custom house

You spec me to buy that?

Over the last few months, I've been working on the designs for a spec house in Houston and another in a new development in Austin.  "Spec" is short for "speculative" and the term "spec house" refers to a custom house designed and built based on speculating what a potential buyer, looking in a particular neighborhood and price point, would want in their house.  Stick to the bare minimum, and they will buy the other house; add all the bells and whistles, and you bust your budget.  The key is to find that sweet spot and a design that people will fall in love with.  They are custom in that the design is tailored to a specific site and not repeated on other lots like production houses i.e. they are unique. The firm I work at is developing both projects, which means that we buy the land, formulate the program* and size of the house, establish the construction budget and potential market value, decide on aesthetics and architectural style - all things normally dictated by a client.  Being a full service design-build firm, we are well equipped to handle all aspects of design and construction.  These are multi-million dollar projects, so it pays to scrutinize every aspect of the house with a magnifying glass. Architectural design, interior design, landscaping, pool design - everything from the floor plan to the floor tile is laid out on paper.

To that end, the core team meets every Friday, over lunch and cookies, to review and critique the progressing design.  We are a group of four architects, an interior designer, and a real estate advisor.  We talk about intent, big picture plans, small construction details, project schedule, what inspires us, contemporary work, what was successful in past projects, what was not; we make adjustments to the plan, exterior massing, interior volumes, materials, appliance package, cabinetry design; we look at interior design selections like decorative light fixtures, tile, wall finishes.  We explore design ideas that might otherwise be restricted by a client or their budget.  Sometimes it's a "best bang for the buck" or "ROI (return on investment)" conversation.  Other times, we revisit areas of the house that we were fine with for weeks, but then someone asks a poignant question and if we don't care for the answer, we go back to the drawing board.  Since it's a collaboration between different design professionals, the process is not linear, rather we go where the conversation takes us - all over the place!

We are now at a point where everyone is happy with what we've created on paper.  We are well past the schematic design stage.  We are mostly done with design development.  I say mostly, because that's never a closed chapter!  We have a long way to go before these babies are ready to go to school though.  We've only just started the the third trimester.   We are about to get into the thick of doing construction drawings.  While the architects coordinate the engineering and put the finishing touches on the drawings and specifications, others are working on the financing,  the construction team will soft start the project by getting permits and utilities setup.  Then the builder will start preparing the site for foundation.  I'm getting ahead of myself.

Being in two distinctly different markets, the design decisions made for each project are very different in order to cater to the potential buyer's assumed taste and values.  For example, the house in The Woodlands is much more formal than the one in Austin.  While every family is different, there is a common thread of needs and desires.  A well thought out spec house would be ideal for the family that does not have the time to work with an Architect, but would appreciate a house of this calibre.  Spec projects enable us to craft our brand, which by the way, we are in the process of reinventing.  All in all, very exciting work.

Cheers,

Sharon.

* A "program" refers loosely to the scope of the project; more particularly to the list of indoor and outdoor spaces that would be ideal in a building project.

Inspired Innovation

I like to draw parallels.  Literally and figuratively.  Literally speaking, it's a habit from doing line exercises in first year architecture school.  Figuratively speaking, it is comforting to see what lines up, who is on track with you, the familiar, that which follows expectation.  On the other hand, it is very interesting to see where things starts to veer off in another direction, why and how, the twist in the tale!  Is it new?  Is it novel?  Is it exciting?  Eyes peeled, ears perked up, everyone wants to know, we make the time to find out. Last weekend, I went to see the world premiere of Belle Redux/ A Tale of Beauty and the Beast, a modern ballet produced by Ballet Austin.  It was very different from anything I had seen before or expected in a ballet performance.  It was no familiar fairy tale.  Quite the contrary.  It was dark (literally and figuratively), daring, layered, interpretive, inquiring, lingering.  In an encore following the ballet, director Stephen Mills talked about the project, the process, and the result.  The directive was to be innovative, plain and simple.  No small feat there, but I think they hit the mark.  And I say that not because they used multi-media or donned contemporary costumes, although that certainly set the stage, but because of the power of the narrative.  It's been 4 days since, and I am still thinking about the performance, and digging up the story behind the stage.  I'm still peeling the onion, exploring the interpretations, and thoroughly enjoying myself.  Isn't that the purpose of art?

There are three things that have been lingering on my mind - the act of innovation, the subjectivity of beauty, and the fruit of criticism.

