Author: Mac Dowel

Please Don’t Mess Up My Cabin

It doesn’t happen very often these days but I had a first … I had an extended stay in one of my projects after the client had taken possession. It was both weird, and not weird, all at the same time.

Lake Cabin view from the woods

I am talking about the BSB cabin – a project that I have extensively profiled on this website and after all this time, I don’t think there is anything about this cabin that I don’t know, other than how one particular leak is happening, but that’s not really the reason I came up here. I’ll admit it didn’t take much persuading on the part of my client to get me up here considering that it’s beautiful, the air temperature is currently about 30 to 40 degrees cooler than in Dallas, and there is another project right next door.

Beer on the Dock at Sunset

While it isn’t particularly difficult to get here, it does require a little bit of time. My door-to-door travel time is around 9 hours – only 2.5 of which is spent inside of an airplane. Despite taking the first flight out, I don’t typically roll up on site until 5:00 pm… just in time for a beer (or two) on the dock while eating snacks and waiting on the sun to set. You have to cut this portion of the evening pretty tight because the mosquitos are coming for you.

Lakeside at 5:00 in the morning

Have I ever told you that I don’t sleep well when traveling? Well, I don’t. This is on top of not sleeping very much to start with on a regular day. It also seems that the sun comes up supernaturally early and at the slightest hint that the day is starting, the waterfowl on the lake decide to start their mating rituals –

Loon #1: Hey, I’m right here! Who wants to party?!? Let’s party!!
Loon #2: Hey, I’m right here! Who wants to party?!? Let’s party!!
Loon #3, #4, #5: Hey, I’m right here! Who wants to party?!? Let’s party!!

It’s inconsiderate really because it’s 4:30 am and nobody wants to party. I guess I’ll get up and … literally, do nothing. One of the on-going items we are resolving is getting satellites installed so that we can get some connectivity to the cabin. As it is, there is no cell coverage, no internet, no anything. It’s nothing but natural beauty and nature all up in your face, looking to party. Great if you’re on vacation, the WORST if you are trying to get some work done.

It’s almost as if this place consciously tries to keep you from working.

Work area at the cabin

I pulled out all my gear, wrote some show notes for upcoming podcasts, cleaned my camera body and all three of the lenses I brought with me … and by that time it was almost 6:00am.


Work area at the cabin

So I had to kill some more time – but I’ll tell you how just a bit later.

propane tank in the side yard

One of the objectives I had on my list to accomplish while I was up here was to see about relocating the generator and the propane tank. We all thought that we were really clever when we told the contractor to put these items in the side yard, just to the left of the garage. The previous cabin had no generator and the propane tank, which we kept and reused, was in the driveway and must have been a constant obstacle to people pulling in and eventually trying to turn around. In fact, I know it was an obstacle because the previous owners built a “lovely” barricade around the tank so that guests would damage their bumpers hitting it, instead of hitting the actual propane tank.


Since I don’t have loads of experience when dealing with propane tanks, snow plows, refill trucks, etc. we talked with the contractor about moving the tank into this sideyard space and they “took care of it.” Sadly, while they did take care of it, nobody really thought about what happens when the snow that has been living happily on the roof all winter decides to slide off … and pound directly onto the tank.

So we are going to move the tank, which includes a steel structure which will protect both the propane tank AND the generator –  to keep snow from piling up and restricting air flow – make service a bit easier if it happens to take place during the winter season, and avoid all the underground utilities, conduits, drainage pipes, etc, that also happen to live along this bit of ground space.

The other partial reason for this trip is that there is a window that leaks whenever there is a rain event … and nobody can seem to figure out what the problem is just by looking at it.

Testing the gutters in the windows

This was a leak that happened prior to the owner taking possession of the house and the previous contractor “said” that they fixed it … but they didn’t, and the leak came back. I spent half of one day working on this particular leak, the bulk of which was actually trying to recreate the leak while we were there paying attention. The first step in the process was just to see if the internal drains and gutters for these windows were working … which involved me pouring a copius amount of water in the sill.

Testing the gutters in the windows

This leak is taking place in one tiny area of the 32′ long window on the lakeside elevation … which is a drag because it’s one of the least accessible windows on the project.

