Programing and Project Programs

Programing entails discovering the client’s needs and goals and getting them down on paper. For example, a client may need a new home designed to accommodate their growing family or have a Kitchen remodeled or expanded to accommodate modern appliances and concepts related to more open home design.

The architect together with the client discus the client needs and document them in terms of number of rooms and size of rooms from a quantitative perspective.

More qualitative requirements are discussed as well to understand how the client envisions these rooms. The qualitative discussion might center on issues of natural light, views to the outdoors, noise concerns, or proximity to other rooms in the house.

The balance of quantitative and qualitative components allows the architect to understand the client’s needs in terms of hard numbers (square feet) and emotional expectations for how the space will feel and function.

Some desires or needs may be in direct conflict with the client’s budget or other goals. Talking about the types of materials to be used in the design, the size of the project, and the way the current home meets or fails to meet needs will give insight as to how the project will come together.

On the surface it seems easy to come up with a list of rooms and general sizes required for each. However, effective programming will also seek the reasons behind each requirement so that if two requirements are in conflict with one another, the architect can make the best decision to achieve the intended outcome. There is often a need to ‘translate’ perceived needs into actual needs.

As an example, a client requesting a new house may say they need a walk-in pantry. They may also say that they need a 20′x20′ bedroom. During the programming process, it is important to ask ‘why?’ for each need or goal. While the client may request a walk-in pantry, what they actually need is a pantry that is easily accessible. An easily accessible pantry does not always translate into a separate room with a door. In fact, a designer who understands the clients true needs will be able to come up with a better design than if they are limited by perceived needs that are narrowly defined. Likewise, a 20′x20′ bedroom may be a ‘need’ simply because the client wants to accommodate a sizable collection of furniture in the room. Talking about how the furniture is used, when it is accessed and the preferences for where it is located can free the designer to reduce the size of the bedroom and accommodate the furniture in other places.

These freedoms will provide the designer with more opportunity to create a space that is not only beautiful, but will meet the true needs of the client. It is important to be honest about whether needs are true requirements or if they are preferences. The difference can determine whether a designer is allowed the freedom to create an effective and efficient design solution

A large part of programming investigates the proximity of spaces while considering whether their proximity will meet the goals laid out for each space.

For example, a client may request that their kitchen be close to the dining room and that both spaces have views to the outdoors. For the architect or designer, this means the spaces could be immediately adjacent and share a single, common view to the outside.

Alternatively, these same spaces could be visually separated from one another and each have their own view to the outdoors. As with any other goal or need laid out during programming, it is important to understand the ‘why’ behind each decision. Is it important the kitchen has windows so that herbs are easily accessed, or are the views mainly for the enjoyment of the chef? A single question such as this will help determine where the windows are placed. For proximity studies, it is important to recognize the difference between adjacency and absolute positioning. It is wise to approach the design in terms of adjacency, which stipulates relationship of spaces with terms such as “near”, or “close to”. Absolute positioning severely limits the design solutions with terms of “must be to the right” or “in the center”. While some elements can be designated in absolutes, it is rare to create a successful design with more than a few absolute requirements. Absolute space positioning can result in budget concerns, inefficient spaces and failure to meet multiple goals. This is why it is important to think critically and analytically about why spaces will be located next to one another.

Finally, effective programming will not only examine the current needs of the client, but will seek to anticipate and prepare for future needs. A talented professional will recognize areas that may pose a problem for the execution of goals and will recommend solutions to accommodate future needs. This facet of programming can often be difficult, as it is the most abstract and unknown.

Balancing unknowns with set budgets or property locations can be a true challenge. Often, a solution to future needs can be achieved through flexible spaces (spaces that serve more than a single purpose) and allowing room on the site for expansion.


Bubble Diagram- A tool that architects use for representing programs visually is a bubble diagram. A bubble diagram represents spaces with simple circles or squares that are sized relative to one another. Lines can connect the spaces to represent corridors or hallways, and the shapes can be grouped together quickly in multiple arrangements to see which layouts achieve the needs and goals of the client. In addition to bubble diagrams, lists of spaces with quantitative and qualitative notes will be provided as a basis for the design solution and as a metric for success.


Adapted from a blog post by Brinn Miracle

Ballpark Estimates

We develop our Ballpark estimates from our experience with similar projects. Some projects are more difficult to estimate than others given the complexity or relative unknowns. We try to be conservative (higher rather than lower) at the risk of dissuading potential clients from embarking with us in Preliminary Design.

A ballpark estimate is a term used to identify an approximation of an outcome that is based on the information that is readily available to the person or group who is making the estimate. Unlike a guess, a ballpark estimate takes into consideration data that can be verified with relative ease and employs expertise in making rational projections based on that data, coming up with an answer that is reasonable in light of all known factors.

By contrast, a guess is tends to rely more on subjective understandings and less on verifiable data.

The fanciful name for the ballpark estimate comes from the allusion to many types of sports that are played in a ballpark. The concept has to do with coming up with an estimate that, like the ball that is struck with a bat and lands somewhere within the contained area of the park, is within reasonable distance from the goal. While not considered an actual quotation or covenant, the estimate serves as a guideline for determining whether to move forward with a project, or to abandon it in favor of some other activity.

With a ballpark estimate, the data available for analysis and consideration in forming the estimate provides the essential range of values necessary to come up with a reasonable answer. Within the scope of that estimate, it is understood that should other relevant information appear during the project, the outcome could be changed in some manner.

For example, a car insurance agent may present a ballpark estimate to a potential client, based on the known details about the customer. If the agent finds out later that the customer has several tickets over the last couple of years and an accident or two that was not reported at the time the estimate was requested, this will make an impact on the final premium that the agent extends to that client.

While a ballpark estimate is not the final word, it will take into consideration enough information to make a reasonable guess at the final outcome. In actual practice, an estimate of this type may be very close to the outcome; especially if no previously unknown factors arise that have any real bearing on the result. At other times, the appearance of a significant amount of information that was not taken into consideration previously can render the estimate more or less useless. Typically, a ballpark estimate is not considered binding and serves only as a guideline until it is possible to determine the outcome more precisely.

A Different Perspective

Most of what we know and see is formed by our immediate environment. When we venture beyond it we may find different realities reshaping the way we think about design, about building, and about life.

While I have traveled to other states and countries in the past, it had been awhile since I had been able to spend a few weeks away from my reality: this time in Israel and Greece with my family this summer.

I was able to access the internet at various hot spots and found some computer time at cafes along the way.  As work was busy prior to my leaving and while I was away, this was a blessing and a curse.  Mostly a blessing:  sending work e-mail from an outdoor bar high above the Mediterranean on the island of Santorini while sipping a Mythos beer isn’t all that bad, so I could relax and enjoy the trip knowing things could continue without my being on location.

The 10-hour time difference had an interesting effect on me.  I could enjoy the days knowing that all were asleep at home and that I had all day to send an email that would arrive by their morning.  Being able to search the internet wirelessly for a special door closer and send PDFs to the office while overlooking the Dead Sea was also quite an experience.

More important than benefiting from recent technological advances was being in places so full of history.  Seeing the remains of monumental structures built with far few resources than we have today is mindblowing.  The fortified city for 1,000 on top of Masada – complete with storage buildings for food, water system and community swimming pool – high above the Negev is the epitome of people creating from adversity just what they need.

The sense of history is evident in architecture and attitudes.  This may be a result of being on vacation but away from here it seems people are more themselves, not trying to behave a certain way.  Okay, they could seem rude or pushy at times, but I think they are just comfortable expressing themselves.

Having already been in a crowd of over 70,000 at a Cal football game after being back for a week, there was a sense of order and politeness that seems familiar here.  I have a feeling if this were a real “football” crowd in another country (or maybe a home Raiders game) things would have been a bit more crazy.

In Greece and Israel I noticed a few things:

  • An explosion of split system air conditioners, like a virus, on the face of most buildings (One building in Israel has a safety screen just above street level to catch the occasional falling unit.)
  • While many buildings are being constructed (North of Tel Aviv I saw at least 20 tower cranes without turning my head), most of the older ones are in great need of maintenance.
  • We are better with litter and recycling (with the exception of the unmanned recycling and payback machine complete with music right in the middle of Syndagma Square in Athens.)
  • Mosaic floors were really popular and are sometimes the only part of a building remaining after a few centuries.
  • There are “Zara” clothing stores everywhere, sometimes around the corner from each other (I even learned when we returned that there is one in San Francisco.)
  • Unlike our marking edges and ramps for the blind, entire lengths of sidewalk have linear dimensional markings to help the visually impaired find their way between ramps.
  • Dual flush toilets are everywhere.
  • Solar thermal water heating systems are the norm in Israel’s homes.
  • Individual sheet toilet paper dispensers will soon be here.

Most importantly, I learned that when a waiter on the island of Rhodes generously brings you bread, salad and tsatsiki without being asked, it means that your bill can magically become 60 euros (about 82 dollars) higher without your knowing it!

No Hybrids Allowed

With greater acceptance today that we can do something about global warming and create healthier lifestyles at the same time, we may be ready to eliminate the quotation marks around the “Green” in Green building.  Along with this awakening, however, come those who jump on the bandwagon for all the wrong reasons: to try to capitalize on a good thing without providing the benefits intended by the movement toward building healthier and more comfortable buildings.

The good stuff is that Green is in the mainstream now, as evidenced by an explosion of new and improved products, older Green products becoming standard in construction, more trained professionals, and a huge amount of media attention. The bad stuff is that you need to be aware of “Greenwashing”, looking even further into products that appear to be Green.

Whether your “Super Bowl” is the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl itself, you were exposed to the Green media blitz this year. The Academy Awards event was promoted as Green, and the MC referred to Green a few times, including a reference to a hybrid Boeing jet that was parked out front with its lights on.  I was surprised that the audience did not applaud after the MC announced this and then stated that as a result, the winners would be walking up to the microphone this year (did I miss a previous year when a winner drove up to the mic?).  At least they put it out there.

The first half of the Super Bowl pre-game show was promoted as being powered with energy from batteries charged by people riding stationary bicycles – for four days.  As I looked into this event further, I found that the sponsor was “Amp”, one of those highly caffeinated energy drinks that comes in what looks like a beer can. Here “Amp” tried to combine energy savings with energy drinks,which I found not to be a good association.  Even their labeling is “Green” (using the quotation marks purposely this time), or Red if you get the flavor with Red Dye #40 and cherry flavoring.

Along with new Green materials and building procedures, some of the earlier ones are no longer considered revolutionary or even voluntary; in many cases they are now required minimums.  For example, many Green Building Professionals regard simply meeting Title 24 energy requirements, once considered cutting edge, as equating with “D Minus” building practices.

Many manufacturers of older products are retooling.  With recent innovations in particleboard production and adhesive selection, we can now specify plastic laminate as a Green product.  Now my client from many years ago who was afraid of what their friends would think about their installing “Formica” instead of Granite in a high end kitchen remodel has a comeback other than the one I came up with at the time: “Don’t take it for granite – it’s fauxmica.”

What is new today may be the norm or below the norm tomorrow. Where once Berkley’s Permit Service Center had a parking space in front reserved for hybrid vehicles, the sign now reads “Electric Vehicles Only – No Hybrids”.

Save Your Skin – Systems Design for Your Building’s Exterior

A successful exterior finish system will look good, keep the weather out, and last a long time. Choosing the right system, however, is not as simple as deciding between stucco and T-111 wood siding.

When designing a new building there are many exterior finish material choices. The options narrow when looking at the design style, and again when considering the construction budget. The most important factors, though, may be the least considered.

With a systems approach to selection, design, and construction of a successful exterior finish system, you will need to consider all of the following elements together: climate, type of construction (wood, masonry, steel, etc.), architectural elements such as overhangs, building orientation, door and window selection and detailing, roof design and material, gutters and downspouts, flashing details, building/house wrap, lifecycle cost, maintenance requirements, and last but not least, aesthetics. As with many other parts of a building, the use of any exterior finish material should be considered as a system both in itself and as part of the entire structure.

Like your skin, the skin, or envelope, of a building should allow your building to breathe while protecting you from the elements. Although skin is your body’s true siding, most of us wear clothing as an additional layer for modesty and protection. If you consider your clothing as siding, you can easily see that after getting wet you and your clothing dry out much faster and with more comfort if you can take your clothes off to dry; and no mater what type of rain gear you’re wearing you almost always get wet.

