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Backwoods Architecture Reclaimed by Nature

Sagged –   This house was originally at grade, but has sunk on settled foundations

Sagged – This house was originally at grade, but has sunk on settled foundations

Words and photos by Sam Katovitch

Every summer leading up to my permanent move to Philadelphia, my family would spend a week or more in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.  We always took the same route every year, stayed at the same lodge, sang the same songs on the five-hour road trip, but climbed different mountains, kayaked different lakes, and walked different paths from the years before.  Ordinarily we would all go together on these adventures, but starting in 2016 I would drive myself since I had my own car – a beat-up old tank of a Subaru named Roz.  One day during the week we spent there in 2016, my family decided to spend the day recuperating from the hike we had taken the day before, but I was feeling antsy and decided to strike out on my own.  My fascination with abandoned buildings had also begun that year so my dad suggested I check out the old mining town at Tahawus.  Few photos of this can be found online, though some conservation is underway, mainly at the ironworks there.  I agreed it was a cool idea and set out with my film camera and hiking boots.

The nearest town to the abandoned mine was Newcomb, and then from there the road turned off into the wilderness and meandered another fifteen miles or so up into the High Peaks region – the road doubled as a trailhead for several High Peaks climbs, including Mt. Marcy.  After twisting through the woods for a few miles, I encountered the old railroad leading from the mines down to Raquette Lake, the nearest rail hub.  The road crossed the tracks twice as it wound its way through the woods.  It was clear that the tracks weren’t in service anymore, not since the mine’s closure in the 60s – the ties were rotted and the rails were rusty.  There was even a rusted barricade welded to one rail to stop stray train cars.  It was a strange feeling, being able to stop my car in the middle of the crossing and not worry about a train coming out of nowhere, and it made my hair stand up, just a little. 

Another mile or so down the road, I encountered a washout.  A stream had burst its banks further up the mountain to the left of the road and washed away the macadam entirely.  The other end of the break wasn’t visible.  I assessed the way forward and decided to try it.  My stubborn old Subaru and I battled through the washout for nearly a mile before the slide cleared and the road resumed.  I was tired and the wagon was spattered with mud but I pushed on.

Gleam –   The blast furnace was capped with Plexiglas for preservation

Gleam – The blast furnace was capped with Plexiglas for preservation

After some signs indicating the last trailhead, I saw the blast furnace, the only actively conserved part of the abandoned village.  It was a pillar of cut stone with a huge cavern in the base, and it was still soot-darkened even after years in the elements.  I regret that I didn’t take more pictures of the furnace but I was saving my energy and film, hoping for more luck at the ghost town further on. 

The ghost town itself was so much more than I could have expected.  I was anticipating a handful of buildings, all in varying states of disrepair.  Instead, I found a dozen intact buildings that had been opened by the elements, exposing their interiors to the outside, as well as the foundations and masonry from the old mill and waterwheel at the creek.  The rushing stream was full from the rain, but the piers of the mill still stood there, a dozen feet from the bank, and connected by a few crumbly arches of stone.  The creek bed was littered with fallen stones from masonry that had already perished. 

Demolition –   The plaster was mostly gone, exposing the lath and studs beneath

Demolition – The plaster was mostly gone, exposing the lath and studs beneath

The houses were mostly built between the 1940s and 60s, and the cheerful pinks and turquoises of the midcentury wallpaper and tiles were incongruous among the green of the forest, even as they were softened at the edges by the relentless work of the elements.  I didn’t go into any buildings for fear of falling through a floor and breaking my neck, but I used several rolls of film and took dozens of photos with my phone.  There is no conservation effort being made on the village itself, and the Park Service seems content to let the buildings fall into elegant – and photogenic – disrepair, ultimately being reclaimed by the forest. No doubt going back now, even only three years later, would yield a very different experience.  Seeing those old buildings as intact as they were was special, but being able to see the interiors from the exterior wasn’t promising of their overall integrity and life expectancy.  Nobody knows how many more harsh Adirondack winters the houses will survive until they’re nothing but foundation stones.

Tilt –   This house was on the verge of falling over into the road

Tilt – This house was on the verge of falling over into the road

I spent hours wandering around the old houses and offices, imagining what the lives that once occupied them must have been like.  Even now in this age of connectivity this place was basically off the edge of the map, so I could only imagine the isolation the miners must have experienced back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Eventually though, I made my way back to my car and returned the way I’d come.  Only when I got back across the washout ten miles later and received a dozen text messages all at once did I realize that I had had no cell service ever since passing the train tracks on the way in.              

