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Architecture and Design: Materials and Specifications 101

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In this edition of our series on understanding the role of an architect, we take a look at what is included in specifying materials. If you missed the past few articles, be sure to start with the first installment to get the best understanding of the whole design process. This article series aims to explain all the steps of the design process in order to understand how architects add value to projects.

Materials and Specifications – The Basics

For clients, one of the often overlooked and misunderstood steps in the design process is materials and specifications. This step in design gives the appearance of simplicity, when in actuality it is one of the most complex and research intensive portions of the project. Next to choosing the right designer and the right contractor, materials and specifications is one of the most important aspects of ensuring a project’s success. The main premise of this phase of design is that all materials that will be used in the project are included in the set of documents given to a contractor – spelled out to include everything from size, color and the manufacturer’s name and product numbers. This list of materials – known as specifications – is important for two reasons: quality and cost. First, it is used to tell the contractor what level of quality is expected throughout the project. A contractor can quickly see that a project is high end by noticing top-notch manufacturer names in the list. Second, in the same way it sets the bar for quality, it also points to the intended project cost by listing actual products, appliances and fixtures to be installed. Contractors use the specifications to determine the price of the project and establish their bid for the work. Those who select products must be knowledgeable of the current technologies, building methods and available products to be effective in their role.

Materials and Specifications – Digging Deeper

At face value, materials and specifications seems simple: choose a product, list the critical components for the contractor to locate and purchase it and call it a day. Unfortunately, this misconception can lead to tension in a project if the client does not expect their designer or architect to spend an appropriate amount of time researching the products that end up on the specifications list. As an example, the appliances that go into a new home must be properly evaluated and vetted. If the client wants a water heater, the process for selection would involve researching and locating multiple water heater manufacturers or suppliers, reviewing the capabilities of the water heater, meeting with local sales representatives to see the item in person (if necessary), and finally deciding on a particular model that meets the client’s needs and budget.

Locating manufacturers is much easier with online research and most architectural and design offices stock product literature from all types of product suppliers. However, if the project requires an unusual material, it can often take much more time to locate an appropriate product supplier. Manufacturers and suppliers are often evaluated for their commitment to the environment, their solvency, and their customer service; no one wants to contribute to harming the environment and when problems occur, it is good to know their sales team will be there to answer questions or solve problems. After manufacturers have been identified, individual products are assessed according to a set of criteria (usually established during previous phases of design). Qualifications such as durability, cost, environmental impact, aesthetics and warranty are considered. The manufacturer’s reputation or customer service may sway the choice when two products are seemingly alike, or an in depth look at the product in person may act as tie-breaker. Samples of products are usually ordered throughout the design development stage for initial selection by the client, but some materials that are not ‘client facing’ may come up at a later stage. Many seasoned architects and designers will have a number of ‘go-to’ materials that they prefer to use on a large number of projects. This can be great for speeding up the process, but care should be given to ensure that each project is treated as an individual design response to a given problem. A potential issue with repeating specifications on multiple projects is that some materials or equipment may be discontinued. For this reason, specifications often begin during the design development stage and are added to as the client makes selections and as the project progresses. Starting specifications early allows time for finding alternates or weighing choices more carefully when required.

By now, it should be apparent that it is important for the person selecting the materials to have a broad understanding of what they are specifying. In addition to understanding individual products or materials, the specifier needs to understand the implications of how each material reacts with other materials and how they are joined together to ensure structural integrity, connections that won’t leak and excellent indoor air quality. No material can be considered independently of the those it comes in contact with. Finally, a specifier will have a knowledge of the sequencing of construction to ensure that the materials they select have appropriate lead times to arrive at the job site in proper sequence. Selecting materials that have long lead times, either due to manufacturing or shipping slow downs, can cause the entire project timeline to break down and result in costly delays.

The intricacies of selecting the appropriate materials for a construction project are best left to the capable hands of a designer or architect with experience in specifications. One can quickly see the benefit of allowing appropriate time for product evaluation, as it will ensure a successful project both during construction and well after occupancy.

Next month we will take a look at the bidding process and how it affects a design project. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog, www.architangent.com/blog

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November 27, 2012
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Architecture and Design: Construction Documents 101

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In the next installment on understanding the role of an architect, we investigate what is included in the construction documents phase of work. We recommend starting with the first installment to get the best understanding of the whole design process. This series aims to explain all the steps of the design process in order to understand how architects add value to projects.

Construction Documents – The Basics

The process of design is often difficult to dissect and explain because each step is dependent upon all other steps in order to ensure a successful project. Design is often thought of as a continuum rather than a series of individual steps. Design, therefore, cannot be considered in a vacuum, and many parts of the design process tend to blur together. Construction documents is part of the design process that is often lumped together with materials specifications and the bidding process for the sake of simple conversation. However, specifying materials, creating a set of construction ready drawings and getting these two items priced accurately are all unique components to design. The creation of a set of construction drawings is both highly detailed and highly important, as these drawings are considered a pivotal component in executing a construction contract and getting a project built. Construction documents in a traditional sense of the term refers to the set of drawings that an architect or draftsman creates which shows the final decisions made from the steps of programming, site design, schematic design, and design development. The drawings will show things like the floor plan, exterior and interior elevations, and plenty of details showing exactly how the building should be put together. Construction documents employ the use of both graphic illustrations and technically composed sentences or phrases to convey the intention for construction. It is this set of drawings that provides a contractor or builder a guide as to how to build the project at hand. It is also the set of documents used to create final project pricing and becomes the authority on what will or will not be included in the final built product.

