The folks over at 475 High Performance Building Supply wrote a very nice article about the Greenfield house last week. foursevenfive.com provides building materials and expertise to many high performance home builders and architects.This plan will be the next stock plan available in the VSH – Vermont Simple House series. I’m working on bringing it to a high level of detail now.
I am finally getting around to offering stock plans from my own website including Vermont Simple House (VSH) 1, 2 and 3. These have been for sale for a few years now on HousePlans.com and, by contract I can sell them on my own website for an increased price. I have been getting many inquiries about other plans I might have for sale so I’m going to focus for a while on increasing my offerings. My simple traditional aesthetic with clean modern lines and plans seem to have hit a chord with many people and I rarely get to keep things so simple with my custom work. I have been digging through stock plan offerings on the web since 2008 and I have found little competition for this sort of house. These plans all have shells and detailing bumped up to “Pretty Good House” levels which is also unusual in stock plans.
These are the plans that are for sale currently:
I am now working on a variation of the Greenfield house which will have a footprint of 22’x 32’ + bump-out and offer two full bathrooms and up to three bedrooms in about 1452 square feet. I will strip out of few of the more custom elements from the Greenfield house such as the very large (and expensive) corner window and the steel staircase – it’s easy enough to add those back in.
COMING SOON !
My plan is to continually add more plans here including variations on these plans (most of them are quite flexible) Credit card processing is taken care of through Gumroad and you are immediately able to download all associated files. Of course all work is copyrighted and good for the construction of one house, stair, whatever. I will need to figure out how to make discounts available for multiple purchases. I will also develop a resource page for materials, products and useful information. Feed back is most welcome and I hope that people send photos!
Bu the way, I am about to purge my user roles quite a bit. There are over 8000 registered users and when I ran this list through a spammer check, it showed me that half of this number are spammers. If you want to get regular updates please register via the slide out are on the upper right side of any page in case I accidentally purge you. One would dislike being purged.
THE NEXT YEAR AT BLUETIME – GENERAL THOUGHTS AND GOALS
– My hope is to take on few but interesting and financially rewarding projects.
a. I need to look at contracts and communications. Emphasis needs to be placed on clarifying the process and expectations at the beginning of any project.
b. Break even is estimated at $xx/hour (2/3 billable)
c. Keep better track of ALL hours including washing dishes and walking dogs
d. Hardware and software upgrades and investments – need to spend some $ this year
e. Build construction meetings and check-ins into contracts and specs
f. Complete website – including print ready projects pages, press, Bluetime Collaborative
g. SEO is fading – how can I improve?
I tend to get burned out on the intensity of working as a sole practitioner trying to be an expert in everything. (and keep track of everything) I am pushing the collaborative aspect of projects in order to do fewer projects at a higher level of service by both distributing the task load and adding in aspects of service that I have not in the past as well as get support in the organization of my services. This costs more in design fees so I expect to do fewer projects overall. I really need to avoid doing two high performance homes (for example) at the same time. I will continue to offer basic services with limited involvement as I have often done successfully in the past. There is a market and need for that plus I enjoy it. The resulting projects are not the best portfolio fodder and generally not brilliantly cohesive and resolved. Plus I think they are often actually more expensive than if I were more involved with design and detailing. But it is good clean work and I enjoy being helpful.
The following are other interests that I have been wanting to pursue but have been too swamped to think about. By incorporating these into my business plan, I hope to be able to do less and better architecture for a carefully selected clientele. And these additional projects will strengthen the core of my business, help even the flow of work and allow me to…be better at what I do.
2. Furniture– line of tables (2+ models?)version one is sitting in my kitchen right now.
a. Build 2 models (requires $$)
c. Simple website w/ecommerce – Etsy?
d. Cost analysis including shipping
e. Who can provide metal and wood and what time frame?
f. Is there a way to start low key? Etsy? My own blog? Can I get in with a local furniture store?
3. Photography – Invest in photography equipment and knowledge in order to be able to photograph my own projects and make extra income photographing other’s projects.
a. Equipment costs – minimal at first
b. Greenfield is a good place to practice
c. Practice and education
d. I already have decent photoshop skills – most of my portfolio is manipulated raw images through photoshop (And it’s pretty good if I do say so myself)
e. This sets me up for publishable work, boosting the architecture business.
f. architecture specific photography for local builders, realtors. Not super-pro and not for pro-level fees but I see a need for this sort of thing in the area.
