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A California Craftsman with amazing views of Mt. Tamalpias in Marin California

September 3, 2015

I thought I would share a recent watercolor of prospective finish and color for a house in Kentfield, California. The design is about 4500 s.f. with 4 bedroom 2.5 bath with an a second garage and workshop just off to the right that got cropped.

Watercolor of a new craftsman home in Kentfield California

Watercolor of a new craftsman home in Kentfield California

9 Little Known Reasons Why Construction Bids Can Be So Far Apart.

August 28, 2015

It’s well known in the industry, but how about the rest of you? I’ve had a couple clients come to me after having done a single project where they learned a lot, but they’re expectations sometimes are a little unrealistic based on only that one project. For instance, a previous project was done while the economy was slower and/or they got bids that were very close (within 10% of each other). Both of these situations can set an owner up for some surprises later.Bids apart question mark image

In theory, it would be nice if all materials and labor costs were the same in any particular area, but they are not. There are averages, but that means it’s within a range, and it’s important to realize that the one group of contractors may be near either the low or high figures or across the whole range, and thus large disparities.

The reality is that there are very practical factors that influence the numbers you get from contractors and thus a certain amount of variance to the answers you get depending on which contractor you ask and more importantly, when.

  1. Frequently, one contractor will have several jobs on the calendar lined up nicely with an additional project being the icing on the cake while the other contractor will have just finished a large project that soaked up every work crew he has, and is very much wanting to keep everyone working. This is a very strong influence, and depending on the contractor a very objective monetary cost to ‘mobilization’: the movement of equipment, materials and people.
  2. PROXIMITY: A contractor may be motivated by the how close the project is to where they live, their base of operations, if the project is next to another of their work sites, or some other aspect of geography.
  3. General Contractors (GC’s) and subcontractors have a better relationship with their material supplier and thus get a better price. For example, a local lumber supply has something like 20 different discount levels depending on your volume and relationship with them.
  4. Changes in staffing/work crew changes the effectiveness of teams. Subcontractors estimate risk and efficiency then make bids based on their ability to deliver.
  5. Depending on the type of work (intense framing or heavy foundation work) a contractor is more cost effective depending on the mix of specialties that the teams have. For instance, one supervisor might have a background in fine cabinetry and thus be a better cost.
  6. The contractor has benefited from a previous project by the same architect and, consciously or not, this influences the estimates or bid.
  7. Some contractors use more subcontractors than others for basic work such as framing. This has differing results, it depends on the type of results you expect, it usually means less quality, but if that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s a benefit.
  8. Insurance costs, recent employee injuries, can either add cost or change effectiveness.
  9. Do they use Union labor?

By contrast, the regular market reasons that effect all contractors more evenly:

  1. Demand has increased or decreased
  2. Material costs, have gone up or plateaued (rarely go down).
  3. Real Estate Market up or down.
  4. Lending Rates, and regional available capital.

In the search for contractors, keep these factors in mind and even ask about them, because you may be surprised to learn the answers and how the effect your project.

Mixed Use Project in Oakland California

August 18, 2015
Exterior NW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA

Exterior NW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA

This is a project we were working on recently and I thought I would share it with you all. It’s a condominium/mixed use in Oakland. It’s a great opportunity since the neighborhood has slowly been improving over the past few years as the economy has come back. The retail front is an option for the project that has a high likelyhood of good performance since there’s a freeway entrance just down the street, and some decent street parking. The materials, finishes, massing, window shading and solar panels above are all BuiltItGreen and LEED compliant. Don’t hold me to the color palette, this is only one of several.

Exterior Street SW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA.

Exterior Street SW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA.

This neighborhood is zoned as so many things is hilarious, live work, light industrial, and about four overlay districts. Here’s the before shot to show the difference.

Exterior NW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA

Existing Exterior NW at 630 29th Avenue, Oakland, CA

Outsourcing Code Plan Review Is Another Hidden Runaway Cost

March 19, 2015
Piles of architectural drawings

Old tech.


Cities and Counties may think they’re saving money, but in the end, it’s just a shell game.

Simply put, cities and counties are no longer using in-house staff to review structural drawings, and in fact, the current trend is to outsource the architectural and public works review also. I’m a little worried that the fire departments are also going to outsource considering the success in pushing off the cost onto applicants. This severely changes the dynamic for how costs for development are distributed. The theory seems reasonable until you see how the execution is. So I can understand why so many cities adopt the method. However, it does two things that have an outrageously bad result.

