In a Shrinking City, An Architect Thrives on Passion

Blog Entry – In a Shrinking City, An Architect Thrives on Passion – Builder Magazine.

In the news this month, we learn from the U.S. census that New Orleans has shrunk by 30 percent since Hurricane Katrina. As with New York’s World Trade Center, ambitious promises and brave predictions of a strong, resilient rebound for New Orleans were, in hindsight, over-optimistic. The Washington Post had the story on February 4th (“Census shows a far less populous New Orleans,” by David Mildenburg. The New York Times also covered it (“Smaller New Orleans After Katrina, Census Shows,” by Campbell Robinson), as did the New Orleans Times-Picayune (“New Orleans neighborhoods that suffered worst flooding lost most residents, census data show,” by Michelle Krupa).

It’s a sad story — a town already down on its luck, hit by a tragic catastrophe. But New Orleans, like New York, is a mixed bag. And the Big Easy, like the Big Apple, has a lot going on, despite its troubles. I had a really interesting conversation last week with somebody who hasn’t left the city, and who’s still loving life there: Tulane-educated architect Peter Waring (website) I had called Waring to talk about a new window product that I ran into down at the Builders Show in Orlando in January — the WISP window, which incorporates an integrated fabric curtain for hurricane protection and shading.

The people at the WISP booth were citing Waring as a fan of their innovative system, and I wanted to check up on the testimonial for myself. Sure enough, Waring loves the WISP window — he calls it a “paradigm shifter.” And it is a good idea — the motorized curtain built into the rugged aluminum frame lets architects specify all kinds of standard glazing products for coastal high-wind situations, rather than being limited to expensive, hard-to-get laminated glass. I covered that story last month in Coastal Connection (“Curtain System Creates Impact-Proof Windows That Use Standard Glass”). But Peter Waring turned out to have more to talk about than just that one window system. As you might expect for someone who’s willing to be an early adopter of a new technology — in fact, when we talked, he was the first and only customer yet for WISP Windows — Peter is a guy who lives life pretty close to some kind of an edge. Like the city he loves, he’s out there taking chances. Architecture’s not just a way to make money for Peter (well, most architects can tell you that architecture is not a way to make money). It’s about living. Peter said to me, “Architecture is a double-edged sword. It’s what I do because it is that which answers that within me that calls, and nothing else will ever. It is an act of joy, and an act of desperation. Architecture is not a way to make a fortune. All too often, it is educating the ignorant, into doing what they are unwilling to do, at a price that they are not willing to pay.”

Okay, I thought to myself. Dude’s a poet. Okay. “So …” I asked him — “New Orleans?” He said, “It is so funky on so many levels and frankly, funky on the one hand; funked up on the other. So if you want to be of service — and I think that it’s important to me that I leave the camp as clean as I found it — you know, if one wants to be of service? New orleans is a good place to be able to make a difference. And it’s a place that is so easy to be passionate about, and it is so hard to understand, unless you come to New Orleans and sort of sit here for a little bit. And some people, it happens quickly to, and some people, they come here for school; and then they go away for ten years, and all of a sudden they find that there is something in them that’s calling. And it’s the magic dust that has worked its way into their joints and it’s just been aggravating them. Until it calls them back. It’s a city that’s got a lot of age. A lot of time. A lot of ghosts. A lot of open magic.” It takes a little audacity to talk that talk. But Waring is also walking the walk. One of his signature projects in recent years has been the house on Carr Drive in Slidell, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, in what Waring calls “an incredibly exposed location.” (Check out Carr Drive in Slidell on Google Maps — yep, it’s exposed.) This house has a windmill. Well, four windmills. It also has a ground-source heat pump that operates at an efficiency equivalent to SEER 30. The house, in fact, is designed to stand and survive alone in case of another catastrophic storm. “It has the ability to operate independently,” says Waring. “It has its own water well that comes up through the slab. It has its own generator that sits on the roof to supplement power in the event that the grid goes off.” After Katrina, the census showed, 90 percent of the population of some of the worst-hit neighborhoods in New Orleans never came back. But people like Peter Waring aren’t thinking that way. They’re staying.

