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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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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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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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Happy Thanksgiving

Thanks, Sara, for a great card design this year!

Thanks, Sara, for a great card design this year!

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.

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Things We Do: Work in New Jersey

"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.

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Things We Do: Permits

assembling permit materials for five current projects

assembling permit materials for five current projects

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.

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Things We Do: Lot Subdivisions & Consolidations

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.

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Parish House - Construction Starts

hidden treasures

hidden treasures

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.

the former main hall; the walls between the new homes will fall along the beam lines

the former main hall; the walls between the new homes will fall along the beam lines

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.

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Project Update: Arizona Street Residence

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.

the lot before construction began; the wood door leads through a passageway that runs between the two properties for emergencies

the lot before construction began; the wood door leads through a passageway that runs between the two properties for emergencies

foundations are poured

foundations are poured

framing is complete up to the roof

framing is complete up to the roof

basement is excavated; you can see the existing rubble wall from the house that used to be on the site

basement is excavated; you can see the existing rubble wall from the house that used to be on the site

framing getting started

framing getting started

here, you can see the depth in the facade

here, you can see the depth in the facade

framing is finished; you can see the distinct height difference between this one and the neighbors. In the time since these photos were taken, new, similarly-scaled construction has taken place next door.

framing is finished; you can see the distinct height difference between this one and the neighbors. In the time since these photos were taken, new, similarly-scaled construction has taken place next door.

This project sold before construction was completed. Kudos to Red Oak Development on a job well done.

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Things We Do: Historical Commission

The look of success.

The look of success.

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:

North 21st Street Apartments

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.

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Buying a Car

When you go to a dealership to buy a car, you can be assured of two things. The first thing is that every car you have the option of buying has been rigorously tested and will meet all the minimum standards set by the government. The second thing is that every car will be different, with different options and different prices.

If all the cars meet the standards, then why aren't they all the same price? Why would I pay more than the bare minimum? You probably have all sorts of answers in your head already, and those answers probably include words like "well-designed", "reliability", "service", and "resale value". Cars are something we all have experience with, and so we've all spent time--even if only subconsciously--making these assessments.

When I go to an Audi dealership, I don't ask the salesman why his car costs more than a Kia. I already know the answer to the question. I can look at the two cars and see the difference in the level of care put into the design. I can drive the cars and feel the difference, too.

I don't call the local Chevy dealer and ask "Hey, how much does a car cost?", because I know that different cars cost different amounts, depending on the quality of their construction, the materials used, and the features included. The dealer would need to know a lot more about me and my needs before being able to suggest a model that's right for me, and depending on whch model we settled on, the price would be different. Any dealer who would just throw a number at me without asking these questions would raise my suspicions.

When I see a dealer offering a really nice-sounding car for a lot less than the guy down the street, I don't immediately assume that the other guy was trying to rip me off. In fact, I'm more likely to wonder how this lower-priced guy is going to get me in the end. Somehow, he's making up that price difference somewhere. Will the car really be of high quality, like he says? Does his service measure up? Will he hit me with a lot of extras at the end of the deal?

What I'm really talking about here is value. Value is not just about the actual price of the thing being bought; it has to do with the relationship between the price paid and the thing bought. One million dollars is a lot to pay for a pack of gum (no matter how great it tastes), but it's a deal if you're buying a rocket (especially if it's a good rocket).

Too often, we look at the bottom line and see a number, and that's all. But it's the relationship between the bottom-line number and all the stuff that came before it that matters. With a car, I'm looking for a few key things as part of the deal:

  • Is this a well-designed car?
  • Will it be reliable and easy to maintain?
  • Does the dealer feel like someone who will take care of me, and who wants me to be happy with my purchase? Will they be there for the long haul, or is this just about a quick sale?
  • Will the car's value be sustained over time?

Of course, I have to reconcile the final cost with my real, fixed budget. At a certain point, I can't afford to pay more, no matter how much value it adds. But I also have to have realistic expectations regarding how much I'm willing to give up to get there. The Yugo met the regulatory requirements of its day, but few people were proud to own one, or felt very good about that purchase later. So was it a good value, or just a cheap car?

Buying the bare minimum might work for some. They may not value good service, or good design, or reliability enough to pay more for it. Those whose products meet only the minimum--and no more--know what their products are worth and price accordingly in order to attract such customers. Others have higher prices, because they work to deliver something that exceeds the bare-minimum standards. Those products are going to cost more than the bare-minimum price--it just makes sense. Consumers must know for themselves what balance of qualities represent the best value to them, and spend accordingly.