Construction Documents – Digging Deeper

Creating an accurate set of construction documents is of the utmost importance, as the drawings will become the authority on all future matters that arise during construction. If there is ever a question as to what materials go where, the construction documents will be referenced. Architects, designers and draftsmen must ensure that every component in their building corresponds correctly to all other components to avoid potential conflict in the field. For example, if a client requests a change be made to the location of an exterior door, the architect must verify that all drawings have been updated to reflect this change. The floor plan would be adjusted to show the door’s new location, while both interior and exterior elevations would also be adjusted to show where the door moved to. The door’s new location may create other conflicts, such as interfering with adjacent windows or requiring alteration of the roof above to provide an exterior porch or covered entry. A seemingly ‘simple change’ in design leads to a host of necessary alterations in the construction documents, and it is very important for the architect to coordinate all design elements for accuracy. This is one reason why it is important for clients to understand that changes made after approving a design development scheme can result in a multitude of time-consuming alterations in the construction documents. It is much easier to make changes during the schematic and design development phases than in the middle or end of the construction document phase. It is important to discuss how changes made late in the process will affect the designer’s fee well before arriving at the situation.

Accuracy of construction documents is highly important to the project’s success because it allows for contractors and quantity estimators to quote fair and accurate prices. A set of construction documents that is drawn neatly, clearly and correctly with an appropriate amount of details (graphic or written) assures the estimators that their prices are accurate. Poorly drawn, incomplete, or ambiguous drawing sets will cause estimators to include extra padding in their prices since they may not be certain of the efforts necessary to construct a detail as drawn, or are not confident in the drawing’s accuracy. Inflated quotes are often the result of drawings which cannot be easily interpreted and planned from.  In addition to accurate pricing, a complete and accurate set of construction documents allows for faster and more efficient construction, which saves the client time and money and allows all parties to remain profitable. If a set of construction documents is errant, or ambiguous, valuable time must be spent answering questions and providing additional drawings to clarify the designer’s intent. While it is normal to have a few Requests for Information (“RFI” – contractors will ask questions when they are unclear about something in the documents), a host of RFIs would indicate that additional time should be spent in the creation of construction documents.

Next month we will take a look at Materials and Specifications and its role in the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog, www.architangent.com/blog

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Architecture and Design: Design Development 101

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For our next installment on understanding the role of an architect, we investigate the step known as design development. We recommend starting with the first installment to get the best understanding of the whole design process. This series aims to explain all the steps of the design process in order to understand how architects add value to projects.

Design Development – The Basics

Schematic design is all about getting ideas on paper that represent the goals outlined during programming and fit within the restraints defined through site planning. While schematic design focuses on broad goals and larger concepts, design development hones these ideas into realistic and tangible options. Think of design development as the point at which decisions are made and concepts are solidified into actions. During the course of schematic design, a client may be presented with a handful of viable options which each have various pros and cons. It is during the design development stage that the architect and client scrutinize their options and select the best one for further investigation. Once a schematic design has been identified as the best solution for the given problem, the project begins to take much clearer form. Design development is the part of the process which forces all decisions to be evaluated for their practicality and execution. This step requires extensive product research and logistics evaluation.

Design Development – Digging Deeper

During programming, goals were set out for the project and they were refined and evaluated during schematic design. In the design development stage, these goals begin to translate from a conceptual standard into tangible physical products and material choices. Materials for the exterior and interior are evaluated for their beauty, durability and price. Each component that will go into the building is considered in relation to the goals set forth during programming and to the parts it will join with. Design development often unearths a myriad of considerations that must be prioritized in order to make selections and keep the project on track. For example, an early programming goal may have been to use materials that are sustainable. The idea of sustainability encompasses a wide array of topics, from life-cycle impact to occupant health concerns. When sustainable products or finish materials are suggested for use in a project, the architect must weigh things like recycled content, product availability, durability, proximity to the job site and health impact. If the architect wants to specify a wood floor, it becomes a challenge to determine whether a locally sourced wood or an exotic wood is the best choice when considering sustainability. The locally sourced wood may reduce the carbon emissions from shipping, while the exotic species may grow more quickly than the local tree and replenish the supply faster. Likewise, the exotic species may be better for outdoor applications because it is naturally resistant to insects or weather while the local species is more cost effective. Design development is the step of the design process which forces the architect and the client to decide the final priority of their goals and refine their tastes to align with them. For many clients, the budget is the top priority, while for others, aesthetics will win hands down. It is up to the architect to research products and suggest suitable solutions that meet as many of the goals as possible. It is up to the client to remain flexible and understand that there will be a need for compromise for many decisions.

The design development step is also one in which logistics are carefully considered. As each product and material is researched and selected, thought is given to how it will impact the actual construction and implementation of the project. In an architectural project, each decision affects a host of other decisions and components. Increasing the width of a window can affect the material choice on the exterior as joints and alignments will now shift. Selecting an expensive interior wall finish may result in a lower budget for other materials later on. Designing a complicated detail where a window meets a wall can have an impact on the speed at which it will be installed. It is important that the design development stage is not rushed so that as much forethought can be given to the project as possible. Planning and forethought drive design development and has a great impact on the construction documents from which the project is built. For architects who practice a design-build business model, this is often the step at which the construction company will begin to get involved, offering preliminary cost estimates and advising on the refinement of the initial ideas. For some architects, they both design and build their projects. For others, they hire another company to construct their project but choose to involve them earlier in the process than a traditional design-bid-build method. A design-bid-build method waits to involve contractors until the entire drawing set is complete then asks several construction companies to estimate the cost of the project. It is easy to see that involving the construction team early can help shape the project to be efficient and cost effective.

