Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Budget with a Purpose

How does one decide a new home's budget?
What should its size be?
How much detail should there be?

These three elements are sensibly linked - one can't change without affecting the others. For example, if your budget is fixed and your home much be a certain size, the details are often eliminated. Look at every tract home built in North Carolina (or the state in which you reside). Often, the brick doesn't wrap around the sides of the house for a reason!
Consider moving style and details ahead of size
so that you can create a home, not just a house.

Be Prepared - Some tools to bring to your first meeting with an architect.

As you begin to assemble your thoughts about a new house, start by creating a short statement that depicts your home. After this, make a list of the aspects of a home that you find undesirable. This will be much shorter than your "want list" and will provide the architect with a broader palate from which to design. Finally, provide adjective descriptors for each room. Words such as warm, cozy, bright, and airy provide the framework for the architecture and communicate the feeling you want to experience when you are in the space.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Inside-Out Design

Because of my interior design background, I have always noticed and appreciated the finer points of - obviously - the interior aesthetic. You know when you walk into a space and all the colors, textures, and proportions just 'feel good'? Great design inherently just exudes this 'feeling' and we often don't know how or why. In design school, I learned how to create a floor plan and lay out spaces. I also learned how to blend construction materials with paint, furnishings, and accessories. But until I began working in an architectural office, I don't think I fully understood the importance of good inside-out design.

I call it 'inside-out' design because I have learned that what is planned for the outside (exterior) of your home can be just as important as what goes on inside. Sure, you may want a family room with a fireplace and that opens into the kitchen. But subtleties like window placement, room symmetry, ceiling heights, and architectural details are the integral framework that interior design relies on. Good architecture is the foundation for an interior worthy of the pages of Home and Garden magazine.

Before working for an architect, it was relatively easy for me to lay out a floor plan that met all interior needs…the kitchen near an eating area…a bathroom near a guest suite. Now I realize that on the inside of a home, every wall, every tray or vaulted ceiling, every jog and turn in a hallway affects 101 different things on the exterior. Without an architect to consider such ramifications, a house starts to look quite lost and disjointed on the outside. Part of the beauty of a well-designed home is its seamless integration of the inside and outside elements. Without careful consideration of both of these crucial aspects of your home, that 'feel good' feeling of good design won't quite be accomplished.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Hat it Has Three Corners, Three Corners has my Hat.

I take my job seriously, but have fun doing it. How could you not enjoy having people pay you to spend their money! Whoa! that’s a lot of responsibility, so I better take it seriously.

Being an Architect, I get to wear a proverbial Three Cornered Hat. Each corner represents the roles I play as a Designer, a Broker and a Technician.

My role as a designer is all about being creative and thinking outside of the box. Great fun, no restrictions...the sky’s the limit! The extents of my imagination are my only boundaries…

Then, the Broker role says, “Hey, wait a minute, there are budgets to meet!” Each line I draw represents money my clients have worked hard for. It is extremely important to maximize the investment value of each and every line because in the end, as one my clients aptly expressed to me, “I am living in my portfolio.” That statement speaks volumes.

I thank Jack Breaks for making that comment because it altered my way of thinking. It is vitally important that I create spaces that become more valuable than the cost it took to build them, so the return on the investment can be positive.

My final role is being a Technician. Although this role is tedious, it is vital to the success of each project. Drawing a thorough set of plans gives me the opportunity to solve problems before they happen on site. These discoveries eliminate the costly surprises, and on-the-fly field decisions that always occur with incomplete and inadequate drawings.

My hat is has three corners, three corners has my hat, and had it not three corners, I would not be an architect worth much of anything!

I’m ALL Ears!!

Have you ever seen Star Trek, Deep Space Nine? There is a bar on this remote station and the bartender’s name is Quark. He is not a human, but a Ferengi, an odd looking species, with gigantic ears. Not a bad quality to have, if people always want you listen to and solve their problems. The great thing about my job is that I don’t have to listen to people’s troubles! I get to listen to their dreams. Listening is a key element to a successful design. In order to listen effectively, I must listen with my eyes, as well as my ears. Watching someone's body language often communicates information that is vitally important to the design process.

