How the AEC Community is discovering new ways to build business on Main Street

Part One: First stop, Pinterest. “I know at least half my advertising works,” said the prosperous business man. “The problem is figuring out which half that is.” For AEC professionals charged with allocating resources to promotion and advertising, it’s a similar heads-or-tails gamble. Now, in the information age, that gamble is increasingly playing itself out on a complex web of social media, webzines and websites, and search engines.

How, then, to know what half works, and what half doesn’t? One way is to put yourself in the position of someone using the net to find the right architect.

So let’s catch up with the direct descendent of Carol Milford, later Mrs. Dr. Will Kennicott, of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the heroine of Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 classic novel Main Street.  Her name is Caroline and she shares many of the design genes Carol Milford expressed early on in Lewis’ account.

“She sighed, ‘that’s what I’ll do after college. I’ll get my hands on one these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration…Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns of the Northwest except hold revivals…I’ll make ’em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.’”

The big difference, of course, between Carol of the ’20s and Caroline of the 2016s is access to the ‘net. She is sure there’s the perfect AEC team out there, led by an architect and visionary, one she can find with a few deft keyboard clicks, and most likely a lot more than one. Why lose time fencing verbally with Main Street troglodytes? Wouldn’t it be better to show rather than tell?  Show the School Committee how possible it is to rise above the ordinary and to enrich everyone’s life by design? That’s Caroline’s thinking, as she opens her laptop on a leafy subdivision of Gopher Prairie.

Caroline decides that her first objective, as assistant chair of the School Committee, is to head off the chair’s attempt to build a factory-like box of a middle school for Gopher Prairie’s burgeoning system. She winced, recalling how this chair cut her off the week before in an open hearing. She had tried to say something about creating an environment for children that fosters exploration over spoon-fed learning.

“Look,” said the chair icily, “we happen to have one of the highest test scores in the state. And our high real estate values reflect that fact, you bet. So why try fixing what’s not broken, fiddling around with unproven pedagogical notions that we need nurture some anarchistic exploration on the part of ten-year-olds? As for your complaint about factory-like architecture–the rest of us see it as a highly efficient design based on a lot of prior experience turning out generations of youth. And if you mean to criticize us for being budget-conscious, I …”

Caroline kept quiet, but said to herself: “If we give our kids the message that they’re just parts on an assembly line, not encouraged to think for themselves, how efficient and budget conscious is that! Though, I’m sure upholding property values matters greatly.”

Now out of the chair’s glare, safely home on the ‘net, Caroline’s first stop is Pinterest. There on its many boards, she hopes to find the ideal architect, one capable of sending Gopher Prairie’s kids and community a new and more uplifting message. Typing in “Middle Schools” a pin shows a cluster of large, colorful masses of concrete for Southwest School District. “Nice. Looks like what I picture the high Sierras to look like at dawn. But too far away from Gopher Prairie?” she wonders. “Could the architects be lured all the way out here?”

Caroline clicks on Google to find the names of the designers and their contact info since she couldn’t find credits or citations for Eastlawn Middle School on Pinterest, or, for that matter, on the site of the school district itself. The first page fills up with doleful stories about how beautiful the parents find the school and how disappointed they are in that there’s “no education going on inside — no books, no teachers in attendance, and example of the New Jim Crow.”

Caroline recoils, then pushes on with another query “architects of Eastlawn Middle School.” A minority-run design and construction firm. “That’s good,” she thinks, bookmarking the site. “We want diversity. Then she reads about the firm’s “Build before You Build” program using BIM technology. “That’s good too. We want to be part of the design process, for everyone to feel part of it and this will help.” She clicks on a tab that says White Papers. She finds only two, both by the firm’s chief architect from 2010, one of which describes the difference between CAD drawings and BIM that she saves for later.

Then she checks out the leadership. Nice looking smiles, Big Brother contributors, minority business awardees, ground-breaking hard hat photos, all fairly generic though genuine enough. A listing of values, hiding like clams in identical vertical slats: “Honesty, integrity, workmanship, community…” feels tedious. Then, redoubling her efforts, she clicks upper left to the company blog where Caroline spots an embarrassing typo about the school’s design helping students acheive. The first post shows a black hole with the caption “user deleted” and the next a Happy Holidays, Best Wishes dated December 22, 2015.

