Little Toy Soldiers with Their Eyes Shut

A little known fact.  I am a fan of some parts of cities.  Those who know me would be shocked to hear that.  I grumble about too many people in too small of a space, traffic, the noise, the lack of privacy, the cost for so little space.  But those things are often times offset by the benefits of convenience (read ability to walk to) that is helped out by the incredible densities that also create the grumble list.  I like to walk.  It is better than driving, and when you get some where, there is no need to circle like a vulture looking for a place to put your clown car.

But I am in the exurbs now, and walking is a daily activity in itself.  There is literally 1 store, a library and a post office within a one hour round trip from the house.  And, now that I have adjusted to this more spread out life, taking walks also allows for some thought on how things are here versus the city/near suburbs I have lived in since leaving the Midwest.

A major difference is the arrangement of the homes to the street.  Here, the homes (for the most part) are set back, skewed from the street, and in some cases, not visible due to landscape or topography.  This allows for privacy, proper siting for solar gain/protection, and the ability to have a style of one's choosing.  On my street alone, we have 8 completely different styles of home out of 12 properties.  But, as I have stated before, we have a minimum 2 acre zoning in the entire town.  This allows for such freedom (at the cost of density and proximity).

In contrast, when you walk through anywhere inside of Route 128 (with minor high end exceptions), most housing faces the street.  It's front door mandated in some zoning ordinances must be forward facing.  The distance from the street is usually whatever the local zone mandates, and in some cases, the width of the house is exactly the width of the lot minus whatever forced mandated zoning pertains to the lot.  Walking down these streets, it is like being in a military parade, all of the soldiers lined up at attention, most in a neighborhood looking similar enough to resemble a monolithic front to all those who pass by in the parade of the street.  As you get into urban neighborhoods, homes are replaced with townhouses, rowhouses and in some cases, large, soviet style (ok, that may be over the top) apartment blocks.  All with decoration and pasted on front facades that evoke a deeper historical context. 

One thing I notice on most of these urban properties are the window treatments.  Shades, curtains, sheers, vertical AND horizontal blinds and, unfortunately, iron bars on the lower floors in some neighborhoods.  All of these are ways of keeping others out of our lives.  And while that is a positive in privacy and safety, it is also a way to keep the daylight out that was intended to be brought in by these mostly well placed windows.  It makes me stop and think, if no one wants to have their windows open and visible, maybe the windows don't actually need to be there.  They ARE a really expensive component of the built environment, only to be covered and obscured from their actual use. 

I get it, no one wants to have peepers looking in.  And privacy is a major goal of our domiciles, but it is a shame that these openings to the world are shut for a majority of the time.   But the waste of installing beautiful (or at least functional) windows in an area where they are rarely used for their actual purpose is overwhelming.  Traditional thought is that the windows on the front of the house 'connect the home to the street', but if they are always covered, do they actually disconnect the inhabitants from those on the outside, thereby creating the negative condition that was intended to be avoided by the windows on the front?  




This is a short post.  It revolves around a concept I have delved into before, but read an interesting angle on this yesterday.  There are two types of landfills in this world.  The first is the officially recognized ones where everything that is thrown away is piled up and left to decompose (eventually).  The other is the modern American garage and basement that has all of the evidence of the temporary desires that have afflicted a family over time. 

Driving down the road yesterday, it was interesting to see the open garages over stuffed with the plastics, the textiles and the toys that forced the late model car to sit exposed on the driveway outside.  Remembering the analogy of mini landfills made me smile and realize that the desires and immediate gratification syndrome has spilled out of these landfills, yet, instead of stopping the flow or reducing the saving of EVERY item ever mistakenly purchased, most of these types think they 'need more space'.  Unfortunately, some will increase the size of their landfill and continue to over stuff it again with useless (after the initial 'wow' factor wears away) stuff.  

Sustainable in time

Yesterday's post related to the water direction system that was implemented in my current home that channels water away from the foundation.  Listening to a lecture from another architect about the need for the world to be more sustainable and take advantage of the latest and newest technologies to do so (they were promoting smart electricity systems 'that you can control from anywhere!  Good grief, turn off the damned switch when you leave the room!)  But it got me to thinking.

Is sustainable just the new gadgets and doo dads that say 'we're green!' on them?  Or is there more to it?  By chance, I happened to read an article yesterday about using recycled materials to build houses.  The point the article made was the invested embodied energy (the amount of energy it takes to grow, harvest, shape and deliver a product to a building site equals the embodied energy)  was far less than the using a new piece of any material because it had already been used once.  This allows for the actual true cost of a material to be far less (you still have to move it unless you use it in its existing place).

