Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Architectural Styles Defined: Modern Architecture

Part 3 in our series of articles on the misuse of terms as they apply to the architectural style of a building, and how that misuse leads to poor communication between clients and professionals. Here’s an in-depth look at what defines “Modern Architecture:”

Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House:
image source farnsworthhouse.org

Let me start by saying "Modern Architecture" is a misnomer. The term modern simply represents the current style of the day that reflects society's impression of itself to the world. Modern architecture as we know it today however started with the International Style, Bauhaus, and the impact of cubist art on the form of a building. Like most styles, it began as a rejection of what was accepted and as an embrace of new technologies. In this case, the progression of steel as a building material allowed greater spans, previously impossible cantilevers, and minimized the ratio of thickness for vertical support. All of which meant that buildings could now be built proportionally in such a different way that they actually didn't even look as though they were capable of standing.

'International Style' Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye:
image source wikipedia

While these buildings are examples of classic modernism, the problematic term is 'classic'. Soon after, a new wave of architects began a new interpretation of how to reconcile the traditional forms of architecture with the new styles and technology in what they called 'Post Modernism'. At the same time, another movement began called 'Brutalism' which spiritually could even be considered a hybrid between modernism and the craftsman movement for truth in materials by leaving rough exposed concrete and using the wooden formwork in many cases to create the finish texture of the concrete.

'Postmodernism' Robert Venturi's House for his mother:
image source about.com

'Brutalism' Paul Rudolph's Westport House (demolished):
image source nothingliving.com

As technology advanced, the limits began to push further. Architects began a new style a 'Deconstruction' which was based on taking traditional geometry, breaking it apart, and then recombining it in different forms. Simple things such as the value of right angles finally came into question, as architects attempted to incorporate new ideas such as chaos theory into space and form.

'Deconstruction' Peter Eisenman's Casa Guardiola:

The question however is, "What is Modern Architecture?" Within the styles described above, the consistent threads are challenges to traditional forms, proportions, and materials; an openness of space, flexibility of arrangement. For the greater part, modern architecture displays a truth in materials and construction. The problem with modern architecture is in the term 'modern'. As time passes, others will decide if the architecture of modernity in the last century is unified as one style and what that style would be called. In the present, there is a strong departure from classic modernism / minimalism, and the deconstruction movement. Whether it remains a pure departure or experiment within 'modernism' such as post-modernism and brutalism remains to be seen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Picture of the Day 2/20

CONima Jet Fuel:
My friends at Mercedes sent this photo after they moved into their new space and told me to use it in an advertisement one day.

I have now fulfilled my end of the bargain...Thanks for the photo!

Commercial Lease Negotiations

If there is one thing I wish all clients, brokers, and project managers could understand, it is the critical importance of involving an architect in site selection. During the five years that CONima has been in business, we have saved our clients hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoided costs by evaluating buildings prior to signing a lease.

Unfortunately, I've probably seen clients spend well over twice that amount trying to resolve fundamental problems with buildings that went unnoticed because they were not evaluated prior to leasing.

So numbers are easy to throw out and they sound impressive, but they mean very little without understand what an architect actually does during the site selection and lease negotiation phases of a project. For this article, I will focus on tenant improvement related work only, as core and shell construction has an entirely separate set of concerns.

So what are the tasks?

Programming and Fit Planning:
Every client knows how many people they have working for them, and most have an idea how many they want to plan for in the future. However working off of simple ratios of square footage per person ignores office standards, adjacency requirements, ancillary spaces, labs, data centers, etc...all of which are critical components to laying out a space successfully. Unfortunately, once a lease is signed, it is too late to make sure that the building suits your needs, and typically will result in making some level of sacrifice in programmatic functionality of a space.

