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Open Studio!


If you’re looking for something fun to do this Friday night, feel free to drop by our office (Room 425) for Open Studios night at Bok. Several tenants will be open to display their creative work in architecture, video, furnituremaking, glassblowing, jewelrymaking, and light.

4-7 pm Friday, October 11th
Bok Building, 1901 South 9th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19148



Hidden Design at the National Constitution Center

by Sara Pochedly


I recently made my first trip to the National Constitution Center located here in Philadelphia.  As a designer I was really impressed by the permanent exhibit space.  While there were approximately 100 people experiencing the exhibits, the room was surprisingly quiet.  Looking around I could see a variety of screens playing videos, but there were no headsets, no phone apps and I could not hear any media sounds.  And then all of a sudden, I stepped directly in front of a screen and the sound arrived!  I looked to the left, then to the right, and lastly up towards the ceiling, but saw nothing.  I thought, where is the sound coming from?  And then I looked towards to floor and noticed that the flooring had changed from carpet to a metal grate and realized the focused sound was coming from the floor!  Scanning the rest of the room I soon realized that many of the exhibits had these grates.  While they were not completely invisible, these grates blended into the background, and yet they were the most impactful part of the exhibit.  They made the exhibits engaging because as you moved from area to area, you continuously walked in and out of relevant audio/video clips.  This is a great example of when good design is invisible.


Sara is an Architect, Interior Designer and Sustainable designer who is a self-proclaimed museum aficionado.



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.



Get to Know Us

toner team

We are real people too!  Since we just put up the staff bios for everyone our website, we wanted to take a minute and share some fun facts about our team that are in addition to the formal bios.  You can check out the bios at


Ian Toner

Who is your favorite Architect? Alvar Aalto

What is your favorite building? Villa Mairea

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)? Prague. Went there with no expectations. It was beautiful and friendly.

What is your favorite color? Blue

What is your favorite food? Sichuan Chinese

What is your favorite song? Eye of the Tiger

What are your hobbies outside of work? 2 kids!

Do you have a pet? If yes, what type? Cat. Ugh.

Sara Pochedly

Who is your favorite Architect?  Richard Neutra (and Ian Toner)

What is your favorite building? It’s hard to choose just one, but I really enjoy the Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)?  Cleveland! As some of you may know, I am from Cleveland and awesome place to both live and visit.  I will have an upcoming blog post on what to do and see in Cleveland.

What is your favorite color? My favorite color in general is blue, my favorite color to wear is black, and my favorite color to paint the walls is light purple.

What is your favorite food? French Fries…wait I should probably say something healthy like green beans.  Growing up I asked my mom to make green beans so often, my siblings to this day say they can’t eat them.  I also really enjoy vegetarian Indian food.

What is your favorite song? I am a huge fan of electronic music and really enjoy Ratatat Loud Pipes.

What are your hobbies outside of work? Gardening, hiking and trying to renovate my own house with no help…

Do you have a pet? If yes, what type? Yes, a dog named Juno.  She is a Bichon Frise.

Justyn Myers

Who is your favorite Architect? Shuhei Endo for his simple material selections and undulating forms diving in and out of landscapes.

What is your favorite building?  Currently the Cira Center, I like to call it the shard.  It's a really simple design that has a powerful impact by using its natural surroundings.  The 4 sides of the building are square with the SE and NW corners sloping in.  This allows for these corners to light up during sun rise and sun set.  While the majority of the skyline is grey during these times this shouts like a beacon of color.  Cesar Pelli's approach to tall buildings is that they should never be capped off, always reaching higher into the sky.  This building is a clear representation of this idea.  Using these two ideas the building represents a shard of glass pointing to the taller buildings in Philadelphia's skyline.  It is so simple but yet so effective.

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)? Tokyo for its vibrant culture, wacky styles, it's vast night life, and delicious foods.

What is your favorite color? Earth tones of green

What is your favorite food? Cao lầu A delicious Vietnamese dish with noodles, fresh greens, pork and a little spice.  A really nice mix of cold and hot ingredients served at room temperature.

