March 13, 2014
by bob
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Finding space without adding space

I did something for myself! Soon, we will be faced with fitting two kids in one small bedroom in our small house and I had some ideas spinning around in my head about how to make our limited space work much better. Size isn’t everything – it’s how you use it. These two images are packed with lots of little moves that add a ton of space especially storage and closet space. I put some Ikea bureaus in there from the Sketchup warehouse after removing the closets. Sometimes closets take up too much space for how much storage you gain from them and this is a perfect example. The kids each will get clearly defined space within one bedroom to minimize the inherent fratricide potential.

bob’s bedrooms from robertswinburne on Sketchfab.

And here is the original – current layout

March 10, 2014
by bob
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Steel Stair retrofit

Here is a lovely little project I’m working on. The existing steel spiral stair shown here is tight and impractical as well as in a poor location for the floor plan of the house.

I designed a fairly minimalistic steel stair which will be installed in a different location and will be much easier to negotiate. The design process included trying every solution possible in rapid fire succession to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything better. Then developing this with a sketchup model just enough to see how it could look in the space.

Then back to the site for more careful measuring and consideration. Then These detailed drawings. The design and detailing allow for a fair amount of “fudging it” and flexibility in adjustment as an inherent part of the design. – I expect to get some good feedback from the steel fabricator as well.

February 17, 2014
by bob
3 Comments

Passive House Training – One year later.

Note: this blog entry was published on Green Building Advisor on March 31, 2014

I have been asked about my Passive House consultant training by other architects enough times that I though I’d write up a quick synopsis, one year later.

For me, the Passive House training was very useful for several reasons, not the least of which was the networking aspect. It is a small community with some really great conversation happening and it is fun to be a part of that. There is a lot of controversy as well, especially on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com Such as where does the law of diminishing returns kick in when it comes to insulating and how to handle latent loads (excess moisture). Plus there’s the whole U.S. vs the rest of the world thing which I won’t go into as I find it rather annoying, or at least boring. Secondly, It represents state of the art science on how to build good buildings with an overriding emphasis on simplicity and quality. Passive House is really all about quality and even, as I’m finding out, represents a necessary re-thinking of how to get something built. A much more collaborative approach is necessary than often happens when building even high-end projects. The process gets much less linear. I also like the idea that the Passive House approach is a valid part of the conversation, not just achieving certification and getting the plaque to hang beside the front door. I see projects being showcased that utilized the approach in a value engineering manner to get the most bang for the buck that simply don’t have the budget to go all the way and attain certification and I like the general consensus that that is okay.
Much of my own work had been trending in the PH direction anyway so it was good to undergo the intensive training so that I could make decisions with much more confidence and authority that comes with PH credentials. As an architect who was never very (ahem) enthusiastic about the numbers and physics of things and more into the airy-fairy poetic nature and scholarly aspect of architecture it was also helpful in terms of training my weaknesses. I call myself a Passive House designer rather than a consultant in part because If I were to attempt a full-on certified Passive House, I would want to hire someone more experienced who does this on a daily basis to do the actual numbers part and look over their shoulder through the process – at least for the first few times.
There is also the notion, similar to my approach to structural engineering where I try not to design anything too complicated to engineer myself – I prefer not to design anything that would require a complicated heating/ventilating system. It does get more complicated in renovation/addition work though for sure. My approach to structural engineering has always been very intuitive and very related to my own building experience and knowledge of materials, assemblies and connections My structural engineering professor once told me that the intuition part is vital and more than half the battle. First you intuit the solution then you apply numbers and formulas to check yourself. The Passive House training augmented my intuition and gave me more confidence to apply the numbers as well as a perspective on when, where and why.

Plus it was really good for marketing.

February 5, 2014
by bob
1 Comment

Houzz- Eric Reinholdt’s ideabooks

I’m becoming a fan of Eric Reinholdt’s Houzz ideabooks. His writing and editing is a cut above plus he has very similar tastes to my own so I look forward to each new ideabook. He also worked for one of my favorite firms in Maine – Elliot and Elliot Architecture.
His Houzz page is HERE

And here area few of his ideabooks:


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January 21, 2014
by bob
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Observations from Rachelle (my co-#1 fan)

Bob has been asking me for some time to write a guest blog entry and since he has happily been to busy of late to write much himself, I thought this was a good time to finally make good on my promise to do so.