So what I understood from these two seemingly separate items is that time and length of use matters.  The stone buildings in Europe have lasted centuries.  Yes, their initial cost is higher, but over time, this type of construction stands up and lasts while materials like wood and plaster tend to degrade and need to be replaced over time.  This difference in the length of time means that you would need to replace the wood structure far more often, possibly more than once.  And while the cost of each will most likely be less (in real money) than the original, over time, the cost will add up.  In addition, the additional materials to replace those that have failed will need to be recreated (embodied energy) repeatedly, taking up more resources (real and monetary). 

Thinking in terms of time and the ability of something to last is a factor that I believe is being overlooked in the rush to calculate the latest trend in sustainability.  Thinking generationally of what a place will need to last instead of just the 30 year window currently used for cost calculations and life cycle will lead to true sustainability. 

Likewise, creating details that extend the life of a material or structure, while not specifically labeled 'sustainable/green/environmentally friendly' can help to create an overall environment that is long term sustainable, even if it cannot be calculated by the standard du jour of the current building industry.

Just a thought.



See the potential, not the potholes

New houses are easy.  Okay, so they are not exactly easy, but they constitute an entire ensemble from the same cloth (hopefully).  All decisions to make it whole are up to the designer and the program.  Additions and renovations, well, they are a little more difficult to find the right mix of 'keep' and 'add'.  But that is what makes them fun. 

In every addition, there is a decision to be made.  'We have this much house, we want to have an extra (fill in your favorite addition-bedroom, living room, garage, etc), how much will it cost?'  A common question that you may have thought about, but it relates wholly to the real question, 'How much do we keep?'

In some projects, the delineation is straight forward.  They are usually garage additions or some sort of new space that relates to the ground level (kind of tough to put a walk out patio on the second story).  Others are not so straightforward.  There are bearing lines, room adjacencies and massing and proportion effects that would add/e detrimental to the overall success of the project.  It is my job as an architect to find out how to solve this.  The three items above lead into the three main issues.  Cost, function and form.  Blowing any one of those may ruin the entire project.

Many times, the project budget helps make decisions, but there are occasions where removing something and rebuilding it new make the whole project fall into place.  I recently had a project that was a garage addition to a traditional home in a Boston suburb.  The original home had a two story previous addition that was used as a flex space that was extra space, but not really practical.  In sketching the options, I moved the trace by accident and saw that the removal of this underutilized space could gain the project an easier framing detail, more buildable area that flowed with what the client wanted from the space, and allowed us to create a roof line that was in keeping with what was happening in the original house instead of looking like we had just tacked on a full addition with no respect to what was there. 

Seeing the potential in adding by subtracting, we found a way to make the project better from all three of the design goals.  Allowing our minds to open to the possibilities of what seems like more work, but in the end, is simpler, more easily planned and eliminates the massing nightmares is a fun result of looking at the project and its needs from all angles.  This over built, underutilized area became the knuckle that the project needed.

So figure out what you have and what you want, then let your architect come up with the best way to create a whole project that brings the addition into the home, and not just tacks it on.


Spider Webs and Dust Bunnies

What am I talking about, this is architecture and design.  It is a kind of odd title, no?  But there is a reason.  And that is corners.  Every home has them.  Lots of them.  They are in every room, a minimum of 8 in the typical room.  And what to they do?  They collect dust and give spiders a great place to anchor three ways.  Granted, they are also very nice places to lean things against and to put up a nice odd shelf.  But other than that, corners are a byproduct of an unnatural environment.

Take out a pen.  Draw a straight line.  No, not a kinda straight line, a straight one.  Not easy, is it?  Now draw a curved line.  Mission was easily accomplished.  Why?  Because our minds and bodies are not straight lines.  We have created machines and straight edges that only move in straight lines because it is reproducible.  The industrial revolution has taken the natural and made it unnatural in its quest for optimization and efficiency.  Yet, when we are in a space that is perfectly square, our bodies (and minds by some research I have read) do not fit into the point of the corner.  It is dead space.  It always will be, except when we put other square things into said corners.

