Birth of a Building Type



We have been developing several theories about typology in the graduate level thesis research studio at Northeastern.  This is one “graphicization”  which explains how a new building typology emerges from another like dividing cells.  Unlike mitosis, however, the division results not from some internal nuclear split, but rather as the result of outside forces which shape the typology to begin with.  In this case, zoning regs and lifestyle adaptations conspire to break off a chunk of the resdiential market and redefine it as “live work.”  I suppose money had something to do with it as well…



Retainer Fees (or Lawyers vs Architects)



I ran across these statistics online, from 2008, presented as Lawyer vs Architect:

Education time: 4 + 3 vs 4 + 3 (undergrad + grad)

Education debt: $100K vs $100K

Mean Salary, first job: $96K* vs $56K

Salary Range, first job: $52 – $140K* vs $46 – $68K

What an appalling discrepancy in earning power; especially when education and debt are exactly the same. The difference is amazing. Do architects not know their real worth or are they really worth that much less?

Unfortunately the rules of play are set in each respective industry. It’s going to take a long time to close the gap.

Lawyers will have their day in the sun; I truly believe that. I read that law schools have graduated 40,000 people a year over the past few years and that there will be 1.5M lawyers in the US in the next decade. Where will all these people work? There are enough crooked minds in the profession to make work up, but it’s safe to say that average salaries will have to come down as a result.

So logic says the gap will get closed from the lawyer end. The architecture end is a different monster and will require an enormous culture shift. Top architecture firms will have to start paying their employees significantly more than they currently do (think $80k out of grad school and not $56k). Enough top firms will have to do that so that they attract all the top talent. If this happens, mid-tier firms will have to step up, and so on.

Of course, salary isn’t an isolated variable and needs to correspond with higher contract fees (the enormous culture shift bit). That’s right, architect salaries are directly tied to architect fees, so its time to belly up and start asking for more money. (A real problem in the industry is that 80+% of all architecture firms have less than 5 employees, which means low overhead, scrappy mentalities and a willingness to compete on price; low price. That and the fact that I can count all the architects I know who are comfortable talking about money on one hand.)

So Rule #1 is that top architecture firms have to start the cultural shift by paying (significantly) higher salaries and demanding (significantly) higher fees. Rule #2 comes from the other side of the hierarchal tree. Rule #2 is that small and start-up firms have to stop competing on price. It’s a downward spiral that negatively affects the entire industry. Architects are incredibly well educated, provide a vital service (shelter, boiled down to its essence), and they cannot continue to downgrade their societal importance. (What’s more important, a signed contract or a roof over your head? Debatable, I know.)

I started this blog with retainer fees in mind, have clearly gone astray, but want to close the loop, so retainer fees are my Rule #3. Retainer fees will help change the culture of compensation in the industry by making sure architects don’t get stiffed on payment.

Retainer fees (surprisingly enough!) are most commonly used in the legal profession. Despite my liberal lawyer bashing (I do actually know and like some lawyers), there’s a lot to learn from our professional service brethren when it comes to making money or just plain earning a living.

By definition, a retainer fee is a fixed amount of money that a client agrees to pay, in advance, to secure the services of a consultant. The fee is typically not associated with the success of a project or based on achieving particular results.

From an architects perspective, a retainer is honesty money; a way for a client to show they’re serious about engaging your services and even more so, that they have the ability to actually pay for your services.

Retainers are most relevant with first time clients and less relevant for repeat clients.

Think of them as an insurance policy. The retainer should be enough to cover a month or two worth of payments; in other words, enough to cover your work over the time you get to know and develop a relationship with the client. By the time you’ve worked through your retainer fee, you need to have made a decision on the trustworthiness of the client.

So that’s Rule #3: Charge a retainer fee for every project you work on. Rule #3 is directly connected to #’s 1 and 2. Retainer fees won’t work in a bubble; everyone has to participate. If I start asking for a retainer on my projects, and Joe Architect does not, Joe Architect will probably get my job (who wants to pay more money up front when they don’t have to) and the entire industry will be worse off because of it. Both I and Joe Architect have to require them. We have to level the playing field and level it on a higher (and more profitable) ground.

