Skipping architectural design can be penny-wise, pound foolish

“I already have a design, I just need the plans drawn up.”  This is a statement that makes architects cringe.  In some cases, it will cause the architect to turn down your project.  What someone thinks is a “design” could have a lot of missing pieces.  Even when people use design software to draw up a floor plan, their idea typically hasn’t taken into consideration the building code requirements, local ordinances, structural issues, cost of construction, best use of space and other important factors.  By saying they have a completed design, the client has boxed the architect into a corner.  The client will get a lower quality outcome as a result.

We certainly want our clients to come to us with ideas, sketches, photos, and examples of what they like.  They can bring us their version of the design.  We will work closely with the client to incorporate their ideas, needs and desires into the final design.  We don’t expect a blank slate.  But we want the latitude to utilize our expertise and experience to come up with the best possible design within the client’s budget.  We will then draw it up into a set of construction documents (plans and specifications).  If the client thinks that they have already completed the design, they will only want to pay for the documents.  They will be unwilling to engage in (and pay for) the creative thought process and design steps that are necessary for an optimal project.

If you have clear ideas about what you would like to achieve, and you like to dabble in design, even use a home version of design software, that’s great!  Just don’t assume that you’ve done the architect’s job.   Bring us your ideas and we will use those as a starting point for the design.

Licensed architects not only have to complete a college degree in architecture, they must work years of apprenticeship training and pass a battery of rigorous examinations.  The amount of time it takes to get an architectural license in the U.S. currently averages 12.5 years!  https://www.ncarb.org/press/2017-time-to-architecture-license   It takes not only artistic and creative abilities, it also takes geometric and mathematical skills and a strong understanding of physics.  An architectural license is a matter of public health and safety, since we all spend much of our lives inside buildings.  It’s not something you can learn by buying off-the-shelf software.

Here is an example that we encountered recently.  A retail store owner wanted to remodel his store.  He thought it was an easy project and he paid an interior designer to draw up a “design” based on his ideas.  The interior designer is not a licensed architect, and although the drawings looked legitimate, they didn’t comply with building codes and accessibility requirements.  The store owner hired a contractor friend, who started to work on the changes.  The next thing he knew, the County slapped him with a stop work order.  He came to us to create the permit drawings.  (He didn’t want a new design.)  We wanted to help him—we are customers of his store.  But we couldn’t figure out an easy way to rescue the project (as it was currently laid out) to make it compliant.  Basically, he would have to start from the beginning with a new design to fix the deficiencies.  He felt that he couldn’t afford to do that because he had already spent money on it.  We had to turn down the project.  We are not sure how he will resolve the problem.  The remedy will doubtless be much more expensive than what he saved with his do-it-yourself design.

On the other hand, we currently have a client who is an interior designer herself.  She works on huge hotel projects, but the project she brought to us is the remodel of her home.  Obviously, she knows how to design and draft, but she understands that she’s not a specialist in residential projects.  She felt that she could use the guidance of an architect who has done a lot of residential work.  This creates an ideal situation, where we have great ideas coming from the client who relies on our expertise to make sure that the project is designed properly, and the permitting process goes smoothly.

So, don’t be penny-wise, pound foolish.  Hire an architect to go through the design process with you.  It will save you money, time and aggravation in the long run.  Thanks for reading, and as always, we are “Designing for Your Reality”.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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Residential Design: Include your pets in your plans

We consider the needs of children, possibly aging parents/in-laws, and our client’s tastes and desires when designing or remodeling homes.  But what about the furry family members?  Pets are a big part of our lives and making homes comfortable, secure and convenient for pets can improve the livability of our homes.

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Our office dog, Mafi.

Thinking of the daily activities of our pets will lead to features that are not difficult to design in a well-planned residential environment.  Where will the food & water bowls be?  Are they in a spot that can easily be cleaned and is not in a part of the room where they will be kicked or tripped over?  Where will the cat’s litter box be located?  Is there adequate storage nearby for large litter containers, scoops, refuse bags? Where is the storage for dog food, harnesses, leashes, brushes, toys?  Will a pet door be needed?  Those should all be considered in the design process.

If there is room in the budget, other conveniences are possible.  In a laundry room or mud room, a pet washing station might be a great idea.  Here is an article for reference:  Dedicated Dog Showers Are A Hot Trend In Home Design

Maybe you’d like to build in a climbing station/scratching post for your cats.  Cats like to be up high.  Do your furnishings, shelves, and window sills offer safe vantage points for the cat to climb up and rest or look outside?  Will any valuables be in danger of being knocked off?  Here are some ideas for cat-friendly features:  Cat Furniture Creations Take Over the House

Think about the durability and cleaning requirements of flooring materials, rugs, and window treatments when you have pets.  Beautiful finishes can become stained or tattered if subjected to daily rubbing or pawing by pets.