What is your favorite song?  There are so many but a couple would be "Get lifted" by George Mccrae, "Deacon Blues" by Steely Dan, "My Boo" Ghost Town DJ's, "Careless Whispers" by Wham.  These all come from the nostalgia of karaoke. Never try to sing a G-n-R song.

What are your hobbies outside of work? Event planning, costuming making, working with my hands and making things like furniture and props for events.  I also like exploring various places to send it.

Do you have a pet? If yes, what type? 2 cats, Coco & Chanel

Bart Bajda

Who is your favorite Architect?  Daniel Libeskind

What is your favorite building?  Santo Spirito

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)?  Barcelona

What is your favorite color?  Aqua

What is your favorite food?  Pad Prik Khing - Thai

What is your favorite song?  High Hopes - Pink Floyd

What are your hobbies outside of work?  Building furniture

Do you have a pet? If yes, what type?  No pets


David Fisher

Who is your favorite Architect? Frank Lloyd Wright

What is your favorite building? One Liberty Place

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)? Denver, CO

What is your favorite color? Green

What is your favorite food? Lasagna

What is your favorite song? Wait - M83

What are your hobbies outside of work?  Playing piano and guitar

Do you have a pet?  I (my family) have a dog and chinchilla.  Both live with my parents back home.

Sam Katovitch

Who is your favorite Architect?  Renzo Piano

What is your favorite building?  Grace Farms by SANAA

What is your favorite city (that is not Philadelphia)?  Paris, France

What is your favorite color?  Burgundy

What is your favorite food?  Pho

What is your favorite song?  Little Lighter by Ripe

What are your hobbies outside of work?  Film photography, writing, hiking, kayaking, road trips

Do you have a pet? If yes, what type?  One-eyed black cat named Manny

Come join us at our upcoming open house this Friday, October 12th, from 4-7. You can ask us about all our favorite things!



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


Milder Office Inc.


Nuance Jewelry

Remark Glass

Roantree Weaves

Stover Ceramics

Urban Aesthetics



Restarting the Blog!

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

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


we know it's a mess

and we're working on it . . .




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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Working Together

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


Our Team is Growing!

Well, it's finally happened. We've grown to the point that we needed more help. Lucky for us, Sara was ready to go.

Sara Shonk, our newest team member, is a licensed Architect, Interior Designer, and LEED AP. Since her time at Kent State University, she has had over 10 years of experience in residential, higher education, K-12 facilities, health care, preservation, sustainability, commercial, retail and hospitality design. 

Sara's experience will be a great benefit to our clients. She has a thorough knowledge of the complex building and accessibility codes that are applicable to larger projects. She has a strong work ethic that helps her develop creative solutions to design challenges and stay on schedule. And her interiors expertise means that at the end of the project, the final product will not only function, but will be beautiful as well.

Welcome Sara!


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.



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?



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.



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.



A Week of Service

Last week was a busy one here.  Lots of projects to work on, permits received, construction continuing. At the same time, I was able to make some time for a few community organizations I'm involved with.

First, our local elementary school, Southwark, is contemplating some playground improvements. When I say "playground", I'm referring to this:

As you can see, there's a lot of room for improvement. Currently, the only equipment out there are two backboardless basketball hoops bolted to the side of the building.

I got involved with the school through my neighborhood association's education committee. The committee began working on this idea with the principal about a year ago, and things are now moving forward. I was able to provide them with a site plan to begin preliminary discussions. I will likely not have a large design role in this project--that will hopefully be handled by OLIN, one of the world's leading landscape architecture firms (I'm not kidding--check out their website), who has an employee living in the neighborhood. Hopefully I'll have more good news to report on this project in the next few months.

