What’s Wrong With Kids Today?

Well, based on Celina Dill Pickle’s blog, absolutely nothing! 16 years old, great student, teaches dance part time, interning for a great architect, Ross Chapin and building her own tiny house in her spare time.

Read more about her on the Tiny House blog.

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What Color Did You Use On…

Long ago, a friend of mine told me about an exchange she had with an architect. She was so mad that she could hardly speak to ME in a calm voice. (Guilt by association?) She had seen a house in a magazine, liked the color of something (I don’t remember what), tracked down the architect and called his office to get the paint color.

She went right out and bought enough paint to paint the what-ever-it-was and, low and behold (do people still say that? Besides me?) anyway, low and behold, it was the wrong color. She was convinced that the architect had either been too lazy to look up the color and just told her something to make her go away or had deliberately mislead her because he was protecting his “look” or something like that.

Well, that really was a long time ago and I didn’t have any hands-on experience, having never had a house published, being tracked down and asked for details. There’s nothing like hands on experience and in this case it has taught me to say (as nicely as possible, of course) something like this:

“I’m sorry, but the color that you think we used has been photographed, digitized, adjusted, transmitted to the magazine’s art director who has further adjusted it. When I look at it, I see the color that it really is, so if I give you the spec, I’d do it honestly believing that the information is correct. I’ll be wrong and you’ll be disappointed.”

So, the point I’d like to make is that the well meaning architect or interior designer on the phone may not know what I know. Save everybody a little time and effort. Don’t even bother to call. Take the magazine to the paint store and match it to the photograph.

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Who Should Interpret The Architect’s Drawings, The Builder Or The Owner?

For those of you who’ve ever assembled a grill, a bicycle or similar item from the instructions, you know that there is nothing like clear drawings that show each step in order. For me, anything less is generally cause for words not used in polite company and, occasionally, a tool or “extra” part may be propelled at maximum velocity against a conveniently positioned vertical surface. I am amazed that so many “some assembly required” products have such poorly written instructions, and by amazed, I mean the kind of amazed that causes the veins in my forehead to protrude and my wife to send the neighborhood kids inside. With these items, there is no interpretation of the drawings and specifications, it’s either there, on the picture AND on the parts list, or there’s trouble ahead.

Architect’s drawings are not intended to be that way. They are merely a rough schematic, an outline, of the intended building. Even the most detailed sets of plans and specifications, aka “working drawings”, require experience, knowledge and the ability to interpret those documents to achieve a completed building. So this really is a trick question. The owner, in all but the rarest cases, isn’t capable of properly interpreting the intent of the drawings and the builder is too concerned with timeframe and profitability and generally does not have the training to make the esthetic judgements necessary to do so. The standard AIA contract places the architect as the sole judge of the intent of the documents, the theory being that we (the architect) are trained to be fair and impartial in this regard, even if we must find that the drawings support a solution that isn’t what we (the architect again) might wish it to be.

One example is plumbing drain pipes. If there are specifications, they may make reference to all work being in compliance with the latest version of the applicable building code. That will generally be the only place that will lead to the requirement that these drain pipes even exist. You take it for granted that these pipes will be there and be sloped so that they drain properly, but to find out exactly how much, you’ll need to go to the building code to get the proper reference for the plumbing code that will refer to American Society of Plumbing Engineers documents. However, an experienced plumber will know that 1/4″ per foot is the recognized standard and also know when that standard is not adequate. Because these drain pipes aren’t shown on the drawings and because drain pipes and heating/air conditioning ducts may sometimes need to occupy the same spot, the builder is responsible to work out the conflict. If the builder is unable to resolve the conflict without dropping the ceiling, an interpretation of the drawings is called for.

(Don’t lose interest, there’s an important point coming up soon.)

If the builder is the experienced type that plans ahead and is always trying to anticipate conflicts before they happen, he will have seen this and informed the architect of the conflict before either the plumber or the HVAC subcontractor have fabricated or installed their work and they will work out a solution. If the builder is not a forward thinker, he’ll let the plumber install his drain pipe in a place that the HVAC duct needed to go and his only “interpretation”  will be that the architect didn’t know what he was doing and the only solution will be to drop the ceiling. Maybe he’ll bring the architect in but he will have already boxed the architect into to the only solution that doesn’t require the plumber to rework his pipe. NOTE: this is NOT how it’s supposed to work. Given some time, the architect and builder, working together, can usually find a solution that is invisible (as plumbing pipes and duct work generally should be).

