Monday, August 31, 2015


Save money by hiring an architect for hourly consulting
instead of paying the usual commission fee.

In this Do-It-Yourself era, can you also be your own architect? The answer is, yes and no. Though it’s not widely known, you don’t need an architect’s license to draw plans for a wood-framed building, as long as it’s no more than two stories high over a crawlspace. Since the lion’s share of residential work falls into this category, this means pretty much anyone can draw their own house plans, or can hire another unlicensed person to do it for them.

Considering that architects customarily charge a commission fee of between ten and fifteen percent of the project budget for residential work, the do-it-yourself route may seem pretty appealing. After all, the cash you’d save would probably buy a whole truckload of goodies from your local building emporium.

Alas, the fact that it’s perfectly legal to act as your own architect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. There’s a lot more to deal with than a little drafting: Municipal zoning and design review regulations have become ever more complex, as have national building codes. The learning curve in these areas alone is forbiddingly steep, even for professionals. But there’s also the larger question of whether your home—which is likely the single biggest investment you’ll ever make—is the best place to cut corners.

If you're willing to do this part
of the architect's job,  you can save big $$$.
And the more of it you do, the better.
(Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Fortunately, there’s a middle-of-the-road solution to the extremes of hiring an architect at full fee or doing the work yourself. Basically, it’s architecture by the hour, and it works by doing away with any work that’s not strictly necessary to your project.

When you hire an architect on a commission fee basis, you’re paying him for a whole package of professional services—things like choosing finish materials, paint colors, lighting fixtures, hardware, and so on. Usually, an architect will also include exhaustive detailing and specifications for such items as windows, appliances, and the like, so that if multiple contractors are bidding on the plans, they can compete “apples to apples”.

Like many homeowners, however, you may be perfectly willing to choose finishes, colors, and fixtures yourself. Moreover, if you already have a contractor firmly in mind, or if you plan to do all or part of the work yourself, it may not be necessary for the architect to nail down brand names and models for each and every item in the project—a time-consuming and therefore expensive task. If your contractor is willing to work with you on these choices instead, you can save some more money and also have a bit more time to choose the things you want.
Paying for architecture by the hour can get you
to this point for a lot less money.

Suppose you’re hoping to add on a master bedroom and bathroom. You’re working on a shoestring, and there’s no way you can stretch your budget to pay a full-bore architect’s commission fee. Is there a leaner, more targeted way to use the architect’s expertise? 

This time, the answer is quite often yes. The first step is to relieve your architect of the chores that you’re willing and able do yourself, and this means scrapping the commission fee and hiring him to consult by the hour. But exactly what should you be consulting about? We’ll find out next time. 

Monday, August 24, 2015


“Crackerbox.” That’s only one of the unflattering names we’ve given postwar tract houses thanks to their thin, flimsy look. Funny thing is, most of these houses are actually better built than their predecessors. Why do they look so insubstantial?

The Fagus shoe last factory in Alfeld, Germany,
designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer
and completed in 1913.
The architects treated its windows like a
cellophane wrapper. Having thin-looking walls
was the whole point.
The single biggest reason comes down to a tiny little difference--in fact, it’s just a matter of a few inches. Prior to World War II, wooden windows were installed slightly recessed from the wall surface, leaving a visible recess or “reveal” showing all around. This simple feature provided a subtle visual cue that the surrounding wall had mass and thickness. 

Ironically, to modernist architects of the 1920s and 30s, this reveal was bad news. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe espoused walls that looked as thin as possible. After all, the revolutionary new building materials of the early twentieth century—steel and reinforced concrete—no longer demanded the massiveness of traditional masonry construction, and many architects believed that truly modern buildings should honestly reflect this fact: Walls should be thin, precisely because they could be thin. Likewise, windows, rather than being mere holes punched into a heavy-looking wall, were to be treated as a sort of cellophane wrapper stretched over an ethereally light framework. 

Delicate aluminum frames were the
ultimate expression of Modernism—
look Ma, no structure!
By the end of the Depression, most people believed that traditional architecture was stone dead, and that modernism was here to stay. It was around this time that a number of window manufacturers began doing their own part for modernism. They introduced new windows with extremely slender frames--initially of steel, and later of aluminum--whose glass was purposely set flush with the outside surface of the wall, lending the ultra-flat look modernists craved.

Alas, while this two-dimensional aesthetic might have been ideal for highrise office buildings, it was not so well received for dwellings. And despite the best efforts of modernists such as Le Corbusier to retrain the public, most people continued to believe that their homes should look massive, permanent and secure, not thin, light and ethereal.