Last year, I had a visit with an old friend who had recently moved back to the area. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was the first time I’d seen her new house since it was just a partially-erected timber frame. It was lovely to see my friend after such a long gap, and also fodder for pondering and a blog entry.

The house was nice—open, tasteful, bright and spacious (huge by our standards) and it fulfilled their goal of functioning as somewhat of a community gathering place as well as a home. For example, they were holding a weekly meditation group in a specially designed meditation/yoga area. But I couldn’t help thinking that if Bob had designed it, it could have met their needs so much more simply, elegantly and with much less square footage.

Of course I said nothing (how can you say something like that and what would be the point?) as I had said nothing during their design process. It seems rather self-serving to say to a friend who’s designing their own dream house, “you know, you should really consider hiring my husband.”

But what I learned next makes me question whether that was really the best approach. When somebody builds a house, you expect them to be excited, even jubilant with the result. Instead, my friend told me that she felt like she had PTSD. There wasn’t a single corner of the house she could look at without dredging up the stressful arguments with contractors over that bit of construction. She wished she could be rid of the house, but they were sunk in it for so much more than market value, that wasn’t an option.

The biggest mistake they had made was to get sweet-talked by the GC into inadequate planning and problem-solving. One thing Bob stresses to all his clients is how much easier it is and how much cheaper it is to work out problems on paper. My friend believed her charismatic contractor that they could figure it all out as they went. What she figured out is that it’s very expensive to pay for an entire crew to stand around and wait while hasty compromises are made.

I could go on, but you get the point. My friend’s unfortunate house-building experience is a classic example of why it pays to pay for someone good to be on your side. Of course, that’s no guarantee of satisfaction either, I suppose. I’m thinking of some clients who fired Bob a few years back after he showed them a rendering of what the addition floor plan they loved would look like in elevation. Not at all what they’d expected. You’d think they might have been appreciative to discover that after a few hours of design time rather than mid-construction. No accounting for people. It’s now once again been a while since I caught up with that friend. I hope she’s come to peace with her process by now, and that she’s enjoying her home. And if another friend embarks on the process of building a home? I wonder if I’ll serve them by being self-serving. I’ll probably just give them some generic advice about working all the kinks out that they can on paper, and leave it at that. After all, my friends all know I’m married to an architect.

December 11, 2013
by bob
1 Comment

Thinking ahead

HA! This happens a lot. I just got a call from a contractor who wanted to modify roof trim on an addition to make it both easier and he thought it would look better. Which it would except that a future phase of the project involves adding a porch in such a way that the frieze on the addition becomes the casing for the porch beam. The continuity was important to the client to calm that side of the building. In the image, the red over the window is where the contractor wanted to case the window with 1 x 4 thus creating a narrower frieze board. When that line got over to the porch on the left it would have to drop down to case in the porch beam. Not smooth. On the windows above, the casing for the windows is independent and below the frieze which is preferable, however, I was setting the three lower windows as high and large as I could over a countertop to maximize light into a deep room. We were squished also in terms of the roof in order to get it well under the upstairs windows. Especially over the porch area. The contractor’s solution would be fine and what I would have designed were it not for the open porch to the right.

I found, during the years I worked as a carpenter, that it was easy to concentrate on the task at hand and lose sight of the overall picture. As a designer, sometimes I’ll make a foundation more complicated in order to make framing or trim more simple. Or sometimes I’ll do things in a more complicated fashion due to an aesthetic historical precedent. (Isn’t much of traditional design like that?) Sometimes I will complicate things to make the end result look simple. Sometimes I complicated things just because I can be really really picky.

