On Quality

I did a lot of driving over the holidays and as I was driving I noticed a lot of buildings, new, and old. Here’s what struck me- Most commercial buildings are cheaply constructed. This cheapness manifests itself in (primarily) these ways: metal stud construction, aluminum flashing, synthetic exterior cladding, cheap roofing.

Old buildings built with masonry construction, brick cladding with stone or concrete parapets and window sills, copper or lead flashing and roofs of (real) hand seamed tin, clay or concrete tile or (probably) low slope tar and gravel roofs looked solid even if the businesses occupying them were marginal.

It may be that the “old” business model- the building is a long term investment that has value after the initial tenant is gone has changed and now the “new” business model is that the building is seen as a depreciating asset that reaches “zero” at some point in the business cycle. Whatever the reason, what we’re left with is rapidly deteriorating buildings that weather poorly and look “cheap”, because of their wavy walls and fading/peeling paint on their pre-finished parts.

When we built our office, we decided to use materials that would last- brick veneer and a hand seamed copper roof. The doors and windows are wood and must be maintained but none of these materials will ever look “cheap”. We try to design houses the same way.

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Our office on a rainy day. The copper roof, brick veneer are materials that look better as they age.

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We built this almost 20 years ago, we only need to paint the doors and change out the awnings every 7-ish years.

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We designed this house with a clay tile roof, masonry walls and cast stone trim. 15 years later, it only looks better.

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Random Thoughts From An Architect

Frequently, remodeling is thought of as a quick and cost effective way to update a house prior to selling it. The realities of the market indicate that selling a home in today’s market might prove to be a bit difficult. (Did I put that sensitively enough?)

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This was a home built in 1968 and, except for enclosing the porch a few years later, untouched.

The results often are houses with new kitchens and master baths (good) that seem out of sorts with an older home (not so good).

Ideally, a renovation/remodel should enhance and improve the entire house. Leave money in your budget to (at least) minimally update the rest of the house. Things like new faucets in the guest baths, new paint and carpet everywhere and repairing everything that needs it are givens, but don’t forget to look at light fixtures, door hardware and the (often overlooked) landscaping.

Your goal should be, as much as possible, to have your home look “new”, and not just “new” as in “just completed”, but “new” as in “finished and coordinated as well as if you started from scratch”.

In our practice, we have found that looking carefully at current local trends AND AVOIDING THEM AT ALL COSTS will keep your home from being quickly dated and make it stand out in the crowd of other homes on the market. Disclaimer: this only works if your selections are wonderful which you can only do if your taste is as good or better than Martha Stewart’s or you’re getting the very best professional advice.

I suppose I should mention here that this is not about money. It’s about careful choices and oh-so careful coordination so that the parts and pieces of the home flow seamlessly together. Again, this is hard and it’s hard even for experienced professionals. Add in a tight budget (and if you don’t think that the budget will be the primary controlling aspect of your project, think again!) and you can understand why close cooperation between you and your team members (architect, interior designer and builder) with each understanding their role in the process is so important. Everyone’s proper roles and how to manage them is worth an entire article in itself, so for right now, just trust me on the condensed version: since you’ve selected the “perfect” team, work closely with the architect and interior designer, simultaneously, to translate your goals into a design while getting frequent price updates from your builder. Simple, eh?
As I’m writing this, the Oscars have just concluded, followed by the yearly critiques of the stars red-carpet wardrobe choices. A poor choice isn’t a career killer and can be overcome by better choices at the next event, but too avoid embarrassment they ALWAYS choose a proven professional to design their outfits. With your home on the market, a bad choice means a lost opportunity. Please, please, please (imagine me on my knees, singing like James Brown here) don’t try this alone! Don’t take a greater “fashion” risk with the design of your home than you would for your choice of clothing for a formal social event.

Just like with formal attire there are guidelines for architectural design that should be broken only by someone who knows the guidelines inside-out and knows when it’s appropriate to bend them and when it is not. So, do your research, choose team members you trust and respect and get that old house in shape. But be prepared to love it so much that you’ll be sorry to give it up.

