I am a Passive House Designer!

By | education, ego, Passive House, super insulated, working with an architect | 6 Comments

Apparently, although I never got an email, I am now a Certified Passive House Designer!!

What is Passive House ?

– The passive house standard represents the highest level of energy efficiency and “green building”.
– The passive house standard is where state and municipality energy codes are headed.
– Public housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity and regional housing authorities and land trusts are starting to require new housing units to be built to the passive house standard as these groups tend to prioritize overall cost of ownership over initial cost of construction.
– The roots of Passive House trace back to the 1970s, when the concepts of superinsulation and passive solar management techniques were developed in the United States and Canada.
– More than 25,000 buildings have been built to the Passive House standard in Europe. The standard is especially common in multi-family housing where it often makes little financial sense not to build to this level of energy efficiency.

Concept
“Maximize your gains, minimize your losses”. These are the basic tenets of the Passive House approach. A Passive House project maximizes the energy efficiency of the basic building components inherent in all buildings; roof, walls, windows, floors and the utility systems: electrical, plumbing & mechanical. By minimizing a building’s energy losses, the mechanical system is not called to replenish the losses nearly as frequently. This saves resources, operational costs and global warming related pollution. Unlike any other structures, Passive House buildings maintain occupant comfort for more hours of the year without the need for mechanical temperature conditioning of the indoor air. The opposite has been the norm in this country where we have a history of inexpensive fuel and construction techniques with little consideration for energy losses through thermal bridging, air-infiltration, and inadequate levels of insulation.

Passive House is both a building energy performance standard and a set of design and construction principles used to achieve that standard. The Passive House standard is the most stringent building energy standard in the world
The Passive House approach focuses on the following:

Strategic Design and Planning:
Passive House projects are carefully modeled and evaluated for efficiency at the design stage. Certified Passive House Consultants are trained to use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), a tool that allows designers to test “what-if” scenarios before construction begins. They are also trained to use other software tools to identify and address potential thermal bridges and moisture issues at the design stage.
Specific Climate, Siting and Sizing:
Passive House design uses detailed, specific annual weather data in modeling a structure’s performance. Orientation of the windows can maximize or minimize solar gain and shading. Passive House theory leans towards minimizing the surface area to interior volume ratio, favoring an efficient shape to minimize energy losses.
Super-Insulated, Air-Tight Envelope (But Diffusion Open):
To keep the heating/cooling in, wall assemblies require greater insulation values to “stop the conditioned air” from leaving. Walls are typically much thicker than today’s standard construction. Passive House takes great care in designing, constructing and testing the envelope for an industry-leading control of air leakage. Blower door testing is a mandatory technique in assuring high performance. Walls are designed to be virtually air tight, while allowing water vapor to dry out. “If moisture gets into the wall, how does it dry out before damage can occur?” is a fundamental tenet of modern building science addressed in Passive House design. Wall assemblies are analyzed to allow for proper water and moisture management to make a long lasting and an exceptionally healthy building.
Thermal Bridge-Free Detailing:
Breaks in the insulation layer usually caused by structural elements and utility penetrations in the building envelope create a “thermal bridge,” allowing undesirable exterior temperatures to migrate to and “un-do” expensive interior conditioned air and creating colder interior surfaces that encourage the growth of mold. Passive House design attempts to minimize thermal bridges via progressive mindful architectural detailing.
Advanced Windows and Doors:
Historically these items are the weak link of a building’s envelope and thermal defense system. Passive House places significant emphasis on specifying high performance windows and doors to address concern. To meet the high performance needs of various climate zones, windows must meet strict performance standards regarding: component insulation, air tightness, installation and solar heat gain values.
Energy Recovery Ventilation:
The “lungs” of a Passive House come from a heat (or energy) recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV). It provides a constant supply of tempered, filtered fresh air 24/7 and saves money by recycling the indoor energy that is typically found in exhaust air. The heat from outgoing stale air is transferred to the unconditioned incoming fresh air, while it is being filtered. It provides a huge upgrade in indoor air quality and consistent comfort, especially for people sensitive to material off-gassing, allergies and other air-borne irritants. HRV’s are fast becoming standard equipment in all new houses in Vermont.
Heating:
One of the best benefits to implementing Passive House design is the high performance shell and extremely low annual energy demand. This allows owners to save on operational costs as they can now significantly downsize a building’s mechanical system. Passive solar gains, plus heat from occupants and appliances supply most of the needed heat. Radiant floor, baseboard, or forced hot air heating systems are unnecessary!
Alternative Energy:
Considering alternative energy systems on your project? Building to meet the Passive House Standard is the smartest starting point. The significant reduction in energy use, allows alternative energy to power a greater percentage of a buildings demands. Likewise smaller demand equates to smaller and more affordable alternative energy systems providing higher cost-benefit value. Passive House design puts a project within reach for achieving true “Net Zero” performance (the building generates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year), making use of alternative energy systems smaller thus more affordable and attainable.