Pipes I –   Shattered steam pipes near the foot of the blast furnace

Pipes I – Shattered steam pipes near the foot of the blast furnace

Pipes II –   Bellows pipes for pushing air into the blast furnace

Pipes II – Bellows pipes for pushing air into the blast furnace

Pipes III –   More bellows pipes

Pipes III – More bellows pipes

Stack –   The blast furnace as seen from the overlook above it, Cliff Mtn. and Redfield Mtn. beyond.

Stack – The blast furnace as seen from the overlook above it, Cliff Mtn. and Redfield Mtn. beyond.

Calamity –   The stream which powered the old waterwheels is called Calamity Brook.

Calamity – The stream which powered the old waterwheels is called Calamity Brook.

Order Up –   This was the part of the mess hall of the mining camp, order window and all.

Order Up – This was the part of the mess hall of the mining camp, order window and all.

Collapse –   Nobody knows how much longer these houses will stay standing.

Collapse – Nobody knows how much longer these houses will stay standing.

Sam is our resident film-camera expert. The images in this article were taken on film—yes, real film!

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Toner Architects in the News

We are really excited to share that we were featured in an article about Star Bolts from the well-known podcast 99% Invisible. As many of you know, the use of star bolts is helping us keep our existing and historic facades attached to our homes. They are a very common feature here in Philly—so common that Ian wrote about them back in 2013 right here on the blog. Check out the article by 99PI here.

If you want to read our original post, you can find it here.

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Brussels vs. Philadelphia

by David Fisher

A little over a year ago, I traveled to Belgium with my freshman-year roommate from Drexel University and his mother.  We stayed in Brussels and spent most of our time visiting local relatives of my friend and traveling around the country.  As the capital of Belgium and the seat of the European Union, Brussels is a city full of grand European architecture.  What piqued my interest, however, was the chaotic juxtaposition of architectural styles that are found all over the city.

The typical Brussels residential street contains a surprising diversity of housing styles that butt-up against one another quite literally.  Brussels is famous for Art-Nouveau and Art-Deco architecture that embodies the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk (A German word meaning: a complete work of art) found in many European houses from the early 20th Century.  Art-Nouveau architecture makes use of iron and woodwork in sinuous details on building facades and throughout interior fixtures and decor.  Details in these houses are often nature-inspired and contain imagery of plants and greenery as an incorporated form of art into the houses’ structure and expression.  Brussels is the birthplace of Art-Nouveau architecture and has a number of famous examples of the style scattered throughout the city.  Sadly, Art-Nouveau fell out of fashion in Europe and new forms of architecture replaced many existing Art-Nouveau structures.

Because of the ever-changing taste in architecture, Brussels has many streets with houses of all shapes, styles, and sizes all packed into rows.  As I walked or drove through the city, I could see a four-story Modern apartment building neighboring a very traditional three-story European townhouse, followed by a historic or recreated version of an Art-Nouveau house.  Rooflines constantly changed along the roads and almost no coherence between buildings could be seen most of the time.  It certainly creates a unique aesthetic to the city of Brussels, but it is not one that particularly appeals to me.

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Apartments in Mantua

Apartments in Mantua

Having spent the past two years in Philadelphia, I have begun to notice some similarities between Brussels and the City of Brotherly Love.  Both cities have quite a rich history respectively, and contain vibrant city centers with large administrative buildings and sleek modern towers.  In the residential areas in both of the cities, various kinds of architectural styles can be found between neighboring houses in a row.  While Brussels has a bit more extreme of a difference between neighboring houses, I have found many interesting design decisions in Philadelphia on streets with traditional row house designs.  Mantua alone has a growing diversity in rowhouse styles and house types.  With Drexel University continuing to grow and influence the North end of West Philadelphia, many vacant lots are being used for new construction to house students.  New apartment buildings can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood now and the atmosphere of the neighborhood, architecturally, can be quite disorienting.  As you walk north from Drexel’s campus, dormitories become re-purposed manors, then rowhouses from a particular time period, then renovated or new buildings, and then the same or a different traditional style of rowhouse.  For the most part, streets remain architecturally consistent as you move east and west with a couple of variations between blocks, but much of Mantua has a mixed identity of what type of house you will see.

Building styles juxtaposed.

Building styles juxtaposed.