A “plastic wrap” policy – plugging every hole, caulking every joint – is ineffective. Wood shrinks and expands, caulked joints fail, and natural forces like gravity, capillary action and wind-driven rain will cause water to go where it’s not wanted. Water will enter the outer envelope – its one of the things it does best!

The key is in the envelope design. If there is a drainage plane behind the siding – with a gap that allows infiltrating water to run down and out – water won’t sit behind the siding and turn to vapor. Heres the theory: let it in, get it down, and get it out. Or, more simply put, “drain the rain.”

Rain-screen siding systems allow for water to run behind the siding material and to travel out and away from the building at the bottom of the wall. By adding furring strips over the vapor barrier and behind wood siding, or using “wrinkled” house wrap behind stucco, you can increase the life of the siding and improve the performance of the exterior finish system. While a rain-screen system requires technical expertise and research on specific materials as well as careful construction, it will pay off in the end.

You may have heard of the problems with Frank O. Gehry’s Stata Center project at MIT, where the Owner has filed a lawsuit against the architect and contractor for “design and construction failures” related to leaks caused in part by problems with the exterior envelope. The construction firm claims they warned the architect of flaws in the detailing and the architect refused to make changes to improve the design.

While you can certainly make it harder on yourself with a complex building design, chances are you are not a star architect earning a $15 million commission. Even if you are, it is better to design and build a great envelope rather than rely on your professional liability insurance. Whatever skin you use, make sure yours is protected!

Indoor Air Quality – You Are What You Breath

Living and working in existing buildings we inherit all the beautiful spaces along with the air our builder intended us to breathe.  There is evidence that even in the most industrialized cities, the air within our homes and businesses can be more polluted than outdoor air.  Since most people spend about 90% of their time indoors, it is obvious that we should pay attention to indoor air quality.  Many indoor air pollutants have been shown to have negative effects on our health, especially for children, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems.

We face a variety of health risks as we go about our daily activities.  Some are unavoidable given the way we choose to lead our lives and some we might forgo if we had the right information. When remodeling or constructing a new building we can make decisions that significantly improve and maintain better air quality, which translates into better health.

With homes more tightly sealed for better energy efficiency, it is even more important to choose materials and products that do not off gas harmful chemicals into our buildings.  While older homes may have potentially harmful materials, some chemicals such as formaldehyde (a common binder in insulation and pressed wood products) offgas over a long period of time and may therefore not be an issue today.  Asbestos, a product with known health risks, is safe if it is encapsulated and not disturbed.  Radon, a naturally occurring gas, could have harmful effects but mitigation can be planned for during construction.  (The EPA website,, recommends testing homes for radon even in areas where it is present at low levels.) There are also biological pollutants such as mold and mildew.

There are three ways to improve Indoor Air Quality (IAQ):  Source Control, Ventilation, and Filtration.

Source Control

Source control offers the best opportunity for better IAQ.  There is a wide range of commonly used construction products that do not offgas: formaldehyde-free insulation, low- or no-VOC paints, as well as a variety of flooring, window coverings, and other finishes that are manufactured with environmentally friendly materials. Using nontoxic cleaning products in the completed building also contributes to better indoor air quality.


There are many ways to ventilate a building (to bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air).  While removing stale air is desirable, you may also exhaust conditioned air, thereby using more energy to heat or cool incoming air. An Energy Recovery Ventilation System (ERV) or Heat Recovery System (HRV) uses a heat exchanger to eliminate or reduce heat loss with this operation.  Quiet and energy efficient point-of-use exhaust fans remove bathroom moisture, which with a timer switch make it more difficult for mold and mildew to grow in these wet areas.  Quiet Kitchen exhaust hoods (surprisingly not required by code) help remove excess moisture and odors from cooking (don’t worry, you can still smell the freshly baked cookies).  An exhaust fan in an attached garage is also a good way to keep chemical and exhaust fumes out of the living space.


Okay so you still have some indoor pollutants, hopefully not from your own smoking.  Now is the time to look into filtration.  There are many types of filters, with the most effective passing a larger volume of air through them.  Investing in a standalone system requires research into various filter media, air volumes, and other choices.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the best way to keep the air clean, as some filtration methods can be combined with a forced air system, eliminating the need for additional equipment.

In a nutshell, you are better off if you can first keep the bad stuff out of the building.  The tightest buildings will always require mechanical ventilation, and if you’re stuck with what you have then use a combination of ventilation and filtration.  At some point it will make sense to consult with a mechanical engineer to make sure you are doing the right things to create a healthy, energy-efficient building.

Reaffirming Art, Science, and Attitude of Design/Build

Recently I had the opportunity to re-discover the benefits of design/build.  As an Architect/Builder I guess I’m either spoiled or incompetent.  I like to think the former.  To be able to make on the fly design decisions at full scale comes naturally to me and most often leads to a successful project.  It is like sculpture; where the sculpture (design/builder) is putting his or her hands to the actual piece that will be experienced by others, having the opportunity to fine tune the design at will as it is being created.

If it wasn’t for long lead-time order items such as windows and doors there would be no problem with this method at all.  As it is, however, we push ourselves and our clients into making design decisions while our minds are focused on trying to get approval from the client, the City, and the neighbors, all the while making sure we are paid and the client is trying to find the money for the project at the same time as being possibly possessed with trying to find just the right faucet for the Master Bath.  An early decision on a window order that gets confirmed two months before the start of construction is a mistake waiting to happen.

Of course, if there is not enough forethought put into decisions that will have to be made later then it is harder to make the decision quickly, on-site, while the crew is awaiting directions.  For example, I thought my client was putting too much time into finding the right window product while we were in preliminary design, but it turns out that the early education was helpful because immediately after demolition, we erected a full size mock-up of an 8’ X 10’ window opening facing out to the bay.  We found that we grew it to 9’ X 12’.  All we needed to do was tweak the window order slightly and we were on our way for a twelve-week lead-time order.  With a quick phone call to the supplier and my clients’ on-the spot acceptance we turned the mock-up into permanent framing and went on with the project.

Even with the decision made, and the window and door order in hand awaiting final approval, there were still many earlier decisions to make and/or re-check, such as glass type, tempering, hardware style and color, type of operation, color of screen, handing and swing for the doors as well as whether there would be a key in the lock or not and if the screen mesh type and frame color was called out correctly.

Not every decision process is so intense but nowhere is there such an opportunity to sculpt the space “live” as there is when you have the opportunity to work with windows and space in a major remodel such as this one.

I ask myself whether I and my client should be able to visualize space, windows, and other details on a computer screen, a 3-D model (cardboard or computer) or on a 2-D drawing (at a scale of ¼” equaling 1 foot) and really understand the light quality, volume, height, view corridors and other aspects of the final space.  Am I incompetent? Should I just get the clients to trust me and make the final call? I believe it comes down to knowing what decisions need to be made early and what decisions you need to leave for later.  I believe good designers create under a certain amount of pressure with a creative burst.  Whether it is fifteen minutes before a design meeting or just before the window guy is going on vacation, we know how to get things done and done right.  I swear with each project that this will be the one where all the windows and doors come in correctly as ordered and that I and the client will love them once they are in.  Maybe this is the one!

Decanting the 2007 PCBC

Some said this year’s PCBC was subdued due to the nationwide housing slump, but hearing the Bay Area pointed out as a ‘bright spot” in the housing industry was a nice consolation.  At any large builders’ conference or expo I have attended, however, there is always an abundance verging on explosion of products, and a lot of enthusiasm.  It was just easier to get around the hall this time.

While I’m sure I missed many booths, I did notice a few things:

While the “green products pavilion” was absent, it was nice that green building goods were dispersed throughout the show, indicating to me that these items are now in the mainstream.

There seems to be no end to the stainless steel appliance trend, as evidenced by a refrigerator as big as a two-car garage.

The guys at Boise Cascade were handing out blue footballs this year instead of squishy potatoes, but still answered correctly that my brother’s place, Flying Pie Pizzeria, has the best pizza in Boise.

There was a lot more hard candy on the counters than stuffed animals or other cool giveaways.

Each tankless water heater manufacturer boasted about being the best, including one manufacturer claiming to make parts for one of the others.

All of the composite decking manufacturers now have color accent options. While I prefer composite decking for durability, I favor a single color as the multiple tones seem a bit like putting lipstick on a pig.  In addition, one manufacturer touts using a wide range of recycled plastic, while another is proud of having a very high standard for the plastic they use because they claim it keeps the decking cooler and more dimensionally stable.

While last week I couldn’t find a fire sprinkler company for a residential project, here I ran into the entire sales and production staff at a fire sprinkler product booth and got all their contact information and an invitation to send in my drawings for help with the EBMUD form.  I had seven guys listening to my every word.

This time I skipped most of the software booths because the last two programs I bought are sitting idle since I don’t seem to have enough time to use them.

There is something very special about the good booth people.  They are able to respond professionally to any type of person from designer, to builder, to architect, engineer, techie, or homeowner.  I was very impressed with the level of knowledge and personability of the folks I ran into.  I even got to see them relate to one of my clients who has a lot of materials engineering knowledge and a keen eye for detail.

My structural engineer happened to call me exactly when I was at a booth offering builders home warranties for structural issues only.  He advised me to save my money.  I know myself that it is usually not the structure that fails, but instead a backed up site drainage line or other moisture-related issue causing problems.

Some of the booths were as big as a house, especially the metal-framed one that was at least three stories high.  I have a lot of respect for the crews who quickly assemble, disassemble and pack these exhibits, sending them off to another show or a warehouse somewhere.

Overall, as usual, this 5 hours of uninterrupted physical search engine was exhausting, enlightening, and yielded a lot of hits, some new information, and new contacts, re-affirmation, and another full bag of literature that will be stashed somewhere and hopefully retrievable when needed.  My kids are getting a bit less interested in what I bring home but I like to think it is because they are older now, not because the stuff is any less cool.

The Beauty Within – Transitions

It is difficult for me to think of the interior of the home as distinct from the exterior. While interior design is a specialty in itself, an architect must keep both the interior and exterior design in perspective, keeping transitions in mind as he/she develops a project.

It is true that you can separate outside from inside to create an intentional surprise or contrast upon entry. You may choose to keep the exterior design of an existing building as-is while changing the interior to something completely different due to cost, desire to avoid design review by the City or a homeowners’ association, or just to update to a new look or style. You might consider the exterior as one room with its own consistent design and the interior as many rooms with different uses and design themes, working together as a whole.

Whether remodeling or building new there are some building features that you can’t help but integrate, such as windows and doors. The placement, proportion, materials, and mullion lay-out for windows along with floor plan, massing, and roof design are the glue that keeps a project together. Given the opportunity, most architects will want a high degree of control over these features.

Once these decisions have been made, it is not uncommon to separate out the interior design, which involves filling in the space with a multitude of choices. Providing guidance to a home or business owner who is interested in selecting interior products and finishes can either be a simple task or a time-consuming project with a life of its own. If the client is not sure what they want or has a difficult time narrowing down choices, I recommend that they consult with an interior designer either to confirm their choices or to develop a complete plan for interior finishes. The danger is that with another design professional involved, the overall vision of the architect could be compromised or changed to something different from the architect’s original concept. Sometimes you just need to let go. The benefit is that the architect can offer the vision, keeping a broader focus on the entire project, and the interior designer and client can follow it through. For this reason, the interior designer should be acceptable to both the owner and architect.

Of course the interior designer can help with choosing furniture and window coverings. While drapes and Venetian blinds are out, there is an array of motorized shades (invisible when you don’t need them) to help with shading and privacy.

There are such a variety of products today that are aesthetically pleasing, functional, and environmentally responsible that the selection process is fun! From flooring to cabinets, paint, tile, lighting, appliances, countertops, plumbing fixtures, as well as salvaged products, there is an abundance of choices. In flooring alone, if you are considering using rapidly renewable resources, in Bamboo there is a choice of horizontal or vertical, natural or carbonized, and now stranded bamboo with a combination of light and dark tones. There is also a variety of Palm products (not as in the “Treo”) for flooring and other architectural woodwork. In tile, porcelain has such a great range of textures and colors and is so hard you can roller skate on it (with the old-fashioned metal wheels if you like).

