Life of an Architect living the Life of Riley?

October 19, 2010 — 18 Comments

There is a phrase – Living the Life of Riley – maybe you’ve heard of it? If not that’s okay, I’ll tell you what it means. Despite unknown origins, the phrase has come to mean living the good life; as in:

“Borson? Well that guy is living the Life of Riley”

For the most part I do have it pretty good and nobody wants to come on this site and hear how bad I have it and poor me … that includes yours truly. The discussion for today is are things better today than they were 10 years ago? Is there reason to be optimistic? Without spending any measurable time thinking about it, my knee-jerk reaction is a resounding yes. Things are better than they were 10 years ago, better but harder. I am a glass half-full kind of person and I like to think that positive changes are happening, lives are being improved, people care about others and lend a helping hand whenever possible.

Maybe that’s just me. I can find reasons to be positive but wishing and thinking doesn’t make it happen.

I make less money today than I did a year ago – but I still have a job

My house is falling apart and I can’t fix it – but I don’t live in a shelter or under a bridge

I don’t eat steak for dinner every night – but my family isn’t going hungry

There are always reasons to be thankful and perspective can sometimes help you see what you might be looking past.


I also just watched Cameron Sinclair from Architecture for Humanity speak at the 71st Annual Texas Society of Architects Convention and  felt inspired and humbled. If you are looking for a reason to be optimistic for the next ten years, take a look at how this group is making a difference when it matters most. From the Architecture from Humanity website, here is how they spent the first 10 years of the new millennium:

Organization Founded in New York, New York
‘Architecture for Humanity’ Transitional Housing design competition held
Two part-time volunteers

First Transitional Housing prototype built.

Outreach – Mobile Health Clinics to Combat HIV/AIDS competition held
First full-time member of staff and three part-time volunteers

Mobile Health Clinic Workshop held in Somkhele, South Africa
First local chapter, Architecture for Humanity NY, formed. Dozen more formed in the following year.

Responded to Bam Earthquake and Hurricane Emily
Cincinnati Freedom Summer Charrette held
Siyathemba – Youth Sports Facility and HIV/AIDS Outreach Center competition held

Main Office moves to Bozeman, Montana
Responded to South Asia Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina
Design Like You Give A Damn published, top-selling design book
Organization awarded the INDEX Design for Life Award for Siyathemba
Three full-time members of staff, four part-time volunteers and three design fellows

Main Office moves to Sausalito, California
Organization awarded the TED Prize and the Wired Rave Award for Architecture
Begins partnership with UN Habitat

Main Office moves to San Francisco, California
Open Architecture Network ( launched, 10,000 members in its first year
AMD 2007 Open Architecture Challenge held
Organization awarded the AIANY Foundation Award
Biloxi Model Homes win multiple regional AIA Awards
One hundredth project completed

Architecture for Humanity awarded prestigious National Design Patron Award from Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
Six full-time members of staff, eight part-time volunteers and seventeen design fellows
Two hundred and fiftieth building begun

Celebrates 10 years of ‘Designing like we give a damn’ with Anniversary party at Autodesk Design Center.
Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom competition. Over 1060 teams from 31 countries enter and Teton Valley School in Idaho wins.
Architecture for Humanity speaks at conferences in Canada, Thailand, Singapore, Qatar, London, Hong Kong and the United States. Kate speaks at Clinton Global Initiative and Cameron speaks at CLSA and Greenbuild. They win the Royal Society of Arts Bicentenary Medal in London and are invited to the White House for National Design Awards.
Begin projects in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kenya, South Africa. Grand Opening of Skateistan in Kabul. Open Design Studios in Hyderabad, India and Cape Town, South Africa. Homeless World Cup in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Finish the Biloxi homes project.

This Wednesday night in Dallas from 6:30 to 8:30, the Dallas/ Fort Worth Chapter of Architecture for Humanity will be having it’s monthly meeting and I am going to be there. Interested in seeing what’s going on? Maybe say hello and meet some interesting people? Here’s the agenda – it’s at the Old Monk on Henderson (about 100 yards from my office).

Finally, I tracked down a video that was shown during the general session presentation down in San Antonio. Cameron told an amazing story about how he has never met the woman who made this video, that they just sent her a bunch of information and video reels and this is what they received back.