On a related note, I also serve on my neighborhood association's zoning committee. Each month we hold public meetings with interested neighbors to find out about projects in our area that have applied for zoning variances. The project team--which may include the owner, architect, and/or lawyer--present their project and make a case for why it will be a benefit to the neighborhood. Afterwards, the neighbors take a vote, and we, the committee members, use that vote to help inform our own vote. Our September meeting is tonight, which means that last week I distributed flyers to about 150 addresses within close proximity to this month's project.

Next on the list is the Penn Jersey Roller Derby League. I began working with the league on a pro bono basis back in January. The have space in a warehouse at 19th and Indiana in North Philadelphia. To call their building "nondescript" would be an understatement:

I've put an arrow where their front door is. It has a small stencil with their logo on it, and that's it. So, we're going to work on their street presence, as well as their restroom, locker room, and concessions situations. Ultimately, they'd like to be able to host events there and sell tickets to support the league.

Finally, I attended a board meeting at the Tolentine Community Center, right down the street from the office. I'd been asked by the board's president to consider joining the board, along with a few other people from the neighborhood. It was an interesting meeting, and I learned a lot about where the Center is headed in the next few years. I've decided to join, and am looking forward to making a positive impact on the community.

As you can see, your friendly neighborhood architect is up to a lot. I'll keep you posted on future developments.


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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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Paying Tribute

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a retirement party for my high-school art teacher, Mrs. Little.  There were current and former students, teachers and administrators, friends and family present.  These sorts of events (and the 2 1/2 hour drive to get back to my hometown) give me a chance to reflect on the influence people can have on each other.

Though it's been quite a while since high school, I still feel Mrs. Little's influence.  She respected and listened to her students.  She wanted us to find our own way of expressing ourselves, not just complete assignments.  She was on our side, and often helped us through tough times that had nothing to do with art.  And she didn't hesitate to tell you when your work wasn't your best.

Many of these indirect lessons that she taught have been invaluable to my own work.  I've learned to be a good listener, to see the value in my clients' contributions to the process, and to collaborate with others who have skills I lack.  It's important for me that my clients feel empowered and included in the design process, and that they know that they can count on me to be on their side during construction, when they may feel intimidated by contractors and the building process.

In my own capacity as a teacher I have always tried to help my students find their own creative voice, and to learn the conventions that exist so that they will be able to break them when necessary.  

And for myself, my clients, and my students, I am never satisfied with the status quo.  I'm always pushing all of us to do our best, and then to do better.  I think Mrs. Little would approve.



Zoning? Building? What?

A set of Zoning drawings showing the size of the building's exterior, and where it sits on its site.

When considering a construction project, there are seemingly endless codes one must conform to.  In Philadelphia alone, we must adhere to:

  • Philadelphia Zoning Code
    • Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code, which consists of
      • International Building Code 2009
      • International Building Code 2012, Chapter 11 and Appendix E
      • International Residential Code 2009
      • International Existing Building Code 2009
      • International Fire Code 2009, including the 2010 Philadelphia Fire Code amendments
      • International Plumbing Code 2009
      • International Mechanical Code 2009
      • International Fuel Gas Code 2009
      • International Energy Conservation Code 2009
      • ICC Performance Code for Buildings and Facilities 2009
      • International Wildland-Urban Interface Code 2009
      • International Private Sewage Disposal Code 2009
      • Pennsylvania’s Propane and Liquefied Petroleum Gas Act
      • The Philadelphia Code, which modifies many of the above, and consists of
        • Administrative Code
        • Plumbing Code
        • Property Maintenance Code

Did I miss anything?

A big part of figuring out the code requirements for a project is figuring out which codes apply and which don't.  This can be a difficult process, and often requires calls to the City.  However, most projects boil down to two main codes that will affect the architectural design.  They are the Zoning and Building codes.

The Zoning Code is the body of rules that regulates three main things:

  1. what can be built on a site, 
  2. where on the site it can be built, and 
  3. how big it can be.

The first thing to do is to find out how your property is zoned.  In Philadelphia we have a great interactive map system that lets you search a property by address.  For example, my office:

If we zoom in, you can see that the map indicates the parcel with a box, and calls out its zoning designation.  In this case, it's CMX-1.

