We like sending Thanksgiving cards--maybe you got one? It gives us a chance to focus on all that we have to be thankful for. We work in a growing city, with clients who value what we do. We love our work, and are grateful for those who make it possible. Have a safe and happy holiday.
Well, it's finally happened. We've grown to the point that we needed more help. Lucky for us, Sara was ready to go.
Sara Shonk, our newest team member, is a licensed Architect, Interior Designer, and LEED AP. Since her time at Kent State University, she has had over 10 years of experience in residential, higher education, K-12 facilities, health care, preservation, sustainability, commercial, retail and hospitality design.
Sara's experience will be a great benefit to our clients. She has a thorough knowledge of the complex building and accessibility codes that are applicable to larger projects. She has a strong work ethic that helps her develop creative solutions to design challenges and stay on schedule. And her interiors expertise means that at the end of the project, the final product will not only function, but will be beautiful as well.
It's always fun to see a new project get started. For this one, we'll be rebuilding the rear portion of an existing two-story building and adding a third floor and roof deck. But first--demolition!
We'll keep you updated as the project moves forward!
Our Tilton Street Residence (constructed by Red Oak Development) is completed and on the market! This is a wide lot (at least, for Philadelphia), which allowed us to turn the stair and make it more sculptural on the main floor.
The facade is metal panel, and gives a depth to this mostly-flat surface. There's a balcony at the second-floor bedroom that has a cool view of the elevated highway nearby.
Something we don't talk a lot about with these new-construction houses is the basement. In older houses, the basements are damp, dusty, and have low ceilings (usually around six feet!). However, in new construction you can solve those problems. We routinely have eight- or nine-foot basement ceilings, and the waterproofing is dependable enough to install carpeting over the concrete floor. This has the advantage of adding 30% more living space to a three-story house!
For those of you who love the construction photos, here are some we took during the process:
"Do you do work in New Jersey," you ask? Yes, sometimes we do. We're licensed architects in both PA and NJ, so we've got you covered.
Here is a little something we're working on in Voorhees, NJ; an attic conversion. We're adding three dormers (two in the front, one in the back) to the roof of this single-story home, which will add three bedrooms (including a master suite) and some living space.
For this project, we worked with the owner of a mixed-use building to renovate the first-floor facade. The original front was an interesting storefront, with large panes of glass and a double entry door (one for the first floor daycare center, and one for the upper-floor apartment). The trouble was that 1) the first-floor use is a daycare center, which needed privacy for the children and never had the windows uncovered, and 2) the large panes of glass were set into a very minimal structure that allowed too much movement; the glass was subject to breaking when large trucks drove by!
Obviously, this presented a problem for the users of the building, and a cost to the owner. So, she decided it was time for a makeover. The idea was to mimic, as closely as possible, the surrounding buildings.
As you can see above, we did just that. Cast-stone lintels, base course, and door surround complement the natural stone details next door. And a custom-built door (from John's Custom Stairs) finished off the look.
During construction, we had to work around several challenges, not least of which was the large steel beam that spanned over the original storefront windows. But the masons (Fresh Start Enterprises) did a great job through it all, and delivered a great final product.
Construction is wrapping up on our new-construction residence on Cumberland Street in East Kensington. This was a very large (for Philly) lot and we were able to take advantage of the extra space to do a nice, open stair with skylights above, as well as an upper and lower roof deck. The upper deck has skyline views, and the lower deck looks at the rear of our Parish House residences over on Firth Street.
On the facade, we combined red brick and black metal panel, with a bay window that tilts towards a view down the street.
Kudos to Red Oak Development on another great project.
A big part of getting a project done is getting the right permits. You may have heard from your friends about the long lines, frustrating responses, and failed attempts to get permits, along with the associated delays and violations.
