Category Archives: architecture

Why it takes longer than four hours to build a system for a large organization like a bank or a government

A lot of people have very strong opinions about the IT that has been rolled out for Ontario’s vaccine distribution system. I understand that: it has been very challenging for people to get a vaccine here in this province. People look at other provinces like Nova Scotia with their centralized system and ask why didn’t the province do that. They look at this site some very smart guys hacked together in four hours that allows you to text it and get back nearby vaccination sites and they say the government should be more like that. They attribute the government with being cheap, racist and other things, and say they didn’t build a good IT system because of that.

I have strong opinions about the vaccine IT that has been built out for the province too.  The difference is that my opinions are based on working on several large scale projects with the province. It’s also based on working on emerging IT for several decades. I’d like to share it in the hope it helps people gain some perspective as to what is involved.

Building IT systems for a large organization, private or public, is difficult. There are many stakeholders involved and many users involved and often many existing IT systems involved. You have to meet the needs of all of them, and you often have to go through many reviews with internal reviewers to demonstrate your new IT system meets their standards before you can start to build anything. Even then, with all of that, the IT system you are about to build could still fail. Big organizations are very sensitive to this and work diligently to prevent it. You can’t just hack together a proof of concept one day and then the next day have it go live on some banking or government site. Not in my experience.

Failure is a big concern. Another big concern is the needs of the stakeholders. For government systems there are many of them. There were over 50 other organizations that I had to work with external to the government on the projects I was leading. Each had their own IT systems and their own way of doing things. We could not just come in and say throw out your existing IT and use this new thing. There was a whole onboarding process that had to be developed to bring them into the new way of doing things. And that didn’t include all the people in the province or the country who will use the IT system and are therefore are also big stakeholders: they were taken into account and consulted separately.

A third big concern is systems integration. Not only do you need to work with the external IT systems of the stakeholders mentioned above, you have to work with internal IT systems to get data or send them data. In all cases that means not only do you need to understand what the government needs the new IT  system to do, but it means you have to have some understanding of how all these other systems work. Your new IT system can not be effective if you don’t know how to work with the existing systems. It’s a lot harder than scraping existing web sites and calling it done.

It is one thing to develop an IT system to provide new functionality; you also have to make sure it satisfies a number of non-functional requirements (NFRs). Reliability, performance, security, maintainability, data integrity, accuracy are just some of the NFRs that must be determined and met. Even cost and speed to market (i.e., the time it takes to develop a working system) are important requirements. Then there are regulatory requirements you need to meet, from SOC 2 to HIPAA, depending on the type of system you are building.

In addition to all that, there may be technical or design constraints that you must meet. The organization you are working with may require that you use certain suppliers or certain technology for anything you build. You may want to use Mongo and Node in a GCP region in the US for your IT system, but your client might say it has to run on Azure in Canada using Java/Springboot and Postgres, so your new IT system will have to accommodate that.

Once you have taken all that into account, the organization may have some other requirements, including dates, that must be met. In the case of systems like the vaccine IT, that date is “yesterday”. That will force some decisions on how you build your system.

All that said, my educated guess – and it is a guess, because it is based on my experience and not inside knowledge on how the system was built – was that Ontario decided the quickest way to roll out the vaccine IT was to build on the basis of what already exists. For example, many of the individual pharmacies in Ontario have their own systems for working with their patients. And several hospitals I checked use other software like Verto to manage their patients. The integration of all those systems is on “the glass”. By that I mean you can go to the government web site (“the glass”) and then you are redirected to other systems (e.g. a Verto system for a hospital) to book an appointment.

There are benefits to going with this approach versus building a new centralized IT system. It’s cheaper, for one. But it’s also faster to rollout than a new system. It’s less prone to failure than a new system. If you assume people are going to sign up for COVID vaccines like they do flu vaccines, then you know this approach will work, and reliability is a key NFR. If you are designing IT systems, you have to make assumptions to proceed, and that one is based on things you know, which is usually good.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad assumption. Unlike the flu, where uptake is around 30% and spread out, people are scrambling to get the COVID vaccine. This has led to the downfall of the current approach in Ontario as people try all sorts of ways to get a shot asap.