So excuse me if I draw a lesson here — a parallel. You know, the disaster that hit New Orleans was dramatic, visually gripping, tragic, epic. But the loss of value in Katrina pales by comparison to the economic catastrophe that has struck the building industry, and the housing market, since 2008. The loss of value in America’s real estate and building meltdown is orders of magnitude greater than the destruction of New Orleans.

Now, we could react the same way some citizens of New Orleans did — get the hell out. And many of us have. But if we aren’t getting out — if we’re staying, and if we plan on staying next time too — then maybe we have to think about living and working the way Peter Waring is living and working: with a passion. With joy, and with desperation, because we’re doing what we love to do. Now, some builders are getting through this thing by playing conservative, and by pulling in their horns. You can build smaller, you can think smaller, you can budget and ration and wait. And that will probably work. But at the same time, builders can see this time as an opportunity to take chances. Like Meritage Homes, which has gone out on a limb with whole developments full of zero-energy houses in Arizona and in Texas (and they’re selling them). Or like the builders I profiled in Builder’s January State of the Industry report, “The New Normal” — people like Vermont’s Steve Sisler, who is taking advantage of slower schedules to re-train his people and streamline his operation, and who says “This is a great time to hire good help” — or like Scott Oberlink in Florida, who decided to re-invent his sales operation as a short-sale specialist, and who preserved the value in his neighborhoods by doing it — or like Matt Jones of Sabal Homes in South Carolina, who’s going head to head with much bigger competition in developments and who’s thriving by staying agile and flexible when the bigger boys can’t. These guys are surviving, sure — but when you talk to them, you somehow get the sense that in part, they’re doing it for fun.

When you talk to Peter Waring, it’s the same way. You know he’s working hard; but you also know that he just digs what he’s doing. Talking with Peter about his project on Carr Drive, I could sense the commitment. He said, “It was actually kind of a dangerous place to build. And so there were two ways to go about it. You couldbuild something that’s essentially disposable, and treat it as such; or you could make a decision to build something that is kind of on the caliber of, you know, an Irish lighthouse. That’s capable of taking anything that’s thrown at it, that is deliberately super-structured, that is deliberately armored, and that is equipped with the kind of energy efficient technologies, including cogeneration technologies, that will allow it to be something that a person could afford to live in. It’s very low maintenance; very very low operating and ownership costs; long, long, long-term durability; and no compromises in livability, or quality of lifestyle. And that’s what we did, and it was an extremely exciting project.”

Waring does commercial work as well as residential. What draws him isn’t the kind of work, or even, frankly, the money to be made. Instead, he’s chasing the challenge. He said, “People frequently ask me, ‘What do you specialize at?’ And I am quick to respond that I’m a specialist at being a generalist. To me, it’s more interesting to have a variety of peculiar and eccentric and unique jobs, rather than to go to one sort of franchise perspective, where you’re doing the same product again and again and again and again and again. Now, to some degree I think that people who do that make more money, and they probably sleep better at night. But at the end of their life, what do they have to say? Are they constantly engaged? Are they constantly growing? Are they constantly learning? And that’s what I want to do, and that’s how I look for candidates to work here with the firm. I am looking for people who are enamored of the journey. They’re not focused on the destination.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Ted Cushman

Ted Cushman attended Harvard College, served for four years as a U.S. Army paratrooper, and worked as a frame and finish carpenter for seven years before joining the staff of Hanley Wood’s Journal of Light Construction (JLC), where he anchored the news desk for 4 years and edited feature articles. Ted now covers the home building industry as a freelance writer from his base in the hills of Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, psychiatrist Cynthia Cushman and their three sons, Jack, Adrian, and Isaiah. In his 15-year career as a construction photojournalist, Ted has earned a national reputation for insightful, accurate, and practical coverage of home building techniques, building science, and housing economics.

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