Architects get a lot of attention for their vision and inspiration in the design phase of their work.
During construction, they have to be more practical, snuffing out problems quickly to keep to the schedule. But what happens when they hand off a building? When the public swarms their school or mall or office building, is the architect done?
Michael Kocher, Project Leader at Behnisch Architekten, recently walked through the new Portland State Business School Karl Miller Center, keenly looking at details. He explained how much of a customer service role an architect plays in a building's long tail.
Kocher was there to oversee the building being photographed, but he said there was plenty to be checked with how the building is working out.
For example, the huge stairways have black and yellow caution tape on their first and last steps, because so many students walk around looking down at their screens. He's seen some stumble, and the plan is to make the warning clearer by replacing the tape with a stainless-steel inlay.
"You can plan for some of these things, but until I see people use a space, I can't tell. Then I react." The school was worried that people would walk into the glass walls of the classrooms. His firm put white vinyl stickers at waist level to make the glass show up.
"That's part of the game. You're never going to design something perfect," says Kocher.
It's a weekday and students between classes are using the desks, work bars (wooden rails with pop up outlets) and ottomans. Kocher explains that in college buildings furniture gets dragged around — including some very heavy couches. He can't really stop it, just draw up a plan.
"Once you find an organization (of furniture) you want, the cleaning crew can move them back in place once a month."
As for allowing the public free access to the atrium and halls, Kocher says that was PSU's choice.
"The University is a public institution and they want to be inclusive. That's a testament to them. The idea is to be forward thinking and having high ideals. We design for it."
If the public becomes a burden, it wouldn't be hard to switch to a card entry system.
At PSU, the job was to take a building where people would sit in the corridors or their cars between classes, and expand it, turning it into a welcoming, light-filled space. The rooms too come in a variety of sizes, from tiny study rooms to boardrooms to 50-person classrooms.
"As flexible as people are, and as digital as people are, you want to create that variety so they want to use the space."
"You plan for those type of goals, but as you move into construction you're more worried about scheduling or details or what this material is or how this foundation is working, so you kind of go away from those focuses," says Kocher.
The work has a warranty, usually one year. If something is defective, it's their job to get the right people in to fix it, on the tab of the construction company. "If the client wants a whole room redesigned, then that's additional services," he says, meaning the client pays.
"If there's a problem we want to fix it, and it's potential future business," he says, stressing the customer service nature of the relationship. "We don't brush our hands and walk off. If something's not working, our mechanical engineer sends us an email and we fix it."
Behnisch Architekten's U.S. office is in Boston, Massachusetts, so they partnered with the locals at SRG Partnership. "SRG come through here every day. They're only a few blocks away and they're working on another PSU project at 4th and Montgomery. We're lucky to have them here, and they're good at communicating with us."
Now that building performance is such a big issue, architects spend more time finessing the energy use of a building in the year after it opens. They want to see how the actual data compares to the model.
"Our mechanical engineer had worked at Chemekta College, which performed better than predicted. So, the university said 'We want you to monitor it.' We always want to refine our architecture, and use (what we learned) on the next building."
At smaller firms, doing smaller work, the hand off process is less complicated. If it's a single-family home, however grand, there is usually a one to one relationship with the owner.
Richard Brown of Richard Brown Architect (RB/A), a firm based in Northwest Portland, has done a wide variety of work. It ranges from an auditorium for a chiropractic college, to the Cedar Mills House, a 3,500 square-foot luxury home with a pool, all operable windows and mahogany trim.
"We always make ourselves available, and it's important to maintain a relationship with clients beyond the one year (warranty) time," Brown told the Business Tribune. "If it's a winery or a residence, they call us if there's a problem and we can direct them to a solution."
Brown says most architects maintain the relationships long beyond the warranty of the physical building.
"We care about our clients, this is a small office and we don't want them to forget about us. And, it leads to referrals. We want to be able to use their names as references."
It comes down to one simple thing: "The question is, can you solve the problem? Give them the right customer service?"
Institutions are harder to stay in touch with.
"When you design something, say, for a college, getting it through a board approval, raising the money and building it, that's about all they can handle!" That group retires, exhausted.
"So, you have a new group who have no connection to you. It's a problem lot of people have in the design industry. Then again, sometimes they move and on they think of you for new work."
Architect Charles Dorn, a principal at Hacker, says most firms establish a date of "substantial completion," the official point at the end of construction when the one-year work warranty starts.
"That's the point at which we begin close out," Dorn told the Business Tribune. "We do a warranty walk-through at the eleventh month, to make sure they can collect on any warranties from the contractor."
He says if a building is sold and turned into townhomes, or an institutional building is maintained by someone new, "once it's turned over it's less of us." At this point, it's the architect's job to make sure the construction documents are complete and archived, ready for anyone who wants to change the building in the future.
Keep in touch
Hacker has a number of projects right now in Portland, apartments on Southeast Division Street, the Field Office mixed on the Front Side district in Northwest, and of course, the recently completed Japanese Garden Visitor Center, in partnership with designer Kengo Kuma.
How much work will that be in years to come?
"It depends on how people live in it," he says, meaning use it. "It's a very public building. We make sure the project is designed to anticipate the actual data for numbers of visitors. It may receive twice the expected number, which leads to things that need to be adapted."
That could mean adding a handrail here, or a window treatment there. There are surfaces to pay attention to. How do they function when wet?
"A lot of times it's acoustics, particularly in these high-end buildings. For example, a recording studio."
Hacker designed Berwick Hall for the Oregon Bach Festival at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
"There was a lot of tuning of spaces. There was a big effort to bring in the different instruments and make adjustments to angles. They were looking for a space that enhances every instrument."
Dorn says he personally tracks all Hacker projects to completion, around four or five per year. As the firm is committed to doing only carbon neutral work by 2030, energy metrics are now a big part of the firm's after care. They calculate Energy Use Intensity, which is how many British Thermal Units (the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit) are used per square foot.
They keep a database of EUI values for each type of building, so if they build another apartment block they aim to make it more energy efficient than the last one. This requires installing lots of sensors and meters, and getting the cooperation of the building maintenance crew.
"Some institutions are going to be more supportive of you in that than others, especially if they are paying the energy bills. The least interested are multi-family housing owners, because they are charging the tenants for the energy. They're probably more concerned about first costs."
For architects, the push and pull with developers can be a job for life.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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