Monthly Archives: November 2012

reservations, not the good kind

Today, Mom asked if I had any reservations about this trip to El Salvador.  First, I was ecstatic that she read my blog as I often wonder if she thinks I’m a little crazy for the things I take on… traveling to third world countries and doing a lot of work for free, often paying money to do.  Of course, I have reservations about traveling into a distant rural area of a war torn foreign country to work hard construction labor for people I’ve never met, again- paying money to do so.

Today was immunization day, at least one of two before traveling to a country where health care is minimal and preventable diseases are still prevalent.  Both arms ache like mad, and, oh by the way, so do both legs from today’s run.  Reservations?

I listened carefully to the doctor’s lecture on the perils that await in the region I’ve chosen to travel to.  “What will you be doing in El Salvador?”

I said, “Building homes, construction.”  She followed with a lecture on potential for getting hurt on a job site and the unknowns of healthcare available in a third world region.  My mind drifted back to some very unpleasant memories from Haiti.   Had I known before Haiti what I know now?  This and many other reasons, my friends, are why I have many reservations about travelling to El Salvador.

The reservations won’t stop once we are in El Salvador, nor will they cease upon return.  I recall a conversation with a colleague while walking along a dirt road in Petit Goave.  We had just worked 10 long sweltering days surveying buildings – we were all tired, dehydrated, shocked,  restless, and feeling hopeless.  There was no end in sight.  I looked at my friend and colleague, “It seems like we are making little progress and it is hard to tell if we are really helping anyone.”   My body was recovering from a terrible bug; at that moment, my reservations where fierce.

With the an amazing calm, he took my hand, “If we helped one person today, one person on this entire trip, would it be worth it?”

Without hesitation, I clamored, “Of course.”  I wish I could say that at that moment, his words made my reservations go away, but they didn’t.  Looking back, it has helped me to grasp the bigger picture of what was done in those 15 days we spent surveying post earthquake buildings in Haiti.  Looking forward, it provides a clear understanding that there is yet so much yet to be done in so many places for so many people…..  then a purpose begins to slowly replace what was a reservation.

I found this dinner photo with three colleagues/friends I had the pleasure of working with in Haiti. Thank you Kai Ki, for reminding me on that day when we were walking along a dirt road, that there is a purpose.  Thank you Jill for your amazing faith in people and love of children.  Thank you Tim for your working hard through the long days, pushing us all to keep going.


El Salvador: geography, culture, & construction

In a little more than two months, our team will be boarding the plane to San Salvador, El Salvador.  Nervous about the challenging physical labor and third world conditions, I have to remind myself that this won’t be like Haiti…..or will it?  The people in El Salvador still carry the scars from war and natural disasters.  How will what we do help them?


Unique in geography & Location, El Salvador is bordered by Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north and east and the Pacific Ocean to the south. For the most part, El Salvador is lush, green and surrounded by cloud-misted hills. Over 20 volcanoes dot the countryside, the largest of these being San Salvador. Ever since the civil war ended in 1992, El Salvador has been working to rebuild and redefine itself.

Home to almost 6 million people, El Salvador is also the smallest, yet most densely populated country in Central America. Still struggling with the consequences of a 12-year civil war and constantly affected by natural disasters like earthquakes and tropical storms, almost 3 million Salvadorans live in inadequate housing made of stick, mud, plastic and scraps.

 The National program, Habitat for Humanity El Salvador, began in 1992 in the Santa Ana department, where the first 29 houses were built. Since 1998, program renovation and organizational growth have also taken place. As a result, the organization has provided a more effective response to families who have lost their homes to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch and the severe earthquakes.

The earthquake-resistant houses are made of concrete blocks and structural steel reinforcement. The roofs are made of fiber-cement sheeting, and the floors of cement brick. They have two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a latrine or toilet. Windows are shutter type, protected by steel bars in order to provide adequate lighting, ventilation and security.

Of the total cost of each house, 85 to 90 percent will cover direct costs (material, labor, transportation and legal expenses), and the rest will go toward indirect costs (office staff, rent and other administrative expenses). Financing must be repaid by the families within a 10-year period, which means that most will pay a monthly average of US$60.

For families who are unable to afford the standard model, there is another housing option called the “Progressive Model.” Depending on the family’s future resources, these houses may be expanded and improved in stages. This model is available in two sizes: a 40-square-meter construction area (US$6,000) or a 30 square meter construction area (US$5,500).


a few special “Thank Yous”

Thank you for your support of project “architect unseen” and the February work trip to El Salvador.  It is my hope that this is only the beginning of something bigger, a campaign that will bring awareness to the unseen side of architecture where architects are using their skills to build stronger communities.  This project will serve as a resource for architects in search of a way to give back.


We can provide support for those that do not have the resources to build or rebuild.   This is not accomplished by building it for them, but empowering them to do it for themselves.   Lao Tzu said it best:  “Go to the people. Learn from them.  Live with them.  Start with what they know.  Build with what they have.  The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.”


Seven years ago, El Salvador was hit by earthquakes and today, an organization has created a program that empowers the people of El Salvador to rebuild their communities.  I will be working alongside the mason, the framer, the roofer, the painter from El Salvador and following their lead.  I look forward to witnessing a successful program, one that could somehow happen in the Haitis of this world.

