Posts Tagged 'working with an architect'

Why Architects Hate Curtains

While researching turn-of-the-century decorating, I came across a chapter on windows in Edith Wharton’s “The Decoration of Houses” that finally put into words what I wished to be able to explain so well. Edith, who became known as an accomplished novelist, began her writing career with this treatise, co-authored with Ogden Codman in 1897. Interestingly, although this book became a manual for interior designers, her position is in support of architecture-as-ornament rather than decoration-as-improvement.

As a normal part of my professional service as a residential architect, I help select everything from doors and windows to tile and carpet.  To me, these items are part of the architecture of the building.   They are as much a part of how the room feels and functions as its size, volume, and orientation.

I do not, however, “do” curtains.  Those, along with movable furnishings, I consider to be the domain of an interior designer, and I limit myself as an advisor to the homeowner and/or their interior designer as to the “jobs” those items have in complementing the architectural style while fulfilling their desired function.

It is true, though, that most architects hate curtains.  Well, certain kinds for certain reasons… and, Edith explains it well:

The “Job” of Windows

  1. …”light-giving is the main purpose for which windows are made…ventilation, the secondary purpose…”
  2. Windows should not be so wide that they are not opened easily.
  3. The height of the window sill should consider both the view, the need for privacy, and whether or not there is a desire to have a piece of furniture, such as a window seat, in front of the window.  Lower sills offer more view, while sills placed at 3′ above the floor afford more privacy from “persons approaching the house”.
  4. Although the sill heights may vary “for practical reasons…the tops of all the windows should be on a level.”
  5. “…the old window with subdivided panes had certain artistic and practical merits…serv[ing] to establish a relation between the inside of the house and the landscape…”

The Purpose of Curtains

  1. “The real purpose of the window-curtain is to regulate the amount of light admitted to the room, and a curtain so arranged that it cannot be drawn backward and forward at will is but a meaningless accessory.”
    blinds down

    These curtains are on rings that slide easily to provide maximum privacy and block window drafts.

    blinds up

    Bottom-up blinds are easy to operate and add privacy while filtering light.

  2. “The better the house, the less need there was for curtains.”
  3. “…the curtain…was regarded as a necessary evil rather than as part of the general scheme of decoration.  The meagerness and simplicity of the curtains in old pictures prove that they were used merely as window shades or sun-blinds.”  (note:  This book was written in 1897 and refers to artistic representations of feudal architecture, such as paintings.)
  4. “Fixed window-draperies, with festoons and folds so arranged that they cannot be lowered or raised, are an invention of the modern upholsterer.   …they have made architects and decorators careless in their treatment of openings.”

Edith’s Preferred Choice, circa 1897

“The solid inside shutter…formerly served the purposes for which curtains and shades are used, and combined with outside blinds, afforded all the protection that a window really requires.  These shutters should be made with solid panels, not with slats, their purpose being to darken the room and keep out hte cold, while the light is regulated by the outside blinds.  The best of these is the old-fashioned hand-made blind, with wide fixed slats, wtill to be seen on old New England houses and always used in France and Italy:  the frail machine-made substitute now in general use has nothing to recommend it.”

paris shutters

Shutters in Paris

In Summary

“…the beauty of a room depends chiefly on its openings, to conceal these under draperies is to hide the key of the whole decorative scheme. …The more architecturally a window is treated, the less it need be dressed up in ruffles.”

The Client’s Time Investment

Once our working relationship is established (see Getting the Project Started), the real fun begins.

“How long will the design process take?”

As a rule of thumb, the design process takes approximately the same amount of time as building the project. In other words, a project that requires 6 months to build requires 6 months to design. This does not necessarily include permitting (which depends on many variables).

“How much time will you need me during design?”

Meetings

We will need to meet to review design drawings, preferably in person.  This is especially important for the first design meeting and for major design milestones. These meetings are usually 1-1.5 hours long.

Most clients find it helpful to meet at their home, so that we have a visual reference of size, configuration, etc. of the spaces being considered. Sometimes it is easier to meet at your place of work, or at a nearby restaurant or coffee shop, especially if the project is a new home or is located far away from your workplace.

Homework

You will have homework, including private discussions about the drawings and ideas.  You may find it helpful to continue to look for inspiration photos to illustrate thoughts you have as the design develops, and you will want to spend time researching fixtures and appliances.