Of course, I haven't really been talking about cars here at all. But you knew that already.

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Shut Down!

As we enter day two of the federal government shutdown, everyone's asking the same question: "How did we get here?". In my mind, the problem is one of respect and communication. Come to think of it, it's a lack of respect and communication.

The same thing can happen during a construction project. There's a major disagreement over a decision, and the job comes to a halt. Everyone blames everyone else, and getting the job restarted is painful. Even if things are resolved relatively quickly, the cost in terms of time and dollars can be large. For example, if the project is stopped in the middle of drywalling, the drywallers may move on to another job in the meantime. Getting them back may take an extra week, which pushes the trim and painting back. This could snowball and cause a total delay of weeks.

Fortunately on a construction project, it's not just the Contractor and the Owner who have to work things out on their own, as the Republicans and Democrats have to do in Congress. In construction there's the Architect, who can help arbitrate disputes between the parties. The American Institute of Architects produces standard contract forms which describe the roles of the Architect, Contractor, and Owner. The Owner-Architect agreement defines the Architect's role as follows:

"During the Construction Phase, the Architect shall act as the Owner's representative and provide administration of the Contract between the Owner and Contractor."

So one might assume that the Architect, who has a contract with the Owner, and who the Owner is paying, would always side with--and fight for--the Owner. Sort of like the Owner's lawyer, right? Wrong. Take a look at what the AIA's Owner-Contractor agreement has to say about the role of the Architect:

"The Architect will promptly interpret and decide matters concerning performance under, and requirements of, the Contract Documents on written request from either the Owner or Contractor.

"Interpretations and decisions of the Architect will be consistent with the intent of and reasonably inferable from the Contract Documents and will be in writing or in the form of drawings. When making such interpretations and decisions, the Architect will endeavor to secure faithful performance by both Owner and Contractor, will not show partiality to either and will not be liable for results of interpretations or decisions rendered in good faith."

So what do these provisions mean, in plain English? The Architect must act as the Owner's agent to help make sure that the Contractor is fulfilling his obligations under the Contract (Are the materials used the correct ones? Is the design being followed? Is the schedule being respected?). However, when it comes to disputes between the Owner and the Contractor, the Architect must serve as an impartial judge to help resolve them.

What makes the Architect qualified to serve that role? Well, the Architect is in the unique position of having been at all the design meetings and has spent a lot of time working through issues with the Owner. On the other hand, the Architect has a lot of experience with the construction industry and understands how job sites operate and how construction activities are conducted. Therefore, the Architect is the only person of the three who can see the project as a totality and make fair interpretations.

In my role as architect, I occasionally have to resolve disputes. However, like any problem, the best solution is prevention. This is part of why I always stress to the Owner the value of having a contractor on board early. If the Contractor is involved with the project from early in the design phase, and has a chance to offer input and expertise on matters of cost, constructability, scheduling, etc, then when the time comes to build the Contractor is already invested in the success of the project. By the time construction starts, the Contractor, Architect, and Owner have already had months of interactions, which have (hopefully) helped to build a solid working relationship.

Maybe someone needs to take on the role of non-partisan arbiter between our two warring parties in Washington? Clearly the Supreme Court can't do it (after all, isn't much of the fight right now over a law that the Court already ruled on?). Do we need a Supreme Architect of the United States? That's one project I think I'd have to turn down.

*Excerpts in this article are taken from the American Institute of Architects documents A105-2007 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor for a Residential of Small Commercial Project and B105-2007 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect for a Residential or Small Commercial Project.

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Avoiding "Value Engineering"

Sometimes, things don't turn out the way you want them to.  Imagine the following scenario: You dream about your project for years.  You cut pictures out of magazines, you save photos on Pinterest and Houzz.  You even try doing some sketches.  Then you call an architect.

After a few rounds of meetings, you and your architect come to a design you love.  It has your dream kitchen, that handmade tile you found, and three bathrooms.  Lots of built-in cabinets, ample sunlight from the huge windows.  Then you send the drawings to a few contractors to get bids.

Ouch.  Those numbers are way too high.  Now what do we do?  It's time for value engineering.