In summary:

Rule #1: Zaha and Rem, pay up.

Rule #2: Recent big firm refugee, don’t take a legitimate job on at a loss.

Rule #3: All, require retainers on every project you work.

If by some bizarre chance the whole industry starts playing by these rules, a more lucrative living will be had, vacations will be exotic and enjoyable, and school debt will get paid off before retirement. And you won’t have to sue someone to get there.

– Billy

*Salary numbers reflect those of corporate lawyers.


Low Tech Calendar

I found this “Ink Calendar” by Spanish product designer Oscar Diaz that I just had to share. Ink spreads across the numbers to indicate the day of the month. Both the ink and paper are changed on a monthly basis. The ink colors vary throughout the year, ranging from dark blue in December to red in the summer. This calendar was designed for an exhibit called “Gradual” for the London Design Festival.

From what I gather, it is not on the market. Perhaps he is still working out the timing for February . . . Check out his other designs at



Sheep, Cows, Goats, or Pigs?


“Pigs were the champion garbage consumers in Cairo. Other animals just don’t seem up to the task.” The New York Times

We have gotten positive feedback for our proposal for temporary boardwalks and a small farm at the Filene’s construction site, but no comment has been quite as actionable as Cory Zehngebot’s suggestion that goats (or better yet pigs) might also solve Downtown Crossing’s trash problem.  She directed us to a story that was published in the New York Times on September 19 that described Cairo’s mounting garbage crisis, caused by the misguided slaughter of all of the pigs in Egypt in response to the Swine Flu outbreak.  As the story reports, goats are not as voracious as pigs when it comes to “processing” urban garbage, especially at the metropolitan scale of Cairos. Goats may be just about right for our fair city, however.



Field Research


Arthur Jemison and Tim Love behind the scenes at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut

While on assignment researching the urban design case study that the leadership of Norwalk, Connecticut had selected for the upcoming Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Arthur Jemison (GLC Development Resources) and I took time out to enjoy the playful antics of a penguin at the Maritime Aquarium there.

Richard Moccia, the Mayor of Norwalk, and his staff have selected the interface between the aquarium and the Norwalk River as the subject of the their city’s case study.  With the addition of a publicly accessible walkway along this edge, there are opportunities to plug into a larger open space network that can unlock the natural resource of the river’s edge, make better connections between the programming of the aquarium and the natural ecology of the river, and facilitate pedestrian connections between the aquarium and the Washington Street retail district (“SoNo”). 

Arthur and I are two of eight resource team members that will be teamed up with seven mayors from the Northeast at the upcoming session of the Mayors’ Institute of City Design at the Northeastern University School of Architecture.  Other participating cities include: Cranston, RI; Lewiston, ME; Rutland, VT; Hempstead, NY; Salem, MA; and Brockton, MA. 


To Splice or Not to Splice

What a surprise! I was in the office emailing away and in walks Matthew Sisson of American Architectural Iron with a lovely sample of spliced steel with my name (and his company’s name) etched in it. This past week, we have been wringing our hands over the location and number of splices for the exposed structural steel beams that support the shapely concrete roofs of the Harbor Park Pavilion. The steel will be laser cut, rolled, spliced, and ground smooth – all in an effort to make segments of steel look like a single piece that was effortlessly cast to form the complex shape.

In addition to this wonderful etched steel “notecard”, Matthew surprised Chris Genter and me by reading one of his poems, entitled “The Elements”. He is a published poet as well as a steel artisan. To read more of Matthew Sisson’s poems click on this link:



Ben Fry on Mark Lombardi

Info design superstar Ben Fry has posted an interesting overview of Mark Lombardi’s work and its relevance to information visualization. I like the thrust of Fry’s last argument: thoughtful, critical-thinking through visualization is lacking in too much contemporary information design. New tools make it easy to gather huge amounts of data, sift through it and project it in graphically seductive formats. But too many of these visualizations don’t involve an analytical, iterative process of examining the data itself and articulating a larger argument or narrative.

Check out the richly-illustrated article here: