• When the company I was working for in the early ’80s bought a mainframe drafting computer, before networked PCs were the norm, the IBM sales people told us that their stock answers to most questions they received were:

    1. “That’s a known problem, and our best people are working on finding a solution,”
    2. “That is NOT a problem, that’s a feature, we did it that way on purpose,” and
    3. In response to whether the system could be made to do this, that or the other thing: “it depends,” which meant if there was enough money and time to accomplish it.

    These responses are relevant not only to computers, but also in some cases to curtainwall and glazing.  Over the years, I’ve used these responses when answering questions from customers – architects, general contractors and glazing subcontractors – regardless of the system and whether I was working as a manufacturer, glazing subcontractor or consultant.

    Here’s an example, at one extreme, of the challenges faced in estimating architectural products. A certain wall design looked to be about $400 per square foot installed, taking into account that the framing was all custom shapes and detailing, with the verticals set at 45” centers, 2’-0” wide glass fins set at 15” on center canted at a 45 degree to the main plane of glass, across the entire façade (+/-120’) for the better part of two stories for most of the full length, and stretching to three stories at both ends.

    The GC had asked a glazing sub who they had worked with before what a curtainwall installed number was for that part of the country.  The glazier’s stock answer: $80 per square foot, which obviously was for a generic curtainwall and didn’t come close to covering the cost of the highly detailed wall described above.

    What was really surprising was that the wall’s designer hadn’t questioned the $80-per-square-foot figure. A compromise was made, and the owner spent more than the $80-per-square-foot-“guess,” but nowhere close to the more realistic cost that was about five times as much.

    In another example, my employer at the time lost a job when the square foot budget increased in the time between the preliminary review of the drawings and the bid for construction.  The problem was the total square footage of the wall had been reduced by half of what it was when the original budget was established, with no consideration given as to how that might impact the budget.

    Budgets being budgets, everyone likes to stick with them throughout the project cycle.  But as drawings progress from design development, and greater clarity gets added as the design matures, how can an early budget estimate realistically be maintained?

    It has always seemed prudent to me to be up front and honest about the realistic costs of a wall at all stages of the design process.  Yes, it’s easy to cover what is normally furnished, but that’s not always going to be sufficient for whatever surprising little idiosyncrasies get added later than can increase the cost.

    Does it (should it?) matter how you qualify the bids, regardless of when the estimates are prepared? Does it make it easier on the customer to understand the changes?  It didn’t on the above project. Even though we tried to explain the situation, the designer ended up looking at another wall systems.

    When I lived in Texas, I picked up all sorts of quirky sayings like, ‘that dog won’t hunt’ and ‘that’s slicker than snot on a doorknob.’  Trust me, sometimes you have to live there to understand some of these. Applicable to estimating, here’s some Texas wisdom FDR received. The president had asked his VP, Texan John Nance Garner, for his thoughts on a proposal to add six associate judges to the Supreme Court. Garner replied: “Mr. President, you want it with the bark on [the version you want to hear], or the bark off [the answer you’re not going to like]?”

    When it comes to providing an architectural estimate, sooner or later the bark will have to come off, and the final number will be what it is, regardless of the initial budget. In all likelihood, each estimator has his own viewpoint on this.

    I strive to be a bark-off estimator. The challenge for many of us in the glass biz, of course, is to provide a realistic estimate, but not price ourselves out of the running. Estimating a standard system and standard application is one thing.  But, with a highly detailed system, say one where there are glass plane changes, highly ornamental detailed caps, louver or sunshade systems, etc., the estimator really earns their pay with trying to predict where the architect will take a custom wall system from one stage of development to the next.

  • Is there anything more fun than a high school or college graduation? Fortunately, my wife and I were lucky to sit through what I hope will be the last two college graduations in our family for a while. The unbridled enthusiasm these kids show, and the shear relief that they don’t have to sit for another exam, pales in comparison to the relief dad feels being off the hook for tuition, for now at least.

    How can you sit through a graduation and not recall your own experience? Perhaps remembering a really good teacher you had. No one easily remembers the names of the mediocre teachers, but you remember the ones that pushed you, and who actually made learning fun. Thankfully for me, exceptional teachers like Mr. Speers and Mrs. Raymond were plentiful – and I still use some of what they taught me these many years later. It’s amazing.

    Getting an architecture degree was equally insightful. There wasn’t a lot of nuts and bolts taught, only general design.  We didn’t learn to size mechanical ductwork, only that a space obviously needed to be conditioned, and how many light fixtures could be wired off a single circuit. We certainly didn’t learn about mullion deflection, glass strength, or sealant movement capacity. One of the only things I learned in school, though, that can be applied directly to my current job was about structure, which comes in handy today for curtainwalls.

