THE FRONT PORCH

Have you ever wondered what happened to the sense of community we had in our neighborhoods? Do you remember the feelings that were evoked in a time when you could sit on your front porch and see the entire neighborhood? Where the kids would play in the street, and when you could hear from down the block a mother call out “car!” and the children would all step on to the side of the road and wave as the vehicle passed by.  Do you remember when you would invite your neighbors over on a cool summer evening and sit out on the front porch together enjoying a beverage?

I believe we have put so much emphasis lately on sustainability and being environmentally friendly with the systems and materials we are using, but in the process, we have lost focus on the community aspect. What if we cared for our neighbors and the communities we lived in? I believe we have stopped caring, and I think I know when that point was… it was when we traded our front porch for a private back patio.

So what do we do now? We spend our time in our own individual fenced-in yards, with our own personal families, and we occasionally shout across the street to say “Hi” to our neighbors. Builders began to create false porches as a way to create the illusion of community so that we may appear welcoming to those around us. In all reality, how often do we use that little four foot deep porch tacked onto the front of our dream homes covered in vinyl siding? I would venture a guess that we don’t do much on it, that is except for the few minutes we might greet a stranger when they come to knock on our door.

So what is the solution? Is there a solution? Does adding an extra two feet to the slab we pour in front of our homes count as getting back the front pouch we lost? Does an extra two or three feet instantly generate a sense of community, or does it create more impervious surfaces in the world and wasted space we never use? I don’t think just adding a few more feet will create any real change. We as architects have the ability to impact and change the way individuals engage the built environment. We can educate our clients and we can help them to understand what they are buying into when they select model homes and what they thought was the “American dream” of white picket fences and those two cars in the drive way. How much longer can that way of life be sustained? I, for one, would be happy to trade the car for a bike, and the large home for a modest walk up. I know that this is only my perspective and I don’t have a family to raise or any of those concerns, I am simply a young adult alone in the city that can make the statements because these are simply my reflections on the future I can see ahead.

So what has to change to make that all possible? How do we begin to create environments that cater to the public? What if we began creating communities and neighborhoods again that allowed us to walk to our destination, or get on our bike and ride to a friend’s place or the local market? What happens when we stop complaining about the price of gas and start to buy into a sustainable public transportation system that could run efficiently? When will we begin creating spaces that promote mixed use on a regular basis, environments that aren’t restrictive in zoning, and communities that encourage growth? I can see the glimmers of hope on the horizon and the sparks of the ideas taking hold and it leaves me excited for the future, but I hope to see more of this continue.

QUESTIONS FROM A YOUNG ARCHITECT

There is something I mentioned in a previous post and I wanted to come back to the topic of urban sprawl…. We have all heard it and are increasingly aware of the problem we face. Gas continues to go up in price and I believe that we should see the density start to rise again in our major cities. But many of us will continue to say that the time we spend in the car and the amount we spend on gas is just part of the daily grind. I think that train of thought will begin to change, or I can at least hope that it will change.

Speaking for myself, I don’t like to waste my time and I don’t know many young people who do. Currently, I live forty-five minutes from the office where I work.  That means I spend between an hour and half and two hours in my car a day with traffic. Take that over a week, and that’s between six and half to ten hours. Over a month that means I will spend approximately twenty six to forty hours in my car, that’s nearly a week of work every month I am missing out on while sitting in my car.

Let’s say for the sake of this article we keep the math simple, and say I make ten dollars an hour. So in a month I waste nearly four hundred dollars in my time, and another two in the gas I burn on my way to and from the office. Now I realize we don’t get paid for the time we aren’t working but for this argument let’s say we put a value on our time like our employers do. So in the span of one month I will spend nearly six hundred dollars in time and resources going back forth to work.

Now what happens when I move closer to the city, and if I only lived a mile and a half from the office? What if I bought a bike and I could actually ride to work. I could save 95% of my time to and from the office; I would get exercise daily, and save a large amount of money. Now what if that six hundred a month I was spending could actually get invested in something more valuable? Now I realize I am only a drop in a much larger bucket, but what happens when the majority of those living more than 15 minutes from work did the same. What impact would that have on our cities? How much would the density rise, how much better could our cities be? Would we start to see a rebirth in our cities? What would we do with the money are spending on gas?