December 3, 2013
by bob
2 Comments

Recent Design Work

Then I looked at a larger barn with more “clipped” New England eaves. Need to work on the front windows. Traditional barns often utilized some asymmetry here but more modern barn builders seem to stick rigidly to symmetry. The side windows are not good however. -see last picture. Perhaps two large windows

Further work:

November 15, 2013
by bob
4 Comments

Photos! Stratton Modern is nearly complete

I visited a recent ski home project near Stratton mountain ski area to get some photos. The house is nearly complete. As usual there are things I would do differently next time and things that didn’t quite follow the drawings but that’s for me to know and no one else to notice. I really like the “presence” of this house. The coloring and materials are first rate. It is very “touchy feely” and very responsive to the changing light as the clouds raced across the sky. I can’t wait to do the local, green hemlock over Solitex Mento again. and better. Click on the photos for big screen enjoyment.


November 6, 2013
by bob
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not so deep energy retrofit

Here are some photos from a current project. The interior of the exterior walls are all gutted and exposed for new insulation and air sealing. We are not going for a deep energy retrofit here but the end result should cut the energy use significantly. This is an old house with various interventions over the years, some of which we are removing and some we are changing. This is an example of a project where I was hired to help out with some basic design services but every time I showed up on the job, more of the existing was removed and opened up. A moving target in terms of “scope of work”. At this point I am just trying to keep up with things on paper and am acting more as a consultant. I suspect when all is said and done, a lot of this isn’t going to end up on paper.


Old, very old and new framing

the Backside of the oldest fireplace now exposed.

Interesting eave detail -no rake overhang, the crown returns on the horizontal and there is a big ugly box to mount the gutter too

Front door and window detail on the main house

October 28, 2013
by bob
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Mass MoCA in Adams Massachusetts

We visited the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art – Mass MoCA in North Adams MA today to see Xu Bing’s giant phoenix exhibit in the largest hall We come here several times a year and I usually walk around with my mouth wide open in amazement but this time I remembered to snap some photos. When I was in Architecture School, I would occasionally break into a gigantic old abandoned factory up the street from my apartment. At night, of course. It was relatively terrifying but also very peaceful. I remember lying on a parapet three stories up for half the night once just chilling out. The spaces, lit only by nearby streetlights, were beautiful. Mass MoCA is a large factory turned into a museum in such a way that much of that old factory architecture has not been lost or covered up or gentrified.

Xu Bing: Phoenix

The kids were floored

Sol Lewitt

The celestory – a lovely space where there never seems to be anybody.

note the airstream – it’s part of a Steam punk exhibit “Michael Oatman: all utopias fell” and you can climb up there and go in it

They let you into the old boiler building – unsupervised – I could cut myself on rusty metal! It’s actually an exhibit – “Stephen Vitiello: All Those Vanished Engines” complete with eerie sounds from hidden speakers that use some of the old empty rusting tanks as reverberation chambers.

Excellent detailing with raw steel – one of my favorite materials

A river runs through it.

The old building is not at all lost or buried as so often happens.

One of my favorite spaces at Mass MoCA is this tall narrow in-between space.

And the cafeteria actually has really good food and not too expensive – a toasted bagel was less than 1$

Well worth a day to visit. Also, drive (or ride your bike) to the top of Mt. Greylock nearby and check out the Clark which has some amazing art as well as a Tadeo Ando building.

October 22, 2013
by bob
0 comments

philosophy and process

Process is a moving target. It changes based upon so many variables, not the least of which is the client. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all my past work and how, to some extent each project represents where I was at that point in time but mostly, every project represents the client much more than myself in terms of philosophy, aesthetics, etc. Many decisions are made in every project that are, perhaps, guided be me but are not what I would have done if given Carte Blanche. I regret some of these decisions but it is important to remember that they were not my decisions any more than the project was “my project” If a project strays too far from what I want to be associated with, (it’s ugly) it doesn’t show up in my portfolio. There are plenty of those out there. Sometimes you see it coming and sometimes not. Every now and then you get a client who really wants to listen to what you have to say and is interested in your philosophy but mostly, you just have to sneak that in when nobody’s looking.