Testing the gutters in the windows

Gutters did their job and seemed to vacate the all the water I poured in the sills.

Testing the gutters in the windows

All I learned was that there are a lot of dead flies on the windows.

Flashing Details A908 - Dallas Architect Bob Borson

This leak is a bit maddening because we literally detailed the bejeebus out of this project … including all the flashing details. The contractor deviated from our drawings and we can’t really be sure that all the peel and stick flashing membrane was properly installed.

If you can believe it, during one of my site visits during construction, I saw that the windows had been installed WITHOUT ANY SILL FLASHING!!!! When I pointed this out to the project manager, he looked at me and without missing a beat and said:

“I thought you said we didn’t have to put that in.”

What?!? I told them that they had to take every single window out and install the flashing – because, duh. There was a period in time when the owner of the construction company offered up some “options” that would allow them to leave the windows in place but I rejected them all because windows need sill flashing. I was told that all the windows were removed, flashing installed per our drawings, and reinstalled. Problem is, now that there is a leak, I don’t believe that they did actually install the flashing properly after all and the only way we are ultimately going to solve this problem is to pull the window out and do some exploratory demolition.

This is the sort of thing that makes me crazy, and I definitely know that it is driving the homeowner crazy.

So I have to tell you that with the exception of the leak, this is an exceptionally nice cabin to stay in … like ridiculously nice, and the homeowners built it for their guests to stay in when they come to visit. That’s right, this is a party cabin and it is intended to house one or two families at a time with the homeowners staying in another cabin that is a 90-second walk through the woods next door. What this means is that when the day is done, or when it is close to done, I go to my cabin, and the homeowners go to their cabin … and it might only be 8:00 pm.

For a guy that doesn’t really sleep that much to begin with, being in a cabin with no cell coverage, no internet, no TV, no radio, etc. leaves a lot of downtime to fill. So what did I do? For starters, I took a lot of stupid pictures – like this one of the eggs I made myself for breakfast:

preparing eggs for breakfast

Relax, I’m not going to take you on a photo tour of my scrambled eggs … I just thought that the food I was about to eat, using eggs that I found in the refrigerator left behind by the last houseguest, kinda looked like the “biohazard” symbol, and I could help but wonder if some ghostly specter was trying to tell me something … like “don’t eat these eggs”.

folded sheets

So what else did I do with my 8 hours of “what the heck am I going to do” time? I cleaned the cabin. I washed sheets, folded towels, vacuumed the floors, cleaned out the refrigerator, cleaned bathrooms (didn’t do the toilets, I have my limits) and I even took out the window screens and scrubbed the sills and vacuumed out all the 30-jillion dead flies.

making the bed properly

Take a look at that job making the bed – wow. That is a museum quality product right there. If there was TV to watch or if I had enough wifi to download a book, I probably wouldn’t have done all of this work, but I have to confess that there was a part of me that doesn’t want this cabin to get screwed up. I suppose that’s what happens when you stay the week in one of your projects – you start looking very closely at everything, scrutinizing every act almost as if it’s some sort of vandalism. I knew that I needed some sleep as I was wiping down the polished chrome bathroom fixtures with clorox to rid them of some water spots, and I was thinking “what sort of monster doesn’t wipe off the faucet when they’re done?!?”

Clearly, that lack of sleep is getting to me.

Architectural T-Shirts

There are currently 58 “draft” articles on my site – some are fairly recent and some go back years. There are any number of reasons why I hadn’t finish writing a particular post:

Lost interest in the topic
I found it boring so assumed everyone else would as well
Didn’t have the images or graphics to support the content
Lost momentum (this accounts for probably one third)
Sometimes the creative process is cathartic and not intended for public consumption
As we creep towards the fall holiday season, life tends to slow down just a bit and I find myself with some spare time on my hands in the evening, as is the case tonight as I write dust this post off (it’s either this or start sanding down bathroom cabinets).

While I don’t plan on finishing most of those posts, there are a couple (mostly those in category #4) that I thought I would finish and push out – consider them a bonus mid-week blog post … which brings us to architectural t-shirts.

