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Brussels vs. Philadelphia

by David Fisher

A little over a year ago, I traveled to Belgium with my freshman-year roommate from Drexel University and his mother.  We stayed in Brussels and spent most of our time visiting local relatives of my friend and traveling around the country.  As the capital of Belgium and the seat of the European Union, Brussels is a city full of grand European architecture.  What piqued my interest, however, was the chaotic juxtaposition of architectural styles that are found all over the city.

The typical Brussels residential street contains a surprising diversity of housing styles that butt-up against one another quite literally.  Brussels is famous for Art-Nouveau and Art-Deco architecture that embodies the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk (A German word meaning: a complete work of art) found in many European houses from the early 20th Century.  Art-Nouveau architecture makes use of iron and woodwork in sinuous details on building facades and throughout interior fixtures and decor.  Details in these houses are often nature-inspired and contain imagery of plants and greenery as an incorporated form of art into the houses’ structure and expression.  Brussels is the birthplace of Art-Nouveau architecture and has a number of famous examples of the style scattered throughout the city.  Sadly, Art-Nouveau fell out of fashion in Europe and new forms of architecture replaced many existing Art-Nouveau structures.

Because of the ever-changing taste in architecture, Brussels has many streets with houses of all shapes, styles, and sizes all packed into rows.  As I walked or drove through the city, I could see a four-story Modern apartment building neighboring a very traditional three-story European townhouse, followed by a historic or recreated version of an Art-Nouveau house.  Rooflines constantly changed along the roads and almost no coherence between buildings could be seen most of the time.  It certainly creates a unique aesthetic to the city of Brussels, but it is not one that particularly appeals to me.

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Apartments in Mantua

Apartments in Mantua

Having spent the past two years in Philadelphia, I have begun to notice some similarities between Brussels and the City of Brotherly Love.  Both cities have quite a rich history respectively, and contain vibrant city centers with large administrative buildings and sleek modern towers.  In the residential areas in both of the cities, various kinds of architectural styles can be found between neighboring houses in a row.  While Brussels has a bit more extreme of a difference between neighboring houses, I have found many interesting design decisions in Philadelphia on streets with traditional row house designs.  Mantua alone has a growing diversity in rowhouse styles and house types.  With Drexel University continuing to grow and influence the North end of West Philadelphia, many vacant lots are being used for new construction to house students.  New apartment buildings can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood now and the atmosphere of the neighborhood, architecturally, can be quite disorienting.  As you walk north from Drexel’s campus, dormitories become re-purposed manors, then rowhouses from a particular time period, then renovated or new buildings, and then the same or a different traditional style of rowhouse.  For the most part, streets remain architecturally consistent as you move east and west with a couple of variations between blocks, but much of Mantua has a mixed identity of what type of house you will see.

Building styles juxtaposed.

Building styles juxtaposed.

In the time that I’ve traveled to South Philadelphia to work here at Toner Architects, I have noticed that much of the city is experiencing this same recreation of streets into interesting combinations of rowhouse styles.  All around the city there are new breaks in the grid of the city and the rooflines of houses.  Almost every house in the city seems to have its own identity that either subtly changes the order of the street, or makes a noticeable statement of breaking away from the surrounding architectural context.  It would seem that the easiest way to observe the changes happening in the city, is to observe the decisions people make regarding the forms and styles of houses they occupy.

David is a a co-op student, attending Drexel University and working full-time as an architectural designer.

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Brewerytown – First Impressions

by Bart Bajda

I’d like to begin this by saying thank you to the City of Brotherly Love for the warm welcome it has given me since moving here and I mean that literally; the weather has been too hot for comfort.  Nonetheless, this is a tale of my venture to Philadelphia and my first impressions of the neighborhood I now call home. 

