Monday, December 28, 2015


Tough Questions
Member Spotlight:  Rita Saikali Carter, Assoc. AIA

By Lance Bird, FAIA
Principal LCDG 

I met Rita Carter at the September Chapter Board Meeting.  Energetic, well-read and focused, Rita recently reflected on the challenges our young members face. 

To get to know her, I asked…

            Favorite color – “used to be red, but it’s too aggressive.  I’ve changed to orange.”  

            Favorite ice cream?  Hmmm…put her in the chocolate family. 

            Favorite car – For Rita a car provides convenience and should be affordable.                                Money no object, it would be a Toyota Prius. 

From Lebanon, Rita got her undergraduate degree from Cal Poly Pomona, followed with a Masters from Columbia.  Married, no kids.  One exam to go and she’ll be licensed.  Senior Designer at Steinberg in Downtown L.A.  Small projects:  higher education, some multi-residential.  Formerly with HMC. 

Rita participated in Architecture for Humanity at AIA/Los Angeles.  She met Mark Gangi a couple of years ago and with his encouragement, joined the Pasadena & Foothill chapter.  She laments:  “There are so many skills architects are not taught.  For instance, most architects are clueless about the importance of relationships:  between colleagues, with clients.”  

Concerns of Young People in our Profession – “We often feel left out.”  Firm leaders need to be inclusive, and create opportunities for those on the license track.  As a thoughtful soon-to-be architect, she has many Big Questions.  We could devote chapters -- maybe a book to finding answers to any of these questions.  A diverse, collaborative team would be required.  And with the exponential growth of technology, our answers would be obsolete when we got there. 

#1 – “Why Architecture? (The purpose behind our services and products)” 

#2 – “Why is business acumen not taught in design school?”

#3 – “Does empathy belong in Architecture?”

#4 – “How will you survive? (Are you, your family, your firm, your business prepared to bounce back from disaster?)

Disaster Preparedness – Rita intends to lead the charge, crafting a plan for our chapter members.  When least expected, disaster can strike.  It could be the next earthquake or El Nino.  Contact Rita at, if you’d like to be a part of this effort.   

Why Architecture?  - I attended AIACC’s Healthcare Facilities Forum October 22nd.  The kickoff speaker was Dr. John Mattison, MD, chief medical information officer at Kaiser-Permanente.  He points out the explosion of technology and the impact on society and healthcare.  Today the world’s largest transportation company is Uber; the largest hotel chain, Airbnb.  Big Data is reinventing healthcare delivery. 

  • From 1983, cell phone ownership has grown to 10 billion.  In remote villages, access to the internet through cell phones may be more important than water!
  • In five years, Kaiser expects to deliver 50% of their services at home. 
  • Previously undreamed of cures are occurring through stem cell therapy.
  • Through technologies like OpenNotes, patients will soon have access to their medical files.
The impact of technology and the corresponding societal changes should be similar in architectural practice.   

Architects synthesize information to solve problems.   To get ten steps ahead of the technology revolution (or even two steps ahead), we need to get beyond style, finishes, new materials and project delivery.  Using healthcare as an example, if healthcare delivery will be in the home, not in billion dollar medical centers, what should our response be?   

Read Michael Storper’s “How, and why, L.A. lost its economic mojo”, L.A. Times Op-Ed, page A27, 10/25/15.  In 1970, L.A. was ranked fourth in the nation for income per capita.  The Bay Area was ranked 1st.  Today, the Bay Area is still number one.  The five-county Los Angeles region is ranked 25th.  The Bay Area Council advocates for the economic future. 

            “It (Southern California) …must replace isolation and fragmentation with networking and   connectivity.  It has to turn away, once and for all, from low-cost, low wage             manufacturing.  It has to once again live up to its potential as anything but stodgy.” 

In the above statement, substitute “Architecture” for “Southern California”.  That’s where we can begin. 


