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March 4, 2024

Space to Thrive with Ganesh Nayak

Space to Thrive with Ganesh Nayak

This episode features a conversation between Nakita and Ganesh Nayak on the intersection of sustainability and accessibility in the built environment. Ganesh shares his journey from being an architect to starting his own consultancy focused on sustainability and accessibility. They discuss the challenges of retrofitting historic buildings and the need to go beyond compliance with accessibility codes. Ganesh emphasizes the importance of designing for invisible disabilities and creating inclusive spaces. They also touch on the inequities in schools and the power of well-designed spaces to promote equity. The conversation concludes with a discussion on designing for the margins and creating spaces where everyone can thrive.

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Bio: Ganesh Nayak, AIA, NOMA founded Metier Inc. in Atlanta, GA consulting on sustainable design and accessibility. Growing up in India, he did his undergraduate studies in architecture before acquiring a graduate degree from Kansas State University. He worked in architecture in St. Paul, MN, and Wichita, KS before moving to Atlanta, GA. He has published, taught, and presented extensively on architecture, sustainability, and accessibility. 

Ganesh and his wife Sitara are fully involved in the daily care of their young-adult son with developmental disabilities, and he brings this personal experience and voice to bear on issues of equity, design, and advocacy for disability. He served as chair of Georgia’s State Advisory Panel for Special Education, and on the Kansas Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities as a parent. He is a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Leadership Group and serves as secretary on the board of AIA Georgia. He also presently chairs the USGBC Equity Working Group for LEED v5.

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The primary means of circulation of the school was a series of ramps and not the stairs. And it was just a three or four story school, which meant that, uh, all of these kids had to be in the same, same, uh, public space, right, on the ramp.  So that gave my son a lot of visibility and made him feel included. 

Welcome to Tangible Remnants.  I'm Nakita Reed, and this is my show, where I explore the interconnectedness. of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it.  Welcome back this week. I'm talking with Ganesh Nayak of Metier Inc. It was an interesting conversation where we discussed the intersection of sustainability and accessibility in the built environment. 

Ganesh shares his journey from being an architect to starting his own consultancy, focused on sustainability and accessibility. We touch on the challenges of retrofitting historic buildings and the need for architects to go beyond compliance with accessibility codes.  He also shares some of his personal story of caring for his son and emphasizes the importance of designing for disabilities and creating inclusive spaces. 

And one of my favorite parts of this episode is that we touch on The power of well designed spaces to promote equity.  Head over to our Instagram page at tangible remnants to see photos that highlight some of the items that Ganesh and I talk about today. And once there, be sure to click on our bio to get access to the linked tree site that will direct you to a number of different resources from funding opportunities to upcoming conferences where I'll be speaking.

And there's even a link for you to sign up for our newsletter.  One of the reasons I was super excited to do this interview was because Ganesh is one of my favorite people to run into at conferences. He has such an interesting background. So listen to his bio and you'll see what I mean.  Ganesh Nayak, AIA and NOMA founded Metier Inc.

in Atlanta, Georgia, where he consults on sustainable design and accessibility. Growing up in India, he did his undergraduate studies in architecture before coming to the U. S. and getting a graduate degree at Kansas State University.  He's worked in architecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wichita, Kansas before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, and he has published, taught, and presented extensively on architecture, sustainability, and accessibility. 

He and his wife, Sitara, are fully involved in the daily care of their young adult son who has developmental disabilities. And Ganesh brings his personal experience and voice to bear on issues of equity, design, and advocacy for disability.  He is the current chair of the USGBC's Equity Working Group for LEAD Version 5, and he served as the chair of Georgia State's Advisory Panel for Special Education, and on the Kansas Governor's Council for Developmental Disabilities as a parent.

He's also a member of the AIA committee on the environment's leadership group, COTE, and he serves as a secretary on the board of AIA Georgia. So he's using his voice and platform to really advocate and raise awareness for issues that sometimes people don't see.  I'm super excited for you to hear this episode.

So without further ado. I hope you enjoy this conversation between me and Ganesh Nayak.  I am super excited to have Ganesh on the show today. And so welcome. Thank you for taking some time.  Thank you so much, Nakita, for having me on the show here. Of course. And so I remember when we ran into each other at a couple of different conferences when we first met.

