Texas-based Bob Borson of Life of an architect gives the impression of being an architect of dreams, sprinkled with solution-finding features and topped off with humorous statements that simply make you think twice about all the harsh things said about this profession. There is no way you will not become a fan of his style – his insight into the architectural world is both informative and funny, always filtered through his own experience. People reading his blog are already familiar with the reasons he became an architect, but Freshome went deeper into his world, finding out what makes him so positive, creative and easy to work with.
Your profession is said to be #4 out of Top 10 happiest professions. How does your personal experience rank architecture among your friends and acquaintances with different jobs?
That’s a really interesting question but I’m not sure I can qualify it. One of the things that seems to happen to me with great regularity is that when people find out that I am an architect, the next sentence out of their mouth is almost always “I thought about becoming an architect … but I’m not very good at math” or “I can’t draw.” I wonder how often that happens to other professions? It seems that most people associate how much money they could have made should they have chosen to become a doctor or a lawyer but with architects, people seem to think about what it would be like to do the work. That seem to be unique to our profession … and to veterinarians possibly.
You give a happiness vibe in everything you write – what keeps you so connected to your clients and readers?
I like to think I am a happy person but the truth is that I make an effort to sound happy and to point out the positive side to things when I write or when I am telling a story. Maybe it’s because I have a young child that I am still trying to shield the realities of certain circumstances so I spend more time thinking about it but there is so much negativity out there I made it a priority to not add to pile.
Customized homes need to be an extension of and support the owner’s lifestyle – what is the one thing you leave behind to remind people of your style?
Hopefully the thing I leave behind is the experience. There might be a lot of little nuances that were my decision that I made without direction or input from the client but I try and get everyone as involved as possible. Designing a custom home can be a tremendously rewarding experience or it can be stressful and a burden. I strive to use my personality to help convey options to the client and have them be involved in the decision making process because having ownership in a thing doesn’t just mean you paid for it, it also implies that you are responsible in creating it.
Architects are known to turn impossible into possible – how do you deal with apparently impossible tasks when building a structure?
How do I deal with apparently impossible tasks? …. loss of sleep is my normal reaction. A famous architect Lou Kahn once said “you can’t chew pencils and spit ideas”, a quote that has always resonated with me because it implies that working hard doesn’t necessarily translate into solutions. As a result, I think the way I get around impossible tasks is to try and turn a negative into a positive by asking how I can come at a problem differently and work with a challenge rather than trying to hide, ignore, or work around the issue.
What is the most important object without which you couldn’t do your job?
I’m sure there are a lot of clever answer for this one but the basic truth of the matter is that I need a pencil. I’m at that in-between age where I still learned how to hand draw even though all of my work now is mostly done on a computer. With a pencil I can communicate ideas, process and technique.
Which part of your dream home has already been dreamed in terms of space, colors, textures?
This is a painful question for me to answer, I think it’s almost impossible to answer. My dream home changes daily because of the way I think about space, color and textures. Starting with a blank piece of paper, having no rules, requirements or budgets (this is a dream house right?) is incredibly difficult. I prefer designing to some sort context – whether it be geographically or stylistically – so any dream home I dream up is always different because of the parameters I dream up along with it.
How do you get through those days when you lack motivation and would shun away from your profession for a few hours?
Other than I have no choice than to get through those days, I tend to find some other sort of creative outlet just to distract myself for a while. It’s part of the reason I started writing (if you could call it that, it’s more like talking and then writing it down) on my web site.
Many people come to your blog for advice – how has this changed your vision on interacting with clients?
The process of people asking for advice hasn’t change my vision but it has refined it. When I started my blog, one of my goals was to not write about architecture and design for other architects but for everyone else. Now that I’m written something like 450 articles, I’ve become much more adept at explaining my thought process using words that are part of most people’s everyday language. Unfortunately, architects are known for using words that only they seem to know and I find that a bit off-putting. This entire process – working with clients – has more to do with helping them create the vision that’s in their head but they aren’t able to effectively communicate it … that’s my job. I help them get their ideas out and refined, sort of a “I protect you from yourself” mentality. Good communication skills allow me to do that without being insulting or condescending.
What have you learned from the last project you completed?
Make sure to tell the clients not to turn on the water to the pool. The contractor had added a few feet of water to the pool to check some of the seals but they hadn’t installed to overflow valve just yet. That would normally be okay because the contractor knows this and as s result didn’t fill the pool up. The owners of the house came home, saw the water in the pool and thought “it looks great, lets finish filling it up!” So they turned the water on, continued touring the progress on the rest of the house and then forgot to turn the water off. As result the pool overflowed and caused some damage to the basement area.
How has life changed for you since winning the Dallas Chapter American Institute of Architects “Young Architect of the Year” award in 2009?
Other than being a feather in my cap and a nice plaque on the wall, not too much has changed since receiving the award. The AIA defines a “Young Architect” as someone who has been licensed for 10 or fewer years … and I think I won the award on my ninth year. That, along with the fact that I have had white hair since I was in my late 20’s and look a little older than I really am, set me up for some good natured ribbing among my friends, almost all of it centered around the word “young.”
Residential constructions are financed with money as well as dreams – what is the process you go through with clients to ensure you understand each other and end in a rewarding result for both sides?
We have a lot of meetings, we encourage people to bring in photographs of ideas and concepts that appeal to them, and we look at a lot of designs. The process is as lengthy and as through as the client requires. Some folks need a bit more process than others and some simply enjoy the exploration process. Either way the end result is collaborative and that is where the reward is created for both architect and client.
What compromises would you never be willing to do in the architecture field?
Hard to say really, all the ones that come to mind have more to do with me as a person than me as an architect. There are projects that as a younger man I didn’t think I would ever want to work on … now that I have a family and feel a responsibility for them, I try to make the focus on the process rather than the product. That having been said, I still try to find good clients rather than good projects. If you have good clients, all projects tend to be rewarding on some level. Good projects with bad clients always tend to wind up as bad projects.
Seeing that you balance family life and work so good, we would love to know what makes you achieve that balance while keeping a positive attitude.
That’s great! I am glad that the perception is that I’ve found some balance. I really owe that to my wife and daughter. My wife makes sure that I know what’s going on so that I don’t agree to be somewhere else for somebody else. My daughter just makes doing some things a lot of fun so I don’t want to miss out. I also try and set up some parameters that help create family time. I tend to go into work early so that I can leave at 5:00pm … even if that means getting into the office at 5:00am. I also try limit how much time I spend “working” (which includes working on my website) on the weekends. I tend to squeeze in some writing after my daughter has gone to bed and my wife is out jogging, anything I can do so that when the entire family is together, we can actually do things together.
Your lovely wife and daughter are also part of your blog – how has that helped you in your work?
Since one of the original goals of my site was to communicate about architecture and design to people who aren’t formally trained, I am always interested in hearing their take on things, what they find important or meaningful. It is surprising to me as an architect and designer to learn why someone responds to a certain space or environment. Normally they have a hard time putting their finger on it, they know they like it but struggle to articulate why they like it. They’ll say things like “it just feels right” and I get to pester them while trying to figure out what “it” is exactly.
We thank Bob for his always positive attitude and funny style. He let us into his exciting life both as an architect and as a person. Learning from each other is the best thing we can do to move things along, and he has already opened up to anyone following his blog. Good luck with your projects, Bob, whatever they will be! Also a warm thank you goes out to photographers Charles D. Smith and Michael Gilbreath.