Architect memories

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | November 16, 2020 |

Recently, in the EntreArchitect group in Facebook, we reminisced about what architectural practice was like in the “good ol’ days.” Below are some memories I shared. More to come.

I studied architecture in my native Venezuela. There, your university education is all you need to practice. No ARE. I graduated a Saturday, and Monday I had my own firm with 5 other friends. Things are simpler there. In my 3 years of professional practice there, I never drew a wall section. Never wrote a spec. Didn’t know what a flashing was. No ice, no snow. It rains, the sun comes out and dries everything.

Before graduating, I worked for a couple of architects in Caracas, with 3 others. The architects kept changing their minds and the 4 of us did A LOT OF ERASING. We would sweep the eraser “dust” to a corner of our drafting table to see who had the biggest mound come Friday at 5PM. We got paid by the sheet, so I quickly learned that erasing and revising also takes time and costs money.

One of my bosses in that job was OLD, a founder of the Venezuelan equivalent of the AIA. We had to list, on the drawings, the license numbers of EVERYBODY in the firm. People thought we had made a mistake because HIS license number was “6”. Yes, SIX.

We used pencil for background lines and then ink and LEROY lettering for the final drawings, on vellum. Then, we would take a cotton ball soaked in solvent (benzene?) to remove pencil, smudges, fingerprints.  We produced beautiful, pristine drawings to be copied later in blueprint or sepia paper. Once, after drawing hundreds of trees on a site plan, I discovered that the cotton ball method didn’t work on mylar. EVERYTHING came off, even the trees.

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Surnames in Spanish – Apellidos

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | November 3, 2020 |

Despite their frequent presence in all kinds of media, many people still don’t seem to understand how surnames (last names) “work” in Spanish.

The concept itself is easy: a child is born and given a first name, perhaps (but not always) a second or “middle” name, and TWO last names: the father’s first and then the mother’s.

My own surnames, Nielsen and Palacios, express the fact that my father was Danish (Nielsen) and my mother Venezuelan (Palacios). Back home, and in other Hispanic countries, it would be enough to say I am Christian Nielsen on a daily basis, and save “Christian Ricardo Nielsen Palacios” for legal documents, etc. One bonus I like about our custom is that all my Venezuelan cousins are either Palacios _____, or _____ Palacios, depending on whether they are the children of my mother’s brothers or sister. It makes it easier to determine who your friends and acquaintances may be related to.

When I came to the US, in order to avoid being called “Mr. Palacios” (my grandfather), I decided, like many others, to hyphenate the two: Nielsen-Palacios. 

Sometimes, even famous people are called by the wrong surnames. For example, Zorro’s reluctant foe, Sergeant García (played by American actor Henry Calvin), should more properly be Sergeant López, as his full name is Demetrio López García. García would have been his mother’s (and maternal grandfather’s) name.

I once heard, to my surprise and disappointment, an NPR person refer to the 1982 Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer as “Mr. Márquez.” He was the son of Gabriel García and Luisa Márquez, thus Gabriel García, if you want to use only one of his surnames.

Perhaps with the emergence of Latinos in the US (the daughter of Sergio Ocasio and Blanca Cortez, for example), people will start to understand how it “works.”

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No millimeters in architecture

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | October 9, 2020 |

“The distance to the building shall be 29′-6 11/32″.”

“Classrooms shall have an area of 116,250 ¼ square inches.”

“And God said to Noah … the length of the ark shall be 137,100 mm …” 

A bit ridiculous, right? When building codes insert the (mathematically accurate) conversion to millimeters, it sounds just as absurd. One millimeter may be the thickness of a blade of grass. Do we (will we) architects really hold carpenters and excavators to that degree of accuracy? I doubt it (“please demolish and rebuild that wall – you’re off by 1/16″ ”).