Listening is more than just hearing. It’s also attempting to understand what drives each comment, and deciphering the unspoken codes.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why Must We Have Straight Walls?

I often wonder why it is that despite the fact that there are basically no squares found in nature, we force ourselves to live and work in them. It is just not natural! Curved walls create dynamic, flowing spaces. Although they do cause contractors to get migraines, every time that I have incorporated them into a home, the results have added interest, and created a better flow.

I guess that we live in boxes simply because they were easier to build... and that just doesn’t seem right.

Puzzled by Design

Designing a home, or anything for that matter, is in itself a daunting task. When the process begins, the relevant data sits there in a pile in front of me, much like a 1,200 piece puzzle that has just been dumped out for assembly. The individual pieces of information are small and have a specific role to play. Like a puzzle, the key to successfully completing a design project means having all of the pieces on the table when you start.

Over the years, I have developed a process of making a puzzle that works very well. It begins by getting all the pieces situated so the picture faces up, and then I set out to find those elusive side pieces. Once these are mostly together, I start sorting the pieces that are similar in color. This makes it easier for me to begin filling in the puzzle’s center.

As each piece gets placed into the puzzle, the next one becomes slightly easier to find until only one spot remains. The main difference between assembling the puzzle that sat on my parent’s dining room table at Christmas and creating a home from a stack of papers, is the picture on the front of the puzzle box. Even though I don’t know what each final design will become, I do know a process of how to get one competed--the process provides a framework for design.

What do I love about design?   I can do the same process over and over again and still come up with unique solutions, each and every time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Solar Panels and the Existing Homeowner

Recently, I have been researching solar panels for my house. As an environmentally conscious person, I have always had an interest in what solar power could provide for our home, but never had the opportunity to make such an investment. Fortunately, the combination of today’s low interest rates and our ability to refinance gave us the opportunity to start researching our options.

Once I started my research, I quickly found out there were several different types of panel manufacturers and companies in the area that do turn-key installations (complete design, permitting and installation by one company). There are also two different systems available - one for hot water and one for electricity. Considering I had just bought a new 40 gallon hot water heater when we moved in (2.5 years ago) and only my wife and I live in our home, we chose to only research the electrical panels for right now.

Since we are big fans of carbon neutral living we knew the answers to why we wanted to do this (both personal and global). The big question was IF we could do this, and that unfortunately revolved around the initial investment and operating cost. Although ballpark estimates from 3 different companies were all somewhere around $20,000 to $25,000 for a typical house, all the present tax incentives provided by our state (North Carolina) and the federal government would have us paying for less than half of that in the end. The state and federal each allow for a 35% and 30% tax write off that can be taken advantage of for up to 10 years or until the dollar amount runs out. The system we chose would provide the typical homeowner with about 50% if their energy used.

We were excited to find out the system would generate close to 80% if not 100% of our typical use (depending on the time of year)!

With the help of adding money to our refinanced mortgage (lower interest rate & tax write off), we are going to be able to keep our mortgage payment essentially the same and use the additional tax return to pay off the loan. This basically leaves us taking almost nothing from our personal savings in order to install the system.

To top it off, our solar panel system will actually make us money each month by selling the collected power to the power company as opposed to having batteries on site. (Check out Duke Energy and NC Greenpower for more details.) Overall, we are coming out ahead of the game with extra money each month and we are using less fossil fuel to help save the environment!

