Hanging with Hafen: 4 veterinary design lessons for 2013


Sometimes clarity hits you when you're not at work. Mark Hafen, AIA, came back from vacation with realizations that will help him design even better hospitals in the new year.

I just got back from a week in the British Virgin Islands, sun, sailing, swimming, and beer. How could life be better? And now that I'm back sitting at my computer again, I'm happy to report that my trip was also a learning experience that will help kick off a successful new year. For some reason I don't seem to have significant learning experiences while I'm sitting at my desk. Granted, even after many years in animal care facility design there are things I am still learning every day. But those bigger ah-ha moments usually require a mid-life crisis, or better yet some time away from the routine of life. Before my vacation I had been living a daily battle with a client with very exacting expectations for his new hospital and a contractor who didn't seem to be performing. So, it was about time for me to hit the reset button. And, after a week in the sun and the surf I came back with a few realizations that will help me design even better hospitals in 2013.

1. “Be here now.” To me this means living in the moment. Last night, I was talking to my daughter about her most recent obsession, rock climbing. The conversation came around to a climber, Alex Honnold, who is famous for doing solo climbs without safety equipment. His most notorious climb is known as the triple, climbing the three biggest rock faces in Yosemite in succession, rope free. I'd guess his mind was focused on what he was doing and not what he was going to do on the next rock face or what he did or didn't do on the last rock face. One day on vacation, we were motoring between islands because we thought it was too windy to sail. We were rocking and rolling but making progress. The icing on the cake came in the form of little rainstorms that would knock the boat over when they blew through. In the midst of one of these squalls, the engine conked out. Now we were riding a 10 ton, 40 foot boat that was out of control. We weren't going to die like Alex Honnold on El Capitan could have, but we were still in a bit of a fix. We needed to get things under control and get ourselves to safety. Fortunately, with a little help from the gang I was sailing with we managed to get a piece of our jib up and out. With the wind pulling on the jib we stabilized the rolling boat and we were once again in control. With things starting to look better, I happened to say …

2. “When all else fails, sail.” What I meant was: Do what comes naturally and what you do well. Still later in the trip, we were approaching a dock where we needed to land the boat. Docking that same 10 ton, 40 foot boat was not easy. Probably the most difficult thing to do in a sailboat is back it up. And, frankly, this particular docking wasn't going well. Each time I made the attempt the tail end would seemingly take off for parts unknown. And, with lots of other large, pricey sailboats around that I could run into, this was not good. So in the midst of all this maneuvering, one of the gang on our boat leaned over to me and said …

3. “Watch out for pointy things.” In a perverse way this struck me as funny, and if I hadn't been so in the moment I would have laughed. As a person who has been sailing for many years, I can attest to the fact that the worst messes occur when you run into pointy, hard, unmovable objects. When you do they usually don't give, you do instead. To me “watch out for pointy things” means know your constraints and pick your battles. Which brings me back to the office, my client and his contractor and lesson number four …

4. “If you want to get yourself out of a hole, the first thing you've got to do is stop digging.” In order to change the situation you're in, stop, look objectively at what you're doing, and then learn from it. It sounds simple, but like docking a boat, it can be incredibly difficult to do. Things have settled down with the project now, but it took these four lessons to make it so. Focus on what needs to be done now instead of the things that hadn't been done or done correctly. Help the client and the contractor focus on their roles so that they could do what was necessary and do it well. Figure out which were the important issues and concentrate on those so that the project could move forward instead of staying mired in the mud. And finally, look objectively at where the project was and what was needed to get it back on track.

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