 

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Existing Sun Room updated… just a bit.

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Why You Probably Won’t Get The House You Think You’re Getting

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve blogged… lots of reasons, not the least being my tendency to rant… so, for good or for ill, here’s a new rant to share.

We have worked very hard to develop a team of 4 or 5 builders who we have confidence will take the time to understand what we’ve drawn. It has really been an arduous task for each new builder. We start them on small remodeling projects so that we can judge not only their ability to build but their ability to see what’s actually in the plans and specifications.

You might think that what’s in the plans and specifications should be blindingly clear and it really is unless you don’t look closely. Why, if you’re a builder wouldn’t you look closely? (I’m speculating here.) Because you think that you already know what’s there. You think you know what’s there because you’ve built a lot of houses and lots of people have told you what a wonderful job you’ve done. Armed with immeasurable self-confidence, you know what’s required at a glance so careful review isn’t really necessary. This same “knowledge” and “confidence” (in your sub-contractors) means that you trust your sub-contractors to understand the plans and specifications as well as you do and unfortunately, they do.

I’ve just gotten off the phone with a contractor building a home from our (very detailed) plans. He’s been working on the project for months and with every question that he asks, it is more and more apparent that he doesn’t have more than a passing familiarity with my design. We’re not providing what the AIA contract describes as “administration of the construction contract and construction observation” (don’t even think of calling it “supervision”) so we only field questions. That doesn’t give us enough input to keep the project on path, but the sad truth is, with a builder like this, if we were there once a week, it would still be almost impossible for the owner to get the home depicted in my drawings. Your initial response might be to sue the builder and stop the project. I’ve never found that to be a viable option. The owner loses valuable time and must submit to an open-ended battle without any guarantee of anything except ever mounting legal fees. Your best, maybe your only, hope is to hire the right builder before you start and, if you don’t intend to use your architect during construction, a frank analysis of the builder’s capabilities from your architect would be money well spent, although, sadly, that probably won’t help too much.

I know this sounds self-serving but my experience has taught me that unless you have an architect working very hard to design a house that truly represents what you’ve described AND that architect is skilled in getting those designs built AND you find a builder that understands the architect’s role AND you have a proper team assembled (don’t forget an interior designer selected early in the design process), you are probably either going to be very happy because you never really knew what the house was supposed to be anyway or very unhappy because you’ll be frustrated by your builder at every turn. Be careful out there.

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Ouch! Hurricane Matthew Whacks Hilton Head Island

I’ve lived on Hilton Head for 38 years. For a while we evacuated once or twice a hurricane “season”; Lynn and I got used to closing the door and saying “goodbye” to our house and our “stuff”. It’s been (I think) 17 years since our last evacuation and I was out of practice, it didn’t seem as easy saying goodbye this time as it was then. The reports we got back post hurricane didn’t look good and pictures of our neighbor’s house covered in fallen trees left us pretty sure that we wouldn’t have much in the way of “stuff” to come back to.

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I made the sign and offered to split the profits with my neighbors after the cost of repairs… who knew rubberneckers would be so tight with their money? Believe it or not, even this house is habitable; no structural damage and only a few relatively minor leaks… they even have cable service!

One of the things we learned from Hurricane Hugo hitting Charleston is that, post-hurricane, storm-chasers arrive even before a lot of residents return. They are looking for work and there’s plenty of work to be found. The problem is, especially when it comes to skilled labor such as carpentry, roofing, electrical, plumbing… the kind of things you really want to be done right the first time, these storm-chasers and your money are gone (along with any hope you might have to recover it) by the time you realize you have a problem. The seemingly obvious solution- hire established local contractors, can also be problematic as they quickly become overwhelmed and start sub-contracting labour to these same storm-chasers. When the inevitable lawsuits start, their insurance limits are quickly exceeded, they go under and you’re still left with a construction mess. My advice is to wait… leave that blue tarp on your roof until you find a local contractor that can fix your damage with his REGULAR crew. This will take patience and steely willpower, but hold on! Things will get better and if you follow my advice, you will thank me after you hear the stories your neighbors will tell.

