questions from a young architect by nicholas kreitler

There is something I mentioned in a previous post and I wanted to come back to the topic of urban sprawl…. We have all heard it and are increasingly aware of the problem we face. Gas continues to go up in price and I believe that we should see the density start to rise again in our major cities. But many of us will continue to say that the time we spend in the car and the amount we spend on gas is just part of the daily grind. I think that train of thought will begin to change, or I can at least hope that it will change.

Speaking for myself, I don’t like to waste my time and I don’t know many young people who do. Currently, I live forty-five minutes from the office where I work.  That means I spend between an hour and half and two hours in my car a day with traffic. Take that over a week, and that’s between six and half to ten hours. Over a month that means I will spend approximately twenty six to forty hours in my car, that’s nearly a week of work every month I am missing out on while sitting in my car.

Let’s say for the sake of this article we keep the math simple, and say I make ten dollars an hour. So in a month I waste nearly four hundred dollars in my time, and another two in the gas I burn on my way to and from the office. Now I realize we don’t get paid for the time we aren’t working but for this argument let’s say we put a value on our time like our employers do. So in the span of one month I will spend nearly six hundred dollars in time and resources going back forth to work.

Now what happens when I move closer to the city, and if I only lived a mile and a half from the office? What if I bought a bike and I could actually ride to work. I could save 95% of my time to and from the office; I would get exercise daily, and save a large amount of money. Now what if that six hundred a month I was spending could actually get invested in something more valuable? Now I realize I am only a drop in a much larger bucket, but what happens when the majority of those living more than 15 minutes from work did the same. What impact would that have on our cities? How much would the density rise, how much better could our cities be? Would we start to see a rebirth in our cities? What would we do with the money are spending on gas?

I would like to believe if we made our cities into walk able environments and reduced our dependence on our cars and trucks we could start to see pride take hold again and a concern for the built environment. What if we could walk to wherever we needed to go, would we stop being lazy? Could we start to see an increase in our activity? What about an increase in our sense of community? What if we started to invest in public space and the built environment, instead of our own private spaces with fences that make our boundaries very clear to the public? What happens when start to enjoy housing with a shared courtyard, a place where we can get to know our neighbors beyond saying hi at the mail box, a place for a community garden that could yield as much as you put into it? What if the amount we spend on gas goes down and we could spend it with our families, or giving back to amazing nonprofits that do incredible work, or taking a class or that trip we have been dreaming of?

nightmare on suburban street

What happens when we stop increasing the size of our homes? When we have a modest dwelling we begin to set priorities to what we actually need versus what we think we need. A close friend of mine reminds me that designing small means simply designing smart. I look around and have to ask, do we really live in a time of surplus? I have always thought that modesty is a good thing.  How is it that we are impressed by the square footage of our homes and not by how charitable we are, or what we are doing for the community?

I know that I have posed a lot of questions and not offered many solutions, but I hope that these thoughts and these ideas might wake something up inside of you and that you begin thinking about how this relates to your life. I feel like a hypocrite while writing about all of this, knowing that I am living in suburbia with my parents and doing nothing to change that. I know that I am just starting out and don’t have the ability to go out on my own, so I am fortunate to have the support of my family and will never take that for granted. For now I know that the drive might be long but I wouldn’t be able to make it without them in my life, a big thank you to my friends and family who are always there to support me in all that I do.

leaderspeak: is your check engine light on? by nicholas kreitler

 Have you ever been driving down the road and all of a sudden a little sport car goes flying past you? I started thinking about that car the other day after I was wrapping up a day in the office. I was picturing that car cruising along, oblivious to the fact that it was blowing a whole lot of smoke and causing a mess for everyone else to navigate through. I smiled when I passed that car pulled over on the side of the road, realizing if only they had taken better care of their car it wouldn’t have happened. For the purpose of this piece, let’s just say they ran out of gas.

 I normally don’t like using analogies to make my point but this time I am going to make an exception. For the past year I have been in and out of so many offices searching for a place to start my career, just like every other recent graduate out there. Through that time, I have had the opportunity to see various offices and the character and culture of each. This has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what an office environment is really like compared to anything my professors tried to explain. The analogy came to me when I was reflecting back over my experiences from the past several months and the thought of that little car came to mind.