The three companies we talked to were:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cooler Attics - Radiant Heat Barrier

These days there are many ways one can have a home that is more energy efficient. If you are building a new home in the south, one of the most efficient (as well as comfortable) things to is keep the heat out. There is a great product I found at a home shows a few years ago that I highly recommend. It is a product called Tech Shield. It comes in 4x8 sheets and is applied on top of the roof rafters of your home. The advantage of this product is that it has a thin layer of foil adhered to one side. This may not seem like much but test have shown that this thin layer of foil can cut your monthly energy consumption by 17%. The foil side faces toward the attic and acts as a radiant heat barrier. It is amazing how much heat it keeps out of your attic. When I have specified this product, contractors who are installing it for the first time have been amazed at the effectiveness of the thin layer of foil. In the middle of the summer, they are especially grateful for the coolness in the house. By keeping the heat out of the attic, the air conditioner gets a break, you save money and your home is more comfortable. Check out this great product by clicking on the link above.
Tech Shield remains a favorite product of mine, because it is such a simple, cost effective solution to saving energy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Making a Scene - without getting arrested!!

In a prior post, "Light Layers - how to transform a space" I wrote about the need for layers of lighting.  Setting up lighting scenes is done by creatively mixing the 3 different layers of lights to create drama in your living environment.  If you are looking for a soft, intimate scene, the lighting level will be lower, emphasis will be on the accent lights and the ambient light will be dimmed.  Task lighting is not necessary for this type of scene.  Most electricians' solutions to lighting control have each room equipped with its own set of light switches, with each light group on a separate switch.   My preference is to link lights that serve the same function, i.e. all of the task lighting or all of the accent lights.  To take this even further, you can link accent lights with other accent lights located within visual range of the room you are located.  This creates a connected surrounding environment, thus making you more comfortable.  It is easiest to set up these scenes during the layout of the electrical plan.  Lighting control systems give us the opportunity to preset multiple lighting scenes that can be accessed at the push of a button. Otherwise, manipulating multiple switches will be required each time you want to set up a scene.  
In my opinion, creating lighting scenes is one of the most important elements of design.

Light Layers - How to transform a space

One of the key principles of lighting design is to have three layers of lighting.  Each layer has a specific role, and if one is left out, the space will end up as ordinary and uninteresting as most spaces that exist.  
  • Task lighting provides us with enough lighting to accomplish what we set out to do, whether it be reading or doing a craft.  
  • Ambient lighting emulates what naturally occurs during the day.  This light is what surrounds you and doesn't come from a single point source of light.   
  • Accent lighting is considered the icing on the cake.  It adds drama and subtle elegance to a space.  This light is what is directed at art work and sculpture and serves only to highlight it's subject.
Having these three layers working in conjunction with each other will transform and ordinary space into one that is extraordinary.

Outdoor Accents ... Indoor Comfort

During the daylight hours, we are visually connected with the areas surrounding our homes.  But as the night sets in, the windows that connect us to the outside become massive black holes which only reflect the interior spaces.  Not being able to visually connect with one's surroundings causes a level of discomfort to occur.  This feeling is probably generated by our survival instinct.  If we look at the worst case scenario, imagine yourself in a dark room with no windows.  The feelings generated by such a space can actually drive you crazy.  The simplest solution to the problem is to provide accent lighting on landscape features that are in visual range of the interior spaces.  These lights need not be bright, they just need to provide enough contrast to the darkness to provide visual connection to the exterior.  
Being aware of what surrounds you increases your ability to relax.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Trim, the thick and thin of it all

These days we are bombarded with more options than we care to have to review when it comes to selecting what we wrap our window and door frames with, bump the vacuum into, or hide the sheetrock joint at the ceiling line.  These items fall into the category of interior trim.  When selecting trim, keeping the basic design of these three elements in the same family is key to keeping the hodgepodge to a minimum.  If a period style, such as Federal is being built, it would be architecturally incorrect to put anything other than moulding profiles that were common to that period of history. Consistency in design selections plays  a key role in the enhancement of spaces.  

In recent years, I have been pleased to see MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) being used for some of the trim components.  When this product first hit the market, may years ago, trim carpenters didn't care for it because when cut, it would chip and flake.  Since then, the products have become far superior and trim carpenters tend to prefer to use this product for crown.  Its most redeeming features are that it does not expand or contract like wood, and it takes paint really well.  With wood, when winter sets in, the low humidity often  causes cracks to form along the caulk joints of trim because of the amount of shrinking that takes place. What we have found that works best is to use MDF for the crown, and keep the casing and base as wood, most commonly Poplar.  This minimizes the cracking problem and puts easily repairable wood in places than can get damaged.  Not only is MDF more stable at varied moisture content, it also is less expensive than solid poplar,  and some manufacturers produce it as "green". What more you could you ask for of a product?

