Saturday, October 2, 2010

Getting Aggressive About Being Passive

If you pay any attention to my Twitter or Facebook posts you may have noticed that I've been on a bit of a Passive House kick lately. Passive House is a holistic, "green" design concept that has been well tested in Europe and is starting to gain ground in the US. Here are a trio of recent articles that I've found interesting and informative.:

Check these out and stay tuned because I'll stay on the lookout for more info to pass along.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Are Here

It's been a while since I've written about regionalism in sustainable design. Lately though, especially through my involvement with the Irvington Green Initiative, I've had a number of discussions about the sustainability of local business. So when I read an article by Lance Hosey in Architect magazine about "Localism" in sustainable design, I figured it was time to re-visit the subject and try to tie two of my passions together.

Mr. Hosey's article is a different take on Vanity Fair's recent "World Architecture Survey." Where Vanity Fair opened their survey up to your five most important structures since 1980, Hosey conducted a poll seeking your five most important 'green' buildings since 1980. You can check out the results of the surveys for yourself but what really interested me was the impetus for Hosey's "Toward Localism" article.

To sum it up, he was surprised by the lack of "place-base innovation"; the lack of localism; the lack of projects designed and built specifically for their unique locations. Localism. Or Regionalism if you like.

Hosey goes on to list 5 place-specific projects that garnered votes. So why are these types of projects so important? Why is supporting local business so important? Here are my top 3:
  • They support local jobs / local economy
  • They provide services and products specifically needed in your area
  • They often utilize materials and resources that are sourced locally
And so the cycle repeats and sustains itself.

So how in the world does this relate to sustainable design and construction? Again, my top 3:
  • Time-proven, local building techniques are familiar to local craftsmen and support local jobs / local economy
  • Time-proven, local technologies for heating, cooling and use of natural resources are often more efficient and less expensive
  • Time-proven, local materials have weathered the storm (both literally and figuratively) and have proven themselves over generations

So you see, local businesses and localism are not all that different when it comes to the question of sustainability. Next time you talk to your favorite, local Architect or builder, engage them in a conversation about localism or regionalism. You are here, shop here, design for here and build for here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Price of Indecision

Over the course of your Renovation hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions will be made and you’ll be responsible for many of them. You’ll select fixtures, finishes and furniture and approve hardware, locations and lighting. Each carries a price. Ideally most, if not all, of these will be completed in the design phase. But this isn’t always the case.

Many times clients are afforded some leeway in the timing of decisions by entering allowances on budget lines for lighting and bathroom fixtures and the like. This can allow your builder to start construction of your project while you shop for the finishing touches.

In some cases, circumstances dictate a “fast track” project. Basically, construction begins before the project is completely designed. The decision to go this route is usually schedule driven and it can be a good way to get a project jump started, say before winter sets in.

No matter the schedule or method though, the omnipresent reality of the building industry is that lead times and changes are two of the biggest killers of a project’s schedule and budget. If decisions aren’t made prior to ground breaking, in addition to scheduling subs, materials and inspections, your project manager will have the added task of shepherding you through the selection process. They’ll have to keep track of products that you’ve selected and insure coordination between what’s being built and what’s being selected.

And then there’s the infamous Change-Order. Everybody cringes as the very mention of them. But they’re going to happen. The reasons range from unknown conditions that were uncovered during construction to material cost increases to you seeing something built for the first time and deciding that you don’t like the way it looks. Then, to come full circle, there’s the case where you select a vanity that won’t fit in the bathroom space that’s been built.

The point is that with each of the hundreds or thousands of decisions that you make there is a cost. Hopefully, most of that is simply the cost of material and installation. But if you aren’t making choices in a timely manner, there could be additional costs from express delivery to re-working a portion of your project to accommodate that fantastic antique tub that you just had to have.

Most clients realize that every change costs something. But it’s important to understand exactly what that cost is. Each time a change is made; there is the cost of the original work, plus the removal or modification of that work, plus the labor and materials to construct the new design. Basically, it’s a good way to increase your Master Bath budget from $15,000 to $25,000 in very short order.

There’s nothing wrong with taking your time in making decisions, especially if it means making the right decision one time. And, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. Even the most seasoned corporate clients can become indecisive. The thing to keep in mind is that the longer it takes you to make a decision, the more likely that decision is to cause a change and that changes come at a price.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Small But Mighty

Have you ever fantasized about working with an Architect to design the home of your dreams?

Clete Kunce, of ONE 10 STUDIO, and I met recently with a couple who own a beautiful piece of property where they plan to build their next home. I’m enthusiastic about the prospects of their project. Their goals are sound and they’re really going about things the right way. They’ve done their research. They have a good idea what they want and what they need. They’ve decided what’s important to them. They’ve even found some plans in books and magazines that have elements that they like. That’s a great starting point.

We talked about all kinds of ways to make this the most sustainable, self-sufficient place they can. We talked about solar orientation, geothermal heating and cooling, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), radiant heat and a host of other building systems. We covered issues like dust, mold, allergies and indoor air quality. They’re thinking about everything.

But something that really piqued my interest is that they want to build a small and modestly priced home. You may be thinking that this is fairly normal but it’s not. Especially at the scale that their talking. The size (and price) of the average American home has been increasing rapidly since the 1970’s. In fact, the Census Bureau most recently identified that average as over 2,400 square feet. The goal of the project that I’m talking about is to come in under 1,300 square feet. That’s an enormous difference.

Ok, that’s the setup. Then came the question … wait for it … “Why should I hire an Architect instead of a “designer” or just a builder for a small project like this?” That’s the punchline.

In all seriousness, it’s one of the most common questions that come up no matter the scale of the project. The obvious assumption is that it would be cheaper to have a “designer” draw up blueprints or pick a plan from a plan book or go to a builder who has a “designer” on staff.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve talked with someone who’s purchased one or more sets of plans out of the back of a magazine and now they’re looking for someone to take the very same plans and “tweak” them or combine them in some way. Where’s the sense in this process? You just spent $800 a piece for the full construction drawings of each design and now you’re willing to pay several hundred more to have everything changed to be just the way you want it. Congratulations, your cobbled-together-masterpiece has cost you a few thousand dollars. Wouldn’t your money be better spent starting at the beginning with someone who will design exactly what you want?

But I digress.

Back to our story. The goal is small, affordable, and efficient with a whole host of advanced concepts and alternative energy solutions; basically, small but mighty. Ironically, what may appear to be a small, simple exercise is actually a complicated little project. So my question is do you really want someone to just draw it up for you? Or do you want to engage someone that will fully integrate all of these concepts and systems throughout the design and deliver a successful project? That question is the answer.