I would like to believe if we made our cities into walk able environments and reduced our dependence on our cars and trucks we could start to see pride take hold again and a concern for the built environment. What if we could walk to wherever we needed to go, would we stop being lazy? Could we start to see an increase in our activity? What about an increase in our sense of community? What if we started to invest in public space and the built environment, instead of our own private spaces with fences that make our boundaries very clear to the public? What happens when start to enjoy housing with a shared courtyard, a place where we can get to know our neighbors beyond saying hi at the mail box, a place for a community garden that could yield as much as you put into it? What if the amount we spend on gas goes down and we could spend it with our families, or giving back to amazing nonprofits that do incredible work, or taking a class or that trip we have been dreaming of?

What happens when we stop increasing the size of our homes? When we have a modest dwelling we begin to set priorities to what we actually need versus what we think we need. A close friend of mine reminds me that designing small means simply designing smart. I look around and have to ask, do we really live in a time of surplus? I have always thought that modesty is a good thing.  How is it that we are impressed by the square footage of our homes and not by how charitable we are, or what we are doing for the community?

I know that I have posed a lot of questions and not offered many solutions, but I hope that these thoughts and these ideas might wake something up inside of you and that you begin thinking about how this relates to your life. I feel like a hypocrite while writing about all of this, knowing that I am living in suburbia with my parents and doing nothing to change that. I know that I am just starting out and don’t have the ability to go out on my own, so I am fortunate to have the support of my family and will never take that for granted. For now I know that the drive might be long but I wouldn’t be able to make it without them in my life, a big thank you to my friends and family who are always there to support me in all that I do.

LEADERSPEAK: IS YOUR CHECK ENGINE LIGHT ON?

Have you ever been driving down the road and all of a sudden a little sport car goes flying past you? I started thinking about that car the other day after I was wrapping up a day in the office. I was picturing that car cruising along, oblivious to the fact that it was blowing a whole lot of smoke and causing a mess for everyone else to navigate through. I smiled when I passed that car pulled over on the side of the road, realizing if only they had taken better care of their car it wouldn’t have happened. For the purpose of this piece, let’s just say they ran out of gas.

I normally don’t like using analogies to make my point but this time I am going to make an exception. For the past year I have been in and out of so many offices searching for a place to start my career, just like every other recent graduate out there . Through that time, I have had the opportunity to see various offices and the character and culture of each.  This has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what an office environment is really like compared to anything my professors tried to explain. The analogy came to me when I was reflecting back over my experiences from the past several months and the thought of that little car came to mind.

I’m sure you’re wondering where I am going with this, right? Well, what I mean by that is that an engine runs on gas and oil. If you consider the oil as the collaborative and creative side of an office, while the gas in the tank as the productive side that keeps the office running, you’ll get this analogy. The point is that you need both of those to keep the car operating, so keep that in mind when you start the engine on your firm.

Think about this; if you run with too much oil and not enough gas, you just end up in a big cloud of smoke while you’re stranded on the side of the road. This means when you spend all your time thinking and playing without proper production, you just end up breaking down and on the side of the road with your thumb out asking for a ride. The opposite is equally devastating, too much gas and not enough oil, you end up going really far but burn out after that recommended oil change. What I mean is if you are only productive and don’t take time to play, then you lose your passion for what you do and quickly stop caring about the task at hand.

The right balance for everyone is different. Each firm has their own ratio that works for the culture they have created. A particular amount of oil to every gallon of gas is critical, some work better with a drop and some take it by the quart. Every firm is unique and there is no exact science to the right ratio but there does need to be balance. Finding that balance and individuals who believe in the culture of the office will keep it running smoothly and it is those firms that will stand the test of time. Now there will always be other factors to consider, but when the firm has a shared vision and believe in what they are doing they will always find a way to make it work.