Planning & Design

Here you will find all the articles we’ve written over the years. Pick and choose which articles most apply to you, or read them all. Improve your home with energy efficient upgrades, learn about non-traditional spaces and learn how an architect can affect your home project for the better. Whatever you decide to do, we’re glad you’re here. Welcome!

See the blog categories below and choose which articles you would like to read first.

Planning & Design (below)

Construction & Costs

Energy Efficiency & Maintenance 

City Living

New Homes

A Good Fit for New Leaf

At New Leaf, I’ve been working with several people on new home designs, in addition to my usual renovation projects. So I thought I’d share my thoughts about new home design, and what makes a new home project a good fit for New Leaf.  Read more of this article here.

 

 

Getting To Know You: Introduction Meetings and Consultation

It’s always nice to know what to expect when you do something new. And for most people, working with an architect is something new. So what happens after you decide to work with an architect and find one to call. During this first phone call, the architect will ask you some questions about your project: what you plan to do, where your home or building site is located, how soon you hope to start construction. Read more about this introduction here…

The Slow Home Movement

Some of you may have heard of the “Slow Food” movement: an approach to food based on the idea that food should taste delicious, be grown in a way that does not harm the environment or our health, and provide fair working conditions for the people who produce it.   Well, now there is a “Slow Home” movement that draws on this same kind of values-based approach.  As it turns out, the New Leaf approach to design has a lot in common with the Slow Home. Slowly read the rest of the article here.

The Checklist Manifesto

Reading this book had been on my list for a while, partly because it got a good deal of attention from USA Today, NPR and many other places, and partly because I went to high school with the author, Atul Gawande. It deals specifically with how checklists can improve the quality of medical care, but it applies to any complex process. You would think that once something becomes too complex, a checklist might become too inflexible and limited to be useful. Check this list article off your reading list here…

Spring. What a beautiful word!

As I write this I am sitting in a sunlit courtyard with early spring flowers in bloom, listening to the birds singing. Besides these natural sources of beauty, the surrounding building walls create a separation from the world outside, encouraging reflection. There are three benches available, to make it a comfortable place to sit. There is a tree in the center of the courtyard…Read the entire article before spring here.

What an architect really does all day…

When most people picture an architect, they probably think of her drawing “blueprints”.  I do spend some time drawing, but if you look in my office window, you are at least as likely to see me exchanging emails or talking on the phone. That’s because an architect doesn’t just “do drawings”.

What I really do is…Read the entire article here.

 

The Value of Design and Drawings

Not long ago I met with an older woman who had purchased a New Leaf consultation at an auction for a non-profit group.  Unfortunately, she had already had the addition to her home built, and had multiple complaints.  As a result, she wasn’t using the new spaces at all.  At this point there wasn’t a lot that I could do to correct the situation without substantial construction expense. Read the article here.

Beginning the Design Process: Programming

If you are just starting to think about a project things can seem a little overwhelming.  Where do you even begin? Fortunately, your architect has been here before.  We even have a name for this phase, where you may not have a clear idea of what the project should look like. It’s called Programming. At New Leaf Home Design, the programming process starts at our very first meeting, when you begin describing the big picture of what you want to accomplish. Finish the design process by reading the article here…

Add More Space without Adding Square Footage

This project is proof you can make your home look and live bigger without adding any square footage. Located in one of Highland Square’s multi-story condominium buildings, adding on wasn’t an option for this home. So instead of adding space, we used three strategies to make the space we had work better:

  1. We opened up the wall between the Kitchen and the entry hall, creating a visual connection with the living areas. Even with the Kitchen located diagonally from the living spaces, removing this wall allows you to See the before and after pictures here.   

Getting To Beautiful

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Someone thought those ceiling beams were beautiful. It would not have been me.” Debra Silber wrote this recently in an article for “Fine Homebuilding” magazine on what makes a house beautiful. And while I agreed with most of the article, I disagreed with her comment about the ugly ceiling beams. I am confident that no one ever really looked at them and said “these are beautiful”. So why were they there? See the beams here…

The Value of Good Planning

Whatever your project, it’s important to have plenty of time to find the right professionals for your team, consider your design options, and make decisions. Now is a good time to start planning for the projects you would like to have built next spring...Read the article here.

