an architect’s process – part two

Ok, here we go. Part two of An Architect’s Process. In part one I talked about the steps to signing a contract and what I think are the 3 essential steps in working through that part of the process. And now that we’ve worked through the project details, our proposal has been accepted and the contract has been signed, it’s time to get into the meat of the project.

Any residential project, whether it’s a new home, remodel or addition, has 3 essential parts: the Site, the Building, and the Site and the Client. You have to understand all 3 in order to create a home that the client won’t want to sell in 5 years. So, what do we start with? We’ve got a contract, probably a retainer, it’s time to put lines on a page, right? Wrong. The first part of any project once you’ve been hired is RESEARCH. And not just a little either. You need to know your client a little better than just the first few meetings. You need to find out how they live, what do they do for a living, basically you build a friendship. You also have to know the site. You need to go there, see it, smell it, touch it. For me that is where it begins:

Building Site

Understanding the building site is not really easy. You have to go there. You have to be there, walk in the dirt and mud, see how the sun plays through the trees (if there are any), or if there’s a strong prevailing wind that can be used or maybe needs to be shielded, is there a body of water nearby, etc. Pictures speak a thousand words, but no words can ever duplicate the experience of physically being in a space. Your mind will take it all in and, if you’re good at what you do (I am), then that experience will influence your design in a profound way.

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The site that I am currently working with is large – a 10 acre parcel with an additional 12 behind it for views. The building site the client’s chose is an amazing one. The site starts low at the street and begins to rise in these rolling hills before dipping down to a natural stream and then rising again in more rolling hills. One of those hilltops is the site for our design. The drive will come in along the East edge of the property and then cut in and rise up to the garage, which will be mostly concealed by existing trees that will remain. The view north and east will be mostly wooded but with a view of the stream down below.

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The property faces North and thanks to the heavily wooded site almost all of the sunlight will be filtered through the tree canopy during the spring and summer. During the fall and winter light will be more direct, but not enough for passive heating. Given these two factors, our opportunity and need for windows goes up dramatically, which is just what the clients want. I would not have known any of these things if I had just researched the property via the internet and Google Earth. I wouldn’t know how quiet it is just inside the tree line or how a mere 50′ south makes a big difference in terms of noise from the road. These things have to be experienced.

So, what have we talked about? We talked about the important steps to signing a client and a new project. We talked about how important it is to represent yourself well, to talk to your client, understand what their wants and needs are for their new home or remodel, and to be upfront about project costs. And today we discussed the site, which is an essential first step in the design process. Even if you’re working on a remodel or addition, you have to put yourself in the space and understand what the environment is like with all 5 of your senses in order to begin to formulate a solution to the clients design problem.

Next time we’ll talk about the building and the client, since they really go hand in hand.

Cheers.

an architect’s process – part one

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In the last couple of months I’ve seen a number of posts on various blogs about the architectural process, or the value of an architects services, or why you need an architect, etc. All of these posts stem from the same basic principle – convincing potential clients that we are valuable and that our services are in your best interest to ensure a sound investment in your building project.

So, I felt like I should take some time and walk through my own process. And, as luck would have it, I just signed a new client that has hired me to design a new home in the Hot Springs area of Arkansas near the Ouachita Mountains. And that is where any architect’s process starts – with a  client who needs your help. I won’t bore you with all the reasons you should hire an architect and how it adds value to your project and saves money during construction, etc etc. We’re already there. We’ve got a contract.

But what does it take to get to a contract? What are the steps you and your architect should go through to learning if this is going to be a good relationship or not? For me, there are three things, or three steps, that I go through with a potential client to determine if we’re a good fit.

1. Initial Meeting
Just like a first date, you’ll know within the first 15 minutes of your initial meeting whether or not there will be a second date…er uh, meeting. In that first meeting I ask my clients a good deal of questions. Some of them may or may not have anything to do with their project, though project specific questions are important. Ultimately, I want to get a feel for who these people are, how they live, what their day to day life is like (young or grown children, newly weds, party animals), what they do for work (do they work from home or commute?), are they outdoor types or more cerebral. Basic first date chit chat.