One of the things we do on nearly every project is handle permitting. This involves more than just assembling the required drawings, forms, and paperwork for the initial submission. We also fill out all the paperwork and get the required pre-approvals before dropping it off with Licenses + Inspections. This removes any doubt our clients might have that the right stuff has gone in, and that it has gotten to the right person.
After the application has been reviewed, the plans examiner might have additional questions. They get in touch directly with us, and we provide the answers they need. After the review is complete, we pick up the permit for you (remember those lines?) and get it into your builder's hands so you can get going with construction.
Never having to deal with L+I for permits? Just one more perk of working with us.
Sometimes you have a property that's too big for one project, and you want to divide it into more than one lot. On the other hand, maybe you have two small lots next to each other, and you want to combine them into one. These processes are called subdivisions and consolidations, respectively.
In order to make this happen, you need to work with a surveyor, the City Survey District, the Office of Property Assessment, and the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
We've worked with several clients to make this happen. Before that, though, we were able to help the clients analyze their properties to determine whether a consolidation/subdivision was a good idea or not. The potential of your property is determined by the zoning code, so we want you to be sure that you can achieve your goals before going through with the process.
Well, we're finally moved into our new home. We've relocated to the Bok building in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from our former location. It's been an exciting move.
The building is a former Vo-Tech high school, built in 1936 in an art-deco style. It is a beautiful building and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Plus, it's over 340,000 square feet! So, there were lots of spaces to choose from.
Despite its great pedigree, the building was left in disrepair when the School District of Philadelphia left it at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Here's what we started with:
The first thing to do was to measure and draw up what we wanted for a new layout. We wanted a mostly-open space, with a small room set aside for a kitchenette, storage, and printer. We drew up the plans (naturally) and the building owner, Scout, worked with us to get the improvements done. We wanted to make sure we were planning ahead for future growth.
After we got the plan nailed down, it was time to pack and wait for construction to get finished. Packing was a lot of work! Finally, it all came together. It took us a few weeks to get settled in, but we're excited with the results. We even included some custom desks, a coffee table, and some built-in shelves from one of our new neighbors, J&K Lockerby.
Maybe you'll stop by sometime to have a look?
Our new address is 1901 South 9th Street, Suite 221, Philadelphia, PA 19148.
See you soon!
Construction has just wrapped up on our Coral Street residence. This was a project that started out as a spec house for a developer (Red Oak Development). However, after getting started with construction, a buyer approached the builders, and we worked with her to customize some features of the house, including the master suite and the front elevation.
For the front, the buyer wanted something that referenced the existing architecture in East Kensington, where the house is located. This neighborhood is a mix of rowhomes and old factories. For this facade, we used a traditional red brick, with arched windows. On the right, you can see some filled-in openings; this is a nod to the many factory windows that get filled in over time, as the factory's needs change.
Back in February, I told you about a project we were working on on North 21st Street (the one that needed Historical Commission approvals--remember?) Well, construction has begun. We had a group meeting with the client, framers, and the plumber on site yesterday, to figure out some strategies for how we'll coordinate everything. These meetings can be crucial, to make sure that everyone knows what needs to happen, and how to avoid making problems for each other.
I also got a chance to see how the original builders made an arched recess between two closets. This is a common thing in older homes--two closets on the side wall, with an archway in between where a piece of furniture or shelves might go. This one is all done with wood lath and plaster. Unfortunately, the new design can't accommodate the original arch; instead, we'll be exposing the brick on this wall during the renovation. But it's fun to see how these things were originally achieved.
We visited our project site at 2126-34 East Firth Street in Philadelphia yesterday to observe ongoing demolition work. This building was a former Parish House (not coincidentally, our official name for the project) that is being converted into five single-family homes. We're completely redoing the interior, leaving several stone and brick walls exposed. Lots of original detailing, including the main stair that will remain as part of one of the units. We are also doing a third floor addition to gain some extra bedroom space.
