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Architectural Photography

by Sam Katovitch



The photographing of architecture is as much of an art as the design of the actual spaces and forms is.  Where the goal of architecture – arguably – is to create spaces ideal for the activities predicted to take place in them, architectural photography is the art of capturing an image that by its very nature cannot be fully processed by the human eye, and making it comprehensible, relatable, and beautiful. 

The craft of architectural photography is extremely dependent on the equipment used, which in ordinary photography is just the tool by which images are made.  When photographing buildings, normal lenses aren’t enough.  The human visual system has a binocular field of view of about 115 degrees horizontally, in addition to 40 degrees on each side which are peripheral only.  Compare that to a normal 50mm prime lens (the standard in the days of 35mm film).  That lens has a field of view of 40 degrees total – no peripheral vision here.  Now, a single human eye has a field of view of about 55 degrees, which is roughly equivalent to a 43mm lens.  Such a lens is not hard to obtain, as it isn’t even really considered “wide-angle.”  But if an architectural photographer used a 43mm lens to photograph a building, it would be like looking through a single human eye – one with zero peripheral vision.  Thus, wide angle lenses become crucial for photographers wishing to capture the same angles of view as those of the human eye.  The earliest lenses used for this purpose had focal lengths of 24-35mm in the days of film cameras, and the widest lens commonly available now is a mere 14mm equivalent focal length. 

The other hurdle photographers must clear when capturing architecture – one made more difficult due to the use of wide-angle lenses – is the problem of converging lines.  Due to the way lenses are made, combined with the natural perspective that is inherent to single-point view, wide angle shots and shots taken at an angle looking upward are victim to converging lines.  This is less of a problem in street or landscape or portrait photography as the subjects are more organic, less subject to perspective, and generally smaller in scale. In architectural photography this becomes a huge issue.  Perspective and lens mechanics conspire to make buildings look crooked, tilted, or oddly foreshortened.  This is why photos taken by a tourist on their smartphone or digital camera will never look the same as those that have been taken by a professional photographer, and only part of that is due to skill.  The method developed to get around this issue is called tilt-shift photography. 

Tilt-shift photography is nothing new, in fact it has been an ability of cameras going all the way back to early bellows cameras, where the lens could be moved independently of the film body to create perspective changes within the camera.  The technology was only adapted to smaller-format cameras, like those used by architectural photographers, in the 1960s.  On small cameras it is almost entirely accomplished through special lenses called “perspective control” or PC lenses, the first of which was developed by Nikon in 1962.  PC lenses have the ability to shift the lens up or down relative to the film.  A variant on this concept is the tilt-shift lens.  The “tilt-shift” name comes from the ability to rotate the lens plane relative to the image plane – the “tilt” – and to move the lens plane parallel to the image plane – the “shift”.  By shifting the lens plane up or down relative to the image plane, the photographer can control the perspective of the image taken, and this is how architectural photographers create their images.   Most architectural photographs are taken with the lens shifted upwards relative to the image plane, and so the camera’s film or sensor can be kept parallel to the subject, while the lens’ movement is used to position the subject within the image area.  Thus, all points on a subject remain the same distance from the camera and the shape of the subject is preserved and not foreshortened.  This eliminates the problem of tilting the camera to capture a building, and results in images where parallel lines remain parallel and walls do not seem to tilt inwards towards one another.

There is a wide gulf between a regular person taking a photo of a building on a regular camera or smartphone, and an architectural photographer doing it.  Professional building photographers have an arsenal of specialized equipment and techniques to make the most of their photos, and lend their work the extra sense of immersion and accuracy that traditional photography just can’t replicate.  An entire industry has developed around the photographing of buildings, and that industry will only continue to grow more advanced as new photographic technologies become available. 

Gable –  This image is an example of how a normal camera still create parallel vertical lines – this picture was taken with the camera held at arm’s-length above my head, decreasing vertical skew.

Gable – This image is an example of how a normal camera still create parallel vertical lines – this picture was taken with the camera held at arm’s-length above my head, decreasing vertical skew.

