An Architecture Student’s Lessons Learned, by “Mr. Whiskey”

As an architect for the last 30 years or so, I have been applying some important lessons learned in college that have an eerie resemblance to the survival mindset of those of us who think we just might be in for some hard times, and much sooner than we think. Let me explain.On the very first day of class, on my very first day of college back in the 1970s, I found myself in a design class with other new students who knew absolutely nothing about the profession or business of architecture. But we were there to learn, and our first assignment was to design and build a ‘Survival House for an Egg’, or SHEG for short. The rules were simple: design pure survival for a fresh chicken egg, no restrictions on materials used, no weight limits or minimums, the SHEG could be any size or shape provided it cleanly fit into an 8” x 8” x 8” box, the SHEG would be subjected to a severe external stressing event (to be determined on test day), it had to be opened by someone other than yourself, after testing, using only a matt knife, could be any color, style or texture, and the project was 30% of your final semester grade. It was also pass/fail, ‘A’ or ‘F’. No teamwork allowed, you’re on your own. Each student will present one SHEG for testing in one week at 1:15pm, rain or shine. No class until then. No more questions. Good luck. The professor then went on vacation, I think. The goal was made clear. We were to design and construct a house for an egg to survive unbroken through an unknown catastrophic event. Easy enough.
We all complained about it. “How can I design for an unknown?” we asked. Isn’t design meant to be for planning, for known occurrences, with foresight and thought? Isn’t that what we’re here for, to be taught how to know what to plan for? All good questions, indeed. Many classmates assumed a weight-applied stress from the top. Some assumed a violent shaking, and a few others a sudden impact. But they were all really, totally inappropriate assumptions for this assignment. This job was for one thing, and one thing only: get that egg to the other side of its impending Armeggeddon. (Sorry).
Many of us worked day and night, testing and retesting for something, we knew not what. Some of the new students made friends quickly. Others kept to themselves, me included, and just plugged away on our SHEG’s. Then test day came. We were all nervously waiting with our designs and our futures in hand. The professor arrived looking tanned and well fed. We were asked to walk up the stairwell and place our designs on the north parapet wall of the buildings’ roof and stand beside our SHEG’s. The stress event our designs were to withstand would be a baseball bat hitting the SHEG off the parapet, seven stories high, and onto the empty asphalt parking lot below. A judge on the ground would open each SHEG as it rested, determining whether the egg was intact or not. The judge would then crack the egg to be sure no hard boiled cheaters were among us. Your neighbor previous in line will hit your SHEG off the wall. No one touches their SHEG from here on out. Then it started to rain. The professor hit the first one. WHAM. Off went someone’s desperate attempt at survival design into scrambled oblivion. Then another. And another. It was terrible. The professor was laughing. After 30 student tries, not one had yet passed. Then someone succeeded. Everyone cheered. Another round of failures, then it was my turn. I mumbled a silent prayer. My neighbor in line gleefully grabbed the bat, wanting desperately to send my SHEG off the edge in a yellow splat of frustration, just as his had done not one minute earlier. Off it went, down and down, then BANG. The judge opened my SHEG and discovered an intact egg. I had passed. Life was good. I was only one of three success stories that dark day. Three out of 72 students. There were many tears and much gnashing of teeth. Many of my fellow classmates claimed their SHEG’s were hit harder than someone else’s. “Not fair!”, they cried. Some couldn’t believe they really got an ‘F’ for the project (their very first academic failure, in many cases). One student made it to the ground with an intact egg, but the judge could not open the SHEG with the knife, so he failed. Several others failed because they missed the deadline to present their design by just minutes. A few just gave up in total frustration and did not submit any design at all.
You probably are wondering what miracle material or ingenious new packaging design I used for my success. As my classmates’ designs were flying to pieces on the pavement, as the paper-mache was dissolving in the rain, as the high tech plastic spheres with spring loaded shock absorbers and half-chewed bubble gum cushioning were splattered into oblivion, my SHEG survived. I just used a basic cut-in-half cardboard shoe box packed as full of simple, basic saran wrap as I could possibly make it, then I wrapped it all in duct tape. Mission accomplished. Survival.
And oh, the lessons learned. They keep coming back to me in spades, almost with every decision I make now. If you can envision the egg as you and your family, think about this:
1. You really only need a fairly limited space to protect your egg. You can spend a lot of money, or not, but make sure you cover the basics very deep, and pack very well.
2. Your egg is all you have. If it breaks, you fail.
3. Use mostly locally obtained and inexpensive materials to the best of your ability.
4. At least show up to the party with something. You never know, you might get lucky.
5. Your neighbor will probably be glad to see you fail, so pack your egg as tight and failure proof as you can. And his basics will probably not be your basics, so keep your basics hidden from view.
6. It will rain.
7. There will probably always be some fat guy standing close by laughing at you.
8. Say your prayers.
9. Whatever hits you will most likely not be planned for, so pack the basics deep.
10. Survival is pass / fail.
11. Teamwork is OK, but ultimately your egg is your responsibility.
12. Life is not fair. Some of us get hit harder than others.
13. If your egg breaks, it will not be pretty, so pack the basics deep.
14. Duct tape is good.
15. Don’t pack so well that the rescuers can’t get in to save the egg, because it may not be the end of the world yet.
16. No matter how well you plan and build things, someone can always, always get to your egg and crack it if they really want to (if they have the right tools).
17. Don’t hard boil your life. It’s too short and the stress can kill you. Simplify.
18. Terrible can always get worse.