Despite her disappointment, the robust volumes and friendly glow of the high sierras which inform the school’s design keeps her clicking for more of a connection. She’d like to pierce the boilerplate, tap into the firm’s creative heart. But even the firm’s Facebook page and Twitter feed offer the same Holiday greeting and not much else.  The broken link back to the Eastlawn project begins to irritate her.

Had this talented firm assigned blog duty to a lowly intern who “knows about computers” and who moved on right after the holidays? Are they still in business? Caroline asks herself, feeling a chill. Enlightening her esteemed school board chair with a lesson in how easy it is to find extraordinary (though budget-conscious work) might not be the snap she thought it would be.

Then why not go to sites where some of the curating has already been done for her? So she Googled “Architecture News” with the first page coming up with Arch Daily at number one with an Alexa Traffic Ranking she noted of 5,584 in the U.S., followed by Dezeen, Designboom, Archpaper, and the AIA’s Architect magazine with a ranking of 27,471 in the US.

“How did these webzines earn their high rankings from Alexa? She asked herself.  Had they gone to the trouble of seeking keywords in all their posts—what she recalled as Search Engine Optimization or SEO—seeding “architecture” and “news” three times in every paragraph of every post, or had this come about more organically?

Then cleverly typing in a slight word change: news about architecture Caroline came up with a sponsored site at the top of Google’s first page called Places: Public scholarship on architecture, landscape and urbanism. Though the site was unrated by WOT (Web of Trust), Caroline was, in effect, looking at an ad, she didn’t hesitate to click it. “I’d like to find some scholarly recognition for the firm we use, some awards, some distinction that can make us all proud here in Gopher Prairie,” she said to herself.

Searching middle schools on the Places ‘zine, a prominent post pondered the state of Cuban art schools. “Though justly famous…are we overlooking the larger narrative of post-revolutionary Cuban architecture?” Drilling down to the author/architect of the piece she discovered he had designed a student center in Japan along the lines of kaso, or house physiognomy, at the client’s request. “Sounds like feng-shui in China,” Caroline mused. “And isn’t it true? The energy just has to feel right for our students and teachers, especially when you’re spending $67 million of taxpayer money. For example, those so-called poison arrows someone was talking about that come from sharp angles coming at you, like the edge of table, or an abrupt corner. “Need to look into that,” Caroline thought, “though I can imagine the very notion of kaso flipping out the Chair: ka-so-what!”

She returned to the blog about the Cuban art schools to see if she could engage with the architect/author there. But there were no comments and as a non-AEC member she felt intimidated to go first.

Caroline paused on her laptop for a moment, closing in her eyes and taking a deep breath.

 What about her own middle school had made her feel good so many years ago? It was the winding paths. How going from place to place—say from the music room to the assembly hall to the gym and back to your homeroom was an adventure all by itself. Every day there was something new, a different perspective, different skips and hops and turns to make, slow like a floating bird, or sharp like a toy soldier!

Would an architect ever re-create such delight? Would he or she get it? She searched middle schools on The Architect magazine site, obtaining 275 results. The first posts with their images of soaring, cathedral-like and cantilevered roof lines made delighted her. If these projects inspired her, surely they would inspire others. She would drill down, find out more and bring that spirit back to Gopher Prairie.

She found a beautifully sculpted middle school in Canada. Its architect said the post merged modernism with a knowledge of naval architecture. She went right to his site and emailed for info@. But within seconds the mail came back as “undeliverable.” Maybe they’re out of business too, she thought, growing despondent.

One more try: she Googled “award-winning middle school architecture” and right away found first among 1,740,000 results, the Association of Learning Environments. It held promise, but was frustrating to navigate. The only way to get in was to go to Archives. Then one treasure of a building after another emerged from cyberspace with kaso to burn!

Whatever energy and expenditures the AEC community had allocated to reach Caroline and influence the school board’s decision-making, it’s fair to say at least half of those allocations has been working…so far. But which half?

 Stay tuned for Part 2: Linking In and Lucking Out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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