4. Stock Plan Market
a. Need to add 5+/- additional stock plans to the stock plan portfolio on houseplans.com
b. Initial time investment = residual income
5. Sketchup modeling
a. Would other firms pay me to do sketchup modeling for them? (I’m pretty good)
b. Need to spend time upping my skill level
c. Additional plug ins such as rendering? Or should I ignore rendering for now?
The future of my career is nebulous. (thus, in part, the diversification listed above). I periodically consider going to work for someone else but suspect that wouldn’t last long. Or maybe it would be really refreshing? I am in danger of becoming a dinosaur with regards to what I see going on regionally as well as nationally. There will always be a need for the little guy who can address residential needs but new homes will be increasingly built by larger organizations. Pre-fab, factory built, modular etc are the future of residential and there may be a way for me to work within those parameters. At this point in my career I don’t expect to do any projects other than residential.
I also continue to design and redesign additions and renovations to my own home. I want a real kitchen (with a dishwasher) so I can log more hours there.
And I have to build a chicken coop and a greenhouse in the next few months.
I spent part of Sunday painting at the Greenfield project with the builder Chad of Vermont Natural Homes. The all white primer that drywallers left us with was rather intense in the bright winter sun. The main bedroom upstairs which faces south was almost too bright to tolerate. It was good to spend much of the day there on a sunny day to better understand the light and to see how things will photograph when all is said and done. The color we used is a light blueish gray and it really had a soothing effect on the main room. I hope it will feel warm at night under artificial light as well. I am a bit concerned about this room as it had so much going on in terms of different materials on different surfaces. It was nice to spend the day talking with Chad about design and business and such. I don’t often get to interact on that level with the builders. There is a lot going on in this house that will help me learn and get better as an architect and help Chad get better as a builder. Plus the part where it is shaping up to be stunningly beautiful.
We tried a different construction method for this project than plain old double stud walls. There is potential in this method – (see previous post) but I don’t think we gained as much as we hoped in terms of air tightness and ease of construction. There are some Passive House builders using this method to hit ridiculously low cost per square foot numbers and it has numerous other advantages. I look forward to improving the detailing next time around. Double stud construction (used on the Ames Hill Project shown below) is the local standard here in Southeastern Vermont. The cost/benefit ratio is very high and local “green” builders are very familiar with it and prefer to build this way. Some local builders are also starting to advocate using locally milled boards as sheathing rather than OSB and plywood as well. I asked around (sent out a formal questionnaire even) and most think the cost difference is negligible.
We also had issues with the trusses on the Greenfield project. Maybe we just had bad luck but it seems that whenever I’ve tried to specify trusses to save money, they come through just imperfect enough to cause problems that need to be solved in the field.
I detailed lots of things both interior and exterior in such a way that they can be filled in later but don’t interfere with occupancy permit and impression of completeness. The sheetrock around the deep set windows for instance, costs more on the drywaller’s bill but when they leave, the window is essentially trimmed out. Done. We can add a sill later. Perhaps even just laying some slate tiles on the window sill. I have found that using wood trim on deep windows looks too…heavy and complicated. There are more cool and experimental things happening at this project as well which I will detail in a later blog post as they happen.
The stairs aren’t in yet so I did some quick and dirty photoshopping:
On most (all?) projects there is a level of design that is in the earlier, preconstruction drawings and models that I find really hard to convey to builders and clients and thus gets edited out of the final constructed project. Things that often look unnecessary on paper and I sound silly trying to explain but, the older and more experienced I get, the more I understand how important these things are. Once in a while I have a client who trusts me enough to let me do what I do to a greater extent. I suspect I have been luckier than most architects in that regard. I am so often trying to use space, light (and dark), flow, texture, detail, color etc. to shape and affect emotion and state of mind for my clients and I hope that long after I’m gone that will be a big and recognized part of my legacy.
This project and the Ames Hill Project have been opportunities to work with – and see how to work with – a full-on construction management firm – Helm Construction Solutions. This is part of trying to reach a higher level of service as an architect (it’s a hard thing to do as a sole proprietor) as well as re-write how projects happen locally. I have lots of cost and pricing information gathered on my own over the years that I can use for rough estimating purposes but what Helm does involves knowing the cost of things much more accurately earlier in the process. I have found few builders who can really do this well. It tends to be a level of service one would expect of a larger firm with a dedicated staff (back at the office) for this aspect of construction. It’s very much about managing expectations, communications, process, accountability and smoothing the tumultuous process of building as much as possible.
I filled out some of the Bluetime Collaborative section of my website finally – check it out from the top menu.
The current state of things. In rather wordy format. It was late.