So we met at NOMA and then again at AIA at Some of the committee on the environment things, so I remember being like, oh, we definitely have some kindred spirits and some overlapping. And then I remember going to your NOMA presentation where you're talking about a lot of sustainability and the overlap of just so many things.

And so before I start rambling too much, I would love for you to introduce yourself and Sure. Hi, my name is Ganesh Nayak. I'm an architect in the Atlanta area. I was an architect. Now I consult with architects on sustainability and  accessibility. I started my own consultancy about 10 years ago, and before that I was  working in the corporate field as an architect.

I did my undergraduate degree in architecture in India and came to the United States after working. Actually, I didn't know, Nikita, that you know that I was working for a few months, maybe about. Six or seven months in historic preservation in India before I came here. I did not know that. That's awesome.

Yeah. Anyway, then I came here for my grad studies at Kansas State University and, was always interested in sustainability and, but that kind of took a backseat when I got into grad school and, uh, subsequent, Entry into the profession for about maybe a decade, but but then after that, I got right back in the lead.

And,  it was had a good fortune of working on a few lead projects. And so that gave me the confidence to establish my own consultancy because of personal circumstance that, you know, my son has disabilities. And as he was growing, the corporate setup just wouldn't cut it. to be on his schedule for taking him to therapies and all of that, you know, as he was growing up, his needs were getting more and more, which required both are my wife's and I, my presence, and I was traveling quite a bit.

So it's time to kind of, change, change course. I'm glad that you made that decision. So I also, I love that your consultancy combined sustainability and accessibility.  When did you see that there was a need to be able to combine both of those together? Well, actually, I started off as consulting on accessibility and, uh, about three years back I said, well, you know, I'm kind of living the life, so to speak, I mean, as close to disability as I can get because of taking care of my son day in and day out.

As his primary caregiver and the navigating spaces, so that gave me a pretty good idea of what, what it means to have a good accessible architecture. So that's so that's how I got into consulting for accessibility.  So I basically, you know, I, I do a D consulting, but. For the past five or six years, I've always been talking a lot about how we need to go much, much beyond the ADA  and make accessibility as integral to the design itself and not just an afterthought. 

Yeah, absolutely. What are some of the things that you've noticed in terms of there being a mismatch between the environment and the needs needed for Humans needing to use the space or even some of the challenges that you've seen. Oh, all the time, because many a time I find that the spaces which are the dimensions and the spaces which are managed by the ADA are not enough, actually.

Sometimes the turning radius is not enough in bathrooms, and sometimes bathrooms, well, in my case, when,  Since my son has, you know, has developmental disabilities and needs  help with every function, every activity, you know, we are his caregiver, right? So some of the spaces are just not large enough for him and a caregiver.

So those are some of those issues which we come across a lot in the buildings. And that's, and many a time, you know, When we have to change him, yeah, it's been a while, but, I remember going to, to Disney 10 years ago and he, of course, he loved those, those rides and all of that, but we had to change him.

We went to the family restroom and, uh, unfortunately, there was no changing table, so we had to make do and had to  put him on the floor. So that's, there's a lack of dignity, which, which we encounter in a number of cases.  Yeah. I've been seeing and learning more about the need for adult changing tables and a lot of public spaces and all that.

I keep advocating for that. Yes. Yes. Yes. And I have some colleagues at Quinn Evans as well, who've been researching this, particularly with a lot of the museum work that we do with the Smithsonian, but it's things like that, that sometimes.  Architects and people who don't need that function don't think about, because it's one of those things where, oh, well, it wasn't necessarily explicitly said in the A IDA or in certain codes, so it's kind of missed.

So it's like being able to give more voice to the lived experience of people who have these needs, I think is fantastic. Yes, absolutely. Then the need to go. Beyond looking at the ADA as just a compliance thing, a checklist that we have to check off of, that's something which we as architects, we need to absolutely, you know, shed that attitude and we have to kind of imagine ourselves, I think, uh, as,  as how a disabled person would, uh, would, uh, navigate our spaces and design for them.

Yeah, absolutely. And I know one of the things that particularly working with historic buildings is something where being able to retrofit historic buildings to be able to accommodate more accessibility and be more inclusive is something that also comes up a lot. I know that's something that we're still learning and working through, but what's been your experience and kind of working on any of those kinds of projects or Consulting or advising on any of those kind of projects.

