June Interview- just in time

I’m just under the wire here, getting this month’s interview with an architect just as June comes to a close.  Don’t be sad.  The 4th of July (my favorite holiday) is just around the corner, and July will bring more in the way of posts.  What can I say?  I’ve been out of town and out of town and out of time!

But let’s get to the interview.  This month the Babbler talked with good friend and inspiration Cassi Niemann.  Cassi works in Atlanta, and I got to know her through my sister-in-law, Anne-Marie (who also has a blog- check her out).  But come to think of it, if I were still working in Atlanta, I’m pretty certain I would have come across Cassi all by myself because she’s just that type of person.  She knows EVERYONE.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes mayor someday.  And I don’t mean Foursquare mayor.  Cassi has that personality that is so useful to architecture- the one that is interested in EVERYTHING.  She has a knack for taking up hobbies, and she doesn’t just dabble- she pursues with a vengeance.  Take the little group she started a few years ago- Team Awesome.  It started as a small team that would compete in road races when teams were allowed.  Since then, it’s grown to a group of over a hundred who participate, compete, and socialize in all sorts of events.  There is a website, t-shirts (they started out homemade- now we have technical tees with images on the front and back!), a Facebook page and a newsletter.  All managed by Cassi.  In her spare time.

Cassi is the lady who convinced me that I needed to be LEED accredited and that I needed to study with her.  Boy was she right.  She provided incredible resources for studying and just pure enthusiasm for getting the exam over with before it was upgraded to a newer, more difficult version.

Another fun fact about Cassi?  She’s recently engaged!  So I cut her some slack with getting interview questions back to me.  She’s been a little distracted lately.

In short, Cassi is a phenom.  You will love this interview:

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.
Well, I grew up in a town called Mt. Rainier, MD – which is just 2 blocks outside of NE Washington, DC. It’s an awesome little hippie town with truly great people that most definitely helped shape me into the person I am today. It takes a village!
I went to public school in Maryland and it was during a drafting class in high school that I realized I had a knack for drawing and my teacher pushed me to take more drafting classes and then eventually, to look at architecture programs for college. (I think it also helped that I was the only one doing work in the class while everyone else was dealing drugs. But whatever.)
So I found Georgia Tech in Atlanta and decided to go there. It fit our budget and my parents used to live there so it seemed like a good fit. I didn’t know anyone else at Tech but I quickly realized that GT was a place for overachievers. Everyone was super smart and I was just one in a crowd (this was a little hard for me to accept at first). So I went to GT for 4.5 years, finishing with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture. I didn’t realize until it was too late that with a BS in Arch, you still have to get a masters in order to be an architect. Whoops. Why don’t they tell you that when you apply?!
While at GT I was on the crew team. Only 2 or 3 other people have ever rowed on the team all through their college career AND finished with a degree in Architecture. It’s quite difficult to stay up all night building a model and then get up at 4am to go to the river. But I found that it made me more productive and I was able to get more done when I knew I didn’t have all night. So when I finished undergrad, instead of taking a job at a firm, I worked in a restaurant and coached the GT Freshmen/Novice Women’s crew team. But eventually, I decided to give in to the world of architecture and try it out. Fortunately, I found the best boss in the world and started the job that I still have 9 years later.
Somewhere in that 9 years, I decided that I better get on it and become a real architect. So I went back to graduate school at Georgia Tech again in 2006 and finished in 2008. Because of my 4 solid years of work before grad school, I was finished with my IDP hours and could start sitting for the licensing exams. It took me 3 years of preparing and studying, but I finally passed my last exam in March of 2011 and became a licensed Architect. It was, and still is, one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had. But then I had this shocking revelation that now I was an architect and I had a career and I was grown up and responsible and all that stuff that comes with a professional title. Holy crap!

What projects are you currently working on?
I work in a very small firm for an extremely smart architect. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 9 years because he lets me work on everything that comes in the door. We do mostly residential apartment complexes and commercial housing. Most of our work is government subsidized, brought to us by big developers, getting their money from DCA, HUD and other programs. I work on projects from start to finish, spending most of my time on the construction documents (including mechanical, electrical & plumbing drawings too)! I’m a CAD monkey, but I love it – especially the brainless red lines so I can listen to podcasts about Harry Potter while I work.  (I’m a dork and I acknowledge this.)
Right now I’m working on two big rehab projects. One in Louisiana and one in Augusta, GA. They are both projects with extremely old buildings, built in the 20s and 40s. Louisiana involves an old Masonic Lodge/Orphanage (creepy) that we’re turning into new apartments and lofts. It’s a gorgeous old building on a great piece of property. Augusta involves two old hospital buildings on a VA campus. One was the psych ward and the other was for Tuberculosis patients – talk about creepy! These buildings are attempting LEED certification so I am also the LEED consultant on the job, which is extremely stressful but definitely exciting. Because they are on VA property, using government funds with DCA, attempting historic recognition and LEED certification – I often feel like I’m being pulled in 5 million directions. These are the first projects I’m working on as the head architect, so it’s a great learning experience but damn if isn’t overwhelming!!!