The projects we have been working on have understandably been but on hold until damage assessments are complete and our clients have recovered from their PHTSD (post hurricane traumatic stress disorder), a term I just made-up to cover a real issue. In the mean time, we’re trying to keep our business solvent while we take care of repairs to our own homes. We are offering to work at half our standard hourly rates until our business recovers. Call us if we can help!

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How To Get A Great House

One of our “typical” client concerns (we don’t really have typical clients, they’re all better than that, but work with me here) is what they need to do to get a great house. “Great” in their minds is a completely undefined “something” floating around in the ether… they can’t even begin to describe it but they know they want it. They come to us because they’ve seen some of the wonderful houses we’ve done for others and they know we have a reputation for giving our clients what they want, not just another version of one of “our” designs.

And we do design wonderful, exceptional, breathtaking houses. We know what we’re doing, we’re passionate about doing it, we’ve done it enough that we’re pretty much the most expert experts you’ll find. But… sadly, not all of our houses are wonderful/exceptional and there’s a reason, one reason and always the same reason. The client. Great clients get great houses.

When I was younger, I thought I could make anyone’s house a perfect expression of my client’s desire, by the force of my unbreakable will and my rugged good looks if by no other means. I’d work endless hours, burn through multiple design options and show them how their house didn’t have to be just like everyone else’s. Sometimes I’d be successful and sometimes I just couldn’t get them where they needed to be and inevitably their house would be just… OK, better than if we hadn’t touched it but not close to what other houses we’ve designed have been. We still do the endless hours and the multiple design options (that’s part of the life of a residential architect) but at least now I know that it is not within my power to make it what it could have been. Great clients get great houses. Poor clients get exactly what they ask for.

Great clients get great houses, poor clients get exactly what they ask for. I like the truth of that so much, that I think I’ll say it again- great clients get great houses, poor clients get exactly what they ask for. Great clients and not so great clients share many characteristics. Sometimes they know exactly what they want, sometimes they only have a vague idea. Sometimes they have large budgets, sometimes they have very small ones. The real difference, the only difference, between a great client (the one that gets the great house, remember?) and the poor client is that a great client lets us be the designer and they resist the temptation to pick at a concept until the design clarity is gone. I’ve had great clients that would send me sketches almost daily, but they didn’t expect me to do just what they sketched, they where communicating graphically and they expected to get a sketch back from me proposing what I thought might be a better alternative. When a poor client sends me a sketch, they don’t understand why they’d get a sketch in return.

A great client, when working with multiple designers, say an architect, landscape architect and interior designer, will make clear to all parties where they stand and in what areas (if any) their (the designer’s) opinion will be considered as primary AND will let a strong design concept override minor considerations. Poor clients let the interior designer force (totally different than “suggest”) changes to the architecture or they let the architect overrule the landscape designer on plant selection or they’ll crush a strong design concept because they “can’t see themselves being satisfied with a dishwasher on the left side of the sink” (as an example of a minor consideration). The great client knows why they chose the members of their team, knows that it’s their job to make sure that the team members are playing nicely together, knows who’s opinion is important where AND lets the designers work through design issues. They know when to leave a design alone.

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Building A Compact Home Or Directions To Develop A Diminutive Dwelling

“Our last house was too large.” “I really want to build a house that’s just what I need and nothing more.” “I’m tired of cleaning all of these rooms that I never need, I want a cozy little cottage.” If I had a dollar for all the times I’ve heard that in the last five years I’d have a dollar. I keep waiting for the light to come on in the market. I’ve been hearing rumblings from prognosticators for years about the coming trend in downsizing, but frankly, it hasn’t happened. There are so many reasons to build smaller; lower overall cost, potential lower maintenance cost, ability to afford higher quality, lower operating costs and, if you decide to build a new house, nothing reduces your carbon footprint like a smaller physical footprint. Always the optimist, I’ll assume that the reason you haven’t been insisting on a smaller house is that you don’t know how to build a smaller house. Here are my concise considerations for “Building a Compact Home” or “Directions to Develop a Diminutive Dwelling”.