One of the first steps in moving to a new city is finding a place to hang your hat.  Everyone has their specific list of must-haves and deal breakers but unlike most, my criteria was pretty relaxed.  What can I say…I’m a simple man.  Some sort of backyard, storage space, and of course a low budget were my only requirements.  Not too familiar with the city, I set out on an apartment tour across many neighborhoods curated by a rental agent.  What I quickly found was that my neighborhood options were limited based on what I needed and what I was willing to pay.  Hence, I landed in Brewerytown…oh sweet B-town.  I’m told the entire area was completely populated with breweries before Prohibition killed the majority of the business.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood so gracefully named?  Right?  Apparently not.  When I began telling everyone the great news, to my surprise, not many knew where this even was.  Somehow this seemed to be uncharted territory, even for a few native Philadelphians.  Now as soon as I mentioned the new Aldi grocery store…the light bulb went off.  Nonetheless, I began having my doubts on whether this was a good decision. 

Fast forward a few months and the doubts have all quickly evaporated into thin air and I am overwhelmingly proud to call Brewerytown my home.  This neighborhood has thus far preserved a sense of grittiness and natural urban feel, not yet overtaken by the privileged (see definition of gentrification).  Just take a walk down Girard Avenue and you’ll see Rybrew, the sister sandwich shop to Rybread with an unbelievable beer selection, coexisting with the Girard Veterinary Clinic and Cycle Brewerytown on the same block.  Across the street, Spot Burger dishes out some of the finest patties between 2 buns that you’ll find in the city.  Within a 5 minute walk you’ll find other incredible businesses like Chez Novaks, Karma Pizza (formerly Uncle Nicks), Pizza Dads, Young’s Sneaker City, Electric Temple, Brewerytown Bicycles, Otto’s, 2637 Brew, Monkey and the Elephant, Era, Brewerytown Beats, and Crime and Punishment Brewing Co., triumphantly putting the “brewery” back in Brewerytown.  The list goes on and on and I haven’t even mentioned the quintessential corner stores (or as I like to call them…bodegas) that populate almost every other street corner. 

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

If you ask me, I’d say leave it the way it is, but for better or for worse there is a tremendous amount of new construction of all scales happening as I write this.  Almost every property on 31st street from Girard to Oxford St is currently under construction or has been within the last 3 years claiming the newly minted title of 31st Street Corridor.  For Pete’s sake, there’s a Green Eggs Café opening soon on Girard Ave.  Is it an ominous cloud of doom and development that hovers above Brewerytown, or is it the necessary next step that leads to success?  Only time will tell, but for now, I will enjoy my stay, listening to the charming rumble of the #15 trolley. 

Brewerytown 1.JPG

Bart Bajda an architect and lover of cold weather.

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An Architect’s Christmas Story

Warning:  If you believe in Santa, you may want to stop here. 

As the weather becomes crisp and cold, and the Christmas decorations begin to fill people’s homes and yards one particular childhood memory comes to mind. 

In the 80s my family and I lived in a small post-war suburb in Northeast Ohio. The house was a Cape-Cod and was very small and compact like many houses of that era. Due to its size, one very important design feature was left out. The house did not have a fireplace. By the age of 4 this became a very alarming issue, as all of the popular media suggested, Santa would park his sleigh on the roof and use the chimney to enter the house and deliver the presents. But since we did not have a chimney or a fireplace, how was Santa going to find us? We had family members and friends who had similar issues and seemed to resolve this by purchasing a cardboard fireplace set. But on several occasions at the store, my sister and I had requested we purchase a fireplace set, and were very disappointed when my Mom said no. 

As Christmas grew closer the fireplace issue became a continuous conversation and I believe it became very frustrating to my parents. So, my dad bundled my sister and I up in our winter coats and boots and we made a trip into the backyard. He then pointed to the roof where a small black pipe was sticking up above the roof and told us that is where Santa enters, its like a chimney just smaller and since Santa is magic, he will have no issue finding his way into the house. This explanation made sense and we were satisfied that Santa would find us. And he did that Christmas!

See, they even have cardboard chimneys in South Philly!

See, they even have cardboard chimneys in South Philly!

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Fast forward approximately 15 years, at this point I am 20 years old attending Kent State for Architecture. During our 3rd year we have to take an Environmental Technology course. This course is our introduction to building systems such as heating and cooling, plumbing, electric etc. We begin our plumbing course work and we are learning how all of the toilets and sinks are connected to a sanitary line and to maintain the pressure balance in the pipes the sanitary lines are connected to a vent stack which extends through the roof. At this point I suddenly realize that all those years before, while standing in the backyard, my Dad was actually telling us that Santa went down the vent stack and then would have to make his grand entrance into the house…..through the toilet! I was shocked!

