Day in the Life - An Architecture Vlog

Follow a typical day in the life of an architect. Part architecture vlog, part behind-the-scenes look at some of the tasks architects work on each day: from designing a set of elevations to managing projects in construction, to writing specifications, to managing an office, and how to deal with the inevitable creative blocks creatives face on a daily basis.

I intentionally structure my day to be divided between making in the morning and managing in the afternoons, with a mid-day transition break for exercise. Learn why this works for me and follow along as I work through some of the most common struggles an architect faces in daily professional practice.

For aspiring architects, architecture students, and those curious about exactly what it is that architects do each day.

Featured gear in this episode:

 

Book Launch and Guest Post on Entrepreneur Architect

I'm quite honored to have written a guest post featured this week on Entrepreneur Architect, a website run by my friend, architect, and talented businessman, Mark R. LePage. Not only do we share an alma mater, Roger Williams University, but we also share in our mission to help small firm architects looking to change the world one project at a time. Mark has been delivering on his goal to be "a force for change in the world of architecture" since he doubled down on his commitment on 12/12/2012 with good advice and positive mentoring. In the post, I discuss four basic things every pro needs to attend to when using Houzz and a back door trick for entering their image-based ecosystem.

The post is my small contribution to Mark's broader mission and it supports the release of my book this past week on Amazon, The Unofficial Guide to Houzz.com . I wrote the book to help architects and designers find relevancy and rank in more searches on Houzz.  I have quite a bit of experience writing there and successfully securing work for 30X40. My writing has been a force for change in my own life, helping me to sort through ideas and help others and I think it shines through clearly in the book.

See the article entitled, "4 Things You're Not Doing on Houzz (But Should Be)" on the Entrepreneur Architect site.

Thanks to Mark for featuring my work and for the excellent resource he continues to build

If you like the book, I'd so appreciate and welcome an honest review on Amazon.com and I'd love to hear what's working for your business on Houzz.

House Size - Balancing Wants, Needs and Budget

This post is the second in a series intended to walk you through the process of designing your own home where I guide you from the initial stages of your building project through construction.  Please check out my about page and my portfolio for more about what qualifies me to do this. So, here we are at step two (if you missed step one, be sure to read and watch that section first).  You've determined your building site and diagrammed the assets and liabilities, now it's time to figure out exactly what you'll be trying to fit within your home.  Architect’s call this second phase the ‘programming’ phase.  The ‘program’ is a detailed list of all of the spaces you’ll include in your home along with their sizes.  Think of it as a sort of ingredient list in a recipe you’re following.

A couple of things to keep in mind while developing your wish-list.  First, every square foot will cost you between $250-350+, choose carefully.   Secondly, and more importantly each added square foot is another one you'll have to heat, cool, light, maintain, and clean (!) for many years to come.  Homes use an incredible amount of energy and here in the USA our homes are substantially larger than our European counterparts.  Be ruthless about what you really need and what you can live without.  By consuming fewer resources your self-less act gives to generations that follow us.

Average House Size Comparison
Average House Size Comparison

Program Ingredients

A good place to start is by compiling a wish list of rooms.  Basically anything that will take up space in the home should be on the list.  While you’ve probably already considered many of the spaces listed below, there are undoubtedly some you haven’t accounted for.  Most often people overlook essential spaces like stairs, hallways, mechanical rooms and electrical closets.  These are critical to every successful floor plan, however mundane they may be, and they also account for a large percentage of the actual floor area, and by extension, your budget too.  Be sure not leave these out.

Some common spaces you’ll want to consider:

  • Entry/Mudroom
  • Living
  • Dining
  • Kitchen/Pantry
  • Study
  • Powder-1/2 Bath
  • Bathroom(s)
  • Laundry
  • Bedrooms
  • Porches
  • Decks
  • Mechanical/Electrical
  • Circulation (stairs/hallways)
  • Garage
  • Carport
  • Outdoor Terraces
  • Media Room
  • Game Room
  • Screened Room

Size Matters

Or should I say, matters of size?  Once you've compiled the list, you'll need to assign each room a rough size. A good place to begin thinking about the sizing of these spaces is to measure your current living spaces.  You'll have a sense for the scale of your furniture in those spaces and what works and what doesn't.  If your current bedroom is too small, roughly estimate the extra room it would take to make it more functional and account for that in your spreadsheet.

My worksheet lists basic room areas and sizes, but really it’s a guideline to help you get started.  Try not to take this too seriously to begin with.  It usually makes sense to stay in the general range of the room sizes I list but if your design vision calls for a living room in the shape of a bowling alley by all means, bend the rules.  Make the rules and then break the rules.  Develop a set of operating principles and consciously break them for effect.  Architect’s do this all of the time, when you do this with intent you’re one of us.