Egress and Path of Travel:
Nobody would advertise a building that doesn't meet code, right? This is a much more frustrating problem for clients that I've had to resolve for both landlords' and tenants'. The problem is twofold.
  • Codes change every few years, and things that were legal when a building was built are no longer so. With the recent adoption of the International Building Code this problem has become so exaggerated that many buildings are no longer considered legal because the method of calculating allowable floor area has now changed. Modifications to the occupancy classification further complicate this, resulting in different exiting and fire rating requirements.
  • Subdividing floorspace for multiple tenants is the other major cause of headaches. Code requirements change significantly when trying to exit multiple companies from one building or floor as opposed to just one. In this case the distance between exits, overall exit travel distance, fire protection systems, and fire separations become critical. As a simple rule of thumb, one of my professors once told me,"Draw a fire in front of an exit, now see how many will die as a result. If the answer is more than zero it's your fault."
Accessibility (ADA / Title 24)
This category has unfortunately made a few landlords hate me. Accessibility is a very broad topic, but the priorities to negotiate into a lease are those deficiencies that are the most expensive to repair.
  • Bathrooms, not just having a 5ft wide stall, but making sure the toilet is spaced the correct amount from the adjacent wall, are grab bars present, how much clearance is in front of the toilet? How high are the counters? Is there adequate knee space below them? Do the shower dimension comply? Fixture mounting heights? etc... A single bathroom can quickly cost over $100,000 to bring into compliance
  • Building Entry, the accessibility requirement for most buildings is to have a fully accessible path to the public way. Most cities will bend this to just require it to the parking lot, but this is not much relief. In California especially, for years California's guidelines differed from federal in how to create a curb ramp to an accessible parking space, causing a great deal of commercial parking lots to currently be illegal. Additionally, the slope of the sidewalk to the building, irregularities in pavers, damaged or raised door tresholds, etc...can also lead to a great deal of remediation work. A recent client had to spend $40,000 repaving the entry plaza to their office because their lease did not include a provision for maintaining and accessible pathway into the building.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Picture of the Day - 2/18

If I'm being completely honest, I questioned whether I should post this photo. It has nothing really to do with architecture but has always been one of my favorites because the emotion on my son's face is just completely honest. We had just gone to the aquarium. He wanted to go play in the fountains and absolutely did not want to walk back to the car. I had to capture the moment, and needless to say took him to the fountains right after I put the camera up.

Picture of the Day - 2/17

Filament 2:
One photo I took in a series done for the Electric Power Research Institute in 2005. This photo seems to capture an almost dancing energy in the bulb by capturing the image with the least amount of current I could pass through the bulb while still activating the filament.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Do it yourself?

This blog has a tendency to praise all things architectural from, dare I say it, an arrogant perspective. This will probably be a continuing focus of what we write about because of the effort it takes in this country to actually become an architect. Even with this necessity of involvement in the process, even I have to admit that there is something immensely satisfying in doing a project yourself. As my wife will attest, I've built many failures with my own hands, and to this day my own brick laying wouldn't pass a punchlist inspection from a one-eyed drunken sea pirate. But every uneven wall I've ever bricked is both a source of pride in my efforts and a source of respect for quality craftsmanship.

I've told contractors that I will be the best friend they've ever had on a job because of the fact that I like to build projects on my own and know how hard it is to build buildings well. It requires an attention to the details of a wall before it is even built. Verifying layouts and making adjustments constantly while still keeping the exact detail dimensions of a piece of millwork in your head.

Every person should build something on their own as long as you can live with the failure of your own mistakes, or have the patience and money to correct them. It gives a satisfaction and respect for architecture and construction that no amount of writing can describe. My only bits advice are:

  1. Know your ability limits and tolerances for imperfection
  2. A good architect is there to facilitate your vision, not his/her own.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Picture of the day - 2/14

textural wave:
One of the gifts of photography is the macro lens. The ability to see the world from an extreme close up perspective informs the way we design, thinking of how things are seen through multiple scales and ensuring that a design reads well at a distance, yet also maintains visual interest when up close.

Picture of the day - 2/13

A picture I took on a recent trip camping in Idaho. I stopped at the riverbank and spent the late afternoon seeing how many rocks I could balance in the water. I love this shot because for me it became architecture when the bug decided that it looked like a nice place to rest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What is the difference between a residential building designer and an architect?

This is perhaps the most important question a person should ask before hiring someone to design their home. To be fair, I should preface that I am an architect, but there are substantial differences, as well as myths that should be dispelled. For the sake of this article, designers may go by many different designations (building designer, residential designer, home planner, etc...) I will use the title of 'designer' for simplicity.

So to begin, at the surface the difference is very simple:

1. Qualifications:
A designer can be anyone. A homeowner with an idea and a sketchbook, a contractor working at a drafting table to fix a problem, or a consultant hired to coordinate a project. A designer is any unlicensed person who designs buildings, and due to that lack of license are restricted by most states to a very limited number of building types that they are allow design.

An Architect is a state licensed professional in the design and construction of all buildings. The licensing process is for most a 10 or more year path that includes a university degree in architecture, and a multi-year internship, followed by 5 written examinations, 3 graphic examinations, and in California an additional oral examination. This process ensures that a licensed architect is knowledgeable in project planning; interior and exterior design; site planning and drainage; construction methods; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; construction management; construction contract and dispute resolution; mechanics liens...essentially all the tools needed to effectively manage any building project from house, to office, to university building, from start to finish.