As irritating as the example above is to my architect sensibilities and as esthetically poor the solution might be, there are worse examples of “interpretation”. As architect, we are not always involved with the owner and builder during construction. In these cases, we see the completed house and it bears only a passing resemblance to the house we designed. What happened? Well, the builder will tell the owner that (for instance) the 14 inch diameter columns the architect specified are special order and he can save the owner $x by substituting 12 inch columns and, by the way, “no one” can tell the difference anyway. The framing subcontractor picks up 10 inch columns (“no one” will notice and the 12 inch columns will take a week to get) but no one changes the width of the beam above or modifies the architrave (details of the beam) so the end result is a jumbled mess. Repeat this scenario 20 times and the house is not the house that the owner paid the architect to design but has been “interpreted” in a way that looks remarkably like every other house the builder has built.

What the architect designed and the owner contracted with the builder for.

What the owner got.

If you prefer your builder’s sense of beauty and proportion more than your architect’s, then you’ve got it! If you really wanted your architect’s version of your vision, you’re out of luck. A good working relationship between the owner, their (skilled and experienced) architect and (also, skilled and experienced) builder where all parties are actively working towards the same goal is the most reliable way for the owner to get the final product that he thought he was getting when he started construction.

Posted in design, home design, what not to build, what to build | 2 Comments

Old Age And Remodeling Are Not For Sissies

from david__jones' photostream

A fixer-upper, what could go wrong?













It may appear that I’m going to try to talk you out of that remodel you’re thinking of, I’m not. I’m just trying to help you enter the process mentally prepared. Even simple remodels can surprise you and the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.

Before the first worker steps foot in the building, a series of small events, assumptions actually, have all worked to make you think that you’ve prepared for the worst when you’ve really been willingly ignoring potential warning signs of things that will affect the cost down the road. You listened to your real estate agent confidently telling you what the cost would be but you didn’t find out what his track record in preliminary pricing exercises was. If you would have, you would have found out that he really doesn’t have too much experience in that area. You did, being a savvy buyer, build in a contingency, but  it was a contingency added on to an unrealistic number. The same thing happened with your architect and your builder. Each one got you to edge your number up somewhat, but in each case, they’re reading your reaction to what they’re saying and without realizing it, you and your architect and your builder have eased the projected cost a little closer to your comfort level and so those numbers aren’t quite realistic.

Now, I’m really not trying to talk you out of the project! You need a house, the architect and the builder need the work… but there’s more.

If there are existing drawings of the house, everyone will assume that, for the most part, they are relatively accurate. They’re probably not. If the plans can’t be found and your architect measures “everything”, he really hasn’t. He’s made assumptions and best guesses because … well, because it’s really hard to check everything and insure that your measurements are accurate. Usually, discrepancies are very minor and don’t affect the work. Usually. And the architect has explained this to you (maybe) and told you that he doesn’t accept the responsibility for the existing drawings or guarantee the accuracy of his own as-built drawings.

The builder and his subcontractors will also make assumptions when pricing the work. They may miss that sloping floor. They may see the sloping floor and assume that the fix is simple. The may see the sloping floor and forget to include anything for it in their price. The slope isn’t a little thing because in this case, it’s caused by a sagging foundation caused by the collapse of an abandoned (and now worthless) silver mine. They’ve warned you that things like this happen and that you (rightly) will be expected to pay for anything not specifically addressed in the contract as “fixed price”.

However, you have a design and you have a price that has a contingency built in and you’ve decided to spend more money than you hoped you would, but it’s still the right house at the right time, so you bite the bullet and sign the contract for construction.

Only you really don’t know what the cost will be even if the building itself yields no surprises. You didn’t pick out things like kitchen cabinets, appliances, flooring, wall tile, door hardware and a few other things. There just wasn’t time, so you, your architect and your builder used “allowances” in the contract to cover the expected cost. If those assumptions were correct, you’re in business! No financial surprises and you’ll get just what you want. Hopefully. Unfortunately, we just entered a trade war with France and the La Cornue stove that the whole project was designed around has increased in price from outrageous to other-worldly.

By this point, you should be sure that I’m bent on talking you out of remodeling in spite of my assurances, so again, I’ll say, “do it! It will be OK.”

