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Architects can forget how complex and confusing the process of designing and building a new home can be for the client. After years of meetings, site analysis, preliminary design, construction documents, navigating the code in the different jurisdictions, choosing and working with contractors and subcontractors, preparing contracts, construction administration, choosing materials and fixtures, the architect can forget how overwhelmed the client can feel confronted with these issues for the first time. This document will help to explain, in general terms, the process of “residential” design and what to expect from your architect.
It is important to bear in mind, each project is unique and will bring together unique personalities and unforeseen issues to be resolved. To track and resolve these issues as they arrive, it is very important that someone take the lead; typically, this is the architect. In the best of situations, he or she would be involved in the property search along with the client and would coordinate meetings with other essential professions on site. It could be a geotechnical engineer asked to inspect and discuss the potential foundation complexities due to soil conditions or a wetland specialist to examine the potential site impact due to “wetland” areas on site. In any case, the architect can coordinate the necessary meetings and give needed insight to the client before the land or structure is purchased.
DEVELOPING THE DESIGN PROGRAM:
Developing a comprehensive and profound program is essential to the success of the home or structure under consideration. The program must be taken very seriously and when considering the design of a personal residence, can be considered an exercise in personal reflection and family dynamics. A good program does not include images from the latest architectural or design magazines; in fact, these can be a distraction. The program is not a discussion of design, style or taste; because these are too often influenced by current trends and modes and are, more often than not, superficial visual “likes” and “dislikes”. A useful program is an examination and reflection of one’s own emotions, character, spirituality, and sensuality. It is a discussion of the abstract and the details. It should be a reflection of your routines, such as how you prepare your breakfast in the morning and your moods such as how weather can affect your psyche. It should also be a personal reflection of relationships; the need for privacy and the requirements for intimacy. It can be one of the most challenging “phases” of a successful design process. It is absolutely necessary to spend the time and energy on a complete and thorough program to help guide the architect. A well thought out program can be the difference between a “house”, and a "home" that is both a reflection of your lifestyle and enhancement to your character. Your architect/designer should be involved in developing your program and can assist you in clarifying the program and can make suggestions that will aid in your documentation and exploration and reflection.
Refer to the “Program” outline for further understanding of this critical phase of the program.
CONSIDERING THE LAND:
Often, especially with new construction, the character of the land has a profound influence on the form of the structure. The topography, orientation, vegetation, and context all influence the decisions that are made when starting the design process. For this reason, it is always preferable to develop the program before deciding on your land. If the orientation of the land is at odds with the need for morning light, for example, it is difficult to overcome that feature and it may limit the potential use of the land. When choosing raw land or land with an existing structure, it is important to have the input of an architect. Preferably, the architect that will be working with you on the design of your new home because he or she will have the ability to foresee many issues that may impact the future structure and access. Of course, in many cases, such as an urban setting, raw land is extremely rare, and the only alternative is to look for land with an existing structure. There are times when an existing structure is sited poorly on the land and moving the structure is cost-prohibitive. When this is the case it is usually more prudent to look for an existing situation that better fits your program and needs.
Whether you are looking for acreage in the country or a plot in the city, it is necessary to have a written description of what you desire. This description will help you and your real estate agent better define the search and will help your architect provide you with meaningful feedback. It is the combined influence of the client program, character of the land, influence of the architect and the adherence to the Codes that, in the end, will shape the structure and the spaces it creates.
Although the orientation and context of the land are always important, there are situations where they are less so. Often the architect is asked to remake or remodel an existing structure. Of course, the character and nature of the land will still be considered but it may have less influence in the design process. Because remodels are most often more expensive and more complex than new construction it is especially important to consult with your architect before deciding on the house to remodel. When budget is a concern, and it usually is, it is critical to search for a structure with similar, useful, “bones”. In other words, it is not pragmatic to purchase a turn of the century “Cape Cod” with a rigid, compartmentalized, floor plan if you desire a “Northwest modern” with an open floor plan and minimal exterior walls. Typically, if your potential remodel will involve more than 65% of the original home it is more practical to remove the home completely, or at minimum leave only the foundation. That is a difficult and counter-intuitive reality to accept, but the truth is, without careful research and structural analysis, trying to fit your program into an existing structure is often an expensive and challenging endeavor.
Having said that, most residential construction permits granted by the City of Seattle are for “alterations” to existing homes. When the home does exist, the program must be written to consider existing conditions. At this point, it is helpful to research the City archives for the original “blueprints” or, if drawings don’t exist, employ your architect to create an “as-built” drawing set, which is a documentation of the existing structure. Once the structure of the home is understood it is easier to write a meaningful and useful program that will align with the realities of the budget.
CHOOSING THE GENERAL CONTRACTOR:
The most important two words when selecting your general contractor are experience and reputation. With that in mind, building your new home will require a team effort and like any team, it is helpful if the “players” have an existing, positive, working relationship. If this is not possible, it is important to involve your architect in the search and interview process. When looking for a general contractor, keep in mind that different architectural “styles” require different skill sets; the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, could not hit a fastball thus ending his attempt at a career in baseball. If it is a minimal, modern home you desire then select a contractor that has experience working in that genre. Peace of mind does have a value. Considering only the “bottom line” can lead to constant frustration and heartache. If you desire a “quality” result and appreciate working with caring professionals, then limit your search to those individuals and organizations. In the end, you will save both time and money choosing the most “qualified” people not necessarily the cheapest.
NAVIGATING THE CITY:
Many gray hairs and sleepless nights can be attributed to the permitting process. Although it is easy and convenient to point fingers and cast blame regarding the sometimes-frustrating process, the simple truth is that navigating and interpreting the International Residential Code is not always easy. There are well over 1000 pages of requirements and guidelines between the IRC and the Seattle Landuse Code. Like most professions, past experiences is the best teacher but even after years working in the profession. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the situation, many parts of the code are subjective and open to interpretation. In fact, within the Architectural profession, the “Code” is sometimes referred to as the “Bible”. Although this is an absurd comparison it is true that, like the Bible, the interpretation can vary depending on who is reading. Code “complications” and “clarifications” will arrive; it should be expected and considered part of the design process. It is for exactly that reason that the Landuse and building code specialists exist to review the drawings, provide comments and/or require clarification. Each year the code changes and grows. Although the changes are typically slight and the growth minimal, the added complexities do sometimes add time to the “review” process. With added time and complexity comes added cost. Generally speaking, the costs of acquiring a residential building permit have increased significantly over the past ten years. The fees are based on square footage and scope of construction, so each fee is unique. The City of Seattle does provide a “fee calculator” for budgeting purposes only.
As with choosing a general contractor, look for experience and reputation when choosing your architect. However, beyond experience and reputation, one must consider the body of work and the “aesthetic”. Much of the design is beyond the lines on the paper; the lines on the paper describe how to construct the “physical” elements of design, they do not describe space. The architect is considering space, light, texture, context, contrast, and form to arrive at, or surpass, the desired result.
When choosing your architect, keep in mind the relationship could last months or years in some cases. Although it is always necessary to formalize the relationship with a contract, the relationship should be more than “contractual” if your home is to have the personal and emotional connection that you desire.
To better understand the difference between a “Home Designer” and an “Architect” contact the Seattle branch of the AIA (American Institute of Architects).