By the time modernism’s purposely flimsy look started to bother home buyers, however, the new windows had already conquered the housing industry. Not coincidentally, they were also much cheaper to install, which meant there was no going back to the old, labor intensive wooden windows of yore.

Another valiant attempt to give depth to
those flat, flat windows.
It’s ironic, then, that for the last three decades, architects and builders have been on a frantic quest to make those two-dimensional modernist windows look more like their substantial old wooden predecessors. They’ve tried using clunky trim, fake stone, or foam moldings to suggest a reveal where there isn’t one. They’ve tried flanking the windows with shutters to make them more massive. They’ve added phony grilles between panes of double glass to mimic a traditional look, but in all of this, they’ve only succeeded in making the walls look flatter than ever. 

Ultimately, there’s only one way to capture the look of a traditional window, and that’s to install it in the traditional way. There’s just no substitute for that critical couple of inches.

Monday, August 17, 2015

GET THE HELL OUT! Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we noted how few people truly take advantage of the land around their homes, and we saw how a simple change like replacing certain windows with doors could radically increase the usefulness of outdoor areas. This time, we’ll look at ways to make the land outside your walls serve as an extension of the interior floor plan—to create genuine function in outdoor areas, rather than just providing the usual eye candy of cutesy-pie flower beds and lawns.
Avoid gigantic or long, skinny decks (in this
case, both). They'll feel vast
and uninviting.

On any given residential lot, the land outside the house typically ranges from two to four times the area of the house itself.  Yet remarkably few houses have outdoor areas that are truly functional extensions of the interior floor plan. Here are some ways to make sure you’re getting all you can out of your property:

• Decide which rooms have the most potential for access to the exterior. Consider such factors as how high the floor is off the ground, how you’ll ensure privacy, how much space is available for a deck or terrace beyond the door, what the solar orientation of that area is, and how it will transition to the rest of the garden. Don’t rule out any area for direct access to the outdoor—the living room, dining room, and bedrooms are obvious candidates, but a breakfast room or even a bathroom might benefit as well. 

Always make outdoor steps much, much
wider than interior steps. Six feet wide is a bare
minimum, and there's no such thing as too wide.
(Image courtesy Simon Fletcher Landscapes)
• Once you know where the new exterior doors will be, lay out the garden as a series of rooms, just as you would an interior floor plan. Draw up a list of functional requirements—say, a deck area with room for outdoor dining, a barbecue area, a flower or vegetable garden, tools storage, hot tub, or what have—and arrange these areas with regard to access, function, privacy, and solar orientation, just as you would arrange the rooms in a house. 

• Plan for a central area (the main “outdoor room”) that’s at least as big as a real room—that is, a minimum of twelve feet square, and preferably bigger. The shape should be squarish to rectangular. Avoid skinny decks or terraces that surround the house like a gangway—they won’t accommodate furniture, and hence won't be used. On the other hand, don’t pave over huge areas with decking or hardscape. Any area bigger than about twenty by twenty feet will start to feel vast and exposed, and won’t be a comfortable gathering place .

An interesting use of paving to define various outdoor rooms.
(Image courtesy
• Make steps leading from raised decks or terraces to the ground as wide as possible, but never less than six feet. Full-width steps on one or more sides of a deck or terrace will yield the smoothest transition to ground level.

• Define the various functional areas by using different paving materials or levels as appropriate. Add three-dimensional elements such as benches, planters, or other permanent features to give each outdoor room its  own identity and sense of enclosure.

• Avoid leftover bits of unusable “negative” space such as pointy triangular areas, narrow strips with no purpose, and the like. These are just as undesirable on the outside of a house as they are on the inside.

Monday, August 10, 2015

GET THE HELL OUT Part One of Two Parts

Double your home’s living area without adding a single square foot? 

It’s no joke. To pull it off, though, you need to change the way you think about the property that's right outside the walls of your house. Rather than seeing it as some leftover ground to be prettied up with a few flower beds, consider it an integral, functioning extension of your home’s interior.
Is there a beautiful room hiding right outside
the walls of your house?

The land outside every house offers tremendous potential living space--often several times the total square footage of the house itself. Yet more often than not, this valuable real estate is drastically underutilized. Even when a property is nominally “landscaped”, it’s usually treated as a static showpiece filled with cutely shaped planting beds, meandering plots of grass, and other two-dimensional treatments, none of which improve its usefulness as living space.