Yeah, well, I haven't really been concerned on the historic historic preservation project per se, one of the issues about the historic preservation projects and of course, existing buildings and adaptive views, which of course, is one of the, our main. Tools we have to reverse or mitigate the climate change.

You know, you have to, this is one of our main strategies for decarbonization is to use existing buildings and it's coming more and more into the foreground and rightly so,  but I do worry sometimes that that accessibility is Kind of given the short shrift because the threshold for the ADA is a little lower than in the existing buildings than for a new construction.

So that's something which we need to keep, to be mindful of. I would love for architects in this space to, to, to not take the path of least resistance  and just, you know, do what, whatever. Right. Don't just take the exemption because it's, Oh, it's a historic building. Let's just not worry about. Letting people get into it.

Like let's, yeah, let's really focus on how do we make our buildings more equitable and accessible to everyone who needs to come into it. Yeah. Yeah. That's the, the thing about the code is that we are always, we are always looking for exemptions and many a time it is valid because sometimes the code is too stringent or it doesn't make sense or logical sense.

So that's, that's, it's fine to look for exemptions to, to make it more logical, but sometimes we take exemptions that kind of,  Uh, might alter the experience of someone else in the building. So that's something which we need to be cautious about. I think. Yeah, absolutely.  That's such a good point. And I think particularly as we're moving into this space of trying to decarbonize our buildings, focus more on net zero building reuse  and really focusing on climate action.

It's important that we don't forget about climate justice as well. So not just accessibility in buildings, but then also what are we doing and how are we achieving more of those climate justice roles, particularly with. Lower income communities bearing more of the burden of pollution and all of that. So how we're thinking about it more global as opposed to just at our individual building scale.

Yes, absolutely. And it brings up a very good point about how we are now seeing, we have to see buildings as much, much, you know, much, much more holistic sense, which incorporates previously, it used to be like a little siloed and insular where we used to. Sustainability as, uh, as separate from the design itself.

And, uh, we just kind of, uh, you know, make it,  uh, utilize some tools of to make it more energy efficient and all of that, and then, uh, make it sustainable in that sense. But it is still kind of exterior to that. So now we have expanded the definition of sustainability to include equity. And I think that's an extremely important thing to do.

We recognize that, uh, it's just, it's not. Only climate action, but climate justice too.  And they are pretty much, I mean, they, they are the same thing, but they are not too,  because I think, when we bring climate equity and justice, we are looking at, the historic. wrongs, which have been done and we're trying to remedy them.

And when we look at that aspect, we really cannot, we have to look at it differently than climate action itself.  Absolutely. And I know that you're just such a great presenter and you've been great at speaking at different conferences and really helping people understand and kind of reframe some of the, I'll say misconceptions that people might have about sustainability or around climate action and all these things.

Maybe what's some of the pushback that you get, if any, that you can think of in terms of people. either being surprised, like, oh, I hadn't thought of it that way, or just being resistant to really embracing some changes. I don't really get the pushback as such. I mean, uh, there's always that, yes, I hadn't thought of that.

There's lots of those type of Moments, but I really don't know whether, you know, whether they take it all through, take it back to the work or not. That's, that's important, right? I mean, it's important to do the work. It's important to, to, to do substantial work, right? To substantiate on those aspects.

That's something which, but some of the challenges, and of course, I mean, all of these challenges come down to. The budget's correct, but my point, which I always try to make is we, we have to start at a much higher bar and then kind of negotiate down to  where it meets the budget,  uh, what we can do in the building.

But if we, if we start that, uh, at a much lower bar, then it really, I think it's our attitudes that we have to change, you know, which, uh, then we are really not doing anything much for equity. Yeah, it's so important to, to, to bring that into buildings. Yeah. And I know that you're also really heavily involved with the committee on the environment.

And I know that's something that's kind of been changing a little bit in terms of the reframing of it. Cause as you mentioned, sustainability used to be seen as this thing that was separate from design and was an add on and this other thing that had to happen on top of design. But I know there's been some conversations to try and pivot that so that it's no longer.