If you have a bird, think about where the cage will be.  Does the area have the proper lighting and temperature, away from drafts or direct sunlight?  Some birds like hearing the television, and some birds do not.  Be sure that the cage is in an area that allows some quiet time for the bird.  Will the flooring be protected from falling seeds, etc.?

Tanks or cages with fish, turtles, hamsters, rabbits, rats, gerbils, snakes, and so on all pose issues.  Do you need a dedicated outlet for a heat lamp or a circulating pump that runs constantly?  Where will the cords be?  Do you have a secure shelf?  Is there adequate height for the cage and air circulation around it?  Is it close to a source of water to replenish the water bowl?  Again, think about the windows in the room to avoid direct sunlight or drafts.

Where in the yard will your dog be playing, or pooping?  Do you have the appropriate landscaping for those activities?  What will be your normal door to use when going out for walks?  Is there a good spot for the dog to clean-up inside before running back into the house with muddy feet?  Is that door in a safe area if you must let the dog out at night?  Is there a trip hazard near the door if you are sleepy?  Do you need to add a gate or motion-activated lighting or any additional security measures?

Taking the time to think about your daily interactions with your pets and sharing that information with your architect is a worthwhile exercise and may even add value to your home.  It will certainly create a more pleasant environment for both you and your pets.

Thanks for reading, and as always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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Sharing the business of architecture with high school students

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to students at Burlingame High School who are taking beginning and advanced architecture classes.  They have a nice design studio with up-to-date computers and design software.  Their teacher has an architectural degree and is teaching them not only how to use the tools to design buildings and interior spaces, but also having them participate in charrettes and competitions.  It was exciting to see this level of instruction available to high school students as early as 9th grade.

My presentation started out with photos of architectural bloopers, flubs and fails, (photos pulled off the internet) which made them laugh and got their attention for my more serious points about how important it is for architects to have knowledge, skill, experience and creativity gained in the many years spent obtaining a professional license.  We went over examples of actual projects done by The Kastrop Group.  I made the point that life safety concerns were of utmost importance.  We talked about “Designing for Your Reality” and how every client has a budget and specific goals in mind for their project.  Our job is to make the client’s project come into existence at the intersection of dreams, resources, code requirements, architecture and engineering, time and materials available, and the builder’s skills.

A rendering, one of many, done by Mike Kastrop in 2006.

A rendering done by our firm Principal, Mike Kastrop, in 2006.

The students helped me write down a list of the attributes it takes to be a successful architect.  I pointed out that, maybe surprisingly, most of those attributes could lead to success in any career they might pursue.  We talked about valuing their time, and how their ideas and their time are precious resources that should not be wasted.  We talked about organizational skills.  We even talked about 3D visualization, sustainable design, biophilic design and other trends in the industry.  We covered a lot of ground.

I was impressed by their intelligent questions, and their eagerness to hear stories about my many years of working in an office with creative architects, designers and drafters, while managing the “business” side of the firm to see that it stayed financially healthy.  I hope I gave them a realistic peek at what daily life in an architectural firm is like.

A few days later their teacher emailed me a collection of thank you letters from the students.  I got a kick out of reading the letters and finding out the parts of the presentation that the students enjoyed and the concepts that resonated the most with them.  The letters will help me the next time I prepare a presentation.  I hope to be invited back next year.

I’d like to encourage all people who have careers in design and construction to share their knowledge and experience with students at all levels of the educational spectrum.  Let’s help young people understand that the built environment is constantly evolving.  It needs their new ideas and energy to keep improving our world.  Let’s encourage them to follow in our footsteps and beyond.

Thank you for reading and as always, we are “Designing for Your Reality”.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Architects

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I need it yesterday! Why does it take so long? (Part 2)

On July 2, 2014 I posted a blog article with the same title.  This is an update to that article.  Now that the construction boom is the new normal, we have noticed several other factors that are slowing down the design and construction process.

New permitting requirements.  Over the past few years, cities and counties have become very risk-averse.  They are requiring more of what one might call “due diligence” before approving projects.  Information such as a site survey conducted by a professional surveyor, soil information provided by a geotechnical engineer, and site drainage designed by a civil engineer are required more frequently than they used to be.  Contacting, getting estimates, signing agreements, and scheduling these other professionals for the project takes time.  If these engineering professionals are in high demand in your area, it will delay the project.

New laws and building codes.  Of course, the building code is revised regularly.  In addition, new laws sometimes have a big impact on construction, such as SB1069 which relaxed restrictions for Accessory Dwelling Units built in California.  Whenever changes occur at the state level, all Planning and Building departments must update their local ordinances and procedures to comply with the changes.  They must train and educate their staff about the new requirements.  That rollout can sometimes add to the permitting time.

