Property Condition Assessment

rooftop view

rooftop view... behind the scenes of the design process

Pre-purchase investigations and renovations always begin with a visit to the property and a tour of the existing building. The first question I always ask is to obtain any documentation and information available about the facility. But frequently, no drawings exist and little, if anything, about the building is documented.

Not a problem.

I've recently refined and formalized my detailed initial survey and inventory process for an existing building as a Property Condition Assessment (PCA). Having this detailed method gives me comfort that we've turned over all the stones and looked systematically for potential pitfalls before the design process. And it's not just from the architect's view. The team looks at everything from the foundation to the roof, all the engineered systems in between, and the site beyond.

With a couple of key engineering experts and a contractor to test various budgetary scenarios, clients end up with:

  • visual walk through with the team
  • detailed architectural survey
  • survey plat with known site plan information
  • printed and electronic CAD formats of the surveys
  • building code analysis
  • accessibility analysis
  • interviews of individuals with potential information about the building
  • municipal and authority research for recorded and outstanding problems
  • descriptions of all the systems
  • inventories of all the building equipment
  • summary of any physical deficiencies along a good-fair-poor scale
  • descriptions for remedies of poor conditions needing immediate repair
  • photographic summaries for the systems and findings
  • budgetary analysis for remedying all the discovered deficiencies

This is all documented in a formalized report, useful for purchase negotiations or evaluating the scope of additional projects within a facility.

water heater tangle

water heater tangle

Whew! Producing all this is a lot of work, especially trying to complete it in just a week or two. It's definitely more thorough than the average field verification route. But this methodical approach takes a building from 0 to 100 with a comprehensive document foundation for making any future explorations or decisions. And its in portable electronic formats, not scraps of paper stashed in the mechanical room.

I figured this process expansion and formalization would establish a great place for an architect and engineering team to begin a renovation, but I've recently been finding that a PCA is equally useful to an owner as an initial benchmark of building data, sometimes the first such record since it was built decades before.

I like it when we figure out how to solve multiple problems with a singular effort.

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Contrast, by Frank Ching

Frank Ching can draw!

Frank Ching sketch illustrating contrast

Frank Ching sketch illustrating contrast

I always enjoy Francis D. K. "Frank" Ching's latest sketch articles. The above is just one sketch from his latest blog post, The Principle of Contrast. Back in the day, all of us architecture students had his first work, published in 1979, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order:


It was a beautiful work in pencil, all completely written in his gorgeous hand lettering. Since then, Ching has published several more books and updated the editions a few times. They have recently been re-formatted into a single series:


A few of his older classics are also available, but do not appear to have been re-formatted into his current series:


If you haven't ever seen his beautiful drawings, head over to his blog, Seeing.Thinking.Drawing and peruse!

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Conceptual Design Tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

After defining the project, design explorations begin.

The project can come to life through a number of physical and virtual tools. I believe the pinnacle of architecture is a great physical model accompanied by sketches and drawings. But digital tools are usually more expeditious and flexible.

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Sketch 2016-06-21

Here's a quick glimpse into the very beginning of the design process.

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

Background

This sketch is for the renovation of a large corporate canteen. The spaces are used by more than a hundred employees at a time for eating lunch or taking a quick break at a large food distribution center.

There are three existing rooms:  two seating rooms with tables and chairs on either side of a central food pantry. This last space is a place for employees to store their lunch bags in large refrigerators with sinks, microwaves, and vending machines to support warming and supplementing them.

I've added a shaded zone to indicate the larger facility beyond. The left and bottom of the canteen space have glass to the outside, with the bottom facing east and the left facing south.

One final item was the existing televisions mounted on the walls of both existing seating rooms. Tuned to inane daytime talk shows all day, I could imagine resting in this din only in some Harrison Bergeron dystopia and was determined to provide relief for the minority if I could help it.

Concept

I usually start design with an attitude about the sun and environment beyond the architecture. They are like a free design feature. Here, the bottom seating room had strong sunlight and expansive views outside. It struck me as a meadow of sun and views to nature, the tranquil place of repose to relax with connections to outside after long hours in a dark warehouse. It could be a social space for talking and enjoying human conversation removed from blaring electronic media.

But the upper seating room had limited glass. With little natural light already, why not darken it further for an enhanced television watching experience for those that care? It could be the inwardly focused space with multiple televisions, supported by dark finishes, soft lighting, and smaller groupings of tables at different heights. Imagine a pub or sports bar.

With contrasting rooms on either side, the central pantry bottleneck was broadened and straightened to simplify passage within and to either side. Two "streets" were carved across the transitions between to exterior doors for smokers.

The entire cityscape come together in a singular metaphor. Does this help to explain how design is at the same time a philosophical idea and a solution to physical needs?

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Harrison Bergeron

Equal

Equal?

Written in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Harrison Bergeron is a classic. The three-page short story can be found online here and elsewhere.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This story comes to my mind often in architectural practice. Many who know me have read it at my urging. Despite our best intentions, projects are utterly encumbered by codes, laws, and regulations in the attempt to create safety, opportunity, and equality.

Not that any of these are, in themselves, bad things. In fact, utopian vision has driven architecture for at least four millennia. I am actually a proponent for great design and good craftsmanship that is inclusive, accessible, and universal. Slightly larger spaces aren't just for injured employees, aging residents, or disabled visitors. They also help encumbered firemen in smoke-filled air trying to rescue occupants. In that context, what's a few more inches?

Still, our endeavor to create great is slowly being truncated by our compromise to create barely adequate. Great design takes great time, and the more factors there are to consider, the longer it is going to take and the more it is going to cost.

I suppose inflation is the natural course of civilization simply due to this ever-expanding growth of requirements. But is there a way to simplify? At what point can we no longer afford the growth of regulation? With U.S. federal government debt at $19,963,980,500,000 (trillion), haven't we exceeded our capacity to pay for these demands?

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