AIA PF August 2015 Newsletter

Member Spotlight – Nazanin Zarkesh, AIA
If not now, never 

By Lance Bird, FAIA
Principal LCDG

July 1st Nazanin and Lance met for lunch at Universal CityWalk to talk about her recent move to Universal Studios Hollywood-Creative. Nazanin was with LCDG for nearly 13 years. 

LB:  What inspired you to move from a traditional architectural practice to become a Corporate Architect?

NZ:  I always wanted to experience a larger firm with more opportunities for growth. I was at a point in my life that I needed a big change. If not now, never.  As we get older, it gets harder to make changes and who would say “no” to Universal Studios. I like the short commute.  I’m able to attend more of my son’s school activities.  His school is in the neighborhood.  I’m getting to know my own community. 

LB:  What are the notable differences in your day to day activities?

NZ: Walk in the Park and CityWalk.  More meetings.  More stakeholders.  Lots of new things to learn and to do for each projects (which I love).  It’s challenging not to know the players, rules and language.  I worry less about getting plan check approval as I hire A-E firms to do that part. But I review their drawings to make sure they are coordinated and meet the project’s intent. 

LB:  What are the challenges…and the fun aspects of Universal?

NZ:  The challenges have to do with so many unknowns (I’m a newcomer).  Politics.  I need to keep everyone informed and happy, yet I can’t always be the nice guy.  Every project has a specific goal, budget and schedule.  The most important one is the schedule.  There is a short period in the year when most construction happens. At Universal, it’s about keeping our “guests” happy.   

I like the social part.  They are laid back and fun.  They joke and laugh. There are more choices for friends.  This is the entertainment world.  They talk about movies, concerts and what’s new in the park.   By working here, we become a member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and can attend events for free.  It’s fun to walk through the park and have our projects right here. 

LB:  Do you think working in the entertainment industry takes a certain personality/ aptitude?

NZ:  Absolutely.  You have to be flexible and sociable.  If criticized, you have to remain open and learn from it.  An older person might have a hard time. 

LB:  Would you suggest this kind of move to your colleagues?

NZ:  Yes.  You will learn from any change. The entertainment industry is different from the typical office and school projects I was doing. Working as the owner project manager, I need to know every little detail of the existing infrastructure to inform the A-E and the contractor. I have learned so much about electrical requirements, amps, watts, circuit breakers -- things I relied on my consultants for, but now need to know so I am on top of my game.

LB:  As a Corporate project manager, you are working with architects from the other side of the table – can you share any shortcomings you see AND/OR positive attributes of architects you are working with? 

NZ:  There are so many in house coordination needs to be done, so when it is time to hire/work with an architect, we need someone who is responsive, provides a complete proposal and is easy to work with. Our frustration is working with A-E teams that do poorly coordinated work.  We appreciate firms who are proactive not reactive.

Citizen Architect (aka Mission: Impossible)
By Lance Bird, FAIA
Principal LCDG

With just five months to the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump has “fired up the crazies” in the G.O.P according to John McCain.  Trump is not afraid to be politically incorrect.  Fearless?  Stupid?  Stupid like a fox.   Does this bother you?  Will you get involved with the election process, supporting candidates that can stop the downward spiral of our country?   Our government is screwed up in so many ways, yet as a profession we remain mostly silent.  In the next 14 months, how many of us will speak up and make a difference?   

I first heard the phrase “Citizen Architect” from Chet Widom, FAIA.  Founder of a successful Santa Monica practice, former national AIA president, and now our State Architect, Chet is truly a “citizen architect”.  Our own past president, Mark Gangi, AIA, leads AIA’s national Citizen Architect committee, through AIA’s Center for Civic Leadership.  Mark and many other well-intentioned architects encourage our members to get involved with local government, serving on design committees, planning commissions, councils and more.  As a profession, we understand the big picture, are knowledgeable about urban planning, sustainability, and much more. We have that critical trait, passion.   

Mission:  Impossible.  99% of us will do nothing but complain.  What’s up? 