Sometimes it is good practice to write down a general summary of the state of my business to help myself put things into perspective.
I have several projects under construction.
The Greenfield MA house for my in-laws is being framed currently by Chad and company with Vermont Natural Homes and Mel of Baiser Construction Management.
I have spent and have yet to spend an inordinate amount of time on this project. I am using lessons learned here to bring my services to a higher level than ever before but it is tough. Sometimes I wish I had stuck with the design-build route so I would have more control. This project didn’t have quite enough money in the budget to go the Passive house route although the insulation levels etc may actually end up performing at Passive house levels but without the added cost of certification. It’ll be close. I learned (deja-vu) that trusses (like SIPs) are not perfect. I’m second guessing myself about the TJI’s outside the structural shell to hold insulation. (would it have been cheaper to do double stud?) I may do some tiling there myself and I need to schedule a trip with Mom-in-Law to IKEA for the Kitchen cabinets. And the whole family is pre-priming the trim on the old logging landing at my house.
The AH house is on a similar schedule for construction but with a higher level of finish work and a higher budget.
This project got a bit crunched in terms of my work when it disappeared for a few months and then started back up after I had filled the gap. It has been a bit tough getting everything out to the builders and clients on a fast track schedule. Especially when I am only working part time. Which brings me to my own project.
I live in a small house with a cat, three dogs, an 8 year old girl, a 3 year old boy and my lovely wife. We have one bathroom. Which was rapidly disintegrating into goopy piles of mold. I really needed to do something about it so this year, with a little ($) help from mom, I performed a gut remodel job. I had to rebuild the entire exterior wall down to the foundation and remove and rebuild the entire wall between the bedroom and the bathroom.
I even ripped up half the subfloor. The only thing that stayed was the exhaust fan in the ceiling and the door. The plumber arrived yesterday and I took an extremely luxurious shower (and other things) last night. This project has taken a fair amount of time (I’ve been keeping track of this as I would a regular job)
So I’m a bit under the gun with this personal job and the jobs I have under construction which isn’t that much work except that don’t forget, I’m only a part time architect. I have, for the most part, been successful at getting meals on the table, keeping the house clean, keeping up with the laundry etc. but I’ve had to pretty much give up cycling this summer as I have to try to make all my time every day productive. I’m also a bit behind on the winter’s wood supply and some other home maintenance jobs.
This week I started back working on a long term project that will start construction next summer – the house for slow living. It is more expensive than the client’s original number and I have been pointing that out to the point of getting told to “shut it” because they like it so much. Which is fine but I have been a bit paranoid about digging into the CAD work in case it is all for naught. The biggest $$ savings would have come from putting the house on a floating slab ala Bygghouse and Chris Corson. (check out his system here). This is fairly standard in Sweden and Scandinavia as well as other cold parts of the world and the detailing is certainly well vetted and has stood the test of time but is a bit too “different” for the more conservative local contractors. So “no go” on that sales job. They want a full basement. Interestingly, some friends are doing a floating slab for a project in the neighboring town. More hip contractors I guess. I need to write a blog post comparing different types of foundations. I’m starting this project in full-on BIM mode. There will definitely be some unbillable hours there as I learn things. BIM or Building Information Modeling is using the full potential of my very expensive software to create a project in full 3-D as opposed to “drafting” The benefits are more accurate and more efficient construction documents as well as being able to perform more accurate lighting, shading, and energy modeling studies. This is standard practice for larger firms and the more geeky and technically oriented small firm practitioners (of which, I am not one of) But I’m always pushing myself on these things.
I also didn’t get a rather large job that I was a bit nervous about as it would have taken a huge amount of time and the budget was fairly unrealistic as was the time frame. I didn’t get the job because my portfolio of commercial work is quite thin. I have been doing almost exclusively residential for the past decade. In retrospect, I should have sought out a partnership to do this job. There are several really excellent firms that have expressed interest in working with me and I would love to do that sometime but I’m sort of glad I didn’t get the job. It would have been too stressy and I probably would have lost money.
Last week I met with a couple who want to renovate an old farmhouse/cape that hasn’t even been lived in for decades (no asbestos, no 70’s kitchen to tear out, no insulation) That sounds potentially very cool – I LOVE working on old New England houses.
There are also a few smaller projects that may materialize plus I need to spend some time on my stock plan portfolio and finish building this website.