Colorful T-Shirts lineup – copyright Bob Borson 2018

I wear a t-shirt every single day and as a result, I have more than my fair share. A long time ago I decided I wanted some architectural t-shirts and almost all of the ones I found online unilaterally stunk, so I thought I would make some for myself since the act of making your own t-shirt is ridiculously easy.

I actually own every single one of the shirts in today’s post and at 6′-1″ and 205lbs I am a comfortable XL.

Skull and T-Square Ink Stamp by Bob Borson

There is a confession to make here – most of these were ideas that turned into a “new skills” exercise in Photoshop – learning how to make patterns that look like wood-cut stamps, getting my graphic to “undulate” with the flow of the fabric of the shirt, that sot of thing.

Skull and T-Square Ink Stamp Red by Bob Borson

Yes, I will admit it – I like my architectural jolly rogers. I will also admit that I might have multiple t-shirts with this design on it … and yes, maybe I am slightly influenced that this is the t-shirt that gets the most response when I wear it.

Architectural Seal by Bob Borson

I also wanted to play around with “decals” as a different sort of graphic stamp.

BIMJA Rectangle by Bob Borson

The irony here is that not only do I have this shirt, but I also have a mug with the same image on it … and I still don’t know Revit. I keep telling myself “one day …” but so far, that day hasn’t come (although if it ever does, I’m not sure I will choose Revit as my platform).

Modular Man cracked ink by Bob Borson

Modular man? Please and thank you.

Vintage Modern Le Corbusier Design by Bob Borson

Come and Take It Ink Stamp by Bob Borson

While the phrase “Come and take it” was first credited to Spartan King Leonidas in the 480BC in the battle with the Persians, since I am a Texan, I associate it, and this basic graphic (substitute the t-square with a canon), more with the Battle of Gonzales where a small contingent of defiant Texans successfully held off Mexican forces who had been ordered to seize the cannon.

Bauhaus cracked ink by Bob Borson

I am actually going to be in Weimar, Germany this next week for what is essentially a week-long celebration of the Bauhaus movement … and I think I’ll have this t-shirt with me. Pretty sure that I’ll be the only one who will have this t-shirt, which I will admit is feeding part of my desire to make it in the first place.

While this post has almost nothing to do with architecture, it does represent a few things that I think are important characteristics about my personality. In my spare time, which is fairly precious, I would still rather develop some new skills and flex some creative muscles (however poorly) than sit around and do something a bit more passive. The fact that I can experiment and make some t-shirts that I actually want to wear is simply a nice bonus.

I’m actually going to give a t-shirt away – simply tell me which one you would want and I will choose some lucky winner at random! Happy hump-day! ** Giveaway is now closed and the winner has been notified **


Bid Process | The Competitive Way

Of all the moments on a job, the bid phase gives me the most heartburn. It is a stressful period full of hardcore short-term deadlines and while my personal history tells me that I don’t really have anything to worry about … I still worry.

Comparing Bids

It has been bid central in the office for the last month – a fairly unique situation around these parts. Over the last 10 years or so, we have been doing fewer and fewer competitive bids, seeing a dramatic rise in popularity of the negotiated bid, but we have two really nice commercial jobs (here and here) that are pretty much as the same level of development and both clients wanted to go through the competitive bid process.

There are times when I think it would be more productive, and certainly more entertaining, if we were to place all of our qualified contractors into a cage match with a bunch of melee weapons (in our case, these would be calculators, three-ring binders, and notepads) and see who wants to survive the project the most.

Competitive bid drawings have to be substantially more complete than if we had gone a negotiated bid route. It only seems fair that if you are going to use the cost of the project as a criterion for selecting the contractor, that the architect put together a comprehensive and thorough set of documents (drawings AND specifications) so that everyone has a “fighting” chance.

The methodology that I go through when doing a competitive bid doesn’t really change based on the size of the project (excluding really small, and really large jobs). We just issued a project for competitive bid yesterday, but we just selected the contractor (for this job) just last week after a 4-week bidding and review period. Since this process has been consuming most of my time, I thought I would take a moment and walk you through it.

