Finding Self-Awareness by Facing Your Fears

This post is part of the ArchiTalks monthly blog series, hosted by Architect Bob Borson. This month’s topic is: “"Summer" At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some of the other ArchiTalk Bloggers. Make sure you visit them.

Finding Self-Awareness By Facing Your Fears.jpg




Taken at first glance, that probably makes no sense at all. I mean, I design buildings that literally are meant to rise above the ground.

Now it's true that at some point in my college education I had the realization that I would have to inspect construction sites. Unfinished, open-air, and scary as hell construction sites.

The one image that always comes to mind is that famous series of black and white photos with the guys who built the first skyscrapers - dangling from steel hundreds of feet above the street without a single safety mechanism in sight.

This was made painfully clear to me on a clear, winter morning when I was on a tour of the then unfinished New York Times Building in New York City. Renzo Piano's skyscraper is a master work in my opinion, but the in-process beauty standing 700+ feet up in the air at the roof level was lost a bit on this young, impressionable architect.

On Site / The Summer of Roof Work

On Site / The Summer of Roof Work


But now it's 2016; summer to be exact.

What does summer mean to me? It means that if you're a practicing architect on the East Coast, you're probably doing one of two things: 1.) You're in the middle of some related construction administration process or 2.) You're psyched to get out to projects that are still in design and do some much needed field verification.

Either way, the snow has melted and architects have an opportunity to look at conditions both built and under construction, unobstructed by the fluffy white stuff.

As it so happens, I don't have any projects in construction this summer, but I do have a project in the throws of design.

Student Work from Architecture + Education Program, 2013   

Student Work from Architecture + Education Program, 2013



The firm I started at a little over a year ago specializes in K-12 work and I have to say that I really do love it. As I've mentioned before in previous posts, I truly believe in the power of education and the work I do for the school system. It gives me the sense that I'm helping to reinforce that power and ultimately provide those children with a better place to learn.

That said, the project I've been working on for the past few months is for renovation work at a school district at the southern edge of the New York, a few minutes from the New York / Pennsylvania border.

There will be major interior renovations at a few of the schools throughout the district as well as major restoration projects at all of the school roofs.

By now, you may start to see the problem for me here based on my story so far. It's not just one school, it's four. Each of those schools has a roof that is being restored or will end up being a full tear-off.

But the roof is still a very important part of the entire picture here. Not all the work we do as architects is glamorous, but without these types of upgrades, the schools wouldn't function in fundamental ways and there would be major issues affecting teachers, students, and staff.

Our job as architects is to use our design skills to help provide a better situation for our clients and the users. Sometimes it's cool, sometimes it's just plain necessary. Sometimes it's the best of both worlds.

"A fear of HEIGHTS is illogical. A fear of FALLING, on the other hand, is prudent and evolutionary."
Dr. Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory


Now, perhaps the example of the New York Times Building tour isn't quite fair. I mean 700+ feet could make most people at least a bit uncomfortable. Let me cite another fun tale.

When I was at my previous firm, I was tasked with a project that required me to go up onto another roof. This roof wasn't 700 feet tall, but it was still four stories up.

There was an attic at the uppermost floor that housed several mechanical units for the rest of the building. Along one of the interior masonry walls, there stood a narrow, steel ladder with bar rungs. I love those types of ladders in particular (sarcasm) because they're just so forgiving. It had about a 14 to 15 foot long run from floor to roof hatch and included what were basically glorified steel dowels for rungs.

Did I mention that I am a 6'-4" man with a size 14 foot? 1/2" steel dowels don't really do it for me.

So, the thing I remember above all else is the very top of the ladder. There was a lip just at the top of the roof hatch. It made sense that there would be because you'd want the edge to be higher than the roof line so that it didn't interfere with the roof itself.

But when you're me, in that moment, those reasons don't particularly matter much. You ask yourself questions like, "why is there a disproportionate step from the last rung to roof?" or "ladders, why did it have to be ladders?" (a variation of a fantastic movie quote that just makes sense when you're not making any).

That day, I was able to somehow get up and over the top of the lip, reaching my foot over the edge and onto the roof. I stood up and looked over the edge. I was fine. Well, fine-ish. I was walking around, taking measurements and everything was bearable.

Getting down was far more difficult.

Then a profound realization hit me. I wasn't really afraid of the height as much as I was terrified of falling. I had the most issue on the actual ladder itself. Once I had made it up to the roof, I was pretty much fine.

I sort of willed myself to forget about everything else, took my time, and put one foot behind the other, grabbing hold to the most stable pieces of building I could grasp a hold of.

Once I was mid-way down the ladder, my heart was no long beating outside my chest. I had made it. The rest of the ladder was a piece of cake in comparison. I was nearing the ground, or well, solid footing.

I placed my foot onto the wonderful concrete floor and have not had to climb up to that roof since.


So, fast forward to a bright, summer day in early July of this year.

We had just recently ended the schematic design phase and were moving on to design development. Although we had identified, via infrared roof testing, any areas of concern in the months prior, we now had the roofing contractor out again to perform roofing cores at each of the separate roofs.

I was tasked with walking around and taking notes as the roofers went from roof to roof for each core.