South –  A typical Broad Street shot showing the converging effect of a normal lens on perspective – note how the buildings seem to lean in towards each other.

South – A typical Broad Street shot showing the converging effect of a normal lens on perspective – note how the buildings seem to lean in towards each other.

all photos by Sam Katovitch. Sam uses REAL FILM.



Cheap Furniture (Vol. 1)

by Bart Bajda

Whoever said good looking furniture had to be expensive was a fool.  This series of posts will prove just that by showcasing furniture designed and built by me using readily accessible materials that can be found in most of your common hardware stores. 


Volume 1 (many more to come) features a coffee table with a wood top and waterfall edge.  The ends are tapered to reveal the steel frame below.  A glass shelf sits below for additional storage. 


The wood top and end are made from standard 2x4 studs glued together and doweled through at each end and the corner for a perfect alignment.  Now I understand pine is soft and dents fairly easily, but let’s be honest, I don’t know anyone who hacks away at frozen meat on their coffee table.  The steel frame is standard 3/4" steel angle cut to size, drilled, and held together with machine screws and nuts.  The frame was painted black and lightly sanded to reveal exposed steel at the edges.  The lower shelf is made of glass panels I had recovered for free from a local department store closing.  To prevent rattling and provide a little more protection, the glass rests on a rubber weather strip, typically used to seal windows, adhered to the lower frame. 

Now to prove my point, I’d like to give a material cost breakdown for this project.  Some people won’t factor in the miscellaneous glue, screws, etc. but for arguments sake I’ve tried to include every little bit not including the tools and equipment.  However, I will add that no heavy-duty commercial grade equipment was used as this was all done in my 12’ x12’ Philadelphia row home backyard. 

Cost Chart.jpg

*Glass can be substituted with acrylic or polycarbonate panels found in any common hardware store.


Bart is the Toner Architects 2019 axe-throwing champion.                                          



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!



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.

star bolts.jpg



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



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 ( )

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 (

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!



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.



Project Update: 10th Street Facade Renovation

existing conditions

existing conditions

the completed facade

the completed facade

the new facade in context with its neighbor

the new facade in context with its neighbor

For this project, we worked with the owner of a mixed-use building to renovate the first-floor facade. The original front was an interesting storefront, with large panes of glass and a double entry door (one for the first floor daycare center, and one for the upper-floor apartment). The trouble was that 1) the first-floor use is a daycare center, which needed privacy for the children and never had the windows uncovered, and 2) the large panes of glass were set into a very minimal structure that allowed too much movement; the glass was subject to breaking when large trucks drove by!

Obviously, this presented a problem for the users of the building, and a cost to the owner. So, she decided it was time for a makeover. The idea was to mimic, as closely as possible, the surrounding buildings.

As you can see above, we did just that. Cast-stone lintels, base course, and door surround complement the natural stone details next door. And a custom-built door (from John's Custom Stairs) finished off the look.

During construction, we had to work around several challenges, not least of which was the large steel beam that spanned over the original storefront windows. But the masons (Fresh Start Enterprises) did a great job through it all, and delivered a great final product.



Historic Technique

Back in February, I told you about a project we were working on on North 21st Street (the one that needed Historical Commission approvals--remember?) Well, construction has begun. We had a group meeting with the client, framers, and the plumber on site yesterday, to figure out some strategies for how we'll coordinate everything. These meetings can be crucial, to make sure that everyone knows what needs to happen, and how to avoid making problems for each other.

I also got a chance to see how the original builders made an arched recess between two closets. This is a common thing in older homes--two closets on the side wall, with an archway in between where a piece of furniture or shelves might go. This one is all done with wood lath and plaster. Unfortunately, the new design can't accommodate the original arch; instead, we'll be exposing the brick on this wall during the renovation. But it's fun to see how these things were originally achieved.


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Old Buildings - Salmon Brick

Buildings & Water - not very good friends.

Buildings & Water - not very good friends.

If you live in an older home, you've probably seen little piles of orangey dust in your basement near the walls. Or maybe you were in an an old house being renovated, and saw something like the picture above. Ever wonder what's going on?