2. Price:
A prevalent myth is that hiring a designer is less expensive than hiring an architect. In most cases, an architect's fees for basic services and those offered by a designer are actually quite similar. Most services typically range from 5-10% of construction costs depending on the level of complexity of a project and the amount of construction supervision an owner wants to leave to the consultant. If engineering is required in addition to the basic design, that may cost an additional 2-5%.

What the price myth also fails to take into account is the benefits of qualifications. An architects experience not only equips them with more knowledge in how to design a more cost effective construction project, it also includes many benefits in relating to contractors. A great deal of architectural training is in what are referred to as "CD's". Most people mistakenly refer to these as the 'construction documents' because they include the drawings that a general contractor will build from. The true meaning is 'contract documents', and drawings make up only one piece of them. A projects drawings, specifications, and written contract are all equal parts of the contract between and owner and a builder. The accuracy of these documents is the only real basis that an owner has to protect themselves from change orders in the construction process. Additionally, an architect will typically review all contractor payment request for accuracy to ensure that overbilling has not occured and that mechanics liens are released upon payment.

So the virtues of the architect have been extolled, even so there are projects where hiring an architect is excessive. If you want to replace cabinets, remodel a bathroom, or do a similar interior project that does not include the relocation of walls, it is typically safe to assume that a contractor can handle the needs of the project without involving an architect. Likewise, an designer can be incredibly valuable in helping you envision a particular layout, color scheme, or fabric and furniture coordination. However if a project involves adding space, raising ceilings, moving walls, or cutting large openings, an architect is the only professional specifically trained to manage all the disciplines of design, engineering, and construction necessary to make the project successful.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Picture of the Day - 2/11/09

San Mateo City Council Chambers remodel:
design by CONima Architects

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Picture of the Day

MBRDNA Fuel Cell and Telematics lab in Palo Alto:
designed by CONima Architects

One of those cases where a picture can only hint at the challenges that went into creating it. For this space, not only did we have the standard automobile lab challenges of getting cars into an office building and safely exhausting the engines outside of the building, we had the added challenge of monitoring and exhausting hydrogen in order to prevent any possible explosions. Lastly, the cars were required to be placed on portable lifts. This meant that not only did the building foundation have to be strengthened to handle the weight of several automobiles, the first floor slab of the building had to be lowered by one foot to allow enough clearance for raised vehicles.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ring Central selects CONima Architects

Ring Central has selected CONima Architects for its new headquarters in San Mateo, CA. CONima will oversee design and construction for the new 13,000sf office space due for completion in Q2 2009.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Architectural Styles Defined: Ranch Style...

Part 2 in our unfortunately delayed series of articles on the misuse of terms as they apply to the architectural style of a building, and how that misuse leads to poor communication between clients and professionals. Here’s an in-depth look at what defines the “Ranch Style:”

The Ranch Style is considered one of the more varied and difficult styles to define. This is because it is one of the rare styles born out an socioeconomic shift more than an actual architectural movement. The roots of the ranch style were the tremendous housing and commercial construction needs of post World War 2 America and the Baby Boom. America's most renowned architect of the time was arguably Frank Lloyd Wright who's 'prairie style' had gained much popularity do to it's rejection of victorian box and its vertically accentuating aesthetic. Concurrent with the Crafstman Style, it featured long overhangs, but was driven primarily by an accentuation of the horizontal plane and the use of open spaces within the interior.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House:
Post-War Ranch House:

The Ranch Style continues this stretching of the horizontal plan but, while still not formal in its spacial arrangments, is less open in plan in order to simplify the structural loading of the building. In addition, the common ranch will typically have more simplified detailing and smaller overhangs in its original condition in order to be produced more quickly and efficiently.

As a result of this lack of true stylistic origin, the Ranch Style has been adapted to many different types of homes and as a result is derided by many critics of architecture as not being a true style. However, with roots in the one of America's most celebrated styles and being perhaps the most widely implemented building type in this country, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Ranch Style. It may lack the openness and sophistication of detailing that a Prairie home would have, but in doing so it created a vernacular for the middle class that is maleable to regional and individual tastes.

For Architects, this creates an unique remodeling situation where changes to the original structure can be driven by a client's personality as much as the original style of the home. Because of this, for better or worse, the Ranch Style should be considered a true style of american individualism and the middle class.