No matter how you divide your time in delivering professional services, some interior finish selections will be much more complex and time-consuming than the exterior design of the building. This work may best be handed off to a competent owner or to the owner with assistance from an interior designer. If you are an architect who loves to do this stuff on your own, more power to you. I have my limits, however, and will let my opinions be known if the interior design solutions or details are not in keeping with my vision. If all is under control, however, I have plenty of other elements to worry about, such as trim and railing details and how one material meets another. It’s all about transitions.

Products, Products, Everywhere and Still Decisions to be Made

Typically a design happens because a client needs more space, a better floor plan, or necessary repairs with upgrades along the way. In any design project the concept comes first, then it is developed, detailed and built, right?

Not so fast: the actual process is not always so straightforward. Many clients have backed off on remodeling after receiving the Preliminary Estimate of Construction Cost for their approved design solution so they can look at open homes and see what is out there. More often than not they come back realizing that other homes would require improvements to meet their needs anyway. Considering the property tax increase if they have been in their current home awhile, they often come back, make some revisions to the design and then build.

Recently, however, one client decided to move to a newer home in another neighborhood instead of remodeling. I believe that one half of the couple always preferred to move while the other wanted to stay put. Another client did not want a zoning fight with a neighbor about privacy issues stemming from a proposed second floor addition to their one-story home. Their neighbors preferred to walk around in the nude, did not like curtains and were opposed to the addition of any windows that would face their existing two-story home. This client pulled up stakes and moved from Berkeley to Moraga, where it is “safe”.

While many clients know what they want up front, they are not exactly clear on how to get there. They may have struggled with ideas for years, even drawn up sketches or constructed models. Others have a collection of magazine photos with images of the perfect rooms. Others still have no idea where to start, what they need, or how much they should spend.

The challenge for the Architect is to get in tune with each client, to educate the client in the way that you see the process working, and to make sure you are all on the same page before moving ahead. This is not always so easily done. Depending on your workload you may make exceptions for what appears to be a difficult client from the beginning. Or you may be pleasantly surprised that what seemed like a wasted sales call to see a cracked plaster ceiling repair turns into one of the more creative challenges you’ve taken on recently.

Due to the overabundance of products and a forest of style magazines and the internet to market them, clients are much more aware of product options and architectural styles. While this makes the material and product selections more complicated and time consuming, it also makes it easier since we have the internet to display the items and to share with each other. Digital cameras and simple design software often put my clients ahead, as with one client who imported images of marble slabs for the counter and a wood pattern for the floor into the floor plan to help them make a decision.

Sending a link or pasting an image of a toilet or basin is easy and the email confirmation is something you won’t lose. Searching through various manufacturers’ web sites or giving the web addresses to your clients can save time and space in your architectural library. Using the “save in my portfolio” option gives the client or the Architect a place to group possible selections. For some items you still need to send your client to a showroom to touch and feel the products, such as for a specialty bathtub, tile, or flooring options. For this process it is necessary to develop good relationships with your local showrooms. You give them each equal business and they offer you and your clients good service. Every time your client has a good showroom experience, it reflects positively on you. This of course can work both ways.

Not having a showroom at your office is more possible today due to the rapidly changing products and the ability for everyone to see them from the comfort of their own home. At my office I try to keep examples of staple products, design details and materials and to have quick access to project photos that show what we have done in the past to solve similar design challenges. This personalizes the design process and comforts the client since they see can see something we have done, rather than just a picture of someone else’s work in a magazine.

Even though our clients may be one (or two) steps ahead of us, we know they still need us to develop and realize the concept through all of the distractions because this is what we do as design professionals.

Honesty Leads the Way

In the construction industry there has always been an intense relationship between management and employees, from the three-person company where the owner sits down to coffee with the crew every morning before work, to the strong hierarchical relationships in a union organization. In focusing on delivering a building to the client, management may overlook the fact that the tradespeople who create with their hands have a strong sense of self and accomplishment and need recognition; they sometimes see management as making the big bucks with their sweat and blood. In the trades, employees have opportunities to advance their skills, to move up in the ranks, or to work in a better environment than where they worked before. Employees are nurtured, working relationships are made and broken, yet successful companies continue to deliver quality projects without missing a beat. This is not a simple task.

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”:

  • One manufacturer’s representative belittles another manufacturer’s product while promoting his own.
  • My engineer refers me to another manufacturer’s representative, who repays the favor by giving me the name of different engineer… “if I haven’t already committed” to the one who referred me to him.
  • A long-time employee leaves and takes another employee with him to start their own firm.
  • Other employees take on side work and you find out about it on your own.
  • A new consultant says he can’t continue on your job until insignificant adjustments to the drawings are made.
  • A subcontractor loses one of his top people and now it is like starting over with a new company.
  • Honesty, ethics, loyalty and commitment are four of the virtues that matter most to me. As a business owner committed to delivering high quality projects to clients who put their trust in me, I am driven to succeed.

I know I cannot do it all on my own so I put my trust in others and trust they will deliver with the same zeal for excellence that I have. I have been lucky over the years and can say that on a consistent basis the clients compliment us on our crew.

Loyalty in the workplace, however, may be a thing of the past. The financial pressures on the labor force may almost require the employee to take on side work, with “under the table” cash calling their name. How, though, is the employee going to come to work refreshed and dedicated to his “job” on Monday?   If it is an occasional thing I see no problem with an employee helping out a friend or neighbor or of course working on his or her own home. If, however, the side work becomes a rule rather than the exception, it cannot be healthy for either party.

What do you do when a long term employee leaves or you find a good employee working on the side? My initial reaction is to feel betrayed. I speak with the employee and in many cases encourage them, or offer assistance if they are honest with me and I can tell that their loyalty to the company is still strong, or let them go if a pattern of deception begins to unfold. How do you differentiate between two unfamiliar manufacturers’ products? I tend not to trust one manufacturer who denigrates another; instead, I’ll do more research on my own. When do you switch subcontractors or consultants? I consider my loyalties and their ability to continue to deliver high quality work.

There may be no right or wrong answer, but as I think about these issues I look back at what I learned early on in my trail to the rank of Eagle in the Boy Scouts of America. “The Scout Law” is that a scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. I strive to live by the Scout Law and believe that if others do the same there will be peace and understanding in the workplace.

The One You Love and Hate

Living in the same community for most of my life I have seen some things change and many others remain the same. Being the son of an architect and builder (I choose SOA over that other popular acronym), I have had many opportunities to follow my dad around. At the building or zoning departments there was always a certain amount of tension and excitement.

Our relationships with the agencies regulating our projects have always been interesting. If you have worked in the same communities over the years you get to know those who can assist you efficiently and those who can make the process a living hell. I always knew when to step out of line for a moment when I feared I would be called to the permit counter by one particular agent, sending the next unsuspecting customer to a certain doom. One day I might be helping a client to prevent a project that would block their sunlight and view from being built, while the next day I might be trying to get another client’s second story addition approved.

While we try to be the favorite client at the building department, there is always something we want, and they have the power to give it to us – or not. Of course the formula changes from one city and one city employee to the next. Each community seems to cater to those clients whom they know and like the best and while you may be favored in one community, you may not be in another.

Seeing how a homeowner, novice, or non-local building professional is treated at your local building department is always a sobering experience. On one hand it makes me feel like the top dog, and on the other I feel sorry for them. Knowing I may be in their position elsewhere, I often try to help, if appropriate, hoping someone may do the same for me someday.

When you are the home or business owner trying to get a project approved and built, the building department can seem like your worst enemy. However, while it seems like they will do anything to prevent or delay your own project, they also have the power and obligation to prevent a disaster from being built next door to you. The building department is also there to help ensure any project is built to code (although they assume no liability if it is not).

Compared to other experiences in life and to other government agencies you may have the opportunity to deal with over the years, the building department has a major effect on your most important assets: your business and your home. It is also responsible in many ways for the overall health of your community.

In the old days the building inspectors and other staff were in front where you could see them. There was a buzz of activity, especially in the morning, with the building inspectors, contractors and homeowners arguing and pleading their cases. In those days you may have tried to build a project without a permit even though you could get one with a sketch on the back of an envelope. In one slide of my dad’s projects you can see the building permit (“posted in a conspicuous place”) so we kidded him that that was the one project for which he ever got a permit.

Embarrassed at the time, I am now proud of the fact that my dad would go to the building department in his overalls yelling and screaming to get what he wanted. Of course, he would send me up later to apologize and explain calmly what he needed. These days all I need to do if I don’t get what I want is threaten to send my dad up there. The officials laugh and ask me how he is doing and to say hello. I wonder if he was the inspiration for the prominently displayed sign at the counter warning customers to behave in a professional manner or face being removed from the building.

Disclaimer: Any events or people mentioned in this article are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual events or individuals is purely coincidental.

Kitchen Realities – Take One . . .

With the holidays almost over, I recall and evaluate the past year in many ways. It is easiest, however, to look back a few weeks to the many times we entertained this month – more than we had in any recent year. From having a group of four families over, to my fraternity brothers after the Big Game, to hosting our company holiday party, I had an opportunity to see how my home worked under pressure.

From preparing a gourmet meal at home, to ordering in lots of pizza for the guys, to bringing in catered food for a Mexican fiesta, the Kitchen was always where things were happening. Having an “L” shaped, 12’ x 24’ Kitchen with a chopping block island, separate eating area and a high ceiling, with access to the yard, Family Room, and Dining Room helps a lot. The traffic signal on the wall at the apex of the ceiling makes for instant party lighting and is always a hit with kids who can use individual toggle switches to play with the different color combinations. I prefer the combination of red and yellow to set the mood. My wife says the flashing yellow gives her a headache.

While our Kitchen is not technically located in the center of the home, it is pretty darn close and used as though it is. It has a direct or very close connection to all rooms except the Living Room, which is separated from the Kitchen by the Dining Room. Between floors a single stairwell open to the Kitchen leads up to the sleeping area or down to the workshop/play area at the walk-in Basement level.

I can’t help but think of the Kitchen as a hub and how, when designed as such, it adds so much to life. Last night I dreamed that we had moved recently and were living in a very nice home but much closer to an elevated freeway. As I lay in my dream bed looking out and up from my window I was trying to notice how much vibration from the freeway above I could actually feel. I did feel some but was surprised how little (maybe we were having another earthquake!). Then I was noticing how close the freeway column was to our wall (inches) and wondered if the column footing extended below our home – probably not.

That night our friends who joined us, by chance, for Chinese food at our neighborhood restaurant (it was the only restaurant open Christmas evening – maybe you were there too!) told us they were looking to move to Berkeley from Oakland so that 1) their kids could attend Berkeley High, and 2) because she had never liked their current home. This may explain my dream – or maybe not.

I thought about their Kitchen and recalled many good times with friends at their home: a parallel counter (Pullman style) kitchen with a small peninsula at one end and a separate eating area with a connection to the yard. Walk through one doorway and you’re in the hall, or another doorway and you’re in the Dining Room, then through another and you’re in the Living Room. If you’re not getting food from the eating area table or peninsula and chatting in the Kitchen you’re trying to squeeze in at the Dining Room table; otherwise you are out on the patio (usually freezing) or in the Living Room visiting and watching the kids play. A while back they had asked me to design a more open connection between the Kitchen, Dining and Living Rooms – which I did but they never implemented. I wonder (aside from the school preference) if she would have been more comfortable staying there had they completed this work.

One thing I know is that I had more beer left over than hard liquor after my fraternity brothers’ visit, no beer after the company party (no hard liquor provided but great leftovers to bring to a jobsite the next day), and a lot of soda left over from all functions, which my wife wants me to take to work immediately so the kids stop asking for it.

Seriously though, year round, the Kitchen plays a major role on the stage of life. While there are many ways to design and live in a Kitchen, we as designers and builders need to show our clients the available possibilities, even those they may never have imagined. Go beyond the walls, cabinets, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops and see how the Kitchen relates to the rest of the home and site. While there are always limitations, turn constraints into opportunities to create the client’s dream so they never have to wake up in one under the freeway.

The Road Ahead

I have heard that the first thing Italian race car drivers do when they get in the car is to remove the rear view mirror.

While this seems exciting and carefree, as architects and builders committed to the industry for the long term we know that we cannot afford to think the same way. Instead we must appreciate and learn from the past and keep an eye on what is ahead of us.

Change can be a slow process but change for the sake of change is not always a good thing. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are times, however, when we continue doing something the same way. We accept the results only because they are what we expect, even though they may not be the best we can get. In many cases if we were more aware of options that would contribute to a better result, we could improve with only a small change.