The sustainable projects are in their own category for COTE awards or COTE top 10 awards, and then the design awards are something different. Now there really is an effort to try and bring the framework for design excellence and all of the tools of sustainability more heavily into the awards. I guess, can you talk a little bit about the work you've been doing with Community on the Environment? 

Yeah, sure. So I was fortunate to be selected to join the Committee on the Environment, and it's, I've finished two years of my three year term. This year I co chaired the Climate Action, Climate Justice Subcommittee  on the Environment, and  so we're doing some,  we're going to do some exciting work.  So we're trying to, we are going to get an outside consultant to work on a resource.

Which pulls through, which pulls out good examples of, of climate action and climate justice and community engagement of that. So that, that, that research would be extremely useful for architects to enable climate justice through their work. So that's something which we are going to, to hopefully  roll out in the next, what, 6 or 7 months. 

Yeah. So that's, that's going to be really interesting. And, uh, it's going to, to add to that, uh, that really useful slate of, uh, of equity guides, which, uh, the AIA has. I'm excited about that. Yeah. Cause I remember at the AIA conference, so the COTE forum was one of the things that was one of my favorite sessions to go to and kind of just be in.

The room at one of the tables talking with other professionals who were, you know, curious about certain different things, the different prompts that were included on the screen. So that was a really great session that I was really glad. Like, oh, yes. Ganesh is here and they're leading it. It was such a great session.

So, yeah, it really was. Yeah. Well, and we always love that the code, the open sessions, because there's so much of enthusiasm and so many people come to it. And  there's so much energy in the room and there's a lot of good takeaways from that. So I love that. Yeah.  Yes, absolutely. And so then I guess in terms of, I guess we'll put it back to some of the accessibility conversation.

I know that we, so we've talked a little bit about physical disabilities. Did you also want to talk any about invisible disabilities as well?  Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. So when we talk about physical, I mean, when you talk about the accessibility,  of course we have to make sure that it's, it's not just.

Visible  disabilities, but also invisible disabilities because we tend to look at visible disabilities much, much more because, because of the visual state of the altered body in space. Right. But many a time we lots of people have. Uh, with  disabilities, which are invisible, such as hearing loss and even visually impaired and, uh, and other learning disabilities too.

And of course, the neurodivergent, uh, spectrum.  Uh, so we had to,  we had to go to design for all of that or consider that in, in, in design. And there's  a lot of work, which is kind of happening in the, just in the past three or four years of how to better design spaces, which, uh, which cater to. Populations  to  neurodivergent populations.

I think we absolutely have to consider all of that in, in, in design. Yeah,  that's something which we really don't do much. But, uh, there's something which I've been kind of keep pushing for  in my work to, to, to look at all the, the entire spectrum of ability or disability, what do we call it?  Yeah, that's super helpful.

And it's like, it's so important because a lot of times it is the things that we can see or the things that are top of mind are often the ones that we'll focus on as opposed to sometimes doing more of our due diligence to really see, okay, well.  Who's missing or what hasn't been considered or how could someone else in a different situation interact with the space?

So I'm glad that you're still advocating for all that and helping to raise awareness for it. Yeah, exactly. And you know, since our son was born and we started to kind of get into to know of, uh, of his disabilities as, as time went by, as the initial years went by, we started to get more and more immersed in the disability field. 

So for about seven years, I was also on the, uh, The state advisory panel for special education in the state of Georgia, which, uh, advised the director of special needs on the special ed on the unmet needs of children with disabilities and for one year, I was chair and it really opened my eyes so much on the inequities in our schools, you know, when looking at the Students with disabilities.

First of all, there's so much of, uh, this, this whole thing of disproportionality  where first of all, you know, students are disciplined more  those students who have disabilities and then the, and then on the, there's a double whammy where if the students of color who have disabilities are disciplined much, much, much more. 

So that's the disproportion we are talking about. And even when you're looking at the spaces in the schools itself, right? So, uh, I'll give you a quick example about. So, in my son's, one of my son's, one of his first primary schools,  elementary schools. Now, he's been through about, I think, five different elementary schools.

And that's another thing.  Keep bouncing kids with disabilities around, um, and that itself is a thing of  equity, but in one of his schools, I think he, he went there at age six  and, uh, at least for the next 10 years. And he was there just for one year. And it is for 10 years. We had, you know, kids in the community.