You might say: well that was a dumb assumption, why would anyone make it? In my experience, with new IT systems, it is hard to predict how people will behave. My colleagues once built a system for a government agency that allowed people to weekly update their status on their workplace. The system was available 24/7, but they had to put in their information by Sunday night, 23:59. All week no one would use the system, and then at 11 pm on Sunday it would get hammered with users trying to send in their information. We did not predict that. We assumed there would be peak usage then, but almost all the traffic was at that point.

To mitigate the risk of bad assumptions, IT projects will often do a gradual rollout. However that was never going to be an option here: people wanted the vaccine IT system “yesterday”.

Nova Scotia chose to develop a centralized system and people are saying Ontario should have done that. Possibly. It’s also possible that conditions in Ontario could have resulted in delays in rolling out a centralized system. Or the system could have been on time but failed often. Many IT systems and programs (e.g. Obamacare) have this result. Or some of the big hospitals and independent small pharmacies could have opted out. Then people would have been complaining about not being able to get a vaccine at all and that would have been much worse.

I am happy for Nova Scotia that theirs works well (although people are bypassing it and just showing up in Nova Scotia, so it’s not all roses there either). It’s fair to compare Ontario to them to some degree. And when all this is over, there should be an audit done by objective third parties to see what worked and what didn’t and what Ontario should do next.

I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of what goes into building IT systems for large organizations. I wish they could be built in a day or a week or a two week sprint even. I do know that large organizations are becoming more nimble and are working to getting out IT capability to their clients and citizens faster than ever before. But as you see, there are many things to take into account, and even with many people working on a new IT system, it does take time. Time measured in weeks and months and even years, not hours.

So the next time you hear someone say “they had all this time to figure this out”, take this into account. And thank you for reading this. I hope it helps.

Finally, these thoughts expressed here are mine and not those of my employer.

(Image is a link to the wikipedia page on system context diagrams, a diagram often used to determine how a new IT system fits in with existing IT systems).

On the wonderful colourful world of old churches

old church

This is a good piece on how, actually, Medieval Cathedrals Used to Be Full of Brilliant Colors. If you imagine them to be dark and dreary and colourless, read the piece. They were likely nothing like that, based on some good detective work by restoration specialists.

 

The problems with supertall towers

I am not a fan of supertall towers. They are bland looking, and they add little to a skyline. Therefore I was glad to see this week that they are being exposed for being problematic. First up was this piece in the New York Times on how one of them has been having lots of problems:  The Downside to Life in a Supertall Tower: Leaks, Creaks, Breaks.  Then there was a more general critique of them here:  Why Pencil Towers are Problematic.

It seems to me that there are some problems with the buildings that not even super-engineering can fix. Perhaps this means that this is the beginning of the end of supertall buildings. I can hope.

(Image link to NYtimes.com)

On Frank Gehry’s latest proposed building for Toronto

Starchitect Frank Gehry is proposing a new set of towers for Toronto, and BlogTo has the latest on it here: Frank Gehry towers in Toronto updated again and people say they look like cheese graters.

I like it. I like the lack of smoothness to it, a quality so many basic buildings have in the downtown core (though there are many good ones, too).  I like how it looks like towers of blocks slightly askew. I also like it has many units: we need more places for people to live in Toronto.

I do wonder, though, if the final version will look anything like that. Or even if it gets built at all. I vaguely recall that Gehry’s designs for his version of the AGO were scaled back due to lack of money. And the ROM designs of another starchitect, Daniel Libeskind, went through transformations as well, though I believe for different reasons It would be good to have more Gehry in Toronto. If we get it and what it will finally look like remains to be seen. It may not looks like a cheese grater at all by the time it appears on King Street.

Toronto’s Annex grows up

The Annex in Toronto is growing up, literally. First there are the new condos going in on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst. Now the other end of it, at Spadina and Bloor, is getting the same treatment.

A mid-September application submitted to the City of Toronto seeks Zoning By-law Amendments to permit a 35-storey mixed-use condominium tower at 334 Bloor Street West, above Spadina subway station in The Annex.

For more on this, see:

35-Storey Condo Tower Proposed at Bloor and Spadina’s Northwest Corner | UrbanToronto

I think these are good developments. The character of the area remains, but more people can live there and enjoy it. Perhaps some day I will get to as well.

What is Shibam Hadramawt?