- We don’t make enough money to afford time for community work
- We’re too busy at work
- With both husband and wife working we share the load at home raising children and running the household
- We’ve given up on the political process (2016 is projected to be the lowest voter turnout for a presidential election in history)
- Many architects are more comfortable dealing with things then people
- Less than 10% of registered architects could be considered “leaders” 

“…provide factual information to those with courage….” 

As a body of local architects can we provide factual information to those with the courage and commitment to run for office, or serve as a volunteer for community commissions? Could we be a voice to local media like KPCC and the L.A. Times?  This could start with chapter members brainstorming; defining issues we know something about.  What are the most critical issues?  The priorities?  Determine one or two of the biggest issues we know something about, prepare facts, and share them with the public.   

Do all of this without taking a liberal or conservative approach.  State the facts.  Let the politicians reveal what they can support.  To volunteer or state your opinion contact:

·         Mark Gangi, AIA, AIA Nat’l Citizen Architect chair –
·         Mitchell Sawazy, AIA, AIA P&F president –
·         Lance Bird, FAIA – 

For more of Lance’s thoughts on architecture and technology, see 

Mark Gangi’s comments:   A couple of other thoughts.  Architects often lament about the position that we held in our communities in the past as trusted advisors, and leaders.  Architects from that time period will point out that the reason they were at the center of activity is they got out of their office and positioned themselves as activists – they were engaged as citizen architects!  That’s why they held prominent positions in their communities.   

Architects are considered trustworthy and ethical by the public, which is a good trait to have in politics these days.  We are also good at it as we explore the facts to arrive at the best conclusion – often exploring multiple solutions simultaneously rather than linearly.  It is engrained in our training and is a great talent to have for creative problem solving.  ‘If you aren’t at the table you are on the menu’ 

Members should be aware of the Leadership Institute through AIAN, and our event on October 23rd.  Steve Lewis and I will be travelling to Phoenix to assist. 

2015 is AIA Year of the Advocate.  Sign up to the advocacy network: 

If you are currently a Citizen Architect, as an elected, appointed, or volunteer that uses their time to enhance the physical environment,  please register as a citizen architect at AIA and allow us to connect with you and recognize you for your work. 

Read about other things the AIA Center for Civic Leadership is doing, and how you can get involved:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Member Spotlight - Mitchell Sawasy, AIA, FIIDA

He looks you in the eye with a relaxed smile.  He listens and he has fresh ideas.  His enthusiasm ignites the room.  These were my first impressions of Mitch when we met for lunch over a tri tip salad and breadsticks at the Stonefire Grill on a fall day two years ago. 2013 president Alek Zarifian introduced us all and Nazanin, VP at the time, joined us planning her 2014 Board of Directors.  

Mitch was a local AIA member we had hardly heard of.  His focus was interiors, international interiors with offices in South Pasadena and South America.  He’s a designer with a strong understanding of what it is to own your own firm, establishing RSA with Mark Rothenberg in 1979.  Recognized for his exceptional leadership, he has been honored by IIDA (International Interior Design Association) as a fellow, and has served in various posts culminating as International President in 2008-09.      

The Pasadena-Foothills Chapter Board could also see his talents, enthusiastically supporting his election and rise to 2015 President.  His is a leadership of collaboration.  The rich, diverse programs we have each month are testimony to what he brings to the chapter. 

“His is a leadership of collaboration”   

Like the rest of us, as an architect Mitch was hurt by the recession.  He and his partner split and Mitch founded Sawasy Studio Partners Architects in 2012.  Mitch missed the large, complex projects and the collaborative spirit of energetic teams.  Challenges diminished.   

Events conspire to change our personal and career directions.  I remember Mitch’s installation as VP at the Altadena Town & Country Club.  His wife and father joined in the celebration.  I learned his dad was living with them and in failing health.  A year later he was gone.  The impact of losing a loved one forces us to think of our own legacy and end game.  Mitch was ready for a change.  Well timed, the international firm of Harley Ellis Devereaux called him and quickly recognized Mitch’s many talents.  When HED offered him a job as Studio Leader for their Corporate Commercial group, he couldn’t say ‘no’. 
After 35 years as the boss, our Chapter President is working for someone else.  My May interview with him revealed many insights.   