Roof Core Process In Action / Step One - Remove Core, Step Two - Record Core, Step Three - Patch Core.   

Roof Core Process In Action / Step One - Remove Core, Step Two - Record Core, Step Three - Patch Core.


In case you're unfamiliar with this process (to be honest, I was before this), the contractor basically cuts a hole in the roof down to the deck and pops out a cylindrical cross section of the roof about 1-1/2" to 2" in diameter. It basically looks like a layer cake of roof - membrane, insulation, cover board, and all.

They take a photo of what they pull out, measure it, write notes, and put it back. After it's back in place, they make a simple patch over the hole.

Even though it's really obvious where they took the sample from, the roof system is kept entirely intact. The patch is of the same membrane as the existing roof, so there are no issues with dissimilar materials.

It's a very cool process to witness first hand. These guys are really good at what they do.

So Many Roofs, So Little Time.   

So Many Roofs, So Little Time.



Did I mention yet that there are about 30-40 different roof levels across the four schools? I didn't! Shame on me, because there are.

Oh, did I also mention that, to the best of what I can recall, only one or two of those levels actually had roof ladders attached to the buildings? I must have forgot about that too!

I think you can start to see the fuller picture here. Mike is not too keen on falling, there are lots and lots of different roofs, each roof is basically at its own elevation, and there are no ladders.

Well, sorry about that. There was one ladder. That ladder was the one the roofing guys brought with them. Ugh (face-palm).

Now, it's no one's fault really (aside from perhaps the original architect who should have seen a future where another architect might want some ladders to better appreciate their building that they designed).

And I don't hold grudges.

As it turns out though, the major roof at one of the schools happened to be the one we required the most coordination of. Not to mention that the original architect did in fact at least provide an interior ship's ladder to let people like me reach the mechanical penthouse and said roof without an additional ladder outside.

I was able to clearly document what I saw on that roof including all of the equipment, piping, and vents that we'd need to be aware of in future design work.

By the time the roofers were done bouncing from roof to roof like they were in a game of 'Super Mario Bros.,' I had just finished my documentation of the first roof.

I remember thinking to myself, 'this wasn't so bad.'

But we weren't done. No, not by a long shot.

Here We Go Again.   

Here We Go Again.



At one of the other schools, where there is actually a ladder to the roof above on an exterior wall, I had a chance at a little bit of redemption.

I didn't want to just chicken out and not face my fear. I needed to at least try.

I took one look at the ladder up close and realized it wasn't going to be easy.

Side note - My friends, please advocate for aluminum ladders with rungs that are more than a 1/2" wide.

It was basically the same ladder I had dealt with in a past life. The fact that it was now painted white didn't make it any prettier. Well, maybe just a tad.

But it wasn't to be.

When I was at the top of the ladder, something happened inside my brain. My self-preservation mode took over and told me, "well, you're not supposed to be here, Mike." I couldn't move. I couldn't get up and over the roof edge. I was frozen (and, no, I didn't 'let it go').

It was like the experience had triggered a memory, an instant flash of happened before and how difficult it had been for me then. I remember looking over the edge of the roof, knowing how close I was and then saying out loud, "nope."

I recognized that I wasn't going to be able to handle what was happening there and began my descent. I took one step at a time back down the ladder and knew in my heart that wasn't meant to be. Not that day.


I walked over to one of the roofers, Kyle, and said, "You know, I don't think it's going to happen today."

When I first arrived earlier that morning, I confessed to Kyle that I had issues with heights, just so he knew where I stood with everything.

I figured I'd get some flak from him, but Kyle looked at me and very sincerely just said four words, "no worries, it's okay."

I know that I didn't necessarily need him to say anything like that, but it was in that moment that I realized something else profound - I can't do everything. I have limitations.

We all sort of play this game with our limitations, hoping we can find ways around them. I think I may at least tame my fear a bit over time, but I'll never be completely over it.

At the end of the day, I know that there are guys out there like Kyle who do this kind of stuff day in and day out. They're awesome at what they do and they have the inherent skills and talent to do their job well every time.





Architalks Crew

July 2016

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Summer is for the Young at Heart

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Summer is a Great Time To Market Your Architecture Firm!

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Summer : A Review

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
summer working, had me a blast

Evan Troxel - Archispeak Podcast / TRXL (@etroxel)
Lake Powell

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Seasons of Summer

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect)
The Dog Days of Summer

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Summer -- Architecture Imagery

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#Architalks 20 "summer" and architecture

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
4 Secrets To Getting The Most Out Of Your Summer Internship

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Summer Surprise

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
An Acrophobic Architect's Illuminating Summer of Roofs

Sharon George - Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
Glass in Architecture - Summer Wonders

Brinn Miracle - Architangent (@architangent)
4 Reasons Solar Power is a Hot Topic

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Seasonal change

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
... and the livin's easy

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Summer Rhythms

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Do I Need to Hire an Architect?

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
An Architectural Spark for your Summer

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Summer in Seoul

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
[Dis]Connected Summer

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch)
5 Things to Make the Most of Your Summer

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
An Architect Summer

CareerMichael LaValley