Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Durability-the not so pretty side of design

The introduction of new technologies and materials is one of the hardest areas for designers to stay current.  Occupations in building science have exploded in the last ten years because of the growing problem of building failures.  When we started to tighten up homes in the 1980's because of the energy crisis, we learned that keeping warm air inside the house also kept the moisture inside that house.  The whole realm of moisture problems bloomed when our homes were no longer "naturally" ventilated.  We saw and felt the immediate result of more insulation and caulk-our gas bills went down and our toes were warmer.  It took a while before we identified the source for an increase of asthma and mold allergies, a side effect we neither anticipated or wanted, but that only time would tell.

So, we introduced the use of rain screens or drainage planes, vapor barriers, gaskets, sealants and many other products to make the building system work better.  Building scientists introduced the methods for determining the location of the dew point within wall systems, thus dictating the best type and location for specific insulations.  They got us thinking about air movement, which equates to moisture movement and the need to control moisture movement caused by wicking or thermodynamics.

Building codes were dictating that we build more energy efficient homes, but neglected to ask building scientists the best ways to do that, so many homes were built following codes, but ignoring the science that would also make then durable.  Building codes are now addressing durability, but there is a whole decade of homes out there that are now suffering the consequences of forgetting that the whole house needs to work as a system.  As energy prices continue to rise, more pressure is on code agencies to raise the insulating standards again and some building scientists are taking a harder look at the ramifications to durability.  There will always be a tug of war between a more energy efficient and a more healthy home.

Minnesota has some of the best energy codes in the country and right now they seem to be working fine, with a good balance between saving energy and maintaining durability, but as national codes push harder for more energy efficiency, the balance will be in jeopardy.  Politicians and material suppliers need to back off and let the building scientist do their research before pushing the housing industry into requirements that may or may not achieve the desired result of healthy, durable homes that save energy.  The current housing slump is the perfect time to do research and document results, it is about time for building science to get ahead in the race.  Energy codes should also be region specific, because what we do in Minnesota to save energy is vastly different than what they do in Arizona to save energy.  Controlling moisture movement is as important as air movement and depending on where you live, the methods for controlling them could be vastly different.  Regional energy codes make much more sense than dictating that the whole country has to follow the same rules.

I will get off my soap box now, but I want to remind people who are planning to build a new house, that as much energy should go into designing it to be durable and energy efficient as goes into making it look great.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Client vs Designer

A good friend of mine, who is an Architect, was asked to help remodel a home that was originally designed by another Architect we both had worked for in the past.  Since the original blueprints no longer existed, he carefully measured every inch of the house and re-drew the plans as it was built. 

We were looking at those "as built" plans together when I mentioned that it was a pretty quirky floor plan and he agreed, saying he had always known the house was a little odd, but couldn't figure out just what made it feel so awkward.  We both commented that this floor plan was totally out of character for the now deceased architect/employer, who had been proficient at designing homes with a "Frank Lloyd Wright" feel to them.  Then it occurred to me what was wrong with the plan.  I told him I thought it was a compromise between what the architect intended and what the homeowner wanted.  He said "exactly!".  He knew the homeowners and their personalities. They would have insisted on having it their way, had the money to get it the way they wanted it and by God, no one, not even an accomplished architect, was going to talk them out of it.

If we had the preliminary sketches that evolved into this floor plan of boxy, isolated rooms, we would have been able to follow some of the thought processes or client demands that changed a potentially wonderful home into an awkward house.  With a few quick sketches, we remodeled that plan into a home that embraced the view of an expansive wooded valley, opened the kitchen to both formal and informal living spaces, configured the family room into a usable space, made the formal living room fireplace a focal point and created an accessible but quiet office area.  We removed many walls, but didn't move any plumbing or the fireplace.  We increased window area towards the million dollar view, but didn't structurally change any exterior walls.  We created sight lines through the house that visually expanded its size without compromising private areas and I think what we ended up with was probably pretty close to what the original architect intended for this house.

So, the lesson in this, is that you need to trust in the professional you hire to design your home and maybe in this instance, the consumer is not always right, no matter how much money they have.  The advantage design professionals have over most people is their ability to visualize things in 3-D.  For us, it is not just a floor plan.  We can visualize the wall height, the ceiling, either flat or vaulted, the walls that define spaces or the floor coverings which can define spaces.  Sight lines, angles, windows and other openings can all change how a room feels and how it relates to other spaces.  Light angles and shadowing change the feel of rooms and attention should be paid to quantity, intensity and pattern of all light sources.  These are the design elements that can make a room or plan feel just right, but they are the parts of a plan that most people can't visualize.