I’ve been thinking about the future of my business as well. It seems that it will remain part time for the foreseeable future. My wife works ¾ time and is in grad school as well. Perhaps, in a few years she will get a regular job with a salary and a 401k and I’ll remain part time or perhaps I’ll be forced into more full time work and she will reduce her hours. It’s all too unknown to make plans so I’m just taking it one day and one job at a time with no plans for growing my business. I think that if I were to ever take on a partner, that person would have to be in a similar situation time-wise. Plus they should have an MBA and be really good at hanging out at brewpubs and schmoozing.
The business card at the top is by EM Letterpress
State of…. Things.
Nutshell: This has been a very busy spring and summer. I have barely been able to keep my head above water.
I have two houses starting, one of which is for my wife’s folks so they can be closer to our family in their retirement. These still need lots of detailing and supervision and I’ll be doing some work on the In-law’s house. I have to write up a proposal for a slightly larger scale project than what I usually do which I would start toward the end of July. Another house that will be built in 2016 needs tons of work over the fall. There have been a few smaller jobs here and there and I should probably secure a few more house projects for next winter.
I’m trying to take several weeks off to renovate my own bathroom (difficult as I only have one bathroom)
And build a greenhouse.
Plus I’m a bit behind on the next winter’s wood pile. (understatement)
I have a friend learning Vectorworks (my CAD program of choice) in order to be able to help me out a bit but I’ve found that my process throughout a job from initial site studies to final detailing doesn’t lend itself very well to hiring a drafter. I need to work on that. I don’t want to grow and take on employees at this point in my career. I can’t offer anybody x numbers of hours per week or a salary – I don’t really earn what any other architect would consider a living so how could I pay someone else? I need to do a better job of smoothing out the whole process and identifying potential collaboration aspects of what I do.
I periodically consider going to work for someone else and maybe I will someday. I could certainly bring work into the firm and it might be more fun.
I’m hoping to be pickier about the projects I take on and I really should pre-screen potential clients better and ask for references. I’ve been fired from jobs where I heard later that I was not the first architect they fired.
I need to take a look at how I communicate. Email is great as I have a written record of nearly all communication on most jobs. But with 50+ emails in my in-box every day, communication with clients can be a significant amount of my day and I need to factor that into my fees. I also need to do a better job at setting limits. Perhaps I should put into my contracts that I will not answer emails during non-business hours and cannot guarantee and answer within 24 hours but will answer within 48 hours or something like that. I keep getting caught in the part time aspect of my business where I am off for a day with kids and don’t access the internet or check emails. Often, I have little warning when these days will occur. (Such as when a kid starts throwing up at 7 a.m.)
I also had a recent small job where the clients really took advantage of my fee structure and contract with 10+ on site meeting to go over 30+ schemes that they had come up with (for me to make work). I would go home to draw something up and a new scheme would arrive in my inbox rendering the past afternoon’s work useless. I’ve never before had that happen on that extreme scale but I can see why other architects put clear limits on meetings and schematics.
So the short of it is that I’m really busy doing fun work and actually starting to make some money at this. (I may be able to retire by 2045!) But I have a lot of work to do on crafting how I run my business, both for myself and for current and future clients.
Entrepreneur Architect is an online community of small business owners in the field of architecture sharing information, ideas, and ways of doing business and generally supporting each other which has been immensely helpful over the years.
There have been some changes here spurred on by completely screwing up my blog last Friday when I hit “update” and everything disappeared. It wasn’t really gone of course. But my backup copy made the day before wouldn’t work. (I couldn’t figure out how to make it work) Evidently, ignoring updates for too long was the underlying issue.
I had been intending a complete makeover anyway, and I’m very pleased to have pulled it off. I used this template for those who are interested in that sort of thing. I am SO not a web developer but I know what I want and it seemed that I could accomplish it using this template with all its options and customization capabilities. I still have to figure out many small things that I want to adjust. Definitely view this on a big screen for maximum visual effect. It works on all screens but some of the pretty bits drop out when you start to squeeze it.
There will be a ton of portfolio stuff and drawings and models added later (major eye candy) when I get the template right for that section. I also need a section to show off the press I get.
(my intention for) The overall feel of the site a sense of transparency, light and peacefulness (introvertism?) and to express my connection to Vermont and the seasons here. The background photos are from my own land and are what I see every day.
I also intend to set up a commerce section to make it simpler to sell my stock plans and perhaps even a section for clients to log in and download updates on their projects and see/pay invoices etc. I’ll probably hire someone else to set that up.
Keep checking in.
This is from Mel Baiser of Baiser Construction Management. I am working with her on several projects and here is what she has to say about the Greenfield project.
