Architects; you can't live with them and you can't live without them

March 6, 2014

The basketball coach just wanted good light for basketball while the Architect was more worried about the “ambiance” in the Gymnasium.

“Lady, we don’t want to start a Cathouse, we just want to play basketball” – junior high PE teacher and basketball coach to the Architect from Boston checking to see if the lighting in the gymnasium had the proper “ambiance”.

Watson: Why would anyone want to start a Cathouse? What does that have to do with basketball anyway?

Holmes: Being from France Watson, you may not be that familiar with basketball in Indiana. It’s a religion and nothing is allowed to stand in the way of a winning team.

We were serving as energy manager for a 20 building community school system in a small town in southern Indiana. As the town grew, a 30 year old elementary school and 40 year old middle school became overcrowded so the School Board decided to hire an architectural firm to design expansions for both buildings. Neither building was air conditioned and the projects were to include adding air conditioning to both the old and new sections.

Watson: I know very little about the process of designing a new addition to an existing building. What happened first?

Holmes: With funding from a local industry, the board put together a group of experts who provided a list of recommended architectural firms. The board selected the ones that they were interested in and set up interviews. It was a lengthy process but as a result of those interviews they selected a firm from Boston.

Watson: What was the next step?

Holmes: The principal of the firm and her entourage came to the town to inspect the schools, talk to key school employees as well as city and business leaders. After the team left I was talking to Dick, the Director of Buildings and Grounds for the schools who I had been working closely with since we had become the energy managers. He seemed pretty discouraged.

Dick was capable and dedicated and did his best to keep twenty buildings, safe, clean and comfortable with a few custodians, one mechanical systems technician, a small budget and almost no money for outside contractors. One way he could help control his costs was to try to standardize his suppliers, equipment and replacement parts. He had a tough job walking the political fence trying to keep everyone happy; from the Members of the School Board to the Superintendent, teachers, custodians, students and parents. He was good at it. He had worked for the schools for 30 years.

He told me that he had spent a week with the architect and her design team trying to give them his requirements and suggestions for buildings he could afford to maintain. “They didn’t take a single suggestion I made. It was pretty clear right from that start that they viewed themselves as the experts. They knew what they were doing. They were from Boston. I was just a little hick from Southern Indiana.”

Watson: How did the projects turn out?

Holmes: Fast forward a couple of years after the new additions were finished. The lighting in the new gym in the middle school was so low, it was hard to see the baskets. Mold was growing throughout both buildings, neither of which had ever had a problem in the previous 30-40 years before the air conditioning was added. The new additions were concrete block and exposed steel girders painted bright red. Added to the beautiful older brick buildings, in my opinion the additions look like Yugos welded on the side of Mercedes.

The community was up in arms. The architect had come back to see what could be done about the problems. She was in the new gym checking the lighting when the coach walked in. Of course the coach had no idea who she was, but he would have used the same words even if he had. His job was to produce winning basketball teams, not be a diplomat.

Watson: Sounds like the Architect and the Coach had different, so to speak, “goals”. He just wanted good light for basketball while she was more worried about the “ambiance”. Apparently Energy Engineering isn’t the only profession where the Theory and the Real World don’t always agree. Couldn’t they have included someone on their design team who had experience in both worlds to bridge the gap?

Holmes: In hind sight the School Board should have hired Larry Bird as a consultant. The “Hick from French Lick (in southern Indiana)” as he was fondly called during his glory years with the Celtics, knew more than a little about basketball and gymnasiums in both Indiana and Boston.

Note: The coach actually used a different word which the authors deemed inappropriate for naïve employees of industrial plants.

Tell us about your experiences, both good and bad with energy professionals, what has worked and what hasn’t. Send us your comments, thoughts and suggestions on how to improve our profession so we can all continue to learn from each other. Thanks – Holmes & Watson.

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