08 Nov 2015

The First One — A Tale of Two Projects

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…that introduction to an American classic (Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities) is an equally fitting introduction to my Tale of Two Projects, both hope and despair, wisdom and foolishness, real and imagined. It was the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and ninety when I started my architectural engineering career in a moderate-sized design firm. It was a simpler time. We did things by hand. Our phones had cords. We used reference books and wrote with pens. We woke up every day and drove to an office. We talked to people face-to-face. We typed reports on a typewriter. We made our own lunch and we didn’t have the distractions we have today. It was a time when a man, an architect, could be alone with his thoughts and solve, or often imagine, problems.

How did it start? I graduated with a architectural degree, interviewed with several firms and three months later moved to another state for my first professional job and my first design project.

The Project:

The Beam Bandage
Scope: a 1940’s era-airplane hangar constructed of heavy timber trusses. The bottom chord on one truss split.


My Supervisor – a short, bespectacled civil engineer with a gangly walk and more hair under his nose than on his head. He appeared common but I suspected he lived an alternate life.

My Supervisor


The Airfield Manager – a stodgy character with a Bronx accent and an unlit cigar stub clinched in his gray teeth. He looked like a fellow who addressed a crowd with the phrase “youse guys”, while clinching hidden weapons in his pocket.

Airfield Manager

The Mayor – a strikingly-proportioned, tall woman dressed in a shiny, charcoal pant suit with perfect hair, masterful makeup and a dazzling smile. She smelled like honeysuckle. All my 23-year old self could think is “I wish I was a baby that needed kissing!

The Mayor

Site Visit:

My supervisor escorted me to the project site to meet the airfield manager and hopefully shake hands or something with the mayor. My job was to observe the problem and ask questions. I didn’t need keen observation skills to notice the fractured chord from the ground but the airfield manager welcomed me aboard a bucket lift and hoisted me through a noxious cigar stench to the truss so I could document existing conditions. I silently wondered how many votes I must cast to solicit the mayor’s escort, but I digress. The truss was a 60′ long bowstring truss; 96″ tall. The bottom chord was 3 solid wood members each 6″ thick x 20″ high, staggered & bolted together. I called the truss “the woody mammoth“.



The airfield manager shared his timeline and my supervisor prioritized my schedule before he dumped me at the office (I think the truck was still rolling when he pushed me out) as he roared to lunch with the mayor. Alas, I scheduled a lunch date with a peanut butter sandwich and sharpie. I sketched the truss cross section and elevation. Next I consulted structural manuals and combed the company archives for examples of similar work. When the archives provided no meaningful solutions, I brainstormed and critiqued my own:

  1. a new truss (too expensive and time consuming)
  2. a new bottom chord (difficult to construct)
  3. a field trip to the mayor’s mansion to study federal-style architecture and honeysuckle
  4. a new trabeated support (compromises function) and,
  5. a beam bandage (ding, ding, ding, the winner) which was a steel plate splint.

Project duration: The next two days, I calculated loads, drew shoring diagrams, demolition diagrams, construction details and bought a honeysuckle sprig to plant in my apartment.

Presentation: Two pages of engineering calculations on buff-colored Tops Engineering Computation Pad and 4 construction details (an elevation, shoring plan, cross section and bolt layout)


I was ecstatic that I devised a solution to a real-world problem. In typical Ralphie (from A Christmas Story fame), I day-dreamed celebrating my genius accomplishment as I envisioned the entire design team hoisting me on their shoulders for a victory lap around the studio followed by a ticker-tape parade around the city concluding at the hangar where the mayor would present me with a key to the city, a pair of over-sized scissors for the ribbon cutting and a lipstick tattoo on both cheeks!


An old-fashioned phone jangle jolted me back to reality making me almost wet my pants and forget how honeysuckle smells. It was my supervisor. It’s two days after the site visit and he’s ready to package my design solution for closed bids to select contractors. It wasn’t a call to congratulate me, but a real-world acknowledgement of “Welcome to the big league, rookie. Thanks for doing your job and here’s the next project”. That is my humble beginning.

Lessons Learned:

Every project is a learning experience and my first project taught me lessons I still experience 25 years later.

  • every project isn’t glamorous
  • real-world projects require more than textbook solutions
  • most cities don’t have a fashion model for a mayor
  • there’s a big difference between the project you imagined you designed and the project you actually designed!

From the first project to the next project. The only consistency is projects are unpredictable, enjoyable and educational. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. You said it, Chuck!

Architalks Credits

This is another entry in Bob Borson’s blogging brain-child titled, “ArchiTalks”.

The #ArchiTalks goal is to inspire blogging architects with similar educational and professional requirements to opine on the same topic and simulpost their response so other architects and a broader audience can enjoy the rampant thought-diversity within the architecture profession

Select the links in “Architalks Entries” below to read how architects responded to the “My First Project” topic.

image credits:

Architalks Entries

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
My First Project: The Best Project Ever Designed That Wasn’t

Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
My “First Project”

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
My First Project – Again

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
first project first process

Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect)
Our First Architecture Project [#ArchiTalks]

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
#ArchiTalks: My first project

Cormac Phalen – Cormac Phalen (@archy_type)

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
my first project: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
The First One — A Tale of Two Projects

Rosa Sheng – Equity by Design (@EquityxDesign)
Why every project is my “First”

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
“My First Project”

Michael Riscica – Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
The Early Years of My Architecture Career – My Role

brady ernst – Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
I Hate Decks

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
[first] project [worst] crit

Sharon George – Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
My First Project – The First Solar Decathlon #Architalks

Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA (@egraia)
Project Me

Daniel Beck – The Architect’s Checklist (@archchecklist)
Fake it ’til you make it

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
Define First

Anthony Richardson – That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent)
my first project

Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
My First Project

Jeffrey A Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Top ten tips when faced with a challenging Architectural project

Aaron Bowman – Product & Process (@PP_Podcast)
Community 101

Samantha Raburn – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
6 Major Differences between my 1st School Project & my 1st Real Project

Kyu Young Kim – Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
My First Project – The Contemporary Cottage

Nisha Kandiah – TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC)
The Question of Beginning

About the Author

Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 29 years experience in design, construction observation and life.