I have the great fortune of teaming up with Architect Bob Swinburne of Bluetime Collaborative and builder, Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes on the construction of a Passive House in Greenfield, MA. This project is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons. For a passive house certified builder (PHIUS) this is rare opportunity to be involved in the planning and construction of a home which meets the highest international building standards. As someone in my mid-thirties and the parent of a young child, I am all too aware of the climate crisis. I am also a firm believer in that bumper sticker slogan, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Having dedicated over a decade to working in construction, I am committed to every effort to push this industry towards sustainability. After all, nearly 50% of the energy consumed in the U.S. can be attributed to the initial construction and operation of our buildings. Buildings that meet the Passive House standard are the buildings of tomorrow (even though we are far behind Europe and really they should be the buildings of today.)
My company’s logo is “revolutionizing the building process” and though I may be outing myself in terms of political sympathies, my intent is to bring a new level of efficiency, organization and collaboration to the construction industry. In particular, in a high performance, net zero or passive house building, effective pre-construction planning and an integrated delivery process is essential to the success of these projects. My company offers cost planning, scheduling and project management services and I feel grateful to have found like-minded architects and builders (and clients) with whom to collaborate. I often find the traditional top down, architect driven delivery method (design, bid, build) to be antiquated, inefficient and not a suitable match for high performance building. By involving the builder, cost estimator and even the client very early on in schematic design, you can save thousands of dollars, weeks in the schedule, avoid technical errors and potential interpersonal conflict down the road.
Green building is really nothing more than a marketing tool until we make it financially and culturally accessible. Aside from achieving the Passive House standard (heating and cooling demand less than or equal to 4.75 KBtus per SF/Yr; Primary energy demand less than or equal to 38 KBtus per SF/Yr and an air leakage rate of .6 air changes per hour at 50 Pascal) our team is motivated to bring this project in on a relatively modest budget. An architect committed to building performance, budget, function and aesthetic; a contractor/project management collaborative leading local natural and high performance building efforts and a client who believes in the importance of healthy efficient homes and “you get what you pay for” is the absolute dream team for any project, but especially for this project.
Baiser Construction Management
I took a shot at writing down my own thoughts about the Greenfield project I’m doing for my wife’s folks. Sometimes I have so many half-baked ideas in my head that writing them down creates a jelling effect and helps me to clarify and focus my efforts. I’m planning on documenting this project to a much higher level than I have in the past, partly because we are assembling something of a dream team to get this done and partly because I am using this project to redefine how I work in order to bring my own practice to a higher level. I have encouraged the others to start writing as well and some of that will show up here on the blog as well for a more well-rounded perspective. We are currently exploring the feasibility of doing this house as a Passive house and seeking certification.
I hope, as usual, to show what can be accomplished when a highly functional and customized plan is also an emotionally uplifting place to live. This projects continues my exploration into the emotional aspects of “home” and how to use architecture to augment and reinforce the emotional connection to place.
What have I to gain from doing this project as a full-on Certified Passive House? So what if the winter heating bills drop from $75/month to $25/month? Is that really worth all the extra effort and expense to go through certification? We don’t know the answer to that yet. “Let me run some numbers” as the engineer or accountant would say.
Passive house has cache. It attracts media. There is huge marketing potential. The clients (my in-laws) are understandably interested in that aspect of it – it relates to their son-in-law’s ability to financially support his wife and children. I want to do more of this type of work in the future and will I ever get such a good opportunity to gain exposure, attention and build a reputation that to do a very attractive and relevant project at this highest level… and market it to the greatest extent possible. I have seen that model propel other firms into the limelight so I am aware of what power and potential in inherent in this thinking.
My own limited knowledge of Passive House indicated that this house as designed thus far could attain Passive House certification with minimal extra effort. I’m a Certified Passive House Designer – CPHD with the international credential but I have little practical experience. This project could be a great way to gain that experience. The most effort and extra money will probably be in soft costs – hiring someone with experience to do the energy modeling, advise on detailing and assist in the certification process.
With this project we are also formalizing a fairly progressive project delivery process that I am realizing is crucial to creating high performance buildings. This represents the direction my own business model is headed in. I have, in the past, followed both the more traditional architect route where I work with clients to design and detail a project and we shop it out to builders. I have also worked (more often) in a more design-build model where the builder is integrated into the process from very early in the process. That has been my preferred method of project delivery but I am realizing that to provide the highest levels of service, I need to fill in some gaps. I can’t do everything and I don’t have expertise in everything so I’m bringing in people to help fill the traditional gaps. Subcontractors as well need to be on board as part of the team at a much earlier stage and need to be aware that they will be asked to perform at a very high level of professionalism. Part of my job is to make that as easy as possible for them through design and detailing.