Sorry if you can’t see the video embed above but if you go to my site, it is available for viewing (re: mobile devices that don’t support flash)


Today’s topic was brought to you as part of a series of “blog off” participants where several people are given a topic/ title and they all write on that topic. It is a fun exercise given the loose parameters that are established. If you would like to read the other entries in today’s topic, head on over to


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  • Bob, I am convinced that you are one of guys who will change the world. You are hard-working, clever, a leader, a total softie and full of yourself – all requirements for changing the world. I can’t wait to get a signed copy of whatever book you end up writing. PS If you want to cheer up about your house, come see mine. Living in SB will suck your account dry.

    • I think that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me (other than when my wife said “I do”).

      I am completely and utterly unprepared to offer up anything intelligent in response other than my most sincere thank you.


  • Denese Bottrell

    Thanks for the reminder to look for ways to make things better for others rather than ourselves. Since funeral homes were brought up… I drive by a cemetery every morning and blow them a kiss. The best way to honor them is to be grateful and not take one minute here for granted.

    p.s. have you seen the Iconoclasts episode with Cameron Sinclair + Cameron Diaz? It’s great.. here are some clips:

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Denese – I will have to check those out!

  • Bob: you are right on so many counts, in my way of thinking. One is, you can always find the good with the bad. another is, Cameron’s org is simply amazing. Architects needed that “doctors w/out borders” group and he is making it happen. Lucky you to meet him FTF. While their work is incredibly important, I think the book “design like you give a damn” truly aided and elevated their efforts lightyears beyond where they weould be otherwise. I think architects don’t understand often enough the value of writing for the rest of the world, ie, non-architects. Its been a real struggle for me to find a publisher that understands that. they think only other architects care about design and building well – and that’s total baloney. everyone cares, they just dont know what to do about it. at least that’s the way I see it.

    hang in there Superman, you’re doing beautiful work and live an admirable life. and who the hell is Riley anyway?? heh.
    cindy @urbanverse

  • It always amazes me the list of accomplishments that such a group can compile in the short span of a decade. They done good – and alot of it! Thanks for providing us with such a shining example.

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  • Ebogan63

    Bob, thanks for that wonderful video, to remind me why I want to continue to pursue architecture. There are alot of good folks involved in this field.

    • Anonymous

      There sure are – it’s endeavors such as this that make being an architect something to aspire to

  • Speaking of disaster housing, that’s a much tougher challenge than it appears. I founded a group called the New Urban Guild that spearheaded the Katrina Cottages initiative just after hurricane Katrina. My role focused on housing manufacturers. I was hopeful that we might transform the entire industry… and we still might. But the first task is training people to see, and it’s a daunting one. The jury’s still out on where that might go. If you allow a bit of self-promotion, check out I’m about to transfer the site to iWeb where I’ll have much more control over it; right now it’s dated because I don’t know HTML and can’t modify it.

  • Morgan Robert Murphy

    Great book, video & message. I was lucky enough to see D.K. Ruth (Rural Studio) lecture at our AIAS chapter lecture series before his passing in 2009, & Hank Louis (DesignBuildBLUFF) lecture at AIAS FORUM 2007. Both of these professionals message on “architecture though action,” really stuck a chord with a lot of the students in my class, as well as myself. I believe that any student who is lucky enough to experience the design-build paradigm will hopefully come away with such an elevated level of understanding toward architecture & humanitarianism. Almost like the architecture version of Linus’s the meaning of Christmas speech to Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “that’s what architecture is all about, Charlie Brown.”

  • Wow what a reminder about how much we have to be thankful for and how much more we can do. It is hard to imagine what those children have seen and lived through.

    • Anonymous

      It is easy to see how people can be moved considering the topic. During the presentation in San Antonio, Sinclair showed a picture of one of the volunteers receiving a hug from someone who was a recipient of their efforts. He said at the end of every project, the volunteers get “that hug – your mother can’t even give you that hug”. So in a room full of people talking about how bad business is and how they are making so much less money than before, you knew that the person receiving that hug was the richest.

      Like I said – inspired and humbled.

  • Moving video. I had to watch it several times.

  • The unintended consequence of blogging is I am more likely to page back years and re-read things I had been doing that were previously buried in hand-written journals. When you get stuck up against a “what have I done” moment, it helps to see how things were built day by day.

    I pass by a funeral home every day on my way to and from my office. I make it a point to look at the parking lot, to notice whether or not there is a hearse under the awning, to count the cars, to see the people hanging in front. When there is a funeral, I remind myself that no matter how bad things were at the office, someone is having an even worse day. It helps to have markers along the way to keep us grounded.

    • Anonymous

      I have a similar process and while it always helps put things in perspective, I almost always come away feeling like a jerk for not volunteering and doing more than I already do. You can always do more.

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