The air was frigid with a howling wind - another New York winter day.
We were near the top floor of the the first tower laying out the offsets for the exterior brick. The wind was so strong that 50 feet of steel tape could barely be held to the concrete deck. The wind chill was far below zero and we were bundled in several layers of clothes making it difficult to bend down to mark the offset lines and move on to the next place.
Steel lentils, for door and window headers, were frozen to the deck from the last rain - creating an obstacle Course. It was dangerous working near the edge of the slab - stooping to make the marks, pulling the tape to keep it flat, working to a close tolerance, moving fast because the cold could be endured only with the exercise of continuous movement - and then, only for about two hours. One time around to make the marks, a second time around to snap the lines. 1,250 feet of perimeter to be squared up for the exterior wall.
The conditions were terrible. I was ecstatic.
The process of weaving the many elements that make a building into an integrated flow of information, materials, goods and human skills is flow management of the most artful kind. Done poorly, it is a mess. Done well it is poetry in motion. Tishman Construction did it well, and as Project Engineer of a $22,000,000 development next to Pratt Institute, I was having the time of my life.
I got the job with Tishman because I wrote a letter proposing a new way of design-build integration. They decided to let me try it out although, in terms of age, experience and education, I was way under qualified for the task. This method later was called fast tracking and is rarely practiced as intended. With this project, we went from excavation to substantial completion in 14 months. During the concrete superstructure phase, we poured one floor a day - 420 cubic years of structural concrete in the late summer heat and early winter rain and cold. This was accomplished by scheduling every task, performed by a dozen trades and hundreds of workers within a 20 minute tolerance.
All things considered, I think of my time with Tishman as the best period of my working life. If I was ever tempted to stay in a place with a company and make a career of doing one thing - this was it. Tishman was the only company that I every worked for, or with, whose standards were equal to mine. They were, also, excellent at managing the relationship with their subcontractors and suppliers.
Besides the fact that building is one of my greatest passions and that working for Tishman in New York City is one of the best places to exercise this strange taste, this period ranks high because it was the most demanding experience, in terms of learning, I have ever had. I went into this work at least a decade and graduate degree behind in experience and construction knowledge. Here, on a daily basis, I was responsible of technical decisions about complex issues, that a while before, I was completely unaware of. To do this I had to develop highly refined real-time information acquisition skills and a rapid decision/design process that incorporated the greater experience of all those on the job. This was a built self-aware, disciplined mental process and I use it to this day. I came out of this period acknowledge as one of the best project enginners in the city.
This project taught me a great deal about learning. It taught me about leading people, overcoming obstacles, how to push to a conclusion, how to feel the energy of several hundred people - spread over two square blocks of construction - and find a problem with only sound as a guide. It taught me that whole technical arts could be learned in a matter of weeks, that engineering was a process first and a specific knowledge base second.
It taught me that problems anticipated are far easier to solve than those left undiscovered only to erupt at unlikely times. It taught me that great complexity can be managed by systematic process. It taught me that if you created a free environment for people and got them the tools and materials they needed - and kept the bull shit off their backs - that they would do miracles just for the pure fun of it. It taught be that over half of the conventional construction dollar was pure waste - and just where that waste was. It taught me about document control, verification procedures, feedback on communication and agreements and how to work with government agencies. It taught me about making decisions and taking calculated risks (every morning I had to access the weather and decide if four hundred workers stayed on the job or not - wage risk against schedule loss.). It gave me the technical foundation to go back and review the entire process of making architecture.
There was another thing that made this work pure joy. I was working for Tishman Construction Company. Tishman was - and remains to this day - the only enterprise that I have worked with the completely understood and practiced the principle of delegation of authority.
on CAMELOT - Long Island Sound
July 4, 1998
posted January 2, 1999
revised April 1, 1999
note: this document is about 15% finished