Most older rowhouses in Philadelphia used two main types of brick. The brick you see on the exterior is called "face brick", and the brick on the inside is (often) "salmon brick".

When bricks are made, the clay is put into molds or is extruded (like a Play-Doh fun factory) and then gets dried to remove excess moisture. The dried brick is then fired in a kiln to "vitrify" the clay, which is a chemical process that makes the brick hard and water-resistant.

This last step is where the second type of brick, "salmon brick" falls short. This brick is fired for less time, so it doesn't have a chance to develop the hard exterior that will protect it from water. It was cheaper to produce than face brick, and was used on the interior of brick walls (most rowhomes in Philadelphia have walls that are two bricks thick--face brick on the outside, and salmon brick on the inside).

Water is salmon brick's worst enemy. Buildings have lots of places they can leak--around windows, at roof joints, and at settlement cracks, for example. Once water gets in, it's only a matter of time before the salmon brick starts falling apart, as the water can easily get into its pores. As the brick wets and dries, it starts to turn to powder--the little orange piles you see in your basement.

What can you do to fix this? If your brick isn't too deteriorated, then stopping the source of water will mostly stop the damage. Over time you may still see more dust, but the worst is probably over. For a very deteriorated brick, the only solution is to replace it. Make sure you have a skilled mason do this work!

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Cut it Out!

Still going.

Still going.

In older Philly rowhomes, the bathroom plumbing was often accommodated by notching the floor structure. Here's an example. Not only can you see the deep, ragged notch, but you can also see the water damage where the former bathtub drain leaked water into the wound.

This would never pass inspection today. A bathtub was here, so right where you'd want the most strength (400 lbs of water plus the bather) you have a weakened joist. And yet it still stands, 100 years later.

How is this possible? Partly, it's because the wood used in older buildings was much denser than wood used today. The wood from back then was taken from natural forests, where trees grew at their own pace. Today, most wood comes from farms, where trees grow on an accelerated schedule (through fertilization and watering techniques), meaning they don't have time to get as dense as they do now. Also, older homes in Philadelphia were often framed with hardwoods (chestnut, for example), while newer wood is softwood, like pine or fir. Hardwood is stiffer than softwood, so it could take more abuse.

Regardless, you wouldn't see a notch like this today. If you do, call your architect!



Project Roundup: Week of 10/19/15

Hi, everyone. Well, we've been very busy around here, and haven't been so good at posting. If you spend any time over on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds (which I'm sure you do), you know that we do construction site visits every week, and often post pictures from there. We thought it would be nice to put some project photos here, too, along with a bit more description of what's going on, useful links, etc. So, here goes:

2028-32 East Arizona Street

2028-32 East Arizona Street

This project is getting fairly close to completion. This is three single-family homes, located in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The neighborhood is an exciting one, and is seeing a lot of redevelopment now. The grain of the neighborhood is varied, with lots of different lot sizes and uses. This gives the neighborhood a "homogeneous heterogeneousness", meaning that difference is the norm. Unlike some other neighborhoods, this one has lots of different sizes, styles, and materials, and is a great place for a little experimentation.

In our case, we have a red-brick wall providing the background for projecting bays and recessed indents running in vertical ribbons on the facades. The bay cladding is just going up now; it will be a dark gray metal panel. You can see the front is currently in various stages of completion (close-up below). Inside, it's much the same; in the house on the right, drywall has gone in and other finish work is just beginning, while in the house on the left, the utilities are still being installed.

2028-32 East Arizona Street - Elevation Detail

1321-27 North 7th Street

1321-27 North 7th Street

Here's another project that's almost complete. Located just north of Girard Avenue in the South Kensington section of Philadelphia, this project is three new three-unit condominium buildings next to a two-unit renovation. By removing and rebuilding the existing (nearly collapsed) facade of the old building (the gray one at the far left of the group), we were able to design a rebuild that ties in visually with the other, new facades.