Creating awareness of the alternatives and implementing change to improve the building industry is a huge task. Product manufacturers have taken on the lion’s share of promoting awareness. They introduce and advertise new products to the industry so excessively that sometimes one must just tune out. I have an ever-changing pile of professional magazines in my office (“Builder/Architect” always on top). When I can, I flip through just for the ads to make sure there is nothing new that I may be missing. On many occasions I have learned of something that I didn’t even know I needed just at the time I “needed” it.

Having the opportunity to visit my older brother (a pizza business entrepreneur / career Life Flight Paramedic/ start-up General Contractor) in Boise, Idaho for Thanksgiving I had an opportunity to see what is going on someplace other than “here”. It was a breath of fresh air for both of us. Getting out of my world and seeing his parallel world helped me to gain perspective, to step back and see what I could be doing better. Twenty years ago when my brother first moved there he remembered when two guys pulled up in a truck across the street and shot a couple of cows grazing there – this was normal.

You may be surprised that even in Boise there is an awareness of green building. After all, their climate is much more extreme than ours and energy efficiency and comfort are more difficult to achieve than in our mild weather. My brother has one client who is so gung-ho about green it is scary. We are so lucky to be living in an area where our clients are equally if not more informed than we are about the methods and materials available.

Taking the time to keep informed and look forward through travel, professional training programs, building industry conventions, trade shows, and reading (if only the ads) is critical to improving ourselves, our businesses, and the quality of our buildings.

Staying the course may seem easier but you can only win the race when you know what lies ahead. Beware: Boise is not far behind. Look ahead while checking the rear view mirror.

It’s The Same – Only Different

When I couldn’t print the other day because our large format printer displayed a “low toner” message, I asked around the office; no we did not have another toner cartridge. I was frustrated. The next day I learned that the toner cartridge in the machine was new and that we needed to schedule a service appointment. An associate suggested that this machine had seen better days, since it is at least 15 years old.

This benchmark in time got me thinking. It seemed just like yesterday that we replaced the old blueprint machine. I remember issues with that machine as well, particularly the ammonia odor associated with it. The machine had to be located in a separate room or have a strong exhaust fan nearby. As a child I had tricked a friend into smelling the ammonia in the bottle while he visited my dad’s office. When he almost passed out I felt so bad that it has stayed with me, and taught me not to surprise at the risk of hurting another.

I remember when I could find the original pencil drawings on a drafter’s desk to see what progress he or she had made that day. Today it is hard to see this progress, and at the same time amazing how much progress can be made in a day.

Computers today are integral to our lives rather than the innovation or addition they were to many of us starting out in practice in the early 1980’s and before. While we seem to be so casual about this rapid change, I wonder if we realize how much this advancement affects our designs. For one thing, the process of designing and building today is much more compressed in time, space and money than it used to be.

As a way to organize and present information, the computer has us thinking about design differently than before: as data or something to input, organize, change, plot out, and email. As an example of the duality we face today, we can email drawings to a client for instant review, eliminating the necessity of meeting face to face, speeding up the process, allowing more time for ourselves (to catch up on other projects), but at the same time taking away the important ingredient of personal connection and time “in-between” to think about and “live with” the design for a while.

Considering rapid advances in technology in our profession is like comparing the evolution of a Swedish fishing village over generations to the construction of a brand new planned community complete with a traditional Main Street. The village is shaped by the experience of the dwellers through use, when bonds between people and things are formed. While it is painfully obvious that development over time has the advantage of adjusting to the changing needs of the dwellers, this is not possible today.

With the increasing need for housing we need to look to the past, find important successful elements and incorporate them into our work. We need to maintain the context of these elements without imitating them. We face the challenge of creating a new “Main Street” that looks nothing like the one from yesterday. At the same time we need to preserve and improve the livability of our inner cites, where we already have infrastructure and people living and working.

With a new awareness of the importance of conserving natural resources and the high cost of building, we have no choice but to design and build good buildings. We can use advances in technology to our advantage to build just what we need and no more.

For example, prefabrication is an old idea that together with newer, well-considered designs allows for conservation of resources, time, and money. Likewise, restoration and remodeling helps preserve communities built up over time. While we should not try to duplicate the past, we need to acknowledge it, and continue to find new ways to create, enhance, and preserve community through design.

Consciousness and Contradictions in Green Building

Last month West Coast Green, the largest residential green building conference and expo in the country, was here in San Francisco. It was great to see so many of the material suppliers, designers, architects, realtors, and builders featured in Builder/Architect and local to our community all in one place. In addition, attendees from all over the country and the world had an opportunity to see the latest green materials and systems and to learn from experts in the field of green building. On the last day, most importantly, homeowners were invited to participate and learn more about green building.

While there are always contradictions, it was interesting timing. Mayor Gavin Newsom had a tough choice: to speak at the opening session of West Coast Green or to welcome thousands of shoppers to the grand opening of Bloomingdales at the remodeled Westfield Shopping Center minutes away. Even as a staunch supporter of the environment and green building, the Mayor followed the money.

In the United States most are conscious that we consume and waste far more per capita than any other country. It is both true and a perception that since we are a rich nation, we can afford to. If those at Bloomies perusing the newest fashions in evening gowns or taking in a trunk show featuring the retro-influenced styles of Norma Kamali knew that their green homes would not only be more energy-efficient and healthy but also worth more money, they would be on the way over to the conference after tea.

The good news is that green building organizations and policymakers are helping to spread the word that green building is not just for altruistic people or “tree huggers”. Green building is now in the mainstream and is even an effective tool for developers who want an edge over the competition. If developers can make more money and produce higher quality tract homes then there must be something right going on here.

Build it Green, based in Berkeley with support from Stop, has introduced a program whereby builders of new single and multifamily homes can have their homes rated by independent, certified raters (remodeled GreenPoint Rated Homes are coming soon). Much like the “Energy Star” label, a GreenPoint Rated Home label is recognizable by others to represent a superior product. Now homebuyers have a clear choice to pay more for an independently rated quality home just like a shopper will pay more for Ralph Lauren dinnerware at Bloomingdales, but with far greater benefits to health and environment.

On the other hand, so much of building green is cost neutral. Here, with a little education and planning, homes can be healthier and energy efficient without costing more up front, while saving energy dollars down the road.

Even though in California, minimum energy efficiency standards are required by code (Title 24) and typical features in all our buildings, keep in mind that a builder who builds only to the minimum specified by code is a “D-“ builder.

Until green building becomes the industry standard and a minimum requirement for construction rather than the exception, we need to support and participate in programs that educate and serve the public and our environment. We cannot afford not to.

Doors: They Are What They Are

The first time I remember thinking of doors as something other than what you walk through is when I received a poster depicting “The Doors of Boston”. With so many variations, colors, materials, and elements, together the individual doors give a sense of place; these doors incorporate an entire architectural style in a single building element. Since then I have seen many other similar posters describing places by their doors. Doors are an important part of the first impression we receive of a building.

While the main function of a door may be to allow people or vehicles in and out of a defined space, doors throughout history have been much more than that. Some buildings such as the Baptistery in Florence, Italy with its bronze doors by architect/sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti are known almost solely for their doors. These doors, the result of a competition among sculptors, were executed between 1403 and 1424 at the beginning of the Renaissance when art was becoming as important as structure. Can you imagine your client waiting over 20 years to get their front door?

As with other building elements, there are certain physical requirements to consider in door design including structure and operation, and a whole lot more in the way of architectural expression such as shape, size, materials, and color. In many cases the detail around the door receives even more attention then the door itself.

Religious and public buildings in particular seem to have doors on steroids; doors larger than life. I have stepped through many doors within doors into churches where the main door is several stories high. I’m not sure if the man-size door was always there or if it was cut in at a later date after the hinges failed. The entry door at the City of Emeryville City Hall, in stainless steel and glass, is so heavy that I can hardly open it. These are doors that I remember. Harking back to earlier times, many doors have once again become more than what we use them for.

Today we have advanced door design with technology and new materials so we can have entire opening walls of doors that allow the integration of indoors and outdoors. We have fiberglass doors (with wood grain pressed into them that take wood stain) that stand up to harsh environments without warping. We have solid steel doors with multipoint latching systems for security. (The salesperson at the open house for a new urban condominium project commented, “Why put glass in the door, we want you to feel safe!”)

In most of our projects today we find a door in a catalogue, have it pre-hung, then install it in the opening and put trim around it. Is this because of the high cost of materials and labor, or because maybe first impressions are not always the most important part of a building? Sure we want our buildings to present themselves nicely, but let’s invest more in the building systems that work together to present a successful whole. This way, your client and others will remember more than just the door. And…don’t let it hit you on the way out.

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

Is it true that the inherent value of a home is directly related to what someone sees when they drive by? Absolutely! But that is not all. A homeowner may get so caught up in this concept that if they are remodeling to sell they can lose sight of other important upgrades. Making “curb-appeal” changes that are inconsistent with the architectural character of the home may even reduce its value.

In the Bay Area it is likely that as architects, builders, and homeowners, we will have more of an opportunity to improve upon existing homes than to create new ones. While with new construction we can choose to blend in, complement, or contradict the existing fabric of a neighborhood; in remodeling existing homes there is an additional challenge: how to restore or improve a home that already has a history.

I have had few clients over the years ask for a complete makeover – a change from one style to another. I think this is rare in part because the client probably bought the home because something appealed to them from the start about the way it looks.

On the other hand, perhaps they inherited the home or purchased an ugly duckling with the notion of turning it into something more in character with the rest of the flock. There is nothing wrong with that as there are plenty of examples of homes originally built with little design distinction. For example, a flat roof bungalow could turn into a sloped roof “Craftsman” as long as close attention is paid to the siding, overhang, and fascia details.

It concerns me when someone asks to change their home into a “Mediterranean” or a “Craftsman” from a completely different style, even when there are other homes with the desired appearance nearby. Unless the project involves a complete remodel with additions and other major changes, usually transforming the style is too involved to be successful.

For many, the outside look of a home trumps the more important floor plan and arrangement. In many cases improving a poor floor plan is more difficult and expensive than making exterior changes. When done well, a remodel gives even consideration to floor plan, building systems (including structural, exterior shell, mechanical, and electrical), and interior and exterior finishes.

Today a homeowner can easily go to a home center and pick up a pre-finished “grand” oak entrance door with leaded glass sidelights and an arch top transom. They can install it themselves or find a handyperson to install it. While perhaps a beautiful product in itself, it will likely not fit in with the overall design of the home.

An educated buyer looks beyond first impressions, sees the intrinsic value of a home, and takes notice of a slapped-on candy coating. This buyer would appreciate it more if the previous owner hadn’t done anything to “spruce up” the place.

Just as with people, a home is made up of many elements that combine to define it. Sometimes the beauty is only skin deep, and sometimes there are contradictions and surprises. For example, a remodel that tastefully incorporates updated or more modern finishes contributes to both the current enjoyment and the history of the home. Make sure the beauty of your projects runs more than skin deep.

Not Another Column on Green Building

This year I made it to both the AIA convention in Los Angeles and PCBC in San Francisco. I’ll be going to West Coast Green in September as well, and have information overload!

I can report that the Southern Pine Association rep at the AIA convention was tired of answering questions regarding FSC – their products are not FSC. My friend and fellow Architect/Fraternity Brother from Cal Berkeley was having fun asking to confirm that their forest products were clear-cut. Just kidding, but there is truth in every statement. He does not think his clients will pay extra for green building techniques unless there is a financial benefit for them.

This reminded me of a trip I took to San Diego a couple of years ago to see Cal play in the Holiday Bowl. I was telling a local that I conserve water by using a point of use recirculating pump. He said, “Great! Now I can leave the slip-and-slide on longer!”

While people may not be with the program yet, they will have to get with it soon. Green is here to stay. Many fine professionals, organizations, and manufacturers are embracing green building, especially for new residential construction. With new statewide green building guidelines for new construction of single and multi-family projects, we now have both a blueprint for what we can do to make our buildings and communities greener and the opportunity to gain recognition for doing so through third party consultants.

This Sunday paper’s real estate section features green building on the front page and answers consumer questions about how to distinguish between various shades of green. Educating the public is key to transforming the marketplace from building “as usual” to building green.

