72% Of Individuals Polled Were Unaware That Architects Apply For Planning Permission

Sadly, I have neglected my blog over the last couple of weeks as mud season rolled into road construction season here in Maine.  I have, however, kept up with some of the interesting articles that are floating around my inbox.  One that caught my attention stated a number of facts that the average person doesn't know that an Architect does! Architects are notoriously bad business people. How can we run a successful business if the majority of individuals who would hire us have no idea what we do!This topic reminds me of the statement that I make to my students at the beginning of each semester. "I don't know what you don't know!” Quickly followed by: “I don't remember what it was like when I didn’t know, now that I know it.” As an Architect, I guess I get caught up in the excitement of the design of the project, and I forget to explain all the important things that need to happen behind the scenes as a project develops.According to Vitruvius who wrote The Ten Books On Architecture for the emperor Augustus: “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to the test.” The foundation for which all architects study asks them to be the linchpin for every project. In simple terms it requires the architect to hold together various elements of a complicated process:  To be involved in every aspect of design and construction because an architect's knowledge base extends to every discipline.I am currently writing a class for the fall semester and I have to put together, in detail, a worksheet of all the information that an architect would be required to figure out during each phase of the design and construction process. It has been an exhausting list including zoning, watershed, ADA compliance, wall detail sheets, sections, schedules and so much more. Maybe you don't need the Architect to hold your hand and pick out paint colors, but are you aware of all the other things you should be asking your architect to do? How about a few ideas to get your mind thinking about how complicated this process is:

  1. Check the zoning, because what happens when you can’t do what you wanted to do on your site?
  2. Check for watershed restrictions, how much extra is it going to cost you to find the right location for the septic on this site you wanted to build on?
  3. Phosphorus plans. Did you even know you might need one of these?
  4. Planning requirements for submission, every town is different and you might need stamped engineering drawings or a site plan with 2’-0” contours.
  5. Help the builder work out any unforeseen issues, because there will always be issues
  6. Coordinate with trades, when you have no data jacks on the first floor of your home and you can’t connect to the internet without a wireless router you’ll wonder why no one said anything. It’s not like you were supposed to know, and the electrician was just doing whatever was necessary for a certificate of occupancy, it's really not their job to ask you how you are going to use your space.
  7. Lighting, because even the most beautiful space can be dark and under utilized if a proper lighting layout hasn’t been established
  8. Check to make sure the building envelop is tight and continuous, the days of energy efficient structures are becoming more and more important.
  9. Verify the electrical is in a usable location, because there are twenty light switches and not one of them turns on a light when you enter the front door.
  10. Heating or cooling is in a usable location, because it was easier to run ductwork right behind where your couch will go, and now it doesn’t heat the space.

I assume it was drummed into my mind as a young architect that our clients don't need to know all the nitty gritty of what we do behind the scenes.  However, it has become abundantly clear, that our profession is marginalizing itself because clients now assume that the builder figures out things that architects should be doing. Whose fault is it when we agree to lesser services and the project doesn’t go as planned? Just because the structure can be eight feet apart, doesn't mean that the geometry will look correct when it's finished. Or that removing one window will save you $500, but now every time you drive into your driveway you see the two eyes and mouth because the front of your home looks like the painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch. It's like trying to run a project, without a project manager. Just because it might save you a little money, doesn't mean it's always a good option.  The architect has spent hours getting the proportions just right, so if you need to save money, or make a change, they need to be able to evaluate how that change will affect all other parts of the structure. Not only does the architect design buildings, we manage the process from the beginning site analysis through commissioning.  You need the architect to be fully engaged through the entire process, so let us tell you why you need us!  