As an architect, I am as guilty of the straight line syndrome as anyone.  Yes, curves cost more to erect as a drywaller needs to score the product, even if you use the few products out there for curved framing.  The trim needs to be custom done (assuming you like that sort of decoration).  And hanging a painting, well, there will be some issues, but I see some of those as trying to fit the accoutrements of the straight edge world with the natural curve of a human shaped space.

There have been times in our history, even recently, where this straight has gone curved.  Art Moderne comes to mind, its sleek contours that would inspire the eye of the new, flowing architecture that represented where the human race was moving.  And it has bred a neat subset of architecture in transit hubs that share the same desire to convey movement.  Bahnhof Berlin, the old TWA terminal at JFK and the newly completed Calatrava Transit Station in lower Manhattan are good examples of flow architecture.  But in the places we spend our lives, our offices and our homes, square is easier to build, and cheaper, and fits the rigid zoning demarcations.  So in the quest for bigger, faster cheaper, we get housing boxes and cubicles in all sizes and colors, and maybe, if we are lucky, a roundtop window or a plaster arch.

I propose that as a profession, the human characteristic of the curve moves into how we create spaces.  Let our minds move from those of hard edges into curves and flowing spaces that serve our desires and our actual shape. 

Who knows, we may eliminate the corner dust bunnies and spider webs along the way!



Sifting through

I live in Carlisle, MA.  2-acre zoning.  La, te dah!  We also have an incredible amount of trails, forested land and wetlands area that are commonly owned/have been donated to the town.  It is a conservationists dream town.  So you would think that all of the land this close to one of the tightest markets in history has been snapped up and developed.   And, while the limits of pork chop lots and 'how do we get two acre lots out of THAT parcel?!?' conversations have been happening for a while now, it does not mean that there are not areas for improvement.

On my daily walks, there is one parcel that has come to light and caused a myriad of discussions in my head. 

Located at the corner of a main cut through and the only access road to my home, there is what I believe was a farm at one time (only recognized when the winter came and the foliage cover was lost to reveal a grain tower, several out buildings and an 'eight is enough' house and garage)  It is an eyesore.  From the history I have gathered, this was a property where the owner lived a great life, but when they were gone, there was no one to take it over.  So it sits, decaying and occupying a space that could be used for a better use.  And while I would love to say it can be 4 new modern houses, each with their own flair, that is not the point of this post. 

Rather, it shows that there are areas in life that are overlooked.  In this case, it is an unused farm in an area where housing is in short supply and the farm will not be coming back.  But on a more personal scale, are there areas in your life where there is a dead parcel?  Perhaps you have a third bedroom that is full to the brim with your past hobbies and assorted equipment that followed?  Perhaps you have a closet that has your fat, skinny and in between clothes that are dated or will no longer service the new you? 

Like the unused farm, these items and spaces are taking up capital in your life that could be used otherwise.  They also may be giving you that uneasy feeling that you need to have more.  More space, more storage, more building.  Instead, what would happen if you sifted through these (and other) areas of your life and found that extra 300 sf you thought you needed to add on, or you just were able to enjoy the space you do have that much more?  I know, not what you would think someone who makes a living off of designing more space would say, but I think that is why I originally named this Un/Common Architect.  I want to design more space, definitely, but I want it to be space you need, space you truly enjoy, that makes your life more enjoyable or at least more serviceable. 

So if you are considering moving up or building out, take stock of what you have, what is superfluous and determine what you really need to do.  Then call me.  Or call me before, maybe I can help with planning solutions that unlock space without the major capital expense and hassle of a 5 month renovation site!

Good luck!


Everyone is talking about affordable housing like it is a singular thing.  It is not.  What is affordable varies from place to place and person to person.  That $250k colonial in Tulsa may be on the higher end of the market, but in the Boston area, you may want to make sure it is not missing a key component like walls or plumbing!

One solution to a truly affordable home is to limit the square footage to only what you need.  This is not a plea to save the planet, this is a statement to save your wallet, and possibly reduce your need to slave away at a job that is not quite what you want to be doing with your time.

As an architect, my goal in design is not to maximize the space or budget, but to maximize the use of the space within the budget.  This is done in a few ways, two of which I will lay out here.

The first way is to determine what is really needed.  A great example of this is the dining room.  In modern life, a formal dining room is rarely if ever used.  In sitting down with home owners, this type of lifestyle choice is always one of the first discussions we focus on.  Laying out how they think their life will fill in the space between the walls we create allows us as a team to provide a sliding scale of value judgements.  Maybe that dining room IS necessary, but a master suite is not?  Maybe an open living/dining/kitchen area can take advantage of a smaller footprint while maintaining the open, spacious feeling the family seeks.  Maybe that home basketball court IS necessary.  It is not my home, it is my job to design THEIR home and I need to know what matters to them.  From there, the second method can build.