In the time that I’ve traveled to South Philadelphia to work here at Toner Architects, I have noticed that much of the city is experiencing this same recreation of streets into interesting combinations of rowhouse styles.  All around the city there are new breaks in the grid of the city and the rooflines of houses.  Almost every house in the city seems to have its own identity that either subtly changes the order of the street, or makes a noticeable statement of breaking away from the surrounding architectural context.  It would seem that the easiest way to observe the changes happening in the city, is to observe the decisions people make regarding the forms and styles of houses they occupy.

David is a a co-op student, attending Drexel University and working full-time as an architectural designer.

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Brewerytown – First Impressions

by Bart Bajda

I’d like to begin this by saying thank you to the City of Brotherly Love for the warm welcome it has given me since moving here and I mean that literally; the weather has been too hot for comfort.  Nonetheless, this is a tale of my venture to Philadelphia and my first impressions of the neighborhood I now call home. 

One of the first steps in moving to a new city is finding a place to hang your hat.  Everyone has their specific list of must-haves and deal breakers but unlike most, my criteria was pretty relaxed.  What can I say…I’m a simple man.  Some sort of backyard, storage space, and of course a low budget were my only requirements.  Not too familiar with the city, I set out on an apartment tour across many neighborhoods curated by a rental agent.  What I quickly found was that my neighborhood options were limited based on what I needed and what I was willing to pay.  Hence, I landed in Brewerytown…oh sweet B-town.  I’m told the entire area was completely populated with breweries before Prohibition killed the majority of the business.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood so gracefully named?  Right?  Apparently not.  When I began telling everyone the great news, to my surprise, not many knew where this even was.  Somehow this seemed to be uncharted territory, even for a few native Philadelphians.  Now as soon as I mentioned the new Aldi grocery store…the light bulb went off.  Nonetheless, I began having my doubts on whether this was a good decision. 

Fast forward a few months and the doubts have all quickly evaporated into thin air and I am overwhelmingly proud to call Brewerytown my home.  This neighborhood has thus far preserved a sense of grittiness and natural urban feel, not yet overtaken by the privileged (see definition of gentrification).  Just take a walk down Girard Avenue and you’ll see Rybrew, the sister sandwich shop to Rybread with an unbelievable beer selection, coexisting with the Girard Veterinary Clinic and Cycle Brewerytown on the same block.  Across the street, Spot Burger dishes out some of the finest patties between 2 buns that you’ll find in the city.  Within a 5 minute walk you’ll find other incredible businesses like Chez Novaks, Karma Pizza (formerly Uncle Nicks), Pizza Dads, Young’s Sneaker City, Electric Temple, Brewerytown Bicycles, Otto’s, 2637 Brew, Monkey and the Elephant, Era, Brewerytown Beats, and Crime and Punishment Brewing Co., triumphantly putting the “brewery” back in Brewerytown.  The list goes on and on and I haven’t even mentioned the quintessential corner stores (or as I like to call them…bodegas) that populate almost every other street corner. 

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

If you ask me, I’d say leave it the way it is, but for better or for worse there is a tremendous amount of new construction of all scales happening as I write this.  Almost every property on 31st street from Girard to Oxford St is currently under construction or has been within the last 3 years claiming the newly minted title of 31st Street Corridor.  For Pete’s sake, there’s a Green Eggs Café opening soon on Girard Ave.  Is it an ominous cloud of doom and development that hovers above Brewerytown, or is it the necessary next step that leads to success?  Only time will tell, but for now, I will enjoy my stay, listening to the charming rumble of the #15 trolley. 

Brewerytown 1.JPG

Bart Bajda an architect and lover of cold weather.

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An Architect’s Christmas Story

Warning:  If you believe in Santa, you may want to stop here. 

As the weather becomes crisp and cold, and the Christmas decorations begin to fill people’s homes and yards one particular childhood memory comes to mind. 

In the 80s my family and I lived in a small post-war suburb in Northeast Ohio. The house was a Cape-Cod and was very small and compact like many houses of that era. Due to its size, one very important design feature was left out. The house did not have a fireplace. By the age of 4 this became a very alarming issue, as all of the popular media suggested, Santa would park his sleigh on the roof and use the chimney to enter the house and deliver the presents. But since we did not have a chimney or a fireplace, how was Santa going to find us? We had family members and friends who had similar issues and seemed to resolve this by purchasing a cardboard fireplace set. But on several occasions at the store, my sister and I had requested we purchase a fireplace set, and were very disappointed when my Mom said no. 