Back to the AIA convention I attended a seminar on Feng Shui for residential architecture, where I learned that installing a skylight in an existing roof is not recommended unless you replace the entire roof, mostly due to interrupting energy flow. I have always informed clients that skylights won’t leak (the newer ones anyway) but this seminar made me understand why some may have reservations about skylights. It is definitely better to re-roof, but this creates conflicts between green building and feng shui, natural lighting and ventilation vs. disrupting the energy flow. No worries, these conflicts can be worked out. There are numerous patterns in the Black Sect School of Feng Shui ranging from design common sense to design patterns that you may employ to think differently about a project.

Here in Berkeley I am trying to see if I can get an exception to zoning that limits the number of dwelling units to two. The parcel in question is a larger than normal lot flanked by six-unit buildings. While urban infill development, multifamily projects, and small footprints are all good green building techniques it may not be possible to build three smaller, more affordable units under the current zoning restriction – another conflict! How much time and risk should I take to try to overcome this one? Will there even be neighborhood support? Maybe I should just go with two larger single-family homes.

There are endless design concepts, building methods, and conflicts to be selected/ resolved in every project.   When we add green building and feng shui to our toolkit, we have an even better assortment of options from which we can choose to create the best building for the site. If you can get the zoning ordinance changed to allow for more progressive projects that’s extra points!

Is it Time To Botox Your House?

Just as skin, the largest organ in the human body, protects us, the exterior components of a building play a similar role in protecting what we call home. In human anatomy, the skin not only provides protection but also receives sensory stimuli from the external environment. While exterior materials themselves do not transmit sensory stimuli, they are part of a system that plays a large part in the comfort, energy efficiency, and longevity of a home. For many homeowners the exterior materials define the personality of the home. Beauty, though, is only skin deep.

While siding and roofing comprise the largest amount of area around a home, windows, doors, trim, gutters, flashing, and other related components add up to create the entire system we often refer to as the exterior shell. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “shell” as a.) a hard rigid usually largely calcareous covering or support of an animal or b.) the hard or tough often thin outer covering of an egg (as of a bird or reptile). Once broken, all the protection is gone.

It is easy to think of a wall as a simple solid mass of stone, masonry, or concrete that creates definition between inside and outside while often holding up a roof that helps to protect it. Walls and roofs in today’s homes are actually made up of components with a protected and breathable insulation-filled space between the interior and exterior of the building. If the shell is breached, the entire system is compromised and everything from mold to structural failure is possible.

The science used in designing good wall and roof systems is fairly straightforward. Keep moisture on the outside from getting in and allow moisture from the inside to get out. Keep the home cooler when it is hot outside and keep it warmer when it is cold outside, always using as little energy as possible.

Materials and methods for building better wall and roof assemblies are constantly being developed based on research and the desire to create healthy buildings and to conserve energy and natural resources.

When it comes to choosing materials, select those that will complement the architectural design, relate positively to the built environment, protect the structure, last a long time with a minimum of maintenance, and be reparable and re-usable if possible. Make sure exterior components are installed properly using accepted installation and flashing methods for the entire system. Include design elements such as overhangs to protect your investment, and do not skimp on the cost of materials. I know from experience this is one place where using the low grade of cedar siding with “tight knots” in a paint grade situation is not cost-effective.

While in the future I imagine that we will develop self-healing exterior materials that adjust their composition as the seasons shift, our current homes cannot just add or remove another layer when the weather changes. We must therefore design for a year-round exterior shell that stands up to the elements while still addressing our desire to put our best face forward.

Finished with Finishes

Every time I think I am doing my client and myself a favor by working with an interior decorator to help select interior finishes, it seems to be more of a problem than a solution. It is intriguing to think that having a decorator on board will save me time and transfer responsibility for the clients’ satisfaction with the finished product to someone else.

Okay, I know this is cynical and working with a decorator has sometimes achieved these goals. I am sure that others in the Design/Build business can relate to at least one situation when the selection and procurement of a finish has affected the overall project in a measurable way, whether in terms of detailing, schedule, cost, or personal relationship.

The fact is that selection of finishes is no longer as simple as choosing between a few off-whites to paint the walls and ceilings and whether to go with a brighter or darker white for the trim. Try to lift the six-volume architectural set of Benjamin Moore colors by yourself and you’ll realize this.

While clients are increasingly aware of the number of items in the home that can be “designed”, they now also face a staggering array of choices. Whereas not long ago counter top options were limited to either ceramic tile or “Formica”, there are now marble, granite and other stones; “Corian” with all its solid surface cousins; the quartz family; and “green” materials using mixtures of post-consumer products like crushed glass and paper. Add to this the dazzling number of options (color, texture, sheen, edge details) and the relatively high cost of materials, fabrication, and installation, and there are opportunities for both success and disaster.

Success is when your client gets everything they wanted, you spent a minimum of time in the selection process, and the installation went without a hitch.

On a recently completed project, I reviewed the selection process with my client. At the beginning and the end of the process there seemed to have been just a few finishes to select: cabinets, countertops, flooring, bathroom tile, plumbing fixtures, appliances, and light fixtures.

The middle of the process, however, felt very different. It was filled with a universe of selecting between style, color, thickness, texture, pattern, availability, cost, suppliers, and installers. There was also trying to give the client enough time, communicating with one of two successive designers the client had hired, and keeping everything else on track.

Perhaps moving from one project to another with an optimistic attitude and fresh approach is like a mother forgetting the difficulties associated with childbirth and caring for a newborn and being ready to do it all again. The difficulty of the process adds to satisfaction with the results.

From the clients’ perspective it should feel at completion that the time and effort the clients contributed were worth it, that you as the designer and builder synthesized all the project components (not always without incident), and that your skill was paramount in making the project a success.

The design/build process is a very personal one, unique to every project. Just as materials and styles emerge, change and reemerge, so will you and your practice. Stay familiar with traditional finishes and keep up with new trends to help guide your client through the selection process. While we will never really be finished with finishes, we can do our best to plan for finishes that work.

Invisible Killer

Other than food and liquids, air is the only other substance we take directly into our bodies. While we eat maybe three times a day, we breathe all the time. With food and beverages we choose what, when, where, and how we eat. With air, we breathe whatever is around us everywhere we go. When you visualize air as a life-sustaining substance over which you have little control, you start to understand how important air quality really is.

Somehow when you see something it is more real. While I share air with others all day long, it is only when I see and inhale someone else’s smoke that I become aware of how much air I breathe but cannot see

Although we can make individual efforts to improve outdoor air quality, such as driving less, driving a clean air vehicle, or producing solar electricity at home or work, we have much more control over the quality of air we breathe indoors. Today we spend an estimated 90 percent or more of our time inside.

  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Up to 30 percent of new and renovated buildings contain unhealthy air.
  • According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) indoor air pollution causes about 14 times more deaths than outdoor pollution, or about 2.8 million lives each year.
  • Of the hundreds of chemicals regulated by the EPA, only ozone and sulfur dioxide are more prevalent outdoors than indoors.

As we have become more aware of the benefits of energy conservation our buildings have become tighter, often without consideration for proper ventilation. Many common home pollutants will seep out of a “leaky” home, but tighter buildings can trap more contaminants and cause poorer indoor air quality.

To understand how to improve IAQ you must first understand what the various pollutants are. In his book Green Remodeling, Changing the World One Room at a Time David Johnson divides indoor air pollutants into six categories:

  1. Particulates (lead, asbestos, fiberglass, dust)
  2. Combustion gases (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons)
  3. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs, commonly found in paint and finish materials: formaldehyde, pesticides, vinyl chloride, soil gases)
  4. Radioactive contaminates (radon gas)
  5. Environmental tobacco smoke
  6. Moisture and mold

While determining and measuring the relative safety of indoor air quality (IAQ) is difficult, it is possible to select materials, products and ventilation systems that promote improved IAQ. You can control and limit the pollutants by selecting from a large and growing array of finish and other materials that do not off gas, and are durable and appealing to the eye.

Even after selecting appropriate materials, proper ventilation and filtration are important in improving and maintaining good IAQ. Ventilation and filtration can often be incorporated easily into an existing or newly installed heating system or as a stand-alone system.

Simply exhausting air to the outdoors is not the solution. While energy-efficient exhaust fans are great for drawing moist air from a bathroom, the fan should be on a timer so it operates just long enough to do its job.

Exhaust-only systems pull out air that may have been heated and must be reheated as it is replaced, thereby increasing energy requirements. Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) systems reduce this problem by transferring energy from warm, exhausted air to cooler, fresh, filtered air as it enters the home.

Whole house fans cool and change the air by moving a high volume of air for a short period of time. They help to save energy by reducing or eliminating the need for air conditioning. Just be careful to leave a window open during operation so that you do not draw combustion gases back into the home. Remember to consider operable windows for natural ventilation.

Breathing the invisible is a scary thought. Knowing about the hazards is not enough. Doing something about them as we prepare our clients for a lifetime of living and working in indoor environments is our duty as design/build professionals.

A Good Place To Pitch Your Tent

With the realization that homes and other structures are “planted” on the ground comes a more careful consideration of the relationship between the two. While a plant needs the earth, water, and light to grow, so does the soil depend on the plant to enrich it. These days it seems that only when you pitch a tent with the family do you truly connect with the outdoors like a plant in the ground.

Most often we as architects, builders, and homeowners are presented with a 50’ x 100’ plot of land and strict limits as to where and how much we can build on the site. With larger developments, developers treat the land more like a pie, slicing it into the smallest pieces others will accept.

While increasing housing density in developed urban areas helps to preserve shrinking open space, homeowners in the city and in suburban developments alike are being pushed closer together and on top of each other in many cases. Thinking about ways to keep homes and the living spaces within them connected to the outdoors is increasingly more important and presents challenging design problems.

For a large, detached single-family home on a one- to ten-acre site there is a particular set of siting questions: where do you place the three car garage, guest house and pool, and where will the man-made creek with the Japanese bridge and pond go? Most outdoor “stuff” is probably targeted toward solving the problems of the homeowner with a different reality. To work in a rear yard space of maybe 20’ to 30’ deep, there are top of the line rolling or built-in gas barbeques, hot tubs, small decks, fountains, and possibly “Kitchen gardens”.

So…you have your landscaping, ponds, fountains and pumps, barbeques, decking material and railing systems, large-format pavers, stamped concrete, and low voltage lighting. This does not a connection with the land make.

Meeting minimum requirements for open space in a development is the trademark of a D+ developer. Challenge yourself to create desirable and useful open space or design a well-placed balcony where residents can pull up a couple of chairs and enjoy the sunset together. Think less of placing furniture in a room when creating a back yard space for a single-family home.

I always dreamed of living in an underground building with natural concrete walls and a sod berm with light tubes for a roof. It would open to the south/west with large glass areas protected by deep overhangs and a series of wood trellises covered with deciduous climbing vines. The structure would integrate with the site in a seamless way.

While this is only a dream and there will always be a need for new patio furniture and the latest in barbeques, we must remind ourselves constantly as designers and builders of “lifestyle” and creators of places for living, that there is a deep-rooted connection between structure and the soil that upholds it. We need to push the limits, to rediscover ways of keeping our relationship to the land that supports us as strong as it would be if we were looking for a good place to pitch our tent.

A Recipe For Success

As I am completing a design/build restaurant project for a repeat client I think about how much the design and construction of a project is dependent on the ingredients that make up the whole. Working on multiple projects with the same client is an ideal although uncommon situation. Even if the client is difficult you know what to expect and how to work with him or her in a positive way.

When I speak with contractors regarding their projects, I often hear how difficult it is to work with the client. Most of the time there is very little contact with the client prior to starting the project. Whether the contractor was the low bidder or spent some time negotiating before winning the project, it is likely that little is known about how successful the relationship will be when “the rubber hits the road”. Sometimes even with initial agreement, things can fall apart before the project begins. I’ve heard of lawsuits starting even before the work does.

Sometimes the contractor has invested a lot of time up front during negotiations and then hits a wall when the client’s attorney reviews the agreement and comes back with suggestions. How much time and effort should you spend when this starts to happen? When do you decide just to walk away?

As an Architect/Builder I have the opportunity to get to know my client during the design process, which is priceless. I’m getting paid for my work and if things don’t work out the client gets to keep the work product and use it in any way they like without additional agreements (a release of liability is included in the architecture agreement). As the pace and intensity of the project quicken during construction, sometimes there are surprises as you get to know each other even better. Usually the time invested in building a relationship with the client during the design phase helps to resolve any issues during the construction phase.