One of the great things about working with older buildings is the opportunity to be surprised. Demolition has exposed a lot more character to the old masonry walls than we were expecting, so we'll be exposing more than we'd planned. We're also reworking two of the units to take advantage of some material and structural conditions we weren't expecting; they will be amazing.
The crew also found a stash of about 100 metal book-printing plates behind a wall (they're in the picture at the top of this post). They are mostly religious in nature, and many of them were wrapped in newspaper, dated 1937. They have also salvaged a lot of lumber, doors, paneling, and several old gas-lighting fixtures. You can see lots of this stuff in the photo below.
It's exciting to work with clients--in this case, Red Oak Development--who come to us with great projects, and who also have a vision for the type of work that they want to create. It means that we can take advantage of unique opportunities when they come up, to make the project better than any of us could have expected.
Our Arizona Street Residence is nearing completion. This is a sister project to our three Arizona Street Residences that we last wrote about at the end of last year. Those houses were clad in red brick and metal panel. This one is all metal on the front. It's a similar layout inside (three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, finished basement, roof deck), but this lot is a bit narrower.
The narrow lot and low neighbors make this one look particularly tall. Below, some photos from the construction process.
This project sold before construction was completed. Kudos to Red Oak Development on a job well done.
If you live in an older home, you've probably seen little piles of orangey dust in your basement near the walls. Or maybe you were in an an old house being renovated, and saw something like the picture above. Ever wonder what's going on?
Most older rowhouses in Philadelphia used two main types of brick. The brick you see on the exterior is called "face brick", and the brick on the inside is (often) "salmon brick".
When bricks are made, the clay is put into molds or is extruded (like a Play-Doh fun factory) and then gets dried to remove excess moisture. The dried brick is then fired in a kiln to "vitrify" the clay, which is a chemical process that makes the brick hard and water-resistant.
This last step is where the second type of brick, "salmon brick" falls short. This brick is fired for less time, so it doesn't have a chance to develop the hard exterior that will protect it from water. It was cheaper to produce than face brick, and was used on the interior of brick walls (most rowhomes in Philadelphia have walls that are two bricks thick--face brick on the outside, and salmon brick on the inside).
Water is salmon brick's worst enemy. Buildings have lots of places they can leak--around windows, at roof joints, and at settlement cracks, for example. Once water gets in, it's only a matter of time before the salmon brick starts falling apart, as the water can easily get into its pores. As the brick wets and dries, it starts to turn to powder--the little orange piles you see in your basement.
What can you do to fix this? If your brick isn't too deteriorated, then stopping the source of water will mostly stop the damage. Over time you may still see more dust, but the worst is probably over. For a very deteriorated brick, the only solution is to replace it. Make sure you have a skilled mason do this work!
In older Philly rowhomes, the bathroom plumbing was often accommodated by notching the floor structure. Here's an example. Not only can you see the deep, ragged notch, but you can also see the water damage where the former bathtub drain leaked water into the wound.
This would never pass inspection today. A bathtub was here, so right where you'd want the most strength (400 lbs of water plus the bather) you have a weakened joist. And yet it still stands, 100 years later.
How is this possible? Partly, it's because the wood used in older buildings was much denser than wood used today. The wood from back then was taken from natural forests, where trees grew at their own pace. Today, most wood comes from farms, where trees grow on an accelerated schedule (through fertilization and watering techniques), meaning they don't have time to get as dense as they do now. Also, older homes in Philadelphia were often framed with hardwoods (chestnut, for example), while newer wood is softwood, like pine or fir. Hardwood is stiffer than softwood, so it could take more abuse.
Regardless, you wouldn't see a notch like this today. If you do, call your architect!
There's a lot more to architecture than just drawing pictures of buildings. One major thing we help clients with is approvals from the many agencies that regulate buildings. Here in Philadelphia, many (but let's face it, not enough) buildings are on the Philadelphia Historical Commission's "Philadelphia Register of Historic Places". Sometimes, an individual building is listed, and sometimes entire blocks or neighborhoods are.
