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.

Screen Shot 2014-05-10 at 8.24.53 PM

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.

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how small is too small? – a message to architects

image courtesy of treehugger.com

image courtesy of treehugger.com

Recently I wrote a post speaking to clients about “small projects”. In the writing of that post I realized that it’s not just clients that need to be educated, but architects as well. I see, and have been part of, many conversations floating around various forums and other blogs about how the profession is being pushed out by contractors and engineers and “designers” (read: unlicensed architects) and how the built environment is suffering, blah blah blah. The reality is not that architects are being pushed out, but rather are pushing themselves out.

“But how can this be!?” you ask?

Simple. Many architects TURN DOWN work that is “too small”. And so clients who recognize the need for help in design and detailing are left to seek out anyone else willing and able to help them. Enter willing contractors and “designers” who will reinforce the client’s opinion that “you don’t need an architect” because they (the contractor/designer) can just “get it done”.

We, the architects, need to put off some of our pride and take chances on smaller projects for smaller clients if we are ever going to truly change the built environment and the quality of the work being built in it. And I know all the arguments:

“Architects can’t work for free.”
“It’s not worth the time and liability to take on such a small project for such a small fee that will just suck time out of my life.”
“The fee that a client would pay me would be better spent on improving the project itself.”
-Insert your own random whiny argument here-

And I say bollocks. These arguments are uttered in the same breath with complaints about contractors and engineers taking on the role of the architect in the very projects that actual architects are turning down. See the conundrum here? I believe behavioral psychologists call this a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. We are enabling and encouraging the very situations we are arguing against.

So, “architects can’t work for free”. This is true. But then we don’t have to charge a full fee for all projects either. Do we deserve to get paid for our time? Yes. Is our time worth the same amount on every project, say a kitchen remodel versus a master suite addition or a new residence? No. We can adjust and tailor our fee structures to accommodate these smaller projects to make them enticing to potential clients.

“It’s not worth the time and liability.” Again, bollocks. It’s worth our time because it is worth having an impact on a project that will improve someone’s life. That sounds very utopian and naive. But the truth is we all felt and thought that way not so long ago. The idealism of our youth while in college should not be lost or tossed aside for practice. The truth is liability is negligible (i.e. all those untrained, unlicensed “professionals” practicing architecture successfully). The time is always an issue whether the project is 100 square feet or 100,000 square feet. Work smarter, not harder.

“The fee that a client would pay me (the architect) would be better spent improving the project.” Bollocks. Bollocks and more Bollocks. The services of a architect on a project adds value whether it’s a bathroom renovations, garage addition or roof replacement, even if it’s just a consultation fee.

The bottom line is you don’t want to be bothered with some small fee from a small client for a small project. Instead you want the big fee from a big client for the big project. In the meantime potential clients are passing you by left and right. 10 small projects worth $10,000 each are much more valuable than 1 project worth $100,000. Think about it. And get back to work!

is a project ever too small? – a message to clients

Recently I got to work and dialed up my google+ feed and immediately clicked on the latest blog post over at Studio MM titled “Working with an Architect: Making Sense of Services and Fees”. In that post Marica describes a common interaction with a potential client where the client wonders “is my project too small to interest you?”.

Private Residence - Closet Addition

Private Residence – Closet Addition

I say this is a common interaction, but the reality may be more accurate to say that many clients will automatically THINK this to themselves and never actually seek out contact with an architect or designer to help them with their project. Well, I would like to put this baby to bed by saying that there is no residential project too small for a homeowner to bring to an architect for advice, consultation, design and even construction.

Private Residence - Porch Addition

Private Residence – Porch Addition

I don’t care if it’s a brand new home, a mother-in-law suite, a finished basement, a garage, bathroom renovation, kitchen remodel, dog house or chicken coop. I want to help you design whatever it is to suit the needs of you and your family (furry family included) and get it built on time, on budget and to a level of quality that will last.

Private Residence - Closet Addition

Private Residence – Closet Addition

In short, the purpose, the calling, of an architect is to design the built environment around us. Your project is not too small to involve one of us because each piece of a home matters and how that piece works and relates to all the other pieces is what makes the difference between a home that you love and a home that you just live in.

specifications – why they matter

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Architecture produces a lot of paper. And I mean, a lot. And if you’re working on a LEED project?….Forget about it. You’re going to kill at least a few thousand trees just documenting your points for certification. And all of it, every scrap, is important. There are proposals, contracts, sketches, drawings, specifications, addenda, ASIs, Change Orders, RFIs, RFQs, RFPs, submittals, transmittals, memos and even emails. All of this paper is part of what eventually will dictate what your building looks like. But the two most important, other than the contract, are the drawings and specifications.