I came across this place the other day and thought it was fantastic. According to Wikipedia:

Shibam Haḍramawt (Arabic: شِـبَـام حَـضْـرَمَـوْت‎)[2][3] is a town in Yemen. With about 7,000 inhabitants, it is the seat of the District of Shibam[1] in the Governorate of Hadhramaut. Known for its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings, it is referred to as the “Chicago of the Desert” (Arabic: شِـيـكَاغـو ٱلـصَّـحْـرَاء‎),[2] or “Manhattan of the Desert” (Arabic: مَـانْـهَـاتَـن ٱلـصَّـحْـرَاء‎).[4]

Shibam Hadramawt – Wikipedia

Here is just one great shot of it. It’s fascinating:

Check out the Wikipedia page for more information and better sized images of this place.

(Embedded image taken by Jialiang Gao http://www.peace-on-earth.org – Original Photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1450126)

 

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Skinny skyscrapers are coming to Toronto


There are a fair number of these in Manhattan, but if this is correct, it looks like one is coming to downtown Toronto, at Bay and Bloor: Herzog & de Meuron designs Canada’s tallest skyscraper.

I predict over the next 20-30 years we may have lots of these bean poles in many cities. Including Toronto.

Click on the link for more details.

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Something beautiful to look at: Copenhagen’s Grundtvig’s Church

You can see many more pictures of it here, at Colossal.

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What are Spite Houses?


I love this piece on a rather odd thing: The Spite House, an Architectural Phenomenon Built on Rage and Revenge.

Spite houses can be houses or buildings or any structure built not so much to be lived it as they are the express a very negative emotion. Once you know about them, you will be surprised you know more of them than you thought.

I don’t think I’ve ever been that spiteful that I would go through the trouble of spending all the time and money to get back at someone. But that’s not true of everyone, if you read that article.

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The diversity of I.M. Pei, shown in six buildings

Like many, I am well aware of Pei’s work at the Louvre. I was not aware he designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I liked this piece,  Six of I.M. Pei’s Most Important Buildings – The New York Times, because it showed the diversity of Pei’s work and touched a little on how he approached new projects.

A good way to remember a great architect.

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Getaway: a chance to escape with this new real estate company

If you want to run away from it all and live in a small (but nice) cabin somewhere in the woods, then you ought to read this: Modern life too much for you? Maybe a tiny box in the woods is the cure. – The Washington Post. I have often thought of it myself. I may have to check this out.

 

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The greatness of what College Park in Toronto could have been

Sigh.

I love College Park in Toronto. I wish it were more of a destination spot for visitors. Perhaps if it had been built out like this photo, it would have. Instead, it was built out to the area outlined in white.  Still a lovely building, but it could have been a phenomenon.

What could have been.

Via The half-built relics of nixed Toronto skyscrapers – Spacing Toronto

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The crumbling and outright destruction of “brutalist treasures”

If you are a fan of Brutalism, you will want to visit this: Attack the blocks: brutalist treasures under threat – in pictures | Cities | The Guardian

You might want to even visit them, because for some of them, their days are numbered.

I imagine that in the next 50 years, the number of Brutalist buildings currently existing will be significantly reduced. That would be a shame. Brutalism gets knocked hard, and I can see why. But worse than Brutalist building are boring buildings from all different architectural styles. I’d like to see those go first. The world could use good Brutalism in their cities. Here’s hoping it doesn’t undergo severe decline.

Tiny homes you can build

If you want to build a tiny home, Dwell has a nice list of resources for you here. I particularly like the one above. There is a wide range though, and if you are considering building such a home, see Dwell.

More on tiny homes


Two more tiny home stories. First up, Muji also has a tiny prefab home and you can see more pictures (like the one above) here: Muji Hut Launches With 3 New Tiny Prefab Homes Collection of 9 Photos by Aileen Kwun – Dwell.

Second, here is an odd but topical story for a tiny home heated by Bitcoin mining technology! 

 

A tiny home that seems livable


Many tiny homes look nice to visit but the thought of living in something so small seems impossible. An exception to those homes are these MADi houses, featured here: MADi Flat Pack Tiny House – Fast Set Up Eco Friendly | Apartment Therapy. 

They seem spacious, thanks to the A frame and all the windows. Better still, they seem very affordable.  Tiny home fans (or skeptics), take note.

You can find more about them here.

