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The website the architect built

by admin on May 10, 2011

Way back in the late nineties I needed convincing by an old college roommate about the value of having my own website for my architecture business. He worked in Silicon Valley and was hipper than I to this notion. “People will be able to check you out on their own. They’ll be much more willing to do that, compared to having to call you on the phone to ask questions.” Hmmm. That sounded like it made sense. No wonder this Internet thing just might catch on.

A week or two later I happened to be laid up in Kaiser for a couple days getting IV’s to prevent an infection in a finger tendon that had been pierced by a wood splinter. Being forced to remain in one place with nothing to do was just the opportunity I needed to create the text for my website. I wrote it all longhand, scratched out sentences and added others with arrows and then word-processed it back at the office. I sought the help of a pro to handle the shaping and technical work of assembling my website. After a detour through a mildly talented friend-of-a-friend I arrived at the services of the more talented Bree DeMoss of Oakland. After Bree drove out for a meeting in Benicia, all my interactions with her were via email and sometimes the phone.

It was important to me that my website not seem too corporate or pompous or anything else that I am not. I also wanted to avoid tricky visual effects and text that relied on buzzwords to try and dazzle. I believed people would respond best to sincerity. In my text I admitted right up front to being a small office that’s run out of my home. But I also pointed out that I’m a rare combination: a licensed architect who spent ten years as a full-time house builder and remodeler who also knows how to do his own structural design. Almost nobody in the design world does that level of Siddhartha-esque career shaping, but various circumstances led me to do it.

The personality of my website would come largely from my own words describing my process and background. But then there were the photos, lots of them. I was warned by Webmaster Bree that, even with the photos, my site might seem “text heavy,” but I figured that those visitors who wanted to merely skim it would just look at the photos anyway and those who wanted to do serious research would dig in deeper to the words. I was talked out of my initial idea of letting my text run as if it were one long letter to my would-be client and instead agreed to break it into separate sections.

I visited other architects’ websites and found nifty ways of displaying photos and also pompous things like quotes from intentionally obscure intellectuals. (Oh you architects, can you please just lighten up a bit?) Then there were the mission statements, usually so all-encompassing and bland as to be meaningless. Some of these sites did have cool photos though. I paid attention to what sorts of photos worked and which didn’t.

How to handle the testimonials was another subject. I had some pretty good ones to share too, mostly because I didn’t just collect written ones from past clients because most of the best ones occurred verbally and were spontaneous outbursts of praise. So whenever anyone left a phone message or just told me something with a particularly effusive bit of praise, I jotted it down immediately to make sure I got it right. I kept everyone’s privacy intact by listing only their initials. Bree suggested we sprinkle the quotes about here and there off to the side throughout the website, but that seemed too braggy to me, so we settled on having them all together in a section called “What my clients say about working with me.”

After all that work getting my site set up, it was nice to have it in place working for me without any effort on my part. I made sure it appeared in my small yellow page ad (back in the days when we were all still using the yellow pages!) and on job signs. I was starting to show up on search engines like Netscape Navigator and that new upstart Google. A hidden counter on my site showed me that people were indeed visiting. It amazed me that few other local architects at that time were using the web to promote themselves.

There followed the era of writing columns for the Benicia Herald beginning in 2004. I wrote a thousand words each month about design issues and travel experiences and life in Benicia (and more!) The columns appeared on my website and, just last month, got transformed into a blog. (For the less hip among us, that clever word is an amalgam of “web log.”) I was inspired to have it ready by the end of March so that I could mention it in my interview that ran in Benicia Magazine in April. I’m not sure how critical it was to actually have it ready by then, but such imposed “deadlines” are a good way to get things done. Getting the blog ready required a whole new bout of work for me, but it was pretty fun, because I could take my body of writing (over eighty columns) and add photos and drawings to show things and make things clearer. For instance, the whole experience building the houses in Mexico, including the land rape that later occurred in our cute little harbor by the evil developer, could be shown in vivid color.

Headings needed to be decided and columns sorted into categories. Because my daughter happens to be a legitimate whiz at photo-shop, I solicited her help creating icons to serve as entry points to my categories. It was fun collaborating in this way, combining photos and words into graphic images to represent each category, and I was impressed with how well Gwenna handled the demands of a paying client as me.

I must say it felt slightly self-indulgent spending so much time poring over which personal photos to highlight and share with the world. But that is the nature of blogs and websites. We get to make them our own – to be true to ourselves – and trust it will all work out for the best.

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