    My epiphany about what it takes to be a good architect (which was my intent when I started in college) came when I realized that design is an evolving process. Initially, I though what I first put down was supposed to be good enough to pass muster. It didn’t, and fortunately Kent Keegan (one of the good ones) showed me how to explore other possible solutions to the question at hand, and critique it for both the good and bad—then take what was good, and let it evolve further until reaching a point where the solution was the best one possible.

    Too late to change my major, I was in the middle of my senior year when I realized I didn’t have the design skills of some of my peers, so I changed to a construction emphasis, and then found myself in the  glass and glazing world strictly by chance. But random chances are what our lives are made from, right?

    What I didn’t realize then, but soon picked up from my first boss, was that it would take them five years to teach me what I needed to know about the curtainwall / window / glass business, and another five years to make sure I could correctly apply what I had learned.

    Over the years as I’ve watched my children grow into their own careers, and the same thing is probably true for a lot of professions. College teaches you to think like a _____________ (fill in your major).

    What you learn (and what they didn’t tell you in college) is that OJT (on the job training) completes your education, wherein you have to to take the theoretical taught in college and apply them to the practical, every-day situations you find yourself in.

    And that OJT takes time, and time is the one commodity none of us control. Experience applying past lessons comes simply, inevitably, only one day at a time. And experience is a cruel master: it arrives usually right after you needed it.

    Granted, some pick “it” up faster than others and learn to apply lessons sooner, but some are slower learners and might take the full 10 years to get to a point where they’re considered experts.

    So, what’s the lesson in all of this? When dealing with architects: cut them some slack. None of them learned the glazing biz while in school, at least not to the extent and level of detail you have, with so many years dealing with different window experiences. At least in this country, the architectural profession doesn’t allow them to specialize, not like a doctor or a tax accountant. So much of what we do in this profession is teaching architects what makes good curtainwall / window construction. Some of those folks are in their first five years.  Given the time for maturing in their profession, they’ll pick it up.

    PS:  On a personal note:  Happy birthday, Chelsea!

  • Coming off of a three-day weekend, I’d like to propose that in the future, we should change the third day off to Friday, instead of Monday. One, how much work do you really get done on the Friday before? Two, how much time do you spend on Tuesday (after being off), just trying to catch up with where you left off, only to realize there are fewer than 3.5 days to meet any deadlines, plus the open issues carried over from the prior week? In that scenario (this morning being no exception) Tuesdays after a Monday off are just plain vicious. Mind you, if I could talk the boss into four 10-hour days to have Fridays off, I think I could make that work. If you’re in, we can start a national petition drive on the White House website. What do you say?

    From the world of let’s find a better/cheaper/faster way of doing building layouts, here’s one that will have some serious consideration: getting a robot to do it straight from cad drawings. The video is pretty impressive.

    One question: who’s going to clean the floor before using this gizmo—the GC? Will they keep the floor clean around the perimeter for the glazier in order for the robot to do the layout? Or, does your crew clear out/clear off all the jobsite debris before turning this ‘bot loose?  And, how do you transfer the marks from the lower floors to the new floor to make sure you’re in the right place?  Right idea, and I think it has some potential, but I would like to see someone work the kinks out.

    An article on USGNN May 27 asked, “Could the Era of Glass Skyscrapers be Over?” Like Mark Twain said, I think the report of its demise might be greatly exaggerated. Yes, there might end up being a lower percentage of vision glass, but there are too many upsides to glass, and manufacturers are bringing more efficient products to market, which will make it difficult for people to let glass go away.

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson’s Wax office building in Racine Wisconsin, highlights how glass can contribute to buildings. On the original building, there were few, if any, windows. Given its site, there was little to see, as the building was located in a light commercial district, surrounded by some of Johnson Wax’s own manufacturing plants. Instead, Wright turned the roof of the open, two story workspace in the building center into one of the most iconic spaces of all time. There are stories about how the skylights leaked, how the columns got designed and tested, but space and time don’t permit the telling here—ask an architect sometime, it’s common knowledge in their circles. But, the light! It’s really a fantastic space.

    Speaking of light, have you seen pictures of the old Pennsylvania Station in NYC, before it was demo’d in the ’60s for Madison Square Garden? The sun streaming through the windows was stunning. Would the station have been better off without glass? The light gave character and definition to the space. The train station there now has all of the character of a dingy bus depot (not trying to be flattering). There’s no view to the exterior, no sunlight at all. Of course, the only way now to bring sunlight back in would be to put a glass roof on the Garden, and a glass floor for the basketball court and ice rink. Doubtful at best.

    No glass in buildings? I think not. The above examples, and many others, in which architects who work with, not against natural light, to create human, habitable spaces, show that as long as the sun shines, there’ll be glass in buildings. Even homes built underground, or into the side of a hill, have windows and skylights and wouldn’t be occupy-able spaces without them, unless you’re into bunkers.

    Spaces like Wright’s, and others where architects strive to come up with inventive ways to use natural light, make many of us want to come into work on any day, regardless of how many days off we’ve had over the weekend.

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