Showroom Visits

Together, we will typically visit a plumbing showroom and lighting showroom.  These visits are usually 1.5-3 hours long.

We may also visit tile and flooring showrooms.  This is something that may be delegated to one lead “decision-maker”, and we may follow up (either separately or together) at additional tile showrooms.   Ultimately, we will meet at your home to mix-and-match samples and narrow choices.  The first tile showroom visit can be 1.5-3 hours, depending on the project. Subsequent visits and meetings vary with each project but are usually significantly shorter.

Tally

Many of my clients have said that they dedicated 3-4 hours per week to their project (some weeks more and some less, averaging 3-4 hours per week overall).  Your decision-making abilities, both individually and jointly, are the biggest factor affecting the time investment required.

Getting the Project Started

“We want to move forward.  What next?”

Now that we know we’re on the same page (see How to Prepare for the Architect-Client Interview), we build the foundation for a successful project, beginning with:

  • Contract and retainer – When the budget, objectives, timeline, and chemistry are all in place, the next step is signing a contract. A retainer is required with your signed contract, which is applied to your final invoice. The retainer is typically 10% of the estimated fee.
  • Follow-up meeting – This is an opportunity to continue the discussion about design we began during the interview. You may be able to fill in a few blanks that you hadn’t been able to earlier, or you may have additional questions, ideas, or inspiration images to discuss.
  • Measure and draw existing – To get started on a remodel or addition project, I first need to document what is there. This may be limited to relevant areas or include the entire house, depending on the scope of your project. Most Seattle homes that are “typical urban lot” size take two people 3.5-4.5 hours to measure, which includes significant architectural features (walls, doors, windows, etc.), but does not include mechanical or electrical systems and fixtures, or items which would require destructive demolition. Note: We need to open closets, cabinets, etc. to measure how deep they are and will also take photographs.  Access to the attic(s) and crawlspace(s) should be cleared and ladders provided, if needed.

How to Prepare for the Architect-Client Interview

The first meeting is an opportunity for us both to interview each other.  It is very important that everyone that will be involved in the design process be together at the interview so that we all get the chance to ask questions and get a sense for what it would be like to work together.

“What do you need from us?”

1) Brief written description of your goals for the project, including:

  • list of “must-have” items, “would be nice to have” items, and “don’t want” items (Note: If all of the people living in the house don’t agree about the goals, it is helpful to know what differs.)
  • budget for the construction cost of the project (for more insight into costs, see “How Much Will my Project Cost?”).
  • timeline for the project (when you will be ready to start design, begin construction, and move in)

2) Inspiration photos from magazines, books, vacations, etc.  (Note: It is not necessary that these photos be “the answer” to your goals, so don’t exhaust yourself trying to find that!  It is more helpful that you find photos of things you like, even if the photos represent a variety of architectural styles.  A photo of a “cozy corner” may look different for you than it would for someone else, so photos really help me tune into your own personal taste and learn what those words mean to you visually and experientially. Even photos of something you really DON’T like can be helpful for comparison.)

3) Information that you may have about the house and/or lot, such as:

  • old blueprints – whether original or from previous remodels
  • survey
  • “Improvement Location Certificate” – Sometimes found in your mortgage documents, this is a drawing that shows the outline of your house, garage, etc. (the “improvements”), with dimensions of the structures and of the lot itself.  Sometimes, easement information and encroachments may be included in this document.  If you do not find a one in your file, you may want to check with your title company to see if there was one obtained on your behalf.  I have found that the drawing does not always make its way into your loan document package.)
  • copy of previous appraisal
  • if you’re changing the exterior appearance of the house, it is helpful to know if you anticipate problems with your neighbors
  • neighborhood covenants, if any

4) “Walk and Talk”  – One of my favorite things to do is to be guided around a house by potential clients, listening to what they do and don’t like about their homes.  It is fun to learn what they wish for, what they’ve already changed, and how they see themselves living there.

The Truth about Green Design

From the food you eat to the car you drive (or bus you ride), the idea of being “green” has become a part of daily life in America, especially in forward-thinking cities such as Seattle.

When I have clients who ask about whether or not I do “green” design, the answer is, “Of course!”  I have always been motivated by eco-consciousness and energy conservancy.  Now we just have more and better tools available.

A "green" green sink. Salvaged, recoated, and repurposed in the laundry room.

A "green" green sink. Salvaged, recoated, and repurposed in the laundry room.

