The Lasting Worth of a Strong Foundation

This entry into the Scholarship Essays was being awarded by, I believe, an architecture firm.  It asked us to compare career foundations with building foundations and expound on their merit. 

low angle photo of flatiron building
Photo by PixaSquare on


It’s a word that I first came across when I moved to New Orleans the summer before Hurricane Katrina moved here.

Subsidence is the sinking of the land. Much of the land in the Mississippi River flood plain is silt or, like the southern shore of lake Pontchartrain, peat. Gravity, the removal of groundwater, levees that redirect the deposit of silt by means of spring floods—all of these have caused the land below much of greater New Orleans to sink.

The result of the subsidence can be seen throughout the city.  In our cemeteries you can see ledger stones—heavy stones placed over graves—to keep the coffins from floating up during high water, or loved ones buried like cordwood in wall-vaults that continually sink into the earth, allowing for more bodies to be added to the top. Other signs are busted water mains, truly memorable potholes, and frequent gas leaks caused by shifting ground.

And then there are the houses. Houses sitting at jaunty angles, houses whose doors swing open unassisted, houses whose steps have become detached. IN their reports, building inspectors will include statements about how far from level a house is, and I have seen realtors carry a marble to test for tilted floors. Some of the houses are so angled that you can see the bottom side of their slabs lifted off the ground as the opposite side slips into a sinkhole.

Subsidence means that here a standard slab or pier-and-beam style foundation will not work. Pilings must be hammered in to a depth of 30 feet, sometimes as much as 100 feet, in order to reach sand with enough density to hold the weight of a building.[i]  But one area of the city was built without foundation pilings, and in that area the faulty foundations have left a long and detrimental scar on the community.

On the western side of the city, where the land is divided from the expanse of wetlands by a small, thin, levee, is an area known as University Village. These are small, nondescript ranch style houses, raised en masse from near-identical floor plans. None of the houses in University Village were originally built on pilings.

The story is that as each house was built a load of pilings would be placed on the lot.  Code enforcement was called and seeing the pilings the inspector would sign off on the foundation plan.  As soon as he left the pilings were moved to a new lot and the slab was poured on shifting sand.  Local lore says the mob was behind the project, but regardless of why it was done, the entire area soon became plagued by unlivable houses, sitting catawampus on their lots like cars in an interstate pileup.

The area became undesirable.  Without exception, houses had to be leveled and post-construction pilings installed at great expense. Soon University Village had a taint that even today makes it a hard sell.


And it was all because of poor foundations.

Good foundations are critical, and they must be methodically built.  And while it takes years to build, a strong professional foundation is kept strong by continuing to learn and to stay an expert in your field. Take Schwinn Bicycles as a warning example of what can happen if you rest on your laurels.   Schwinn was a world leader in bicycles when mountain biking became a hot new sport.  Schwinn didn’t listen to the needs of the consumer because they, were, after all, Schwinn! People listened to them.  Schwinn also suffered from apathy as the passion of the founder was replaced by the lethargy of non-passionate heirs.  In one of the saddest falls from Gory, all that now remains of this iconic American company is the name—owned by a Canadian conglomerate that now sells Schwinn-branded low-end bicycles in outlets such as Wal-Mart[ii].

As a student studying architectural design “strong foundation” has a double meaning for me.  There is the physical foundation of buildings. And there is the figurative foundation of my career. The degree in architectural design is a foundational cornerstone, one of the “pilings” necessary for my profession. But it is not a strong foundation until joined with the other pilings such as field experience, internship, and learning to manage the business side of building projects.  Without all of that I would be a risky choice to anyone looking to build a house or an office.

Trying to take shortcuts rather than invest the time to build a strong knowledge base can be risky. Yet there are people in every profession who try to go around the rules. Consider the case of Malachi Love-Robinson, a Florida man who passed himself off as a doctor.  Malachi opened his own clinic in Boynton Beach where he proudly displayed his diploma from Arizona State University. Here he saw patients, sometimes stealing from them. But his examination and treatment of an undercover agent was a final straw in his being outed as a fraud. Malachi’s medical practice, which included helping himself to people’s money while making house calls, unraveled. Malachi had had tried to be a doctor without due diligence, without taking the necessary steps to become a trusted professional, and without spending any time at medical school. Instead of building a strong professional foundation, Malachi found himself in prison[iii].

While Malachi did little harm outside of robbing patients, the same cannot be said for Allison Spence. This forty-four-year-old woman from Queens posed as a nurse. But Allison was not a nurse- she was a professional without a professional foundation. Without any training this woman administered silicone butt-injections in her black-market practice. Shortly after receiving a round of injections, thirty-one-year-old Latesha Bynum became dizzy and started having chest pains.  She suffered complications of systemic embolization of silicone; in other words, silicone clots formed in her body. She died as a result.[iv]

The world is full of people who only go after low hanging fruit; the type of people who don’t want to put time into becoming a trusted expert in their field, yet clamor for the prestige, trust, and money that often comes with a profession.

There is no short-cut if you want to build anything of merit, be it a house or a profession.  Build a strong foundation and the rest will fall into place.

[i] 2003 Chan, S., That Sinking Feeling, February 24,
[ii] 1997 Presley Noble, B., No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman,
[iii] 2018 Victor, D., Man Who Posed as Doctor at 18 Going to Prison at 20, January 4,
[iv] 2019, NBC New York, Queens Woman Sentenced in Silicone Butt-Injection Death, March 28,

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