If all goes well and they haven’t pushed/thrown me out the door, I try to schedule a second meeting to discuss their project more in depth.

2. Project Meeting:
Things like total budget, contractors, renovation/construction experiences in the past, etc will all come up. And, if new construction, I like to visit the site and get a feel for the land, scope out possible building sites, drive access, utilities, and anything that may influence the work and/or require additional fees that may need to be considered.

3. Project Proposal/Contract:
Once that is done it’s time to sit down and review the Client’s wants, needs and desires in relation to the budget in order to generate a preliminary building program and calculate a proposed fee. The building program and fee should be centered around a well-defined scope of work. For small projects, or projects with limited fees I will even list in my proposal and contract what drawings/services I will and will not provide. It’s imperative that you manage expectations from the very beginning and put in writing exactly what you will do as part of your fee and what will be considered an additional service. Otherwise you end up doing anything and everything under the sun. Trust me. I know.

If you’ve done your job right, if you’ve represented yourself well to the Client, then #3 is the beginning of what should be a fun and exciting relationship that can last longer than the design and construction schedule. If you start by taking care of your clients before they’re clients the rest of the project is a relative breeze.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

on the boards

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now, my posts have become seriously erratic in frequency and maybe even a little erratic in content as well. I’m sorry for that. There really isn’t any excuse other than I’ve been plowing ahead full speed in so many different directions lately that to try and rub two coherent thoughts together may cause a stroke.

BUT, I have stepped out of the fog long enough to write this post and show you some of what I’ve been up to in my freelance world. As you may have guessed by my review post of the last year, my new position has afforded little time for moonlighting and I am completely ok with that. I much prefer to have a fulfilling day job that lets me do the family thing once 5 o’clock hits. The two side projects that I have taken on are quite interesting however and I am proud of how they are shaping up.

The first project is more of a residential complex than a residence. Once complete there will be a total of 4 buildings (Main House, Guest House, Barn with 2 apartments and a work shop) plus horse corral and a huge retaining pond. All of this will sit on 21+ acres of old grove land in South Florida. It’s quite simply an amazing project.

Front Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Front Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Rear Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

The architecture, as you can see, is fairly traditional. It’s not necessarily a style so much as a simple and honest design. Not a lot of ornament (you’re seeing the Guest House – which is being developed and constructed first), but I have taken an opportunity to show off the rear porch a little. The Dutch Gable roofs are fun and give that Florida feel. Finish colors will be very light with some wood accents. It will fit nicely with the surroundings.

The next project has actually been in development for quite a while. I began the design with the client last year and only now has it come back online and we’re moving forward with construction documents and permitting this month. This will be my first constructed container home. If you’ve followed this blog at all you know I’ve designed many, but haven’t had the opportunity to see any built, though some came close. This is going to be an exciting project.

Floor Plan - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Floor Plan – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

As container homes go, it’s on par with size and scale. Less than 1,000 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, living, dining, kitchen and storage. The rear of the house has a water view, so I’ve also created a roof deck above the master bedroom and the rear wall of the living room is a roll-up garage door. To say we’re “bringing the outside in” would be an understatement. 😉

Side Elevation - copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Side Elevation – copyright r | one studio architecture 2013

Life and work continue to move at a breakneck pace, but I would much rather have too much work than not enough, no?

Some talk, some do

There are some container “designers” out there who like to talk a lot. But they never show their work. They’ll show other peoples work and even pass off others as their own. And then there are those that actually do design container homes. And here’s one of mine headed for permitting and construction this month.