As Christmas grew closer the fireplace issue became a continuous conversation and I believe it became very frustrating to my parents. So, my dad bundled my sister and I up in our winter coats and boots and we made a trip into the backyard. He then pointed to the roof where a small black pipe was sticking up above the roof and told us that is where Santa enters, its like a chimney just smaller and since Santa is magic, he will have no issue finding his way into the house. This explanation made sense and we were satisfied that Santa would find us. And he did that Christmas!

See, they even have cardboard chimneys in South Philly!

See, they even have cardboard chimneys in South Philly!

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Fast forward approximately 15 years, at this point I am 20 years old attending Kent State for Architecture. During our 3rd year we have to take an Environmental Technology course. This course is our introduction to building systems such as heating and cooling, plumbing, electric etc. We begin our plumbing course work and we are learning how all of the toilets and sinks are connected to a sanitary line and to maintain the pressure balance in the pipes the sanitary lines are connected to a vent stack which extends through the roof. At this point I suddenly realize that all those years before, while standing in the backyard, my Dad was actually telling us that Santa went down the vent stack and then would have to make his grand entrance into the house…..through the toilet! I was shocked!

Santa going down the vent stack.jpg

In recent years we have talked about family memories from past holidays and I asked my Dad if he remembered telling us this. Sadly, he does not remember this event, but he does admit that it sounds like something he would have done. We all did get a great laugh and now have a great family story to share!

Happy Holidays!

Sara is an Architect, Interior Designer, and Sustainable Designer with lots of Christmas Spirit!

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South Philly Smokhaus is Now Open

plenty of wood for the in-house smoker! (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

plenty of wood for the in-house smoker! (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

by Sara Pochedly

We are really excited to announce that South Philly Smokhaus is now open!  Eric Daelhousen came to us 2 years ago with a plan of opening South Philly Smokhaus, and after considering several locations, all in South Philly, he decided to make his home here at Bok! (Which is really convenient for the Toner Team and anyone visiting us, since he is our downstairs neighbor.) 

Eric hard at work. (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

Eric hard at work. (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

If you follow the lingering aroma of burning wood that brings memories of family gatherings and great food it will lead you to the doorstep of South Philly Smokhaus. The smoker is burning around the clock so that they can offer a wide variety of smoked meats including brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage and chicken quarters. In addition to the meat offerings there are a variety of sandwiches, sides and desserts. The full menu can be found at https://www.southphillysmokhaus.com. I am certain that you will find something you will like! In my opinion, there is no wrong choice, everything that we have sampled has been delicious.

As an added bonus Giunta’s Prime of Reading Terminal market has opened up its own separate counter, called Passio Prime, inside the South Philly Smokhaus restaurant bringing a delightful selection of fresh meats to the neighborhood.

mmmmm . . . meat (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

mmmmm . . . meat (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

From a design perspective Eric did something really special by engaging a variety of companies here at Bok to help actualize the restaurant. Each company/designer brought a specific touch and combined together provided a refined version of a traditional Barbecue aesthetic.  The team included:

Architecture: Toner Architects – www.tonerarch.com

Interior design, furniture selection: Nuance Jewelry - www.nuance-jewelry.com

South Philly Smokhaus keychains: Nuance Jewelry - www.nuance-jewelry.com

Decorative paint: Done + Dusted - www.doneanddusted.us

Feature light fixture: Remark Glass - www.remarkglass.com

Countertops and tabletops: Bicyclette Furniture - www.bicyclettefurniture.com     

Sandwich bread: Machine Shop Boulangerie - www.machineshopphilly.com                    

Photography: Stevie Chris - www.steviechris.com

We recommend you stop by and grab a bite, and promise you won’t be disappointed.  But, please plan ahead and get there early, because they have been selling out daily!

Sara is an Architect, Interior Designer, Sustainable Designer and a secretly aspiring food critic.

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Open House!

Mark your calendars, save the date!  Toner Architects will be opening our office doors for Bok Night from 4-7 on Friday, October 12 for Design Philadelphia.  Please stop by for a visit!

You’ll get a chance to see our new office and have a look at what we’ve been working on. While you’re here, you can check out our office-mate Chris Landau’s work, as well.

We are located in Bok (A hub for Design Philadelphia this year) at

1901 South 9th Street (corner of 9th and Mifflin)
Room 425
Philadelphia, PA 19148

In addition to our open house there will be multiple other companies hosting events that night at Bok including but not limited to:

Bicyclette Furniture

Firth and Wilson Transport Cycles

Gnome Architects

JV Collective

Klip Collective

Lobo Mau

made@bok

Milder Office Inc.