Designing in my sleep

By | good ideas, Living in Vermont, working with an architect | 2 Comments

Dreaming in Architecture
I have noted before that I have probably spent more time thinking about design in my adult life than most people have spent sleeping. In this post I shall one-up myself.
Sometimes I dream-design.
In a dream a few days ago there were some houses moved onto our property that had been built by my late father-in-law and we had inherited them. It was in the middle of the winter and the property bore no relation to our own and my father-in-law didn’t build houses and there was other strange dream stuff such as the two elderly Asian women sitting high up in a window of one of the houses eating and the sink was full of dishes that should have been frozen in another house. You get the picture.
In one house, there was a specific arrangement of the stairs to the very long kitchen table which set me off into that place in my head where I design things – It seems that whether I’m conscious or not has little to do with it. I started exploring the design and pinning things down on a very personal thesis of some things I really would like to explore in how I would like to live in a house in Vermont.

The idea of a very long kitchen table that was where everything happens formed the basis of my exploration. An important part of the thinking came from a recent photo I had seen in a magazine with a hearth room off the kitchen where the ceilings were low, windows minimal and set in deep walls, books, mattresses, comfy chairs, a stone floor, and lighting only for reading. It is a perfect space for reading in the winter evenings. It is very “Slow Living” Who needs a living room? An advantage of designing while I am dreaming is that my ideas come out with greater clarity. When I wake up and sketch out my ideas I may find that none of them work very well in that they ignore some practical aspects of form and function. This design, however, identifies some issues that I will need to think about and develop. It probably isn’t very marketable as it comes from so deep within my own self but it may be interesting to others in terms of thinking about how design can respond on a very deeply emotional and personal level that goes far beyond searching for the perfect floor plan.

Why Hire an Architect ?

By | ego, mutterings, working with an architect | No Comments
    An older post buried away and re-posted here today for ya’all with some extra muttering added.

As I have mentioned before, much of my work is for people who would never have gone to an architect in the first place, thinking that they could never afford it. Designing a custom home for someone is an incredibly complex endeavor. You can buy a set of plans relatively cheaply that may go 75% of the way towards fulfilling your needs and end up with a decent house. Most people go this route. However, some of my best work to date has been for people who are more concerned with money and value. I have been hired by clients to say “no, you can’t afford it” when they lose focus in the process of building a home and start to make a decision or series of decisions that would blow the budget. A good architect should be able to save a client at least the cost of architectural services if that is one of the stated goals. If you have $250,000 to spend on a house you can buy a plan and build a house that is worth $250,00 or you can spend $20,000 on an architect and build a house for $230,000 that gets you a better looking house with a more efficient and flexible floor plan and nicer spaces that fit your lifestyle more comfortably, a house that costs less to maintain over the longer term. Notice that I keep saying “good architect”. As with any profession there is a wide range of talent and specialties. Always ask for and check references. Find an architect and a builder who you are comfortable with. You need to develop a good relationship with these folks. They’re not just there to sell you something.