Mills describes innovation as "the act of making something better, more interesting, or more useful."  I cannot help but draw a parallel to the art of creating architecture.  Architects are known to be creative people; innovative, however, not the first adjective that comes to mind. Why the heck not?  We make things better, more interesting, and more useful!  Well, some architects certainly do, more so than others.

Aren't creation and innovation intricately woven together, being two sides of the same coin?  In the context of architecture, what exactly is the difference between an innovative idea and a creative idea? Is innovation so intimately tied to processes, execution, and well, technology, that it seems irrelevant as a concept in architectural design?  Where do you draw the line between creativity and innovation in the arches and vaults of ancient Roman architecture?  Would you say that creative architects gave us the likes of the Sagrada Familia and innovative architects gave us the skyscraper?

Some might argue that innovation lies in the process of turning creative ideas to reality, and while an idea might come from a single person, it takes a team to innovate.  Any creative person, scratch that, everybody knows that ideas are aplenty; turning that to reality is the mountain ahead of you.  Was it Edison who said "Innovation is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."  Every practicing architect knows the long journey from concept drawings to getting the keys to the building - you don't get from point A to B without team work and collaboration.  Solo architect is a misnomer.

In my work in residential architecture, it is very evident that the client sitting across the table from me is there because they want something better.  From the initial bubble diagram, there is an opportunity to be creative and innovative.  Perhaps it's a challenging site or orientation, a personal pet peeve that needs to be addressed, the building material selection, the construction detailing, a project delivery method; there are opportunities at every step of the way. Maybe it's not the concept or the design, but the client's experience working with the architect that was the best aspect of the project.  Or maybe the waterproofing detail is the most innovative thing about the house.  It is simply better than it could have been.

Something that Stephen Mills said after the ballet resonated with me.  He said, "Who decides what is beautiful and what is beastly?" and then of the show he said, "some people might love it, some may not get it, and some might hate it, and I'm okay with that."

In the architecture profession, there is a lively debate about architectural style, with the architects in one camp bashing the others.  Our work is criticized by our peers, the public, and the media.  Have you ever seen the show "Extreme Homes" on HGTV? They showcase houses from all over the world that range from bizarre to spectacular, low-tech to ultra-modern, mundane to beautiful, yet extreme in some unique way.  I like to watch it, mostly because it's interesting to see what personal architecture looks like in other parts of the world, but also to understand what motivates different people and how it reflects in their built environment.  One size does not fit all.  Standing at the curb, it's easy to pass judgement on the aesthetic choices or the architectural style.  But if you get to know the narrative behind the facade, you might not be so harsh.  Indeed, you might be inspired.

Cheers,

Sharon.

Why designing a custom house is like having a child

For starters, you cannot know before you start what you are going to end up with.  You might have a girl or a boy!  He might have your beautiful eyes, she might have your partner's bulbous nose.  Regardless, you will love your child and not ever regret having this little bundle of joy that you created.  From nothing to a whole new living breathing person who leaves an indelible footprint in your life - it's rather amazing!   Likewise, if you have made the decision to go through the effort of building a custom-house that fits your family, your personal needs, and your lifestyle, it's quite a responsibility, and it's worth it.

Your child's skin color, eye color, hair color, sleep habits, personality, talents, it's all a toss.  Well, maybe some characteristics are predictable within a certain level of accuracy based on the two people involved in the pairing.  Every child is unique and a direct result of the people involved.  Similarly with building a custom-house - the major players involved in the project have a direct bearing on the end result.  This includes the architect, the builder, and you (the client).  The hereditary gene pool for the project is established by this unique combination.

You bring your site, your aspirations, your requirements, your budget.  No two architects will produce the same design for the same set of criteria.  That's the beauty of working with an architect, isn't it.  Architectural design is a creative process, and the resulting product will be as unique as the individual doing the creating.  Heck, the same architect will come up with a different design if they sat down to design on a different day, but I will ponder on that in an another blog post.  Architects come in all sizes and shapes - that's why selecting the right architect is crucial to the outcome of your project.

Design is one thing, building is another.  Yet, the same principle is true.  Given the same set of drawings, specifications, and instructions, no two builders will produce the same building.  Most seasoned builders assemble a team of sub-contractors that they like to work with.  The process of building is still considered a craft.  While the framing might be done by any number of framers per drawings and specifications, we depend on the artistic eye of the mason installing the stone veneer, the carpenter doing the trim work, the iron guy welding the ornamental railing, the tile guy laying the floor tile, just to name a few.  Some would argue that there are talented plumbers and electricians too.