Being on the historic register doesn't mean that you can't do anything to your house, but it does mean that what you want to do will need to be pre-approved by the Historical Commission. There are lots of different scenarios you might be looking at, but here's on example:
We worked on this lovely building on North 21st Street. The front looks great, but the inside was a mess. The building is listed on the register, so we knew that we'd need to meet with the Historical Commission to get approvals.
In our case, the exterior changes we wanted were minor. We wanted to clean up the front facade, and maybe replace some windows if they needed it. In the back, which is visible from a side street, we wanted to replace some windows and rebuild a bay window that was in disrepair.
After doing some drawings to show the extent of the work we needed to do, I met with the staff at the Historical Commission to discuss our plans. They offered some suggestions, and used their expertise to help determine the proper shape and character of the bay window, so it would fit its context.
After the meeting, we revised our drawings and went back for another review. Due to the small scale of our changes, the staff was able to approve the work "over the counter", and we left with approval stamps.
For larger projects, there is a more extensive process. This involves meeting with a committee of architects, preservationists, and engineers (the Architectural Committee) for a meeting similar to the one we had with the staff. It is open to the public and involves more-detailed review and suggestions. After the Committee reviews the project, they make a recommendation to the Historical Commission. This is the group that makes the final vote. Again, the project is presented at a public hearing, and then the members of the Commission ask question and make a final determination on the project. Ultimately, the goal is to preserve Philadelphia's architectural heritage--a worthy goal!
We've been through both the process with clients several times. If you've heard horror stories about historic buildings, don't worry! We can help.
Since it's been a couple of weeks since we last posted, there are lots of projects to talk about this time.
One thing we've been doing more and more of is zoning plans. Whenever a property owner wants to use a building in a way that isn't normally permitted, they need to get a zoning variance. (I've written about this before: here and here.) Sometimes that's by design, where a client wants to build say, a commercial building on a lot zoned for residential use. Often, though, a property owner will be looking for a variance to "legalize" a preexisting condition on a property they just bought. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting this beauty in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia in order to draw up plans to legalize a four-unit apartment building that is zoned to have only three units.
A nice twin on Springfield Avenue (we're working on the one on the right)
But the fun doesn't just stop with zoning. Sometimes you want to do work on a property that's been designated as historic. In that case, anything you do to the exterior needs a sign off from the Historical Commission. We have one project that falls into that category, as well. It's a building near Logan Square that was once a single-family home, but will now be converted to luxury apartments. The windows are original, and we will have them restored to their former glory (and will take down the awful aluminum storm windows that are covering them up!). Once we have all the proper documentation together for the windows, along with the part of the back of the building that needs to be rebuilt, I can take everything to the Commission for their input.
Front elevation. This building is part of a whole row that is historically designated.
A close-up of one of those giant ground-floor windows--that trim is original!
In renovation news, we are making progress on a nine-unit apartment building in East Germantown. This building has been underloved for some time, and its new owner really wants to make it an asset to the neighborhood. We'll be doing a full interior renovation, as well as sprucing up the exterior with new roof, windows, and a covered porch.
Existing conditions on High Street near the former Germantown High SchoolHere's a quick sketch of what we're proposing for the front. The downspout will be moved, and the metal-encased brackets around the eaves will be restored to their original condition, or removed. The large front porch will be taken over with planters on the sides and a roof in the center to provide residents with protection from the weather.
Sketch of the proposed exterior
And as always, there's lots going on in the new-construction world. We visited Arizona Street in East Kensington to take a look at progress. We have one three-building development there which is almost complete (and all three units have sold already!). You've seen photos of that one before, but I'm happy to report that the metal panel on the front is finally complete.
Front elevation on Arizona StreetWhen you look up from the sidewalk, you get this view
We also saw our project on Coral Street (right around the corner from the Arizona Street project) get started. After a very brief period as a hole in the ground and then some concrete foundation walls, the framing is barreling ahead.