But, what does it really mean for YOU and YOUR project?

First, I need to understand your motives and objectives.  Clients often fall within one or more of the following categories:

  • Good Steward – You want to do what you can for the environment.  You want to reuse what you can and donate what you can’t, even if that means you have to invest more money in labor. When you cannot find suitable salvage, you want to purchase products that are “green”.
  • Health Conscious – You have chemical sensitivities or underlying health conditions which have made you greatly concerned about the off-gassing of products, as well as dust and mold.
  • Investor in Technology – You want to support alternative energy innovation by using systems such as solar heating and rainwater harvesting, even if the initial investment is significant and the payback period is long.
  • Conservationist – You want to consume less, and get more out of what you already have.  You are not willing to be experimental and would rather “go with the known”.
Cabinets and light fixtures like these are excellent candidates for donation to a salvage company.

Cabinets like these are excellent candidates for donation to a salvage company in exchange for store credit, tax credit, or cash.

Prioritize

It is very rare for a client to say “yes” to all of the above categories and also be willing to accept the higher price tag for materials and labor that accompanies that decision.  Nearly everyone has to at least prioritize their eco-goals, finding the best intersection of cost, return on investment, comfort, and impact on the environment.

One person's junk is another person's treasure.  This mantel was salvaged from a home on Capital Hill in Seattle.

One person's junk is another person's treasure. This mantel was salvaged from a home on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Buyer Beware

The marketplace is flooded with “green” products (including many inferior or fake ones), and using those products doesn’t necessarily make your project a “green” project.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there suitable salvage that would be an alternate?
  • How long will this product last?
  • How much of this product is wasted during installation?
  • If recycled content is important, what percentage and what type of recycled material does it contain?
  • How much energy does it take to produce and transport this product?
  • Is the source renewable?
  • How reliable is the information?
  • How much more does this material cost, and how does that compare to additional labor for reused or salvaged material?
  • How difficult will it be to maintain this material or this installation?
  • If resale value is important, how does this choice factor in?
  • Is this trendy?  Will it go out of fashion?

Establishing this criteria at the beginning of the design process allows us to filter each decision according to your objectives, reducing frustration and delivering the best outcome for your budget, life, and the environment.

Fiber cement rainscreen siding, aluminum windows, composite decking on cedar framing

Fiber cement rainscreen siding, aluminum windows, composite decking on cedar framing

The Secret to Picking the Perfect Paint Color

paint2

Paint color selection tools of the trade

For many homeowners, picking the perfect paint color is a daunting task – prone to error, causing arguments, piling up receipts for samples or do-overs, and sometimes resulting in the decision to “just give up and paint it white”.

This is why I include paint color selection as a part of my architectural services. Having done this many times before, I make it easy and fun for my clients.

Here are some things to remember when selecting paint color:

A lot of men are color blind.

One of every ten men have some form of color blindness, while women are rarely affected. There are different severities and types of color-blindness.  The most common type is the inability to distinguish red and green.  This can be very challenging when looking at various shades of paint colors, as often the only difference between two colors will be the amount of red or green undertone.

All whites are not the same.

If you hold a fan of “whites” at arm’s length, you would think they were colors like blue, pink, grey, or yellow.  Yet, each of them are considered “white”.  I have heard the following statements, each of which is a clue that my clients need help, whether they realize it or not.

  • “The contractor said he has a white that they used before, so we’ll just use that.”
  • “I just want white.”
  • “We don’t want any color, just an off-white.”
  • “My mother says we should use antique white.”

Complex colors change in different light.

Many of the popular brands of paints have a complex color base.  This makes the color very rich, whether light or dark.  It also affects the color’s appearance in different types of light.  When you select colors, you should look at them in the type and intensity of light they will be seen in.  DO NOT pick your paint colors on the floor of a fluorescent-lit showroom.

The trickiest colors are green, khaki, and grey.

In my experience, the colors that appear the most different according to the quality and type of light are green, khaki (or camel) and grey.  When I select one of these colors, I pull as many samples out of the oversize fan as I can find and pin them all up, either in the intended location or in the closest facsimile of the environment.  I look at them several times throughout the day as the light changes, and remove any chip that begins to take on the appearance of another color.  Green will tend to shift to brown.  Khaki will tend to shift toward either purple or green.  Grey will tend to shift to purple or blue.

Be careful with luminous colors.

If you adore “happy colors”, remember that a color can be bright without being luminous.

