if you want to update your controls. The battery life is 10 years so you’re not going to be going broke buying watch batteries. They also have some shades that adjust themselves automatically. Maybe the coolest looking fixture was at the Architectural Lighting Sales booth.

BP2014_Booth ALS

The clear diffuser on this Corelite fixture is etched to properly distribute the light, and also to make it look neat. And to round out light-related items, Scalo Solar had a booth claiming a 3-year return on investment for solar panels.

BP2014_Booth Scalo Solar

The catch is that most of the return on investment is through tax credits, not energy production, and the tax credits can only be claimed by a business, not an individual or non-profit.

Rockwood had some nice-looking custom cabinet doors on display.

BP2014_Booth Rockwood01

And finally, here’s your reminder that Knoll exists and is cool. I haven’t been to their place in Pittsburgh, but I visited their showroom when I was in New York and they have some cool products, most of which are comfortable to sit on.

BP2014_Booth Knoll

Also, if you can guess whose legs those are then you’re kind of a creep.

Class Sessions

As I mentioned before, the classes are the bread and butter of Build Pittsburgh. I made it to a couple of the sessions, here’s what I learned.

The first session I went to was called “Building Next-Generation Leadership”. Michael P. McDonnell and Tami Greene talked about their experiences in dramatically changing the way that their firm, IKM, develops their interns. It was a really great “worst to first” kind of tale, where the leadership at IKM realized that they were doing a poor job of providing good experience to their interns. Through the application of a few good policies they were able to earn an IDP Firm Award over a period of just a few years. One of the classic knocks against big firms like IKM is that they have a tendency to pigeon hole young interns, who are then unable to get the experience they need to move forward with their careers without going elsewhere. It was great to see some meaningful response to that problem and it sounds like everyone is benefiting: the interns through better experience and IKM by improving morale and pride among the interns, who will hopefully grow to become key players in the firm.

One thing that bothers me about any discussion involving “leadership”, though, is that the word pretty quickly loses a lot of its meaning. It seems like what IKM has done is change the culture of their firm in order to facilitate development of skills for their interns. Skills. As in, not leadership. Leadership is such a broad term that encompasses so many skills and talents that it becomes impossible to define and therefore becomes meaningless in a discussion about how to teach it. What is leadership? To paraphrase Antonin Scalia, you know leadership when you see it. In every seminar about leadership the message is that anybody can become a great leader with the right training. With all due respect to the presenters, I just don’t buy it. A firm full of leaders would be pretty useless anyway because nobody would be doing any of the work. People with strong skills can learn to become good managers, but good leaders got it or they don’t. I think a discussion that starts from there can be more valuable to everyone because it allows for the identification of role players beyond the leadership position. But I don’t want a semantic distinction on my part to take away anything from IKM’s focus on developing the next generation of architects, it sounds like they got a good thing going.

The other session I went to was “A New Concept in Practice: Leading the Delivery Process”. I really loved this session, but it involves a lot of fine grained distinctions and probably only makes sense to people pretty familiar to the building process. I’ll do my best to respect the hard work of the presenters (Mark Dietrick and Ron Dellaria) as well as the intelligence and attention span of my dear readers.

A typical project gets designed (a process between owner and architect), then bid (a process between architect and contractor) and then built (a process between owner and contractor). That’s a gross oversimplification, but it illustrates how confusion comes up in the building process. Each stage involves different principal players. What’s more, architects often flat out can’t get good information about cost during the design process, so while the owner might have a budget they often don’t know what they’re paying until after bid, which often causes friction that lingers throughout the build phase. What Ron and Mark talked about is a structure in which all parties (owner, architect and contractor) get together at the beginning of the project and stay on through completion, a process called “Integrated Project Delivery” (IPD). In addition to making communication much easier there are also monetary incentives built into the contract to keep everyone focused on the goal of delivering the building on time and on budget. If I made it sound like a no-brainer, it’s because it kind of is. And full disclosure, if I ever give up on architecture it will be because of the systemic problems in the building industry, chief among them being the absurd “traditional” design-bid-build process. But there are barriers to widespread adoption of IPD.

First, it’s new and different and therefore scary, and people can come up with a bunch of excuses not to do things that scare them. Second, it requires the architect doing two things that they hate to do: give up power and take on risk. Third, since the project is never bid the owner never gets to see competitive pricing, leaving the door open to higher building costs either through benign ignorance or outright collusion. Fourth, there is some concern that IPD throws a wet blanket on the creative process; with the involvement of the contractor early on, the architect isn’t free to create and innovate. Each of these concerns has merit, but I think that they can all be dealt with. In fact, for most of the concerns you could make a compelling case that the opposite is true.

* * *

So that wrapped up my Build Pittsburgh experience. I left just before the part where you get to drink because I really wanted to sit in traffic for an hour to get to the office. I’d tell you all the things I overheard about what happened there, but this blog is primarily for children, so just use your imagination as to what might happen when a bunch of architects and engineers get three free drinks. And if you were there and want to fill me in on anything I missed let me know in the comments.


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