Of course if you have lots and lots of money, maybe you don’t need an architect. Many problems can be solved by throwing more money at them. Perhaps a not-so great-floor plan can be solved by increasing the size of the building. If it starts looking too big you can add jigs and jogs and gratuitous dormers and gables to lessen the visual impact. Perhaps a high heating bill doesn’t bother you so why bother with energy modeling and value engineering? Perhaps you are not planning on spending a lot of time in the new home so certain things are simply less important. If your caretaker discovers leaking, rot and mold 6 years down the road there are folks who are perfectly willing to deal with that too.

One page Construction Document Set

By | business, projects, super insulated, working with an architect | 2 Comments

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.

Miscellaneous Musings

By | affordable modern, education, mutterings, products, projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I am working on this new small greek revival in Maine. Not the high style Greek Revival with huge columns like you see on banks and government buildings but the small, simple style that is so ubiquitous in New England and doesn’t get much attention but everybody knows. I’m designing it to “pretty good house” standards. It is for a family member who lost her house in a fire Read More

What would Bob do?

By | affordable modern, cool stuff, mutterings, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 7 Comments

I have been asked before: If I could start from scratch with a decent budget, what sort of a house would I build for myself? I was thinking about that the other day as my eyes wandered up to the huge pine and maple trees that tower over the house (mental note: check homeowners policy) That is a tough question to answer. Part of me would live to live in a big old farmhouse and part of me wants a Tom Kundig sort of house with lots of steel, glass and concrete and a cool device that does something interesting.
The reality may be somewhere in between. Living where I do, energy efficiency and insulation rule out either of these options in their pure form. But there are lessons to be learned from both extremes. My own tastes probably run toward a warm modernism with Scandinavian influences that isn’t afraid of wood and stone as well as glass and steel. I would not impose the limitations of “traditional” architecture on myself. I’ve seen too much for that. I’m spoiled. I like light and dark, open spaces and well defined spaces. Indoor and outdoor. I don’t like to take my shoes off whenever I come in the house. Function rules! I like porches. I like woodstoves.

I like low maintenance. I like simplicity. I want a huge range in the kitchen and a huge island to match. I like old fashioned pantries – with a window. I like when a window goes down to the floor. I want laser cut steel switchplate covers. I like wood ceilings and floors but not wood walls. I love dark slate with dark thin grout lines. I don’t like big bedrooms. I want a soaking tub.
I dislike fancy. I hate frippery and fakery! (fake divided lite windows make me gag) Sometimes I use the term “carpenter modern” to describe my tastes. There is a lot of this in VT. My own barn is a good example. It describes a building or house or detail that does the job without any overt nod to “style” but in its simplicity and function and logic, it becomes beautiful. Did I mention that I love raw steel? It is difficult for me to find examples of what I like in print media. Everything is too big, too fancy, too complicated, too precious. Dwell Magazine does a better job of presenting “real people” type projects. And I love looking at what happens down South at Auburn U’s Rural studio If I were to design my own home, it would probably kill me.

Nostalgia as a design influence

By | mutterings, working with an architect | 8 Comments

(Grumbly architect alert)
Nostalgia is a powerful design influence for most clients. I find it interesting that otherwise artistic and creative people get all conservative when considering their own houses and I think a lot of this is due to a sense of nostalgia and a search for an emotional connection to something from their past whether real or imagined. Read More

My own Master Plan

By | affordable modern, working with an architect | One Comment

My own house (circa 1970) has a minimally functional (could be worse) floor plan which includes two bedrooms a bath, stairs to the basement and a kitchenette in a large multipurpose room all in 900 square feet. Here is a current expansion plan which adds 63 square feet and gains a more functional layout, particularly in the kitchen and bedroom. It also adds (not heated and not counted in the s.f.) a mudroom entry. I have also shown new stairs paralleling the basement stair which would go to a finished off third bedroom in the current attic. This would require a dormer and add about 200 square feet. This is a good example of a low budget transformation to gain considerable function without gaining a lot of volume and area.