September 26, 2013
by bob
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Vote now for the Fern house (please)

http://www.finehomebuilding.com/item/31831/vote-for-your-favorite-outdoor-project

Please go to the link above and vote for the Fern House.
I’ve gotten myself into a battle on Fine Homebuilding’s website with three other finalists for a $100 gift certificate to the Taunton Store. All 4 will be published but at the moment, I am losing out to a “Cat Ranch”. How embarrassing. This from twitter:

So am pulling out the big guns and putting this on my blog where a few thousand of my followers will vote for the Fern House before Friday at noon.

Thanks,
Bob

September 12, 2013
by bob
1 Comment

If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

I had another comment recently from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an email and then decided to put it hereon the blog instead.

What we are doing nowadays in the world of high performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed (which includes the majority of 70′s and 80′s super-insulated and passive solar homes in the northeast) and applying those lessons to building a durable house nowadays. Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone and many of those that remain are simple piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (usually, I like simple but…) For the past few decades, builders in the northeast have been living in a vacuum while the northern Europeans and Canadians paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again and we are taking a seat at the table.

I have lived in houses that breath my whole life. It sucks. Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to not freeze to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills. Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my house that breathes. I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the woodstove going. Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.

We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago despite all the failures. A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn and If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says “People breath air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?” If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

There are a range of options for doing this from exhaust only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on Heat Recovery Ventilation System or HRV. These are also fairly simple and effective although significantly more expensive but have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information just type “HRV” or “house ventilation” into the search box on Green Building Advisor and start reading.

August 27, 2013
by bob
0 comments

Crickets, Firewood and Blackberries

Is there any more melancholy sound than crickets out in the field? Reminding me of what must become of this pile of wood…very soon.

Being a relatively not well-to-do architect, I live in a poorly insulated house that I heat with wood. I also do not have a tractor to move wood around. I have a little cart. no gas or electric log splitter. It’s good training for cross country skiing.

This time of year for me is a strange combination of nostalgia, worry and melancholia. The summer has been nice – I’ve mostly spent it working out in my barn rather than at the office where I’ll be when the weather really turns cooler. I’ve been eating massive amounts of blackberries.

The weather is wonderful. The sun is intense, the shadows cool and the birds are silent as they fatten up for their migrations. Fall definitely comes on August 1st nowadays. we swim very little in August. the water is getting too cold. I spend a lot of time out in my woods every day always walking the dog and often running trails. I am constantly stunned and amazed by the 49 acres we have here in Vermont. The sense of stewardship is powerful. When we moved here in 2000, one of the first things I did was create a network of trails. I need to be in the woods and on those trails nearly every day. Not just near the woods or looking at the woods or driving by woods but actually out there in the trees. It helps me think. Or not think. This sense of the land really influences my thinking about living and creating a home in the woods of New England. I am far from having a portfolio of work that really reflects my own personal philosophies and sensibilities. As an architect, I do work for other people and it has to reflect them more than me and I realize that few people can feel as passionate about the land as I do.

August 24, 2013
by bob
2 Comments

Window installation in a super-insulated wall

Designing a Super-insulated wall with good drying potential and good air sealing is easy. But the Devil is in the windows. With passive house level construction we want the window to be recessed toward the middle of the opening and the middle of the adjacent insulation layer. This is about thermal bridging and heat loss. An advantage that I’ve found is that it can potentially simplify the flashing which is certainly a welcome idea. Window and door installation has become increasingly complex over the past decade especially with exterior foam details. (I try to stay away from that) What I’m looking at in this sketch is how flashing for siding can be decoupled from flashing for the window to a great extent. Does the siding even need flashing anymore? Depends on how you do the siding. With some Rain screen siding details, perhaps not! Windows are now coming with really nice integrated sill flashing – you specify the depth when you order. This makes for a much more integrated and seamless system which should have long term durability advantages over what we have been doing up until now. What is missing from this drawing is an exterior layer of rock wool insulation to keep the sheathing warm (not rigid foam !) A more expensive detail and this may be less important when using cellulose than fiberglass insulation but is a detail I would certainly do on my own home. The other option is to use more of a Larsen truss system similar to what Chris Corson is doing in Maine with no exterior sheathing. It is A tough sell around here to leave the insulation protected only by a weather barrier such as Mento plus. The conversation on building science is terribly interesting and seems to be resolving itself towards simplicity as we gain knowledge and experience about what works and what doesn’t and develop products and materials based on our increasing knowledge base. Of course, 93% of builders and architects aren’t really paying much attention.