Another chance for failure or success is when a client brings in his or her own interior designer during the latter stages of design or construction. While I am always open to this, the added ingredient can make or break the project. Although it is helpful to hand off some of the design responsibilities and “shopping time” to someone else on the client’s dime, this scenario brings with it a certain loss of control and someone else to second-guess you.

Even when everything is going swimmingly and all six courses (projects) are coming out of the oven at the same time, you may simultaneously hear from two different clients that they would like YOU instead of an associate to be there on-site communicating with them.  After all, YOU are the one they hired.

The trick is to be at the site before this happens. It is no excuse to tell them that they hired “the company” to do the work.

Just as an experienced chef knows how to create a great dish with the right combination of ingredients, knowing when to be there and when to send an associate is a matter of previous experience and intuition.

When I am on a project solely as the contractor or the architect, the potential problems with communication and respective roles of all the ingredients become much more evident. Sometimes having more cooks in the kitchen works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, having the opportunity to build relationships earlier rather than later can help to create a superior process and project.

The Split Personality of the Kitchen

When I asked my eleven-year-old daughter what she thought about kitchens she quoted to me, “No matter where I serve my guests it seems they like my kitchen best,” a phrase she had seen on old-fashioned embroidery. When I searched for this phrase on the internet, I found someone who was seeking a black metal napkin holder with this phrase on eBay.

This quaint folk saying may explain why the kitchen has gotten so much attention over the years and shifted from a utilitarian workplace to the heart of the home. With innovations in appliances and finish materials, kitchens have become both showcases and spaces where families interact. It may be the combination kitchen/family room or “great room” that best describes today’s interpretation of the kitchen.

In Medieval times the kitchen contained a large hearth (perhaps this could be Viking’s next appliance breakthrough) and a small table with stools. There were no cupboards; the copper utensils hung on the wall. In addition to being a place to prepare food, the hearth was also, inefficient as it may have been, typically the main heat source for the house.

Witold Rybczynski in his book Home explores the design of Dutch homes through the work of Renaissance painters. He writes, “The feminization of the home in seventeenth century Holland was one of the most important events in the evolution of the domestic interior.” This evolution took place in part due to Dutch law being “explicit on contractual arrangements and on the civil rights of servants”. Regardless of their wealth, married women ate with and shared household chores with their servants. “For the first time, the person who was in intimate contact with housework was also in a position to influence the arrangement and disposition of the house.”

In his “Manual of the Dwelling”, Le Corbusier promoted the impractical idea that when possible the kitchen should be located at the top of the house to isolate cooking odors. Author Joan Kron states in Home-Psych: “The English regard the kitchen as a dirt removal place – they will do laundry there, wash dishes there, even bathe in the kitchen, but they don’t like eating in the kitchen. Australians, on the other hand, see the kitchen as a place having to do with all aspects of food preparation, eating, and clean-up… And while they may iron in the kitchen, they will never wash clothes in the kitchen. That is considered dirty.”

While Americans tend to follow the Australians in our understanding and use of the kitchen, recently the kitchen has become more of a focal point for American home life with gathering areas, desks, computers and televisions to encourage family togetherness.

While many kitchens today, planned for efficiency, concentrate on aesthetics and have the appearance of a sleek, well-organized office, we may have forgotten the true functional requirements of the kitchen and how in most successful cases form follows function. If you look at a professional kitchen (used to prepare food) you will find that it functions like a workshop. Tools are out in the open where they are accessible and near where they are needed, not hidden away in cupboards.

While social attitudes have emphasized returning the family to the kitchen, ironically we now have less time in our day to use it for preparing food. With two-income families now the norm, quickly made foods, TV dinners, take-out, and the microwave have almost rendered the kitchen unnecessary for its most basic task.

With its basic functions still tied to eating and gathering, there is no doubt that the kitchen has and will continue to be the place “to be” regardless of what happens there. As a room it has the most potential and flexibility to be something for everyone and every lifestyle. From the extreme and not uncommon case of creating a $200,000 kitchen for a family that doesn’t cook, to the workshop-style open kitchen that appears messy but is very comfortable to be in, kitchens will continue to evolve with our culture. When I asked my seven-year-old son the same question about what kitchens mean to him, his reply was “food” – reminding me of what the essence of this room really should be.

A Generation of Change

The building industry is a great market for new products. With new technology, more and more innovations become part of the home. While many changes in home construction are driven by the desire for better living, many others may come from someone else’s need to “sell” a product. Many are a result of looking for ways do things faster and for less money. Compared to computer and other technology-driven industries, however, building changes come relatively slowly.

It doesn’t seem so long ago, though, that my grandfathers’ generation turned up the gas light in the evening and sat around the coal burning fireplace to take away the chill that came through the uninsulated walls and single glazed windows. To their parents’ generation that would have been a life of luxury. That was just fine for them, but could we live like that today?

In my short building career of 30 years, I look back with interest and admiration for the craftsmen who came before me. I still see many outdated or obsolete products and systems of earlier generations as I remodel old buildings: abandoned gas lights, knob and tube wiring, screw-in fuses, galvanized and lead plumbing pipe, oakum and lead sealed joints in cast iron pipe, coal fireplaces, gravity furnaces, metal tube intercom systems, antique tankless water heaters, abandoned galvanized storage tanks for water heaters, asbestos in ducting and other materials, single glazed windows, lath and plaster, rough lumber, solid sheathing, skip sheathing, wood shake/shingle roofs under layers of new roofing, slotted screws, square head bolts, and square nails.

Replacements for those products have made building faster, better, safer, and cheaper: manufactured lumber, seismic safety products, plywood (now being replaced with OSB), reinforcing steel, gypsum board, coarse thread screws, seamless aluminum gutters, copper and plastic piping, “Romex” wire, wire nuts, and plastic junction boxes. These products, along with newer tools such as lasers, pneumatic nail guns, battery powered tools, and compound miter saws, have changed the industry.

In last 30 or so years, consumers have seen trends change from the “All Electric Kitchen” to the “Professional Kitchen”, and we have all been introduced to the hand held calculator, microwave oven, cordless telephone, cell phone, personal computer, laptop, PDA, digital camera…

Thanks to this technology we can call ahead from our cell phone to turn on the radiant heat system, have the exterior light on when we arrive, open the garage door with the remote, walk inside and hit the lighting control that turns on all lighting to pre-selected dimming levels, and sit around a high efficiency natural flame look fireplace. The home is “tight”, walls are insulated with icynene expanding foam and the windows are insulated and have a low-e coating.

New and more advanced products do have their problems. This morning as I write this column, we are without heat. The thermostat is set for 68 and is calling for heat and yet it is only 57 in here right now. I am not sure what the problem is but I suspect that it has something to do with the electronic thermostats, zone controls, or the “Vision One” control system on my high efficiency radiant heat system. I am not worried because my heating system is only a year old and it worked fine last season.

Comfort is not the only thing that drives changes in buildings. Safety, security, and convenience are also high on the list. Whereas we may have met these goals not long ago by running one phone line to the Kitchen and one to the Master Bedroom, it is now the norm to wire homes complete with security systems, computer networking, lighting controls, home theater systems, telephone, cable, and satellite TV.

More recently technology and the market have together driven changes that promote healthier homes. From a resurgence in central vacuum systems (which I had once thought of as a gimmick) and other products that respect, filter, and circulate air, to improved manufacturing processes that incorporate recycled materials into many structural components and finishes, we now have better indoor air quality and are conserving natural resources.

Our government has even promoted energy conservation, a boon to the solar industry that has led the way in producing more efficient and less expensive collectors each year, thus making it more feasible to incorporate photovoltaic electric systems in projects.

While many of the latest advances in home building products involve wire and central controls, the few modest improvements that have slowly worked their way into acceptance have more meaningful, lasting effects. While it may take a generation or two to realize it, we actually have it pretty good right now, just the way it is. I believe that my grandparents appreciated the simple things in a home more than we do now. The new year is a good time to reflect not only on our buildings but also on our lives: to see how good things are and what we can improve, not make more complicated, for ourselves and those we meet.

Building Innovations

The ways in which architectural design, materials, building methods and buildings themselves transform over the years is an amazing testament to our times. Construction is a self-perpetuating industry. As actual or perceived needs change, companies manufacture new products to meet those requirements. The emerging products and technology in turn influence the structures as designers incorporate them into buildings.

Any major professional conference today presents an overwhelming array of merchandise, so much so that instead of being inspired you may swear never to venture into an exhibition hall again. On the other hand, if you don’t go you may miss out on that one new product that could solve a problem you didn’t even know you had.

While scanning the single volume of the 1914 Sweet’s Catalogue published by The F.W. Dodge Co. and comparing it to the internet, several thoughts regarding design, building and innovation came to mind. At first I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Here were items perhaps appearing in sales literature for the first time, that I have seen in older buildings on which I have worked. Then there were now-obsolete products containing lead and asbestos, and building types no longer used such as “Factory Chimneys in the Hollow Radial Brick System of Construction” by H.R. Heinicke, Incorporated. I was moved at seeing detailed drawings right out of early editions of Architectural Graphic Standards and images of then-newer buildings incorporating the latest products. This catalogue is a snapshot of architectural history, complete with an archeological view of the parts that comprise the buildings. One thing I don’t miss today is the photographs of manufacturing facilities complete with black smoke billowing from the factory chimneys. While the Sweet’s Catalogue at first seemed short and “sweet”, I imagine that it may have been as intimidating to a design professional then as the array of choices I have now.

In 1914, like many other times I imagine, things were in transition. One company, American Sanitary Works, manufacturers of the “B.O.T” Guaranteed Water Closet Outfits, displays their wood and china water closets. The combination of the older wood tanks and newer vitreous china tanks perhaps made it easier for specifiers to make the transition from older to newer products.

While many innovations in design and building have met resistance or sudden death, others have spawned entire movements. Aside from the specific benefits of some newer commodities, sometimes organized lobbies resist utilizing new products or technologies. Some plumbers’ unions, for example, have fought using ABS plumbing pipe because it take less time and skill to install and thus theoretically reduces the pay and privilege of their members. In my own time, just as gypsum board has replaced plaster and lath, OSB is replacing plywood, which in turn replaced solid sheathing in the 40’s.

The companies that appeared in the 1914 Sweet’s Catalogue and are still around today are those that led, or have at least kept up with, change in the industry and our society. Today with dwindling resources, greater consciousness of protecting our environment, the high cost of energy, and technological advances in materials and manufacturing, the time is ripe for innovation in responsible building. Sustainable building ideas and products are and have been available for some time. Building owners, architects, builders, and developers have accepted and even embraced “building green” for a variety of reasons. Now is the time to incorporate these ideas and products, even if just one at a time, into our projects. If you can successfully mix your own experience with innovation, you just may show up in future internet archives for some archeologist to see what you did right.

The Archeology of Life

From earthen floors compacted by foot to stone floors raised so they could be heated by a fire below, flooring choices have traditionally consisted of using available materials in a functional way. Stone, ceramic tile, and mosaic added the possibility of including a decorative element. While earthen floors are still used in some parts of the world, there is a dizzying array of new and re-discovered materials and a similar spectrum of thought on where and how to use them.

In modern times people have selected flooring by price, ease of installation, durability, comfort, and maintenance concerns. For these reasons and with advances in manufacturing over the years, carpet and sheet vinyl have become the most popular finish flooring materials. Since flooring covers such a large area in the home, is fairly straightforward to change and acts as a backdrop to every other design element in the home, we have seen the popularity of various materials shift as quickly as trends in interior design.

Years ago when looking at open homes for sale even a lay person would try to sneak a peak under the sculpted avocado green carpet that refused to wear out to see if there were hardwood floors below; modern day miners looking for gold. Today, I can’t think of any home seller who would leave carpet in place for the open home if there were a wood floor beneath.

Hardwood floors not only add monetary value to the home but also help to document trends in flooring material, often visible through layers in a single room. In remodeling we often find ourselves acting as modern day archeologists, hoping mostly that we don’t reveal a layer of flooring containing asbestos.

While remodeling my mom’s house recently, the home in which I grew up, I re-discovered linoleum in the Kitchen. Covered by a layer of plywood underlayment and sheet vinyl in the late 60’s, my younger brother had removed most of the linoleum a year or two ago and finished the original Douglas Fir sub-floor below.