I’m sure you’re wondering where I am going with this, right? Well, what I mean by that is that an engine runs on gas and oil. If you consider the oil as the collaborative and creative side of an office, while the gas in the tank as the productive side that keeps the office running, you’ll get this analogy. The point is that you need both of those to keep the car operating, so keep that in mind when you start the engine on your firm.

Think about this; if you run with too much oil and not enough gas, you just end up in a big cloud of smoke while you’re stranded on the side of the road. This means when you spend all your time thinking and playing without proper production, you just end up breaking down and on the side of the road with your thumb out asking for a ride. The opposite is equally devastating, too much gas and not enough oil, you end up going really far but burn out after that recommended oil change. What I mean is if you are only productive and don’t take time to play, then you lose your passion for what you do and quickly stop caring about the task at hand.

The right balance for everyone is different. Each firm has their own ratio that works for the culture they have created. A particular amount of oil to every gallon of gas is critical, some work better with a drop and some take it by the quart. Every firm is unique and there is no exact science to the right ratio but there does need to be balance. Finding that balance and individuals who believe in the culture of the office will keep it running smoothly and it is those firms that will stand the test of time. Now there will always be other factors to consider, but when the firm has a shared vision and believes in what they are doing they will always find a way to make it work.

 

great clients = great projects by derek maschek

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater Masterpiece

As I get ready to do something I’ve never done before (to “blog”), I’ve been pondering what exactly I will be talking about. Let’s face it, blogging is just editorializing, talking about stuff that could be anything from pure opinion to well researched short topics. It’s conversational, topical, ideally informative, and preferably entertaining. One topic continues to rise to the top as an item of critical importance to those of us in the design service profession; the client.

Clients are critical, for without them we literally have nothing to do. Even if we’re designing our own dream homes, some theoretical super “green” high rise, or even a floating city as a movie set, there is a client involved. This client may be imaginary, but there is still a list of wants, needs, and limitations that make up the foundation of the problem that any project proposes to solve. Design professionals are in the end, just problem solvers, so no problem, no solution.

What I’ve come to really appreciate about great architecture, and all its design cousins, is that the resulting physical thing (the answer), while attractive and meaningful, is servant to the problem statement, the question being asked. This question is the foundation of the project, and it lives in the mind of the client, although it is the job of the design professional is to help discover it truly and describe it thoroughly. This is a collaborative process where the design professional is critical, but where a forthright, cooperative, patient, and trusting client is invaluable. Without the client fully embracing their role, their responsibility in this partnership, the designer is limited to making it up and mailing it in.

Fallingwater Interior

As I want to salute and define what it means to be a great client, let’s assume a talented, experienced, and thoughtful design professional is on board. I’ll talk about design process in the future, defining what the differences are between bad, average, and great design professionals.

A great client is an active partner in a process of problem discovery, willing to accept that the initial problem statement may be partially or even completely wrong. “I need a two storey addition on my house because I need a master suite and new kitchen, and it should be built on the back right here.” It’s a great place to start, a very necessary step, but what should happen next is a lengthy and thoughtful process of understanding what is and what needs to be, as well as what limitations and opportunities exist that will impact the project. Afterwards, we may learn that an addition wasn’t necessary at all in order to accomplish a renovated kitchen and a basement master suite.

As we all know, time is money, and thinking takes time. Particular in tough economic times (now), with tight budgets (usually), or with challenging schedules (often) this phase is often truncated or eliminated in order to expedite the next phase (design and documentation). While understandable on the surface, does it make sense to rush into battle without some understanding of your enemy, the field, the weaponry available on both sides, and then of course the role of this battle in the bigger war? It is critical to think before leaping, and that takes time. To inadequately plan is to just roar your battle cry and go charging down the hill and hope for the best. Almost any professional will keep a client out of harm’s way, giving you something safe and functional, something adequate. But such thinking does not make for great projects.

Fallingwater Exterior

A great client also trusts the design professional and the discovery process. If there is no trust, the whole design process is irrevocably broken and the result will be mediocre at best. Trust does not mean being led by the nose or letting the professional have their way. It means allowing the process to work, for questions and answers to flow, and then questioning answers, even when they seem obvious. Depending on the complexity of the project, there could be numerous formal rounds of this, although truly the questions never cease to come until the project is built.

Lastly, a great client is a thinking client, one that challenges their design professional and is willing, even asking, to be challenged themselves. For the process to work best, all parties involved need to be offering up their best, while insisting that their partners are doing the same. You would be surprised how opportunities are uncovered and obstacles are hurdled by honest and thorough collaborative deliberation.