So many times, when I visit with clients after they have moved into their new homes, they tell me how much better it is than the thought it would be.  Ouch!  I thought I had done a pretty great job conveying to them what the house would look like when it was done, but they are happier than they expected.  I guess that's a good thing, but why couldn't they see all along what I was seeing?  Why weren't they as excited as I was, when I realized we nailed this plan six months ago?  Because they couldn't fully visualize it the way I could.  they didn't understand the subtle transitions from room to room that make it flow, they don't understand the impact of creating spaces for calm, or just a place for the mind to rest for a moment.  Why can't I now put into words the methods I use to create a home that says "Wow, this is mine and I love it!"  I can't write it, just like they can't see it.  That's the best argument for hiring and trusting a professional you like.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Size Matters

When someone first calls me to inquire about what I do and if I can help them, they will blirt out the most irratating aspect if their current house.  I've had people tell me they don't want any hallways, they need LOTS of closets, that they want a kitchen the size of a gourmet restaurant or they don't want any steps anywhere.  That gives me a pretty good idea as to the issues they are dealing with on a daily basis, but their solutions are not usually very practical.  After all, hallways serve many useful purposes, such as, traffic flow, sound and visual barriers and buffer zones between public and private areas.  They don't have to be long, narrow and dark passage ways that detract from the room you left or the room you are entering.  They can be open, bright and serve dual purposes such as, galleries or contain nooks for display or storage, bookcases or mail drop areas.

My job is to find out what bothers people about specific areas they struggle with and find solutions that eliminate their negitive feelings about that area.  A small, cramped kitchen may not be any better if we double the space it occupies but don't consider the work zones within it.  Huge walk in closets that take space from minimal sized bedrooms may not be the solution either.  A majority of people will solve their house issues by adding space, lots of space, and then find out that too big is as bad as too small. 

I usually assign my clients homework in the form of measuring all their current rooms in their house or apartment and measuring all the furniture they have or hope to have in their new home.  Most people don't have a very good idea how big 12'x14' really is and if that is big enough for a queen sized bed.  I can often show them by increasing that room size by only inches, that their new home will fit and feel much larger than they think.  I have  had some clients who don't do their homework and continue to guess at how much bigger they need to go with their new house.  If I could point out to them the size they requested for their bedroom is equal in size to their current family room, they would probably realize quite quickly that that's probably more than they need.  Measuring furniture is just as important, not only for the client to evaluate what they are really willing to move, but for me to plan spaces for oversized pieces.  I will never forget the family I worked with for many months on designing the "perfect" home, only to get a call six months later asking me where I thought the baby grand piano should go.  Not once during all our meetings, discussions or personal conversations was a piano brought up, much less, a baby grand.  That's when I began assigning homework.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

$39.99 Design Programs

I used to be irritated when a potential client would call me to discuss designing their new home and then tell me they have it all designed on a computer program they bought at the local discount store.  More times than not, they spent hundreds of hours just figuring out how the program works or trying to get it to do what they want it to do.  After all this time, they have settled for some plan flaws because that was the best the program would produce.  And then, spending so much time with the "flawed" plan, they are now married to it and can't see any way it could be better.  I can usually show them, through some quick sketches, how they could make the plan more functional and more conducive to their lifestyle.

The harder discussion I need to address is the builability of their house plan.  Rarely do they ever get to the point of putting a roof on their plan and when I start the conversation on how this is going to go together and how expensive some of their ideas will be, they become discouraged.  Sometimes I can save the situation by coming up with some quick options that will give them the concept they are after, while using typical construction methods and materials.  Not all situations are salvageable.  If they get defensive of "their" plan and are not open to some modifications to make the plan more buildable, I'm usually out the door.  I do my very best to be sensitive to their time commitment and the emotional investment they have made, but it is like the line out of the country song; "two thousand miles down a dead end road", they are too invested to consider turning around.  Not all is lost if I can convince them that with a few modifications, we can salvage most of their ideas and develop a plan that has the features they seek and add some subtle design features that will bring the plan to life.