Next month we will take a look at Construction Documents and its role in the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog, www.architangent.com/blog

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Architecture and Design: Schematic Design 101

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For our third installment on understanding the role of an architect, we investigate the step known as schematic design. You can start with the first installment to get the best understanding of the whole design process. This series aims to break down the design process into smaller steps in order to understand the role of an architect and how they add value to projects large and small.

Schematic Design – The Basics

After the initial programming and site design phases, the designer will compile all of the required and desired elements into a set of conceptual sketches. As the word ‘schematic’ would suggest, these conceptual sketches aim to show the relationship between parts in an informal and loose manner. The schematic drawings may include a number of different iterations or schemes, each having a unique feature or focus. For example, schematic design concepts for an office building may show one option that features windows oriented towards sweeping views while another concept depicts windows arranged for maximum solar efficiency. Each schematic sketch or drawing will respond in some way to the list of programmed spaces, the qualitative goals, and the site on which it will be located. During the schematic design phase, many ideas will be brought up, discussed, reviewed and refined. It may take several attempts before arriving at a particular concept which seems to best embody all of the goals and requirements. Throughout the schematic design phase, the needs and goals of the client will be re-evaluated in connection with how they will best develop into real spaces. Sometimes program requirements or goals are in conflict with what is spatially feasible, and may require some adjusting. It may even be necessary to re-draft the program after making a first pass at schematic design to ensure that expectations are clearly stated based on any new design criteria discovered in schematic design.

Schematic Designs on Trace Paper

Schematic Designs on Trace Paper

Schematic design is the stage that is often the most exciting for clients. They can begin to see sketches and quick physical models of their dreams coming to life. Sometimes, clients will be inspired by the designs presented to them and consider increasing their project scope. While some schematic designs may indicate a change in scope is necessary, it is always important to refer back to the original program to ensure the project stays within the guidelines of needs, goals and budget requirements. As the project is visualized through sketches, models and inspiration images, clients can quickly get an idea of how their building will start to look.

Schematic Design – Digging Deeper

Schematic designs may consist of approximated floor plans, simple elevations, quick 3D views and conceptual rough sections. Floor plans will be drawn to scale and may include suggested interior arrangements including furnishings or finish options. The drawings will indicate the general location of fenestrations (windows, doors) in addition to any big ideas the concept was based on. Accompanying drawings which help the client visualize the main features and really ‘sell’ the concept will be included as well. For example, if a driving concept for a house was to provide abundant natural light, the schematic design would clearly indicate the window placement and possibly include perspective drawings of the windows, doors and any amazing views. These drawings could be hand drawn or provided as a 3D ‘mass model’, either virtually or in person. Mass models are a good way to understand the relationship of volumes in the vertical plane, similar to the way that floor plans help us understand the relationship of rooms in the horizontal plane. Mass models consist of simple geometric forms that represent designated areas and spaces. A mass model that shows a two-storey living room may be constructed as a tall box with a triangle roof, which could indicate a lofted ceiling underneath.

The Axis - mass model - design by Brinn Miracle

The Axis – mass model – design by Brinn Miracle

Many times, architects and designers will meet with a client multiple times during this phase. The architect or designer will present several concepts to the client, and they will discuss the merits of each. Listing out the pros and cons of each concept will help inform the refinements necessary to reach a finalized schematic design that the eventual building is based on. After several ideas have been reviewed, revised and carefully considered, the best concept is selected for design development. For some, it may be easy to select a clear ‘winner’ among the schematic designs from which to develop the project. For others, it may take many weeks or months before arriving at a conclusion. Sometimes it can even be a combination, where an overall concept is selected early, but a portion of the building is revised and debated further. In this stage of the process, the architect often has a firm understanding of how a concept will come to fruition based on their ability to conceptualize and their past experience. They will guide the client towards the best solutions and steer them away from costly or awkward concepts. It is important that communication is open and clear throughout the schematic design phase so that there is a solid foundation to build from in the next phase.

Next month we will take a look at Design Development and its role in the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog, www.architangent.com/blog

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Architecture and Design: Site Planning 101

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For our second installment on understanding the role of an architect, we investigate site planning and design. You can read the first installment that explains programming, the basis for designing architecture. As we break down the design process into smaller steps, you’ll have a better idea of what an architect can do for you and how they add value to projects large and small.

Site Planning and Design – The Basics

For any new project, a site must be selected before any real design work can get under way. Architecture is a unique blend of art and science, and each building is designed to respond to its immediate environment. A building in the mountains that receives lots of snow will look much different than a building designed for island living. Selecting an appropriate site for your program is very important to ensuring your goals are met. While an architect can work with almost any property presented to them, it is recommended to engage an architect prior to purchasing land on which to build. An architect will research the zoning (if applicable) and give you an idea of whether the property is sized appropriately to meet your programmatic needs. An architect will show you where required set back lines exist, which may influence what you are able to build on the property. It is especially important to consult with an architect if the project is within city limits, as additional restrictions may apply to the property. Tighter regulation may exist for aesthetics, parking, setbacks, or land use. Urban infill properties also pose design challenges, as they are usually much smaller and require expert design to make everything fit efficiently on the land. An architect is also helpful in identifying properties as contenders for rehabilitation and re-use for those wanting to give new life to an old structure.