Getting to know Mitch before making the offer, HED had him thinking about what he really likes to do, like…

  • Enjoying people
  • Collaboration
  • Nurturing young people
  • Working on large projects
  • Stability.
His office had become small and specialized, doing residential and commercial interior tenant projects.  He didn’t like doing proposals and preparing contracts.   

Mitch faced a paradox.  He says “to me, it’s hard to give up freedom.  But you don’t have freedom if you can’t hand off work.”  Small firm leaders often fail to delegate.  In a large firm you can expect stability and a steady paycheck. 
A lot can happen in less than two years, from a tri tip salad at Stonefire Grill, to chapter president, to studio head for an international firm.  His star continues to rise. 


Design Leadership

After the economic meltdown and a challenging five years, creativity has taken command and it’s on steroids.  Designers in every industry understood – “evolve or die”.  To capture opportunities has required a vigorous approach.   As designers we have a plethora of new tools and materials to choose from.   They’re often economical and vibrant, with less impact on the environment.   

“creativity has taken command and it’s on steroids” 

Evidence is abundant.  World-wide, construction is booming.  In Los Angeles, the Wilshire Grand Center; transformation of the L.A. River; big plans for the Los Angeles County Art Museum; a boom in multifamily housing; the emerging tech center in Culver City; and an ever-expanding transit system.    

Clients want an architect on crazy jobs.  We’re leading a design team replacing HVAC units in aging schools and another team installing a VoIP system in the headquarters of a major utility.  And we’re helping a local city develop and integrate their infrastructure and facility data into an easily accessible form.  Why don’t they just hire engineers?  Clients recognize an architect’s leadership skills and ability to synthesize complex problems.    

New Materials and Robotics – Have you seen this months’ Metropolis (April 2014)?  Consider this quote from page 16:  “Though few of us attempt to dive into the cultural tsunami we’re riding, we feel this massive wave raging and roiling around us.  It’s sweeping through every aspect of our lives….”  You can expect a real shake up in new materials and fabrication techniques in the near future.  You know about 3D printing, and you realize we won’t be printing whole buildings.  Andreas Froech, designer-technologist, has linked robotic fabrication and architecture.  Working with architects, they are designing amazing new forms (see “Blobwall” by L.A. architect Greg Lynn and architect Clive Wilkinson’s “Superdesk”, a 1,100 foot long working surface).  At Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, experts are exploring nanotech materials that could self-assemble.   

World-wide Challenges – Here comes the “downer”.  Did you hear that Habitat for Humanity is in bankruptcy?  That will be fixed, but globally we face seemingly insurmountable problems.  A raging religious war in the Middle East.  The widening gap between rich and poor and the shrinking middle class.  Extreme poverty.  Global warming.  Rising oceans and water shortages in the west.  Yesterday I heard that one-third of the fresh water globally is consumed by the dairy and beef industries.  Yikes! 

Ethics, Architects, and Our Future – At last, our profession is talking about ethics.  See Architect, February 2015. The Harvard Graduate School of Design is requiring an ethics class for architecture students.  Architects share obligations with other professionals:  “Do no harm, pursue fairness in every engagement, behave appropriately” (page 41).  But beyond that, don’t designers face a dilemma each day as our clients tell us what they want?  Their wishes may not be right socially, environmentally, etc.   We are given a choice – do we take the job and take the money?   

So What? – Good news.  There’s a huge need for designer–architects. A couple of suggestions:  1) in your incredibly busy life, take time to ponder and think big;  2) consider what you can do to begin to solve our global problems by starting locally.  Do you know about Public Architecture’s 1% Program?  It’s pro bono service, giving back to those in need for 1% of your annual work hours.  That’s just 20 hours a year.  Embrace this program and you may discover how great the rewards are by helping others.   