The second method is to find and take advantage of efficiencies, adjacencies and shared spaces.  While creating a typical box and a long hallway may be the traditional way, there are more creative ways to organize the spaces.  Typically, finding the prime space in the house and using that as a locus for adjacencies allows for the design to use the edges of this space as pass thru to others.  Saving this little space here and little space there adds up in my area where cost of construction is high and always rising.  Saving these transition spaces and applying budget dollars to enhance the destination spaces provides a better finished product. 

As you can see, the second step is 100% reliant on the first.  Finding out the value judgements and applying them through the design process allows me as the architect to maximize the dollars and help an owner maximize their project.


The Relationship of Spaces

When I sit down to design, the most important thing in my mind is what the actual spaces will look and feel like as well as how they are intended to be used.  Big deal, right?  Everyone thinks about that, right?  Yes, and no.   Not only does each space need to be considered, but the way the spaces relate to each other and the synergistic gains that can be created will add to the basic design of a space.  Any designer can lay out the boxes in multiple fashions.  But it takes an architect to create the composition of the spaces that fits the needs of a project.  The three diagrams below will help me to explain.

In the first, a simple rectangular space.  A room like any other.  It has size, space and a presence that can be used by anyone for a function of their choice.  All builders can put this up and do a fine job of it. 



If more space is needed, there is a new room built.  It is a nice room.  And, like the original, it has all of the elements of the built space.  And the additional cost. 



But the image below is where architecture is made.  The two rooms have created a space between that serves multiple uses.  It may have its own use, it may just serve as an entry into the one room, but if so, it also serves in relationship to the second room. 



The example above is a generic way of showing the architectural process of space creation.  The two 'rooms' above may be 4 walled rooms in a house with a shared living room and hall.  Or they may be two skyscrapers with a plaza below.  But how they relate to each other, and to the space between is critical to understand how a place becomes 'A Place.'

Thought must be given to the way each of these spaces are entered, left and relate to each other.  Does the ceiling height match that feel, accentuate it or get in the way of the natural hierarchy and flow?  Are the windows placed to focus on the other room, the space between or neither? 

As you can see, any designer can create a box or a series of boxes and put them together.  It takes an architect to consider how they relate to each other.  The decisions are endless, as are the considerations, but that is what makes a project unique. 

Who is your house for?

Today was an interesting day.  We took a couple of hours off from working and went to an open house being put on by a local home magazine.  It was in our neighborhood and we figured it would be fun to snoop!

While the usual industry standard fare of nametag staring and glad handing happened, we were also treated to the architect saying a few words about this rather run of the mill house (that WAS sited well on a beautiful lot).

He began with the usual jargon of space and scale, which was hit and miss in the rooms open in the rooms we could look into.  Then he ventured into the why of the home.  The 'context of the neighborhood' and how this cape cod mansion had to somehow fit into the neighborhood.  Note that this 'neighborhood' was a McMansion developer's special complete with 6,000 sf colonials and overly pitched roofs that seemed to reach to the sky above.  He waxed on about the need to respect the neighbors and help to create the 'fabric'.  Ugh.  I felt like I was back in studio.  No wonder people hate architects.  His final nail was when he said that some people 'get this,' and then others 'need to be taught and brought around to this'.  I felt like raising my right arm at a 45 degree angle and saluting the Fuhrer.

Unfortunately, this attitude extends far beyond the pencil of the designer.  Many towns have 'design standards' that dictate what can and cannot be built in a neighborhood.  This color paint, this style of house, this many windows.  Design by copy and paste!  This is backed up by the pseudo-intellectuals who support this town fascism in the interest of keeping 'those people' out.  Yet, in my area, they are also the open border idiots who believe that any one can do anything they want freely anywhere, except in their neighborhood.  Ugh, make up your mind!!!! 

According to the logic of this architect, everyone is interchangeable and fits nicely in a neo-colonial or neo-cape, it is just the square footage that matters and separates the haves from the have nots.  Hogwash!

We are all different.  This fact bugs me sometimes when I am trying to navigate traffic or a trip into a large city, but it shows up everywhere and is real.  We each like and don't like things that the next guy thinks is just the opposite.  So why should we be herded into a stock of housing that is near the one size fits all?