NOW:

THEN:

2013 update:

Angles and Curves

By | projects, Uncategorized, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I was recently sent a “suggested” floor plan for a renovation project that gave me a good laugh. It was for an old house where rooms opened to each other gracefully and the back parts of the building (not original) contained hallways and many smaller rooms. There was not a big budget. The plan I was sent took out many walls and added lots more but at 45 degree angles. It was very 80’s (roll out the white carpets and sectional sofas, modern floor lamps (shining up) and, of course, the track lighting with huge cans!) If I were a professor in architecture school, having a bad day and feeling the need to be mean I would have said that the plan was amateurish, complicated, ungraceful and expensive. However, I am not an architecture school professor, I am not mean and I never have bad days (and I never lie?)

So I ignored it.

But it got me thinking, and writing… so here goes.

Angles and Curves.

When I deviate from the orthagonal I need more reason than just to be cool (for the non-architecty sorts out there that means when I use angle and curves). There has to be a functional reason and it has to solve a problem rather than introduce new ones or simply add cost. Ideally it adds a layer of sophistication and elegance to the spatial and emotional feel of a place. Ideally it introduces opportunity. And it’s nice when it can actually save money as well.

This modern project has much more overt angles than I normally go for but site constraints and preexisting conditions suggested the design solution. The overall project was more than usual, an exercise in problem solving. Angling the stair opened up the floor plan in a way that made better use of space and eliminated potential tight spots. It looked cool too. The gentle curve in the wall adjacent to the stair was part of “easing up” of a potential tight spot. It softens the harshness inherent the angle of the stair. (and it looks cool too)

steel stair plan + curved wall

This renovation project has an upper level curve that is not immediately obvious. It eliminates a deep, dust collecting spot over some built-in cabinetry by filling in that space. It creates a nice pattern effect with the morning sun through the large adjacent windows and adds a graceful complexity to the space – the curve is apparent from some perspectives but not so much from others. It softens and relaxes the space. I have no idea if there are any acoustic effects.

In this project I introduced a matching pair of curves in the hallway to ease a tight spot without having to expand the overall footprint of that section of the house. It also provides a unique point of reference for a long hall in a large house. Sometimes in a large house with many straight walls at right angles to one another, a subtle angle or curve can ease up the rigidity of a plan and allow a house to feel more comfortable.

curves in upstairs hallway

Mental note: Something similar can be said for introducing a bit of asymmetry in a strongly symmetrical composition – have I written about this already?

Here, a gentle curve allows the entry hall to reference the door to the garage more comfortably and allows the hallway to end less awkwardly and even with a bit of grace. Sorry about the poor quality of the photo – I need to get back for finished photos. I could see that this curve could have a nice emotional effect and I was glad to see it carried out by the contractor during construction. Sometimes on projects where I have less involvement during the construction phase the builder, not understanding a curve or angle will try to “simplify” the job and convince the owner not not do it. Usually this does not have a ruinous effect but it saddens me to see the loss, knowing what could have been.

One last image – the angled wall at the bedrooms was straightened in construction and the bridge has not been built yet. There are some uncomfortable spots now but it still basically works . The built result is more static and less dynamic than it could have been. Which nobody will notice but me.

Drawing Floor Plans – what’s involved

By | ego, mutterings, working with an architect | One Comment

complicated plan image

Anyone can draw up a floor plan right? well….
Drawing a a floor plan is more complicated than most people realize.

Floor plans are a fun but small part of what I do as an architect and involve much more than sketching on graph paper. To create a floor plan, or I should say; while creating a floor plan I must think of much more than room sizes, traffic patterns and kitchen triangles. I must think of the whole site as a floor plan – how does the site relate and interact with the floor plan on functional, practical and aesthetic levels. I must think of the structure to enclose the plan as well as any connections to existing structures and how to simplify to reduce cost and complexity. Does the plan support or go counter to an expressed exterior visual goal? (house style) The plan may need to support flexible uses over the next few hundred years of the life of the building in terms of additions and adaptations. Complexity of plumbing, wiring and HVAC systems must be minimized. Different methods of construction need to be considered and may have an impact on how they affect the plan. Stairs and kitchens seem to be a flash point for many people because there are so many possibilities, options and price points. I need to think about light, both natural and artificial. I have to think about how the spaces will be used during many possible scenarios from holiday gatherings to quiet nights alone. I have to hear what clients are saying and what they are not saying. Often I have to balance and judicate between couples. Sometimes there are specific furniture needs. Sometimes there are photos from magazines or the web that provide inspiration. Often, clients bring plans they have been working on to help me see the issues that they are grappling with. Sometimes these serve as a starting point for conversation and other times clients are more rigid about sticking with what they have come up with so far.
Above all, I try to insert a level of grace and elegance which permeates all of the above issues and unless one has years of experience and gobs of talent is just about impossible to pull off successfully.