Effective Leaders

Can you learn to be an effective leader?  Do you have the personality to be a leader?  Are you willing to take risks?  Are you decisive?  Last month I spoke of our profession’s failure to lead, evidenced by the trend for our clients to hire program/project management and construction management firms, diminishing our role.  

The Right Personality - Jason Ankeny writes in the March 2015, Entrepreneur, page 37 “A winning personality?  The center of the personality spectrum belongs to ambiverts – individuals with characteristics of both introverts and extroverts.  Could this balance equip them (you) to be superior business leaders?  In ambiverts you see a good balance between talking and listening.”  Ankeny refers to the book The Fall of the Alphas: The new Beta Way to Connect Collaborate, Influence—and Lead, by Dana Ardi, “which contends that business leaders must dump traditional vertical models of hierarchy and control (“alpha culture”) in favor of a more horizontal, inclusive approach.” The message is to balance talking and listening, and to be inclusive.   

Teamwork and Collaboration - Millennials get this.  They have grown up in an inclusive, participatory environment contrasting with Boomer’s top down culture.  School classrooms encourage children to work together in teams (pods) instead of the teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing to bored students.  Today as architects we collaborate with large, interdisciplinary design teams. We share Revit files, using clash detection to discover conflicts.  Is the strong movement towards Design-Build, Program/ Project Management, and Construction Management a logical result of ever-greater project complexity and a more collaborative, team-oriented culture? Like it or not, many clients are happy with the result.   

Project Delivery - Last year, TTG’s Edwin Najarian presented an IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) hospital project.  Armando Gonzalez, FAIA echoed Edwin’s praise of the approach stating “IPD is where it’s going” at the final 2014 First Friday Forum.  Stated simply, IPD can be a contract between owner, architect and builder, sharing project delivery risks.  The contract encourages stakeholders to work together towards the common goal of project success. Screw up and the resulting cost overruns (losses) are shared by the stakeholders.  IPD is being used on large, non-public projects.  Is it applicable to public projects and/or small projects?   

Decisive Leadership – Okay, so you think you can balance talking and listening.  You believe in teamwork.  Are you willing to take risks?  President Theodore Roosevelt may have said it best with “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Architects Failing As Leaders

Growing intrusion of non–architects into our world is a failure of architects as leaders.  

Design-Build, Program/Project Management, Construction Management.  Dominated by contractors and trained managers, this trend is putting architects in the back seat.  Clients hire architects as leaders of the process. But they seem to have lost confidence in our profession to manage the construction process when time and schedule equals big dollars.   

In the days of “Master Builders” life was simpler -- fewer regulations, less complex buildings.  Today it’s a more complex world.  We have larger projects and greater complexity.  Clients are more sophisticated and their knowledge and expectations greater.  The size and bureaucracy of public agencies has grown.  In few circumstances is a corporate or public “client” a single person.  Required approvals by five or more executives are common.  Building systems are more complex. Larger projects require a multitude of disciplines and during construction many trades.  This need has lead to greater specialization and greater demands on leaders. 

Architectural schools are not training leaders.  The focus is design.  Students learn to be competitive and to work as individuals.  Students find team projects challenging.  They fail to learn the value of collaboration.   Students don’t like the “pro practice” class and they aren’t learning the essential tools of management.  Do students know what “management” is?  Are they repulsed by the ghosts of business diminishing their design time and focus?   

Architects need to be leaders. If schools are failing, then our practices need to pick up the slack.  We need greater emphasis on training staff to lead the design-construction team.  Emerging professionals need to seek uncomfortable situations, understanding discomfort may mean an opportunity to grow.  Learn to speak up, with foresight and knowledge.  That means you do your homework before diving in.  In the office, expect your boss to give you leadership opportunities.  When given the chance, perform.  No opportunities?  Then find another job.   

Next month we’ll explore what you can do to become an effective leader, and the exciting prospects of Integrated Project Management (IPD), our chance to be a partner with owner and builder.