In the past, I wouldn't push too hard to "fix" their plan, other than to make it buildable, but the feed-back I got from clients who insisted on having it their way, was less than totally happy.  They could never put their finger on exactly what they didn't like about the new house, just that it wasn't what they expected.  More often than not, I could tell right away the the house had no flow to it, the proportions were off or it just didn't fit their lifestyle.  Some of these things can be easily fixed and some are not fixable even if they go through a major remodel. These homes over the years have really bothered me, mostly in the fact the clients are not as happy with the results as they should be and that I didn't try harder to convince them that I could help make the plan work better.  I have since learned that if a client is that married to their plan, it is best if I refer them to a draftsman who would be happy to just draw something they don't have to think about.  I no longer resent the $39.99 design programs that get people cornered into floor plans that have no life to them.  I just try to make a joke about how the client can now appreciate the time commitment I make to get their home just right.

 My best advice is to get a good notebook with grid paper and a #2 pencil with a big eraser and doodle to your hearts content.  It's easier for me to work in wall thicknesses than it is to just copy an awkward computer generated plan.  With your doodles, you should save all versions you come up with, it creates a paper trail of your thought processes and don't worry if they don't look professional, your computer program won't either.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Your Third Choice for a Design Professional

A Residential Designer:
There is a large group of home designers who fall between the skills and labels of Draftsman and Architect.  They are the designers who have a passion for design, the experience to understand the need for great design and the ambition to venture out on their own to establish their own design firms, yet are not registered architects.  They call themselves by several names; residential designer, home planner, home designer, etc.  Their skills will vary greatly depending on the number of years of experience, personal desire to learn whatever they can about design and their ability to put together a complete and accurate set of drawings.  This group of designers usually have many more years of experience than a lumber yard draftsman, are willing to think out side the box to solve design challenges but are usually pretty conservative when it comes to design innovation.  Their costs are somewhere between a "free" lumber yard plan and a 10% architects fee.

The process of finding a good residential designer is the same as it would be to find a good builder-ask around.  Ask lumber yards, they see a lot of plans, they know who does a good job, who has accurate plans and who is affordable.  Builders also know who's plans they would prefer to work from, who makes the least mistakes, who fills in the blanks.  Ask friends who have built recently, drive through new neighborhoods and note which homes appeal to you, find out who built them, they would know the designer.  Call your city or county inspections office and see if they will give out names of designers who produce a well done plan.  Just calling someone from the phone book or an on-line listing can be risky, some of that information isn't even correct.  If you have a local Builders Association, call them, they usually have a few members who design homes and as members they have gone through a screening process before being accepted as a member. 

Interview the design professional over the phone first and if you like how the conversation is going, make arraignments to meet and talk further.  I always encourage phone callers to give me some information about themselves too; the type of project they are think of, the size, location and any special construction they would like to use.  Many callers just want to know how much I charge and when I start asking questions, they get pretty evasive.  That's like calling up your local car dealer and asking them how much is a new car?  I can't give you accurate information if I don't get accurate information.  Remember, I am interviewing you as much as you are interviewing me.  I have said no to projects that just sound too fishy over the phone and I have walked away from jobs when one spouse is more invested than the other.  We need to be honest with each other, or the whole process will fall apart and honesty starts with the very first phone call.

Costs for residential designers very widely, some will price projects based on the square footage of the project, some base it on an hourly rate and some will have vast menus of options with specific prices for each choice.  Builders like the square foot price thing because when they bring in a 2400 square foot house the final plans will be 2400 time the current rate, no ifs ands or buts.  This doesn't work on so many levels, I'm not sure I can cover them all.  What if the owner changes their minds? (like this never happens)  What if you have a great idea to make the great room more warm and welcoming? (no time to explore that idea)  What if the builder changes the lot from a flat lot to one that slopes off to one side (that should require some plan changes-but that's not in the price).  Square foot pricing will not give you good design options, will not allow you to make changes and will give you an incomplete plan if any problems or issues arise. 

This is where the menu pricing ideas comes into play.  Maybe it is so much per square foot for the plan, then so much per hour for changes and so much plus extra for more than two changes or three times the base price if the lot changes, etc.  Do you ever really know where you are price wise? 

I think the most fair compensation for good work is to pay by the hour.  That is how I charge.  Once we have a chance to sit down and get to know each other, a chance to go over your ideas and wishes and a chance to see the lot, I can give you a pretty good guess at what my fees will be.  Now they are still dependant on you a little bit, because some people require a lot of hand holding, some like to explore every idea they see, hear or is suggested to them by friends and relatives, and others only feel comfortable hashing and re-hashing the same concerns without resolution.  I'm not saying that only the customer can control those cost, I have a big role in that too.  It is my job to get to know you well enough that I can readily identify the things that will stall the project or delay any progress.  It is my job to weed out the good ideas from the faddish or fluffy stuff and it's my job to keep things on track and on budget.  That's where honesty really comes into play.  I don't like wasting time and I don't like wasting your money, so I will tell where you are progress wise and dollar wise whenever you want me to.

