Aces and Eights. Know When to Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em, Walk Away, or Run.

If you have been fortunate enough to complete design projects across a wide range of geography, you may have noticed something. There are challenges based on location. Before you give me, “Well, duh!”, let me add I’m not talking about climate and geology. I think most architects and engineers get that. What I’m talking about is changes in latitudes and changes in attitude (my apologies, Mr. Buffet). These are cultural differences, right?

 

Every place has its own set of rules, written and unwritten, for delivering a project. During my practice in Hawaii 2007-2012, we had earthquakes, a hurricane, and a tsunami.  That’s when I found out they use a different building code on each island. The available labor force, though skilled, is limited as are construction materials. To be successful out there, you need to learn these things and take them into account. Oahu is pretty modern and up to date. The big island is still about 1984, maybe 1988. Not knocking it, as it’s kind of nice, but you need to know those things.

But it’s not always as easy as it seems. Many places, like Italy, still have laws and codes dating from Mussolini’s time. And, just to make it more confusing, the logic and reasoning behind those old codes and methods gets lost over time. In Newport, Rhode Island, they…well…you get my point. Delivering a successful project in a new market, a new geography, and a new culture is a gamble. Finding all these idiosyncratic rules and regulations, touching base with all the right people and government, and understanding the local contractors and market, is very compound and complex. Chances are good you will miss something. It’s kind of like poker when you think about it.  You’re a gambler!

Now, I don’t know anything about gambling and poker, but as it turns out, Kenny Rogers knows a thing or two about architecture and project delivery.

Know when to hold ‘em.

Italy’s construction industry is not like America’s. They’ve been at it a lot longer and it has developed differently. The Italians have a different mindset towards projects. When you live among buildings and ruins 2000 years old, time does not have the urgency it does for an impatient American. During my time in Italy, we were a visiting A/E under a Department of Defense contract, designing a 3-story hospital at Camp Ederle, in Vicenza with precast concrete. At the time, we specialized in DoD projects that included facilities in Capodochino, Naples, and F-16 hangers in Spain. In America, precast concrete is made in large, industrial like plants and factories. In Italy, precast concrete is made in someone’s garage. (Ok, a little hyperbole there). But on our project, the precast concrete inverted “T” floor joists were actually made in a tiny, mama e papa warehouse factory. So were the hollow clay tiles they use as infill between the joists.

This is earthquake country. I’ve been through an earthquake. If this was a poker hand I’m holding, it doesn’t look good. Mom and pop concrete and clay tile floors in a hospital? With earthquakes and volcanoes? Fold? Bluff?

There’s a saying even older than I am: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Italians are great people, wonderful to spend time with. My mentor, Ron, spent some time with mama e papa, probably involving a bottle of Chianti. They found their inner Michelangelo and did a great job. We held that hand, and it was a winner.

Vicenza, Italy

Know when to fold ‘em.

You can learn a lot practicing in Florida (from 1978 to 1991) as I found out. It’s a fragile environment with a lot of history. St. Augustine is America’s oldest town.

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, you learn Florida is very much into wetlands. The entire state is practically one vast wetland, so to develop and build here, you will impact wetlands.  Floridians understand the value in protecting them. You need a place for all those invasive species to flourish. (Just kidding there).

But what happens when the invasive species is human?

One very outspoken group in its support and protection of wetlands is the Florida Audubon Society. They do great work, raptor rehab being the most glamorous, and understand the importance of the native wetland environment to avian species. They regularly participate in court challenges to development impinging upon wetlands with a high rate of success in litigation.

The Audubon Society was gifted with the deed to something over 2,000 acres in Central Florida from the will of a wealthy patron, and saw it as an opportunity to develop a new rehab center with a small visitor center and museum. They approached our Winter Park, FL firm for some savvy cracker architecture. We thought maybe elevated wood-on-wood buildings connected by elevated walkways winding through the trees (and above the snakes and gators) was a brilliant idea, low ecological impact, etc. A winning hand. Raise the stakes, feed the pot, get this published.

You know what happened?

The Audubon society was threatened with a lawsuit by previously aggrieved contractors citing the same wetlands provisions the Audubon Society had used against them. We looked at our cards again. The contractors weren’t bluffing. Rather than go to court, the project folded. That was the best decision. The contractors were holding a stronger hand.

Know when to walk away.

Longtime clients are among the best of clients. In healthcare, design is so complicated and ever-evolving, that having continuity over a long period of time has huge advantages. All the participants are known to each other and the design team is intimate with every nook and cranny of the facility. It’s difficult to walk away from a situation like that.

Except that sometimes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

A large regional hospital and medical center had been a decades long client of Truth, Beauty & Goodness, our firm in Eugene. That was an established firm with a strong legacy and we had a wonderful relationship with them over all those years.  I was fortunate to be part of that 1991 through 2006. In fact, it was so good, the hospital outgrew its location in Eugene and decided to build a brand new 1,000,000 SF hospital on the Mackenzie River, called Riverbend. They asked Truth, Beauty & Goodness to participate in the design of that facility.

We were a 12 to 15-person firm. John, the managing partner, looked at the game and decided it was too rich, the pot too big for us. He was right. We would have to tell all our other great clients to get lost or grow the firm. And if you know Eugene and its culture, we aren’t like that. Laid back, Oregon Country Fair kind of people is who we are. So slap on a Grateful Dead tape, kick back in your Birkenstocks or sandals, and keep on truckin’.

Know when to run.

In a poker game, a gambler needs to know when to run. Losers might not take too kindly to winners. But, there’s another side to knowing when to run. When opportunity knocks.

In the case of opportunity, you may want to run towards it, not away.

Architecture, by its very nature, offers compelling and unique opportunities. Suppose you get a call to join the team and work on some magnificent and historically significant building: the US Capital, the Eiffel Tower, or Falling Water for example, because your skills are uniquely suited to bring success to the project? How would you react? How should you react?

In 1927, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. While not the first hotel on the beach, it remains the Grand Dame of the islands to this day. But with the new millennia, the Pink Palace of the Pacific was showing its age. New standards in hospitality accommodations and modern high technology needed to be designed into a building constructed before there were building codes. This was to be done without affecting the unique character that is the Royal Hawaiian.

To do something like that, you need to assemble a special team. To be asked to join a team like that is an honor and a responsibility. How many of those might you get in a lifetime? Know when to run! Hele!

In this case, hele to an island paradise. The work was incredibly complex. The building is structural clay tile and Hawaii is an active seismic zone. Many skills no longer exist on the islands. Hired a terrazzo guy on the mainland who could restore the Royal’s exquisite terrazzo floors and stairs, and flew him out to Oahu for the work. Accessibility and life safety are now part of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, yet practically invisible with the new and historic finishes. At one point, it seemed impossible. Maybe we aren’t so Akamai?

But, King Kamehameha I believed this location was special, a heiau, and his royal grove of coconut trees defined the area. And maybe it is a special spot. Good vibrations. When they opened the Royal Hawaiian in 1927, they held a special Gala Celebration and a local ukulele player named Bill Tapia played as part of the event. Some 82 years later, when the renovation was completed, another Gala was held on March 7, 2009. And the hana hou? The 101-year-old Bill Tapia played the ukulele. Magical. Really, it doesn’t get better than that.

A hui hou, know when to run!

Now, how about another hand? The game continues…