I am working on this project with Mel Baiser of Baiser Construction Management and Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes both of whom have training in passive house detailing and construction. They understand what it takes to reach that highest level of building excellence. And considerable enthusiasm to do so.
We are pouring over the details as fast as I can draw them up to insure that no stone is left unturned. The process requires a high level of integration at this early stage in terms of product selection, integrated assembly, cost (and relative costs). Assumptions are challenged and vetted and everything will be put down on paper before the project is staked out on the site which is under considerable snow at the moment.
We will maintain a process blog as part of Vermont Architect to provide a window into this process. Blog readers and Bluetime Collaborative facebook followers have already seen some early schematic design images of this project.
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.
Perry Road House for sale – see April 11 blog post on Vermont Architect.
Note: it is unfinished – Folks moving on in search of greener pastures
4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, super insulated, all on 70 acres with 2000′ of Green River frontage on one edge of property and a brook with over 100′ of cascading waterfalls in the middle, perfect for micro-hydro system. Heated it with 3.5 cords of wood and the sun. Old foundations on property. Nice sunrise view down the valley.
I often need to spend minimal time – 10 to 20 hours at my hourly rate – to do a simple master planning/feasibility study to explore what can be done to an existing house and if it’s worth it. This process includes measuring existing conditions as much as is needed, photos, a thorough initial client meeting, thinking, sketching, some schematic design, modeling, more thinking, writing lists and generally trying to pare down the simplest solution to the client’s goals. The result is a .pdf file which attempts to get all this down in a clear format which can be given to a builder for feedback and a VERY rough costing on the various parts and options. I have been assured by other architects that I am ridiculously fast at this in terms of total time spent. Projects often don’t progress past this stage as clients realize that it would cost more to achieve what they want than they are able to spend. Or the project gets pared down at this early stage. It is a very useful exercise in saving money by spending some on the architect up front. It seems to be a good graphic way to quickly get a handle on the whole project without committing much in terms of $ from the client or time from me. Here are some examples of three recent projects.
Here is an example of a basic one-page-wonder construction drawing for a simple house. Not all the information is here to build a house but an expert builder can fill in missing details. For example, I put the stairs in the section with a very basic level of detail to make sure they work and meet code, however, I did not detail anything further than that. The stairs could be built in a very modern way with cable railings or very old fashioned with spindle ballusters and a newell posts. I concentrated on the overall aesthetic, proper Greek Revival details for the location and good building science practices with a very detailed double stud wall section from foundation to roof.
When I finally finished college (at age 25 and after 7 years) I didn’t feel like I knew everything. In fact, I felt like I knew nothing. I still do actually. In reality, I have spent the last 19 years learning like crazy. After a year or so of internship, I went to work for Mindel and Morse Builders where I spent 5 years building houses, doing innumerable additions and renovations and generally learning like crazy. I learned a lot of practical stuff such as how to handle bituthene on a warm day but I also learned a lot about what I’m good at – and what I’m not good at. I’m not such a good finish carpenter – I don’t have the patience. I can do it but it is “not me”. I am, however, a good framer. What I’m best at on the building end of things is understanding the flow, the dance of a project and I’m good at figuring out better ways of doing things. I’m good foreman material. But what I’m really best at is design, pure and simple. Read More
The idea of architect billing for their services as a percentage of construction cost has, in the past, struck me as inherently unfair but increasingly, I am seeing the merit in that method of compensation.
In my own experience, when building hourly, this leaves the opportunity open to pick and choose from my services as one would a drafting service. I run into the situation where the design has a lot of refinement necessary to make it great and the client doesn’t want to spend the money on more design and more meetings. It becomes a matter of standards and, being a perfectionist, my standards are normally higher than my client’s. I look back on past built work and feel disappointment when I see things that could have been so much better or situations when I “gave away” time to make something right because the client was not willing to pay to do so. I think this is where architects who bill for their services as a percentage of construction cost often screw themselves. Being perfectionists, when billing a fixed fee, the longer we spend on a project “getting it right”, the lower the equivalent hourly rate becomes. Soon, the architect is down around $20 or $30 an hour which is completely unsustainable and leaves us trying to explain to our families on April 15th how we worked our asses off all year and only made $25k. But, at least, when billing based on a percentage of construction costs, the end result is likely to be a lot better.
Bob Borson in his blog “Life of an Architect” touched on the Red Flags subject recently which put me in a grumpy architect mood. I would like to elaborate on his list of red flags. Beware clients who want a very limited set of drawings.
