The new year’s plan for Robert Swinburne (me)

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THE NEXT YEAR AT BLUETIME – GENERAL THOUGHTS AND GOALS

    1. Architecture

    – 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 $$)
    b. Photography
    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.

    Robert Swinburne Vermont Architect master plan kitchen addition Brattleboro

    And I have to build a chicken coop and a greenhouse in the next few months.

Taking Stock of the Business

By | business, Living in Vermont, mutterings, projects, Uncategorized | No Comments

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.
vermont architect Robert Swinburne
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.
vermont architect robert swinburne
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.
vermont architect Robert Swinburne
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 light at the end of the tunnel is this: (The plumbers installed a new toilet in my bathroom yesterday)
Vermont Architect Robert Swinburne Brattleboro

The business card at the top is by EM Letterpress

State of…. Things.

By | business, mutterings | One Comment

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)

bathroom renovation drawings

And build a greenhouse.

White cedar 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.

Observations from Rachelle (my co-#1 fan)

By | bad ideas, ego, mutterings, working with a builder, working with an architect | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking ahead

By | good ideas, projects, traditional vs modern, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

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

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

philosophy and process

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

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

By | bad ideas, education, mutterings, Passive House, super insulated, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Grumpy architect time

By | bad ideas, good ideas, mutterings | 3 Comments

From the facebook page Grumpy architect time:

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

Real Vermonters don’t have Master Bedroom Suites

By | Living in Vermont, mutterings, Uncategorized, working with an architect | One Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Occupant Behavior puts a kink in the calcs

By | mutterings, super insulated | No Comments

From Martin Holladay on Green Building Advisor in an artivle titled “Occupant Behavior Makes a Difference” Engineer things all you want but when you put Americans into a house the metrics tend to change. This is pretty funny.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was driving the high energy bills. “There is a very large plasma TV, plus a second TV on the porch,” said Panish. “There is a DVR. The two TVs and the DVR use 600 watts when they’re on and 100 watts when they are off, and the TVs are on for an average of 6 hours per day. The loads for entertainment and computers are high. There is an old freezer in the basement. There is a basement dehumidifier. The lighting load is 600% of what was predicted. It seems as if all the lights in the house are left on all the time.”

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.

On Being a perfectionist

By | business, mutterings | 4 Comments

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.

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.

Time will tell – Architectural history in the making.

By | mutterings | No Comments

Here in New England everyone seems to like to build neo-Greek revival. The original Greek Revival was referencing the original Greek. The first revival was far away from the original in form as well as geographical location and had its own set of clearly defined rules set out in builders guide books. The neo-Greek revival tries to copy the second coming but, too often, without the rules. So to a trained eye (or even not so trained) it generally fails miserably although enough people seem to think its lovely that there is plenty of it around. Point being; there is room for anything in terms of aesthetics and you never know what’s going to stick. Give it 100 years and let history be the judge. I suspect that this may prove to be a weird point in history when people wanted new homes that looked old – a steampunk sort of thing. I am starting to see a shift in perspective already. I often work in the Greek revival style because it puts food on the table but also because there is also a lot to learn from it which is applicable to my more modern work. The New England historians remind us that all those old Greek revival village homes look so lovely because they tore down the ones that were ugly. Form and function and beauty are fine and good starting points but as an architect a person who has experienced what happens when architecture goes beyond those three things, I shall never stop trying to achieve that higher goal.
Even when people think I’m nuts.

Graduate School

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Graduate School

In these days of reconnecting with former classmates via facebook and linkedin I discovered that many of them later went to grad school. Most of us were fried by the time we graduated and there was little if any discussion of more schooling. I have often thought that if I were to go back to school, it would be to study estuarine biology and ecology. Definitely not more architecture. A large part of my practice involves furthering my education (read: un-billable hours) I spend a great deal of time keeping up with the rapidly changing field of residential design. The science is changing on all levels from products and detailing to sustainability and energy use issues to how we as architects actually convey what we design. Many architects and firms have their heads in the sand and follow the models they were taught back in the last century. I think the architects that will emerge at the top in coming years have to be a different breed.

My version of graduate school, in retrospect, was the half-dozen years I spent carpentering after college. It was a good compliment to architecture school and the required internship. At 10 to 13 dollars per hour – no benefits and weather dependant, it also left me rather in debt (similar to graduate school) while my friends started working at larger firms and made much larger salaries.

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz

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bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764 72 Cotton Mill Hill Brattleboro, Vermont 05301