"Value engineering" is the name for the process where you take out parts of the project until it's affordable.  So, what can you live without?  Do you take out a bathroom?  Do you give up on the nice appliances in the kitchen?  Depending on how over-budget you are, you may find yourself stripping the design down to its bare bones.

Believe me, it's hurting your architect almost as much as it's hurting you.  But it doesn't have to be like this.

Something important is missing from the scenario above--budgeting.  At the earliest possible moment, you should be discussing your budget with the architect.  In fact, the architect is likely to ask you about the budget before agreeing to take on the project.  An architect has the experience to know whether your project expectations and budget expectations are roughly in line with each other.  That way, you don't spend time designing a project you can't afford, and--more importantly--you don't get emotionally invested in a dream that's not destined to come true.

One of the greatest skills an architect brings to the table is the ability to take your budget and make it into something that will improve your life.  It may not have all the individual features you have on your list--that may just not be possible.  But it will make a difference.  If you go into the design process with a realistic view of what you can afford, then you can design the best project possible.  

Think of it like this: which sounds better--designing the best $50,000 renovation you can, or designing a $100,000 renovation and then stripping out $50,000 worth of stuff to bring it back to the budget?  I vote for the first.

Of course, you may not know yet what your budget is, and your architect will certainly not be able to predict with extreme accuracy what the construction prices will be.  But here are two things you can do to help: 

  1. Talk with your banker early.  
  2. Find a contractor as soon as possible. 

 Let's take a look at these in more detail.

Banks loan money for construction projects based on two main factors.  First, your financial situation.  How much debt do you have?  What is your current home worth?  Is there any equity there?  Second, they look at property values in your neighborhood.  The bank doesn't want to own the most expensive house on your block.  So, if you live in a neighborhood of $300,000 homes, don't expect the bank to loan you $600,000 to build your dream house.

When it comes to contractors, the traditional way of doing things is called design-bid-build.  In this process, you complete the design, request bids from contractors, then pick one and build the project.  This process allows you to have the contractors bid against each other, supposedly getting you the best price possible.  This system has its merits, but it also keeps the contractor uninvolved during design.  I use a more integrated approach, where a preferred contractor is brought in early to help control costs from the beginning.  If the contractor can get a look at the design early in the process, he or she will be able to offer suggestions that may save cost without butchering the design.

Both of these professionals--the bankers and the contractors--offer skills and expertise that clients and architects don't have.  They are an important piece of the puzzle.  A successful project doesn't rely on what the client assumes the bank will lend, or what the architect assumes the contractor will charge.  By having as much knowledge as possible, the value engineering process can be largely avoided, and both you and your architect will be much happier with the result.

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The Process: Continued

My last post was an introduction to how the design process begins.  After that beginning, where I measure the existing building and site and then build a digital model of what's there already, is when the back-and-forth with the client really begins.  

The middle of the process is when I create design options and work through the project's issues with the client.  It's when we find the best layout, talk about qualities like light, air, and materials, and select finishes and colors.  For more on this, you can go to the sidebar on this page and download our white paper "The Design Process".

Once the design is settled, that marks the end of the design process for the client.  For me, it's time to put together the final drawings and details for permits and construction.  This involves the design at a deeper level.  I'll need to figure out the structure and how all the various construction materials will come together to keep the building safe, warm, and dry.

For me, the first step is to create a cartoon version of the drawings I'll need.  This helps me get an idea of how much work is involved, and keeps the set organized.  As I've said in a previous post, clear communication is very important.

Of course, this is only a rough idea of what I'll need to do.  As I develop the larger-scale drawings, such as plans and building sections, I'll identify additional areas that need to be enlarged to show more detail.

Here are the same sheets I sketched above, in their final form:

You can see that some things have been shifted around, added, and removed.  A few other sheets were created to hold additional drawings, too.  

There are three types of drawings here.  First is the zoning permit drawing (below).  

Zoning is concerned with the overall size of a building, its use, and its placement on the site.  The sheet shows a site plan, and describes the building height and its overall relationship to the lot lines.  It also shows what the outside of the building (or in this case, the additions to the existing building) will look like.

The second type of drawings are for the building permit.  They include plans and sections (the two sheets on the left side, above) as well as details (below).  The building permit review is concerned with how the building is built--its structure, materials, and fire safety.  So these drawings show the size and type of structure to be used.  They describe the interior and exterior finish materials.  And finally, they describe the way in which things will be put together in order to keep out rain, keep in heat, and keep fire from spreading to the neighbors.