Supply shortages.  High-demand products may be in short supply and require more time between the ordering and the receipt of goods.

There are, however, positive trends that are reducing the time it takes to complete projects.  Let’s look at some of the ways we can speed up the process.

Electronic (soft) documents.  More and more jurisdictions are allowing us to submit documents in electronic format, such as on a flash drive.  This allows updates and resubmittals to be handled much more quickly.  We are also sending contract documents to clients by email, and by using digital signature software, the turnaround time for a response is vastly reduced from the old days of ink-signed paper contracts and agreements.

Improved Computer Aided Design and Drafting (CADD) software.  The innovation in CADD software is fantastic, and 3-D drawings are more and more common, leading to more accurate understanding and interaction between the architectural design team, client, permitting agencies and contractors.  The time to create multiple iterations or design schemes is reduced.

Cloud computing.  Uploading and downloading large files used to be a problem.  It isn’t anymore.  Most offices have switched to cloud storage of their drawings to make it easier and faster to access them in the field.

Electronic tools and equipment.  Devices such as electronic laser measurement tools, tablet computers and smartphones are all adding to the speed and efficiency of work at job sites.  (Not to mention 3D printers and other fabrication tools that can speed up construction.)

The bottom line is that there are a lot of variables in play when you begin a construction project.  Some are within the control of the architect, but many are not.  So, asking when you can “get the plans” doesn’t really indicate how fast your project will get started.  We will continually try to give you our best estimate of the timeline as we move through the process, taking into account all of these other factors.  As always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

 

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Accessory Dwelling Units: Why you may need a property survey

Many homeowners are considering adding an accessory dwelling unit to their property.  ADU’s, (also known as Secondary Dwelling Units, grandmother cottages, in-law units, etc.) have become popular due to a new CA state law that relaxes some of the building code regulations.  With California housing needs and rents skyrocketing, ADU’s can provide options for renters, and income for homeowners.

Often, the City or County jurisdiction will require a property survey in order to get a building permit for an ADU.  Why do you need a survey?  What triggers the survey requirement?  This article will address some of the issues around the increased need for property surveys.

The underlying reason that Cities and Counties are now being so strict about property lines is that the trend is to build the maximum amount of square footage possible on the property.  Construction will occur at or near the allowed setbacks from the property line.  Proper verification of the property lines in advance avoids future litigation for buildings constructed in areas that have encroached illegally into the setback areas.  Property owners build fences or install landscaping on what they believe to be the property line, but over time fences and trees may have encroached on neighboring property due to mistakes in fence construction and repairs, erosion or ground settlement, and tree roots.

Here are some of the triggers that will cause the City or County to require a survey of the property before granting a building permit:

  1. You want to maximize the amount of square footage and may be close to side and rear yard setbacks. The interpretation of what is “close” is up to your local jurisdiction.
  2. Requirement to verify property lines. (Note:  The existence of a fence does not necessarily prove where the property line is located.)  If the property has never been surveyed before, the City or County may want proof that the setbacks are verified.
  3. A survey will allow calculations of the pervious area. Pervious areas allow water drainage into the soil or ground cover.  Impervious areas are typically paved—patios, driveways, building foundations, etc.  Most cities and counties have a limit on the percentage of impervious area on a property.  Additional construction (of the ADU) increases your impervious area percentage.  An accurate calculation can help determine the allowable square footage of the ADU.
  4. Property lines that are unclear due to an odd-shaped lot, a curved street, or a steep slope will often trigger a survey requirement.

If you know your property has been surveyed already (such as for a previous project), it will be worth your time to find that paperwork in your records or re-contact the surveyor for a copy.  If not, then getting a survey might be the first step for your ADU project.  Because of the amount of building going on in the Bay Area, surveyors are currently swamped with work.  Getting an appointment for a survey as soon as possible will help your project move more quickly through the design and permitting process.

Architects do not typically provide surveying services but can refer you to surveyors that they have successfully worked with in the past.  If you are planning to build an ADU on your property, or any other new construction, ask your architect whether he/she knows if your jurisdiction typically requires a survey.  If so, then that will be one of the first steps for your project and should be started without delay.  Thanks for reading, and as always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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“Statute of limitations” on unpermitted construction and other bad advice

We keep hearing from our clients of the bad advice that they were told when buying property.  The top piece of bad advice, by far, is that if unpermitted construction occurred a long time ago, it no longer needs to be a concern.  This is just not true.  There is no statute of limitations on unpermitted construction!  If anything was added to your property illegally, at any time in the past, you should be aware of the risks.  As we’ve mentioned before, unsafe construction methods by unlicensed workers can be a safety risk and could lead to fire or structural failure.  It can also lead to future costs and problems if you want to do other improvement projects.

