Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Hometown Photo Shoot -- Analysis of a Building


In June of 1998, I took over at the helm of an alcohol and drug treatment agency where 165 people were helping 4,000 people a year in various stages of addiction. I tried not to show it, but I was in shock – amazed that I had talked my way through the hiring process and wondering if I was up to the job.

BAGMAN: “At this rate you’ll be retired before you finish the freaking blog! Although it’s about a stupid building and I ain’t gonna read it anyhow!”

At the time, the building we are now in was 6 months from completion. The company (which I will not name in order to avoid libel) was building it over the shell of an older country building that had been gutted.  They gave me a hard hat to wear as I watched an army welding and banging, and tried to pretend I knew what they were doing. In the eleven years that followed, I have come to think that some of the workers were also only pretending to know what they were doing as well.

I love it but Charleston Center has no style whatsoever. It is a big, concrete, cube.  But it may be the only County Public Detox in the world with a view of a yacht club.

BUTLER:  (checking the old floor plans) “It has 7,160 square feet of floor space.”

BAGMAN: “As if anyone cares!”

Charleston Center’s architecture exemplifies the glories of bureaucratic groupthink combined with the skillful craftsmanship of lowest bidder procurement.

The stairwells were left unfinished because it was assumed that everyone would use the elevators.

Although, for some reason, they painted the pipes bright red.

The two elevators are the only ones in the entire world not built by Otis. I think they were made by Tonka.  Nor were they properly sealed so that humidity – which Charleston is known for – regularly short-circuited the controls and regularly stranded people for hours at a time.

Treatment Centers should provide warm, welcoming and therapeutic open spaces that invite clients to relax. Charleston Center has accomplished this well for the five or six clients we have had who are Navy veterans who served on submarines.

A notable exception to this are the wide open receptionist counters. There are two on each floor!

 These were aggressively negotiated by my predecessor who shall be un-named who planned to have receptionists, front and back, on each floor. Unfortunately, the first time I had to put together a budget I discovered that her revenue projections had been $2 million over actual so instead of hiring six new receptionists, we had to let people go. By then I was REALLY wondering if I was up to the job.

We did keep one reception desk for an actual receptionist and security in the lobby and enhanced the warm and therapeutic atmosphere by installing shatter-proof glass around them.

These are the air handlers on the roof of Charleston Center. Or maybe they are coolers. I still don’t understand how heating and air conditioning works in big buildings. One of the 4,562 repair-persons who have come in to fix various problems told me that you have to heat the air before you cool it – or cool it before you heat it – none of which sounds logical. But I glass over quickly while waiting for the dollar figure estimates. But I do know that people hired by the original contractor who shall be unnamed -- except it’s on the front of the hard hat in my office – installed almost half of the internal air handler that moved hot (or was it cold) air through the dropped ceilings backwards. So they blew air in the wrong direction and often caused smoke and set off the fire alarms.

The fire alarms work very well. Staff who have been here for any length of time keep ear plugs in their desks to protect their hearing while exiting the building.

Now, this totally stupid picture shows a vent to the crawl space under the building. There are very few basements in the South and most houses and buildings have crawl spaces. I’m not sure what they are good for; so far nobody has ever asked me if they could crawl in them.

For awhile, they were useful to a growing population of feral cats. We could not, at first, figure out why these darling homeless pets were attracted to our underbelly until we discovered that the employees of the building next to us were putting out food and milk. Of course they meant well, trying to feed the homeless. But the result was they were attracting the homeless. And the problem for us was that we have a playground for children of our clients and the cats naturally assumed that we had provided them with a giant litter box.

The employees of our neighboring agency objected when we asked them to stop until we reminded them that they were employees of the Public Health Department and cat poop in a children’s playground didn’t seem to jive with their mission. They stopped. Cats left.

That’s when we began finding seasonal swarms of termites. In case you haven’t noticed from the pictures, Charleston Center is a concrete structure. We wondered if we had discovered a new breed of stone-eating insect. But no. Eventually we found someone who was willing to crawl in the crawl space and discovered that the un-named low-bidding contractor alluded to above had saved the expense of hauling out all the wood of the previous structure and simply stuffed it under the new one.

However, we have done okay with with this building despite it's idiosyncracies. We have a nice training room where sometimes we train...
and sometimes we party...

We have a parking lot...

not as big as the one next door...

And we have room for growth. Of course in the eleven years that I’ve been here the budget has gone in the opposite direction. But if we ever can grow we have room to do it.