Occasionally, I will charge a percentage of the estimated cost of construction.  I do this when the project is expected to go over one million dollars, the client's wish list is extensive or very complicated and I expect to bring in other professionals like structural, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers.  These projects don't come along very often, but when they do, I need to cover the expenses of all the consultants hired to do their part.

Other things to consider when hiring a design professional include reviewing their portfolio, or photo albums, references from past clients or builders, organizations they might belong to and any other credentials they might have.  I maintain a building inspectors license which is very helpful in staying on top of code changes and interpretations and belong to the local Builders Association where I maintain contact with sub contractors and suppliers.  I participate in local home shows, promote local businesses and have donated many hours to clients with special needs in difficult situations.  Years of experience, educational background and number of years in business are all good questions to ask when hiring a professional, so ask and verify.  Hire the best professional that you can afford.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another choice for a design professional

Architect:  Another choice for a design professional is a licensed architect.  I have a good friend who is an architect and he describes himself as a generalist.  He generally knows a little bit about everything in construction.  Architects go through four or five years of college, a few years of internship, then have to pass a rigorous test to become licensed in their home state.  Some architects are licensed in more than one state and some states require any home designs to be supervised and signed by a licensed architect.  Most architects work in the commercial end of construction, but a select few have chosen to work mainly in residential construction.  These are the architects you should focus on, the ones who have a love and understanding of residential design.

Most architects bring a "full package" to the design process, meaning they will supervise the design, modifications to the design, material selection, interior design, placement on the site, selection of the builder, contracts with the builder and/or sub contractors, payment schedules, site observation and follow through at each step of the building process from first sketches to final walk through and follow up one year after you have moved in.  Architects can be a valuable third party when homeowners and builders disagree, they are willing to try new things with new products and they usually think"outside the box" which will make your home one of a kind.  These are all valuable things to bring to the design process, but they do come with a cost.  Most architects will charge 5% to 10% of the anticipated cost of the project, depending on what services you need or want.  Any new home project above $500,000.00 would benefit from from the services that an architect can bring to the project.  The benefits of an architects services are decreased in home projects falling below the half million dollar level and only in states requiring a licensed professional would they be needed in the $100,000.00 to $300,000.00 range. 

Some architects will tailor their services to each individual project, providing only essential services; such as design, material selection and site observation.  That would leave contracts, payment schedules and builder selection up to the home owner.  This also opens the gap for things to fall through, such as who has the final say on construction questions, the builder or the designer?  What if the builder decides to substitute products or materials that require design changes, who pays for that?  It is almost always best to have one person as the head decision maker and in a less than full service package, the architect loses some of their authority and oversight.  The line between project leader and designer is fuzzy and the chain of command can become a battle between architect and builder.  Like it or not, ego can mess up the best jobs.  Builders who go into a project knowing the final say will be up to the architect, understand their limitations.  When builders and architects go into the project as equals, things will flair up from time to time.  This can put the home owner in the middle, which is never a good place to be.  Less than full service architectural packages work best when the architect and builder have worked together on other jobs.  They know how each other works, sometimes how they think and understand their limits with each other.  That doesn't mean there won't be flair ups, just that there most likely won't be a total melt down of cooperation.

If you are looking at a new home that is totally unique, will require unusual construction, is priced over a half million dollars or your state requires a licensed designer, choose an architect to get it done right.  Figure the cost into the project just as you figure in the Wolf range, the granite counter tops and the in ground pool.  An architecturally designed home adds as much value as all the bells and whistles do.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Your Options for choosing a Design Professional

When the time comes to chose a Design Professional, there are many options available to most people.  I will try to outline the three major choices, giving the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

Draftsman:  True draftsman are becoming a dying breed with the huge advances made in the computer world.  No longer are draftsmen sitting at a drafting board with their straight edges, mechanical arms or T squares.  For the most part, they have traded in their number H2 and HB pencils for a computer monitor and design software. 