These units are now on the market. You can see more info, including professional photos, here. The top-floor unit of building 1321 has been staged for the photos, so you can really get a feel for what the units will be like. The top-floor units are my favorite, because we were able to get very large (4' x 8') skylights over the kitchens, and the units also have access to roof decks with great views of the skyline and Ben Franklin Bridge.

Kitchen at 1321 North 7th Street

So, what else?

We've got all sorts of other things going on. Of course, there are other projects under construction that aren't featured here. And with winter quickly approaching, the rush is on to get building permits and start excavation and concrete work before the ground freezes. Currently, we have several projects in various stages of permit review with the goal of starting before Thanksgiving.

On the horizon we have a few new-construction projects to get design started on, as well as the full renovation of a beautiful old apartment building in Germantown, a restaurant in Point Breeze, and an adaptive reuse of a former varnish factory in Holmesburg. Keep your eyes here for more updates!



Changing our Priorities

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Business Network's annual holiday party. It was held at the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia, and featured lots of local food and drink. One of the most interesting things I saw, however, was a table set up by Solar States, a company that offers rooftop solar installations.

I've recently been asked a lot about solar, so I thought I'd check them out. It turns out that they offer a system that will power a typical residence and will fit on about half of the typical rowhouse roof. The system, after tax credits, costs around $10,000. This means that, for a typical household where power bills average out to $100/month, the system pays for itself in a little over eight years, assuming power prices stay the same (and we know they keep going up, right?). After that, it's "free" power until the system reaches the end of its life--Solar States warrants their system for 25 years.

Of course, this doesn't work out exactly; the system doesn't power the house at night, and at peak load times (really hot days when the air conditioner is running) it may not generate enough to power everything. So, you still need to be grid-connected for backup power. But what if you didn't?

I started thinking about solar panel efficiency. Right now, a typical solar panel has an efficiency of around 22%, meaning that 22% of the sun's energy is converted to electricity, while 78% is lost. What if we could capture more? If we got to 50%, then the same size system could produce more than enough energy for one family, even if they owned an electric car. And of course, over time solar panels will get cheaper and cheaper, even as they get more efficient.

If we had more power than we needed, produced by really cheap solar panels, how would that affect the way we think about conservation? Would we be so worried about insulation and high-efficiency appliances? What would be the point? We have an endless supply of free energy, right?

I probably sound like I'm joking, but I'm not. One of our main priorities right now is conserving energy, because energy production is mostly a dirty and environmentally harmful business. If it's not, then do our priorities change? Do we need to rethink the way we look at things? The same goes for cars; lots of people hate those "gas-guzzling SUVs". But if they were powered by electricity, and that electricity was produced by rooftop solar panels, what's to hate? The environmental movement has been around for a while and has a lot of momentum; I just hope that when the time comes, we can redirect that momentum to the next challenge. (Isn't this the problem with fossil fuel companies? They have momentum in one direction, which was useful for a while, but the world has changed. They aren't changing that quickly, are they?)

On a related note, I read this article a while back in Bloomberg Businessweek. If you don't feel like reading it, I'll summarize: some scientists are able to grow leather and meat in a laboratory. Now, before you react with how gross it is, think about why they're doing it (besides to make money): the process uses 90% fewer resources than traditional production, and no animals have to die. It's not a perfect system yet, but in five to ten years, you may be seeing these artificially-grown products being produced at a commercially-viable scale.

So, this got me thinking: does the availability of these products change the way vegetarians think about meat? Aside from the health reasons, does this change things? No longer are animals being killed. Is this a way for those who are against the killing of animals for food to come back to our thousands-of-years-old cooking traditions?

Source: Reuters

What about wearing leather? Can members of PETA wear this lab-grown leather proudly? (Hint: Yes. If you read the Bloomberg article, you saw that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said "The impact of cultured leather will be phenomenal and wonderful.")