I found a piece of linoleum under a cabinet and saved it. Maybe I’ll frame this artifact since there is a great photo of one of my older brothers hugging me on it while we were kids. I considered several flooring options for the remodel including keeping the existing softwood flooring and adding more to match, but ended up using natural linoleum again in the Kitchen and reclaimed antique heart pine in the adjacent Dining Area.

In addition to the typical flooring considerations, today we also need to contemplate indoor air quality and sustainability. Carpet tends to attract and hold dust, dirt, and other undesirable things. If you have ever removed an old carpet you may have noticed how much heavier it is than when it was new. Bamboo, natural linoleum, and cork are good choices to meet these additional criteria.

Energy efficient radiant heat systems also demand careful selection of finish materials. If possible, keep the concrete uncovered or select a material such as tile with good heat transfer properties. It is also possible to use other materials, such as wood or some carpet types, over radiant heat.

From simple, readily available materials we have progressed to a wide variety of natural and man-made flooring options. However you balance practical and aesthetic considerations to select flooring for your next project, know that you will be adding a layer to the archeology of life.

Keeping Perspective: It’s a People Business – Pass It On

As much as we all plan to get the job done right, on time, and on budget, something else comes up that challenges us. On a project as in life, nothing always goes just the way you want it to, which may be why so many of us have a love/hate relationship with this profession. My mom always accused my dad of making friends with his clients: “Business is business,” she would say. What I have found is that “business” is about relationships.

Sunday night at 9:30 an employee stopped by my home unannounced to talk to me about a personal problem that seemed insurmountable to him. I stopped what I was doing and spent over an hour with him, not even thinking about the estimates and designs on the table, the fact that my wife and kids are heading out early in the morning to visit with family on the East Coast, or that my daughter still needed me to download a couple more albums onto her new iPod. His appreciation for my being there for him and the opportunity to help is what inspired me to write this column. In fact I was about to go to bed after our talk when I realized that I was up against my deadline.

The human side of our work, aside from performing tasks and developing designs, is perhaps the most important part of our business. Having a crew whom we can rely on and who can rely on us is of key importance. Having clients realize this and appreciate it is a great feeling. Mentioning to one client that we would not be there first thing Monday morning because of our safety meeting turned into a discussion about how much we care for our employees and the fact that the employees had confirmed this to her independently.

Having this kind of exchange with a client breaks down doors of mistrust and brings them into the family. Having the client wanting you to do well for them – as opposed to being out to get you before you get them – makes an enormous difference in being able to deliver a successful project. It doesn’t always happen and it may never happen without a bit of subtle education from us. There are a lot of horror stories out there, but it is up to the true professionals to dispel them.

A recent experience on a kitchen cabinet order with a big box home retailer whom my client brought on board confirmed for me once again the importance of relationships. I promised my client to be open to this experience. I really tried. The “designer” had to read to me more than once “corporate policy” about not releasing drawings prior to purchase and why they would not be performing a site visit to measure since it was a “product only sale”. In the same breath she referred to “the technician” working on the drawings. How impersonal can you get, and who would think they would not take responsibility for field measurements on a $35,000 cabinet order that began as a $25,000 estimate at their own showroom?

Not surprisingly, the client ended up selecting one of our usual cabinet suppliers who provides excellent service. Having good relationships with sub-contractors and suppliers is critical because when things do not go as planned, these trusted associates are there to help make you look good.

Keeping an open mind and having a warm heart may not seem like the way to pay the bills, but if you believe in “pass-it-on” it’s a great way to make a difference. It will come back to you in ways you never thought possible.

How Much Time Do You Spend on the Bathroom? A Timeline

Bathrooms are places of privacy and wonder, places that have forever expressed our taste in materials, design and technology and established our place in society. Labeling the toilet as a “throne” takes me to a place where kings built palaces in early Greek and Roman periods.

A bathroom from a royal citadel at Tiryns, Greece, a place already flourishing during the Late Helladic Age around 1600 B.C., is described as having a floor consisting of one twenty-ton block of limestone with a raised edge and a gentle tilt to a drain at one corner. The room was paneled and the bathers used terra cotta baths.

In the April 1929 copy of “Building Age”, a trade publication, I found several advertisements for the availability of new bathroom fixture colors. Crane, Kohler and Standard Fixtures tout new colors including Standard’s Ming Green, St. Porchaire Brown, Royal Copenhagen Blue, Rose du Barry, Ivoire de Medici, and Orchid of Vincennes. These are the same fixtures now sitting in the salvage yard as someone else’s future treasure. Then, these fixtures were sold as just what may close the sale on an $8,500 or an $85,000 spec. home. Today, you can’t even buy the plumbing fixtures for $8,500!

Traveling in Turkey on our honeymoon in 1993, near modern day Izmir, I tested the well-preserved public toilets at Ephesus, which consist of a long stone bench with maybe 50 holes carved out of it.

Last weekend I helped my old Boy Scout troop set up summer camp near BearValley in the Sierra. One of the most worshiped elements at camp, “Baby Lou”, consists of two modern toilet seats (one blue and one white) attached to a plywood top that sits on a foldable wood box (for easy transport) that when fully expanded covers a hole dug in the ground. This will serve a troop of about 30 scouts for 3 weeks.

While some thought Baby Lou should be placed facing toward a nearby mosquito pond and away from those arriving after their long walk so that users would benefit from some privacy, I preferred the idea of facing forward, being able to see those approaching and a larger view of trees, granite slabs and the sky beyond.

In the last few months I have had discussions with Architects and Owners about which is the “best toilet”. Report after report in publications such as Consumer Reports and Home Energy Magazine lists the technological advancements and performance ratings on this fixture which used to be literally (and still is in many parts) a hole in the ground. The one time we had the specified toilet on site in time for installation, a new report came out and we returned the toilet to get a “better” one.

Last week I found that a flash water heater manufacturer recommended using a pressure balance shower valve with his water heater, while the shower valve manufacturer recommended his thermostatic shower valve for use with a flash water heater. Neither technical representative would call the other as I had requested, so I finally set up a conference call. The valve was already in the wall and the water heater was online. It finally turned out that the pressure balance valve would work with some maintenance and setting adjustments to the water heater.

Today, there are hundreds of decisions to make in each bathroom project. I count thirteen different considerations in selecting a toilet alone, including shape, color, number of gallons per flush, flushing system, tank type, mounting options, etc. From floor and wall finishes to types of lavatories, tubs and faucets there are endless options and considerations. Don’t worry though: what it all boils down to is providing a pleasant, comfortable place for you to read this article.

What Happens in Las Vegas Leaves Las Vegas… When It’s OK

Last week I had the opportunity to be among over 24,000 registrants at the annual AIA convention. This year’s theme is “The Power of Architecture – Imagine, Create, Transform”.

My first visit to Las Vegas over 20 years ago was by train and bike after a ride through Death Valley. After being on the road for five days in the desert, I still remember how riding onto “The Strip” felt like landing on another planet. Anyone arriving at the airport for the first time without a window seat may not know that this city is an anomaly, an oasis of growth rising out of the desert landscape.

With only one other brief stay since my initial visit to Las Vegas, I have come to think of the Las Vegas experience as being the ball inside a pinball machine. The “pinball wizard” would be the planners responsible for creating this place.

Not being a jet-setter, gambler, or frequent bachelor party attendee, I am not sure what Las Vegas has to offer me but a glimpse into what I fear has become the new American Dream: clone monuments, artificial environments, and buildings on steroids. You are in danger if you can’t stand back, look around, and see that it is all an elaborate show.

When considering using our precious natural resources to create and sustain this activity, the threat of this kind of development and all that is required to support it is a serious concern. According to my cab driver, road construction cannot keep up with the rapid growth in suburban communities with affordable homes.

At the convention, a NASA space architect and a socially responsible designer explored mutual connections and concerns. The contradiction between the amount of money put into the space program and the unbelievably poor living conditions in many parts of the world was rationalized, for example, by how NASA’s state-of-the-art water purification techniques using plant material in space are applicable here on earth.

One seminar explored successful housing types being developed now and into the 21st century. In low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise building models, density continues to increase in urban areas near transportation. Novel building layouts maximize solar orientation and maintain privacy, while mixed-use projects maintain the community by integrating with the existing fabric of the city and allowing for the opportunity to “live above the store”.

Developers of these building types have made resource conservation and energy efficiency a high priority and successfully implemented designs that meet these requirements.

Architects also had the opportunity to explore the increasingly popular and accepted approach of Design-Build, see acres of new, green and other time tested products, learn to improve communication with each other and our clients, and experience an inspiring presentation by the artist/engineer/architect, Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava takes the art of building literally – straight from the human form.

The one thing I used to love about Las Vegas was being able to drop a coin in a slot machine, pull the handle, and wait for the sound of the coins hitting the tray. Now you must be satisfied with pushing a paper bill into the machine, pushing a button, (handles are still available but rarely used) listening for the electronic sounds of coins, and then the possibility of a printed ticket that you may exchange for cash.

Things have changed and things can change. The Power of Architecture to Imagine, Create, Transform is strong. I, for one, have taken this with me from Las Vegas. The importance of architectural thought not only in the office and on the construction site but also in the political realm is critical. To have the opportunity to be on the forefront of deciding how people live is a gift. The challenge is ours. We must accept and meet that challenge, keeping in mind that our success lies in helping others, our community, and our environment.

HVAC Systems – It Takes Energy To Save Some

Designing and installing HVAC systems in Design/Build projects can be a very simple and satisfying process. Knowing the available system types, the preferences of the Owner, the limitations of the structural and architectural design, and the budget are a good start.

Working with a good subcontractor early in the design process is a must. If working on a commercial or industrial project, it is essential to involve a Mechanical Engineer.

One of the best things you can do when designing the HVAC system is to reduce the load by taking into consideration site orientation, landscaping, insulation, passive solar design, and low E glazing. This will allow the designer to specify a smaller system, which will use less energy.

As a general rule, only energy-efficient systems should be installed. Some Owners, however, may not be as sensitive to this need as they are to their pocket book. If this is the case just explain that with an 80% efficient system 20 cents of each dollar goes out the flue instead of only 8 cents in a 92% efficient system. Over time the greater initial cost of the more efficient unit will pay for itself. There are other good reasons to specify high-efficiency mechanical systems. For example, with forced air units it is possible to use simpler venting and to locate the mechanical system where combustion air is not available.

A radiant hydronic heating system with a high-efficiency boiler has a simpler exhaust flue than a forced air system and does not require distribution ducting, which allows for more freedom in the structural and architectural designs. Other benefits include more comfortable heat, the ability to use the boiler to heat domestic water, and better indoor air quality.

An Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) removes stale air and brings in fresh air to improve indoor air quality. This is one way to address mechanical ventilation (the “V” in HVAC) in today’s tighter buildings. An ERV recovers around 70% of the heat energy of the stale air as it passes the filter core and transfers that heat to the incoming fresh air. ERV units may be installed along with a forced air system or as a stand-alone system with a hydronic heat system.

It is also possible to increase the efficiency of cooling systems. One way to reduce cooling costs is to locate the ducting within conditioned space rather than in the superheated attic space, as has been the norm. This can be accomplished by insulating between the roof rafters rather than at the ceiling joists. Paying attention to duct sealing and not using “duct tape” will help to reduce duct leakage. Using two-stage systems and electronic setback thermostats, and providing a zoned system by using separate systems or controls will also improve energy efficiency.

Keep up with the latest trends in energy-efficient HVAC systems and stick with a team with which you have continued success. Whatever the HVAC system, it is important to perform annual maintenance and to make sure that the Owner is fully trained on its use.

Who Is Minding the Store?

Who is paying attention to running the business while your firm is designing and building projects? Effective business management, which may seem tedious or even unimportant in the moment, can mean the difference between a company that thrives and one that merely survives.

Just as there is a plan for the design and construction of each project, a successful company needs a business plan that helps to define its goals and how to accomplish them. A business strategy can be very simple or more elaborate and should answer questions such as:

·  What services are you in business to provide and how can you best do so?

·  How do you keep the “right” number of projects moving through your firm?

·  Who is responsible for what?

·  How does everyone get the information they need at the right time?

You may also want to consider how you will use new technology or products to help you run and improve your business.

With a strategy in place, you can modify it as priorities or market conditions shift.