It’s important that along with the development of room sizes that you keep in mind ceiling heights.  Not exact ceiling heights, but a more generalized idea of which spaces might be taller than a standard 8’ ceiling.  You’ll note in the worksheet there’s a column labeled ‘factor’.  Ceiling heights are one thing that affects the factor; it’s essentially a multiplier that accounts for the extra materials (sheetrock, framing, paint, etc.) you’ll require when building a non-standard room volume (1.5 for cathedral/vaulted ceilings).  Some of the other factors listed account for unfinished basement spaces (0.1 because it’s significantly less costly than heated living space), as well as covered porches (0.75) and decks (0.5).  Landscape elements aren’t covered here but be sure to include terraces and other hard-scape elements in your program so you can allow for them in your budget.

What's Important?

When thinking about the size of spaces in relation to each other and the overall square footage try to think about them hierarchically.  Each should be relative in size to their importance in the floor plan.

Nothing says hierarchy like, “Check out our roof…we put a giant hole in it to show you how important it is for controlling light, for letting in the things we want and keeping out the things we don’t.”

A mudroom larger than a living room has certain connotations and functional implications.  The Romans were masters at spatial hierarchy.  Have a look at the Pantheon.

The Pantheon's Oculus
The Pantheon's Oculus

The large central space, flanked by smaller alcoves, with its’ oculus (the penultimate hierarchical move).  Nothing says hierarchy like, “Check out our roof…we put a giant hole in it to show you how important it is for controlling light, for letting in the things we want and keeping out the things we don’t.”

This is powerful and it’s really a marvelous space to stand in.  Look at the entry portico, and note the size of it.  It’s not wart-sized; it’s proportioned to the volume it’s attached to.  Now, have a look at your local convenience store entry (a gabled portico of sorts I’m guessing) and you’ll see the difference.  The convenience store is poorly proportioned, it’s too small and it’s too tall and it looks like the rest of the walls it’s adjacent to, except for the two doors.  While this example is intentionally simple I think it illustrates my point, which is once you’ve seen the difference, you’ll better appreciate the difference.

Pantheon Exterior View
Pantheon Exterior View

The Pantheon, with just a few simple elements and architectural moves allows one to understand immediately upon arrival how one enters and what’s important.  This is the approach you must take when thinking about sizing your spaces.  You’ll have a chance to revise this as you begin your design when you realize that the dining room should be a little larger and the pantry a little smaller, etc.  Many architects rely too heavily on the exact sizing of the spaces in the Program.  I try not to get too hung up on the size of the living room before I get into the design a little deeper.  I prefer to use it as an outline.

Sticker Shock

Develop the list of spaces, assign them rough sizes, total it up and, most importantly, assign a square foot (SF) price range to the total.  This is where the exercise becomes particularly meaningful and dare I say, painful.  At the beginning stages of the design process your program serves as an essential budgeting tool.

I recommend assigning a price range for two reasons:

1)    Early on before you even have a design; this is by far the most accurate means of portraying the variability of the costs involved.  Having a range will hold you accountable as you work toward getting the upper number of the range to be your target number.  I’ll explain more below.

2)    No two contractors will look at your design, drawings and specifications the same way, even when given the exact same information.  Equally, building techniques vary from contractor to contractor as do subcontracts and labor rates.

Having said all of this, I want you to look at the upper end of the range and know that that number is real.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can make material or finish decisions (bamboo flooring, plywood walls, cheap toilet fixtures…) and have any real effect on the overall scope and scale of this number.

Way too expensive?

Building costs are always rising.  The addition you worked on 5 years ago, from a pricing perspective, is irrelevant.  To be serious about controlling costs at this stage is to eliminate square footage.  This will be the easiest and best opportunity you have to do so.  Work backwards if need be, determine the maximum you’re willing to spend and fit the program sizes to meet the budget.  This part of the process can be bruising.  Expect it and work through it.  Every client, of every means, that I've ever worked with at this stage agrees to move forward based on the false hope that the actual numbers from the contractor will come back at the lower end of the range.  Believe me, Scout’s honor, it’s never happened.  Not one time.  If you take this part of the process seriously then the bidding and/or negotiation phase will be much, much easier.

"What Square Foot Price Do I Use?"

If you’re not sure what range to use, make a few phone calls to local builders or architects in your area.  They’re usually more than accommodating when it comes to giving out such basic information, and they have the benefit of recent projects to back up their knowledge base.  In my local area, the range I tell people wanting to do custom work is $300-400/SF.  It’s possible to be around $200/SF, however, it requires special concessions not many people are willing to make.

Once you've worked through this process: revising your wish list, revising your budget and you’re comfortable with what you have, you’re ready for the next step.  Get out your markers, pencils and tracing paper, Schematic Design is up next.  Possibly my favorite…

Questions...Comments?