Whenever we were out in the community, come up to him and say that, say hello, and we never really knew what was happening, but they were all from the same school. And then we realized that it was, uh, because of the, the architecture of the school and the physical space of the school of the way. We realized that the primary means of circulation of the school was a series of ramps and not the stairs, and it was just a three or four story school, which meant that  all of these kids had to be in the same, same public space, right on the ramp, so that.

It gave my son a lot of, uh, visibility and made him feel included.  And, uh, and I, I keep talking about this because it is such a personal, I mean, it's a personal example, right? And mean the, the power of, well-designed spaces really hit home.  And this, this school was, you know, otherwise it was not really like a so-called high design or whatever, but it made a difference in my son's life. 

So that's, uh, that, that's something which we, you know, we, we keep talking about. My wife and I, and of course his teachers are great. That's another big factor, but compared to that, the very next school he went to it was, you know, the special ed classrooms are completely segregated from the rest of the school.

I mean, the rest of the classrooms, they were in a corner and they had a separate entrance to.  So, I mean, you know,  it's like. There is an entrance. Of course, we could go through the main entrance, but it's more more convenient, right? Right, right. Go through that. So that so it becomes like you, you're unwittingly creating habits off segregation. 

So that's the kind of thing which which I talk about in schools, which which can really  make such a big difference.  I'm talking about the programming of spaces and the creation of spaces, which can make a huge difference in in creating equity. Thank you. For kids with disabilities.  Yeah, that's such a powerful example.

And I'm imagining kind of the school with the ramps or it's really equitable access space for everyone to be able to use the same path and not have to go through the back door or be separated from other people. That's really. Interesting and powerful. Another thing which I keep talking about is how the kids, these kids who have been exposed to the kids with disabilities, their peers who are not like them, they are much, much more grounded.

They develop more empathy for people who are not like them and, uh, um, and who knows in two and 20 or 30 years, they may be in positions of policymaking,  which, uh, where they'll be making policies, which affect my son's life. So we have to look at it that, uh, you know, it's, it's a two way street. Yeah. And so we all benefit from, from being exposed to people with disabilities.

Right. So personal story. So I, the schools that I went to had, um, populations of kids with disabilities. And so, you know, in elementary school, I was a vision patrol. So I would walk some of the blind students to and from the bus. And then in high school we had, so I played basketball and we had some of our basketball managers were actually girls who were in wheelchairs and had muscular dystrophy and all that sort of thing.

But it was, I didn't realize that not everyone kind of had access. and friends who had disability, physical disabilities. And so you saying that, you know, people who have access, like, Oh, right. That was something that was somewhat unique. And I remember our basketball managers, they, some of them were nonverbal. 

Our coach would give them the bell to shake so that we would have to then go run. So we'd have to go like run the ladders when we were training. And so there are some days where we're like, hold on, don't give her the bell yet. We're not ready.  Don't make us run just yet. Thank you. But then, you know, they were excited to be involved in there at our game.

So. Yeah, that's actually a really good point. I hadn't thought about the fact that access and really just seeing people who have different disabilities to also  demystify some of the fear that comes along with interacting with people who have different disabilities. And that's interesting. Yeah, it is. I mean, and a  couple of other things, you know, when you're, when you're immersed in the field of world of disabilities, you start to kind of  You start to bat for people with, uh, with disabilities, you know, you see them from positions of weakness  and, uh, and I'll give you another quick example of how, you know, whenever I see, uh, in our shopping, you know, strip malls and all of that, you have these, uh.

Sometimes many a time you have these, the accessible parking spaces which are clogged up by parking by shopping carts,  which makes it unusable. And I get so mad about that. Yes, yes. And sometimes when I see people doing that, I go up to them and say, no, please take it up. Anyway, I have a kid. I cannot use this space. 

And people try to either park in the access aisle or try to do something where they're like, they're blocking the access aisle, thinking that the access aisle is just. Extra space when like it's no, it's makes the space usable with like it's a whole. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Another interesting point about, uh, you know, since I'm in, in the field of sustainability,  accessibility, you know, sustainability, of course, we are, we are trying to make our spaces as,  you know, less resource intensive and small as possible, et cetera. 