A peek inside the sublime new NYC residence designed by the great Zaha Hadid

Fortunate souls walking along New York’s High Line can catch a glimpse of the magnificent building pictured above. Now, thanks to Design Milk, you can get to see what it looks like inside by going here: 520 West 28th Condominium Residence by Zaha Hadid – Design Milk. 

Not surprisingly, it is as gorgeous on the inside as it is on the outside. I would love to live there. Take a peek inside and you’ll see why.

What do you get when you mix architects and cats?


Some pretty wild cat homes, as you can see here: Inspired Outdoor Cat Shelters by Architects for Animals – Design Milk.

It’s worth checking out the article: some of the things architects build for their cats is really incredible. (Also there is a good chance the cat will just ignore it and go and squeeze into a nearby box).

What makes McMansions bad? The opposite of what makes other houses appealing

This piece, Worst of McMansions — McMansions 101: What Makes a McMansion Bad…, not only clearly explains why McMansions are so ugly, but it shows why other houses are appealing. A good primer for anyone interested in buildings and architecture, especially for someone looking to build a new home. I

Is facadism/urban taxidermy bad?

In this piece, Are we killing Yonge Street? from NOW Toronto Magazine, there is a good discussion on what is happening to development on Yonge Street in Toronto. NOW reports that for a lot of development happening on Yonge Street, the facades of the existing building are kept and much of the development is happening behind it. The article argues that this is a bad thing, and they raise some good points.

What I think they don’t touch on are some of the alternatives. Toronto is fortunate in that there is development ongoing. For poor cities, the alternative is boarded up or demolished buildings and vacant neighborhoods.  Instead, we have neighborhoods and buildings being improved. That’s good.

Another alternative is the old buildings being torn down and replaced with new storefronts and new buidlings. I think some of that is good, but I also think preservation of old buildings is also good.

When it comes to preservation and improvements of old buildings, I also think that some of them should be preserved outright. However, Toronto is a growing city, and in some cases, we need larger buildings. In that case, facadism is a good compromise.

Now whether or not facadism is effective or not depends on at least two things. The first is how well the new architecture uses the existing architecture. Done well, the marriage of the old and new building results in something that enhances the area and preserves the city while allowing it to grow.  The second thing that determines if facadism is effective is how the new building affects the neighborhood. Here, I think, is the root of the problem. It’s not so much facadism as it is gentrification. Old buildings get preserved, but old stores do not. New developments can cause rents to rise, driving out the stores and organizations that made the neighborhood great. You get bank branches and big chain stores replacing old bookshops and cafes.

I hope the next phase of development tries to understand how to preserve not just the existing architecture, but the neighborhood as well. I realize that is a difficult task, but it is one worth trying to accomplish.

Library porn: Prague’s Klementinum library

My Modern Met has some fantastic images of the Klementinum library for anyone (like myself) that gets excited about such things. Here’s a sample:

If you haven’t heard of it, here’s what that site has to say about this fantastic place:

Prague’s Klementinum library was opened in 1722 and has easily become one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Aside from housing over 20,000 novels for your reading pleasure, this location showcases absolutely stunning Baroque architecture. As you’re perusing various timeworn bookshelves, you can take a moment to look up and see Jan Hiebl’s heavenly, Renaissance-style ceiling paintings. Amongst his work, there are symbolic designs that represent the importance of education, along with fantastic portraits of Jesuit saints. Hiebl’s paintings actually pay homage to the fact that the library was originally a Jesuit university. Many of the school’s rare, 17th-century books are still amongst its collection today. That would explain why Emperor Joseph II’s portrait is displayed at the head of the hall, since he was the one who arranged for abolished monastic libraries to send their books to Klementinum.

On the unnecessary preciousness of architecture

From this, New TD Centre signage reflects a time when brands trump architectural vision – The Globe and Mail, comes this:

Up against that, TD Centre still retains the purity of a temple. And you don’t put billboards on a temple, unless you want to anger the gods.

It’s worth reading that article to get a viewpoint of someone who thinks of architecture as something pure and museum-like.

To me, the owners of the TD buildings are doing reasonable things with a building that functions as a work environment. You can make the argument that the building should never vary from the original intent of the architect. You can also make a good if not better counter argument that the building should be able to adapt to changes over time, and that the building should allow for the people in it to make adaptions to suit them.