Years ago, when I was part of a team translating BOCA into what would become the “International” Building Code, I proposed adding a note to the very first page of the IBC stating “For the purposes of this Code, one inch equals 2.5 centimeters” (instead of 2.54). That way, 4 inches would become 10 cm, and double the inches (8) exactly double the centimeters (20). Since the rest of the team were translators or engineers, who had never actually designed or built a project using the metric system, it didn’t fly.

Architects in countries that use the metric system use meters with up to two decimal points (centimeters), not millimeters, for architectural drawings. Since only three countries have not adopted the metric system (the U.S., Liberia and Myanmar), to be truly “international” the IBC should list first the sensible metric dimensions, and put in parentheses the “funny” equivalents in fractions of an inch. But the IBC really is like the World Series, with no foreign teams.

If you read this far, and you agree with me, I suspect you would enjoy the book The Perfectionists – How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester. If you do not agree with me, you might like it even more.

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By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | September 19, 2020 |

Father Jesús Orbegozo, S.J., is now the Rector of the Jesuit school I attended in Caracas. But back in the early 70s, he was my Physics professor.

In those days, hand-held calculators were a new thing (we were taught to use slide rulers) but my father had one. We had to write a lab report on some experiment, and I borrowed my dad’s calculator. I forget what the experiment was (and indeed most of what I learned in 3 years of High School Physics), but I remember his reaction when he read my report, with results so “accurate” they had six or eight decimal points.

It was like a scene from a Looney Tunes cartoon: his face reddened, smoke came out of his ears and lightning bolts from his eyes, as he yelled: “ARE YOU NUTS???? DO YOU THINK THIS IS NASA???? YOU ARE PROCESSING RESULTS FROM A HIGH SCHOOL LAB, WHERE WE DON’T EVEN USE DISTILLED WATER, AND YOU THINK YOU CAN BE ACCURATE TO THE MILLIONTH OF A GRAM???”

I suppose I failed that particular report, but that may have been the most important thing he taught me.

In the old days, when I drew architectural plans in my native Venezuela, walls were either .10m or .20m thick (10cm or 20cm,) even though the blocks were probably made with an “American” machine, so they were most likely 3 ⅝” or 7 ⅝” (technically, 9.2075cm or 19.3675cm.) And don’t get me started on millimeters!!!

When I started working as an architect here in NY, we dimensioned 4” and 8” walls, and that was close enough.

These days, CADD and BIM software is so “good”, that drawings are often dimensioned to the 16th of an inch, as if the carpenter even COULD be that accurate. It would probably give Father Orbegozo a heart attack.

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Why blog?

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | September 5, 2020 |

Everybody’s doing it! Or so it seems.

I am told you MUST blog if you want your website and social media to show up in Google and other search engines (that SEO thing), so that’s one reason I am doing it. But I also want you, the reader, to understand what makes me tick. When you read these short posts, you will get to know me better, and perhaps trust me to help you professionally.

The words curmudgeon and persnickety have been used to describe me, as well as demanding, picky, nerdy, professional, and trustworthy. All of them apply.

I am bombarded on a daily basis by emails (more than 100 per day), newsletters, and – yes – blog subscriptions. Some of the bloggers are friends and people I admire, and many are fantastic writers. But I don’t really have the time to read them all. So, I understand if you skip mine.

I learned, from my “research” (OK, Google) that the average person reads 250-300 words per minute. So, I think that limiting myself to 301 or 451 words (60 or 90 seconds of your time, ⅓ to ½ page) every other week is doable, both for me and for you (I expect my readers to be above average, thus 301/451.) This will limit my verbosity (I hate the word “verbiage”,) and make it like a fun puzzle I can enjoy producing on a regular basis. On alternate weeks I may post something written by others, hopefully of similar length.

Topics for the future may include: the importance and need (or not) for accuracy, typos (written spoken or drawn), racism in architecture, mangoes and tomatoes, LEGO, compare and contrast, Vitruvius, accessibility, pet peeves, brevity and simplicity, why people have such long names in Spanish, and more…  I’m looking forward to your comments!

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