Discuss your plan with employees, vendors, subcontractors and anyone else who plays a role in your success, so that together you can achieve your goals.

It is just as important to monitor progress against the business plan as it is to track the progress of a job against the schedule and the budget. One measure of success is how well you are estimating jobs. Like the business plan, the method of reviewing estimating accuracy may be simple or complex. It may not be necessary to spend lots of money on fancy software to do so, but without comparing full job costs to the estimate and contract to see where – or even whether – you’re making money, it will likely cost you lots of money somewhere.

Whether a firm focuses on design, construction or both, there will be an incredible amount of paper and money circulating. Whatever your accounting system, make sure it provides the right information to manage both jobs and the business as a whole, including how you are doing in comparison to estimates. Keep the money flowing into the firm by billing and collecting what you have earned on a timely, regular basis. Likewise, maintain good relationships with employees, subcontractors and vendors by meeting your own obligations on time.

Set your business up for success by building your company as well as you do your projects. Create a plan and monitor your progress, making adjustments as needed. And be sure that someone competent is minding the store.

You Are in the Details

Physicists claim that when the universe was formed, if the proportions of matter and energy to the volume of space had not been ideal at the moment of the “Big Bang”, the universe would have collapsed back on itself. This cosmic coincidence has been interpreted by some as a link to theology and the possibility of intervention by some force other than nature.

Some believe that even if there was fine-tuning in the formation of the universe, perhaps insects, dinosaurs, or rocks were the intended result with human beings only an unimportant by-product.

Very much like the formation of the universe, buildings happen; a successful project having all the right ingredients in the proper quantities. We design and produce what we believe to be the best solution given all the complexities of each project. Things may also turn out differently than we planned, which is not always a bad thing.

Somehow, by the time the project is complete all the details have been worked out. Looking back, you may find that the most successful details are those that were worked out on the site or designed much later in the process. Maybe someone was under pressure to make that long-postponed decision so that construction could continue, and the decision-maker “nailed it”.

Whether you are the architect, builder or both, it is in the team’s best interest to know what details need to be worked out ahead of construction and what details are better left for later. Interior detailing is often dependent on earlier phases of the work but can also evolve with design and/or construction if appropriate.

The width of the door and window casing, for example, has a direct effect on the placement of light switches. Shower valve locations should be coordinated with the tile design, and rooms should be laid out so that the finish flooring module fits. Getting something to work without tearing everything out is another way in which creativity in the details can make an entire project.

Letting a project take its course when possible is a scary but mostly rewarding experience. Allowing the clients to see the space before getting them to commit to the shape of an arch, for example, lets all the players participate and adds to the overall success of the project.

At the end, when you look at and experience the finished project and there is a good reason for all the details, you can feel satisfied at having made our world a bit better, whoever is in the details.

Seeing Through Windows

It is difficult to think of a single building component that has such a tremendous effect on the finished project as the window. With the myriad of choices available today in style, construction, energy efficiency, and cost; it is no wonder this entire publication is dedicated to the subject.

Architecturally, the essence of a building is immediately communicated through its windows, or “fenestration”, for us professionals. It is always fun to use this term and then explain it to our clients. From the perspective of an outside viewer and the end user windows can make or break a project.

Ever since we created walls to shelter us we have looked for ways to eliminate them (or portions of them anyway) to create spaces for living that at the most basic level make us feel good.

Our biological need for oxygen and physiological and emotional needs for light have been translated into the building code as a ratio between square feet of a space and the minimum square feet of natural light and ventilation required in a space. While this regulation may keep an anti-social recluse satisfied in his miserable hovel it is no way to design a building.

A quick study of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein shows that windows play a leading role in how buildings are designed. In this book “Patterns” are presented as answers to design problems. The authors believe that “Many of these patterns are archetypal, so deeply rooted in the nature of things that it seems likely they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in five hundred years as they are today”. Patterns presented including “ZEN VIEW”, “LIGHT ON TWO SIDES OF A ROOM”, “STREET WINDOWS”, and “WINDOW PLACE” show the intertwining or knitting of the inside of the building to the outside.

From the builder’s perspective, windows have one of the longest lead times of any product, and that if not installed on time can cause significant construction delays. Long lead times also limit opportunities in design flexibility while under construction. Even when delivered on time some portion of the order is likely to be missing, mis-ordered, or damaged. To add to the potential misery, some of the rough openings are probably incorrect, and by the time the project is completed some glass has either been scratched or broken, and the finish hardware is missing.

We are charged with a great responsibility in designing for windows that enhance the quality of life. Take it seriously and keep up with new and proven window technologies so that you don’t find yourself wanting to jump out of one.

Forward Thinking for Tile and Stone

“When designing a home the first thing you should consider is the available slab size in the desired granite material for the kitchen counter tops.”

This is what my stone designer/fabricator/installer would say given the opportunity.

A kitchen with seamless granite tops not only looks great and functions well but also shows the design/builder’s skill in synthesizing the design and construction of the entire project.

All too often, finishes as important as the kitchen countertop material are left until late in the design process. While countertops may be the furthest thing from the client’s mind at the start of design, it is up to the architect to discuss this and other critical design issues with the client early on.

When the desired granite, for example, is not available in a large enough slab size for a seamless installation within the current kitchen design, there are still some options if you learn this early enough:

  1. Re-design the kitchen to fit the preferred material;
  2. Change to a different material available in larger slabs;
  3. Introduce a level change in the counter to allow for a natural break in the material.

While the choice of countertop material is a real and important early design decision, I use this as an example for every decision to be made on every project small and large.

This forward thinking will not only help shape the design but will also result in a functional and aesthetic creation down to the last detail. While this is a difficult task for one design professional, especially one who is also responsible for several other projects in design and construction phases, it is important to find a way to do this work. Here are three ways to do so:

  1. Identify decisions critical to the design and make them early. Look back at past projects and recall where you could have done better to help identify less obvious decisions.
  2. Get your clients involved with the details early enough to keep their interest but not so much that they get frustrated or feel pressured to make choices before they are ready. Keep in mind that many times, late decisions made in the field are very successful.
  3. Build on the synergy you have with suppliers and sub-contractors during the design process rather than bringing them in much later.

After approving the tile layout on the job site, I used to joke with Oded, my tile and stone contractor, that next time we will install the tile first and then build the room. I don’t think this is so funny anymore. There is always a way to make it work but wanting to do better on my next design project, my first call will be to Oded.

Master Builder Craftsmanship for More Than 40 Years

The Design/Build Process

As an architect and contractor, Ed Levitch, founder of Levitch Associates, Inc. in Berkeley, California provided combined architectural and construction services decades before “design/build” became a catch phrase. Many, if not most, design/build firms today are contractors who work with a consulting architect. What distinguishes Levitch Associates from other design/build firms, aside from over forty years of experience, is a different strategy. It’s simple: design/build architects work as a single entity.

A successful project begins with good design. Levitch Associates parlays its architectural and contracting licenses into “one-stop” shopping for clients, emphasizing architecture as the project’s foundation by developing timeless, contextual designs that meet the client’s needs and budget. After preliminary design, Levitch prepares construction pricing and negotiates the construction portion of the project resulting in a lump sum price for the work. Levitch then produces construction documents, obtains permits, and constructs the project. This approach, while unconventional, combines the best of the traditional roles of architects and contractors. When it comes to quality control, Levitch responds, “Who is best able to control quality in design and construction than the firm whose reputation is on the line as a single entity?” This may be why Levitch wins approximately 75% of its new business through referrals from previous clients, vendors and others.

So radical was the idea of combining architecture and construction services, often seen as being at cross-purposes, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for years declined to accept Ed Levitch as a member because he was also a licensed general contractor! Today, both Ed and Maurice Levitch, Ed’s son, are members of the American Institute of Architects, Western Regional Master Builders Association and Better Business Bureau. Maurice is also a NARI Certified Green Building Professional.

How it all Began…

Edward Levitch began his working life as a builder, having built the family home in Yugoslavia with his father as a teenager. From 1946 to 1953, Ed worked as a journeyman carpenter, project manager, and superintendent in the U.S. and abroad. Through his construction experience he became interested in architecture. Ed completed the architecture program at the University of California at Berkeley and currently holds licenses as both an architect and a general contractor.

Three Generations

Ed’s son Maurice started working with Levitch Associates as a truck driver, laborer and carpenter over summer vacations. He later worked in the design office as a drafter, designer and job captain. Like his father, Maurice is a graduate of the architecture program at U.C. Berkeley, a licensed architect and general contractor. As President of Levitch Associates, Inc., Maurice oversees all aspects of company operations, including marketing, sales, design, construction and office administration. Maurice says, “I love the challenge and excitement of juggling multiple projects and pleasing our clients, which our dedicated and talented team makes possible.”

Ed’s son Jeff is a Project Coordinator. Jeff holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona, Tucson. He utilizes his arts background to help clients select colors and finishes, and also teaches at the U.C. Berkeley Extension.

A grandson, Brian, is an office and field assistant, thereby bringing three generations of Levitches to work under the same roof. Two other sons, Joe and Mike, also work in the construction industry.


Recent Projects

A staff of over thirty design, field, and office personnel helps to design and build an average of more than thirty projects per year. Levitch specializes in high-end residential remodels and additions, as well as some light commercial work in the East Bay. Ed Levitch declares, “We try to solve challenges with teamwork, outstanding service and a focus on quality.”

A Berkeley home addition that Levitch completed recently demonstrates the benefits of an integrated design/build process. The owners of a small home desired an additional bedroom and two separate offices. They wanted to retain as much space as possible on the main floor and preserve recently remodeled rooms while adding a stairway to the new second floor. During construction the Owner requested changes, increasing the size of the master closet and reducing the size of the bedroom, among others. Levitch evaluated and made the changes without delay to the overall project.

In a Berkeley kitchen remodel, Levitch had framed the exterior wall. Maurice Levitch notes, “We realized there was a potential Bay view at one corner of the kitchen, so as the architect we were able to rework the design to add a window at that spot, which added about $100,000 to the value of the home. As a design/build firm we have the flexibility to make those changes quickly.”

In a Piedmont project, Levitch re-configured and remodeled the kitchen, breakfast and family rooms. Bathroom remodeling work included restoring original plumbing fixtures, salvaging and re-using original decorative ceramic tile elements, and adding more functionality with floor plan changes. All of this work was done while respecting the character of the existing home.

The design/build concept that Ed Levitch envisioned forty-five years ago has grown into a business encompassing three generations of Levitches. Levitch Associates enjoys an enviable reputation as a well-established design/build firm providing outstanding service and fine craftsmanship

Managing Client Expectations

Three factors affecting the cost of a project are Quality, Speed and Price, but only two of the positive attributes of these three items can be delivered at once on a project. You can have high quality and get a project done quickly, but the price will be high and so forth.

While clients may expect to get the best of all three, it is our job as design and construction professionals to educate them early on. Many horror stories told by clients can be attributed to their own unrealistic expectations.

It is human nature to love the idea of a low price. After all, who can resist a good deal? Don’t forget, the sweetness of a low price is long forgotten after the bitterness of a poor job.

Many clients start with a low budget and increase it once things get going because it is easier for them to spend money incrementally. This has the disadvantage of slowing the project down, causing frustration to all parties, and ending in a higher final price than if the budget had been larger at the start.

Rather than take a client’s optimistic budget and say, “. . . it may be a little tight,” I believe that we should come right out with a realistic or higher than anticipated cost assessment of the project before even sending out a proposal for professional services. At the risk of scaring off some deal shoppers, you may be left with enough quality-oriented clients to keep you busy and profitable.

When an architect leads a design/build project, it allows for a first phase in which existing conditions can be assessed accurately and preliminary designs created for a set fee. With Preliminary Design Documents you can now quantify the project and develop a reasonably accurate Opinion of Construction Cost. At this point there is a real design and a real opportunity to assess the price for the work before the tedious task of preparing Construction Documents for a project that my need to be redesigned.

With the design and cost known, the client now has the opportunity to move forward with the construction documents and construction, to make changes and re-evaluate the project, to abandon the project, or in the right contractual situation to get an opinion of cost from another contractor, leaving the design/build firm functioning as the architect only.

Regardless of the project delivery method, a realistic cost assessment must be provided in order to ensure the successful completion of a project. Getting a client “hooked” on an unrealistic cost assessment hurts everyone down the road, even if you think the client is the type to increase the budget after starting the project.