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Great Expectations….in Architecture

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The movie Great Expectations always intrigued me because of it’s depiction of social hierarchy and the lengths to which those of us closer to the bottom will go to claw our way to the top once we’ve had a taste of that life. At some point we reach a line that we must decide if we’ll cross and continue that climb, knowing that we will fundamentally be a different person from the moment of that crossing. Architectural practice is similar.

Each new client comes with their own Great Expectations for their project. That is, they come to the relationship with a predetermined set of goals and perceptions about how things will work and what their end product will be. Those expectations will typically center around getting more than what they are actually paying for and expecting you, the architect, to deliver it for them.

This is where 9 out of every 10 potential clients that contact me lose interest and move on to someone else. I have learned, through hard experience (another blog post coming on that subject soon), that the first and best thing you can do for a potential client is to give them an open and honest reality check about their project, their budget and their Great Expectations. You will not do yourself or your client any favors by telling them what they want to hear in order to get their signature on a contract. And this is the line you can not cross. Once you do, your practice will fundamentally change and you’ll never truly succeed.

Most clients, especially residential ones, learn about architects from the movies and the shiny pages of high end design magazines. They see us as magicians who make amazing things happen with no money and everything happens smoothly and without difficulty. Dashing that particular fantasy right off the bat will save you many sleepless nights. Believe me.

Your client needs to know right up front, before you even think about drawing up a contract, that you are not a magician, you are not a miracle worker and you are not the Messiah of building and construction (though, admit it, you tell yourself that all the time). You are an Architect. You are the first piece of the puzzle that is their new home. You are their advocate and most importantly you are their bullshit detector.

Your client needs to know that you will call them out when they come to you with an unreasonable request that will destroy their budget, their timeline, their overall design goals, whatever it is. You can not be their friend, you have to be their voice of reason, which no one wants to be. You won’t be entirely popular during the process, but when the job is done and you hand them their house keys, you’ll be the star of the show because they’ll finally see that all of those unpopular decisions you had them make helped steer their Great Expectations into reality.

daily post: an architectural fiction

Walking down the street, you encounter a folded piece of paper on the sidewalk. You pick it up and read it and immediately, your life has changed. Describe this experience.

image courtesy of treehugger.com

image courtesy of treehugger.com

Truly exceptional clients do not come along every day. There are challenges to overcome with each new client, with each new project and with each step along the way through construction. What ultimately determines the success of a project is your ability to manage all the players. But every great once in a while you come across a client that is a true pleasure to work with. This is a story about one such client.

Walking down the street, muttering to myself how miserable that last project was, “my God I don’t ever want another client like that – never satisfied, constantly making changes even during construction, and no, it’s not ok to change your mind on the wall color AGAIN once the contractor has finished the punch list and final payment is due…”. I look up and marvel at the beautiful historic buildings in the city. I wonder briefly if those architects had to deal with similar issues….most likely. A carefully folded piece of paper sitting neatly on a storefront window ledge catches my eye. “That’s odd.”

I walk over and pick it up, thinking to myself only after the fact “this could be covered in snot….or worse – whatever, lets see what it is.” I unfold the heavy paper – it feels like a cotton stationary. Written on the inside, in a careful and precise block script are the words:

“Hello. You’re my new architect. I’m across the street at the coffee shop. Come find me and lets talk about the project that will change our lives.”

I think to myself, “this guy/gal is obviously a crack-pot. I must meet them at once.” I head over to the coffee shop. I walk in the door and scan the room with no idea what or who I’m looking for. I’ve still got the paper in my hand as I scan over to a small table halfway down and off to the side. A man is sitting there, about middle aged, a little gray starting to show, but otherwise youthful, in shape and dressed casually in jeans, loafers, a button down and a pair of Ray Bans lying next to his black coffee. I like this man already.

He looks up and sees the paper in my hands. He smiles and waves me over. I smile back and head that way. I reach the table, he stands and offers his hand. We exchange a firm handshake as I say “Good morning. I’m Jeremiah, you’re architect.” He smiles and laughs, “Yes, indeed you are. I’m Alexander. Coffee?”