After purchasing the property, architects review the survey in detail and begin to prepare site-specific bubble diagrams that respond to the program. During this phase of the design process, the architect or designer will consider many influences that may have an impact on the design. The slope of the land can greatly affect the cost of construction, and as a general rule, the steeper the slope, the more challenging the design and budget will be. Next, one must consider neighboring structures. The new design must be sensitive to surrounding neighbors and respond to their height, style and proximity. A skilled architect or designer will take into account the views one will have inside and out. Another aspect of site design is evaluating the vegetation, and deciding the most strategic placement of the building on the site to save existing plant life. Strategy may involve avoiding steep slopes, saving mature trees, or maximizing the enjoyment of a natural feature such as a stream or lake.

Site Planning and Design – Digging Deeper

While it may seem easy to select a piece of property and position a new building on it, there are details that impact the design further. For example, one may purchase property that has little to no slope, with the idea that it will be ‘easy to build on’. However, soil analysis must be done to ensure a proper foundation is designed. Dirt may rest at the surface, but under it may be rock, clay or a high water table. Each of these presents issues when it comes time to drill piers, set foundations or dig out a basement. In addition to soil type, architects must consider flood plains and potential drainage issues. Consideration must be given for how water moves across the property, and care must be taken to avoid sending additional run off to neighboring properties. For urban sites in low-lying areas, it is important to anticipate future development which may cause additional runoff to collect on the site.

In additional to immediate natural features or hazards, an architect must consider the type of structure in relation to common natural disasters. Buildings in seismic zones must have proper structural bracing to withstand earthquakes which may add to the cost of the project. Buildings in hurricane-prone areas must be built to withstand the forces of wind and driving rain. The climate also plays a role in deciding on material choices, which in turn impact the aesthetic of the building. Hot and humid climates will receive different material treatments than climates which are very cold or very dry. The architect or designer will evaluate the path of the sun across the site, as well as any prevailing winds or consistent breezes. For those interested in creating a sustainable design, taking advantage of a site’s natural features is the best way to achieve sustainability.

An aspect many new property owners neglect is access to utilities. While this is rarely a problem in urban settings, it can add cost to rural project that require extensive new infrastructure. Urban projects have their own difficulties, in that utilities can become obstacles that buildings must go around. Each utility has set back requirements that prevent structures from getting too close. Providing proper room around existing utilities is vital for future maintenance and construction safety.

Finally, architects will guide owners through the permitting and review processes. Too often, people try to save money by creating drawings too quickly and without proper review, only to be denied building permits later on. An experienced architect will know when to bring consultants on board and will have drawings reviewed by appropriate departments so that the final drawings will go through the permitting process efficiently. For challenging sites that have many restrictions or potential problems, it is always good to consult the local planning department early in the process.

Next month we will take a look at Schematic Design and how it relates to the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog,www.architangent.com/blog

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Architecture and Design: Programming 101

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Architecture is a broad field that encompasses a wide variety of professionals. For those hiring a design professional, it can quickly feel overwhelming when presented with a list of available services. Having a basic understanding of what architects do and what services they can offer will help you engage in a meaningful dialogue and ask the right questions. Over the next few months, we’ll dive deeper into what architects do (and don’t do) and what each step of the design process entails so you’ll feel comfortable using the terminology and will be better prepared to discuss your next design project with a professional.

For architecture projects, the steps of the process can be broken down in several ways. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll take a look at the broad steps that lead from project inception to completion. The main phases of a project include:

  • Programming
  • Site Design
  • Schematic Design
  • Design Development
  • Construction Documents
  • Materials & Specifications
  • Bidding
  • Construction Administration

This series aims to simplify a process that is highly complicated, with each step integral to the others. Keeping that in mind, the order of the process may fluctuate or repeat depending on the project or specific needs of the client. A design professional with experience in architecture projects can help you understand which steps in the process are likely to play a larger role in your specific project. It is also good to note that code review studies, zoning/regulation studies and budgeting/feasibility studies are integral to the entire process and will occur throughout the beginning of the project timeline.

Programming – The Basics

The first step in design is referred to as programming. Programming entails discovering the client’s needs and goals and getting them down on paper in either written or graphic format (or both). For example, a client may need a new home designed to accommodate their growing family. An architect or designer would discuss the needs the client has in terms of number of rooms and size of rooms from a quantitative perspective. They would also ask questions from a more qualitative perspective to understand how the client envisions these rooms. The qualitative discussion might center on issues of natural light, views to the outdoors, noise concerns, or proximity to other rooms in the house. The balance of quantitative and qualitative components allows the architect or designer to understand the client’s needs in terms of hard numbers (square feet) and emotional expectations for how the space will feel and function

During programming, it is important to have an open, honest conversation with your architect or designer about budget, space requirements and overall expectations. Often, clients will discover that some of their desires or needs are in direct conflict with their budget or other goals. Talking about the types of materials you want to see in the design, the size of the house, and the way your current home meets or fails to meet needs will give insight as to how your project will come together.