Mozilla

Nuance Jewelry

Remark Glass

Roantree Weaves

Stover Ceramics

Urban Aesthetics

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We've Moved!

by Sara Shonk Pochedly

We are very excited to announce that WE HAVE MOVED!  (Same building, new office space)

As of Friday June 1, 2018, we are now located at:

1901 S. 9th Street (Bok) Room 425, Philadelphia, PA 19148

We are up to a staff of 6! And even though we loved our old space in the “Entry Room” it was just getting too tight for us all!  We are now located on the 4th floor, directly above our previous space. 

The hallway outside our office. Look at that great terrazzo floor!

The hallway outside our office. Look at that great terrazzo floor!

Below are some photos of our space before construction started:

Sort of a mess . . .

Sort of a mess . . .

Hmmmm . . . maybe some new paint would help?

Hmmmm . . . maybe some new paint would help?

Instead of having one big room we divided the original science lab space into two rooms--our main office and a conference room.  Here are a few photos from during construction.

Looking better already.

Looking better already.

Conference room taking shape.

Conference room taking shape.

One of the new features we added to the space is an antique door we found at Provenance.  We wanted to find something that felt like it belonged in the building and I think we found a good match.  Below is a photo of Ian with our new door.

That's an 8-foot door right there.

That's an 8-foot door right there.

Our new office is located in the science wing and has many of the original details such as the casework with black resin tops, a lab sink, gas nozzles and clock.

Finished conference room.

Finished conference room.

The team in action.

The team in action.

Love those original details.

Love those original details.

Another great perk is the view!

Peeking out over the old boiler room to the South Philly skyline.

Peeking out over the old boiler room to the South Philly skyline.

The building has a great rhythm of windows and brick pilasters (and air conditioning units!). You can also see Sara's fun self-portrait reflected in the glass.

The building has a great rhythm of windows and brick pilasters (and air conditioning units!). You can also see Sara's fun self-portrait reflected in the glass.

A little bit about Bok (The building where our offices are located)

Bok was originally a City of Philadelphia technical high school that was designed by Architect Irwin Catharine and completed in 1938.  The School District closed Bok in 2013 and it was re-opened by Scout as a mixed-use building in 2015.  Toner Architects was in the first group of tenants to move into the building!  Since the building was previously a high school there are a variety of types of “school” spaces in the building, including two gyms, an auditorium, locker rooms, a lunch room, science rooms, a library, and spaces for the technical high school program including wood shops, machine shops, automotive shop, and a beauty salon.  Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, a good amount of the original detailing is still intact!  There are currently approximately 100 diverse tenants in the building offering a wide array of different products and services available.  Our neighbors include a glass blower, a bakery, a salon, a tattoo parlor, a catering company, a boxing gym, several wood workers, and photographers just to name a few!  We also have a rooftop bar! In our opinion we have the best view of the city skyline from the 8th Floor!

Please feel free to stop by for a visit any time!

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Restarting the Blog!

Well, it's been quite a while since my last entry. It's definitely been a busy year since then. We've added staff, taken on lots of new projects, been published, and even taken some time off. I'll write more about all of it in future posts.

Now that we have five (five!) of us in the office, we've decided to have everyone participate in the content you see here. Going forward, you'll see posts from everyone, on a variety of topics. Each post will have the author noted, so you can follow your favorite writer if you want to. Enjoy!

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we know it's a mess

and we're working on it . . .

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Project Progress: 1627 Brandywine

We're getting excited about this project--1627 Brandywine Street in Philadelphia. The building was originally a carriage house. More recently, it was used for storage. Now, we're working with the new owner to convert it to a home and studio.

The existing front.

The existing front.

The first floor will contain a garage and photography studio, with living space above. We really want to take advantage of the huge wooden roof trusses, so they'll stay exposed in the finished space. The front is in amazing condition; it's made of yellow-orange ironspot roman brick, with incredibly thin joints and great workmanship.

A detail of the oval window; look at how carefully the bricks were cut to fit it.

A detail of the oval window; look at how carefully the bricks were cut to fit it.

Carriages used to be stored in here; the large roof trusses also hold up the second floor, so that the first floor could be totally open. There's evidence that at one time there was an elevator (manually operated, of course) that could lift carriages up to the second level.

Carriages used to be stored in here; the large roof trusses also hold up the second floor, so that the first floor could be totally open. There's evidence that at one time there was an elevator (manually operated, of course) that could lift carriages up to the second level.

The second floor; the steel rods coming down from the trusses hold the floor up.