A La Carte Drafting – more grumpy architect mutterances

By | business, mutterings, working with an architect | 4 Comments

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.

Why Hire an Architect?

By | ego, working with an architect | No Comments

What would I like to say to a client who asks: “why should I hire you to design my ______?”

Because you will get a better _____ for the same amount of money if you pay me a small percentage of the money to bring your _____ project to a higher level of perfection than you could achieve on your own (or by hiring one of my competitors of course!).
This is my short and arrogant answer that I really want to give.

“Define better” the potential client replies.

To start with, we will create a more graceful and elegant floor plan and overall design that works on a functional level in tune with your lifestyle, the site and environment, the cultural and historic context, local vernaculars and building norms. We are going for a level of fit that can be surprising to a client who has spent time working on their own plans for a while or spent time surfing the net in search of the perfect plan.

The cleanest and simplest plans are often the easiest and least expensive to build as well as the nicest to live with. I see many plans that look as if a battle took place to try to achieve the client’s goals because the designer couldn’t figure out how to incorporate the client’s full wish list smoothly. The end result is needlessly complicated. There are a million tips and tricks to simplify and save money. A good start is always to simplify form and detailing. Easier said than done. Once the process of refining a long list of needs, wants and desires into a simple, clear design has been achieved, the design seems obvious. I have sometimes presented the client with a simple scheme that so thoroughly and smoothly addresses their concerns, it gives no hint of the time and effort required to get to that point. (Not so good when you present a bill for the actual hours involved.)

Also, simply knowing how things are going to get built by the contractor – using familiar methods and details – equals cost savings and smoother construction sequencing. When it comes to “green building” and “building science” there is a lot of separating the wheat from the chaff to be done and the field is in constant flux. I don’t claim to be a green building expert but knowledge of what questions to ask and where to find the answers (if there are any) is part of the service I offer as an architect. Again, simplification is usually the best route.

There is also the architect’s role during construction. Construction contract administration is an important part of the architect’s services. Occasionally my role ends with the handing off of the final plans other than a site visit or two and some email communications and phone calls during construction. This can be fine for small and simple projects but for a project of significant size and complexity such as a new house or major addition or renovation this usually proves to be a mistake. The smoothest projects are when I remain involved through construction. I was involved with a project a few years ago where the builder was not shy about calling me and asking lots of questions as well as scheduling site visits. He was more “on top of things” than most builders I have worked with and would often ask the question: “what is the design intent” which I really appreciated as it spurred a very collaborative process where we both came out feeling that we had gained valuable knowledge and insight. It resulted in a very cohesive and beautiful final result as well as a very smooth and fun process to that point. On projects where I am less involved during construction the end result varies more. Sometimes with less than desirable results. Regardless of the level of my involvement during construction, I have learned to always put out the most complete and well vetted plan sets that I am capable of. No “light” versions from me. Plan sets that are incomplete or minimally complete are fraught with potential time consuming and expensive problems. The best builders are aware of these issues and insist on a complete set of construction documents as well as my involvement during construction.

This is what I want to say to every potential client but don’t always manage to very well so I’m writing it down here and filing under “working with an architect” as well as “ego”

Stewardship

By | mutterings, working with an architect | No Comments

We have a cemetery on our land with two skeletons in it.