It is difficult to fully express my gratitude to for the many different ways that family, friends, and colleagues have provided support in this project.  Many have offered much needed encouragement, several have pledged a donation for the fundraiser, a few have provided great advice for running training, and others have provided good direction for the blog, challenging me to find focus.   I am grateful to be starting this journey with you by my side.

 A few special Thank Yous:

Family: On Thanksgiving Day, my sister proposed something different for Christmas this year.  “We don’t need more things – what do you say that instead of exchanging gifts this year, we make a contribution to Architect Unseen – project El Salvador?”  Thank you, family, for this generous idea.

Friends:  Without your words of encouragement and generous donations toward the running fundraiser, it would be much more difficult to stay motivated.  It is good to have you to lean on.

Colleagues:   Every challenging question has pushed this project toward a clearer definition of purpose.  Referrals have been proven invaluable. With this, I’d like to thank a few local professionals who have extended services in one form or another:

Catalyst: Thank you Jim for your running analysis and referrals

Mindful Motion:  Thank you Nathan for your exercise therapy suggestions for running

PR Chicago: Thank you Toni for your thoughtful questions

Regrets for having missed anyone in this post, we’ll be sure to mention in the next.      



merci beaucoup

merci beaucoup 

vielen dank 


muchas gracias 

hartelijk dank 



grazie mille  

Can you guess the languages?

“Merci beaucoup” – French for ‘thank you very much.’   The day after what we celebrate as “Thanksgiving Day”, a day to give thanks, we reflect on the many things to be thankful for.  Among the many things I am most thankful for are family and friends.   

Do what you can with what you have where you are.

“Do what you can with what you have where you are.”   Theodore Roosevelt


Considering recent questions on the purpose of project “Architect Unseen,” I respond with this.  All that remains undone is overwhelming and the path, at times, seems insurmountable.   However, if one can break down a big idea into manageable projects, it is possible.

The project launch is a focus on fundraising for a volunteer trip to El Salvador.  The purpose of this trip is to learn firsthand from a successful recovery program in a country similar to Haiti in climate and geography.  With hopes to bring home an understanding of what it takes to empower people with the knowledge to help themselves, I hope to apply this locally and globally – especially in Haiti.

My advice, be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

 Following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, I asked – “What can I do to help?”  Closely connected to Key West, I traveled south to help pick up garbage from the shorelines.  Neither scientist nor marine biologist, the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming.  On returning home, I asked the question a little differently, “What can I do as an architect to help?”  I searched for architecture volunteer programs and sent a few emails.  The next day, Rachel Minnery, co-founder of Architects Without Borders Seattle, asks if I would like to talk with her about an upcoming Haiti relief trip. Three weeks later, I am on an airplane to Miami to meet 11 architects and engineers and travel on to Petit Goave, Haiti.

It was the beginning of this journey and a fitting introduction to this project, Architect Unseen.

Visiting and working with people from other cultures provides an opportunity to learn more about one’s own.  Now certified as a disaster assistance – safety assessment program trainer, it is time to start training.  Exposed to the worst case situation in Haiti, it is time to find a way to prevent it.   With your help, project Architect Unseen will continue to evolve and find ways to help people.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.


Rebuild, Restore, Renew New Jersey



As I work to prepare for El Salvador and my role as AIA Disaster Assistance Coordinator for the state of WI, there are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Sandy.  I remain in touch with AIA contacts in Washington DC and New Jersey. Below is an update on the slow, but steady progress made in New Jersey.

A little more than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the focus is still on emergency response.

The 3 stages of disaster response are as follows: 

1. Emergency: The first response, it relies on quick action and involves providing emergency shelter, medical assistance, food, and other such services. This stage can last two to three weeks

2.  Relief: Short-term housing, health services, and employment counseling are provided. Formal assessment of damage begins with examinations of buildings, including analysis of historic properties and other structures. This stage may last up to six months.

3. recovery:  up to and beyond 3 yrs +This stage is characterized by rebuilding, with an emphasis on long-term comprehensive planning to enhance the physical fabric of the community. Regulatory changes may be necessary to mitigate the effect of future disasters. This period may last three years or more.

As we work toward relief and recovery, AIA architects in New Jersey remain closely involved in the efforts.  A letter below from Cooper Martin, AIA National, shares that most building damage assessments have been completed, but that the future focus will be not only on rebuilding, but also making sure that a better infrastructure is in place should there be another disaster.

Subject: RE: AIA and the California Safety Assessment Program – New Jersey


Our assessments have been completed where we were allowed to help conduct them, and right now I think we have more local volunteers than we know what to do with. Most of our current activities are roundtable discussions such as this:

If you haven’t seen it already, there was a good story on the obstacles we experienced in our aid efforts at:

Our next step will actually be to organize a couple of training sessions and to prepare to lobby the state legislature to pass Good Samaritan law for the next disaster. Our partners at Arch. for Humanity are assessing needs and identifying gaps in the recovery activities that federal funding will support.

Cooper Martin
Manager, Community Resilience
The American Institute of Architects


A question of sanity

As the light of day grows shorter and the temperatures drop, as the miles get longer, and as the muscles start to ache, I start to question my sanity.Training for a half marathon in the dead of a WI winter  ……9.5 more weeks of this to go and 11 weeks before El Salvador.

Fortunately, Hal (Higdon) reminds me what I need to do each day –  one morning glance at Hal’s schedule on the fridge door and I’m reminded what I’m doing and why.