Special Tool Engineering

This is my friends families' machine shop on the southwest side of Chicago. It was started by his grandfather; not surprisingly German. They have an absurd amount of really large heavy machines that can make just about anything you can dream up - to absurd tolerances.


Stock.



This is the coolant leaving the surface grinder.

Large plate bender.


Painting area.

Storage.

Large CNC mill.


More large CNC's.

Bridgeport endmill.

Surface grinder. It magnetizes the rotating bottom disk and uses a very large abrasive wheel to grind the face of the part flat.

Lathe.

Ronan Interview by BUILD

An interview with Chicago architect John Ronan, designer of the Poetry Foundation among others, by BUILD - one of my favorite Pacific Northwest firms. There's quite a few gems in there.
You only have a certain amount of energy, and you have to be selective about what you expend it on. It has to be worthwhile, in the end.
Poets employ words that everybody understands, but they use them in new ways that make language unfamiliar. 
 It’s a naïve notion that architecture is the answer to social problems. Sometimes I see these architectural “ideas” competitions and wonder, is more architecture the answer? 
The goal of the process is to almost make it look like it wasn’t designed; we should arrive at a point where the “design” is invisible and not constantly referring back to the author. At the same time, the design should look so natural that people might think, why would you do anything else? The goal is to get to that point where the design feels intuitively “correct.”
I had Ronan as a professor during my final semester at IIT. It turned out to be one of the best classes I've ever attended, and this interview reminds me of his succinct yet slightly acerbic manner of speaking. If confidence were water Ronan would be Lake Michigan.

Apathy Towards the NSA Leaks

I was at a bar that one of my friends runs near Wrigley Field when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. I hadn't considered that the area would turn into a full on mostly peaceful drunken riot. Not so bright in retrospect. I'll get back to this.

On the train there I read an article (worth reading) that outlined the blowback the US is beginning to experience from the rest of the world concerning the NSA leaks. It's intriguing because it's such a comprehensive non-US-centric view, and this isn't on the list of common talking points in the US. The main issue I and many people have had in reacting to the NSA programs is, what exactly does one do about it? Riot or demonstrate in the US? Not likely.

The crowds in Wrigleyville proved otherwise. The police can't control that many people, and if they tried to use violence it'd just bring more attention to it. The depressing part is that people will form en mass for hockey but not to protect the Bill of Rights, and I'm not bashing people liking sports. I just wish people gave a fuck about the world they live in. To be fair, it's not that obvious or easy as protests aren't planned for a specific time like a hockey game.

What's so strange about the whole affair is that the Obama Administration and Congress are walking in lock step on the matter; the first issue both parties have agreed since I can remember (wtf?). Obama mostly keeps talking about how he's going to extradite Snowden, but not a single person I've talked to wants this. Yet he keeps saying it as if to pacify. What we want is for you to stop acting like the Stasi, or maybe just keep your campaign promise (italics are my emphasis):
Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Update: Obama doesn't think this is a big deal.

Government Agencies Hiring Architects: Kind of a Waste of Time

Disclaimer: This post represents my views and not that of the firm I am employed at.

Recently the architecture firm I work for submitted what is known in the Architecture and Engineering (A/E) community as an RFQ (request for qualifications) for the City Colleges of Chicago's new Malcolm X College. An RFQ consists of sheets detailing relevant work that the firm has engaged in recently, proof that the firm is insured, forms signaling that the firm doesn't have conflicts of interest, financial statements going back several years, etc. You get the point. It's a lot of information. I was in charge of putting together the RFQ for my firm along with the fifteen other firms we partnered with.

The project itself is an educational facility that has a teaching hospital component and a budget of $251 million. My firm designed two of the three hospitals that Malcolm X College has a partnership with, so we're familiar with the area and its stakeholders. We specialize in healthcare, teaching hospitals, high rises, corporate centers, and higher education.

The A/E team that won the contract can expect to see maybe 4.5%-6.5% of the $251 million budget, so the design fee will be roughly $12-$15 million which gets split between more than a dozen professions - structural engineers, architects, geotechnical engineers, etc. It's the kind of money that allows you to expand your office and hire additional staff.

Submitting for these RFQ's is a gamble. They consume a lot of time and energy that could go towards billable work. I personally put in well over 160 hours for this proposal and there were multiple people who worked with me. The document we produced is 290 pages and was coordinated between sixteen separate consulting firms. The submission required multiple physical copies in addition to electronic copies that had to be couriered over to the CCC's headquarters. All of this is done at our expense. We aren't reimbursed for anything. I would conservatively place the cost to my firm, not including the cost to our consultants, at well over $10,000 and probably closer to $20,000 or more. To be clear, we are aware that this is a gamble and typically only go after jobs that we think we are highly qualified for and have a good chance of winning.

We were selected for a call back after the initial submission, so we had to produce yet another set of booklets and show up for an interview. This requires more preparation, more printing, and more hours. We then had a second call back that was followed by more questions:

"Does your firm have enough people for a job of this size?"

"We have nineteen people in our office and we've partnered with another firm that is similarly sized. We also plan to hire additional staff." And the truth is that today's software (BIM, Revit) is so powerful that really this project could be done by maybe less than ten people in our office if they worked on it full time. We've designed buildings that were many times this size (Water Tower Place, Prudential Plaza/Tower, Old Orchard Shopping Center, etc.)

"Your team is very diverse but what about your firm?"