I realize that there is something of an "ick" factor here. But think about it: conventionally-raised meat involves thousands (millions?) of animals living together in unpleasant conditions. They are subject to disease, and are often pumped up with hormones and medicine. Even naturally-raised animals are inevitably killed. What if it didn't have to be that way? (Not to mention that 90% savings on feed, water, land, waste disposal, and greenhouse gas emissions.) Lab-raised meat has the potential to be much more sanitary than current options, which often carry disease-causing bacteria that wouldn't be present in a more controlled environment. That means more confidence in the food supply, and fewer tasteless, overcooked dinners. 

Currently, I am a meat eater. But part of that is my consicously choosing to ignore many of its impacts. Same goes for driving a car. And using natural gas to heat my home (lots of fracking in PA, right?). And wearing clothes made in places with poor safety standards.

All this goes to priorities. Instead of focusing solely on energy conservation, being a vegetarian, giving up my car, lowering my thermostat, and making my own clothing (all good ideas, for now), I can choose to go farther up the chain and think about solutions that get at the root of the problem. How can we have cleaner power and more ethical food? Are these solutions good ones?

It's a design problem, really. Sometimes I meet a client who has it all figured out. They've got a problem and a solution. Usually, I can take that solution and make it work. But the best thing to do is to understand the problem first. Then, many solutions may become more obvious. This is the "genius" of design; finding multiple, viable solutions to a problem, and then being able to decide which is the best one.

So, what technologies are making you rethink your priorities?



Greenbuild Wrap-Up

This year I visited the Greenbuild Conference, which was held here in Philadelphia. It's the annual event for all things related to "green" construction. It was held at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and it was enormous. The building takes up four city blocks, and the main exhibition hall is over 560,000 square feet. It was full of exhibitors (over 800) and had two stages as well as refreshment booths and rest areas. The stages had constant presentations going on, and there were seminars in the conference rooms in the rest of the building as well, plus tours of Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

I didn't attend the seminars (see here for part of the reason); my experience was limited to the exhibition floor. Even at a brisk pace, it still took two hours for me to get through everything. Here's the map of the exhibition:

Many of the exhibits were creative and informative. Of course, with topics ranging from Acoustics to Plumbing to Waste Management, there was something for everyone. I was most interested in the building materials and systems manufacturers, and also stopped by the Passive House booth.

The two biggest highlights for me were:

Several manufacturers of SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels). This is an approach to construction that uses prefabricated panels to speed on-site construction time. The manufacturers take your building plans and break the design down into manageable pieces, then build those pieces in a factory. Everything is delivered on a truck, and goes together according to their assembly diagram. The result is a well-built and well-insulated building that goes up faster than if you built it from scratch on site.

Diagrammatic view of a house built with SIPs; image from

There was another type of panel manufacturer there, too, who builds with steel framing. This system is interesting because it combines insulation between the studs (as is usually done) with continuous insulation outside of the stud space. This continuous insulation is more efficient than insulation between the studs. The system comes in panels just like the SIPs, and can even be used for basement walls. This is definitely something I want to find out more about.

Lots of high-performance windows. Windows are one of the weakest points in a building's envelope. While a code-compliant wall has an insulating value of R-13, a code-compliant window is only around R-3. If you have large windows, you're probably losing a lot of heat through them, even if they're good ones. These high-performance windows, though, typically have R-values starting at around 6, and go up to R-14 or higher. They do it by using three layers of glass (called triple-glazing) with special gases in between, and by carefully constructing the frames so that they don't transmit heat from inside to outside (or vice versa).

An energycore insulated window from QuanexI also picked up information on insulation, ventilation equipment, bamboo siding, and some really cool structural connectors. I'm glad I was able to attend. Next year the conference will be in New Orleans.

So, did you or anyone you know attend Greenbuild? What did you think?



The Seven-Day House

A while back, in my post entitled Demolition Derby, I showed you some pictures of a house I'm working on in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia. During demolition, we exposed some serious structural issues and, upon further investigation, have determined that the best way forward is to demolish most of the existing building and start new (actually, we're demolishing everything but the basement). Through discussions with the contractor, we determined that the best way to get the project built may be modular construction.