1) This concept puts the power of assessing increasingly large fees in the hands of staff who have no direct responsibility to the citizen but instead answer to the city or county manager, who in result is more concerned with just cost, not reasonable enforcement, efficiency, undue burden, or prompt and timely review. This can be quite infuriating to clients because there is no redress in the system currently for these fees. Additionally, there is an inherent risk to complaining because such complaints can be associated with a project under review and possibly jeopardize a favorable review and approval of application. Thus the fox is watching the henhouse and homeowners and business owners simmer with anger and indignation, jumping through the hoops, until approval of their project. Upon completion, they walk away with the feeling that they just want to escape the whole mess and avoid further frustration of complaining. Thus the system stays in place.

2) Outsourcing code compliance has quickly turned into a serious profit industry that produces oversight concerned with generating longer and longer lists of review issues that reflect more hours of time spent by the reviewer to produce and respond to.  There are two major ways that outsource reviewers bloat review comments:

A) Revise notes, drawings and methods to reflect an interpretation of the code that differs from one reviewer to the next rather than simply based on the uniform International code and California code.

B) There is a trend that is not talked about yet exists: The effort to ‘educate’ contractors on ‘new’ code changes. This issue can be especially egregious since there is no legal method for telling a code reviewer that such a request is unreasonable or excessive. The result is that the drawings frequently have notes added only because of a pet peeve that the reviewer has or the reviewing firm feels they apparently need to expound on, none of which is predictable. These requests frequently ignore the overarching concept that the purpose of a uniform code that is adopted by all jurisdictions is that contractors are expected to know and keep up to date on the CBC, plumbing code and such regulation. That’s precisely why there is such a thing as standardized code. To then include long quotes from this code is to ask applicants to issue redundant information to contractors.

C) Reviewer will request that notes are shown in multiple places rather than using the convention ‘typical’. This is clearly a dumbing down of the business. There are conventions we use to make the drawings more efficient, clean, readable and convey the information well. Repetition of notes is overly officious and typically does not help the contractor. Architects and engineers and designers are expected to repeat comments when they deem it is necessary due to whom they are working with and the type of project.

D) Include requests for change possibly based on mistakes made by other architects, but not made on the drawings being actually reviewed (thus our response is that we do actually comply, and here is why). The reason I say this, is that I have frequently found comments that only roughly relate to my drawings and are quite obviously cut and pasted from the review of another project. It’s just plain sloppy work, which is what these companies are supposed to curtail, not demonstrate!

On top of it all, the cities and counties pass the cost of these reviewers on to the applicant. They remove themselves from the process and increase the cost and frustration of review. This in turns adds to the cost for engineers, designers and architects. There is also less accountability.

I think its time that we scale back the outsourcing and bring the costs down by having the reviewers change the motivating theory and remove peculiarities that I have listed above.

Written on July 30, 2012 and it’s still relevant. At the time I was way too angry to post this, but I realize that nothing has changed and it still needs to be said. Take a look at this article by the guys at Build LLC in Seattle. 

Revival of the Mid Century Modern

June 5, 2014

Today I’ll share a project that’s coming along nicely. There’s been a lot of drama around the land this project is proposed for, but we’ve gotten nothing but compliments on the design. The clients are wonderful and deserving of a modern home with an amazing view. This house will have a view that spans all the way from the Bay Bridge, downtown San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Tiburon, to the Richmond Bridge. They can even see Keller Beach at Point Richmond. The clients like the feel of natural materials combined with a modern sensbility. I responded with a design that many neighbors are lovingly calling Mid Century Modern. I take that as a sincere compliment. Especially considering that this will be designed with so many aspects that a far better built and respectful of the environment than what was standard for the classic MCM.

Looking towards the South(east) side of the residence.

Looking towards the South(east) side of the residence.

I feel I’ve had to be somewhat under the radar with this one since there’s been so much controversy, but we’ve gotten through design review and it was even appealled to the City Council.

The dispute is over a crumbling path a few people use that traverses the property, yet they want the use of the path without owning the property. I’ll hold off on getting in to the details, but simply, the public has been allowed to cross by the owner in the past, but he wants to sell it now. So legally, there’s no right of access by the public.

Regardless, we’re moving forward and I’m excited about the project.  I’ll share the design renderings with you.

Northwest elevation of hillside residence

Northwest elevation of hillside residence

View of house from North with alternate cladding of vertical elements.

View of house from North with alternate cladding of vertical elements.

Entry from Southeast

Entry from Southeast

View looking Southwest down Street

View looking Southwest down Street

Way beyond the contractor’s quick mock up

May 1, 2013

My clients used to bring magazine articles and pictures of homes and buildings they really like when we started a project. No more. The internet has changed that and especially with sites like Houzz. It has truly accelerated and improved the process (it can also tend to exaggerate trends, but that’s another topic). One part of the process though that this does not effect is how such design decisions and styles are melded together for a particular client.

I was recently having a fun meeting paging through photos with a client and discussing interior detailing. She expressed a keen interest in a combination of several of the classic styles with some slight departures from particular orders. To really see how such detailing might fit in her project, I suggested some perspective views and since we were using Revit for the project, she could walk around and get a good view of it.