Instead of accepting what the neighborhood wants you to be, challenge them if you believe your style of life does not fit into that cookie cutter requirement.  Go for a variance or special permit.  Meet their size requirements and you will have a better opportunity to succeed in court if they so choose to force their beliefs onto you as you decide how you want to live your life.  Because your home is YOURS.  There is nothing wrong with any style of home (well, except brutalism...:)), as long as it is what YOU want. 

Maybe I should stay in and work instead of wandering through neighbors houses.


Not a paint by numbers kinda thing...

House plan books.  Cookie Cutter housing Developments.  Prefabricated modular homes.  These are all pretty common ways for people to obtain new housing.  Major national corporations are in the business of providing low cost, low quality (in most cases) housing that meets the metrics of cost, square footage and the all-important bedroom/bathroom combo.  They have formulas for what is the optimal to have to spend to create a 'home'.  These metrics are generated by a principle of economies of scale.  And for running a business, this is what capitalism is about. 

Unfortunately, the 'product' they deliver is supposed to be someone's actual living space.  The place they sleep, eat, have sex, watch tv, laugh, cry, raise children, have pets, in other words, where life happens.  And from what I have learned, how you and I choose to live our life is never the same.  We have similarities due to our culture and our general physical makeup, but our differences define our lives. 

So when the factory house meets the individual, we get a clash that is not good for either one.  The stock house may have a beautiful window, but due to it being generically placed for efficiency, it looks directly at the neighbor 8 feet away.    It may have a perfect count of bedrooms and bathrooms, but may overlook that your teenage son CAN NOT share a bathroom with his 12 year old sister. 

Instead, there may be an easier way.  The key here is to remember that we are just moving boxes around.  98% of rooms in our lives are 6 sided boxes.  Go ahead, think about it.  They all have windows, doors and other objects in them, and they come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have 4 walls, a ceiling and a floor.  And there are limitless combinations of how these boxes can be organized.  Some are standard.  Some are more personalized.  Depending upon what you want your life to be like, you need to decide (or communicate with your architect) what your patterns, priorities and relationships are. 

The key is for you to communicate what you want those patterns, priorities and relationships you desire.  Architects are not mind readers.  We draw.  We can be creative, but like every other human being, we have our preferred patterns, priorities and relationships that we think are ideal.  They WILL be different from yours sometimes.  You must remember that an architect is designing a home for you, not them. 

So when you are in the design process and you don't like the relationship of the boxes, it is your job to communicate that.  It is the architect's job to take that information and solve that problem.  You are not hurting their feelings, you are helping to make your home yours!

Isn't that like a mobile home?

Yep, I live in a kit house.  The reality of my place is that my domicile is a house that was a kit of parts.  In that way, it is similar to a mobile home or a Pulte Winston (okay, I made that up, but it sounds like some of the names the big developers use).  But there is a major difference.  Quality.

Let's go back to the boom time of American building.  The war was over, Levitt was developing the first mass building development and Sears was the name everyone went to when they wanted to find their dream home.  There was a system to build a lot of homes for a reasonable price.  And build they did.  I have lived all over the eastern half of the US and spent some time in southern California, and I have seen the layer of homes that was added post WWII.  It consists of densely packed neighborhoods (cheaper to afford and was actually allowed by the zoning Nazi's then) that have similar or like-styled homes that go on and on.  And unlike those that were built in the 70's and 80's (a time I actually learned to love wandering through houses under construction), they look old, but not tired.  Yes, some are neglected, but I have seen mill buildings that once roared with industry relegated to rotted floors and mansions that the owner just couldn't maintain and they too look neglected.  Those that were built during the boom were built with care.  Craftsmen (the people, not the style) took pride in the fact that they built homes.  The skill of a carpenter or a tile layer was evident.  You can tell, even with the simple cape copy that is everywhere in New England, that there was care in the work.  The numbers did not drive the product.  

Enter national builders.  They saw the scale.  The economy of scale that is.  If they went with a slightly lower grade finish over 20,000 homes, they could save 'x'.  If the door was stock, but did not match the style of the home, so be it if it met the budget.  And that skilled laborer?  How much?  I am sure we can squeeze some poor guy with a hammer to do it cheaper.  It all became about the bottom line.  The craft was taken out of homes (except in the really nice custom ones, they have and will show the effect of having a larger pool of cash and a desire to 'have the best, and be willing to pay for it').  What we have been left with is an industry intent on fast, cheap and repeatable.  Which leave us with shoddy, more square footage than we can afford for quality and bland, copycat developments that give you no idea if you are in Augusta Maine or Albuquerque.