MDF used as crown moulding has become a great asset to residential architecture, combining workability, longevity, and cost savings into a single product.  I highly recommend its use.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crawl Spaces - The pit of despair, or maybe not... Read on.

Back in the 50's North Carolina adopted a building code from Minnesota.  Not sure why, but they did.  One of the requirements of the code made it necessary to have the areas that we all know as crawl spaces be ventilated.  Come to find out, this code has probably caused countless numbers of health issues with the people living over these spaces.  
Here in NC, when the summers are hot with temperatures into the 90's and humidity also in the 90's, one could not ask for a better place to grow mold than in the average crawl space.  Not long after the hot, moist air enters the cool crawl space, the water is pulled out of the air and the environment becomes ripe for mold growth, and insect infestation.  The air in a house flows upward and it has been estimated that 20 percent of the air in the main level over a crawl space was recently in the crawl space.  
To combat this problem, we are sealing crawl spaces. A thick membrane is installed over the ground so that all moisture gets blocked from below.  Around the perimeter of the crawl space, a rigid insulation board is applied and all vents are sealed up.  The crawl space then becomes what is referred to as "Sealed".  For more detail on this technology I would suggest that you go to crawlspaces.org  This site is the result of an intensive research study concerning crawl spaces in our Southeastern climate.  
A vented crawlspace in the Southeast may very well be the worst code ever created.  I, for sure, will never specify another one.

Construction Administration - What's this about anyway?

The term "Construction Administration" typically references what an Architect does during the time the General Contractor is building a project. In a Commercial Project, this phase is rather mundane doing activities such as shop drawings reviews, site inspections, and draw requests. However, if the project is Custom Residential, construction administration becomes an entirely different task. Since design is a never ending process, it certainly does not stop when you start building.

Clients often have a hard time visualizing things until they start to come up out of the ground. On many occasions, I have worked to tweak specific design solutions during the process to make them better. Whether it's aligning panels on the cabinetry, finalizing the design of a fireplace surround, assisting with railing selections, or even figuring out a way to hide a TV behind a motorized panel - there is plenty of design to be done once the house is under construction.

I have heard that some builders say that there is no need for an Architect to be involved during construction. Those builders obviously don't understand design and continuity of a home. Yes, without an architect's involvement, you will end up with a roof over your head. But will the hinges on the exterior doors match the hinges on the interiors doors? Probably not.

If I had my way, I would change the name "Construction Administration" to "Design Enhancement".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Communication with your Architect

Over the years I have found that a paper trail is important for all decisions that are made during the design and construction process.  With email becoming the universal primary means of communication, try and stick with it when you are communicating your needs to the architect.  Talking about your needs is still O.K. but it should only come after you have had a chance to put your thoughts in an email.  Set up a folder for all items sent to the architect.  If you are not confident with your computer's ability to sort things, print out a copy an place it in your project folder.  Now that verbal communication has been documented, what do we do about the drawings that come in the mail, or via the internet?  Most architects these days use a program called Autocad to do their drafting work.  Revit is also another product that is gaining market share.  Both products are made by Autodesk.  These programs have the ability to create a readable and give the client the ability to mark up the drawings with comments.  No more scribbles all over a plan!!  The software for reading is available for free at the autodesk.com website. It is called Design Review.  Once you mark up you plan, you can email it back to the architect where he or she will be able to superimpose your notes right onto their drawings.  For clarity sake, ask the architect to put a 2' grid on the plan so you can understand how big each space is.  This has proven to be very helpful for our clients.  Adobe's pdf files also work well with communications, but come second to the Design Review software.  

The primary point is that all communications should be electronically documented so you and the architect can follow the progress of design decisions from beginning to end.  
It is easy to become confused moving forward if you cant remember how you got where you are.