The second floor; the steel rods coming down from the trusses hold the floor up.

Some images of the proposed space.

Some images of the proposed space.

We'll keep you posted on this one. As we finish preliminary design, we're getting ready to meet with the neighbors, and then with the Historical Commission

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Parish House Opening

You've seen us write a lot about our Parish House project in the past, especially on social media. Well, the first two units are finally finished!

This building started out as part of a larger parcel, originally containing a church, a rowhouse, and the church's parish house, where events such as wedding receptions, performances, and classes took place. 

The overall site is marked in blue; individual buildings in red.

The overall site is marked in blue; individual buildings in red.

When we started on the project, the first thing to do was to decide how to handle all of these buildings that were sharing one lot. The client, Red Oak Development, wanted to subdivide the land so that each building would be on a separate parcel. Ultimately, we ended up dividing it into eight pieces: one for the church, one for the existing rowhouse, one vacant lot, and five separate lots under the parish house. The church, which was in bad disrepair, was sold to another developer, who ultimately decided to demolish it and build several rowhouses. The existing rowhouse was renovated and sold, and we designed a new rowhouse on the empty lot. 

The biggest challenge, though, was the parish house. This was a large stone building, built in 1912, with a combination of wood and steel structure. The developer decided at the beginning of the project to break the building up into five individual homes, which would feature very high ceilings (the existing building had ceiling heights of 10' in the basement, and 14' on the first floor!), large open spaces, and custom stairs. Here are some progress shots of the demolition and construction work:

Rear view of the existing building, after the church was demolished. The hole in the foreground was for a new house at 2127 East Cumberland (see link, above).

Rear view of the existing building, after the church was demolished. The hole in the foreground was for a new house at 2127 East Cumberland (see link, above).

New concrete walls divide the basements of the five houses. Here, you can see the trenches for the new footings, as well as the existing steel columns and beams.

New concrete walls divide the basements of the five houses. Here, you can see the trenches for the new footings, as well as the existing steel columns and beams.

New openings were made for the main stairways in four of the five units.

New openings were made for the main stairways in four of the five units.

Window team is measuring for installation.

Window team is measuring for installation.

Once the new walls between the units were installed, you could really get a sense of how the space would feel when finished.

Once the new walls between the units were installed, you could really get a sense of how the space would feel when finished.

View from the rooftop of the original building, before the third-floor additions were built.

View from the rooftop of the original building, before the third-floor additions were built.

New openings were cut in the original back wall. This doorway accesses an addition at the second floor that contains a bedroom.

New openings were cut in the original back wall. This doorway accesses an addition at the second floor that contains a bedroom.

The main space on the first floor during demolition.

The main space on the first floor during demolition.

The original main staircase; this was repaired and refinished (see last photo, below).

The original main staircase; this was repaired and refinished (see last photo, below).

Well, after almost two years of design and construction, the first two homes are complete. They are full of custom details, such as steel stairs with reclaimed wood treads, built-ins in the kitchens, concrete countertops, and original wood paneling salvaged during demolition. We'll have some final photos soon; stay tuned! In the meantime, here are some shots from the open house:

The stone portion is the original building; the wood addition on top is new and contains the master bedroom suite.

The stone portion is the original building; the wood addition on top is new and contains the master bedroom suite.

This is the main floor, with kitchen, dining, and living space. The original stone walls are exposed, and the wood floors are original. The wood paneling is salvaged from the original structure.

This is the main floor, with kitchen, dining, and living space. The original stone walls are exposed, and the wood floors are original. The wood paneling is salvaged from the original structure.

This is the "basement" living space. With ten-foot ceilings and large windows, it certainly doesn't feel underground.

This is the "basement" living space. With ten-foot ceilings and large windows, it certainly doesn't feel underground.

The view from the master bedroom on the third floor.

The view from the master bedroom on the third floor.

The original main staircase was repaired and refinished, then extended up to the third floor.

The original main staircase was repaired and refinished, then extended up to the third floor.

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Things We Do: Historical Commission Approvals

Philadelphia is an old city, whose plan was first laid out by William Penn in 1683. One of the main agencies in charge of protecting our architectural history is the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). Philadelphia has a combination of historic properties (individual buildings that are protected) and historic districts (whole areas of the city that are protected). The PHC has a process in place to review any work on protected buildings and within protected districts.

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

The Commission's protections cover the exterior shape and materials of a building. The goal is to preserve existing history, and--when new development is planned--to protect the character of historic buildings and neighborhoods.