“Yes, indeed.” I look up at the barista, “black with two sugars, please.”

“You must think this a little strange”, he says. “Oh, more than a little”, I say with a smile. “But I’m in a unique position where a life changing project would be incredibly welcome.”

“That’s good to hear”, he says, “because that’s exactly the kind of project I have in mind.”

He begins to tell me about his project. It sounds too good to be true. It sounds wonderful. I try hard to contain my enthusiasm (I’d really like to hug this man) until he’s finished. I interject a few questions here and there when it’s appropriate, probing mostly to find out if this man escaped from some local nut house (he can’t possibly be playing with a full deck).

Near the end of the conversation we discuss his budget, which is incredibly reasonable for what he’s described. We talk about a percentage fee, which he feels is perfect for his needs and even understands that costs may come in higher which would increase the fee. It’s all still sounding too good to be true, and I’m thinking “at least I got free coffee out of the deal”. Just then he asks about retainer to which I answer my standard (this is usually where the conversations with client’s ends), and he takes out his check book and hands me the retainer right there.

“Lets get started right away” he says “and please send me your contract as soon as you can.” He hands me a card with his contact info and we go on our way. I stand like a statue, stunned, bewildered, wondering if I’m being filmed right now. I look down at the card he handed me. It’s nothing terribly special – white card, black type, clean and simple font. His position and industry aren’t terribly special either. By all accounts this guy is your “Average Joe”, but he GETS IT. He understands the value and the need for an Architect – not just the service but the end product as well, which will be his home.

Over the next few months we collaborate on the design, sometimes effortlessly and sometimes it might seem we’re carving off each other’s flesh with a spoon. But always it comes back to the initial project goals. Early in the process the contractor was brought in to join our little menagerie of collaboration. The final, refined design was bid successfully and construction began. Securing a good relationship between the three of us, Owner, Architect and Contractor, early was key to the ultimate success.

At the end of the project, some 18 months later, I sat down to a glass of wine with Alexander and I asked him “So, did this project change your life?”

He seemed to think about it for a second and a smile came to his face and he said “You know, I can honestly say, my life won’t ever be the same. Thank you for all your help.”

I smiled back, “The feeling is mutual, my friend.”

This story is a complete fiction. I have not had a client like Alexander yet, but I’m still young enough to be hopeful and diligent enough to try and educate my potential clients enough to make them like Alexander – appreciative and aware of the value not only of the services of an Architect, but the value of the final product as well, which is their building – whether that building be a home, a garage, commercial office space, pizzeria, deli, bathroom, outhouse or chicken coop. In the end we all want the same thing – a good and successful building.

Daily Prompt: artist’s eye

Is there a painting or sculpture you’re drawn to? What does it say to you? Describe the experience. (Or, if art doesn’t speak to you, tell us why.)

In college we studied the history of Art in world cultures. We began with the prehistoric Venus d’Milo and went all the way through time right up to modern expressionism, post-modernism and all the other isms that we deal with today. But, one artist above all others stood out for me and really got my blood pumping.

Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock in his studio.

Jackson Pollock in his studio.

His work, especially his early work, always seemed to be searching for something. As I learned more about his life I came to realize he was searching for some kind of piece within himself. One I don’t think he ever found. But he kept searching all his life. This still speaks to me through his art.

Autumn Rhythm No. 30, 1950

Autumn Rhythm No. 30, 1950

While most of us know and recognize his larger pieces like the one above, I actually prefer the smaller canvases that he created. The larger work is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. They are full of movement and rhythm and action and even violence. But the smaller canvas works, if you really look at them, are like packages of dynamite – contained, restrained, almost ready to explode. As if he captured all of his emotions and action into a jar and sealed it. You can feel the tightness of it.

Whenever I look at Pollocks work I FEEL. And that, to me, is the greatest Art.