So, what makes for a great client? Time and Patience. Trust. Thoughtfulness.

Done properly, this process results in projects exceeding expectations. You’ll see I’ve included images of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. This is the first time I remember learning of a project achieving such awe inspiring timelessness because a client offered an inconceivable amount of patience and trust to the architect. The client wanted a vacation home that celebrated their family’s favorite swimming and picnicking spot, and trusted Mr. Wright to give it to them while they vacationed abroad. What they got was totally unexpected and completely restated the original problem statement. Their house was built over, on, and around their favorite spot. Their house became their favorite spot.

Fallingwater Exterior

Fallingwater Interior

To read more of the history of Fallingwater, please visit the website.

Please contact Derek via email for more info or questions about a specific project. 

Part 1: “Designing Small is Designing Smart” by Derek Maschek

Welcome to the most important part of the design process and woe to those that try and cut this corner altogether, or fail to go through it properly. Believe me, there are those that try, and all regret it without exception. So pay attention and listen up! Ready? Here it is…

Programming.

Sounds technical, and by all appearances it is. So what could it possibly have to do with design and how could it possibly be so important to design? Well, you probably remember the term GIGO from high school or maybe even grade school; Garbage In, Garbage Out. A piece of software, a website, a digital application of any sort, only works as well as its programming. So, in a similar fashion, if you aren’t designing with the right information, you are doomed from the start.

Especially when it comes to designing small, programming is about asking the right questions and answering them honestly and thoroughly. It includes questions to which you think the answers are obvious, but beware, this is where assumptions and misperceptions live and they have the potential to undermine everything. It’s not all about avoiding disaster though – programming is the best part, the most exciting part. Programming is where creativity is born and takes root, where opportunity hides, and where magic waits to transform your project.

     

A quick moment has to be taken here to shamelessly plug the profession of which I proudly belong – architecture. But this is exactly where design professionals show their experience and talent, and value. Working with a professional saves time and improves the quality and potential of the end product. Save a dollar here and spend hundreds later as a little good planning goes a long way. I’d say “trust me”, but we’ve all experienced rushing into something that we didn’t give due attention beforehand, and we paid the price. As most people will likely only engage a design professional once in their lives, if that, it’s important to not learn this lesson after suffering the consequences.

Now, it’s so tempting to jump straight into the fun stuff, but as with any building you have to build a good foundation first. We start with the three biggies; budget, schedule, and quality. To the best of your ability, be specific and prioritize so that a decision-making framework is established and clear. Some insight on how this works; the more you expect from one, the more the others have to give or else things get hairy really quickly. For example, if you want a lot of house for a little money, plan on lower quality and an expanding schedule. If you have a tight schedule too, then quality will plummet. Say you want high quality but don’t have much time, be prepared to pay dearly for it. The advantage to designing small is that the pressure on all of these items is eased from the start. All things being equal, the less you build, the quicker you can build it and the less it will cost. It’s a win-win-win situation, so congrats on picking the smart path! You can indeed have it all…sort of….

Next we start talking specifics; functions, features, and relationships. Prioritize them again so that everybody understands their relative importance and why. List the functions of your house and sketch them at their most essential. Often these functions are “rooms” but to call them rooms already would be one of those assumptions to be wary of. Be honest with yourself and distinguish between a want and a need. Size spaces to their function and furnish only to accomplish the task (“form follows function”). Watch out for duplicate functions and look for opportunities to overlaps too. Every bit as important, identify what you do NOT want or need, and why.

Discovering the difference between a Want and a Need comes out when answering the question “why”. Be honest and note, if you WANT something bad enough that it is non-negotiable, it does indeed qualify as a NEED. Squeezing out a bunch of low priority Wants is the best way to reduce the area of your house. As you start thinking about the number of “bedrooms” you list, ask some questions. Why three (to pick a common number)? Do you have two kids?, or just one and the other is really just a guest room?, or is there just an assumption that three bedrooms is what the market will want come time to sell? Could two of the “bedrooms” be combined even, as long as there’s some ability to achieve privacy, or could one be storage now and finished later if needed? Of course these questions are numerous and most of the time an answer leads to another question, exactly like a really good in-depth interview.