Programming – Digging Deeper

On the surface it seems easy to come up with a list of rooms and general sizes required for each. However, effective programming will also seek the reasons behind each requirement so that if two requirements are in conflict with one another, the architect or designer can make the best decision to achieve the intended outcome. There is often a need to ‘translate’ perceived needs into actual needs. As an example, a client requesting a new house may say they need a walk-in pantry. They may also say that they need a 20’x20′ bedroom. During the programming process, it is important to ask ‘why?’ for each need or goal. While the client may request a walk-in pantry, what they actually need is a pantry that is easily accessible. An easily accessible pantry does not always translate into a separate room with a door. In fact, a designer who understands the clients true needs will be able to come up with a better design than if they are limited by perceived needs that are narrowly defined. Likewise, a 20’x20′ bedroom may be a ‘need’ simply because the client wants to accommodate a sizable collection of furniture in the room. Talking about how the furniture is used, when it is accessed and the preferences for where it is located can free the designer to reduce the size of the bedroom and accommodate the furniture in other places. These freedoms will provide the designer with more opportunity to create a space that is not only beautiful, but will meet the true needs of the client. It is often helpful to walk through the client’s existing space (whether home, office or another building) and observe how the space is actually used – making note of successes and opportunities for improvement. An exercise known as “a day in the life” is often helpful, as it goes through the paces of a typical day to discover the underlying needs and goals of the client. It is important to be honest about whether needs are true requirements or if they are preferences. The difference can determine whether a designer is allowed the freedom to create an efficient and effective design solution.

A large part of programming investigates the proximity of spaces while considering whether their proximity will meet the goals laid out for each space. For example, a client may request that their kitchen be close to the dining room and that both spaces have views to the outdoors. For the architect or designer, this means the spaces could be immediately adjacent and share a single, common view to the outside. Alternatively, these same spaces could be visually separated from one another and each have their own view to the outdoors. As with any other goal or need laid out during programming, it is important to understand the ‘why’ behind each decision. Is it important the kitchen has windows so that herbs are easily accessed, or are the views mainly for the enjoyment of the chef? A single question such as this will help determine where the windows are placed. For proximity studies, it is important to recognize the difference between adjacency and absolute positioning. It is wise to approach the design in terms of adjacency, which stipulates relationship of spaces with terms such as “near”, or “close to”. Absolute positioning severely limits the design solutions with terms of “must be to the right” or “in the center”. While some elements can be designated in absolutes, it is rare to create a successful design with more than a few absolute requirements. Absolute space positioning can result in budget concerns, inefficient spaces and failure to meet multiple goals. This is why it is important to think critically and analytically about why spaces will be located next to one another.

Finally, effective programming will not only examine the current needs of the client, but will seek to anticipate and prepare for future needs. A talented professional will recognize areas that may pose a problem for the execution of goals and will recommend solutions to accommodate future needs. This facet of programming can often be difficult, as it is the most abstract and unknown. Balancing unknowns with set budgets or property locations can be a true challenge. Often, a solution to future needs can be achieved through flexible spaces (spaces that serve more than a single purpose) and allowing room on the site for expansion.

Bubble Diagram

Bubble Diagram

A tool that architects and designers use for representing programs visually is a bubble diagram. A bubble diagram represents spaces with simple circles or squares that are sized relative to one another. Lines can connect the spaces to represent corridors or hallways, and the shapes can be grouped together quickly in multiple arrangements to see which layouts achieve the needs and goals of the client. In addition to bubble diagrams, lists of spaces with quantitative and qualitative notes will be provided as a basis for the design solution and as a metric for success.

Bubble Diagram

Bubble Diagram

Next month we will take a look at Site Design and how it relates to the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog,www.architangent.com/blog

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Remodeling: Return on Investment

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Contrary to popular belief and perpetuated misnomers, your home is not an investment. Unless you own more than one, a house is a living expense, similar to groceries or clothing; it is a necessity. By nature, investments are not necessities. While there are many home owners who realize a gain on their home’s sale, it is not the outcome that should motivate a home purchase. Similarly, while remodeling your existing home could translate to an increased sales price or faster sale, it is not the type of investment that will provide large gains in typical circumstances. In fact, most home remodeling projects will lose money. Although remodeling projects won’t measure up to typical investments, there are benefits to remodeling a house and putting some money (or sweat equity) into your home. By understanding the basics of investing and how it relates to remodeling, you can make an informed and educated decision when faced with the choice to remodel.

First, one must understand the concept of Return on Investment, also known as ROI. Investopedia is a great resource that explains financial terminology, and it defines ROI as:

As an example, let’s say you own a $100,000 house. You decide to do a kitchen remodel that costs $10,000. When you go to sell your house, the appraiser says you can list your home at $108,000 given the recent improvements. Typically, home improvement TV shows as well as almost every major retailer of home improvement products mistakenly tells you that you’re getting an 80% ROI. This is incorrect, because using the ROI formula, the math actually turns out this way:

Gain from investment ($8,000) – Cost of Investment ($10,000)

Cost of Investment ($10,000)

=

-0.2 (or – 20%)

As you can see, negative twenty percent is not a great investment at all! If this were a return from your stock investments, you’d have sold long ago and had strong words with your financial adviser. What actually happens is that remodeling costs can be recouped, depending on the type of project and your current real estate market conditions. In some cases, you might see a return on your remodeling investment if your home is in a highly sought after area, or if the supply of available homes is low compared to the demand. Simply put, remodels make sense for these reasons: resale, happiness, and renting.

