So, You Want to be an Architect? Hell No, Aerospace Engineer!

Detour Sign

You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you might find,
You get what you need.

– some band from the sixties –


The only computer in my high school was a punch-card computer. Believe it or not, there was a time when computers were programmed using little index cards with holes in them. There were hundreds or thousands of them

required for one program (that’s an app, for you youngsters). The entire batch of cards was fed into the computer one card at a time and stored in a box that cried out, “Drop me!, Drop me!” If just one card fell out of place, or if the machine chewed one up (as it often did), you had a

Tim Bjella - Highschool Yearbook
Tim Bjella, High School Yearbook 1982

problem. Drop the box and you may as well start over. Arrrgh! Even back then, who could possibly have thought that was a good idea? I did, actually. I had tech in my blood, along with plenty of youthful enthusiasm (somehow a few platelets managed to squeeze in there, too). A few years of higher education and one of those shiny, not-so-little computers would be mine.

Punchcard Computer

I applied to a number of East Coast Ivy league colleges: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and M.I.T., throwing in Stanford as a fallback. I wasn’t accepted by any of them. Great SAT scores, extracurricular service activities, various other Space Shuttleaccomplishments and even graduating Valedictorian from high school was not enough. I blame my parents for not donating a hospital wing. Was that too much to ask? So, I was on my way to the University of Minnesota. It wouldn’t end well.

I had dreams of aerospace engineering. It was the early eighties and the Space Shuttle was all the rage. I wanted to design spacecraft, and jet boots, and transparent bikinis (look, I was in high school. I didn’t realize until much later on that I could do that without a degree. {shakes head} all that wasted time…). Aerospace engineering was the place for me. Bikini engineering would be a side job.

I had designed spacecraft since grade school. How hard could aerospace engineering be?
I had been designing spacecraft since grade school. Aerospace engineering should be a cinch.

The first step to realizing my dreams: Introductory Physics for Engineers. This class took place in one of the college’s largest auditoriums, with 600 bleary-eyed students listening through the haze (possibly purple) about force and mass and all kinds of things completely unrelated to scoring with college girls. Come to think of it, not too unrelated, really. I should have paid more attention. It didn’t take too long to realize they were just trying to weed out the students that shouldn’t be there. Like me.

Each week concluded with a test. Always worth 100 points. And, every week me and my geeky friends would be annoyed by the even more geeky Asian students and their curve-breaking high scores (they apparently weren’t scoring the other way – o.k., neither were we, but there was always a chance.). They showed up the rest of us by achieving 7 or 8 points out of a hundred. Jerks. Not the Asian kids, they were cool. The professors. I averaged 3 points a week. 3 out of a hundred! That was a passing score, just barely. What kind of test garners a high score of 8 out of a hundred, week after week after week? One that wasn’t meant to test, obviously, but whose only purpose was to discourage.  But, I got back at them. I quit. But not quite yet.

Rough Road SignWhen the second quarter rolled around I was feeling slightly insecure and inadequate. It didn’t help that the teaching assistant of my calculus class, an Italian grad student who didn’t speak any sort of English I had ever heard before, kept asking me, “Wat? Are you stu-peed?” every time I raised my hand. Needless to say, I soon stopped asking questions. Physics was also getting harder (which is how I learned it is physically possible for something to suck and blow at the same time).

My physics professor was a man known for his Marxist rants in the student newspaper and his Muttley laugh, which everyone would laugh along with (but mostly at) in class.

He was not known for his teaching. He would assign homework problems in areas of physics we hadn’t even covered yet. To this day, I still recount to my therapist one of the physics study problems: Calculate the force created by an electric field based on some unintelligible equation taken from a crashed alien spaceship – without visiting Area 51 or seeing the equation or knowing anything about physics. Not to spoil it for you, but first you had to figure out the shape of an electric field. In this case it was a torus (that’s a donut for you those of you inclined to baked goods). Second, you had to derive the calculus equations to describe said torus and apply these to… hell, I don’t know, I never even figured out the question, much less the solution.


Thankfully, the professor was also a lazy man. The final exam, worth a full 50% of the grade for the course, was a gruelling 6 hour long nightmare, which we all dreaded (except, maybe, the Asian kids). By chance I discovered that the U of M had a test preparation room hidden deep in the bowels of a building no one knew existed, guarded by attack dogs and killer librarians. Or was that killer dogs and attack librarians? Scary either way. I managed to get in simply by knocking on the door. I didn’t even need a super-secret handshake. Getting out would prove much more difficult. I don’t think the librarian had seen another living soul in months. After chatting til my throat was hoarse, she let me leave, but only if I promised to come back soon. She’s probably still sitting there waiting.