And then, there is the nature vs. nurture conundrum, which also directly applies to the collaborative work involved in designing a custom-house.  Your project develops a personality and characteristics that are dictated by conversations that reinforce or alter a hereditary trait.  At the end of the day, one cannot say whether nature or nature played a more vital role in the outcome. It just takes a life of its own.

Cheers,

Sharon.

Custom residences on Kiawah Island, SC - House Tour

Kiawah Island in South Carolina is a private barrier island surrounded by the ocean and vast salt marshes, known for its golf courses and multi-million dollar mansions.  I had the opportunity to tour some fabulous custom homes (designed by architects) during the AIA CRAN 2014 symposium and would like to share my pictures in a series of posts.  Alas, the pictures are not that great as they were taken in a hurry with my phone.  Not to mention, it was a cloudy rainy day, not ideal for great photography.  Better pictures are available on the architect's websites, which I will link to, but, this here is first person experience with candid shots. Respect for nature takes a whole new meaning when you have to design an environmentally sensitive building set in a delicate ecosystem with abundant wildlife and challenging soil conditions, lowcountry coastal climate, and flooding.   Being in a high risk coastal flood zone, all the houses are on raised foundation pilings, with the conditioned main floor almost a story above the approach walkway, the lowest floor serving as "enclosed" garage and storage that is "allowed" to flood, i.e. the houses are not on stilts.  Worthy to note here, the Architectural Review Board design and construction guidelines are 80 pages long.  So no, you won't see stilt houses on this island!

House by Architect Chris Rose

I loved this contemporary house designed by Architect Christopher Rose.  The simple floor plan layout was overshadowed by strong architectural features and a material palette that suggested warmth and comfort.

Chris Rose

The front facade and the stairs leading up to the unassuming entry; no grandiose door, no porch, no statement, simply enter.  The exterior color palette is meant to blend in with the surroundings.

Chris Rose

Nice vignette there at the entry foyer.  Most of the interior walls are finished with an earthy seagrass wallpaper, and trimmed with Douglas Fir - baseboards, window and door casing, accent frieze trim, beams.

Chris Rose

This industrial steel stair leads you up to the upper floor with the secondary bedrooms.  Isn't that beautiful - a piece of art built into the architecture of the house.

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It looks like a spine.  Unfortunately, it is *not* the spine of the house.  There's a missed concept!

Chris Rose

A cozy TV viewing area under the airy open stairway.  No need for a closet under this stair.

Chris Rose

I can't get over how cool this stair is.

Chris Rose

If you are interested in the detail - thick wood stair tread over 1/4" bent steel plate, cut to shape, welded to a steel tube center stringer, finished with a layered brush stroke, for an industrial looking sculptural stair that meets code.

Chris Rose

Chris Rose

Moving on, upstairs to a hallway.  The steel structure of the house is exposed to the interior, but the industrial look is balanced by the earthy wallpaper and natural wood trim and ceilings, for a soft contemporary aesthetic.

Chris Rose

Smooth cold steel, natural warm wood trim and wrapped beams, and textured seagrass wall covering - the perfect blend of materials.

Chris Rose

Dark wood floors contrast with light walls and warm wood ceilings.

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Overlook from the upstairs hall into the two-story living room below, with the tall stone fireplace and windows from floor to ceiling.  There's the architect Christopher Rose.

Chris Rose

Kids bunk beds, looking up into a skylight.

Chris Rose

Painted wood trim flush with the gyp-board and a neat shadow line created by a reveal separating the two materials.

Chris Rose

Extra long (double faucet) wall mount sink in a simple bathroom for the kids.

Chris Rose

The pool and deck in the back overlooking one of the many ponds in Kiawah.

Chris Rose

You can get a sense of the structural grid from the exterior.  The beams visible at the ceiling inside follow through to the exterior to support the deep roof overhang with steel brackets anchoring them to the steel columns.

Chris Rose

Outdoor shower mounted on the exterior wall of the lowest floor.  You can see the gaps between the siding to allow flooding of the lowest floor.  The mesh screen behind keeps the enclosed area relatively bug free and crap free in a flood.

Chris Rose

View from inside the garage looking out.

Chris Rose

Close-up picture of the wall on the lowest floor that is liable to flood - unfinished stud walls with mesh screen and exterior siding with gaps.

Hope you enjoyed this post.  Again, apologies for the fuzzy pictures.

Cheers,

Sharon.