You've seen me write about prefab before, but this time I'm in from the beginning. The first step, now that we're building new, was to revisit the design drawings for the home to see what improvements could be made. When we thought we were going to renovate the existing house, we were limited by a number of factors--existing window placement and sizes, existing door placement, existing ceiling heights. However, if we are going to build new, we can do things the way we want to. The resulting design is more streamlined and efficient, and gives the clients more usable and high-quality space.

The next step was to visit the modular factory. The contractor has worked with Signature Building Systems before, so we started there. This trip combined two of my favorite things: building design and factory tours. The Signature factory is a huge open space--200' x 400' (that's 80,000 square feet, for those of you keeping track):

While at first the space looks chaotic, there's a very methodical process going on. The slideshow will give you the basic idea (sorry for any blurry photos--fortunately my architecture skills far surpass my photography skills!).

One of the things that struck me was the quality of the work going on. Historically, modular construction has had a bad reputation. But on my visit, I saw careful construction practices, quality materials, and skilled labor. Not only that, but the indoor construction means that everything is protected from the weather. Modular construction has also been shown to reduce overall construction-related carbon emissions, since the builders tend to live relatively close to the factory, thereby reducing the number of miles driven each day. Plus, large material orders can be placed and delivered in bulk, reducing shipping costs and impacts.

Once the modules are delivered to the site, a crane lifts them into place. Signature has a team that will fasten them to the foundation and to each other. Then the local contractors will close the seams inside and join the plumbing and electrical systems. They are also responsible for the exterior finishes (in this case, stucco and brick).

Obviously, I'm pretty excited about this process. It's not perfect for every situation, but it holds a lot of promise for the future. I'll keep you posted as we move forward.

Anyone out there have any experience with modular construction?



Project Update - Mountain Street

Work has begun on an overhaul of a two-story rowhouse in South Philadelphia. The work is extensive--we've gutted the entire home, and will be rebuilding and expanding an old addition on the back. Inside, we're moving the staircase and reorganizing both floors. An old passageway from the back yard to the street (at the right in this picture) is being filled in to become additional interior space. The new plans are below:

As you can see, there will be two bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths. The basement will be for storage and mechanical systems; the laundry--usually found in the basement--has been moved to the second floor. You can see from the plans that two of the main tools I use when laying out these houses are grease and a shoehorn.

Below, you can see a before-and-after view of the rear of the house (the additional space is shown in blue). The existing house currently has a small addition that contains the kitchen on the ground floor and the bathroom on the second. This is a very typical layout (almost the only layout) for South Philly row houses. The original houses were built before indoor plumbing, so the additions were made later. In the case of this house, we'll be taking down the existing addition and rebuilding it, and it will enclose the entire width at the second floor, rather than just half.

Existing on the left, new on the right

Existing on the left, new on the right

Where the building gets slightly wider (to fill in that walkway), we'll need some new foundations. Exterior work requires extra attention to detail, to help make sure that water stays out and heat stays in. This is an example of a typical foundation detail:

Please don't copy this detail unless you really know what you're doing! This may not be the right detail for you. Contact a design professional for help with your project.

Please don't copy this detail unless you really know what you're doing! This may not be the right detail for you. Contact a design professional for help with your project.


The notes on the drawing help describe how to make a foundation that is strong and won't move when the ground freezes and thaws. It also shows how to keep moisture out of the basement and kitchen, how to keep the kitchen warm, and how to protect this building from a fire next door (and vice versa). It's like the little drawing that could! 

This is how the drawing was translated in the field:

The old addition hasn't been demolished yet, so what you're seeing is the new foundation next to the old walls. When the foundations are finished, the addition will be demolished and the new framing will go up.

There have already been some questions on site regarding existing conditions that were uncovered. Fortunately for my client, I was on hand to help resolve them, and we came up with cost-effective solutions that everyone's happy with.

Keep your eyes on the blog for future updates!



A Teeny, Tiny Green Roof

I was walking around Center City recently, when I came across this bus shelter.  Notice the green roof on top?  When I first spotted it, I had to check to make sure this wasn't one of those situations where plants were growing out of a building due to neglect.

