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residential architect philadelphia

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Project Progress: 1627 Brandywine

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

The existing front.

The existing front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some images of the proposed space.

Some images of the proposed space.

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

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Parish House Opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Window team is measuring for installation.

Window team is measuring for installation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main space on the first floor during demolition.

The main space on the first floor during demolition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the master bedroom on the third floor.

The view from the master bedroom on the third floor.

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

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

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Things We Do: Historical Commission Approvals

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

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

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

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

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

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Socializing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Project Progress: 170 West Oxford

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

That's us, in the middle.

That's us, in the middle.

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

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

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

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

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

A quick rendering of the finished project.

A quick rendering of the finished project.

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

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Working Together

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

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

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

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

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

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