I once had a client who wanted a bright green bedroom, the color of the flesh of a lime.  The color she chose was very luminous – meaning that it had a “glow”.  As a small chip, it was very appealing.  But, when the whole room was painted, the color bounced off every wall, making the room so intense that the painters could only be in there for a short period of time before having to step outside to allow their eyes to adjust back to normal.  (That room was immediately repainted a soft yellow.)

Color looks more intense on ceilings.

A paint chip with a hint of color will take on the appearance of a strong color when painted on a ceiling.

Exterior house colors always look lighter than expected.

Selecting exterior house colors is one of the most challenging tasks.  Nearly everyone who has chosen their own exterior paint will tell you they wish they’d gone darker.

Exterior paint always looks significantly lighter (10x or more) than the swatch.  The sun is an incredibly powerful light source, even in the Pacific Northwest, and it affects the appearance of color dramatically.  When you are choosing exterior colors, you should be looking at the darkest colors in the range.  If you there is a house in your neighborhood you like, it is well worth knocking on the door to ask what color they used or to ask permission to bring your paint fan with you to compare swatches with their house.

Consider the items that will go in the room.

Does the furniture have a red or green undertone? Are there things in the room that will contrast too much with the color? Is there something that you want to use as a focal point against the color  such as artwork or antiques? Are there things on the ceiling that you don’t want to draw attention to?  (A color on the bathroom ceiling might sound like a fun idea, but remember that the exhaust fan, ceiling lights, etc. will be more noticeable than they would against a soft white.)

Avoid trendy colors.

The retailers have a knack for rotating color trends, and today’s beautiful green will soon be dated.  The exception to this rule is choosing a color that is currently “trendy” but is one that you have ALWAYS loved.  If you have loved it your entire life, you probably always will.  If it is a new color that you are enjoying, have fun with your towels, bedcovers, or rugs.  It is easier to rotate those when you become sick of the color than it is to repaint the room.

Question the accent wall idea.

My theory is that if you want a color but only on one wall, you probably aren’t convinced that you like the color – or that you will like it for very long.  Here is another opportunity for tablecloths, rugs, towels, etc. to take on that role.

A true accent wall uses a contrasting or more saturated color to emphasize the architectural features of a space, not to showcase a fad.

Ask for help.

I bring every Benjamin Moore and Devine color created into my client’s homes, sparing them the confusion at the paint counter.  Rather than looking at tiny strips of five or six shades, we look at 4″x4″ swatches of color.  My paint kit is organized by the amount of undertone in each color, so it is easy to predict which colors will tend toward red, green, blue, or purple, based upon where the color is located within the stack of each color.  I leave these swatches with my clients, ordering replacements for my kit.

paint1

4"x4" squares of Benjamin Moore colors

After my clients have had some time to look at the color swatches in various lighting over a few days, we select a few to mock-up on the wall.  We don’t use the little paint pots or pouches unless they are the exact brand AND sheen we intend to use, since both of these factors affect the color’s appearance.  We normally have mock-ups painted in 12″x12″ or 24″x24″ squares, in both the brightest and darkest spots of the room.

10 Rules of Thumb for Remodeling

As an architect who specializes in major remodels of older homes in Seattle, I often meet potential clients who ask the same questions:  Should we add a second story?  Should we build an addition into our backyard?  Should we tear down and start over?  Or, should we fix this and flip it?

Each house and owner is unique, but there are some basic rules of thumb for making this important decision.

Rule of Thumb #1: The Big Picture

If you are uncertain about living in this house for at least 5-7 years after the major remodel is completed, then your efforts should focus on wide market appeal instead of what is uniquely important to your family’s lifestyle. The concept of owning the same home for 30 years and having the same job, or career for that matter, is a thing of the past.  Some project types have very high, immediate return on investment (ROI) ratios, such as kitchen and bathroom remodels.  According to Remodeling Magazine’s “Cost vs. Value Report, 2008-09”, a mid-upscale kitchen remodel in the Pacific Northwest averages between $62,997 and $119,361 Construction Cost with a 81.9%-87.3% ROI, and the same quality bathroom remodel in that region averages between $18,452 and $58,317  with a 76.2%-79.5% ROI.

Rule of Thumb #2: “Location, Location, Location”

Counting on your neighborhood to “transition” in 5-7 years time is a risky move and should be considered a gamble.  If your intent is to use the equity to move to a nicer neighborhood, then make choices that are appropriate to this house in this neighborhood.   Save the splurges for the house that you intend to keep in a neighborhood that is certain to support the investment.