This is one of my out-of-town projects, I had to do a lot of research when selecting the contractors we wanted to invite to bid the job. It started easy enough … I did a Google search to come up with a list of contractors. From there, I spent time on all of their websites looking at their portfolios and the caliber of projects they chose to highlight. From there, I tracked down the architects for those projects and made some calls to find out some fairly generic information about the experience. I didn’t treat these calls as an inquisition, but the questions typically centered around:

How responsive was the contractor?
Do you consider this contractor a team player?
Did the initial bid reflect the final cost of the project?
Have you worked with this contractor more than once?
After working my way through these phone interviews, I contacted the contractors to find out if there was an interest in bidding our project and did they have the bandwidth to take our project on should they be selected. It shouldn’t come as a surprise but the contractors I spoke with were all friendly, but they were quick to say “yes” or “no” about getting involved – something I greatly appreciated. In the end, I spoke with about 8 contractors and we ended up asking 5 to go through the process.

Once it was time to issue the documents, we uploaded everything online and sent the contractors links to access the files. They were given slightly more than 3 weeks to assemble their bids.

Week One: This time period is designated for the contractor (and their subcontractors) to familiarize themselves with the documents and formulate any questions they need to have clarified in an effort to eventually present their best bid. We typically require any questions to be submitted to us by the end of this first week.
Week Two: This is the time period where we (the architects and our consultants) and working towards answering all the questions that were submitted. This sometimes just means pointing the contractors in the right direction, possibly putting a note to some scope of work, or it could mean that we need to generate a drawing (or two) to help clarify our intent.
Week Three: It’s all coming together at this point and the bids from the contractor are due. In our office, we always make this day a Thursday because I don’t think people are at their best on Fridays or Mondays …they just aren’t.
Whenever we are the architects on a competitively bid project, we try to work with the contractor up front and as soon as possible so that they know we are responsive to their questions and we will solve any problems on paper before they show up on the job site. The positive aspect to the client is that the competitive bid process reduces the possibility that the contractor and architect are simply looking out for their own best interests rather than the client. It is completely reasonable that the owner would like to make sure that they’ve explored their financial options along multiple paths and have a good understanding of what size bed they are getting into before they have to commit to buying the bed. Competitive bids also can provide the client with some comfort in that the contractor is being diligent in preparing a cost-effective bid on the project rather than simply guesstimating or putting all their golfing buddies on the project.

So if we fast forward to the project we sent out for a competitive bid, the question you should all be asking yourself is “What happened?” Since I am still here and writing this post, you can rest assured that the numbers did not cause me to go take a flying leap off some building. Turns out, the numbers were almost all too close to one another that we ended up with a different sort of problem.

[needle scratching record … hopefully Sussudio by Phil Collins]

What does that mean? Does that mean that the bids were “too good?!?”

Almost … but not really. We went through a cost estimate process last December and came up with a forecasted cost to the project and this was the number we had been working towards throughout the remaining design development and construction drawing phases. When all the bids were qualified, there were only $175,308 dollars separating the low bidder from the highest. While $175k is a lot of money, it only represents about 5% spread … that’s really good in case you didn’t know and I can proudly say that this is an indication on the quality of the documentation we put together. Our low bid came in $219.75 below budget … that’s right … under budget.

With such a small delta between contractors, you can’t summarily toss out the high and low bid and only work with what’s left in the middle. We ended up having our two favorite contractors into the office to present their logic behind the bid and why they would be the right choice should we select them. Both contractors had already been vetted and both were capable and qualified to do the work, so this was going to come down to who did we like best and who did we feel like we would enjoy working with over the next 8 months … and so that’s what we did.

In the end, we did not pick the lowest bidder, but rather the contractor we felt was the best qualified for this particular project. I can tell you with absolute clarity, that when you find yourself, either as an architect, or a client, being in a position to select your contractor not based on cost but on a host of other considerations, you drink a few beers when making that decision.

… and that’s exactly what we did.

Watch Your Mouth

From time to time, there are moments when I hear someone say something that leaves me flabbergasted. Considering that I love to talk, I think I am more than willing to let most people slide when they pop off at the mouth and say something inaccurate, which happens to the best of us, or either say something wildly inappropriate.