This goes way beyond what a contractor can typically just ‘mock up’, and shows how design professionals can show a client what they desire and what really works, saving money and effort.  Contractors don’t necessarily want to mock up something this complex unless you’re pretty close to knowing what you want. To reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of Revit, I’ll show you some interior mock ups that I did for a client recently.

Sometimes, it may look cool in one space, but doesn’t fit yours. Not only that, scale and proportion are highly subjective. In this case, I thought it would help to show the detailing style that she had wanted but in her space, then reduce from there. I utilized a column/pilaster style from another larger project, and as you can see, the molding for the interiors started out pretty much dominating the rooms. After a couple iterations, we landed on a look that better fit the space and style the clients wanted.

Living Room Interior version 1

Living Room Interior version 1

Living Room Interior version  2

Living Room Interior version 2

Living Room Interior version  3

Living Room Interior version 3

Living Room Interior version  4

Living Room Interior version 4

Living Room Interior version  5

Living Room Interior version 5

Living Room Interior version 6

Living Room Interior version 6

Revit is great for many aspects of design, but interior rendering is not it’s main strength. To give credit, these are just screen captures, not complete ‘photo realistic’ renderings by Revit. Compared to what is out there, Revit is still a bit half-hearted when it comes to serious visual renderings. However, as a tool that does so much of what we need in architecture, I often find I’m able to provide much more than what most architects offer to clients. Being able to show a client what certain details will look like in their own space is the most optimal solution.

And for those of us that need to have greater consistency in the expression of design elements, I’ll tell you that I hope to bring back the arch for the passageway on the left.

Historic Preservation in Point Richmond

February 5, 2013
blue water with a city across the bay in the distance.

View of San Francisco From the Point Richmond Project

Looking uphill at a white and brick three story house.

Standing for 100 years and more.

Location, Location, Location: This is an amazing site, just take a look at the view. The house sees a gigantic swath of the San Francisco Bay, with a view of the Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out from behind Angel Island, and from upstairs, the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge. There’s also a nice framing of Point Richmond Ferry Point and the shore and beach below.

Historic. The house is more than 100 years old and was pretty isolated when first built. The community grew in around it, but the property is still pretty large.

Project start, signs go up.

Project start, signs go up.

The house has stood through many earthquakes, large and small, and the settling has been slight despite the brick foundation. As you can see from the photos, the poor thing needs some restoration. In the 40s the house was remodeled, and expanded. The large front porch was enclosed with the stairwell element added as an entry signifier.

At that time, the exterior was changed from all shingle to board and batten at the second floor with stucco at the first, and a brick exterior at the base. Over the years there have been quite a few incremental changes and none of the windows match. We’re breaking this up into several phases. The first phase includes reworking the first floor, restoring the garage and a voluntary seismic upgrade. I also get the opportunity to unify most of the windows into historically appropriate double hung windows. I reworked the alley entrance to the house so that there’s a sense of entry that is both better covered and more accessible.The alley is where everyone comes to the house anyway, and this improves that relationship. The design includes many improvements to energy efficiency and the use of green materials. We elected to rebuild the detached garage in the same style so as to keep the 1940s style and scale for the streetscape and keep the neighborhood happy.

Keeping the neighbors happy: The neighborhood council was just as surprised as we were to find that we we’re not required to strictly comply with Historic Preservation in this location. The property happens to fall just outside that boundary.  Regardless, the council is pretty aggressive in their review and the weight they pull with the city. So if it’s not approved by the neighborhood, it’s a real uphill battle with the city.

Design by Interactive Resources

New footings and reinforcement.

Considering our experience with historic preservation, this was not hard, just political. The best move when it’s political is to approach all the major players and make sure they feel that they’re in the loop. The design is mindful of the history in this house and maintains and restores many details that need care and attention.

In the photo to the right, you can see the formwork and rebar for the new footings for the house. After a lot of discussion, we decided to put the new footing in next to the brick so we wouldn’t have to lift the whole structure. For engineering, I decided to bring on the big fish in the little pond of Point Richmond, Interactive Resources. I know Andrew Butt from my work on the WCCUSD Citizens Bond Oversight Committee and I’ve gotten to know his work. His architecture and engineering firm does mostly schools and commercial projects. They’ve done a great job on the Nystrom Multi-purpose building in Richmond and several other school projects.

Part of the project is to rebuild the garage. Below right you can see the original garage and the freshly poured footings is where we are today further below. The only salvageable lumber was the lower cords of the roof joists. The walls were slowly crumbling at the base and there was not much to the foundation.

Existing Garage

Existing Garage

We have Floyd Construction building out this project and I’m happy to have them again. I’ve worked with Joe and his team for years. I look forward to more great results from his very capable Foreman Paul McGlaughlin.