Rule of Thumb #3: If it’s broken, fix it.

I once interviewed with homeowners whose house was full of things that needed to be fixed, including an unfinished basement remodel.  The house was already a 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a 1-car garage; they were contemplating a second-story addition to include 3 more bedrooms and 2 more baths.  When complete, their house would have been the biggest on the block, and their resources would also have been completely exhausted.

Sometimes fixing the space you already own has a greater potential return on investment than trying to outweigh what is old and broken with new square footage.

Rule of Thumb #4: Consider leaving it alone.

Major remodels should result in major changes.  Unless this is your last home, don’t spend money changing all the cabinetry in the house simply because you prefer maple over walnut (or vice versa).  After all, you bought the house with those cabinets in it, and the next person who shares your tastes will probably still buy the house…as long as they believe the house is a good value.

Rule of Thumb #5: The more phases, the more the project’s cost.

Remodeling in phases costs more.  It is always less expensive to have skilled labor come once to your house to do all of the work rather than to have them come three times to complete a third of the work each time.  This is true even without considering the inflated costs of labor and materials. Homeowners are often surprised to find out that the second phase of work may cost as much as the projected total cost only two years ago for all phases. Planning to complete work in phases should only be considered if you either a) intend to stay in the house long enough to undertake all of the phases of work or b) execute the phases which result in the greatest return on investment first.

Rule of Thumb #6: Adding a second story = whole-house remodel.

The prime candidates for second story additions are homes in older, dense, and highly desirable neighborhoods.  Because these homes are also older, they usually need upgraded plumbing (often including new water and sewer mains), wiring, windows (repair if not replacement), and mechanical systems.  They often have significant deferred maintenance items, leaving them in need of exterior (and sometimes interior) stripping and re-painting, re-roofing, rot repair, etc. Not very many homeowners are willing to make such a major investment and still park on a cracked driveway or have a house with a mismatched roof.  All of these items add up to more than you’d imagine for the amount of square footage you plan to add.

Depending on your local building department’s requirements, a major remodel may require that the entire house be brought up to current building code.  Different jurisdictions have different definitions of  “major remodel”, either based on a dollar amount threshold or a ratio of the current value of the house to the Construction Cost.  It isn’t safe to assume that because you don’t intend to remodel a portion of the existing house that you won’t be required to.

Rule of Thumb #7: Consider the yard as another room to remodel.

If your addition creates a strange roof shape, difficult drainage condition, or restricts visual or physical access to the yard, proceed with caution…or not at all.  The return on investment for an extra room may be more than outweighed by the loss of the relationship, or potential relationship, of indoors to outdoors.

The porch and landscaping make rooms for outdoor living.

The porch and landscaping make rooms for outdoor living.

Rule of Thumb #8: Crunch the numbers.

Add what the house would currently sell for, less what you owe, plus what you anticipate spending.  Then, go shopping.  If your house is currently worth $700K, you owe $350K, and you are contemplating a $600K major remodel, you should have a look at the housing inventory that is up to 120% of  $1M (which is $700K-$350K+650K).  You may be shocked to find that there is a home that already meets or exceeds your needs in that price range, or one that is much, much closer to the finish line.

We need “starter homes” in our close-to-downtown neighborhoods, and choosing to sell your home to someone who is just getting started is indeed a very “green” choice – not to mention much less stressful than undertaking a major remodel.

Rule of Thumb #9: Hire a talented Contractor, and get out of the way.

Most homeowners have full-time jobs and don’t have construction backgrounds. Despite your deepest wishes to keep an eye on things and to put in some sweat equity to save money,  you shouldn’t expect to live in the house while it is under construction or use your own labor to reduce costs.  If you are counting on either of those to make the project possible, you are probably taking on more than you should.

A good contractor makes the dream a reality.

A good contractor makes the dream a reality.

Rule of Thumb #10: Hire an Architect (hopefully me).

As an architect who specializes in residential projects, I am able to help you do much more than just plan your ideal home.  I ask the important questions and consider both the emotional and financial effects of the answers. The earlier you involve me in the decision-making process, the more you stand to gain – even as early as shopping for a home.  I can help you compare the pros and cons of candidates, including the home you already own, to determine which one offers the greatest potential.