Size matters, of course, and we're talking about decarbonization and all that, but then people with disabilities, you know, we definitely require a lot more space,  so there's a, there's an inherent contradiction there, but, uh, these are things which we need to kind of, uh, Talk about more. Yeah. Uh, yeah. Because  another thing is like, uh, is an interesting thing in my house.

Our garage is full of, you know, we, we have to, when we have, uh, a person with, uh, with this development disability as my son who needs a hundred percent care with, uh, or help with every daily, daily activity, of course he crawls. But otherwise he, he's non verbal and, uh, um, he uses a wheelchair, et cetera, and needs to be fed and, uh, and changed.

We have, uh, we have to plan for redundancy, right? And that's resilience. I mean, in cases wheelchair breaks down, we have another wheelchair in the garage.  We don't want to give it up.  So our garage is full of, you know, like, uh, full of his beans.  So that's something which we, we, uh, so redundancy is part of the resiliency thing, which that's something which,  which, which I realized.

Yeah.  Amazing. Yeah. Is there anything else you want to touch on before we wrap up? A couple of things. So, so when we are talking about design for disability, you know, we, we always have to look at, um, at designing for the fringes, for the edges, for the margins  and, uh, the, the edge conditions. And when we do that, then everyone benefits, but we, sometimes we end up designing for the average person, right?

Or the average, uh, for the, the, the great mean, which, which where most people kind of  exist.  And that really doesn't work for anyone, actually.  So, yeah, I think that's an important point, which we, which we sometimes keep forgetting. So, for instance, you know, you have the cliche of the curb cut, right, which, uh, of course, benefits the wheelchair user as well as the young parent with a stroller.

That sort of thing. So it's an edge condition where  everyone benefits. That's something which we need to  think about, I think. Yeah. Another quick thing, which, which I've been thinking about lately, and it's, it's surprising how some things from way back come back, you know, into your thoughts. But when my son was in the, was just born, and I think the second or third day in the NICU.

So we got a report from the doctor and said something about failure to thrive, right?  And that is, you know, that he would not grow as much and blah, blah, blah. So, but that was such a cynical and cold medical term, right? Failure to thrive. And I'm thinking, what's the opposite of that? So we really, I think we need to make our spaces.

Where everyone can thrive and not just grow, but, uh, but flourish.  So that's something which, and the people of all abilities, and that I think is important for architects to consider where, uh, how can we make our spaces where everyone. Can thrive. That's  because it's the very, very opposite of, uh,  what I encountered. 

Thank you so much for listening. Links to amazing resources can be found in the episode's show notes. Special thanks to Sarah Gilberg for allowing me to use snippets of her song fireflies from her debut album, other People's Secrets, which by the way, is available wherever music is sold.  If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to the show. 

And now that Tangible Remnants is part of the Gable Media Network, you can listen and subscribe to all network partner content at gablemedia. com. That's G A B L media. com.  Until next time. Remember that historic preservation is a present conversation with our past about our future. We don't inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children.

So let's make sure we're telling our inclusive history.  I saw the first Firely sun and  right then  I thought of you.  Oh, I could see us catching them and setting them free,  honey. That's what, 

that's what you do. 

Hey, designers and curious minds ever wondered about the stories hiding within your building's walls. I'm Keri Seaborn, structural engineer and host of Unstruct, the podcast that decodes and simplifies major concepts of structural design.  Behind the math and physics, structural engineering simply predicts building behavior.

Join me as we simplify the complex, making structural design accessible to everyone.  Nowadays, instead of measuring it via cost, we're saying, well, what about carbon? You know, we've got two levers now that we can, if an architect has an inefficient design, we can hit them with two levers if you like.  The official casualty figure is.

55, 000. Everybody I talked to told me that the actual figure is at least three times as much,  and I believe that. I mean, seeing what I saw, Turkish codes are good, and they have been improving.  Compliance was completely lacking. Well, in steel, concrete, masonry, and timber design, I'll bring you leading engineers to dissect The tales behind their building structure, whether you're an architect, contractor, engineer, or just love a good story, this podcast is for you. 

Yeah, beam penetrations. That's a fun topic on this project. Follow the link in the show notes to subscribe to Unstruck. From within your walls, hear the story behind how your building stands today.