Drop me a line, I'm here to help.  I’d love to hear your thoughts or design conundrums.

If you subscribe you’ll be sure to receive my next post in your inbox, there’s also my YouTube channel with helpful videos.  I’ll also post some links to a few books that will help you through the programming phase and provide some inspiration as to what’s possible when you economize and double up on the functions of your spaces.

An Architect's Design Process

I've recorded a two-part video describing in more detail the process of siting my own home, a modern longhouse.  This expands on some of the concepts presented in my previous video post and supports it with a real world example.

Part I

 

Part II

 

fallen birch
fallen birch

There are a couple of important points that I didn't get to in the video.  First, the idea of a modern longhouse was a derivative of the site, it wasn't a preconceived strategy.  However, having used this plan I can see merits on many different types of sites, it's a versatile and economical plan to construct.  But, back to the idea behind the longhouse concept.  The swath of fallen birches, the proximity of neighbors, the solar aspect and the surrounding forest suggested a longer house to exploit the variety of textures surrounding us.  We adopted the idea of a longhouse for three reasons: one because it was an historical archetype of Native Americans that settled here long before we did.  Two, because the idea of the longhouse suggested a simple (and affordable) way to unite a family under one roof, the original longhouses housed up to 20 families under one roof.  And, three because it suggested more broad site connections to the swath of fallen birches we were clearing away to make our home.

As I said in the video, I'll be using our longhouse as a teaching tool in future videos and posts...stay tuned.  If you haven't looked over the portfolio images yet they're located here.  Please leave a comment below or feel free to contact me at eric@thirtybyforty.com with any questions.

Siting Your Home - An Architect's Tutorial

There's a lot of 'ground' to cover when talking about choosing the ideal location to place your home and given just how individual each site is it would make for a very long video.  So, I've outlined my process in more detail here to help guide you from purchase point to design concept.  I'd love to hear from you, let me know if this helped in any way and as always you can send your questions to eric@thirtybyforty.com

YOUR SITE

This is where it all begins.  More often than not, the site is a strong generator of building form and orientation, as well as material and color for my buildings, so this step is a critical one.  The site is the genius loci for your project, wine makers call it terroir and understand that the site is the key to the ultimate flavor of wine.  The site is really important to me and it should be to you too.  It can be the raw land you’ve purchased, an empty building lot in a subdivision, the street on which you bought a row house, or even the floor of a warehouse you purchased.

b_siteananalysis_2
b_siteananalysis_2

Sites vary widely in their scale and reach but they all share some basic characteristics.  The site will have topography, it will have utilities and if it’s remote enough and doesn’t have utilities then you’ll need to plan how you’ll get things like power, phone, cable, water supply and how you’ll address things like sewage disposal.  Sites will all have access points and boundaries.  Depending on your particular situation it may have streams, forest, a significant tree, an orchard, lawn, a glacial erratic, wetlands, a lake or pond, even other structures and roadways.

More broadly, your site exists within a cultural context and a set of local building traditions.  If you’ve lived near your site for a long time, you’re probably aware of these.  If you’re new to the area observe your surroundings, read a little about the history of your area.  I always take clues from industrial or agrarian structures, which derive maximum benefit from minimal expenditure.  These structures plainly exhibit local know-how because their limited budgets require it.  Their choice of materials reflect local building norms and practice and while many may be in a state of disrepair, look more deeply for the origins of these selections.

DOCUMENT EVERYTHING

siteimpression
siteimpression

It’s important to document as much of this information as you can, within reason.  I begin by walking the site without anything in my hands.  This allows me to focus on important site features (and avoid tripping) without distraction.  I make mental notes of things that stand out, where the sun is, where the wind is coming from, views, sounds.  If the site is urban, this will entail walking the neighborhood, think of your site as everything within a 5-10 minute stroll.  If possible, visit the site at different times of the day, and at least once in the morning and once in the evening.  You’ll come away from these site walks knowing a lot more about the site and surrounding area than you had before.  Take photographs from a variety of vantage points.  This records the site pre-intervention and serves as a nostalgic record (think before-after photos).  Additionally, your building permit process or design review board may require them and you’ll reference them at various times during design as a source of inspiration.  Document all of this in a sketchbook, on your tablet, with a voice recorder, whatever way you choose.  I usually quickly sketch my impressions in a diagram, which is my way of visually hardwiring this information.  I find it easier to recall when I have to generate it by hand.

If your site has varied topography, sits on a hillside, near a stream or if it will be subject to stringent review by a design review or zoning board, you’ll probably need a survey.  There are basic surveys and there are boundary surveys.  The type you will require will depend on your specific situation, but more often than not you’ll only require a basic survey.  A boundary survey will be required when your deed doesn’t specifically outline the property lines or if there is some questionable division of your lot.  This isn’t a normal situation, but if you purchase this type of lot it will require deed research by a law clerk to determine historical land transfers, which, isn’t cheap.