Instead, I ask you to consider when looking to purchase, build or renovate, that you look to do so with quality and personalization of YOUR life in the space.  Forget size (as long as you meet your needs-TinyHomeNation may not be for everyone!) and instead focus on the feel of the space, both physically and visually.  Downsize the area and upsize the texture, use and creativity in your place.  Encourage or seek out a true craftsman to do the work.  One who understands it is his or her name on the finished work and knows what that means.  Even if it is a craftsman putting together a kit house!

Two dimensions? Or Three?

Too often, the metrics of real estate are flat and two dimensional.  Location, number of bed/bathrooms, cost and of course, the marker to beat all markers, square footage are the common ones.  All of these are two dimensional.  As human beings, we never experience the world this way.  So why does our relationship to our homes have to start, deal with and stay connected to, these flat metrics?  We don't, but like having everything you need on your phone, we have gotten used to this commoditization of our living space.  This has led to us focusing on the comparables. 

Insert the Wall Street Journal. 

Reading my usual news and information services today and came across the article in the Journal about the trend in real estate to get away from the standard 8' ceiling.  I know I like taller ceilings, but I am 6'4" and have a closer perception of the extremely low.  But the research they did on the article ( by Stefanos Chen) was good to see.  They compared the price of real estate in several markets across the country and found that the higher the ceilings in a unit, the greater the price typically was.  And while the New York numbers scared the living daylights out of me, the concept was great.  Instead of the typical two dimensional metrics, this one was about the QUALITY of the space.  The feeling of spaciousness and grandeur, let alone the ability to have higher windows and more light, were the main reasons for the desire for higher ceilings. 

 I offer that seeing the numbers from the WSJ article, we as owners and architects should be focusing on the quality of space.  By looking at this new third dimension of a place, we can finally start to measure in a way that relates to the quality of the space.  I would also argue that if we have a larger quality metric like this, with a smaller two dimensional metric, we may begin to see happier homes, those that would be in a scale we enjoy living in, not just a plan of square footage.




A New Adventure...

Sometimes, life works in funny ways.  When I got into the business of architecture, one of my first projects was a mid-century Deck House in Carlisle MA.  I had always thought houses were meant to be walls, rooms and boxy.  Your choice was between a ranch, a colonial and, if you were way out on the edge of design, a craftsman.  But this house took me into a whole new world.  Open concept, huge expanses of glass, exposed timbers and a building set into the land the way it should be.  Quietly, I became enamored.

The years went by, life changed in many ways.  Then one day, my partner showed me a real estate listing for a Deck House in Carlisle.  She liked it, I liked it, so we went to the open house.  Getting there 10 minutes early (thanks mom for that habit!), the whole team fell in love.  We frantically figured out what needed to do and had an accepted offer by the time we laid our heads down.

Fast forward a couple of months and we are in!  In a place that inspired(s) my design style.  In a place that has land and the building is sited properly.  In a place that is still small by american standards, but huge by this architect's comfort level.  And we are happy. 

To share this experience, this blog may veer off path for a little while, but in the end, what really happened was that the architect in this case, put his money where his mouth is. And hopefully, expand on the concepts and ins and outs of a good building through this real life example.

Gut Rehab or Gut Check?

A real estate agent and I were talking a few days ago about the state of the market.  In our area, the price of real estate is almost exponentially growing.  The thirst for space and 'enough' room to live is outstripping the actual space available (or allowable) in the area.  This has caused a crunch on those of us who like the area we live but can no longer afford to grow with our lives.

The conversation rambled, but we hit on a point that many overlook.  What if you just made what you currently have work?  We discussed and came up with two alternatives to feeling forced to move.

The Gut Rehab

This is the classic that, as an architect, I really enjoy.  Taking a structure down to its bare minimum, finding better patterns of organization and space proportioning and then inserting this updated plan into/onto an existing home is the reason I got into this line of work in the first place.  Renovations can take an existing 'less than ideal' home and with slight to major modifications, make it exactly what you want and need.  The transformation of place and space is almost always dramatic and satisfying to all.