Resale

Historically, kitchen and bath remodels will bring you the most bang for your buck, allowing you to recoup approximately $0.75 +/- for each dollar you invest. The caveat to this is the scale of your kitchen and bath remodel. Smaller, basic upgrades recoup the most money, while all out renovations actually bring back less (by about 10%). This is due mainly to the fact that buyers expect a home to be in working order. If all the homes for sale in your area are in working order, the distinguishing factor between them becomes a matter of aesthetic taste. In this case, it would be best to consider a ‘face-lift’ remodel that would include basic touch ups, curb appeal and simple finish replacement where soiled or worn out. It would not be as prudent to invest lots of money in a complete re-do of the home, as buyers expect the home to be in working order, and costly remodels may not fit the buyer’s specific tastes – adding nothing to the value of the home in their minds. On the other hand, if your home has broken appliances, structural problems, a leaking roof or is in need of a severe overhaul due to neglect, a major remodel would be a better decision, so that your home will meet buyer expectations. Buyer’s may not love the color granite you chose but can live with it. They will not be impressed if the roof has a hole in it and may walk away all together. The other point to consider with resale remodel projects is liquidity. Liquidity refers to how easily an asset can be bought or sold. In this case, remodeling your home (even with small improvements) can help your home sell faster than competitor’s.

Happiness

In economic terms, happiness is referred to as utility. It is defined as the “total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service”. Remember that your house is a living expense, much like a product or service. It is easy to picture your ‘dream home’ that makes you smile just thinking about it. This is the easiest way to describe how utility works. If money were no object, most people would build their dream home and have every detail exactly as they want it. In reality, money is a resource that is scarce and we must make difficult decisions on the margin based on happiness. In terms of remodels, let’s say you’re living in an older home with a cramped kitchen that has little or no counter space. After years of putting up with it, you may decide that it is ‘worth it’ to you to spend some money to improve the layout, update the appliances and make it your ‘dream kitchen’. While you don’t have the money to remodel your entire home, the kitchen is important to you, and thus, would bring you the most enjoyment. When you consider whether to undertake a remodel, your personal happiness should be your top priority. Since most remodels only recoup a portion of the project costs, consider if your remodel will bring you enjoyment, satisfaction and make your daily life less stressful. Weigh the potential happiness against your current conditions. If you find the prospect of improving your home is enticing for multiple reasons, it is a good idea to pursue a remodel. After all, the best remodels are those that you get to enjoy – not just potential buyers!

Renting

Finally, another consideration for remodeling your home is whether you plan to rent it out and purchase another house. As property values begin to increase again, many people are considering the idea of owning an income property from which they can collect passive income. For income properties in need of some TLC, remodeling makes a lot of sense in markets where buyer expectations demand it. Not only will you gain a competitive edge compared to other rental units, but your rental could demand a higher monthly payment. In addition to monthly income, any improvements you make to a rental property can be depreciated over time. That means you can deduct the cost of the remodel from your taxes, divided over a period of time. For example, if you paid for a $10,000 remodel to your rental property, you could deduct $1,000 per year for 10 years from the property’s taxable income. This effectively reduces the overall cost of a remodel, potentially providing or increasing your return on investment.

While the TV shows misconstrue how much money you can gain from a remodeling project, there are still advantages to taking on a project even if you don’t get 80% ROI like they tout. Selling your home faster, finding personal enjoyment from a remodeled room or even writing off the cost of a project from your rental property’s taxes are all viable reasons to invest in a remodel. To ensure your project runs smoothly and impresses buyers, renters or you significant other, be sure to choose the right design professional and understand how you can add value to your home with their services.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog, www.architangent.com/blog

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Presenting to a Client

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For every design problem there are multiple factors that will determine the success of the project. One aspect that is often overlooked is the presentation of the initial design solution. While we have focused on the importance of the client, their needs and how they interact with a designer, it is equally important to address the designer directly. For this month’s post, the focus will be on presentation to a client to ensure that a client is neither underwhelmed or overwhelmed.

As designers, we are in tune with the intricacies of a project. Our minds are trained to both pick out details and contemplate the bigger picture. It is often with ease that we can switch gears between choosing something as small as cabinet hardware and deciding on the best construction method for a large building. We can juggle the requirements of an individual client or please a boardroom full of differing opinions. It is good to take a few steps back on occasion and remember that designers have been educated and trained in the practices, jargon and mindset of creativity. The difficulty can be when designers forget that their audience may not be equipped with these same tools.

Part of being a good designer is having the capability to sell your concept effectively to your client. A good idea is only effective when it is implemented, and the presentation becomes crucial to the success of the idea. There are four components that establish a successful foundation for a project: salesmanship, clarity of concept, quantity, and communication.

Salesmanship is something that comes naturally and easily to some. Others have to work at it and may still feel their ‘pitch’ is inadequate at times. The key to remember is that the best salesmen – the naturals – focus on making their clients comfortable. Comfort is found in a personality that is calming, confident and convincing. The best way to ensure comfort is to be prepared. Preparedness entails a thorough knowledge of the topic at hand, an understanding of where your client is coming from, and an anticipation of their needs and desires. Finding a common ground with your client is often the starting point to developing a comfortable working relationship. This common ground could be found through drawing upon past experience that relates to the current problem, or perhaps through sharing the same values as your client. Mutual understanding of needs and goals can then lead to a confidence that the solutions presented to the client are the best available to meet their needs. Once the spark of confidence is developed, convincing a client to accept your proposal becomes almost second nature; the client will feel comfortable trusting your design decisions because there is a mutual goal and clear understanding of their needs.