I am often approached by potential clients wanting incomplete plans. They usually want just basic floor plans and elevations and if they know what a section is they probably want that too. Just enough for a permit. I am hereby taking the stance that I will not accept these types of projects. Let it be known and henceforth and all that sort of thing. It is true that I have been talked into doing these limited service projects in the past. I just spent some time in my files looking over past projects of all sorts and remembering past rants, usually endured by my wife.
Let me elaborate on why I won’t do a half-assed job now.
1. They cost me money. Inevitably, the contractor will call me and ask for clarification on details or framing which results in my doing the drawings anyway and not getting paid for doing them, or spending way too much time on the phone or email dealing with issues that should have been in the construction documents in the first place. Or worse, the project gets built with my name on it as the architect and it ends up ugly and poorly detailed. Which leads to point number…
2. I have to be very careful what my name gets associated with. This is a small town and one poorly designed, underdesigned, poorly sited or poorly detailed building can really hurt a reputation. In this business reputation is very important. I was less careful with this in my early years and had the attitude: “whatever – it’s their project” but the result of this is that there are a number of projects that are just plain ugly and my name gets mentioned in association with them. Ouch!
3. It is part of my job to ensure that the whole process goes smoothly and providing incomplete services would be counter to this.
4. There are Liability issues with providing incomplete services which frighten me as well although I have been lucky in that I have never experienced them directly. Perhaps I should have a lawyer write up a special contract that would protect me by scaring off any potential clients who fall into this camp.
In the past most of these projects have morphed into full services as the client begins to understand just what it is that I do. Most people seem to think architects are overpaid drafters but I, for one, actually do very little drafting. Systems are in place to minimize the actual drafting for a project as a percentage of the whole. Figuring out what to draft takes a whole lot more time and effort than the actual drafting. If I am unable to communicate this up front, that is a red flag for me and I will have to consider carefully whether I will take on the project.
Now Taking orders for the plans for the Brattleboro Tiny House. The size is 16′ x 22′ with a sleeping loft. Super insulated double stud construction using advanced framing techniques. An excellent do-it-yourself project. Replace your old garage with something that can make an income as a rental unit or build this as a guest house/studio/office/….. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested and/or have questions.
Here is an interesting lesson to learn if I can figure out what it is. Perhaps writing this blog entry will help.
I tend to attract the sort of client who wants a 2500 square foot house with porches, hardwood flooring, granite countertops and an attached garage and wants it for $275 K. If they don’t flee the office in disgust when I tell them A: can’t be done and B: my fees would definitely be more than $3000. (There will of course be someone who will “say” they can) What has happened too often to ignore in the past several years is that clients have come to me with a set of parameters (we architects refer to this as a program) The program consists of needs, wants, site and zoning issues, budget etc. Usually the budget requires a rethinking of needs vs wants and this is where things can get sticky. As I mentioned above, there will always be someone who will tell them they can have it all (meaning: let’s wing it) and some clients will seek them out. A few years later when I see the project completed without me it is clear that either the budget was much more “flexible” than it was when they originally came to me or the “needs” list was pared down much more than what I was able to accomplish with them. I know I am not the best salesman, hoping instead that my obvious experience, references and air of quiet competence will engender trust (insert emoticon here) (real men don’t use emoticons) There have been times when I have thought of a great solution to a design problem but scrapped it because it was a budget buster only to find out later when the clients went to another architect who came up with the same idea and “sold” it to the client. Discouraging. Perhaps the lesson is that I should take things a bit less personally and realize that other people’s idea of budget is more flexible. Of course, I am often the second architect on a project because the first architect designed something too expensive to build…
I’m probably shooting myself in the foot here because this company is sort of on my turf. Unfortunately they are too far away for me to go work for. Connor Homes in Middlebury Vermont has a “pre-engineered and component building system” that is very appealing to me as delivery process for a high end new home. Loads of other companies are doing the same thing but Connor Homes is one of the few who are doing beautiful New England vernacular both well and correctly. As an architect snob I am constantly offended by failed attempts at historically correct detailing both by builders and by other architects.
This represents a typical Construction Drawing set for a simple house minus a site plan. It represents a bit over 100 hours of labor. Thought y’all might be interested. A more complete set would have framing on a separate sheet, Interior elevations at least of the kitchen and bathrooms, a site plan, Materials schedules usually called out on the floor plans, and separate electrical plans.
Plans are now up and for sale on one of the largest stock plan publishing houses houseplans.com in their “exclusive architects” section!
