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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cost-Saving Design Tips for Your New Home or Remodel

The economy from 2007 to now (2011) and probably beyond has caused/will cause us all to more thoroughly analyze our expenses and what we're getting for them. Especially hard-hit has obviously been the residential market. The combination of sub-prime mortgages and unrealistic lending practices, along with the McMansion craze and HUGELY over-inflated values could lead to nothing else but a meltdown. The good that might be coming out of this is that people are appreciating that life is not about how big and how much $$, but rather what is the overall quality for the buck. In other words, a lot of us are going "back to basics".

In terms of designing and building your new house or remodeling your existing, "back to basics" can actually be a prudent and exciting design strategy. The size of the average home is actually decreasing by 10-20%. This is a positive trend in my opinion because it becomes more affordable, more livable and easier to maintain for clients, and easier on the environment. Clients want more involvement in the reasoning and logic behind design decisions and how the associated costs enhance the quality of their lives. They, along with their architect, can then make informed decisions in relation to their budget.

That being said, and after much research, experience, and just plain thinking, I've come up with many design tips (up to about 60 now!) to help you manage your home design/construction budget. Here are 10 of those tips:

1.   Size: Focus on what you absolutely need 1st, then, if budget allows, go to those "wouldn't that be cool" extras. Remember, everybody talks in terms of cost/square foot, so less square feet can help control cost.
2.   Materials: 20' ceilings add a lot of extra material cost as well as associated labor.
3.  Shape: I've seen SO MANY new home plans with 48 corners, angles, curves, turrets, etc. A complicated floor plan means a complicated, more expensive facade and roof. Simplify.
4.   Plumbing: Group/combine/stack plumbing to save on piping lengths.
5.   Lot: Flat lots are typically less expensive to build on than sloping or "rocky" lots.
6.  Cabinetry: Cabinets are usually expensive items, so be careful to use wisely. IKEA may be a good option, too. Cherry or Mahogany built-ins everywhere are going to be costly.
7.  A/C-Heat: Passive solar design can help reduce the amount of heating and A/C you might need. Orient the house taking advantage of breezes, shade and block cold winter winds.
8.  Lighting: Built-in, specialty lighting can get expensive, especially if they are from overseas. Use table/floor lamps with bulbs that you can get anywhere. Again, orient the home & use windows to take advantage of natural light.
9.  Landscaping: Maybe plant younger, smaller trees/shrubs, use xeriscaping & reduce irrigation needed. Maybe use pavers instead of concrete.
10. Walls/Doors: Try to reduce the number of walls/doors that compartmentalize the space. Open it up! Define space/needs instead of confining them.

I hope this helps. I'm always interested in designing appropriately-sized, high quality custom houses that don't break the bank. Please feel free to contact me at for your new home. I have 50 more ways to save cost and help you realize your dream!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Updating Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright has been my inspiration for many years. Having visited nearly 200 of his buildings (even renting a few) along with extensive reading & conversations w/ homeowners, I consider myself somewhat of a Wright expert. His Usonian homes w/ their simple, clean lines, expressed floor grid, overall orderliness, and of course, connection to nature excite me the most.

Wright taught that an architect should develop his/her own individual nature from within. We should learn & grow from looking INTO, not AT. So, as an architect w/ an inquisitive mind and "countenance of principle", I intend to blaze my own trail of a new Organic architecture for the 21st century. With this said, there are some "shortcomings" I've personally experienced (at 6'-2" tall) and been informed of by homeowners that we can address & update for the future. Let's briefly review these and strategize more acceptable alternatives to quell some criticism of Wright's work:

1.) Leaks (Walls/Roofs) - Wright's Usonian homes gave the blessings of architecture at extremely low cost ($5K at one point). We can now properly flash, seal & provide better water-resistive barriers w/ new products complying w/ code.
2.) Sagging Cantilevers (Roofs) - Materials/Technologies weren't ready for Wright's inventiveness like they are now. Stronger, lighter engineered woods & proper use of steel will mitigate this issue. Again, for Wright, cost imposed many material limitations.
3.) Heating/Cooling - When Wright's underfloor radiant heating worked, it was wonderful, but an expensive headache when it didn't. Many Usonians didn't have A/C when originally built (save cost & rely on shading, natural breezes). Homes today typically need both, & the design should accommodate (see #9 Insulation). However, passive solar design should still be used to reduce utility cost & lower carbon footprint.
4.) Low Ceilings - Wright definitely owns the idea of horizontality & human scale. But, we know we've gotten bigger (and taller?). Current code now sets minimum ceiling height anyway (which are still comfortable for me at 6'-2" tall). Any ceiling above 8' (drywall/plywood standard size) except in large rooms is a waste of material/$. Breadth of space can do more than height.
5.) Dark Rooms - I thought the bedrooms in the Tracy Residence (Washington State) were dark due to small clerestory windows (lots of shade outside) & dark wood wall paneling. The wood paneling in the Usonians tended to be darker than walls that can be painted, say, a light color. Lighter colors reflect light & make space feel bigger/more open.
6.) Small Bedrooms/Kitchens/Doorways/Hallways - Wright was saving cost & maintaining human scale. However, today human scale needs adjusting. Also, we now live more in our Kitchens & Bedrooms than maybe we did in the 50's. Sizes need to increase, but not any bigger than necessary to function.
7.) Monotony (Too Much Wood, No Variety in Color) - Wright's Usonian houses were thoroughbreds reduced to a minimum of materials for cost, but also for design continuity & a sense of repose. My wife's comment on the Palmer House (which we loved) was that there was a lot of same-colored wood walls/ceilings throughout. I can appreciate the observation, but also the sense of continuity. Nice thing about paint is variety & the ability to change.

8.) Architect Control, Inflexibility, Built-Ins - Wright undoubtedly controlled the built environment through design. When you hired him, you knew what you were getting. To that end, he tried to minimize "poor taste" by building in tables, seats, shelves, etc. Though this provides continuity again, it's inflexible for today's ever-changing needs. I believe in designing or purchasing things that look a part of the whole, but be movable and transportable when moving to a new city, thus allowing more freedom.
9.) Poor Insulation, Single-Pane Glass - Again, saving cost, Wright had to minimize material quantity. He didn't use studs for walls, thus decreasing insulation space. Roofs were minimally insulated as well, and double-pane glass not available yet. Today, especially w/ new "green" building techniques, double-pane Low-E insulated glass is becoming typical, along w/ foam insulation & exterior polystyrene board. Much better R-values (insulation values) are attainable.
10.) Enclosed Kitchens - Wright invented the open plan common today. Ironically, his Kitchens (he named "Workspaces") were still closed off from the Living area. We've already done a good job of opening up the Kitchen these days to become an attractive, integral, and even desired part of the Living space. The barstool island (becoming way overdone) is the only separation now. I think Mr. Wright would approve of this development, but who knows.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Architect and Public Perception

Having been an architect for quite some time, I continue to get the same questions from people, namely, "Do you do residential or commercial?" and "What type of style do you do?", or here in Arizona, "Do you do Santa Barbara, Tuscany, Spanish Colonial, _________?" It occurred to me that the public's perception of an architect is that he/she does whatever the client wants.

While it's true the architect must design to meet client needs while also considering site conditions, building codes, etc., what the public does not perceive is the architect as, in some part, an artist. Why? We architects might not be doing well enough in educating the public on not only what an architect does, but who an architect is. Though it seems most architects will do just about whatever the client says, thus perpetuating the perception, there are some who live and work by their own principles or beliefs. They have a distinct "signature" or direction from which they won't stray too far because they believe strongly in the benefits to the quality of the work and to life itself.

In other words, clients might unknowingly be telling a "Picasso" to paint them a "Renoir". I think we all know that no artist of merit would paint like another. So, how can we inform the public that architects can still be artists with very different approaches? It's up to the profession itself through more public speaking, more community engagement, more writing, more school involvement, etc. And just maybe, architects could show more of their own work and ideas in public exhibits and finally taste some of that wine and cheese.