Beautiful Inside and Out: What The Leaflet is All About

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The photo above shows a lot of the things that get me excited about designing homes: the shelter provided by warm walls and roof; the natural light, views, and controlled sun warmth provided by well-placed windows; and the beauty of materials put together with craftsmanship in a way that will last a century or more. There are plenty of websites and magazines where you can find photos of beautiful finished homes and you can read more about it here…

Tiny Houses: The Big Picture

I confess, I secretly dream of building and living in a tiny house.  Apparently, there are aTiny Houses- the Big Picture1lot of people who share this dream.  You can now find websites, blogs, conferences, and more devoted to nothing but tiny houses. In case you’ve missed the attention they have been getting lately, “tiny house” refers to a stand-alone dwelling of roughly 500 square feet or less, with many smaller than 120 square feet. Read the big article here..

Energy Efficiency & Maintenance

Home Energy Renovations: When You Can’t Go Down To The Studs

A couple of months ago I met with a client who wanted to make significant energy improvements to an older house. But because the house was occupied, it wasn’t possible to go down to the studs to do the kind of deep energy retrofit Project Rebuild is doing in Canton. (If you missed that story in The Leaflet, you can find it here in the October issue.) Still, there were a lot of opportunities to reduce the energy usage and lower their utility bills. In fact, the suggestions I made for that house provide a pretty good checklist for things you might want to consider for improvements at your own home. Read More Here…

Raising the Bar for the Quality of Home Construction

Our country could be building better quality homes, but we aren’t.  Why not?  The number of newhomes built has risen steadily in the past 5 years, and continues to do so.   Unfortunately, most of these homes will be built to meet the current building code, and not much better.  Perhaps the worst news is that many of the people buying these homes don’t know that they COULD have a house that cost less to heat and cool, is more comfortable, is more durable, and provides a healthier environment for their families, at less total cost than a similar code minimum house. Raise the Bar by Reading More Here

Checking for Icicles

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This is a great time of year to see whether you could lower your heating bills by adding insulation. If you can see the pattern of your roof rafters in the snow on your roof…Watch for Icicles Here…

 

Get Ready for Winter

Now that it’s almost November, you’ve probably spent some time getting your yard ready for winter by raking leaves, putting the gardens to bed, and maybe putting away some outdoor furniture. But before you get too comfy with that cup of hot chocolate, you’ll want to make sure your house is ready for winter. And fall is the best time to start planning that renovation or addition you are thinking about for next spring. I’ll give you a few tips on things you can do to winterize your home. Get Ready to Read More

Green Certification and You

So, you may ask, just what is  Green certification and how does it help in building a Green home, or renovating my existing home? 

Simply put, Green certification is a way for you to know that a new home or renovation really incorporates design and features that make it more sustainable than a home “built to code”; that the word “Green” isn’t just being used as a marketing tool.  Several  regional and national organizations have developed programs to create Green benchmarks, with the goal of encouraging more high quality, sustainable home building around the country. Read more here.

Window Condensation Problems

I had a past client call the other day with a question about their windows. This summer they had some morework done on their home in Bath, including new siding and more new windows. Recently, as the temperatures outside got lower, they had been getting condensation inside the new windows. They’d never had condensation on either the original windows or the larger triple pane ones they had installed as part of our project together, so they wondered if the new windows were faulty. Read the entire article here…

Project Rebuild

*Project Rebuild:
Making A House Built in 1915 Green Enough for LEED Platinum
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Photo of Project REBUILD class with project partners from Saint Gobain, Northeast Ohio USGBC, Malone University, Learn About Green LLC, and New Leaf Home Design

Who says a house built in 1915 can’t have super low energy bills, great indoor air quality, and be super comfortable to live in?  New Leaf Home Design is excited to be a part of  the Project REBUILD, Inc. deep energy retrofit of this Canton home.  We are setting our sights on a LEED Platinum certificate, which will provide third party verification that the house meets a broad range of sustainability criteria. Read about Project Rebuild here.