I once was a draftsman; went to drafting school to perfect my line weights, lettering style, construction details and  cross-hatching abilities.  Draftsmen were trained to put construction ideas down on paper (actually vellum or mylar) in such a fashion that it was readable and understandable by all the sub-contracting trades that would be working on that specific project.  We were proud of our work and thought of it as a work of art.  With the advent of  CAD (computer aided design), some of the creativity and uniqueness of hand drawn plans was lost to perfect lines, perfect lettering and boring looking blueprints.  Gained was the time saved in making changes, the uniformity of line weights, lettering and overall presentation.  Multiple people could be working on the same plan and no one would see the differences in style or lettering.  Lost was the little things draftsmen would put on their plans for fun or whimsy.  I often made smiley faces in the hatching of attic insulation, spiders in the sinks and mouse traps in wall cavities.  It's just not that fun to do on the computer, so the "added features" are no longer there.  It is rare to find someone who still draws by hand, unless it is a very small project and done just to maintain drafting skills.

Drafting was a skill and talent all it's own, design was the responsibility of your supervisor that was telling you what to draw.  Draftsmen most often work for architects, engineers, builders or lumber yards.  They are taught to draw clean, neat, accurate plans; they are not necessarily taught how to design.  With the advent of the computer, draftsmen became computer operators and what little design concepts we were taught in drafting school was lost in the transition to computer training. 

I have been very frustrated with the quality of the graduates from vocational CAD training programs as potential employees because I'm expecting that they would have some interest in actual design and have a curiosity for learning more about scale and proportion, but all they want to do is sit at a keyboard and enter information into a computer program and not have to think about the swing of a door, the scale of a room or the line of sight views from the front door.  They have no aptitude for design or design concepts, so as a design option, they are only as good as the person supervising them. 

Now I have seen a few draftsmen who are natural designers, who just have an innate ability to make a floor plan work best.  They have a passion and curiosity for learning more about design than about computer programs.  Most of these individuals move on to being the supervisor or owning their own design firm, they are not content to just draw what they are told to draw.  If you can find someone like this, you will get some design help that may not be available from a draftsman/computer operator alone.

When interviewing people for design help, make sure they are interested and willing to give some input to the design and design process.  If they tell you they will draw anything you want, you had better be the design expert, because they are not.  If you feel as though you are totally capable of designing your own home without any outside suggestions or advice, then this is the way to go.  I would say, less than 5% of non-construction related people are really capable of doing this well.  There are many different things to consider in designing a home, and without the experience of knowing how it will go together or how the sub-contractor trades work, you could be digging yourself a big hole.

Often times builders will use a draftsman or drafting service, especially one that works for a lumber yard.  There again I have seen some pretty talented lumberyard draftsmen and I have seen some pretty poor ones.  In this case, the draftsman is drawing what the builder interprets what he thinks you would like.  It is usually pretty straight forward, simple construction with little thought to scale and proportion, lacking some simple design elements that could make it really nice, and he will tell you the best thing of all, is that the plan is free.  Hint, hint.  Nothing is really free.  You are tied to that builder and he is tied to that lumber yard.  If you fall out of graces with that builder, you are pretty much SOL on getting that plan done, especially for free.  If you don't like the service or products of that lumberyard, you can not go someplace else, because the plan is only "free" if you buy all your materials there.  The cost of that plan has to be somewhere in the cost of your materials, again, nothing is really free. 

Homes that are built for speculation are usually designed and built this way and may be at the end, the builder will pay an interior designer to chose paint colors or carpeting, too late for some real design help.  These homes are not custom homes and do not usually reflect anyone's lifstyle except the builders'.  There again, some builders are very good at coming up with unique ideas and design concepts and some are really good at "borrowing" other peoples' ideas.  These homes are still less than custom, because you were not involved in the process.

Plans from a draftsman or drafting service are usually pretty basic.  they will include just what is needed for getting a permit or meeting a building code.  They leave a lot of room for interpretation both from the builders point of view and yours.  Many times, homeowners are left feeling like they have to tell everyone what to do, because it is not defined any where on the plans and if left up to some contractors, would be overlooked completely.  There are many more miscommunication with incomplete plans than there are with well thought out designs that show exactly how to build a home.

The costs for going with a draftsman can vary widely; anything from "free" to thousands of dollars.  Most draftsmen or drafting services will charge a square foot price, something that is easy for builders to estimate for their final bids and for homeowners to consider in their budgets.  Watch for the extras; more than one plan change, unusual or advanced construction techniques, more than standard details, sections or elevations, additional copies of the plan, etc.  These extras can add up fast and usually are not covered by the "free" part the lumberyard is covering or what the builder will pay for.  Also keep in mind that you may very well see "your house" two blocks over, because the plan was used for other clients.  This option for design help may be the cheapest, but remember what Mom used to say; "you get what you pay for".

Next post will cover Residential Designers