The next step is to go to the Philadelphia Zoning Code, which is Title 14 of The Philadelphia Code.  Here, you'll find Table 14-602-2, which tells you what is allowed to be built on a parcel with a CMX-1 designation.  For example, you are allowed to operate a day care center, professional office, or retail store, but are not allowed to operate a hospital, a restaurant, or a parking lot.  

Because Zoning is so specific to the place it regulates, nearly every county or municipality in the country has its own code (Houston, TX is a famous exception).  We're lucky in Philadelphia, because all of this information is available online and is searchable.  Most smaller municipalities have their Zoning maps and codes online, but the maps aren't interactive.  To be sure of the Zoning designation for a parcel in one of these places, it's best to call the municipal office to get their input.

So what's the point of Zoning?  These types of regulations have many proponents and detractors ever since the first large-scale Zoning rules were enacted in New York City in 1916.  The basic purpose of Zoning is to separate land uses that are thought to be incompatible with one another, to prevent new development from negatively impacting existing development, and to encourage development in a direction deemed beneficial to the community as a whole.  Some examples:

  1. Zoning rules might keep large factories from being built in residential neighborhoods.
  2. Zoning rules might encourage higher-density development in a downtown business district, and allow lower-density development in residential areas.
  3. Zoning rules might limit the height of buildings near an airport for safety reasons.

Zoning is what tells you how far your building must sit from the street and from your property lines.  It regulates how high your building can be and what you can use it for.

What if you don't like what the Zoning Code says about your property?  That's when you need a variance, and that's a tale for a future post. . .

The other main type of code is the Building Code.  While the Zoning Code determines what can be built, building codes regulate how a building is built.  This includes issues such as structural design, handicap accessibility, exiting requirements, and construction materials.  The Building Code will tell you what the minimum size is for a room, and how many exits you need from a gymnasium.  It will tell you what size joists you need to support your floor, and it will tell you what testing requirements your brick must meet.

A sheet from a set of drawings used to obtain a Building permit, showing how the building is constructed.

Because construction techniques and materials are similar in different regions of the country, the basic Building Code is usually the same everywhere (the International Building Code).  Of course, every government has the right to choose its own code or to modify the IBC, so here in Philadelphia we use a combination of the IBC 2009 and the IBC 2012, and we don't follow all the chapters of either, substituting in our own Plumbing Code and Elevator Code, and striking many of the Appendices, among other changes.

Lobo/Zilper Residence; the amount of code-wrangling on this project was immense.

So, after reading this post, do you want to be an architect?  This part is step one on any project; you can't design something until you know your parameters.  When you work with an architect, an understanding of these codes is just one small part of the expertise he or she brings to the table.

Happy reading!



Multiple approaches.

Poplar and Chang Streets, Philadelphia. Which is the better solution, the fence or the sign?

Poplar and Chang Streets, Philadelphia. Which is the better solution, the fence or the sign?

For the past few days, I've been in a mental cave, teaching myself how to use some new software.  Current architectural software is a lot better than the old drafting programs.  Before, you were essentially mimicking the process of hand drawing--lines on a screen.  The meaning the lines carried was only in the eye of the beholder.  Now, with Building Information Modeling (BIM--read about it on Wikipedia), the computer knows what things are.  This is pretty great.  Because the computer knows what you're drawing (modelling, actually), it can help you keep track of things and keep the project up to date.  For example, if you wanted to know how many of a particular light fixture are in the building, the computer can tell you that instantly.  If you change the name of something in one place, the program updates that name everywhere.

I went through all this once before.  Three years ago, I began learning REVIT, one of the top BIM programs.  It was tough to learn, but worth it.  Now, I'm learning another one, ArchiCAD.  And even though the basic idea is the same, and the intended output is the same, the approaches are very different.  It's a reminder that, given the same design problem, two different designers will often come up with two very different solutions.