Battle of The Energy Audits

I recently had not one, but two energy audits done on my house. I’ve mentioned before that Dominion East Ohio is offering audits through their Good Cents program for just $50. Then at the Home & Flower

jpeg (1)Show, I learned that Dr. Energy Saver will do an audit for free. I had wondered before how the Good Cents audit compared to others, so I decided this was a great opportunity to find out. My research isn’t complete though, since I have not (yet?) had an audit from Green Street Solutions, another local company who is currently charging $250. Even at $250, an audit is a great investment, since it provides you with information that can help you save considerably more than that. Here’s what I’ve found…

The Energy Audit Saga Continues

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the two energy audits I had done recently: one through Dominion East Ohio’s Goo

dCents program, the other through a company specializing in audits. If you missed that article and would like to read a comparison of the two audits, just click below: Battle of the Energy Audits. Well, after getting all that information on where my house is losing energy, you might wonder what I’m doing about it. Read all about it here…

Energy Efficiency Opportunities when you Renovate

Last week I talked with two different potential new clients about renovating their homes.  Two

home-rigid-foam-insulationthings on both of their lists were new siding and new shingles.  I perked right up because those are both great opportunities to make a home more energy efficient, and if you pass up the opportunity it will be a loooong time before you have another.  Let’s face it, energy efficiency usually isn’t the main thing that makes us want to renovate our homes.  The need to move the Master Bedroom to the first floor, the desire for a more functional Kitchen, and even wanting to update the look of the house are the kinds of things that motivate most renovations. Read more here.

Zero Energy Ready

zeroenergyreadyIf you have been following the buzz on sustainable homes, you may have heard the term “Net Zero Home”.  The idea of Net Zero is to create a home that generates as much energy as it uses.  Since energy usage affects both the operating costs and the environmental impact of a house long after construction is done, it’s arguably the most important consideration in building a more sustainable home.  So how do you know if you’ve met Net Zero?   And what can you do if solar panels are part of the long term plan for the house but you won’t be installing them right away? Read the answer here…

City Living

Shaker Design Competition

In January of this year I had the honor of participating in a design competition hosted by the City of Shaker Heights.  Twelve teams submitted conceptual drawings for infill lots in the Moreland Heights neighborhood.  The city was looking for proposals that emphasize energy efficiency with net zero ready or passive design, that fit into traditional neighborhoods, and incorporate intergenerational accessibility.  I partnered with Bliss & Company developers and builders to create a design based on the historic Cleveland Double. This Article Continues…

Tiny Houses: The Big Picture

Tiny Houses- the Big Picture1

I confess, I secretly dream of building and living in a tiny house.  Apparently, there are a lot of people who share this dream.  You can now find websites, blogs, conferences, and more devoted to nothing but tiny houses. In case you’ve missed the attention they have been getting lately, “tiny house” refers to a stand-alone dwelling of roughly 500 square feet or less, with many smaller than 120 square feet.  Read the Big Story Here

 

New Homes

Raising the Bar for the Quality of Home Construction

Our country could be building better quality homes, but we aren’t.Why not?  The number of new homes built has risen steadily in the past 5 years, and continues to do so.

Unfortunately, most of these homes will be built to meet the current building code, and not much better.  Perhaps the worst news is that many of the people buying these homes don’t know that they COULD have a house that cost less to heat and cool, is more comfortable, is more durable, and provides a healthier environment for their families, at less total cost than a similar code minimum house.   We know how to design and build houses like these, and in fact we have for quite a while now.  So why don’t we?  According to Kevin Ireton of Fine Homebuilding Magazine, there are three core reasons. Continue Reading this Article…

Honour Tradition in a Tour of This Colonial-Style Home

One of the most popular residential building styles in the United States, a Colonial style home is a favourite among American families. With the characteristic rectangular

shape, two-story structure, wood facade, and shuttered windows, the brand-new home that you’ll tour in this ideabook is an excellent example of familiar style. Designed by Hallie Bowie, the architect and founder of New Leaf Home Design, this practical, pleasing, and highly functional family home is located in Shaker Heights, a suburb very close to Cleveland, Ohio. Read More of This Article…

Zero Energy Ready

 

If you have been following the buzz on sustainable homes, you may have heard the term “Net Zero Homezeroenergyready”.  The idea of Net Zero is to create a home that generates as much energy as it uses.  Since energy usage affects both the operating costs and the environmental impact of a house long after construction is done, it’s arguably the most important consideration in building a more sustainable home.  So how do you know if you’ve met Net Zero?   And what can you do if solar panels are part of the long term plan for the house but you won’t be installing them right away? Get ready by Reading the whole article here…