This will probably be an excellent source of terror for our kid at some point. We also have the stone foundation of the house where they lived over 100 years ago. The barn foundation is across the road. There are some old rusty sap boiler parts and masonry from a “sugar shack” where they (or someone) boiled maple sap into syrup. Of course, stone walls are everywhere and often serve as property lines. The soils are rich to the south of our house where a hundred years ago or more cows where probably pastured. These soils now sustain sugar maples, black cherry, and ash trees. The soils to the north probably never saw intensive livestock farming are are thinner and less rich. White pine, red maple and birch grow there. With some exceptions, none of our trees are over 100 years old. There are several other cemeteries on our sparsely populated road and the uninhabited valley to the Northeast of our land has many old cellar holes where houses and even an inn once stood. All the land was completely cleared of trees a long time ago. We cleared an acre and a half of the woods for a field where we play, grow fruit trees, watch stars and with occasional success, garden.
The sense of the history of the land is strong as is the feeling that we are new to the land and very temporary. People will be on this land and changing it long after we are gone.
I think of buildings the same way. If we are building structures that we hope to last for two hundred years or more we need to look at more than just the needs of the current occupants (clients). I think this is an oft overlooked tenant of “green design”. If I design an ugly building because the client insists on it, will the building be torn down in thirty years time because others can’t stand to look at it? And do all the “green” bells and whistles included to make the building use less resources and energy really matter at that point? Historically, beauty and function where given equal billing here in New England which is why we have such a rich heritage of historic architecture. We now seem to be emerging from an architectural period where we let engineers and developers design our buildings into a more collaborative effort where those trained to look at beauty, history and function with a more long term approach (architects) are working with people schooled in the more functional aspects of a building’s performance. Architecture should be more about stewardship and legacy than lists of user needs, green features and feasibility studies.

Building Science gives me a headache.

By | education, mutterings, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

Building Science gives me a headache.

I read the usual sites: Greenbuildingadvisor.com, building science.com, plus a few others, I attend seminars, I get all the proper magazines, I belong to the correct organizations such as the USGBC. I’m a good little architect. But I am confused. The more I dive into building science the more questions I have – and therefore the less authoritative I sound in front of clients and I don’t think clients want their architect to sound wishy-washy.
Read More

Tiny House in Brattleboro

By | projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | 5 Comments

I’m working on a new project – a tiny house in Brattleboro Vermont. The house will be about 320 square feet and will replace an existing garage and serve as a rental unit. The goal of the owners is to build this this for under 30k. Obviously, that includes doing the general contracting themselves. My job, aside from coming up with a nice design that everybody will love, is to thoroughly vet the products and techniques in order to achieve this goal. There is a difference between designing and detailing to hand off to a regular G.C. and what I do for an owner builder. Especially when it comes to super-insulation and budget issues. The clients are blogging about it Tiny house in Brattleboro, Vermont for under 30k (hopefully) blog The context and budget seemed to indicate to me a more traditional form. I may play with materials a bit on the exterior.

Perry Road Porches

By | projects, working with an architect | 2 Comments

I have started working on the Perry Road porches. Freezing my butt off and that sort of thing. But it is fun to do a bit of carpentry again. I will post pics here as things progress.

sketchup model of the Perry Road house porches









This is yesterdays (1-4) photo. I spent today finishing up details before metal roofing goes on. The whole thing is solid and straight. One of the things I like about carpentry is the problem solving aspect. I like to figure out the whole enough to know I won’t get into trouble on a detail later on. There is an aspect of improvisation to it. When I built my fern house, there were no drawings. I sketched out enough of the whole to understand that the details would be easily solved as I went along – and they were. I suppose this is not very architecty of me but it works out fine. I think this is what separates good carpenters from the rest – the ability to look ahead and work with all levels from the whole to the minute details simultaneously. I have often seen carpenters do what seems easy or logical at the moment only to get boxed into a bad detail resolution later on because of the inability to conceptualize the whole. Much of my detailing as an architect is just enough to guide a builder along a path without them getting boxed in but allowing room for improvisation and improvement.