Hey there, little guy.On closer inspection, it was clear that yes, this is an actual green roof.  I'm interested in this idea; even though the potential for this green roof to help with the heat island effect or to soak up much rainwater is limited due to its tiny size, it does serve as a reminder that green roofs can go just about anywhere.  It might serve as an inspiration to a building owner to learn more about green roofs.  And, it's pretty cool to live in a city that would think about things at this scale.

I did some research online and came up with a few articles written at the time the roof went up.  Here's one from the local news channel.  There's also a good one at the Water Department's website that describes green roofs--and their benefits--more generally.  Unfortunately, the material dates back to when this roof was installed, in June of 2011.

I contacted SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for those of you from out of town) to find out more.  I quickly found out that SEPTA doesn't own the bus shelters; they're owned by the city.  I gave a call over to Patricia Ellis, a Transit Advisor at the Mayor's Office of Transportation & Utilities.  She told me that that green roof was a pilot program, but for numerous reasons, there haven't been any more since:

  • This first roof was very expensive, and there isn't currently money in the budget to do more.
  • They investigated the idea of corporate sponsorship, but there wasn't enough interest to fund the program.  Ms. Ellis theorizes that the roofs may not be visible enough for sponsors to want to invest in them.
  • In center city in particular, there isn't enough sunshine reaching many of the streets for the roofs to thrive.
  • The existing bus shelters are aging (many are approaching forty years old), and will likely be replaced in the next few years.  In the meantime, each one would need to be evaluated by an engineer to ensure that it could handle the weight of a green roof.

 So, don't hold your breath on this issue.  Personally, while I really like the idea of greening wherever possible, I'd be more excited if they'd use some money to put in more shelters in more neighborhoods.  It's no fun to get to work with wet legs because you only had an umbrella to protect you on a windy, rainy day.



Your House and Your Facade: A Separation Agreement

What are those metal stars on the front of some houses?  Well, they're called star bolts, and they're much more than just decoration.  While they wouldn't have helped in the recent tragic building collapse in Philadelphia, they might just keep your home safe and in one piece.  To understand their purpose, we need to first talk about how a traditional row house is built.

Row houses are separated by long brick walls called party walls (brown, below).  The party walls provide a fire separation between the houses, and they also support the floors and roof.  The floor and roof joists (yellow for floor, blue for roof) span between the party walls and, in older homes, actually go into pockets in the brick.

The front and back walls of the house do not hold up the floors or roof.  In fact, they are only connected to the rest of the house at their edges, where they attach to the party walls.  Their job is to keep the building from falling over sideways.  Think of a cardboard box, open at both ends.  It wants to collapse flat onto the floor, right?  Same with a house.  The front and back walls are like the ends of a closed box, keeping it square and upright.

The problem is that sometimes these end walls can start to bulge outwards, since they're only connected to the rest of the house at their edges.  This can happen for a number of reasons.  One is that the foundation may have shifted over time.  Another is that the wall may not have been built perfectly vertically, and over time that error magnifies as gravity does its work.  The last reason is that old mortar is subject to deterioration, and may have crumbled out of the joints.  In any case, a bulging wall is a problem, because it is in danger of collapsing.  In the photo below, you can see the gap that's forming between the party wall (painted green) and the front wall of the house.

Now we're back to star bolts.  Star bolts help to tie the wall back to the building.  If you notice, the bolts always appear right where the second (and sometimes third) floor of the house would hit the wall (see next photo).  That's because the bolt is connected to a metal rod that goes through the wall and into the floor joists beyond.  Because those joists are securely fastened to the party wall, they serve as an anchor for the front wall to the rest of the building.

If you have minor bulging, you will likely use the bolts to stop any further movement, and leave the wall where it is.  If you have a major bulge, then more work is required to help push the wall back into place.  An architect or structural engineer can determine how many bolts you need and how far back into the floor they need to go.  Expect the work to make a mess of the ceiling below, since workers will need access to the joist space to drill holes and install the rods.

More examples are below.  You can see that "star" bolts aren't always star-shaped; they come in many decorative shapes, and sometimes they're even just a flat rectangular metal plate.