One of our clients purchased a home with an unpermitted addition that encroached into the setback.  The real estate agent had told him “It’s been there for a long time, so it’s OK.”  As soon as we started the remodeling project we notified him that he would probably be required to tear down that unpermitted area and he couldn’t believe it.  Sometimes unpermitted work can be legalized; if you have the patience, money and professional help.  Sometimes there is no remedy other than to remove it.  So, be aware that the advice you receive should be verified with the Building Department, or at least a licensed architect, before you purchase the property.

The second most common piece of bad advice we hear about is when people are told that they can “just take out a wall” to create an open floor plan.  I don’t know why anyone believes that they can pose as a Structural Engineer to make that statement, but it happens all the time.  Walls typically provide structural support for the roof, or second story, or building systems (HVAC, electrical, plumbing), and cannot be easily removed without reconsidering the entire structure.  Sometimes a wall can be replaced by installing a large beam or structural steel to span the gap.  Engineering calculations must be performed, the beam must be special-ordered, foundations added, temporary supports must be installed, and the new beam lifted in place with special equipment.  It can be a very expensive option.  It is possible that a wall is not load-bearing, but that is uncommon in homes.  Some commercial buildings have non-load-bearing walls, called demising walls, for separations between offices, or dressing rooms, for example.  But even then, a wall removal can be tricky.  Do not be fooled into thinking you can “just take out a wall”.  That’s bad advice unless it is coming from your licensed architect or structural engineer.

The third most common piece of bad advice given to property owners is “none of the neighbors had to do it”.  This is closely related to “If they got away with it, so can I.”  It includes everything from building decks, sheds, backyard cottages, and other residential additions to business owners who do tenant improvements without permits, to businesses that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act for accessibility improvements, and lots of other examples.  Sure, everyone has seen a home or building that doesn’t comply with local ordinances or the state Building Code.  But just because someone else is outside the law doesn’t mean you will get away with it.  It’s like that old game of musical chairs.  The last one standing when the music stops is “It”.  Your home or business gets red-tagged, and pointing at someone else’s property to say, “What about them?” isn’t going to solve your problem.

We hate hearing those stories when people have already gotten burned.  Don’t rely on bad advice.  Verify that you can do what you want to do with your property with a licensed professional.  It will be worth your time (and save you money and aggravation).  Thanks for reading and as always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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Residential Contractors for Commercial Projects: Proceed with care.

In the current Bay Area construction boom, some commercial clients have been hiring residential contractors to fill the need.  Sometimes this works out fine for both the General Contractor and the Client, but sometimes the project can go haywire if the contractor is unfamiliar with the differences in the building code between residential and commercial construction.  In this situation, it is important that the G.C. works closely with the Architect to understand the differences called out in the plans.  If they don’t ask, they might make incorrect assumptions.

Recently we received a call from a General Contractor on one of our commercial projects under construction.  He asked quietly, “Is there a reason that you made the cabinet height 34 inches?”  Our Project Manager answered, “Yes, that is an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirement on commercial projects.”  The G.C. answered, “I was afraid of that.”  Without double-checking the drawings, he had ordered residential cabinets for the project.  They are 36 inches, which is the standard height for residential.  He realized that he was going to have to tear out the brand-new cabinets already installed.

Another example that occurred recently is that we specified an ADA-compliant dishwasher and the contractor’s submittal for the dishwasher was a residential model that had to be rejected.  A different project had restroom grab bars installed in the wrong places.  This kind of situation occurs all the time.

The ADA requirements can affect a lot of specifications, and ADA trips up many inexperienced contractors on commercial projects.  In addition, in commercial construction, the structural requirements are typically more robust, leading some contractors to think they are “over-engineered”.  The electrical systems are much more complex.  In general, everything is on a more complicated (often larger) scale.  If you have higher occupancy in the building, it triggers all kinds of special requirements for life-safety issues.  The Architect can clarify anything in the plans that might seem strange to the G.C., but the G.C. must be willing to call and ask before proceeding.

If you are hiring someone with only residential experience for your commercial project, you should encourage your General Contractor to keep in close contact with the Architect.  This will avoid mistakes, delays and extra costs.  Even if the G.C. absorbs the costs and corrects the problem, it will cause delays that you wish to avoid.

In our office, we understand that General Contractors can be on a learning curve when working on projects that are different from what they have successfully completed before.  Whether the project is commercial, or multi-use, or just bigger, there could be things in the plans that are unfamiliar to even experienced builders.  Nobody in our office will be condescending or bothered when questions are asked.  We would much rather take the time to explain our design choices to the G.C. than to deal with an upset client.  As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

As always, we are “Designing for Your Reality”.  Thanks for reading.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

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