Everything is reviewed--from the materials to be used, to the restoration of existing cornices, to the shape of the roofline. We've worked with several clients to get through this process. There are several steps involved.

At the beginning of design, we will confirm that the client's property is protected. Our experience with past projects helps to inform us as to what the PHC is likely to approve, and we will try to steer our work in that direction. After putting together some preliminary drawings and taking existing-conditions photographs, we will meet with PHC staff at their office to discuss the project. They will often be able to give us a deeper historical perspective on the building, using their extensive collection of historical photographs.

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 ( https://www.phillyhistory.org )

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 (https://www.phillyhistory.org)

Once preliminary design is complete, we assemble an application package for the PHC Architectural Committee. This committee is made up of architects and preservationists, and their purpose is to provide guidance to us regarding the specifics of our building. We will meet with the committee to discuss the particulars of our building, and our proposed solutions. They will ultimately make a recommendation to the Historical Commission, either in favor of or in opposition to the project.

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

A few weeks later, we meet with the Historical Commission, which is the group that will make the final decision on the project. The Commission is made up of architects, preservationists, historians, and representatives from the community and real-estate development interests. We present the project to them, and they ask questions. At the end of the hearing, they will take a vote either approving or denying the project.

But wait--there's more! Assuming the project is approved, it's time for us to start on construction drawings. This involves more detailed drawings, as well as material samples. For a typical project, this might include "shop drawings" from a custom window manufacturer, brick and mortar samples, and metal finish samples. Once the construction drawings are complete and the details and material samples are assembled, we make one last trip to the PHC office to get everything reviewed. The review is just to make sure that we haven't changed anything since our Commission approval. After review, the PHC staff will stamp the drawings, and then they are ready to go to Licenses and Inspections for building permit review.

If you have a property that's listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, we can help!

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Socializing

Maybe you get our newsletter, but want to see more of the day-to-day stuff. Maybe you like construction photos of current projects? Maybe you wonder what an architect thinks about as they move through the world? Maybe you just want the facts about someone?

Well, we have several ways we put information out there, so take your pick.

On our Facebook page, we post photos from construction sites, real estate listings for recently-completed projects, and the occasional sketch or drawing of a project still in design.

On our Instagram page, you will mostly find pictures of random buildings throughout Philadelphia (and, occasionally, other places), with our thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly. We also publish these photos to Facebook and Twitter.

Our Twitter feed is mostly comprised of photos from Instagram, but we occasionally drop a thought or two there. As you can see, getting down to 140 characters is a bit of a challenge for us.

We use LinkedIn to show you our resumes and to give basic info about our firm.

We've started using Pinterest more and more to communicate ideas with clients. It's easy to make boards to describe the feeling you want in a space, a particular countertop material, or even a color scheme.

If you're on one or more of these sites, connect with us and see what we're up to!

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Project Progress: 170 West Oxford

We've been working on a renovation and addition to this little guy in South Kensington:

That's us, in the middle.

That's us, in the middle.

This building is an L-shaped one, with a very steep staircase, tiny rooms, and closed-in windows. We'll be opening up the interior, enlarging the windows back to their original size, rebuilding the stair, and adding a third floor.

The new plans. Finished basement, living space on the first floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a master suite on the third.

The new plans. Finished basement, living space on the first floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a master suite on the third.

Rough front and rear views of the finished house, from during preliminary design.

Rough front and rear views of the finished house, from during preliminary design.

A quick rendering of the finished project.

A quick rendering of the finished project.

The project needed a zoning variance for the addition, which was granted. We are currently working on construction drawings for this one--stay tuned!

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Working Together

I recently read an article from the November/December 2015 issue of Remodeling Magazine called "The Blueprint of a Profitable Partnership", by Victoria Downing. (I know, I know, I'm pretty far behind on my magazines.) It was a good article, giving readers some tips on what an architect is looking for in a builder. To paraphrase:

  1. Will you listen, and not impose your ideas on the architect.
  2. Will you bring the architect's design to life, or butcher it by cutting corners?
  3. Will you provide accurate estimates?
  4. Will you have great workmanship?
  5. Are you up to date on the latest products and construction methods?
  6. Will you handle material selection, if necessary?
  7. Are you organized, and do you communicate well?
  8. Do you have a record of on-time and on-budget projects?
  9. Have you done projects like this before?
  10. Do you consider the architect to be an ally? Will you bring him/her in on future projects?

This is a good list; I think most people would agree that these are reasonable things to want. And it got me thinking--what do we do in our office, to hold up our end of the bargain? How can we be good partners to our contractors?

