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Project Roundup: Week of 10/26/15

It was a busy week here. Wednesday was a trip up to New York to watch a first-year graduate student review at Columbia University. I didn't take a whole lot of pictures of the students' work, but I did take some photos of the room we were in. Back when I was visiting colleges with my parents, my dad made the observation that architecture buildings always seemed to be the worst on campus. I didn't see much of the building I was in, but the specific room was definitely underloved. Here's an example of the kind of delicate, thoughtful detailing I observed:

If the review hadn't been so interesting, I would have probably spent more time trying to come up with a backstory for these things. But fortunately, the students kept my attention. Congratulations to the students and their professor, Adam Snow Frampton of Only If, on all the progress.

After returning to Philadelphia, I made the rounds of projects in progress:

2028-32 East Arizona Street

Last week you only got to see the exterior of this project, but the real excitement this week is happening inside. Each of the three houses are in different stages of completion:

Here, sprinklers are going in. Insulation just went in this week, too.

Next door, drywall is up and you can really start to get a feel for what the completed spaces will be like. Here, you can see the sunlight coming in through the double-height glass in the dining room and washing across the kitchen wall.

In the finished basement, the electricians are working hard to finalize all of the circuiting for lighting and outlets.

On the second floor, the hardwood flooring is in and the painters are working away.

2136 East Firth Street

This one is a total gut-rehab of an existing three-story rowhouse. It's right next door to our soon-to-start-construction Parish House project (more on that in a few weeks). Here, you can see that insulating foam has been applied to the exterior of the old brick walls, and will soon be ready for an application of stucco. The system provides good air sealing and a little extra insulation to the overall wall assembly. 

On the horizon, we'll be working on a house for this tiny 13' x 43' lot in the Kensington section of Philadelphia (it's the one in the middle):

See you next week!

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The End of the Suburbs?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The event was hosted by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and was held at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, which is featured in the book as an example of one type of neighborhood that people are choosing over suburbia.

About one hundred or so people were in attendance, including neighborhood leaders, real estate brokers and developers, designers, and even our City Councilman. On stage were Ms. Gallagher and Inga Saffron, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who covers architecture, design, and planning. Prompted by questions from Ms. Saffron, Gallagher gave a brief synopsis of the book and then took questions from the audience.

The two main points of the book, extremely briefly:

  • The suburbs--with open space, cars, and single-family home ownership--defined the "American Dream" for a period of nearly 70 years. This definition of success was directly opposite from the image of city life.
  • In recent years, the housing crisis exposed problems with the suburban style of development, exacerbating long-running economic, societal, and demographic issues. The nuclear family is no longer the dominant social structure, rising oil prices and long commutes have turned the younger generation away from cars, and cities are experiencing a renaissance that has led to the smoothing over of their rough edges.

Gallagher does not argue that the suburbs are going away, but she does make the point that recent data show a change is happening. Cities are getting healthier. People are tired of commuting for work and play.

Of course, it's not all roses in the city. In particular, the issues surrounding public education are overwhelming, and Gallagher acknowledges that a lack of quality public education might be the biggest thing holding most cities back. There may be a "sweet spot" in the middle--older "streetcar suburbs" with their own downtowns (for example, Media, PA, where Gallagher is from) offer many of the benefits of both the city and the suburbs.

Some questions I thought about during and after the presentation:

  • If the more affluent leave their suburban homes and move back to the city, improving (gentrifying?) neighborhoods and raising property values, where do the poor, who were originally left behind in dying cities, going to go? Those with limited financial means are the least equipped to re-populate the suburbs, with their dependence on cars, large plots (=higher taxes per home), and lack of adequate social services.
  • If the suburbs are left abandoned, what happens to the homes and infrastructure that's left behind?
  • How will cities react to increased population? What vestiges of their old suburban lives will those new transplants bring with them? Will they be able to make themselves comfortable with less space, less stuff, and fewer cars? Or will the city begin to take on some aspects of suburban culture?

Do you have a story about moving from suburbia to the city, or vice versa? What was your experience?

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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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Ian Does Career Day at PPACS

On April 13th, I had the pleasure of attending the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School Career Day.  The focus was on the creative economy; other presenters were ad executives, event planners, engineers, and lighting designers, to name a few.  I made a presentation about the profession of architecture to three different sixth-grade classes.

I was really impressed by the students at this school.  Not only did they sit quietly and show interest, but they asked great questions.  Special thanks to Avigail Milder, who contacted me about participating.  (Avigail herself is part of the creative economy--see her work at Philly Face Painting.)

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So You Want to Start a Renovation?

Thanks to everyone who came to my presentation on residential renovations at the Columbus Square Park Rec Center at 12th and Wharton in Philadelphia.  The presentation focused on the design process, codes, and what to expect during construction.  I also explained the value an architect brings to the renovations process.

If you're interested in a snapshot of the presentation, you can download a pdf of the slide show.  If you're interested in links to some of the agencies that I mentioned during the presentation, you can go to the related links section of my website.

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Upcoming Event--Save the Date

Contemplating a home renovation project for the spring?  Want to know how to get started?  Join Ian Toner for an informative talk about design, codes, and the construction process on Thursday, March 3rd at 7pm in the Columbus Square Park Rec Center (12th & Reed).  Visit www.columbussquarepark.org for more info.

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