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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Project Math

Dilbert 2009-12-07

Dilbert 2009-12-07

As explained by Scott Adams, design has to be resolved before the final cost of a project can be established. Yet I'm often asked how much a project will cost even before a napkin sketch.

But defining the project isn't difficult and doesn't take long. For a small project, it might just take an hour. And even if more information is needed, what is outstanding can be mapped out the first meeting.

Terms

The goal is the project definition. We can also define its constituent terms:

PROGRAM   =   Space Names   +   Space Sizes

The program is simply a list of all the spaces needed. These might adjust as details emerge, but an initial program is key to start design.

SCALE   =   Program   ×   Efficiency Factor

It's difficult to figure out non-spaces:  thicknesses of walls, chases, corridors, stairs, mechanical rooms, electrical closets, utility rooms, storage, and other incidental uses. Some factoring of these inefficiencies is required to better predict the final area of a building.

QUALITY   =   Non-quantitative project parameters

High quality design, envelope, energy efficiency, finishes, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment will have a more dramatic effect on budget than its size. For example, low grade builder homes can cost just $75/SF and take just a month to build while an exquisite jewel might cost more than $600/SF and take two years. Quality is the most significant factor in a building's cost and needs to be decided at the beginning of a project.

SCOPE   =   Scale   ×   Quality

Although defined early, adjustments between these two factors is a component of the design process. This blog attests that Better Than Bigger and we often find that great design may supplant the need for overly large spaces.

SCHEDULE   =   Time to complete the project

Can a contractor take two years to finish a small project? Must he complete the work before the home owners return from a three week vacation in Europe? Does a school renovation need to be worked on after hours? Are there elaborate security and cleanliness requirements for a hospital renovation? Does a large house and garden renovation need to be used for a lawn wedding? Will a home owner build in his spare time? All of these answers may dictate stringent schedule parameters. Depending on the responses, any of these may impact the design and labor costs of a project significantly.

BUDGET   =   Funds allotted to the project

Unfortunately, the design, construction, and real estate industries wildly swag irresponsible $/SF numbers around like water balloons. But an accurate project budget considers quality, schedule, and numerous factors beyond simple labor and materials. To be complete, a budget should also include contractor's overhead and profit, general conditions,* building permits, printing, furnishings, many items usually outside of the contract purchased by the owner like appliances and mailboxes, surveying, architectural and engineering services, municipal charges, utility costs, cleaning, and even move costs.

PROJECT DEFINITION   =   Scope   ×   Schedule   ×   Budget

The final project definition is the goal to begin design. However...

DESIGN   =   Resolution of the project definition

We want design to discover opportunities. Exploration is the purpose of planning. (Otherwise, we would always charge on to a job site hammering a bunch of lumber together hoping for the best. Ever see that happen?) Drawing and modeling is much cheaper than making construction mistakes, but the bigger benefit is that design finds opportunity.

So we begin with the project definition and make iterative design passes to progressively refine the terms and results. This may be more linear or more explorative depending on the project and the client. But these basic definitions must always equate at any point in the process.

Summary

Space Names   +   Space Sizes   =   Program

Program   ×   Efficiency Factor   =   Scale

Scale   ×   Quality   =   Scope

Scope   ×   Budget   ×   Schedule   =   Project Definition

Project Definition   ×   Resolution   =   Design

If you are starting a project, try defining each of these terms. And feel free to contact me to discuss and maybe sit down together and start sketching solutions.

* General Conditions:  Numerous contract conditions that stipulate the execution of the construction contract. These are very broad and depend on many project particular specifics. Examples include insurance, length of time to complete, product submittals for selection and approval, payments, review of the work, trash and dumpsters, protection and cleanup, bathroom facilities, access to the site, parking, drawing conventions and conflict resolution, and potentially many others, even to inappropriate or illegal behavior on the job site.

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Sketch 2016-05-17

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

Even if you don't get the project, you can still enjoy the process!

This was a quick look at an urban rooftop living room and kitchen addition. The building was a three-story masonry construction from 1915 in downtown Raleigh.

The existing stairs were in different locations on each floor. So this design re-stacked them for more efficiency toward the rear. And it introduced a skylight above it to filter natural daylight down the dark, north facing rear of the building.

The initial sketch worked out the spacial organization and then a 3D model looked more closely at the forms.

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

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Sketch 2016-05-01

sketch, 2016-05-01-ish, house space diagrams

sketch, 2016-05-01-ish, house space diagrams

Sketching is the fastest way to analyze three-dimensional relationships.

I usually rely on 3D virtual models to firm up the details, but my initial sketches form the foundation of thought that shape the rest of the process.

The above sketch is a house set on the side of a mountain in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It's a given that the structure and forms need to respond to the steep slope of the site. But an additional demand is that it also be accessible... useful with an age in place strategy for the homeowners as they become elderly and potentially too feeble to negotiate full flights of stairs at a time.