My plan is to produce a series of similar houses increasing in scale and amenities and see how it goes. Houseplans.com is a progressive company with a good vision as to where the market is headed. They also have huge site traffic numbers. Keeping my fingers crossed. It took me forever to finish the plans and model for this first house, I suspect I am being a perfectionist again.
People often tell me they took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I suspect that few people have in idea of what it takes in terms of the whole process.
First there is admission to a school of architecture. These tend to be highly competitive. My school accepted fewer than one in seven applicants the year I was accepted with admission to the rest of the school being much easier. Artistic talent, leadership skills and life experience were important. High school drafting class counted for nothing. The first year of architecture school is a bit like hazing and typically, about half drop out. Then you are in school (think massive debt) for 5 years at a minimum. Five years gets you a professional degree called a Barch which is a bit more than a regular bachelors but less than a masters. This degree is being phased out because it is becoming impractical to cram all the course work into five years. ( graduated with 181 credits) The new norm seems to be a 4 year degree resulting in a liberal arts type bachelors degree and an additional 2 to 3 years for a Masters degree in architecture.
Then comes post graduation internship (if you are lucky enough to get a position with an architecture firm) Working full time, the requirements for this can theoretically be met in about three years. I have heard that the average internship lasts 7 years but this seems to be a dirty little secret in the industry. My own internship was about 5 years worth of time spread over a much longer period of time because I spent so much time working as a carpenter. It took five years of actual internship because there are a specific set of criteria that must be met to satisfy the internship requirements which are often hard to accomplish without spending some time working in a large urban firm where a regular internship program is in place. Many graduates who go to work in larger firms with salaried positions never get around to taking the qualification exams to become licensed architects. They may not need the license for their job and it can be hard to study when you go home in the evening to a busy family and life.
The Exam(s) – Nine of them when I was becoming an architect. Nine exams which represented over $1000 in fees plus all the study materials which is a whole separate industry. In the old days the exams took place all at once over a 4 day period where you were locked in a room with a drafting table. Now you stare at a computer screen at a cubicle in a small room with flickering florescent lights overhead. (headache)
So, the whole process takes a minimum of 8 years but averages a lot longer. Probably not worth it from an accountant’s point of view when looking at the yearly salary data that comes out courtesy of the American Institute of Architects. Then when you finally have license in hand and can legally call yourself an architect there are all the yearly fees and continuing education requirements that must be met to maintain the license. If you lapse on any of these you are not allowed to cannot continue to call yourself an architect.
My architect colleagues will do some nodding here.
Sometimes you have to know when to run screaming from a project or risk losing your shirt to someone who probably makes six times your income.
-If I client is in a hurry, step away
-If a client refuses to divulge budget numbers, back away
-If a client has unrealistic expectations and refuses to listen to reason, turn and start walking
-If a client wants something for free run for your life!
The mistake I have made in the past is thinking I can change someone. If this sounds like the stereotypical doomed personal relationship then BINGO. I am limited in my abilities to educate a potential or new client as to the architectural process and rely on references in the form of previous clients and builders (I always give out a list) If after all this, it is clear that the client hears what they want to hear and nothing more or less than it is time to exit stage left.
An example: A few years ago I was hired to do an addition to an old Vermont cape. The addition was to have a large family room, two studies, a bedroom suite with closets and bathroom, a utility room, a porch etc etc. This is a LOT of square footage. I found that I could make a floor plan that made them happy but the resulting massing and scale was far off no matter what I did. I got fired from the job and lost my shirt to someone who can not only afford a second home in Vermont but can afford to renovate and add on. Mental note: future Woe-Is-Me post – why didn’t I become a New York architect so I could afford to live in Vermont. In retrospect, I realized that what they were looking for visually was irreconcilable with what they wanted for a program (the floor plan spaces) The addition was to replace a small shed ell which was quite cute and a good match for the old cape and my job was to make the new addition just as small and cute despite containing 4x the space. Impossible. There will always be someone else who will tell them they can do it. Either an architect or designer who is a better salesperson than me and will do fanciful renderings with lots of flowers that make it look okay or a builder who will say “lets just figure it out as we go” and exude confidence all over the place. Yuck. I must assume they found such a person.
Here is my new business card created by EM Letterpress in New Bedford, MA. The picture doesn’t do it justice I’m afraid. It is incredibly beautiful. I am not worthy. I went to school with Eli of EM Letterpress and he went on to not practice architecture. Check out their website and flickr photos.
check out lots more letterpress at ETSY.com