There are two things that the architect and contractor are concerned about when properly detailing and then pricing and eventually building a particular project: Quantity and Quality.

The drawings represent the Quantity, or the pictorial representation of the building. The site plan, floor plans, elevations, building sections, details, etc. The drawings give the contractor a visual representation of how the building should go together and how much of each part he’ll need in order to get the job done. Now, to some degree, the drawings also represent a level of quality that the contractor is to adhere to. This is mostly evident in the building sections, wall sections, details and framing plans where the architect will depict particular ways of assembly for various pieces and parts of the project. Some of these will be visible while others won’t. But they are all important.

But when it comes to the true Quality of the project, the specifications are where it’s at. And, to me, the specifications can make or break a project. And specifications, like the contract and drawings, becomes a part of the Contract Documents, which are the legally binding agreements between Owner, Architect and eventually the Contractor. These specifications outline the products to be used, the acceptable manufacturers and/or level of performance to be met, warranty information, procedures for testing and evaluation, mock-up requirements, sizes and installation requirements. So, not only do they need to look good, they need to read good as well. And, yes, I’m aware of the horrible grammar in that last sentence.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to specifications and how they are crafted – book format and sheet format. This means that the specifications are either in the format of a book type document (8.5 x 11) or sheet format in which case they are a part of the drawing set. I’m not partial to either. Each is acceptable depending on the type of project you’re working on. Though, in my office almost every specification, even small residential projects, will have a book specification that accompanies the drawings. It’s not necessarily right or wrong it’s just our preferred way of doing things.

Whatever format your specifications are in they need to be clear, inclusive of the materials and finishes necessary for your project, and they need to be carefully proof-read by more than one set of eyes familiar with the project. Lastly, since the specifications outline the quality expected on your project, they need to be READ BY THE CONTRACTOR. This seems to be a more and more difficult request lately. Unfortunate, but true.

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: Dream Home

You win a contest to build your dream home. Draft the plans.

This should be a no-brainer: Architect + Dream Home = easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The truth is an architects home is many times like a mechanics car – it always needs work and it’s never quite right. I actually began writing a post some months back titled “why I never want to design my own house”. It never quite got finished because, to be honest, while I understand that I am the worst client for any architect to have, there’s not really another architect on the planet I would trust to design my home and get the massing, materials, function, flow and details right. Don’t even get me started on contractors.

So, what does my dream home look like? Is it all glass and steel and concrete? Is it traditional wood detailing used in minimalist ways? Is it on wheels? Will it stand up? To be quite honest, I have no idea. My wife and I have talked often and agree that one day we will build a home for our family on a decent sized piece of land. We’d like to have a large garden, large dogs, a few chickens and possibly a goat, but that is a ways off and we’re happy to wait to do it right. Some sketches have been made, some thought into the basic organization and materials and even the overall scale, but that’s as far as it needs to go right now. Without a site it’s a bit superfluous.

Until that day comes, my “dream home”, or more accurately my “for now home” is a simple “must have” list of the basics:

3-4 bedrooms
2 baths
Kitchen/Living/Dining
Laundry
Garage and/or basement
Office
fenced yard for the dogs and kids to chase each other without running into the street

Other than that in any home I look for a sense of proportion as well as some thought to detail, materials and color. As an architect I’m probably not as picky as some. Yet.

Daily Prompt: Homeys

Yeah, I couldn’t really resist adding this little clip. Who doesn’t love In Living Color? 🙂

But, seriously, today we’re talking about Home. And for an architect, and especially a residential architect, Home is something we think about a lot. And not just because we’re always stuck in the office and hardly ever get to go there. Home is what we do – we CREATE Homes, not just houses like in the world of big box retail residential manufacturing (lets be honest, it’s not really architecture if they all look the same….and they do. ALL of them).

And creating a home for someone is much more involved than just drafting some walls, doors and windows and throwing a hipped roof on top. There is a process involved and it begins with understanding people, understanding the client and the client’s wife/husband and the client’s children, etc. Understanding space and the difference between quartz and granite countertops comes later, much later.

As an architect, this is our primary function. Builders are great at showing you a picture of a house that someone else designed for someone else’s lifestyle and building that for you (not to say that there aren’t exceptions), but at the end of the day it’s still a home designed for someone else, not you. So, if you really want to build your home and not someone else’s, talk to an architect first.