From 1) vacant lot to 2) hole in the ground to 3) foundations to 4) framing, in three weeksAnd here's a comparison of where we are today, next to the final drawing. We're doing a more traditional front than we usually do, with a nice cornice and arch-topped windows. On the side where there won't be windows, we're doing a herringbone panel that pays homage to the numerous "ghost windows" often found on factories in the neighborhood.
Today, and the future.And last but not least, we broke ground on a new residence on Tilton Street in Olde Richmond. This will be 2,700 square feet--a fairly large (for us) house--since the lot is nearly 22 feet wide. (Normally we work on lots between 14' and 17'.) It's not much to look at yet, but we'll keep updating you on its progress.
The black stuff you can see on the outside of the concrete walls is a waterproofing layerCheck back here for more updates, coming soon!
Next Steps, Nuts, and Bolts
In the first part of our Zoning article, we gave an overview of the process. Some of the considerations include whether your project will affect land use, whether it’s new construction or a rehabilitation project. Another tip we covered was design and the importance of having an experienced architect. Below are your steps in the approval process that are more detailed.
STEP 1: ZONING APPLICATION; What information do I need?
The application will require the following information
- Current use of property
- Proposed use of property
- Dimensions and heights of existing and proposed construction
- Signs – description, plot plans, photos of existing signs
- Plot plan for any new construction or additions
- Owner’s name, address and phone number
- Architect’s name, address and phone number
- Signature(s) of applicant(s)
WHEN WILL I GET A DECISION? Review time is fifteen business days for residential projects, and twenty business days for commercial projects. A letter will be emailed when a decision is made. Some types of applications can receive an “accelerated review” for an additional fee.
WHAT WILL THE DECISION BE?
- Approval –your application has been approved because it conforms to the Philadelphia Zoning Code.
- Refusal – your application has been denied because your project does not conform with the Zoning Code. You may 1) appeal this decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, 2) revise your plans to fit within the Zoning Code requirements, or 3) abandon your application.
Refused! What if what I want to do is not permitted?
If your request for a zoning permit is “Refused”, you can appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (the “ZBA”). We’ll go into more detail on this process in Part III of this series. In short, the ZBA may sometimes allow exceptions to zoning code limitations. Upon hearing the appeal, the ZBA may offer relief in one of three forms:
Variance – provided where the use of the property (or the dimensions of what you want to build) is normally prohibited, but enforcing the code would result in “unnecessary hardship” to the property. To obtain a variance, the applicant must prove that 1) the grant of the variance is in the spirit of the zoning code and overall City plan and will not adversely affect public health, welfare or safety; 2) the conditions are unique to the property; and 3) the applicant did not create the need for the variance. Variances run with the land, not with the owner, so the ZBA takes its decisions seriously, knowing that they will have long-term effects.
The Experience of Your Architect
Here’s a perfect example for when experience comes in handy when hiring an architect. In Zoning; Part I, we discussed how your architect should, initially, determine what is allowed “by right” as opposed to what will require a variance. This is key because your project may not need a variance after all, but rather a simple zoning permit with a more compliant design tweak.
Certificates – either a “special use exception” or “conditional use” is issued with approval of the ZBA. The applicant is not required to prove “unnecessary hardship,” but must persuade the ZBA that the use is a certified use and satisfies the specific requirements of the ordinance.
Special Use Permit – typically triggered by a referral for parking uses or other uses that may have negative impacts on the neighbors, including nightclubs, animal-centered uses, and take-out restaurants. The applicant has the burden of proving that the use falls within the special use permit categories and must produce the additional required materials.
Stay Tuned for our last part of our Zoning coverage when we talk about...
PART III: THE ZONING APPEAL AND HEARING
Multi-unit building with design that is clean, filled with light, and interesting details.
1321-27 N. 7th Street