Feasibility Studies, Why They Can Make or Break a Project

Feasibilty StudySome times the best thing you can do at the beginning of the project is a feasibility study.  These include code research, zoning research, measuring the building or site, site analysis, and in some cases, an energy analysis.  In commercial projects, this simple step could save a lot of time, effort, and money for a client.Recently I did a feasibility study for a client.  I went out, measured the building, spent time researching the code based on the use they wanted for the building and developed a study based on their requirements.  I then contacted the town in which they were located to clarify some zoning issues and found out that the use they were proposing for this building was not allowed in the zoning district where they were located.  I took for granted that the existing use of their building was a grandfathered use, and that similar uses would be allowed.The client, however, was still very interested in pursuing the idea that they have for the space.  So they asked me what the requirements would be in order to make this use happen in this location.  Contacting the town resulted in the information necessary, however, it would be an uphill battle.  The town requires that you convince your town councilor to take up your petition and bring it in front of the town Council in order to change the actual zoning in the area to incorporate this use.All towns are different and have different rules.  In the City where I live, citizens can petition the Planning Board to change the zoning.  The City Council can ask the Planning Board to revise Zoning, or the City can ask the Planning board to revise zoning.  In this smaller town, the Town Council is in charge of changing zoning and there is not a mechanism for residents to petition the board.  Residents would be required to submit to their Town Councilor or one of the At Large Councilors to bring the issue in front of the Council.At that time, the Councilor needs to convince the other members of the board to change the zoning.  Typically they will notify the abutting neighbors to get their input on the matter.  Then they will hold a public hearing to discuss the issue at hand where the board will ask questions and public input will be held.  It can be a very serious issue when changing zoning to allow additional uses.  Although the zoning district where this client would like to add a use is very small, sometimes changing uses in a zoning district can affect several neighborhoods and hundreds of square miles within the town or city.  These zoning changes can be a very complicated matter.  Although the Council may agree with your project in your location, if it affects larger parts of the town or city it may not be in their best interest to allow the use.  It also can be challenging for the board because they can not appear to have awarded favoritism to a particular project and must look at the use within the zoning and not at a specific site.Zoning Ordinances can be very difficult to change and swaying a town or city Council can be a challenge.  So if you are considering a project, maybe it is a residence with a home business or a commercial space in a restricted zone, contact someone and have a feasibility study done on your project.  It might be the best couple hundred dollars you ever spent.  It also will tell you what is allowable in your area and may help you to restructure your project to something more economically viable or at least allowable in your zoning district.

Place Based Planning

I was reading an article the other night in "Susquehanna Style" called Charting New Urbanim by M. Diane McCormick.  The article goes into detail about Walden PA and it's choice to create what they are calling "new urbanism".  New urbanism is dedicated to community building and design that inspires interaction.  The streets are lined with trees, there is business on the first level and apartments in the upper levels.  The entire area is designed around human scale and interaction.It made me start thinking about place based planning.  I sit on the planning board of my local town and a few months ago, maybe even last year, we had a consultant come in and talk to us about place based planning.  Our zoning ordinances are all based around what you can and can't do in a zoning district.  It however, lacks the mobilization of ideas that create places that people want to be in.  We don't stop the one story convience store from building next to the three story business building which creates an uneven facade along the street and an uncomfortable space for people to walk and hang out.  In our town we have a hotel in a sea of parking across the street from our high density downtown district which essentially cuts the two areas off from each other. Homeowners who chose to live in Walden called it "Williamsburg in central Pennsylvania".  So we ask ourselves, why do we like Williamsburg?  What makes it special? Why are some of our favorite cities and spaces to be in, the most uniquely rigid in design.Being from Maine I think about Freeport.  The first time you visit, thinking about all the luxuries of shopping at LL Bean, you'll be surprised by the McDonalds which is housed in a period style home.  You'll note, that even the expansion shops, have meandering corridors and residential scale.  We like the feeling of scale, it makes us want to hang out in the space and return once again, and for Freeport, that means shopping and revenue.As Architects, Designers, Engineers, or even everyday people, we will never agree on what is the correct design ideal.  Look at the Le Corbusier's and Frank Lloyd Wright's of the world who tried to create urban utopias, however, isn't it something we should consider? The argument during our planning board was, how can we discourage development when we are asking people who need 1 story buildings to build 3 story buildings to meet our place based scale requirements.  But what we are forgetting, is that it may turn away some business, but it will become such a popular space to be, that other business will surely follow.  The example in Walden being a perfect representative by proving that building 75 units over a business district sold out in record time.It harkens back to the movement of our generation that is coming full circle with our grandparents generation.  Spending more time with one parent raising the children instead of working (albeit may not be the wife that stays home).  Or growing our own food and concentrating on organic farming.  There is a whole generation who wants to revert back to a simpler way of life, where we don't all work 90 hours a week and we say hi to our neighbors when we walk down the street.It was a reminder to me, as an Architect, how important it is to listen to what our clients are asking us for.  To remember to created spaces that make them feel good, at a proper scale.  Bigger isn't always better.  Being everything to everyone isn't nearly as good as being something to someone.  To remember to take a stand and people will value what you are offering, even if it turns away others.  I'd love to hope that we could create place based planning in the future.  Not everywhere needs to be Williamsburg or Freeport, but doesn't everywhere deserve to have a vibe or personality?