If you do require a survey, contact a local professional land surveyor and ask how much a basic survey would cost.  Local surveyors are a great resource to tap and meeting one on your site can provide insights into lot history, neighbors, contractors and potential pitfalls regarding the local permitting process.   Be sure to pick their brains, their local knowledge is often invaluable.

TIP: if you’re looking to save money have the surveyor provide you with 2’ contour only in and around the area you’re considering building.  You can walk the site together and with some surveyor’s flagging map out an area together.  They can help you determine other site features you may have overlooked and decide whether you’ll need to locate them on the plan or not.

SURVEY BASICS

  • Reference Point
  • Property Lines
  • Other Structures
  • Flood Elevation
  • Driveways
  • Utilities
  • Contour/Topography
  • Significant Trees
  • Other Significant Features
  • Setbacks

REFERENCE POINT

Always have your surveyor set an elevation benchmark or reference point.  This is usually in the form of a nail set with orange flagging somewhere on site and tied back to their plan and noted as E.R.P. (Elevation Reference Point).

PROPERTY LINES

Have them locate the property lines per your deed.

OTHER STRUCTURES

Sheds, nearby houses, garages, barns, silos.

FLOOD ELEVATION

If you’ll be living in a flood plan, you’ll need this for insurance and the bank will require it for loans.

DRIVEWAYS

Existing, other access points.

UTILITIES

Power (overhead/buried), propane tanks, gas lines, cable, water, sewer.

CONTOUR

In surveyor-speak, this refers to the exact elevation and slope of the land.  Contour lines on a map connect points of similar elevation.  These lines are set at a specific interval depending on the scale of the map.  Many topographic navigation maps use a 20’ interval, with each line representing a 20’ difference in elevation from the adjacent line.  The closer the lines are together on the map, the steeper the site is and conversely, the farther apart the more flat the site is.  For your purposes, a 2’ interval should be sufficient.  If you’re very concerned with how closely your building will adhere to your site contour you may wish to have a 1’ interval mapped, but this will be twice as expensive as the 2’ option.

SIGNIFICANT TREES

If preserving trees are important to you, have him pick up the trees within that zone that are greater than 16” in diameter.

OTHER SIGNIFICANT FEATURES

Water bodies, fencing, stone walls, etc.

SETBACKS

If there are setbacks from waterlines, wetlands, easements or restricted areas ask them to locate those on the plan as well.  Always request a CAD file and PDF of their work.  This will help save on survey costs, which can add up quickly.  Survey costs in Maine as of publication date range between $3500-5000 for a basic survey around a building site with 2’ contours indicated, tied to the National Geodetic Vertical Datum (NGVD).

TIP: Google Earth is a great tool to see your site in context at a variety of scales. You may even find historical views and maps of your site as a layer within Google Earth.  Print out the most current view of your site and use it to document your findings, it’s a great way to conduct a no-cost site analysis and see your site from a different perspective.

A few other items to consider at this stage:

1) Deed: secure a copy of your deed if you haven’t already and review it to be sure there are no restrictions listed that would prevent you from doing what you’re proposing.  Pay particular attention to easements (number of structures allowed, utilities, view, access, etc.).  You’re legally bound to this document even if the town doesn’t have jurisdiction to enforce it.

2) Septic system: if your site doesn’t have access to a municipal sewer system you’ll need to hire a soils scientist to design a subsurface wastewater disposal system.  Basically a septic system.

3) Power: contact your local utility to verify the process and more importantly, the timeline, for getting power to your site.  If it’s far from the grid expect to pay between $10-$20 per foot to construct overhead primary power line.  Buried power line, as you’d expect, is more expensive and depends on site conditions (bedrock, streams, etc.)

site analysis
site analysis

DIAGRAM

Once you’ve compiled as much of the information above, add it to your SITE file folder. You'll use all of this information to diagram the site.  It need not be particularly good looking or graceful, it only needs to be useful.  This synthesis of information usually quite quickly highlights areas of the site to be developed and suggests areas to explore.  It may even result in design concepts.  The diagram at left led me to a design concept for the house which I proposed for this site based on the idea of a camera lens.  The gradation of light and view along with the existing site textures set in motion a particular thought process that led to this and other concepts for this property.  My video describes a more fluid way of looking at all of these technicalities together but in the end, the goal is to get to a diagram that clearly describes the limitations of the site which at the same time graphically represents the possibilities of the site.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions about your site, please feel free to contact me.  Please subscribe to my YouTube channel  if you'd like to keep up with future workshops.