Clarity of Concept is essential to the success of a project. The best ideas, if not articulated clearly, will be lost on the client. Part of clarity involves speaking the same language as your client. While designers often use jargon and terms that have significant meaning within our profession, many clients are unaware of the lingo. Educate your client on the terms you will use to describe their design solution to eliminate confusion from the start. Try to use terminology that is concise and be sure to ask your client questions to gauge their understanding along the way. Remember that a proposal presentation should be a dialogue, not a monologue. It may be helpful to present the design solution to others before showing it to the client. Not only will this help settle nerves and provide an opportunity to hone the presentation, it will ensure that your concept is understood by a diverse audience.

Quantity can often trip up even the best designers. Excitement and enthusiasm can sometimes overshadow clarity. There must be a balance between giving the client choices and overwhelming them with decisions. It is best to gauge their expectations on the number of proposals they want prior to your presentation. Try to keep your ideas focused and relevant by limiting proposals to 2 or 3 total. While a single proposal may indeed be the best solution, there will be clients who are uncertain about their needs and goals. Providing more than one option can help clarify their aspirations through a process of elimination. Additionally, a designer can show their flexibility and creativity by providing multiple options. Finally, a set of choices helps keep the client engaged. By asking their opinion and having them make a decision, they will remain committed and active in the project’s development.

Communication is an essential part of any project, but honest communication goes beyond listening skills and understanding one another. Honest and open communication entails being upfront about the limitations of a client’s requirements as well as having frank discussions about the direction of the design. Often, a designer can feel trapped by wanting to please the client at each step of the process, which can ultimately sacrifice overall satisfaction at the project’s completion. It is important to discuss the impact decisions will have on the overall goals, and align designs so that the goal is achieved. Some clients may have specific expectations for how a project is implemented; taking the time to manage expectations and explore alternative solutions helps build trust and re-focus on the ultimate goal: a built project with lasting client satisfaction. Be prepared to speak up when something impedes progress towards the goal.

By combining good salesmanship, clarity of concept and limiting the quantity of proposals, designers can impress clients and establish a strong foundation for their project and see it through completion with honest and open communication.

 

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Matters of Taste: Determining Your Style

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When embarking on a new design project, an important question that will inevitably come up is, “What’s your style?”. While describing a fashion trend such as ‘punk’ or a general life attitude like ‘laid back’ can be done easily with buzz words and catch phrases, such terminology within architecture can have a profound impact on the project at hand. Terminology within architecture implies specific detailing, material choices and an overall look and feel. It is important to recognize the various styles of architecture and determine what best suits your tastes when approaching a design professional with a new project. The challenge is understanding which styles are most appealing, why they stand out from the rest, and what they are called. Through an exercise of discovery, a style can be defined and categorized, leaving the individual better equipped to articulate their needs, desires and tastes. Clear communication is essential to a successful project.

The world of architecture and design if full of named styles, movements (both theory based and aesthetic based), and historic eras. Writing about each of these could take hundreds of pages, and they are already well documented in history books. When thinking about the term, ‘style’, it is important to remember that style does not necessarily need to have a name. While this may seem counter-intuitive to discovering your style, keep in mind that naming a style, movement or historic aesthetic simply helps us identify those elements which are common to a group of designs. Naming, in essence, is a way to categorize that which is unnamed. To determine one’s style, it is helpful to first remove the traditional style terminology such as ‘Craftsman’ or ‘Colonial’ and instead focus on something more simple: reactions.

Reactions are a window into emotions and the subconscious, and as such, they are a good ‘first look’ at determining tastes. As an exercise in discovery, start by viewing a series of architecture and design photos, magazine clippings or browsing through an online image collection. While browsing, divide the images into three categories: Love it, Indifferent, and Hate it. An online image organizer such as Pinterest can be especially helpful for discovering unknown images. Once there are at least 10 photos in each category, the exercise in discovery changes from a ‘gut reaction’ to contemplative reflection. Many people simply stop at the first step and never analyze their choices to determine the reasons why they enjoy or dislike an image. For those beginning a new design project, it is helpful to understand the reasons behind reactions so that decisions about the project can be informed decisions with purpose and integrity.

Reflection is the next important step of discovering matters of taste. With the images sorted into Love it, Indifferent and Hate it categories, examine each group and reflect on why each image was included in the set. Try writing down words that come to mind when each image is viewed, and see how many times each word appears within a group. For example, one might find they write the word “Bright” or “Open” for all of the images they love. Conversely, they may discover that they write the words “Dark” and “Small” for images they do not like. In addition to writing quick words that come to mind, asking a series of questions tends to help us linger on the deeper reasons behind our subconscious choices. Questions might include: How does this image make me feel? What does this image remind me of from my past? Do I enjoy this because it is popular or trendy? Do I dislike this because of preconceived ideas or prejudices? Would I want to live with this look every day? etc. Deeper questions will lead to meaningful reflection, and eventually to distilled concepts of what styles are most appealing. After thorough reflection, one can summarize their likes and dislikes with a short series of words and images, which is very helpful to show to a designer in the early stages of a new project. A designer can even help you walk through a series of thought-provoking questions to help you arrive at the reasons behind your reactions. After the steps of reaction and reflection come the final step in the discovery process: redefine.