Behind this door is a huge unfinished space where we dream of building an exercise room, or a lounge, or a cafeteria, a meditation room, an indoor fountain, a library…but in the meantime we need to make sure that nobody uses it for storage. Look!  My name is even on the bottom to make absolutely sure this rule is enforced.

Somehow I think my name doesn’t carry as much weight as I sometimes think it does.

BAGMAN: “That’s because you’re too damn proper to punch anybody in the nose.”

BUTLER:  "And a good thing too."


  1. really interesting....feels great to read this.

  2. The submarine line had me giggling.

    I like the red pipes in the hallway.

    It's just mammoth isn't it?

    Hard to imagine being very personal but I'm sure you manage!

  3. B&B,
    This sounds like my school where I teach, same venting system, problems with stray animals. I was laughing out loud at your tour. They build a place to rehabilitate people and it has all the warmth and charm of a nuclear submarine. Well said. Of course they discarded the old wood under the building. Brilliant writing sir! =D

  4. Some people need a good whack sometimes. If you need training I can suggest my mother come down and give you some tips.

  5. What a fascinating study of your - ummm...exciting workplace. I can see why you love your job so much. I think you covered everything except the employees washroom.

    I do like the shatter proof glass photo. So warm and inviting. Well, it looks like you know how to party there. Is that Betsy Ross I see at the party?

    On the cats, though, you should have built a fence around the playground. You got rid of the cats and got termites in their place. See? Sometimes we should let well enough alone.

    Have a great weekend, my friend. And get some rest.

  6. PS: On the upside you do have that great view of the water.

  7. Love your commentary. The building is quite bland and looks more like a mental hospital inside than a rehabilitation center. Anyhow, I like the photo of your parking lot and the sign with your name on it, of course.

  8. You've got that building covered inside and out!

  9. Excellent post Mark. Informative and entertaining.

    I've never understood why the interior staircases of buildings are always left unfinished and as sterile and unattractive as humanly possible.

    But at least you know where to find those (red) pipes!

  10. Being in that building would make me want to use any possible method of escape. . . doesn't it cause relapse?

  11. Your post made me laugh out loud!!! I'll think twice next time I say that a blocky concrete building has no character. And hey, I think those red pipes give the stairway a nice little cheeky vibe, don't you?

  12. OH Bagman you are a darling....
    guess I'd better go back up and read .....

  13. go here - - see if you see any simularities - except that his contractors would not have dared to be sloppy.
    great - GREAT post.
    hugs from Brasil

  14. looks like you have everything you need there!! amazing job you have, helping so many. kudos to you!! have a great weekend!!

  15. You are a star blogger, that's for sure! You turn a bland, square chunk of a building into something interesting and funny. I enjoyed that.

  16. It will be good therapy for your clients to start a roof garden, and plant some grass at the children's play area. LOL

    Did your neighbour complain that your clients sneak into their car park?

    Re: The grass building in Singapore, I have emailed my friends if they actually mow the grass. There is a type of grass over there known as carpet grass, and they don't need mowing.

  17. I'm here getting caught up on a week's worth of blog reading, now that I can actually sit up on the couch without my head exploding!!!! Happy Saturday!

  18. Sterile is the word that comes to mind while perusing your photos. And the reception desk??? Does Cookoo's Nest come to mind?
    You have to have a sense of humor to work in a place like that, I'm sure!

  19. Last comment by shabby girl, now we know why you have such a sense of humor. That was a well constructed post. Comical, yes. I love the submarine bit. I would be down in the dumps too if I have to come there on a regular basis and talk about my dumps. Happy weekend. Check out my blog, we are plein air painting.

  20. I like the sofa in the non storage area...

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  22. What a depressing building. Yikes.

    I am sure you did a fabulous job, and like Shabby Girl said, you'd need a sense of humor to work there. So, even if you didn't, you probably kept everyone else sane with your antics, which really, isn't that the most important thing?

    You should write a book about your life, I bet it would be very interesting.

    Excellent photo essay.

    Oh, thank you for suggesting that I sneak in one of my photos for the spotlight photos. :) That was really nice.

    p.s. I had to delete my first comment, I made a terrible typo! LOL!

  23. Always a pleasure, Mark! I'll give you the tour of my building next week - it too has red pipes in the stairwells. Maybe our buildings are cousins or something.

  24. great study - so detailed!

  25. Wonderful reading again! You seem to take it so cool, perhaps not always when in immediate action? :-)

  26. Very clever, as usual. Hey, I have some stuff I need to get rid of...can I bring it to the "unfinished area" for disposal? ;)