Do you have experience with star bolts?  Do you have them on your house?  Share your story in the comments.



Even "Set In Stone" Isn't Set In Stone

I recently took this picture of a slate windowsill near Broad and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia.  You can see that water, cold, and pollution have taken their toll.

Slate is a stone that is created from layers of clay that have been compressed together over millions of years.  The layers are easily split apart, which makes the stone easy to form into sheets for steps, paving stones, window sills, and shingles.  Unfortunately, this layering is a potential source of its downfall.

If this particular piece of slate falls on the more porous end of the scale (which I suspect it does), then it's probably been absorbing water for a long time.  Most of us know that water expands when it freezes.  As the freezing takes place, it forces the layers of stone apart.  We also have a lot of air pollution here, and porous stones can be weakened by acids in the environment, making the deterioration more rapid.

A good preventative measure would have been to apply a sealer to the stone to protect it from the elements.  The sealer will need to be reapplied every few years in order to maintain it.

Remember--a diamond may be forever, but depending on your environment, your building stone probably isn't.



Technical Tuesday: Concrete

Cooling Tower, Carling, France 1949, From the book "Twentieth Century Engineering", New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.

Cooling Tower, Carling, France 1949, From the book "Twentieth Century Engineering", New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.

Concrete is a part of nearly every building we build.  At the very least, its natural resistance to decay due to water makes it a part of most foundations and basements.  However, there are many misconceptions about concrete.

#1: Concrete and cement are two words for the same thing.

photos from

Cement (sometimes called Portland cement after its birthplace) is the gray, flourlike powder found in concrete.  It is made of four principal ingredients: lime, iron, silica, and alumina.  The source for these ingredients depends on where the cement is produced, but it may include limestone, marble, seashells, clay, shale, iron slag, flue dust, chalk, sand, or other minerals.  The ingredients are crushed, carefully blended, and fired in a kiln at roughly 3000° F.  The material is then crushed into the fine powder we know as cement.  Different porportions of the various ingredients produce cement with different properties.

Concrete, then, is cement mixed with aggregate and water.  Aggregate is a mixture of stone, gravel, and sand.  The size of the aggregate depends on how the concrete will be used.  The cement and water mix to form a paste that holds the aggregate together, and the finished product is called concrete.

close packing of coarse and fine aggregates

close packing of coarse and fine aggregates

#2: When you mix concrete, you just add water until it's wet enough to pour into the forms, right?

Wrong.  Mixing concrete is not like mixing salad dressing, where you can just eye it up.  It's more like baking.  The ingredients must be properly selected and carefully measured, and the proportions are very important.  For example, the proprtion of water to cement, in most cases, should be no more than 2:3.  If there is too much water, the resulting concrete will be weak and will have poor surface qualities.  If there is not enough water, the concrete will be hard to work into place.

Concrete that is too dry on the left, and too wet on the right.

#3: Once the concrete is poured, you can just leave it to dry, or, better yet, blow some fans on it to help it dry faster.

This is a common misconception about concrete.  What is happening to concrete after it is poured is not drying, it is curing.  The water and cement begin a chemical reaction, during which the cement binds to the aggregate while releasing heat.  This process starts quickly and continues for a very long time, but the concrete has reached  most of its final strength after 28 days.  During the early part of this process, it's important to actually keep the water in so that the chemical reaction can take place.  This can be achieved by covering the concrete with plastic or wet burlap, by shading it, and by protecting it from wind.  

Workmen covering a concrete panel with wet burlap and plastic to aid in proper curing.

For large surface areas like sidewalks, the concrete needs to be watered in order to keep the surface from drying out before the cement has had time to fully cure.  If it dries too quickly, the surface of the concrete will be weak, and will be subject to spalling.  Spalling happens when a weak surface layer of concrete allows water to infiltrate.  The water freezes and breaks up the surface of the concrete.

Concrete spalling on a sidewalk. Photo from

Hopefully this clears up some common misconceptions about concrete.  For more information, you can check out some of the many concrete-industry websites, such as