The third type of drawing is used primarily for construction.  For this project, that means enlarged views of the kitchen and bathrooms, which are useful for the installers so they know what goes where.  In the kitchen, the cabinets are shown and are dimensioned.  In the bathrooms, things like towel bars, mirrors, and hooks are indicated.  This gives the client a chance to see where everything will be, and then transfers this knowledge to the contractor during construction.

After everything is drawn, I print a set to check for any errors.  Then final prints are made and are submitted to the city for review and approval, along with all the proper forms and signatures.  This set is with the city now; hopefully we'll get our permits soon and get started with construction!

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Beginning the Process

Clients often ask me "what happens after we sign the contract?  How do we get started?"  Here, I'd like to show you a little bit about what those very first steps look like.  

I recently started working on a new project with a new client.  We're renovating a row house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, which will involve gutting the entire interior and tearing down and rebuilding an addition at the back of the property.  I'll use this project as an example.

The first step, after meeting with the client and discussing the vision for the project, is to go out and see what's already there.  I measure and draw the building as it exists.  Here's what that looks like:

I take these sketches back to the office where I translate them into a three-dimensional computer model.  I use a program called Revit.  This is software that not only lets me model, but lets me model intelligently.  The program knows a door is a door.  It knows a wall is a wall, and what materials make up that wall.  It is able to produce any view I need of the model, and keep all the information coordinated in one place.  These are significant advantages over traditional CAD software, where the building is represented by simple lines, much like a hand-done drawings.  I could go on and on, and plan to in a future post.  But a discussion of software isn't why you came here today. . .

The plans I sketched above end up looking like this:

The program can also output 3d views to help me analyze the space and make decisions:

3523 Sunnyside - photo-exterior+composite.jpg

existing photo and the resulting modelI use cutaway views to look at the relationship between rooms, and the way stairs tie the whole thing together:

Using this information, I can work easily with the client to develop ideas for the redesign.  Everyone's different--some people are totally comfortable with plans, while others can really only interpret things in three dimensions.  My goal is to help clients get the best result, however we get there.  The model isn't an exact representation of everything--no model is--but it can really help to visualize the spaces, organize information about the project, and aid in proper construction.

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AIA Suburban Pro Con Follow Up

This past Friday I had the pleasure of making a presentation about the Prefab on the Main Line project at the AIA Suburban Pro Con in East Norriton, PA.  It was a joint effort, along with homeowner and Pete Maruca of Orion GC, the general contractor for the project.  Actually, the homeowner did most of the work, with Pete and I chiming in and filling in details as she went.  It was a great experience, and thank you to everyone who came out.  An extra thanks goes out to the people who asked such great questions at the end, and to Pat Gourley at AIA Philadelphia for putting it all together.

Our presentation was an overview of building a prefab residential project.  Specific points we covered were:

  1. What sort of client is looking for a prefab project?
  2. What situation lends itself to prefab?
  3. What are the possibilities, limitations, and benefits?
  4. Who are the team members?
  5. What are the basic steps in the process?

We used our project as a case study.

1. What sort of client is looking for a prefab project?

In our project's case, the client actually led the prefab idea.  The clients were well-educated about the process and saw it as a way to build affordably given a situation they hadn't expected facing.  This affordability sometimes comes from a reduced construction cost (I'll talk about this more later), but more reliably comes from a reduction in construction time.  This reduces the amount of time that the homeowner must cover the mortgages, taxes, and upkeep for both their current and new properties.  There are many times when the idea of prefab won't even be on the client's radar; in this case it is the contractor or architect's turn to introduce it if it's appropriate.

2. What situation lends itself to prefab?

The client's situation also drove the prefab decision.  They are a three-generation family who wanted good schools within easy reach of Philadelphia.  Both parents work in the city, and the grandmother takes care of the children during the day.  Houses in the clients' chosen school district are large, but most were either too expensive or needed too much renovation to make them work.  They did, in fact, find an existing house that met many of their needs.  However, some extenuating circumstances led to the desire to do a more extensive remodel where incorporating modular construction made more sense, for several reasons.

The factory-built modules would be of very high quality, meaning that the new structure would be just as solidly built as its neighbors.  And the reduced on-site build time meant less noise and traffic pollution for everyone, including the nearby elementary school.  In fact, the main bulk of the house was erected in just six days.  Finally, by starting with a pre-designed floor plan, the clients could save time and money on design.