Redefine your preconceived styles into something that is personal, practical and much more accurate. For some, they may find their personal tastes are best described by an existing historic style or popular aesthetic, such as “Shaker” or “Mid-Century Modern”. However, many will find that their tastes are a mixture of many named styles across multiple decades or centuries of history. For this reason, it is important to redefine your style from preconceived terminology to a more accurate description based on your discovery process. This will ensure clear communication during a design project. There are plenty of people who mistakenly think they like the “Modern” architectural aesthetic. However, historic Modernism is often a shock to those who are unfamiliar with the low-lying flat roofs, minimal interiors and industrial-like qualities. The term Modern can be mistaken for the concept of contemporary design, which is very different in aesthetic and theory. As you collect your reactions, refine them into reflections and begin to redefine your style terminology, try making a condensed list and image collection that tells a story of your tastes in the most succinct way possible. An image with a single word can help pinpoint the most important aspect of a particular style or design. Use these images and words to describe your redefined style to a design professional. Once they have a clear idea of your reactions, reflections and redefined terminology, they can educate you on the various historic names that apply to your tastes.

Understanding your style is important not only to communicating clearly with a designer, but also to building confidence in your decisions as you go through the design process. The discovery process will encourage you to eliminate ideas that were preconceived, explore new design aesthetics, and clarify your needs, desires and tastes. Each of these steps will help create a confidence that the direction you’re headed is right for you – the most important aspect of a project!

To start your style discovery, check out this handy tool for categorizing images by your reaction: http://www.sproost.com/

Brinn Miracle holds a Masters of Architecture and works as an architectural designer at PDR in Houston. Brinn writes for her blog at www.architangent.com/blog and has a passion for residential design and architectural education.

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February 20, 2012
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Let’s Be Practical: Selecting Products

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Many posts to this point have dealt heavily with the importance of choosing the right design professional, understanding what designers and architects add to a job, and adding value to a project. This month we take a closer look at one of the more practical concerns many jobs face: selecting a product. While many clients may feel this is an easy task of selecting what looks best or fits the budget, there are a few more points to be considered when making a choice. A design professional will be well versed in working with product suppliers and can easily catch mistakes and avoid pitfalls. Below is a candid example of what some of those pitfalls are and how an experienced professional can navigate around them.

In this example, we’ll use wall tile. Recently, I was tasked with selecting an appropriate tile for use as a kitchen back splash. For those who may not know, a back splash is the area directly behind the sink that is usually constructed of a hard surface to resist water infiltration. Tile is a popular choice for back splashes, as it is easy to clean and is well suited for a wet environment. A back splash can be confined to a small area of the wall at the sink, or can extend farther – say, the length of the counter – for aesthetic and maintenance reasons.

While the color palette had been determined, I had the freedom to suggest a wide range of aesthetics and products that would be suited to the project. The process began with browsing through vendor catalogs and in-house samples. The primary focus was on tiles that were very colorful, had a nice sense of depth and would have a contemporary look. For these reasons, glass tile was our top choice. Glass tile offers a contemporary aesthetic, a great depth of color, and a mesh backing that allows for an easy installation. Glass tile does not absorb water, whereas a ceramic tile product will have a small amount of water absorption. That translates to less maintenance and less probability of mold and mildew growing. After discovering several glass wall tiles that looked like a good match, I contacted the sales representative to order physical samples of the styles I wanted to consider.

One part of the process that is often overlooked is the interaction with the product sales person. I tend to keep track of which companies are timely, orderly and knowledgeable so that I can use them again in the future. If I find that a vendor is difficult to get in touch with, doesn’t have the answers I need or is slow in responding with sample requests, I tend to avoid them for future projects. Another consideration on which product vendor to use is whether they have an informative website. If a supplier or manufacturer does not have product information on their website, or if it is difficult to navigate, it can mean extra time spent emailing, calling and waiting for service. I tend to give preference for companies that readily supply information online in addition to encouraging calls and emails.

Once I received the glass tile samples, I sorted them as to their type and color spectrum. After doing some quick eliminations, my team took a closer look at our ‘top contenders’. At this point we began to scrutinize each tile and were surprised to find some problems.

The first is made of sheets of colored paper embedded within the tile to create colored bands. While the look is visually striking and unusual, several sample pieces showed evidence that the paper was not cut correctly. The paper’s edge was barely visible , creating a stark line in the tile. An important point to remember is to order multiple samples for the sake of comparison. While one or two samples were perfectly fine, several others showed this flaw, and we ended up rejecting it for that reason.

 

Wall Tile #1

Wall Tile #1

The second was an interesting layered tile that had bands of color in random locations. It gave great depth to the tile, but the finish was not durable. There were scratches on the colored surface, indicating the product would not hold up to use very well. Considering this tile will be in a kitchen, we decided durability was a top priority and rejected this product.

 

Wall Tile #2

Wall Tile #2

Finally, the third choice was whimsical and light, and had a playful feel that would fit well with the project. However, glass tiles can often have problems with the thinset bed showing through if the tile backing is not opaque enough. That means the tiles would look great, but you would be able to see trowel lines, air bubbles and more. Simply being able to read the product label (adhered to the back of the tile) from the front was indication that we might have an aesthetic issue with this particular tile. To ensure a clean aesthetic with no show-through of the thinset, ask your supplier for tiles that fired the color to the back side of the tile.

 

Wall Tile #3

Wall Tile #3

While tile is just one small aspect of a job, understanding what clues to look for when selecting a product will help ensure the project meets expectations. If you are unsure as to what clues to look for in your product selection, consider hiring a design professional to walk you through the process and assist in selecting what is right for you.

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January 18, 2012