  1. We like to listen, as well. Contractors know a lot about how buildings go together--not just how things should happen, but how the actually do happen. By visiting the jobsites and hearing how contractors deal with construction issues, we can provide better designs that will contain solutions in advance, or flexibility where there are unknowns.
  2. It's important for us to explain clearly what our priorities are. Most contractors don't want to cut corners, but they also need to be cost-conscious. By clearly describing what the priorities are, everyone can be on the same page.
  3. See #2. If we clearly describe what we want to achieve, the contractor can more accurately price the work.
  4. We believe that providing high-quality drawings and a well-thought-out design will help set a tone with the contractor that high-quality workmanship is expected. We also work to modulate the client's expectations regarding what good work costs.
  5. We do our best to stay up to date on what is happening in the field. New products come out all the time--contractors may have a different focus (ease of installation, lower cost) than the architect or client does (durability, performance, aesthetics), but if we're all keeping our eyes open and are discussing new things as they come out, the team can decide together whether to use a new solution to an old problem.
  6. Certain materials just need to perform (waterproofing or insulation, for example), while others need to have a certain appearance, too (finishes, flooring, etc). Depending on the project type and schedule, the client may want to depend more on the contractor's knowledge of what is available immediately, and we are happy to have their input.
  7. We try, at all times, to have clear, consistent communication. The best result for a project comes from everyone knowing what is happening, and having a chance to chime in on project decisions. That's part of why we try to involve the builder as early in the process as possible.
  8. Sometimes during construction, something will come up that stops the project in its tracks. It might be an unusual structural situation, or a clearance that just can't be met. We try to respond to these situations as quickly as possible, with solutions that are effective and simple. That way, the project can get back on track as quickly as possible, with minimal impact on budget.
  9. We bring a lot of experience, with many different project types under our belts. We try to learn from past projects and construction so we can constantly improve.
  10. As mentioned above in #7, we like to get the contractor involved as early as possible. That way, their input can be baked right into the design. And we're always happy to make recommendations to clients who are looking for them.

Builders--do you have a project that needs an architect?

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Things We Do: Zoning Plans

Sometimes, you find yourself in a situation where you need to get permission to use your property in a way that isn't normally allowed. Some examples of this might include:

  • New curb cuts or parking spaces.
  • A duplex, on a lot that is only zoned to hold a single-family home.
  • A permit for live music or other types of assembly.
  • An accessory dwelling unit adjacent to your main residence.
  • An outbuilding on your property.
  • An apartment in a former storefront.

So, while you may not need an architect to "design" something for you, you most definitely need drawings that are to scale, and show the kind of information that the authorities need to see.

This is something we do a lot of. Whether you're getting a request directly from L+I or your attorney is telling you about it, we can help. The requirements are different depending on what you're trying to achieve. We've been through dozens of different scenarios, and can work with you to provide you with the information you need.

 

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Things We Do: Legalizations

Sometimes you have an existing condition at your property that you didn't know was a problem. That's what happened with this client--a corner-store owner who bought a store that had been in operation long before his time. A few years later, Licenses and Inspections informed him that his signs were not properly permitted, and that he needed to get permits or take the signs down. Not knowing what to do, he contacted us for help.

We were able to take our knowledge of the zoning code (which regulates signs) and produce some drawings for sign permits. Some existing signs would need to come down, and a new one would be made to meet the current size limitations. We handled the application process, and picked everything up after approval.

Some other examples of legalization plans we've worked on are occupancy plans for existing duplexes, site plans for parking garages, and interior plans for restaurants. Let us know if we can help you.

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New Facade on South Street

We started working on this project on South Street quite a while ago. One of the last parts of the project to be completed will be the front facade. The existing conditions left a lot to be desired.

Normally we'd work out the facade well in advance of construction. We did have a basic idea, but we also knew that a much larger development was soon going to start next door. The client wanted to wait to finalize our facade until the neighbor was complete; that way, we could do something that would complement their design.

Here, you can see our proposed design (on the left) next to the new neighboring building. We gave this sketch to the metal panel installer on a Friday. That weekend and into the next week, he completed fabrication and installation.

As you can see, the result is very close to what we drew, and the whole process (sketch to completed facade) only took ten days. In the world of architecture, this is like instant gratification!

One of the best parts of this job is designing something and then seeing it in its finished form. You always learn a lot about design, as well as about how things are put together and what the limitations are of your materials and the techniques used to assemble them.

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