July 25, 2013
by bob
3 Comments

Grumpy architect time

From the facebook page Grumpy architect time:

1.If your house is adequately insulated there should be little temperature differential between the ceiling and the floor.
2. Adequately differs from code. Remember, a house built to code is the worst house you can legally build.
3. If you choose not to build an Energy Star certified home please give your poor starving architect the $2k that you obviously have to spare.
4. Does anybody with any real knowledge of building use fiberglass batts anymore? probably not anyone who reads this.
5. Air sealing folks! do it correctly!- not 6 mil poly vapor barrier – that was the 90′s We are SO over that. There are some great products and great information is available. Check out 475 supply and Green Building Advisor.
6. Why do people want to build a super-insulated house and then put a full on radiant floor heating system in? – see #3 above about where to send all that extra money.
7. Why do people want to build a new house that looks old? I think it’s just a phase this country is in. I see signs that the retro-anachronistic architecture phase is fading.
8. But I do it anyway – gotta feed the family.
9. Bright side – the science of how to build correctly is settling out in favor of simplicity. That is what draws me to the Passive house approach.
10. Why do people have SO MUCH STUFF?
11. How did it happen that I’m going to my 20th year architecture school reunion tomorrow?

July 24, 2013
by bob
1 Comment

Real Vermonters don’t have Master Bedroom Suites

(would make a good bumper sticker for me except that nobody would get it.)

In rural northern New England – the only local I can really speak authoritatively about – there is a dichotomy of class. It may not reflect income or race but it is something I grew up with. The local kids worked in the kitchens and grounds of the summer camps where the “rich kids” came to play for the summer. It is interesting to read “Maine Home and Design” as an architect who has some connection to the world of art and leisure depicted in those homes as well as a connection to the “other” Maine to whom the magazine is totally irrelevant.

I find the dichotomy affects my own work as well as the clients I have worked with. The typical client with a more middle or upper class suburban background (most of my friends and clients) was raised in a largish home on a largish lot where each kid had his or her own bedroom, there were multiple bathrooms, a garage, a family room – standard stuff to most people. Growing up in rural Maine, however, I had friends who lived in un-insulated homes with no plumbing, 12′ wide mobile homes etc. For many, the ideal was one of those new 1200 s.f. Modular homes built up in West Paris. Lots of families included multiple generations and semi-temporary guests all under one roof in a big old farmhouse.

After many years of clients coming to Vermont to build a new home and life who find the idea of not having a master bedroom suite, a T/B ratio =/> 1 (toilet to butt ratio) or a garage to house their cars incomprehensible, (Real Vermonters don’t have garages?) I find myself questioning what is important to me and the type of projects I can really get my emotions into. My job requires a fair amount of understanding where someone is coming from and what their frame of reference is. Certainly, most people bring their past with them to the table along with what they see on the internet and in magazines. But when I get a client who with similar (old fashioned?) sensibilities and more of a “slow living” attitude and perspective or at least, a willingness to question their values, it is refreshing.

In designing with a set of priorities to reflect this attitude I think about more seasonal living with the idea of hunkering down close to the woodstove during the colder months, cooking lots of fabulous meals and hosting smaller gatherings of friends and family. In the warmer months, life can expand outward with larger parties in the barn, screened porches become additional living space and sleeping quarters. In my own family’s case, the 900 square feet of wood stove heated living space expands to include a screened in porch where we play and eat meals, the barn where I have a desk set up to work and where we have parties and guests have a comfy bed. Plus there is always the fern house and lots of room for tenting in the meadow. Sometimes it is good to tour old houses or even just spend some time in old Sears catalog home books to see what used to be important to people and think about how we say we want to live with a more critical eye and a different perspective.