We got the roofing on last week in time for the big snowstorm

Budget lessons for the architect (me)

By | business, education, mutterings, working with an architect | 2 Comments

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…

Architectural services are basically “Advice”

By | Uncategorized, working with an architect | 2 Comments

File this under “Education of an Architect”
People hire me for my professional advice. This may take the form of helping them design a house or do some master planning or a simple addition. It all boils down to advice. Some people try to hire me for drafting but I try to make it clear that if I see something that isn’t working or is unnecessarily complicated or un-buildable or even just plain stupid, I’m not going to ignore it. There are often times in the process when the client and I disagree and depending on how important the issue is, I’ll push back. If the issue is not so important such as a siding material or color I’ll say my piece for the record and then lay off. If the issue is a bigger one and involves the client basically shooting themselves in the foot in terms of budget or previously stated design/function goals or sustainability issues or if it would result in something so ugly that I wouldn’t want my name associated then I’ll push harder but only up to a point – I’m not much of one for a fight and I’m not the sort who comes into a project with a slick attitude of “I know what’s best”. There are times when I’ve gotten kicked off a job or removed myself because of such issues. Things that had I caved in on would have come back to haunt me later. The architect is an easy entity to blame for design decisions when all is said and done even if there is a good paper trail showing the architect’s protestations. Sometimes clients state a set of expectations up front involving budget, design goals, functional requirements and time frame that represent an unsolvable equation. This is where a slick architect or builder has the initial advantage over me. If I am unsuccessful at helping the client re-define these parameters, (sales and education) then I walk. In the past I may have been naïve enough to go forward with the project anyway but when proven right, I got the blame. Sometimes, I see completed projects that I turned down and another architect was hired where it is obvious that the other architect was a better salesman and educator than I and the compromises that I recognized would be necessary are apparent in the final product. Sometimes, I don’t take a job and hear later though the grapevine about how the clients fought with the architect and everyone came out with sore feelings and tarnished reputations. The projects pictured on my website (I really need to get out and photograph a bunch of recent projects) never represent what I would have done on a given site and with a similar set of design parameters but instead represent advice – some taken, some not.

A Good Architect-or-Why you should hire one.

By | working with an architect | One Comment

I am bringing this post forward because, well, because I like it.

As I have mentioned before, much of my work is for people who would never have gone to an architect in the first place, thinking that they could never afford it. Designing a custom home for someone is an incredibly complex endeavor. You can buy a set of plans relatively cheaply that may go 75% of the way towards fulfilling your needs and end up with a descent house. Most people go this route. However, some of my best work to date has been for people who are more concerned with money and value. I have been hired by clients to say “no, you can’t afford it” when they lose focus in the process of building a home and start to make a decision or series of decisions that would blow the budget. A good architect should be able to save a client at least the cost of architectural services if that is one of the stated goals. If you have $250,000 to spend on a house you can buy a plan and build a house that is worth $250,00 or you can spend $20,000 on an architect and build a house for $230,000 that gets you a better looking house with a more efficient and flexible floor plan and nicer spaces that fit your lifestyle more comfortably, a house that costs less to maintain over the longer term. Notice that I keep saying “good architect”. As with any profession there is a wide range of talent and specialties. Always ask for and check references. Find an architect and a builder who you are comfortable with. You need to develop a good relationship with these folks. They’re not just there to sell you something.

This also from an older post:
I see many houses around here that would have benefited from some professional design help. It seems that people like to spend more money than they need to . These houses look complicated (if it looks complex then it is expensive) and yet they are obviously intended to be low cost housing. Not many people (or banks) “get” that spending money on an architect or designer up front can save them much more money in the months to follow during construction. Perhaps it is similar to solar hot water systems. Spend 5k to 7k up front and it takes 5 years or so before it is paid off in savings and then it starts saving money. It’s like putting and extra $50 in the bank every month. That’s an extra $6000 dollars over the next 10 years not counting for interest and certainly not counting for rising oil, gas or electricity costs. There was a picture in this month’s “National Geographic” showing a Chinese subdivision from above. Many of the houses had solar hot water systems on the roof. They must be smarter than us.

Typical Simple Construction Drawing Set

By | business, education, projects, working with an architect | 3 Comments

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.
simple house sheet 2
vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 1vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 3vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 4vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 5vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 6vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 7

Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz

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Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC AIA, NCARB, CPHD, DAD bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764
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