Santa going down the vent stack.jpg

In recent years we have talked about family memories from past holidays and I asked my Dad if he remembered telling us this. Sadly, he does not remember this event, but he does admit that it sounds like something he would have done. We all did get a great laugh and now have a great family story to share!

Happy Holidays!

Sara is an Architect, Interior Designer, and Sustainable Designer with lots of Christmas Spirit!

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South Philly Smokhaus is Now Open

plenty of wood for the in-house smoker! (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

plenty of wood for the in-house smoker! (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

by Sara Pochedly

We are really excited to announce that South Philly Smokhaus is now open!  Eric Daelhousen came to us 2 years ago with a plan of opening South Philly Smokhaus, and after considering several locations, all in South Philly, he decided to make his home here at Bok! (Which is really convenient for the Toner Team and anyone visiting us, since he is our downstairs neighbor.) 

Eric hard at work. (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

Eric hard at work. (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

If you follow the lingering aroma of burning wood that brings memories of family gatherings and great food it will lead you to the doorstep of South Philly Smokhaus. The smoker is burning around the clock so that they can offer a wide variety of smoked meats including brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage and chicken quarters. In addition to the meat offerings there are a variety of sandwiches, sides and desserts. The full menu can be found at https://www.southphillysmokhaus.com. I am certain that you will find something you will like! In my opinion, there is no wrong choice, everything that we have sampled has been delicious.

As an added bonus Giunta’s Prime of Reading Terminal market has opened up its own separate counter, called Passio Prime, inside the South Philly Smokhaus restaurant bringing a delightful selection of fresh meats to the neighborhood.

mmmmm . . . meat (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

mmmmm . . . meat (photo by Bart Bajda / Toner Architects)

From a design perspective Eric did something really special by engaging a variety of companies here at Bok to help actualize the restaurant. Each company/designer brought a specific touch and combined together provided a refined version of a traditional Barbecue aesthetic.  The team included:

Architecture: Toner Architects – www.tonerarch.com

Interior design, furniture selection: Nuance Jewelry - www.nuance-jewelry.com

South Philly Smokhaus keychains: Nuance Jewelry - www.nuance-jewelry.com

Decorative paint: Done + Dusted - www.doneanddusted.us

Feature light fixture: Remark Glass - www.remarkglass.com

Countertops and tabletops: Bicyclette Furniture - www.bicyclettefurniture.com     

Sandwich bread: Machine Shop Boulangerie - www.machineshopphilly.com                    

Photography: Stevie Chris - www.steviechris.com

We recommend you stop by and grab a bite, and promise you won’t be disappointed.  But, please plan ahead and get there early, because they have been selling out daily!

Sara is an Architect, Interior Designer, Sustainable Designer and a secretly aspiring food critic.

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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 http://www.tonerarch.com/about/

 

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!

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Open House!

Mark your calendars, save the date!  Toner Architects will be opening our office doors for Bok Night from 4-7 on Friday, October 12 for Design Philadelphia.  Please stop by for a visit!

You’ll get a chance to see our new office and have a look at what we’ve been working on. While you’re here, you can check out our office-mate Chris Landau’s work, as well.

We are located in Bok (A hub for Design Philadelphia this year) at

1901 South 9th Street (corner of 9th and Mifflin)
Room 425
Philadelphia, PA 19148

In addition to our open house there will be multiple other companies hosting events that night at Bok including but not limited to:

Bicyclette Furniture

Firth and Wilson Transport Cycles

Gnome Architects

JV Collective

Klip Collective

Lobo Mau

made@bok

Milder Office Inc.

Mozilla

Nuance Jewelry

Remark Glass

Roantree Weaves

Stover Ceramics

Urban Aesthetics

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Adult Science Fair

by Justyn Myers

A while back I was given the chance to participate and compete in a local science fair.  When presented with the idea, the inner kid in me got real excited as images of trifold presentation boards and short sleeved collared shirts ran through my mind.  What kind of project would have the most impact, would be the most fun to build, and is something I could use after it was done?  I had figured the volcano was played out, and robotics would be too complicated given the short 2-week time frame.  I had always wanted to make a trebuchet and this was the perfect time to do so.  Now I have the opportunity to explore how it was made by going through those motions and get a chance to really understand how to maximize its potential (energy).   I’m going to run through the steps of how to make one and explain my conclusion and explore what I would do differently when I build the next one. 