What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?
That I am really good at math. I’m horrible at it. And that I sit around being artsy-fartsy-creative all day. Really, the creativity is in the problem solving. That’s what architects are. We’re problem solvers. We’re links in a chain. Between owners and contractors. Products and buildings. We guide things to their rightful place. We instruct, we decide, we see the problems and figure out a way to solve them. Most of our days involve phone calls from contractors, invoices to clients who won’t pay, emails to companies about their products and redrawing bathroom elevations for the hundredth time because the owner changed their mind about the size of the tile. It’s tedious and boring at times and for the most part, it’s like we’re working for free. But somewhere along the way, I realized that I’m good at problem solving. I like the mindless drawing, the drafting of forms with lines on a page. I can create space.

What architect or architects inspire you and why?
I love diagrams. With big arrows and colors and text. I love breaking down forms into conceptual parts. I love explanations and clear paths to a final solution. I’m a control freak. So I love Rem Koolhaas and OMA. His ability to create perfect diagrams makes me want to crawl inside of them and live there in their clarity. And recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Bjarke Ingels with BIG (http://www.big.dk/) and found myself completely inspired by not only his designs, but his delivery. Not surprisingly, he used to work with OMA. I even got to see a few of his buildings in 2008 when I visited Copenhagen. They were awesome.

What is your favorite city for architecture?
My fourth year in undergrad at GT was spent in Paris, France. It was the most fabulous year of my life. I lived in an apartment in the 5th arrondisement and traveled all over Europe. We went to school at Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris La Villette. I had a French boyfriend, I bought baguettes on the way home from class and I drank wine on bridges over the Seine. I was free.
The architecture in Paris calms me. It’s dense and heavy and filled with passion. I could walk the streets forever, just enjoying the scene. And it’s not about specific buildings. It’s about how it all comes together and how you experience it. I don’t have a favorite building, but Paris is my favorite city.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel in Europe again for 2 months. We spent time in Paris, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Berlin. I fell in love with Amsterdam. Not because of the coffee shops but because of the bike riding. We rode our bikes everywhere in the Netherlands and quickly fell into the rhythm of the city. We’d ride from the center of the red light district out into the waterlands, 15 miles away, never stopping.  Seeing the city from those two wheels changed everything.

And then there’s Berlin, Germany. A city with such a rich history – a history that is SO apparent in its architecture. I didn’t expect to love Berlin, but I did. The contrast of new and old made it a great place for exploration. I didn’t want to leave.

If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?
WOULD I HAVE TAKEN? You mean, WILL I TAKE!! I have a habit of keeping busy. Along with being an architect, I do many other things on the side. I have more than one career path and I hope I always do. It’s just that right now, the architecture path pays the best! (Not to mention I spent 14 years trying to become an architect so I figure I should stick with it for a while.) But I’m hoping some of these other lines work out at some point. So I am an architect – but I’m also a graphic designer, an event planner, a marketing director for two different non-profits, a rowing coach, the founder of Team Awesome (www.team-awesome.org) and as soon as I pass the test, a physical trainer! Architecture prepares you for a life of multi-tasking, overachieving and never sleeping.

Watch this fun video:

What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?
I want to say that we should be taught to understand the world of architecture as it exists outside of school. How to deal with contractors, specifications, accessibility, the boring, yet important, stuff. Instead we focus on concepts, forms, theories, crazy rendering programs and big, big, big designs. The fun stuff. The stuff that seems so unnecessary most days when I’m knee-deep in shop drawings and RFIs. But really, it’s the stuff that pushes us past our limits. Our creative limits, our sleep-deprived limits, our drawing limits. If we just focused on the specs or the correct way to swing a door, we’d be horrible architects because we wouldn’t know how far we could go. What we could do. So I guess we’re doing the right thing. Right?

Finally, watch this incredible video Cassi produced during her Master’s thesis:


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