With these guidelines, I instinctively look for a scheme of half levels. This keeps intermediate flights between spaces at most six steps. It also balances the house across the site and minimizes the amount of deep cuts or fill areas that might be required of the topography. The above sketch are numerous quick looks at such a scheme.

It is important when creating series of spaces to understand their relationships. You can see abbreviations for the living areas scattered about the drawings. Hurried and loose sketches help keep the exploration fluid and flexible. Nothing is fixated until the entire scheme begins to come together.

A developed depiction of this concept can be seen in the 1934 Villa Muller by Adolf Loos, in Prague. For this early twentieth century Viennese architect, his crowning work was also his last. It is a rich example of his concept for multi-level floors within a simpler exterior, which he called Raumplan.

Villa Muller's exterior is a simple, unadorned cube. It was intended as the quiet, reserved public face of the house overlooking the city.

But the interior is an exuberant intertwining of spaces and materials connected by short half flights of stairs. Many, small, comfortable and intimate spaces are all tied together by paths and views into and across each other.

Below is a floor level diagram. It is difficult to understand in two dimensions so I've removed all the walls from the model and colored each floor uniquely. Except for the top floor (orange) and the roof, the two lower main floors actually have sections that ascend or descend from the neighboring section.

From the lowest, darkest basement level all the way up to the walkable roof, there are multiple sets of stairs connecting each quadrant of the house. Both stairs are centered under skylights on the roof so that natural light is filtered down through the entire house from above. It's a masterful scheme in just 3,400 SF.

Floor level diagram of the 1934 Villa Muller, by Adolf Loos

Floor level diagram of the 1934 Villa Muller, by Adolf Loos

For more images of Villa Muller, see this Google image search. Share: FacebooktwittermailFacebooktwittermail Follow: pinterestrssinstagrampinterestrssinstagram

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

Sketch 2016-04-12

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

Modern architecture is fundamentally about technology.

The industrial age ushered in new materials, science, math, and tools to enable humans to create power grids, ocean liners, airplanes, and highway systems. In architecture, technology resulted in steel structures, large sheets of glass, wood studs, plywood, indoor toilets, heating systems, and electric lighting. This was further refined in the middle of the 20th century with significant improvements in insulation, less hazardous paint, non-toxic plumbing, air conditioning, more efficient lighting, and the internet.

So why, now in an era where the world's fastest car is electric, do we still want to reference historical technology? I believe primarily this is because we disconnect architectural features from their relationship to technology.

The sketch above is one of my typical five minute explorations. This is exploration for an actual house in Raleigh where the client is interested in traditional detailing. The challenge is to create historically accurate references even though the home is built with construction methods fundamentally removed from the technology that evolved those details in the first place. Can this even be done? Should it be?!

Drayton Hall [Wikipedia.org]

Drayton Hall [Wikipedia.org]

As with any historically linked design, I start with a model. The 1740 Drayton Hall outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is the model for historical southern architecture. (Google image search for a lot more views.) There are also some Neo-classical models around, but Georgian is the first mature style of architecture in the south although few great examples exist like this one.

In the sketch, I began with Drayton Hall's basic form. The primary mass is a rectangle and the roof form is hipped with a gable only on the front. But that's the extent of progress when logic starts to break down.

Drayton's roof is actually double-hipped, with two different slopes. Notice in the far right of the sketch, an illustration of a roof kick. Maybe that is a way to suggest the double-hip without the complexity?

There is also a suggestion of synthetic slate. Although it is currently metal, Drayton's original roofing material was likely clay tile or slate. (Metal roofing wasn't used in America until the 1800's, when Drayton was re-roofed.) Modern slate roofs are rarely repaired with stone. They use a simulated phenolic slate that is lighter and has a 50 year warranty.

Also indicated in the sketch are quoins. These are vertical blocks defining masonry corners. They were used to define and stabilize masonry structures as far back as Rome. But today's masonry is effectively glued onto a wood framed building. Our codes don't allow brick to support a building so it is conveniently pasted onto the outside. There is no functional necessity for quoins.

The upper sketch also indicates flue extensions (pots). This is the classic English historical look, but Drayton Hall never had them.

Finally, notice the bottom right corner sketch--a garage door! Obviously fitting such a large scale opening into an historically derived building looks pretty ridiculous. Without steel and modern glass manufacturing techniques, 18th century windows were very small. The architecture didn't give voice for large openings. You can see in the lower left sketch that two garage doors are fitted in on the building left. But the historical building had nearly a full story of stairs up to the finished floor. It also has a downstairs cellar. Neither of these are conducive to our modern needs for drive-in garages and walk-in level main floors.

In a few minutes, the sketch highlights numerous difficulties with historical reference in current construction techniques. I'm not convinced it can properly be done. I'll write another article if the project takes off and we can successfully accomplish it.

For more information on authentic historical architectural styles of residential buildings in America, see A Field Guide to American Houses (Revised), by Virginia Savage McAlester for a thorough catalog. I have the original edition, but the revision is even better.

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