The trebuchet is an ancient siege engine used for throwing large rocks. It was invented in China in about the 4th century BC, came to Europe in the 6th century AD, and did not become obsolete until the 16th century, well after the introduction of gunpowder.  Trebuchets were so popular because an army would show up to invade a castle and use the surrounding trees to build the catapult, thus relieving the army of having to carry this large thing around when travelling.

A classical trebuchet involves a falling counterweight which accelerates the throwing arm and the sling attached to it. A small speed on the counterweight provides a large speed on the end of the throwing arm and an even larger speed on the projectile in the sling because the arm and projectile have a much larger radius from the fulcrum than the counterweight does. Ideally, the sling will release when the projectile is traveling at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and the counterweight should impart all of its energy to the projectile. I decided to make a trebuchet that would use a case of soda as a counterweight, and would throw a single can of soda as far as possible.

treb 1.jpg
treb 2.jpg

Aside from the basic components of the trebuchet there are other factors to consider when building a trebuchet.  After building the initial small-scale model I made changes and added these items:

WHEELS: As the counterweight swings down, the trebuchet rolls forwards and then backwards. The forward motion adds to the velocity of the projectile, much as the forward motion of a baseball pitcher add to the velocity of a ball. The forwards motion of the trebuchet also helps to smooth out the motion of the swinging beam, adding to the control of the projectile.

COUNTERWEIGHTS WERE OF TWO TYPES: fixed or hinged. Fixed counterweights were easier to design and build. However, in an effort to harness the full energy of the falling mass, hinged counterweight trebuchets were built.  I used both and found the projectile went further with a hinged counterweight.  The hinge allowed the counterweight to fall at maximum velocity without any horizontal drag.

THINGS I WOULD CHANGE
There are a couple things I would change when I tackle this project again.  One thing would be to increase the amount of counter weight used from (1) case to (2) cases of soda because generally in a trebuchet as the weight increases the distance increases as well.  We should have cut the hole in our arm further so that the arm could reach the trigger without additional string. This would make our trebuchet more efficient.  And lastly, I would create an adjustable pin mechanism to adjust firing angle on the battle field.

CONCLUSION
This trebuchet model was an enjoyable and surprising project. The design and construction were both challenging and interesting, and this small project allows you to exercise both your mind and your hands. It was surprising because the mathematical model corresponded so well with the range and actual performance in the field. I think it can be said with certainty that the more soda you drink out of the can to be thrown (making it lighter), and the more soda you add to the counterweight, the distance travelled by the projectile increases. In addition, the greater the height above the ground the counterweight is held, and the greater the angle the projectile turns through, the greater the displacement of the projectile. For an object that is 36" tall and works on only gravity to fire an object 33 feet (as mine did) attests to the beauty and pragmatism of the trebuchet design.

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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!

office.jpg

we know it's a mess

and we're working on it . . .

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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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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.

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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?

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Thankfulness

For most of us, Thanksgiving is a time when we gather with family and eat a lot. Maybe there's football, too. There might even be a brief moment, as we start eating, when we reflect on what we have to be thankful for in our lives.

It's easy to forget those things throughout the rest of the year. We in the United States are very fortunate to be here, to live in a country where an enormous economic meltdown, as painful as it has been, didn't lead to war or massive famine. Where government deadlock didn't lead to a military coup or a complete loss of order. Where most of us can count on having electricity and water whenever we want it. There are lots of places in the world that don't have any of these securities.

But you don't have to be so dramatic about it. There are lots of people right here who don't have a basic education. Who don't have food security. Who don't have a reliable place to sleep at night. Who suffer from domestic violence. Most of us don't have to deal with these concerns.

But you don't have to be so dramatic about it. There are lots of people this holiday season who will be mourning the loss of loved ones. Who will mourn the loss of relationships due to divorce or other circumstances. Who are overseas and can't get home. Most of us are fortunate not to have these burdens.