Sizing spaces for functions is about furniture quantity, size, and placement. In non Master Bedroom sleeping areas for example, are full size beds necessary or can they be twins?, or how about bunkbeds? Can they be pushed into a corner?, built into an alcove?, or even be hideaway like a Murphy Bed? An opportunity in small houses we’ll discuss later in this series is, you can actually buy less but higher quality furniture, and smaller spaces beg for smaller and simpler furniture.

Next, watch out for duplicate functions, as with separate Family and Living “Rooms”, or Breakfast Alcoves, Kitchens with seating, and Dining “Rooms”. Seek instead to overlap or combine spaces with related functions, like only sitting to eat in one centrally located farm-style kitchen area. Last but certainly not least, since circulation constitutes about 75% or more of the actual square footage of a house, consider how to put more functions within reach of the same paths, like with laundry and office functions “in” corridors. A function that’s directly accessible from another space uses much less space than a “walk-in” room dedicated to the function.

Design is fluid process. It’s not always obvious, is rarely quick, and is never all fun and glory as reality shows would have you believe. But it is those nuts and bolts components that make the overall process an enjoyable one, and the result seem so perfect. Others will ask “how could it have ever been anything else?” and you will know the simple truth- it all started with asking the right questions.

Stay tuned for more installments on this topic in the coming weeks.  Derek can be reached via email to discuss a specific project.

Intro to “Designing Small is Designing Smart” by Derek Maschek

Smarter and Smaller Houses, an Introduction to Design

Last year, Merriam-Webster voted “austerity” the apparently coveted status of Word of the Year.  The negativity around the term can be seen in the riots of Greece and Spain and Great Britain.  The word “austere” includes definitions such as “stern and cold in appearance”, “markedly simple or unadorned”, and “giving little or no scope for pleasure”.  No word better captures how many people would react if I were to suggest the concept of building small, particularly at a time when more is perceived as better.  And no word could be more misleading and wrong to the great potential of this “other” design approach.  So, to establish a new frame of reference, let me throw some new words into the pot for consideration;

Efficient

Effective

Essential

Economical

Connected

Comfortable

Convenient

In only sixty years, we have witnessed an interesting phenomenon in the United States.  The average size of a family has seen a 30% decrease, from 3.6 to 2.7 or one person.  Over the same period, the average house increased by 140%, from 1,000 to 2,400 square feet.  I’ll let you make any connections between life then versus now, as that is another conversation altogether and getting preachy here detracts and distracts from the power of a very powerful design methodology.

     

Put simply, when built using the same conventional methods, small houses cost less to build, operate, and maintain.  It seems obvious, but building less means a directly proportional reduction in the materials and time required to build, and in many cases the actual per-piece costs for materials is reduced as well.  Operationally, costs are reduced by limiting the resources needed to make the house work and be comfortable to live in.  And from a maintenance perspective, less time and money is put into cleaning, repairing, and eventually replacing all the components that go into a house. When capitalizing on the full capabilities of new technologies and the better understanding of traditional ones, these savings are compounded.  And by corollary, for the same cost, if you reduce the square footage, you can increase the cost per square foot, meaning a smaller house provides an opportunity for higher quality or more features.

This is a topic that has been covered by smarter people than I, and in greater detail than I’ll get into.  I intend only to provide an overview, emphasize a few simple points, and show some commonly pursued tactics as well as some uniquely innovative ones.  Most importantly I hope to reveal the underlying philosophy that supports it all, to shed light on the “other” design approach I mentioned at the top.

Architecture specifically is commonly perceived as an answer to some problem, a solution, a thing.  The emphasis is on the result.  However, architecture specifically and design in general, has been more accurately defined as “problem solving” or “problem seeking”. Design as process, not product.  In order to solve a “problem”, it is critical to first understand it, to ask questions in order to discover its essence in as much detail as possible.  So, when it comes to designing a small house, let’s focus on the questions being asked as a means to understand the answers that result;

What do you want in a home?

What do you need in a home?

What limitations are there?

What opportunities are there?

I would invite you to go through a sort of design process with me moving forward, answering these questions as best you can.  Consider the design of your dream home, your vacation home, or just reimagine your current home.  Consider the addition or renovation you’ve been contemplating.

Designing a small home, as it should be with any home or any building, is really nothing more than being smart about it, balancing what you need with what you want with what you have.  Designing small, is designing smart.

Stay tuned for more installments on this topic in the coming weeks.  Derek can be reached via email to discuss a specific project.

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