First and most importantly, compile a detailed list of what you want to build. Don’t focus on the size but what rooms you’ll need and how you’ll use them. Think in terms of whom (and how many of said whoms) will use the room and the furniture you envision in the room, such as, “a den, with bookcases for 1,000 books, seating for three around a fireplace with a sofa and a comfortable chair. A 5 ft. desk and chair will allow us to also use this room as an office.” Don’t worry if you don’t know how many books to plan for, but if you don’t give your architect at least a general idea, how will you know if you the bookcases in the plans are adequate or way over what you need? Be firm with your program requirements. To say, “maybe I want a separate office,” means that you’ll get a separate office. “A dining room to seat 6 to 8” literally means you’ll get a dining room that seats 8. A plan that includes a furniture layout is a good way for you to see if the space is being used efficiently and you should expect your architect to provide this in their earliest sketches. Eliminate all of the things you think you should add because “every house has them” but you’ll never use. Formal living rooms, dining rooms and large bathtubs frequently fall into this category. Large “glamour” baths photograph well but don’t make it any easier to get ready in the morning; a smaller bath can be very luxurious and still cost less than larger but less detailed ones. “Lots of closet space” is on everyone’s list, but how much of what you put in those closets do you ever use? (Almost) like in the movie “Field Of Dreams”, if you build it, stuff will come to fill it up.

Hallways can eat up space but they are not “wasted space”. Halls are useful in providing separation between rooms and allowing rooms to occupy areas on the property where multiple rooms can take advantage of views. However, if you want to be on the extreme end of efficiency, there is nothing inherently wrong with walking from your family room directly into the master bedroom. But, please, make up the bed before letting guests in! Look for rooms that can serve dual uses. If you only use your dining room for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners maybe that space could be an office for the other 363 days of the year and the dining table, sans extra leaves, could be the desk. Or, maybe you need to have room for your breakfast table to expand. You could use that extra space for a sitting area with 2 wingback chairs that will be used at the ends of the expanded table. Don’t build for furniture that you have but never use. Your grandmother’s dining table maybe nice, but is it nice enough to build a room, say 12 ft. by 16 ft (192 square feet) at $200 per sq. ft. for a cost of $38,000? Is having a place to display this piece of your family history worth that to you? Also, consider what’s going to happen to it when it becomes part of your estate. Will your children really keep it? Maybe, you should give it to them now. Although, chances are that it doesn’t fit their lifestyle and they can’t really use it. Maybe it’s time to talk to an antiques dealer or a consignment shop.

And finally, we all have dreams of our children and grandchildren at home with us over the holidays. We all do the mental calculation of our children and their spouses or future spouses and grandchildren, real and imagined when planning our dream homes. At $200 per sq. ft., allowing for a closet, bathroom and hall, you’ll spend $60,000 per guest bedroom! You might consider renting a house for the holidays. A Hilton Head Island ocean front house with 4 bedrooms can be rented for $3,250 over Thanksgiving week. Consider starting a new family tradition and save money!

Although it may sound like it, I’m not telling you to sell your dining room table if your greatest joy is cooking on Saturday night for your friends and I’m certainly not suggesting that a long soak in a hot bath isn’t one of life’s great pleasures of a cold winter night. My point is that in order to build a smaller home that meets your needs, you have to leave some things out and that those things should be the ones that you won’t really miss.

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Design Can Change Lives!

What a concept! Not a replacement for a wheelchair, but it supplements it. Think how you interaction with someone changes when they’re standing instead of sitting. Think how the much difference it would make in the life of someone who’s movement is currently restricted by a wheelchair!

It does have implications regarding accessible design, of course, but this is more about lifestyle.

See more.

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