The author seems to be arguing that building should remain fixed and never change, never learn. If that seems like an odd idea — that building should learn — I recommend this book: How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. You can get it here. Also, if you search for it on Google, you will see alot of material derived from it.

 

In praise of small spaces, well designed (with an amazing bed)

I am a big fan of small spaces, well designed, and the one featured here certainly is a great example of that. What I found especially smart is the bed: instead of folding into the wall, it rises into the ceiling. Very smart, and very beautiful. Well worth a look.

Thoughts on the architecture of the TTC

Is the TTC architecture bad? It’s something I have been thinking about after the critical comments from “A.R.” in which he pointed  out that: “Toronto has some interesting subway architecture, as well. you know. Maybe you should appreciate some of the creativity in the system” in response to my comment that “Toronto subway stations…look like washrooms without the necessary plumbing”.

I think alof of Toronto subway architecture is, if not bad, then boring. In this blog post I found, David Ahm from the TTC agreed, saying, “The Yonge-line stations are from the ’50s and ’60s and are functional but kind of boring.”

This blog post with Ahm’s comments were interesting, because you see the challenge of designing a subway station, budget being one serious consideration. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be interesting design work done on a subway, and in fact, lots of Toronto subway stations are well designed. And despite limited budgets, the TTC is looking to have better and better stations in the future, which is a good thing indeed.

Of my favourite stations, the ones I most like are Old Mill, Rosedale, Yorkdale and Dupont. I like the openness of Old Mill and Rosedale. They belong to the neighborhood, somehow. I feel like I am in a different city when I am waiting for a train (or a bus) at the Rosedale station. And I love the windows of Old Mill. Perhaps it is no coincidence that they are both above ground subway stations.

I also admire the design of Yorkdale and Dupont. Yorkdale makes the subway system itself seem dynamic, while Dupont is like an experiment in subway station design.

I like other stations too, like Queen’s Quay, Museum and St. Andrew and St Patrick. Of the latter two, I like the “tube” like design of the tunnels. It reminds me of a European subway station.

One thing I really like about the TTC is their choice of artwork. It is a collection of some of the best Canadian artists, from Charles Pachter to Joyce Wieland to Micah Lexier. And the scale of the work is striking, whether it is the 1.5 million one-inch tiles, used by Toronto artist Stacey Spiegel to create Immersion Land or 3000 handwritten samples that Lexier collected over 5 years to create “Ampersand”.  Anyone visiting Toronto should stop at various stations just to see it. (You can get a sample of it all by going to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_subway_and_RT)

Detroit: the future sadly

This photo essay in TIME, The Remains of Detroit, is haunting.  This photo is of the Michigan Central Station, designed by the same architects that did the still vibrant Grand Central Terminal in NYC. It is anything but vibrant, being vacant for 20 years.

In the film Blade Runner, much of “future” Los Angeles is like this: deserted, decrepit, waterlogged. Perhaps Detroit is the future, sadly.

casa cachagua and other great design at materialicious

What ismaterialicious™? As it says, it is “a weblog featuring residential architecture, design, craftsmanship, materials and products. It is edited by Justin Anthony, a New Yorker who is currently residing in Phoenix, AZ., and was a residential restoration specialist for 25 years.” It is chock full of great architecture and design, like the Casa Cachagua featured above. Go see.

casa cachagua, f3 arquitectos at materialicious

How to build a very small house

There are a number of architects and builders specializing in very small dwellings for people.

Tumbleweed Houses are appropriately named and nicely done. It makes being a nomad seem grand! You should visit the site, just to see what can be packed into such a small space.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries

The blog Your Daily Awesome often has some great posting. A recent one is The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries

The libraries are stunning. You have to go see.

Ecospace – smart, ecological, affordable architecture

I would love one of these spaces myself. Here’s hoping more architects come up with such designs.

Stockholm Subways

Unlike Toronto subway stations, which look like washrooms without the necessary plumbing, the Stockholm subways have a presence to them, the way great architecture should. See Ueba – Stockholm Subway these photos to get an idea of what I mean.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House is officially opening to the public on June 21, ’07…

..my question is: why? What’s closed about it now? 🙂

For those of you who think about such things as I do, check out Memories of Life and Death in an Architectural Masterwork – New York Times

For such a slight building, it’s also very influential. I think the key to living there is good pajamas. And not scratching your butt. Or scratching your butt but not caring anyone might notice. 🙂