But now that construction starts we find that the squirrels in the attic have eaten through a place in the roof that no one noticed, raccoons have chewed through the wiring and it has to be replaced and termites have attacked the house through the one place under the house that no one could get to. Your contingency was blown by sagging floor and the abandoned silver mine they found when they tried to fix the sag but you’re under construction and you can’t stop now and in the end, that will be a good thing, because you are going to love your house. In the end, you’ll be sure that it was all worth the effort.

Just remember, remodeling, like old age, is not for sissies.

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Beauty vs. “Wow Factor”

In the past, civic buildings (court houses, libraries, schools) were beautiful. Now, museums look like a piece of crumpled aluminum foil cast aside on an untidy street. Courthouses are, except for the concrete bomb barriers, indistinguishable from office buildings. Schools are designed as factories for processing children from hatchlings to semi-literate refugees fleeing home for college anywhere but here. Any school building design that looks different from any other school is immediately rejected as a frivolous waste of taxpayer funds (even if it’s not).

The Paris Opera House. There's no doubt that the builders wanted a beautiful image as a statement of their importance to the cultural life of the city.

The world has changed for good and bad, but I do wish that the Deciders would decide that we need a little beauty in our lives and that buildings built with public funds would reflect the overwhelming preference of we commoners for beautiful buildings instead of the “important design statements” preferred by by academics and style-makers.

A Museum in Denver- it might make you stop and look, but is it beautiful? (Trick question! No, it's not.)

Posted in architecture, design, uncategorized | 1 Comment

HGTV… really?

There’s a new show on HGTV, “Million Dollar Rooms”. I watched for the first and (probably) last time a few days ago. Frankly, I don’t think how much you spent on a room is an acceptable subject for conversation in polite company. However, that’s not what caused me to shout at my television.

A segment featured a 10,000 sq. ft. NYC townhouse that was… LEED certified!

For non-geeks, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a program developed by the U. S. Green Building Council and many government agencies have adopted LEED “initiatives” that make LEED standards more or less a requirement for any government buildings. It is only a matter of time until a certain level of LEED  finds its way into commercial and residential building codes, where it will live on as the inflexible requirement of what was initially sold as a guideline for voluntary compliance.

You can have the best insulation system known to man. You can have the most energy efficient heating and air conditioning system ever made. You can use products that are so sustainable that they have baby products that grow up to be sustainable products for others to use. But, if you have a 10,000 square foot house for two people, you are NOT demonstrating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and to award such a home a LEED certification is (to me) a clear indication that this program is deeply flawed.

If you’d like to build a house that demonstrates a concern for the environment, NOTHING you can do will save more of the planets resources than building small. Nothing except buying a small existing home and updating the insulation, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. If you’d like to see more environmental heresy read “It’s Confusing Being Green”. So, please, build what you want, for whatever reason you want, but don’t think you’re fooling anyone with the faux/show green stuff.

Posted in design, green design, home design, what not to build | 1 Comment

“Convincing Your Husband To Let You Decorate Your Way”

I am a man. I am an architect. I am not an interior designer, but I am tuned in to the design world and have definite opinions. That said, I have witnessed enough meetings where the semi-clueless husband does battle with his wife over her (usually) tasteful thoughts on the interior design of their new house, that even I have had a change of heart over the years. I let my wife make the interior design decisions (although she is not “trained” and doesn’t obsess over design like I do) and I have not been disappointed.

Men, let your wife handle this. That’s why we designed a den or a media room or an office for you; so that you can pick out dark mahogany cabinets and hunter green walls there and leave the rest of the house to your wife and highly trained professionals.

From the CoteDeTexas blog… One question I get asked over and over again, as both an interior designer and as a blogger, is what to do about husbands (or partners) who refuse to let you decorate your house the way you want to? What happens if one partner has exquisite taste, while the other has, well, less than wonderful taste? How does a wife tell her husband to leave the decorating to her? Men and women have such different ideas about decorating and let’s just admit that most husbands’ design preferences are clichéd. For instance, what is it about wood paneling that men love so much? I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten an email from a distraught wife telling me her husband refuses to let her paint over their 60s style faux wood “paneling.” For some unknown reason, men think it is sacrilege to paint over anything made out of brown wood, despite how many veneers of plywood make up this purported “wood.” Why?

Read it all.

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