I got what I came for, though: three of my professor’s prior final exams. I now had some idea of what to expect. The week before the exam me and a couple friends from high school solved every single question on those exams. And then solved them again. And again. To be honest, I think my friends may have solved more of them than me. All of them, honestly. But I got the gist of it. It’s physics, right?

Train CrossingThe day of the final exam rolled in like a freight train, with yours truly bound to the tracks. I was barely prepared, just enough to fumble around with the knots and maybe roll off the tracks in the nick of time. A poor score would create a bloody, squishy mess for some railway worker to clean up. An average score, a career handing out Happy Meals. A good score, on the other hand, would invariably lead to pretty girls across campus pointing at my proud, striding form and whispering excitedly, “look, an aerospace engineer is coming!”

There are some moments in time you wish you could live over and over and over, or at least record on video. This was one of them, except cellphones didn’t have cameras yet and people didn’t have cellphones (probably because they didn’t have cameras). The smile on my face has never been as big as when I opened the exam book. Every single problem came straight from one of the professor’s three old exams. I knew every answer before I even read the question.

Needless to say, I aced the exam, with only one incorrect answer (to make it believable), but I didn’t deserve to. I reconciled my guilt by convincing myself I did deserve it because the professor basically forced me to suffer for five loooooooooong hours, pretending to solve physics problems so it wouldn’t look like I cheated. Technically I didn’t cheat. What was I supposed to do? Ask the professor to prepare a special test just for me because he was too lazy to prepare a unique one for an entire class. I couldn’t do that to him. It would have been wrong.

Enter the introductory aerospace engineering course, a required course for aspiring aerospace engineers. Basically, for an entire quarter they dragged one engineer after another into the classroom to talk about what they did for their job – sort of an engineer show and tell. I thought it would be the most worthless course I had ever taken, second only to Greek Mythology. Turns out, it was the most important.

Pitot Static Tube
Pitot static tubes (airspeed indicators)

One day, a nice gentleman came to class and spoke about how he designed the pitot static tube for every plane and missile that moved through his factory (you know, nudge, nudge, the airspeed indicator tube you see sticking out from airplanes. Next time you fly, look for it. Point it out to your friends, or the stranger sitting next to you. They will be SO impressed). When asked what else the engineer did during the day, he said simply, “that’s it.”

Every day? “Yep.”

I knew, then, I HAD to get out of this place and switch majors.

Aerospace? Hell no!
To Architecture I go.
The journey is long.

So, when my twin sister was recruited for the diving program at Arizona State University, I tagged along, but not before asking, “Are there any girls there?”

“Only tan ones,” she replied.

’nuff said.


End Detour


Stay tuned for Part II, Tim’s Revenge…

A Close Call

You don’t have to send a cake, but a simple thank you would be nice. After all, at college back in 1985, before Jack Bauer came on the scene, I was there keeping you safe.

One night, while you were snuggled up in your cozy, little bed and with no concern for my own well being, I single-handedly disarmed a hydrogen bomb – no doubt the reason you are still around to read this. When I woke up the next morning, the lamp clipped at my bedside was missing its cord. Probably a coincidence.

Tim Bjella 1987

Snowman Ornament 2016 – There has been a Sighting!

Snowman Ornament 2006 by Tim Bjella
Bit warm you say for a snowman sighting? Well, I’ve seen one. Made one, actually.

Woo hoo! This year’s snowman ornament is finished! Yep. It is now in a box awaiting a silent night for santa baby to slide it under O’ Tannenbaum in our winter wonderland. Sorry, Robyn, you will have to wait another 250 days to open it (I know, I know. I’m such a jerk. If I only had a nickle…).

And no, the ornament above is not it (obviously). That is a snow(wo)man I made in 2006, the year our son, Beck, spent time in Robyn’s tummy, so to speak. I’m an architect, Jim, not a doctor! You have to admit, the resemblance is uncanny (to both Robyn and Beck).

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that every year I make a snowman ornament for my wife, Robyn, thus avoiding the misery of setting foot in a mall to buy her a real gift. For those of you who don’t follow this blog, you now know, too (and shame on you for not following the blog – it has poetry for goodness sake!).

Snowman Ornament 2006 by Tim Bjella

The tradition now has the momentum of an orbiting planet. I often make more than one ornament a year (usually from the scraps and waste of the first one – it’s all about saving said planet), and our tree sags from the load of almost fifty of them. They seem to breed like rabbits.

I suggested to Robyn that we should strip the needles off our next tree to trim some weight and make more space (It’d be like a Charlie Brown Christmas!). We could spray paint the dead branches green, or maybe a pretty rainbow. Or, we could just hang only a few. Some would make excellent door stops. She wasn’t buying it. She’s so sentimental.

Made in conjunction with the 2006 snow(wo)man, the locket-type ornament below commemorates Beck’s birth, nine loooong months in the making (Beck, not the ornament). I think it was worth it (Beck, not the ornament).

Beck Bjella - Christmas 2007
Beck Bjella – Christmas 2007

Read the story of last year’s ornament here.

A Change in Perspective – A Modern, Glass Home on a Mountain, or in a Valley?

Glass House

What a difference perspective makes! These two images show the same modern, glass house in Sonoma, California photographed from vantage points only fifty feet from one another (same day, same camera, same lens). Naturally, you would think they were two similar homes on dramatically different sites – one perched on a mountaintop and the other nestled in a serene valley.

It just goes to show what a slight change of perspective can do. Interestingly, it works the same way in life.

It’s Like Being a Kid Again. The Best Multi-Colored Pencil (and Pen)… Ever

Pentel Pen and Pencil

Is it the most beautiful? No.
Is it classy? No.

This pen is all about function (and memories of that 64 pack of crayons with the sharpener on the back). Need to sign a check? No problem. Color a restaurant placemat? Easy. Highlight a passage in a book? Choose fluorescent yellow, pink or orange.

I use many nice pens, but the one I carry with me every day in my sketchbook, is the Pentel Super Multi-8 PH803. Why? Because, “form follows function.”

Not much larger than a standard Pen, Pentel managed to pack in 8, yes you read that right, 8 pens or colored pencils into a normal sized barrel. You may use any combination of pens or pencils in the 8 slots.

Pentel only offers red, blue, and black ballpoint pen refills, though, so if chartreuse is your thing, you’re out of luck (unless you don’t mind customizing a refill – see below).

The colored pencils are high quality, neither dull nor scratchy. Instead of sketching with Pentel’s included black colored pencil, I substitute my favorite Koh-i-noor 4300/24 2mm lead. It’s not really necessary, but I’m likely more finicky than most.

Pentel PH803

The pen does have a couple of minor drawbacks:

  1. There is no .5 mm mechanical pencil option, only 2mm graphite, same diameter as the colored pencils. But, oddly enough, even as an architect, I never use mechanical pencils. I can’t remember the last time I used an eraser, either (it doesn’t have one, btw).
  2. The pen refills are basic ballpoints specific to Pentel. No other refills fit. I cannot express how much I loath ballpoint pens (I prefer gel ink that doesn’t skip or need scribbling to get it started). Yet, with a little effort you can customize a standard D1 Pen refill by simply trimming it with a wire cutter (you could try using your teeth, but unless you’re the tall dude from that James Bond film, I’d consult your dentist first).


The kid’s version below (Pentel Multi 8) is a third the cost, more colorful, but otherwise exactly the same functionality. You have to purchase the ballpoint refills separately because this one only comes with colored pencils. It makes a great stocking stuffer.

Pentel PH158


Poets vs. Architects – Part 2

Poets vs Architects 2

If, like me, you are tired of the graphic images on the nightly news endlessly sensationalizing the skirmishes between architects and poets, then read on. Here is part 2 of my plan to bring both sides together and bridge an unbridgeable rift. How? By extending the olive branch of friendship (or if that doesn’t work, by covering up the whole darn thing with a figleaf).

We can do this by combining the two – by writing architectural poetry, in my case, haiku (sans any mention of bridges, because that would be engineering. We don’t want to pick a fight with them, too. They’re even tougher than poets.).

Why haiku?

  • Haiku has a very rigid structure, a framework you must work within. This focuses your thinking right from the start. With less options to explore, you get moving quicker.
  • Haikus are short and sweet. Brevity is the soul of wit, afterall. It is much more difficult to write succinctly than to ramble, making it an interesting challenge.
  • It’s fun, like solving a little puzzle – not only to paint a picture, tell a story, raise a chuckle or eyebrow in very few words, but to find just the right words in keeping with the rule of 17 syllables.
  • You don’t have to rhyme.
  • They do not require much time to read or write (unless you labor over every word as I sometimes do. But, what else are you going to do in the shower if you have forsworn soap).

Lost… Old cobbled streets,
Gas lanterns, trembling shadows,
My horse, for Google!

Warm, cozy fireplace,
Small hole near the rocking chair,
Roaches need homes, too.

Castle lies broken,
Ancient wonder crumbling down,
All the King’s horses…

We build towers tall,
Strong, yet limber in the wind,
I fear when they fall.

Poetry in words,
There is poetry in form,
Or is that motion?

A bygone era,
Neighbors waving from porches,
Today… garages.

Lofty cathedral,
Soaring spaces feed the soul,
And starve the ego.

Pretty pink houses,
Grand Victorian ladies,
Where are all the men?

Shoebox hotel room,
Kitschy paintings on the walls,
Could be anywhere.

Read Poets vs. Architects – Part One, here.