The Gut Check

And while I am a large proponent of the major renovation (a man has got to make a living, you know!) there is a step that is often overlooked in getting to the renovation.  The gut check is the step of asking yourself, what do I really need to have to make life work?  Unfortunately, this is usually only done after step one is planned and priced.  "Whoa, HOW much for that 100 extra square feet???"  The sticker shock of the cost of renovation is almost universal.  Even to professionals in the design side of the world, it often seems to be higher than expected.  This causes a round of asking what do we REALLY need?  In turn, superfluous items and square footage are often discarded in favor of what is 'practical' or 'realistic'.  Hard decisions are often made that get rid of things once thought to be non-negotiable.  The dreams and collections of ideas get pared down to what really matters to you. 

Instead of waiting until this point, a better approach is to do the gut check early.  With the threat of costing a lot of money, this is simple.   But often, the fantasy of thinking you will get a deal delays the necessary questions and decisions from being asked and made.  But in the end, this will need to be done.  And to save yourself the cost and delay of redesign, look around you to see what is superfluous in what you have.

Three main things to look for are the following

Step 1.  Do you have space being used to store things that you will/may never use again?  Old items that no longer serve a purpose in your life, but are just forgotten often take up a good portion of the space we live in.  A good test that I learned to determine this is to pack all of your things away.  Then as you need to use something, you unpack it, use it and find a place to store it.  After a certain amount of time, you may come to realize that there are still 8 boxes of stuff that you never even thought about.  That is your addition by subtraction right there.  If however, you unpacked everything, then you move to step two.

Step 2.  Is your stuff organized in the best possible manner?  Are your closets organized and easily accessible? Can you find something when you want it?  If not, what may happen is you will not hunt forever, but instead will go get another one (this is one of two main culprits of the problem in step one).  Organization of what you have and need to have is also a good indicator of if you need to expand.  Sometimes, you have only what you need, and when you have it organized in a fashion that maximizes the space and accessibility and now you can eliminate the need to build/renovate/move.  Other times, even after completing steps one and two, there is still not enough space.

Step 3.  Work with a design professional to determine the requirements of your addition/renovation.  You have pared down.  You have organized.  But you still cannot live the life you need to live due to space/planning constraints. If this is the case, and you have done the previous steps, you will be able to sit with a professional and have them find the sweet spot for your life.  Every case varies.  But a professional armed with an honest assessment of your needs can work to create only the space required to get your life to where you want it to be. They can minimize the 'what if' scenarios of the less organized client and hone in on maximizing your value. 

If you follow these three steps, when you do get that number for your addition, you will be comfortable in knowing, yes, this is truly only what is needed and not a penny more because you have done the gut check. 



Yeah, that sounds great!....And that too!

I had an opportunity to practice what I preach last week.  It was a simple set of interior renovations to baths, mudrooms, etc...  Then I started speaking with the owner.  She is a smart, professional woman who is renovating a home with her husband.  So it was kind of funny to listen to what she wanted.  "the contractor I talked to said this was the best," "my friend recommended this product," or 'my landscape architect suggested this material'...But the gist of what I heard was, 'It all sounded great in each case, but I can't decide who sounded 'greatest'!"  It is common when people start (or are in the process of) renovating.  There are so many ideas.  So many outlets to propose something.  It can be overload. 

Here is where I would love to say that an architect can/could come in and solve all of the problems.  And in some cases, they may be able to.  But what really should happen is to stop, look around and ask yourself, "what do I/we really want our home to be?" 

When I (as a human, not necessarily as the architect) suggested that this couple did not have to do all of their projects as they thought they should, but rather as they wanted, it clicked in her eyes.  The second walkway to no where that occasionally a Fed Ex driver might use which would have cost between $5k-$10K to redo was eliminated in favor of maybe reallocating those resources to the entry approach she really wanted.  The bump out on the third floor at a difficult and costly location for their son's bathroom was taken away and relocated to an existing unused closet. 

It was fun to see her click into what she really wanted.  The interior designer she works with was there to guide her, and her landscape architect was able to adjust her plans to meet what this family actually wanted.  And we became what designers should be, advocates and providers of a service to achieve this family's dreams, not what is trendy or what will pad our portfolio. 

It is not always easy to get someone focused on what really matters.  But in most cases, they have a million ideas bouncing around, the key is to get them out of the 'should for other's sake' or 'but what about every third february 19th's dinner' and into the 'yeah, that is what WE want' mindset.  It makes value and cost decisions much easier and leaves a better taste in everyone's mouth.