I might be in tune with this a bit more than typical – since I started recording a podcast and I have the displeasure of analyzing everything I say over and over and over again, you become intimately aware of your verbal shortcomings. The way the recording process works is that Landon and I will sit down in the front room of my house and talk into our microphones for about 90 minutes, with the goal of having 45-50 minutes worth of audio worth presenting. As it currently stands, I do all the sound editing and mixing and as a result, I am the one who listens to that recording for what feels like an eternity. The truth is, I am averaging about one hour of mixing time for every ten minutes of finalized audio. Most of that time is spent cutting out ah’s, uhm’s, oddly long pauses, and the occasional conversation that goes down a rabbit-hole.

Since I am working with recorded audio, I have, to a certain extent, the ability to remove part of the conversation after the fact so that the fine folks who choose to listen to that conversation don’t have to fight through periods of absolute nonsensible drivel. I am painfully reminded as I do quality control checks on the recordings that I don’t have the ability to cut everything out. To point out a short example, in our last episode ‘Architects and Chefs‘ when we were talking about how the food you eat is influenced by the place you live, I was discussing my recent trip to Maine and how lobsters seem to have imprinted themselves on every part of that culture. To reinforce that point, I said the following sentence:

“So I was really trying to find out, … the role that lobster’s played in their society.”

Maybe at first pass, this sentence doesn’t seem all that crazy to you, but I am telling you that it drives me absolutely bonkers. I should have used the word “culture” instead of the word “society” because let’s be honest, lobsters don’t have a role in society … unless we are talking about some underwater lobster society because it’s not like they work down at the local bank. This gaff is now recorded and available for permanent ridicule, a new experience despite the fact I have this blog site and you can find no shortage of errors contained within almost every single post. The difference is that if something on this site really bothers me, I can easily fix it whereas, with the podcast, nothing is easily fixable unless the solution is “removal”.

Tripping over curb

There is a story that will ultimately make it into my rotation of stories, it might be too soon now, but we are working with a consultant who seems to relish the idea of antagonizing people who disagree with them (trying to keep the pronoun’s gender-neutral) … which just so happens to be the city engineers who are reviewing the drawings for one of our projects. We have sailed through every phase of the review process except for the scope of work of this particular consultant. We made it through building review in one pass and with only two comments – both of which were generic boilerplate notes the city wanted to see on the cover. No big whoop, right? Almost done, right?


This consultant has had their scope of work in the review process for almost 9 months, and while a large chunk of this is not a direct result of their work, I can’t help but think that their prickly demeanor is making a frustrating situation untenable. They have no issues with telling the people who work for the city, the people who ARE REVIEWING OUR PROJECT, that they aren’t very good at their job. [ALERT] In case you didn’t know this already, that is a bad idea. This is a small excerpt from an email they sent to the Assistant City Manager … brace yourselves:

“Please don’t misunderstand me. This has been somewhat of a windfall for me. I can charge double the fee I get in [redacted] and still get projects because other engineers don’t want to deal with the hassle.

Your city has a terrible reputation and it is getting worse.”

Are. You. Kidding. Me??!!!

I have been trying to think whether or not this was the worst thing I have ever read in an email … sadly, it is not, but it does hold the honor of coming in second place.

Despite our current situation, I actually like this consultant as a person, but I can’t afford to have a loose cannon like this on one of my projects. At some point, I think it is incumbent on all professionals to understand the ramifications of the things that come out of their mouth. I know this person is frustrated, and I’ll even go so far as to say that they have some right to be frustrated … but you have to watch your mouth. There is literally zero upside to this sort of action and they are past the point in their career when they should have learned this lesson. I ended up spending time I shouldn’t have needed to spend repairing the relationship with the city staff, and through reasonable dialog and conversation, was successful in presenting our argument to the city. Rather than punch, kick, and scream, our challenge within the City was handled with patient and persistent conversations during which time, nobody was insulted.

Shocking, right?

It’s always good advice to be mindful of the things you say to other people … but you should really be careful about the things you write because just like recordings, they can live on forever.

Keep it real – and watch your mouth.

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