But you don't have to be so dramatic about it. Lots of people this holiday season won't get awesome presents. They won't get expensive wine with their meals, or a new car. They may not even get that grande chai three-pump-skim milk-lite water-no foam-extra hot latte from Starbucks, because it costs too much.

This year, it's important to me to see not just the big things, but also the little things that make me so fortunate. The little ones add up to a pretty great life. I'm going to keep those things in mind when I have the urge to complain.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

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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 www.carolinasystemsbuilt.com

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?

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Another Reason to Love the City

Last week was Halloween, which of course means trick-or-treating. It was a great night to be out, whether you were with kids (like I was) or if you were handing out candy. The weather was mild here in Philly, which meant that the crowds were better than last year. I took this photo at 6:30 in the evening.

Say what you will about South Philly (I know I do), but when it comes to kids, the neighborhood really turns out. People love to compliment kids and exclaim how beautiful they are, and are always forthcoming with a hearty "Ga-bless" (short for "God bless you, you wonderful child"). This spirit is really on display during Halloween.

I grew up in a small town, with large houses on big lots. You really had to put in some effort if you were going to get around to enough houses to fill your bag. Long front walks (NEVER walk across someone's lawn to take a shortcut) and separated houses really separated candy collection points, and on top of that you had to ring the doorbell and wait for the person to answer it.

Not so in Philly. Here, the houses are only sixteen feet (or less) wide, and everyone's out on their stoop. You do more of a candy drive-by,  just holding out the bag and getting your bounty. Easy on the kids, plus lots of people on the street makes for a fun environment. In about an hour, my kids had their bags full and were ready to go home.

There's a lot of talk out there about walkability in cities, as one of the may key things that make them successful. Community events like trick-or-treating really showcase a neighborhood's strengths. Ours shone brightly this year, and it's part of why I'm  proud to be a Philadelphian*.

*I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you're not technically a Philadelphian if you weren't born and raised here. Just ask anyone at your neighborhood deli.

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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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Shut Down!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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What to do With the Parkway?

Image from the report "More Park, Less Way" by PennPraxis and the Department of Parks and Recreation

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.  For those of you who don't know, the parkway runs diagonally from Love Park (near City Hall) northwest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (location of Rocky's famous celebration).  It serves as the city's cultural corridor, and thus connects Center City with Fairmount Park.

The article addresses some of the issues with the Parkway's current design, including traffic and lots of underutilized open space.  While the walk is beautiful in some ways, it can be intimidating.  The road is very wide, and contains many lanes of traffic, all moving chaotically through two traffic circles, an island parking lot, and a highway connection.  While the city has recently delineated bike lanes and clearer pedestrian crossings, the whole thing still feels too car-oriented.

Can I get some people with those cars? Photo from philly.com.

This summer, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation created The Oval, a large beach-themed park in the middle of the Parkway.  It serves to highlight the area, offer a place for neighborhood residents to escape the summer heat, and show one possibility for how to re-imagine the area.

Food trucks wait along the edge of the new, temporary park in Eakins Oval. Photo from planphilly.com.

This is a great design and a wonderful asset to the city, even if it's temporary.  But that's the problem: we need a long-term solution here.  It will require a combination of urban design, landscape, and architecture.  

Urban designers need to re-imagine how we use the Parkway, and how we should use it.  How much car traffic should be directed through?  How much sidewalk is enough?  How often should the two-mile stretch be broken by a point of interest?  

Landscape architects will need to continue focusing on the opportunities to tie the large, set-back buildings into the pedestrian experience.  We shouldn't just admire these buildings from afar--we should feel invited in.  Where smaller pieces of land sit empty, we should consider whether more constructed parks, such as Sister Cities Park, are appropriate.  Larger areas can be dedicated to athletic fields or event spaces.  

Architects can be called on to help infill some of these larger spaces as well--not everything on the Parkway needs to be a large museum or hotel.  The cafe at Sister Cities Park is a perfect example.  Why not offer more opportunities to sit and enjoy a snack or drink as visitors make their way from museum to museum?

Obviously, all this takes time and money.  It also takes effort and cooperation.  The city can't do it alone--donors will need to step up financially, designers will need to work together, and the public will need to make its needs known.  

So what do you think--any ideas?

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