Inside the factory

Inside the factory

3. What are the possibilities, limitations, and benefits?

Many people think of prefab as just Dwell-magazine modern.  However, there is no limitation to the possible styles.  In this case, the clients wanted (and got) a Tudor-style home.  You can visit the websites of many manufacturers to see what they offer, and remember that many of them will do custom work.

You can do more than just modern. From prefabs.com.

As far as floor plans go, the sky's the limit.  This home was closely based on a stock plan from the manufacturer, but small tweaks were made.  In particular, this house needed to connect to the remaining portion of the previous house--a small stone building that was likely the first home on this property--via a breezeway from the breakfast nook.  The main limitation is the size of the modular boxes.  They are limited, of course, by the highway.  The largest units are typically 16' x 45'.

In the existing house, the old stone building was buried within many additions.

Now, the original stone portion is exposed and is connected to the new prefab home by a site-built breezeway.

The benefits of prefab are numerous.  The majority of the building is constructed under climate-controlled factory conditions.  This means that the interior is never exposed to rain, a source of squeaks and, sometimes, mold.  The modules are very sturdy, since they have to survive a road trip.  Because the whole thing is built inside, there are no work delays due to weather.

From a green standpoint, the number of worker miles driven is greatly reduced over the course of the project.  Factories also tend to be built where they have easy access to materials, so large quantities can be delivered to the factory over shorter distances, thereby reducing those miles.  Module sizes are optimized to reduce cutoff waste, and scraps are saved and used as needed on future projects.

The cost savings for prefab are hotly debated.  Some claim that a stock plan modular house will cost 10%-15% less than its site-built comparison.  Others say it actually costs more, given the inevitable upgrades, tweaks, and additions.  However, when it comes to schedule there is no comparison.  The ability to construct the modules concurrently with the demolition, site preparation, and foundation construction greatly reduces the overall project schedule.  The optimized, assembly-line style factory process is also a contributing factor to time savings.

4. Who are the team members?

For this project, the main team members were the modular company (Simplex), the homeowners, the local general contractor (Orion GC), the site engineer, the structural engineer, and the architect (me, of course).  

The modular company provided the initial house design and its foundation requirements.  They were responsible for specifying all the materials to be used in the house, and of course for manufacturing it.  They delivered the "boxes" and set them in place.

Setting the fifth module of the main house.

It was the site engineer who first alerted the client to the idea of marrying a portion of the existing building with the new, which made the site requirements much easier to deal with.  This engineer also helped manage much of the permitting process with the Township.

My initial role was to help determine which parts of the existing house could be saved and how they could be integrated into the new house, which was based on a pre-designed prefab floor plan.  As the project progressed, I became more involved in tweaking the prefab design to meet the clients' needs.  I also designed the links between the old and new portions and between the house and the garage, and documented the basement and foundations.  The structural engineer assisted as needed.

Stone house and breezeway concept views.

Construction drawings for the stone building and breezeway.

The general contractor did demolition, site preparation, and foundation work before the modules arrived.  After they were set and connected (by the manufacturer's crew), the GC did the exterior finish work and completed the interiors.

Existing house demolished, stone house exposed, and foundation poured. Ready for prefab unit delivery.The prefab units arrive on site.The modules are set into place and connected.The Client and Orion GC's Foreman Irv Morey standing inside newly-set units. In the doorway, the joint between the units is clearly visible. Notice, also, that the unit arrived with finished trim and paint.

Last, but certainly not least, is an active, engaged homeowner.  But isn't this important for every project?  We were lucky in this respect--being active and engaged seemed to come naturally to these clients.

5. What are the basic steps in the process?

  1. Identify a site, and determine whether modular is the right decision for either an addition or new construction,
  2. Select a layout to start with, customizing where necessary,
  3. Kickoff manufacturing / Prepare the site and foundation,
  4. Deliver the “boxes”,
  5. Complete the finishes (interior & exterior), HVAC, final plumbing, etc.,
  6. Move in (in our case, 3 months after box delivery).

I could go on and on about this project, but these are the basics.  Contact me if you have other questions; I'm happy to talk more!  In the meantime, here are some more photos:

Rear of house.Front of house just after modules were set. It took six days to set all of the modules.The finished product. From the time the modules were set (previous photo), the house took three months to complete.

Interior view of the stone house.

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