Crickets. How do you tell a review committee that your firm went from roughly 65 people to nineteen in the matter of a couple years? Architecture is feast or famine and right now we're starving. We used to be diverse and to some degree we still are. We're just not the kind of diverse they're looking for.

It was announced (source) that Moody Nolan, a firm based in Columbus, Ohio, won the contract. Their Chicago office has nine people (related). They also happen to be the largest African American owned architecture firm in the US; a fact that both the mayor and CCC are very proud of.

Moody Nolan is qualified to do the work and I harbor no ill will towards them, but why did the CCC pick a non-Chicago based firm? Especially since they keep touting how many jobs the project will bring to the Chicago area. Why did they question our size if they picked a firm that's local office is less than half of our size? This contract is for design development and construction documents (the design was done by Canon Design) so it will have to be handled locally with feet on the ground. Why did they question the racial makeup of our firm if we exceeded the MBE/WBE requirement (25% minority, 7% female) by almost three-fold? Are you really telling me they couldn't find a qualified architecture firm in Chicago?

I call shenanigans.

Many of the RFQ's we submit for are to some extent a ploy. The agencies asking for them are largely going through the process to satisfy legal requirements, but then choose not the most qualified firm but the one that fits whatever profile it is that they're looking for. And that's to be expected, but don't drag us along and waste our time and money. We don't have any to spare.

After the announcement my firm had a very terse Monday morning meeting. We were told that five people would be laid off by the end of the day and everyone else's hours would be cut by 20%. Just fourteen more people and an almost century old Chicago architecture firm will be out of business.

The Strike Is Not About Teacher's Pay

The Chicago Sun Times published this:
Chicago Public Schools starting salaries are among the highest in the region... But the annual increases for teachers in CPS are much smaller than the annual increases in many suburban districts. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree, 30 additional credit hours, and ten years of experience, can expect to earn $87,513 in Evanston this year; last year, in Oak Park, a teacher would have made $88,978. In Chicago this year, the same teacher will earn $75,711 — about $12,000 a year less than in districts to which he or she could walk or take public transportation from a home in Chicago. Over the course of a career, that difference amounts to over a quarter of a million dollars.
Except that average household income in those cities is far higher than Chicago's:

Chicago - $45,700
Evanston - $67,700 (48% more)
Oak Park - $70,600 (65% more)

If the citizens of those areas were to pay the same percentage as Chicagoan's then the respective salaries would be roughly (using the numbers quoted which I find slightly inaccurate):

Evanston - $112,000
Oak Park - $125,000

By that measure Chicago is actually doing quite well. If you figured in benefits it'd be even more lopsided. The strike is not about salaries. 70% of CPS's (2012) budget is spent on employees:

Textbooks - $74 million
Construction - $391 million
Teacher's Medical - $348 million
Teacher's Salaries - $2,085 million
Total Employee Salary and Benefits - $3,584 million
Total Budget - $5,110

... and 1.4% on textbooks. I know this may come off as anti-teachers or whatever but the real target here is the author of the offending article and the newspaper that printed it. It's bad journalism.

CPS vs Chicago - 2012 Edition

I've written a little about this before. This article doesn't address the social issues or milieu of other complexities the situation entails. The Chicago Teacher's Union asked for a 19% raise as compensation for an extended school day, and as of Sunday night they rejected a 16% raise over four years. I know there are other issues at stake, I just want to figure out what this means monetarily for Chicago.

Chicago's budget this year (2012) is $8.2 billion while CPS's is $5.2 billion (2013 proposed), so over 63% of Chicago's expenditures goes to CPS. That's $1920 per resident (2.71 million people in the city). Of that $5.2 billion, $2.7 billion goes to teachers and support personnel salaries; $3.6 billion if you include benefits. The 19% raise comes out to $510 million a year in additional salary, $190 extra per Chicago resident, or an increase of over 6% to the City of Chicago's spending. If Chicago's budget doesn't change that would mean the remaining roughly 37% of expenditures would go down to about 31%. Other items on the budget would need to be reduced by about 16 or 17% to pay for this.

I'm not saying that each resident will have to literally pay that bill themselves. I'm using that measuring stick t bring it to a human scale.

What does all this mean (this is where the opinion part starts)? It means there's no way the city can be fiscally responsible and actually give the CTU what it wants. At the same time how can you ask the teachers to work a longer day without more pay? It's like asking them to admit they've been overpaid for years. The point is, I don't see either side walking away from this unscathed. It's another example of Americans wanting lots of services but being unwilling to pay the necessary taxes.

Here are the sources, I recommend the first one, it's the most interesting:

CPS 2012 Proposed Budget Overview

City of Chicago Proposed 2012 Budget Overview

CPS 2013 Budget Press Release

Picturequote

"I want money in order to buy the time to get the things that money will not buy." - Carl Sandburg

This is my friend Derek on my roof a few months back. The buildings from left to right are Lake Point Tower, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Building, the Aon center, Two Prudential Plaza, Trump Tower, and the IBM Tower (333 North Wabash) - in case you were curious...



Masters Thesis Project

I've been neglecting this blog because I'm in the middle of my masters thesis project (architecture at IIT). I've partnered up with seven other students to do a design build project -- first you design it, then you build it, and somewhere in between you raise money, go through zoning and permitting, encounter unimagineable problems, redesign the building a million times, did I mention fundraising?, and have 5.97 x 10^24 meetings.

Our project is located on the South Side of Chicago at 43rd and a few blocks west of State St. at a place called Eden Place Nature Center. We're building them a school that looks out over their prairie. Here's our website and a video I just completed: