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.

In Honor of National Poetry Month… Help Me End the Feud.

Poets vs ArchitectsYes, apparently there is a National Poetry month. Who knew? Architecture only has a week – April 12th through the 18th (six days, actually. Not even a whole week). Yep. I know, I know, it’s an outrage. I’m sure National Architecture week is marked on your calendars in bold red ink, circled, with little hearts drawn around it. I bet National Poetry month isn’t even marked in pencil. It’s April, if you are wondering.

Despite my seething anger and resentment, I am willing to step up to the plate, take the high road, be the bigger person and set aloft the dove of peace to build a bridge between these mortal enemies, the despicable poets and the architects (by despicable, I mean kind, generous and caring, obviously. Sort of like when ‘bad’ means ‘good’, or bastard means… well, nevermind). Who will stand with me?

For this week only, the two events coincide. I propose we take this week and write poetry about architecture. Alternatively, you may write a song if you prefer (but that would be playing right into the hands of those pesky songwriters. They probably have a whole year). Nah. Let’s just write poetry that in some way embraces architecture, interior spaces, buildings, ruins, monuments, cities, towns, your house, or whatever flips your (light) switch. If there’s enough interest I’ll post your poems on this blog as a peace offering to the angry (I mean loving) poets. If not, then poets and architects are doomed to feud til time stands still. It’s on your shoulders.

So, get out your frilly little poet’s pen or your solid, dependable, built-to-last, stainless steel architect’s mechanical pencil and start poeting.

I’ll start things off with some haiku, because I don’t have the foggiest idea how to write any other poetry. It’s perfect for those of us with short attention spans. Haiku is the Twitter of poetry (3 lines totaling 17 syllables: 5 syllables on the first and third lines, 7 on the second line). For any other form of poetry, feel free to ramble on for pages if your muse commands.

An old house of stone,
I am covered in ivy,
Ooh, those mice tickle!

Grand Sistine ceiling,
Four years lying on my back,
Next time, you paint it!

Pharaohs long since dead,
Red sun broils the pyramids,
Ahhh…… It’s cool beneath.

Angry wind howling,
Why is everything spinning?
There’s no place like home.

Driving the freeway,
House after house after house,
They are all the same.

Sprouting from the ground,
A cage of lumber nailed,
Someday I’ll live here.

Up, up, up the stairs,
My heart… about… to… explode.
Yay! Stairs go down, too.

No windows for me,
I sit in a cubicle,
Yearning for the light.

Like children for mom,
Shiny, glass and steel buildings,
They reach for the sky.

Big picture window,
Sparkling clean target in sight,
I like to eat worms.

Read part two here.

Just can’t get enough Haiku? Check out my Star Wars Haiku.

Bring out your Dead! But use the Little Door, Please.

Gubbio, Italy

A quaint hill town in Italy called Gubbio sports a mystery. Why do many of the ancient houses lining the narrow, twisting streets have two front doors? Not a single double door, mind you, but two sets of doors, side by side, one diminutive.

The town is ancient, and the reason is long forgotten. Not even the town barber knows. I’m certain he doesn’t, because I asked him (although my Italian was a bit rusty, so I might have asked if his dog wears high heals while dancing in the refrigerator). To be honest, the only Italian I know is spaghetti, and that may be Chinese.

Some speculate these doors were used only when there was a death in the home, to carry out the body, an aporta dei morti (door of the dead). More likely there was a special on doors at the local Home Depotelli too good to pass up. “Well, I really need a window… but you just can’t beat the price of this door!”

Knowing a little about buildings, I personally think the first house built with an extra door was simply a construction error and the clever contractor convinced his client it was all the rage in Rome. Then the neighbors felt the need to keep up with the Jonesetti’s, and the fad caught on.

Doors for the Dead

Gubbio, Italy

Who’s Up for Some Math?

I’ll start you off easy, with a problem from one of Beck’s 2nd grade, weekly math quizzes.

{You haven’t even read it, and I can see your eyes have already glazed over! Go on, give it a try.}

2nd Grade Math Problem

The solution:
For those disinclined to math, the key is actually logic. You must first realize that with only five coins, Sue cannot have more than a dollar unless she has all four of the quarters.

Knowing that Sue has an even dollar (four quarters) plus one more coin, we can then intuit that for Sue to have twice as much money as Julian, her last coin must be an even denomination (divisible by 2). The only coin that fits the bill (even though it’s not a bill) is a dime. Therefore, Sue has one dollar and ten cents. Julian has 55 cents. I know, it’s not fair, but I’m sure they will redistribute the money later.

For what it’s worth, Beck’s answer was incorrect. He was distraught and mopey for months and hasn’t been allowed dessert since (unless you include candy, cake, ice cream, cookies, pie and brochelli). That’ll learn him.

Beck and Robyn Bjella - Miniature Golf
Beck and his mom, both clearly devastated over failing the above math problem – it was his last chance to become an astronaut. I guess all that’s left for him is superhero crime fighter or Chippendale dancer.

Sorta Makes Me Want to Live in a Monastery

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

The island of Le Mont Saint Michel, France, leads the pack of the world’s most picturesque monasteries. I’ll have to add sketching the others to my bucket list. Hmm… never been to Tibet.

Can’t Get Enough Monastery Humor…

A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks copy the old canons and laws by hand. He notices that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript.

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint MichelSo, the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone had made even a small error in the first copy, it would never have been noticed! In fact, that error would be replicated in all of the subsequent copies.

The head monk, says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery where the original manuscripts are archived in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot. The young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing, “We missed the “R” ! , we missed the “R” !” He is crying uncontrollably. The young monk asks the old abbot, “What’s wrong, father?” With a choking voice, the old abbot replies, “The word was… CELEBRATE !!!

Le Mont Saint Michel Sunset

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel

Sometimes Lazy Works

The sketch above was my second attempt to capture the essence of this extraordinary place. Partway through I downshifted into lazy gear and decided to skip drawing the foreground. Laziness is apparently a virtue as it resulted in an unexpectedly dynamic composition. Compare this sketch to my earlier one at the top of the page. That sketch emphasizes the charming, scenic character of the place, whereas the latter sketch captures the architectural spirit. Same pencil, two different interpretations of the same subject. I wish I could say that that was my intent. Lesson learned: What you leave out is as important as what you put in.

I needed more time here. Maybe not a lifetime as a monk, but at least enough for a few more sketches. Or, maybe Haiku?

Off to an abbey,
For a life, calm and serene,
Live it up now, boy!

Tim Bjella Sketches - Le Mont Saint Michel
A one minute speed-sketch of Le Mont Saint Michel
Remember when men's shorts were shorter than women's? Let's hope we never see those days again.
Remember when men’s shorts were shorter than women’s? Let’s hope we never see those days again. Robyn and Tim Bjella at Le Mont Saint Michel, 1990.

Family Hour at the Jobsite

Here are a couple of old photos courtesy of Bring Your Parents to Work Day. The family doesn’t make it to our jobsites very often these days, probably because they are scattered around the country (both the houses and the family), but it’s always nice when they can drop by.

We would never have made it this far without their love and support and cannot thank them enough. Thank you. Love you all!

Russell Bjella on Arteriors Architects Construction Site
Russell Bjella (My Dad)
Harold and Delila Schaible on Arteriors Architects Construction Site
Delila and Harold Schaible (Robyn Bjella’s Parents)

Say Hi, Dad!

Curvilinear Minnesota Bathroom – Subtle Curves, Big Impact.

Minnesota Modern Bathroom - Arteriors Architects

Rookie mistake. Curves drawn on a floor plan look cool, but rarely translate into beautiful buildings. Here’s an example of curves used judiciously in elevation rather than plan. A little creates a big impact. I have designed many buildings with curvy floorplans and have found they mostly cause construction problems and add cost without adding much to the aesthetic. Unless… as I discovered early on, the curves also manifest in the third dimension, not simply as extrusions of the floorplans.

I originally conceived this bathroom vanity as concrete, a material relatively easy to form into any shape, including curves. At the last minute, it was decided to construct it out of stone. Not so easy anymore. It may look like a thick chunk of stone with sinks carved into it, but it is actually constructed from 3 cm thick stone slabs, cut, mitred and glued together. Simply amazing craftsmanship.

Australian Lacewood and stainless steel complete the modern styling.

We Built Robots. That Battle. Out of Legos

The Story

Lego MotorIt all started with this. A single motor.

My six year old boy, Beck, was rummaging through his cousins’ old Legos and came across this motor.

“What’s this, dad?”

“Looks like a motor… Hmm…” I grumbled. “I didn’t know Lego made motors. They didn’t in my day.” I wish I had taken a picture. I have rarely seen his eyes so wide, and his eyes are always wide.

“You mean, I can motorize my Legos?!!!”

“Uh, no son, you don’t have any motors.”

Well… not yet…”, he said.

Now seemed like as good a time as any to finally dash those bright eyes and squash that relentless enthusiasm, once and for all – toughen him up for the real world ahead.

“Never. We will never have motors. Ever. Don’t ask again.”

So here we are, three years later, with not just motors, but color, infrared, gyroscopic, touch and ultrasonic sensors, all computer controlled. I could have purchased an entire car with the money this stuff cost, and I have Lego to thank for it (I may be exaggerating, I could only have purchased part of a new car, maybe the doors. Or, an entire old, rusted Yugo).

Lego Sumo Robot

Honestly, though, I can’t think of a better use for hard-earned money (except feeding the poor, and maybe not even that). I hope the Lego people are filthy rich and drive Jaguars (or whatever it is they drive in Denmark. Trains, maybe?) They deserve it.

Some may argue who was the greatest, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. About this, there is no argument: there is no better toy than Legos. Period.

To give you an idea of the capabilities of Lego’s robotics gear, a couple of years ago Beck built a machine using plans he downloaded from the web that solved a Rubik’s cube. Pretty impressive.

Even so, we felt we weren’t embracing the robotic’s full potential. It virtually cried out for combat and mayhem. So, we set about creating autonomous battlebots.

The Challenge

The format we decided upon was Sumo wrestling. Each robot must autonomously search within a ring drawn on the floor, find the opponent, and push it out of the ring. Easy enough.

Beck wanted to include flame throwers and buzz saws, but I convinced him that he wouldn’t enjoy being grounded, for life. He’s a smart kid. However, If one robot ‘accidentally’ smashed the other robot into its fundamental atomic elements, so be it. We could write that off as a chemistry lesson.

Lego Sumo Robot - Beck and TIm Bjella

Robot Design

To be fair, Beck and I used identical motors and sensors. Beyond that, any design features were allowable as long as they were built from Legos and didn’t remove skin, set hair on fire or result in profuse bleeding (all the good stuff, really).

The problem with both robots having identical motors was that they would have equal pushing power. Neither would have a mechanical advantage. I suggested that to be fair, the old guy should get an extra motor, which Beck agreed to, if I could find it. Sneaky kid. We may never find that motor.

To gain the upper hand, we both devised a lifting arm, an offensive weapon to reduce the traction of the opposing robot. Beck’s was more straightforward, while mine relied on gears and rubber bands. We are still not sure which had the greater power and leverage.

Lego Sumo Robot

Lego Sumo Robots
Here are the two designs. They are similar, but have some not-so-obvious distinctions.

Advantages of my design:

  • Wheels in back. If Beck’s robot lifts the front of my robot (most likely scenario), it will help my robot by putting more weight on its wheels, thus providing more traction (unless he flips over my robot, in which case he’s grounded for two lifetimes).
  • Pretty plume of feathers on top to appeal to the judges and possibly distract Beck’s robot (even robots have a softer side).

Advantages of Beck’s design:

  • Lower center of gravity and wider wheelbase
  • Direct lifter connection to motors. Possibly stronger lifting force. Mine relies on a rotating gear for leverage.
  • Looks meaner

Programming the Robots

Sumobot Programming - Beck Bjella 2016
Screenshot of Program

Both robots have the same basic programming. We programmed them together. My program includes an additional piece of code, however, that runs only at the beginning of the match. I call it the Sneak Attack.

Main Program:

  1. Search for opponent (repeat until ultrasonic sensor detects opponent, then proceed to Charge)
    1. Spin clockwise for 1 second
    2. Spin counterclockwise for 2 seconds
    3. Move forward for 1 second
  2. Charge opponent (continue until ultrasonic sensor loses sight of opponent, then return to Search)

Sensor Subroutines:

  1. Ultrasonic sensor: When the opponent is within range, raise lifting arm. Lower the arm if opponent moves out of range
  2. Color Sensor: Scan for out-of-bounds border. If detected, reverse robot then return to the start of the search program

Sneak Attack (the Feint):

If you watch the video closely, you may notice at the start of the match, my robot does not act exactly like Beck’s. While my robot spins and locates his, just like his does mine, instead of immediately charging, it stops and waits, facing Beck’s robot {insert wild west gunfight showdown music here}. It waits until it detects his robot moving toward it. Then it turns and races diagonally away from the other robot. Finally, it spins back toward it and charges. The idea is to catch the robot on its side, rather than the front, where (in theory) it is more vulnerable.