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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Property Reassessment: How to plan for property taxes after additions or improvements

The building boom is still going strong in the Bay Area, and one question that comes up often is “What will this project cost me in increased property taxes?”  Here are some things to consider and how to get the information you will need for budgeting purposes.

  1. “New construction” is taxable under California’s Proposition 13.  The bad news is that CA property tax law defines “new construction” as not only additions.  Basically, any physical alteration, rehabilitation, renovation or modernization that converts a portion of the property to “like-new” condition is considered a taxable “improvement”.  The definition is so broad that most kinds of construction will trigger a property tax reassessment.  (There are a few exceptions that are described in detail at the hyperlink below.)


  1. Normal maintenance or repairs, like new roofs, or new kitchen cabinets, or simple replacement of an existing fixture like an air conditioner, will not cause a reassessment; unless the repair or replacement is considered an “improvement”.


  1. The good news is that an addition or other new construction does not cause your entire property to be reappraised. It only generates a supplemental assessment, based on the “incremental value added to the existing property”.  This supplemental assessment is based on the estimated market value of the new construction.  (Sorry do-it-yourselfers, the market value is not necessarily the same as the “cost” of the construction.)


  1. Note that “any substantial physical alteration of land which constitutes a major rehabilitation of the land or changes the manner in which it is used,” such as rezoning the property, could cause the whole property to be reassessed. Also, if you tear down an existing home and then build a new one (even if you left one wall standing), it will cause a reassessment of the entire home.


  1. There are some grey areas about what is considered an “improvement” by the County tax assessor. You have the right to appeal the assessment.

The California State Board of Equalization has prepared an excellent document that gives further information about this topic.  It includes frequently asked questions and answers.  As noted above, it includes details about what kinds of construction are exempt from property tax reassessment.

It is important to know what your increased ongoing costs will be after completing your construction project, so we recommend reading the BOE document before you start.  If you really need to know what your reassessment would be, you can contact your local County Tax Assessor to review your plans and give his/her best estimate of your property tax increase.  As always, we hope that this additional information is helpful to you in decision-making for your architectural project.

Until next time, we are Designing For Your Reality. 

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

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Accessory Dwelling Units:  The changes to California state law that you need to know

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


The Bay Area is experiencing a housing availability crisis and demand for residential units near work centers has skyrocketed.  Everyone knows this, and finally there is an option available to relieve some of the pressure.  SB 1069 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.  Introduced by State Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), the bill amends the CA state building code for accessory dwelling units (also known as in-law units, granny flats, or secondary dwelling units).  It eases the restrictions on building a second unit on residential properties, either attached or detached.  The legislation is supported by the Bay Area Council, the AARP, the California Teachers Association, and a variety of housing and environmental groups.


A detached Accessory Dwelling Unit above a home’s garage that The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects recently completed in Redwood City.  Click here for more photos and a narrative available on our website.  Photo Credit: Roger Dettloff

Here is a summary of the SB 1069 code changes and some advice to alleviate possible negative impacts of the changes:

  • Provides exceptions to certain parking restrictions. Basically, if your home is located within a half-mile of public transit, you may be exempt from adding another parking space for the ADU.  This could be a train station, BART station, bus stop, park-and-ride location, etc.  There is also flexibility if you are in a designated historic district.  Advice: To be a good neighbor, if you build an ADU, please encourage the occupant(s) to make use of public transit/bike/ride sharing instead of squeezing another parked car onto the street in your neighborhood.


  • Eases sprinkler requirements that would be triggered by the addition of an attached ADU. Advice:  Be sure your home is equipped with up-to-date smoke/carbon monoxide alarms in as many rooms and living areas as possible.  Have them wired in, or check the batteries in spring and fall.  As a rule of thumb, replace batteries when Daylight Savings Time starts and ends.  Upgrade your electrical panel as necessary to accommodate the heavier load placed by the ADU.  Don’t overload outlets with too many devices, and be careful with any open flames or candles.


  • Makes utility connection fees for new construction proportionate to the burden that the ADU will place on the existing water or sewer systems. Advice:  Install low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets.  Use a grey-water or smart-system for irrigation.  Be thoughtful about anything you put down the drain or in the toilet.  Don’t overload or clog the sewer system.


  • Requires “ministerial” approval for remodeling existing homes or garages if they are compliant with building and safety codes. Advice:  The trick to this is to check City/County records to be sure that all construction on your home, including any additions and improvements, were permitted.  Any do-it-yourself additions done without a permit will be revealed if you start the ADU permit process and will hold up your permit.  Be proactive and have your architect who is working on the ADU include any legalization issues that need to be addressed as part of your project.


Item #4 has also, in practice, relaxed some of the development standards for ADU’s.  These may not apply in every case, but here are some examples.


Depending on the height of the ADU, the rear and side setbacks from the property line could be as little as five feet.  Advice:  Consider what is on the other side of the fence when you design the ADU.  Try not to place a window in a spot that makes your neighbor feel that their privacy is affected.


May increase the potential floor area of a detached second unit.  Advice:  Check your local ordinances.  Be sure that the total floor area for the primary and the secondary units combined does not exceed the maximum floor area allowed within the zoning district for the parcel.  It’s also a good idea to increase your insurance coverage for the ADU based on the additional square footage.


Height restrictions have also been relaxed somewhat, but second floor balconies, decks, and windows are still subject to a variety of restrictions.  Advice:  Again, check local ordinances and be considerate of your neighbors.


The above general descriptions are summaries and will not apply to every property.  Your existing city/county ordinances have much more detail.  For the County of San Mateo, here is a link to the document:


Maybe you are planning for multi-generational housing to accommodate your grown children or your parents.  You may be figuring out how to offset your mortgage costs by creating a rental unit on your property.   These new rules will be of great help to you and will eventually expand the availability of residential housing units in California.  Talk to your local licensed architect about what your options are.  Excellent sites to search for architects are or



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