It’s understandable why so few people make full use their outdoor area. For one, many older homes provide only a minimal connection to the outside--often nothing more than a front door and a back door. Since the floors in older houses also tend to be raised off the ground a few feet, access to outdoor areas can be awkward even when more exterior doors are present. Yet even in newer homes with more generous access to the outdoors, the surrounding property is seldom treated as a true extension of the indoor living area.

So how better to better utilize the land outside your own house?

Replacing a window with a door is relatively dirt cheap
and can totally transform your house.
If the door is no wider than the window was,
there isn't even any structural work required.
First, conduct a survey of every ground floor room that has the potential to access the outdoors. When I make this suggestion to clients, I’m always amazed at how few of them have ever considered converting windows to doors, even when the potential gain was staring them right in the face. Often, this simple swap will completely transform a house, improving the traffic flow, making the rooms feel larger, bringing in more light and better views, and most importantly, enabling the full use of your outdoor areas. 

Improving access to the outdoors is also among the simplest and most cost effective of remodeling projects. As long as the new door (or doors) aren’t any wider than the existing window opening, no structural changes are required. The section of wall below the window is simply removed and a door unit installed in its place.

This is all it takes to add an inviting and usable
room to your house. You can't get living space
for less.
If you’re worried about the security of glass doors, note that they’re typically more burglar resistant than the windows they replace, since building codes require the glass in doors to be tempered. Another common objection--the loss of wall space for furniture--is a very modest price to pay for a vast improvement in livability.   

Once you’ve decided on where the doors will be, consider how you’ll make the transition to the garden. If the floor of your house is considerably higher than the ground outside, a deck or terrace with a number of descending levels will bring you gracefully down to ground level. If this transitional space can serve exterior doors from more than one room, all the better. 

Next time: Planning the garden as outdoor rooms.

Monday, August 3, 2015


A while back, I was invited to one of those neighborhood earthquake-preparedness meetings we have out here in the shaky state of California. I listened with interest as the homeowner who hosted the event described, with evident trepidation, her biggest earthquake fear: that the shaking would cause a power line to fall into the street in front of her home. What should she do in that event, and how could she escape?

Never mind the falling power lines—
watch that pottery on the top shelf.

Now, this lady happened to be an artist—a sculptor in clay—and during this anxiety-ridden discussion over power lines, she was seated directly in front of a tall, spindly, sideboard completely laden from top to bottom with heavy pottery she’d made, including a huge platter that was precariously balanced on the very top. I pointed out to her that she was much more likely to get beaned by her own artwork than to be harmed by a fallen power line, a remark she took with both great surprise and a touch of resentment.

I mention this to point out how distorted our perception of life’s risks can be. While this lady worried over an infinitesimally unlikely event, she was quite oblivious to the much more immediate earthquake danger of being clobbered by her own falling pottery. 

Worried about carbon monoxide?
Maybe you shouldn't be. You're two hundred
times more likely to croak behind the wheel.
Human nature being what it is, we often seem to fear esoteric risks far more than mundane ones. For example, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from gas appliances has been widely publicized in recent years, yet none other than the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (<>) reports that there are typically about 170 cases of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning in domestic settings each year. By comparison, 32,719 people died in traffic accidents during 2013, an increased risk factor of almost two hundred times.   

Actually, driving provides an excellent yardstick for judging relative risk in general, since we do it so casually in the context of daily life. We worry more about burning a candle at home than we do about taking a spin to the local 7-Eleven—yet once again, the average American is ten times more likely to die in an auto accident than in a house fire. Likewise, while many people are nervous around electricity, statistically you’re about fifty times more likely to meet your doom in a car than you are to get zapped around the house.

Your car should scare you a lot more than this does.
You're fifty times more likely to
meet your doom driving than getting zapped.
For better or worse, government-mandated bans on environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead, which are often accompanied by public relations and media campaigns that emphasize danger without providing any sense of relative risk, further conflate big risks with modest ones. Indeed, manufacturers of safety goods trade heavily on such disproportionate fears, and may even amplify the perceived danger, the better to sell hazardous material test kits and the like.

The foregoing doesn’t even take into account perceived domestic risks that border on the irrational, such as phobias of microwave ovens and electromagnetic fields from power lines. Which brings us back to that lady with the pottery: She may as well relax no matter where she’s sitting, because even here in risk-prone California, her chances of being permanantly retired by an earthquake are a fairly manageable one in two million.

What, me worry?