 

Home Energy Renovations: When You Can’t Go Down To The Studs

A couple of months ago I met with a client who wanted to make significant energy improvements to an older house. But because the house was occupied, it wasn’t possible to go down to the studs to do the kind of deep energy retrofit Project Rebuild is doing in Canton. (If you missed that story in The Leaflet, you can find it here in the October issue.) Still, there were a lot of opportunities to reduce the energy usage and lower their utility bills. In fact, the suggestions I made for that house provide a pretty good checklist for things you might want to consider for improvements at your own home.

First, get an audit

An energy audit will provide you with a clear game plan for the improvements you make and help you prioritize the items that will have the biggest impact. Because air infiltration has such a major impact on energy use, and because holes in the air barrier can be hidden in places that are hard to see, a blower door test is important. An auditor will also bring tools like infrared thermographs, along with training in how to identify home efficiency problems. Dominion East Ohio Gas is still offering audits through for just $50, with rebates on the energy improvement work you have done from their list. You can get more information here Home Performance with Energy Star, though as of this writing they were “undergoing administrative updates”. You could also choose to work with an independent home performance consultant to get a more customized evaluation of opportunities and possible solutions. An audit will help you to develop a comprehensive game plan for your improvements, so you don’t make one improvement only to find that you’ve eliminated a better solution to the next thing you tackle.

Wet Basement? Find the causes and decide how to manage it

This isn’t exactly about energy efficiency, but you need to get a wet basement under control before you do anything else. If you seal up the air leaks in a house with a wet basement, your heating bill may be lower but the house may become much more humid, which can lead to mold growth. So check those gutters and downspouts, slope the ground away from the house, and get your footing drains flowing or have new ones installed. If the situation and budget allows, you may want to dig down to the foundation and have new waterproofing added to the outside walls along with new drains. If the roof needs much work, you might decide if you want to have deeper eaves.

Rim joist insulation

The rim joists, where the floor joists meet the outside walls, typically allow a lot of outside air into your house. Adding spray foam insulation or rigid foam insulation sealed in place with spray foam is a great way to improve your energy efficiency. If you are thinking about finishing the basement, be sure to do this first! This air sealing at the lowest level of the house will help to minimize the stack effect that draws heated air out of your house.

Basement wall insulation

Even if the stud walls in your older house have insulation, the basement walls probably don’t. According to Green Building Advisor, “if you live in Climate Zone 3 or anywhere colder, it’s cost-effective and wise to install basement wall insulation”. Our Zone 5 weather is definitely colder. Rigid or spray foam insulation attached directly to the concrete is a great way to insulate existing basements that doesn’t invite problems with wet fiberglass or rotting studs. If you don’t want finished space, you can use Dow Thermax, which has a fire resistant coating attached. Otherwise, a layer of gypsum drywall will be needed to meet flame spread requirements. You may also choose to put a stud wall between the foam and the drywall to make it easier to run wiring and attach the drywall.

New energy efficient furnace, water heater, and air conditioner

If you are building new, a conventional furnace may not be the answer, but for an existing home simply getting a more efficient furnace makes sense. Improved efficiency with natural gas appliances includes switching from an atmospheric combustion unit to a sealed combustion one with direct venting. Here’s a great article describing the hazards of atmospheric combustion and benefits of sealed combustion: Energy Vanguard You may also want to consider providing more managed fresh air for the people in the house, as you are eliminating the accidental air leaks. A heat or energy recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV) is the most efficient solution for this and a must-have for super efficient new homes. Existing homes may want to consider simply providing a fresh air intake connected to the furnace return air duct, so your fresh air will get warmed immediately rather than first running across your toes in a cold draft the way it does in poorly sealed houses with atmospheric combustion furnaces.

Do you need the chimney? If you have a chimney that was only used for the furnace and water heater which now vent through the basement wall, you may want to remove it. Chimneys often have significant air leaks and are just one more hole in your roof. If you are planning to use the top floor as living space, they also tend to be right in the middle of the attic room. So if you don’t need it, take it out!

 

Attic air sealing and insulation- on the floor or at the roof

Take care of both air sealing and insulating the top of your house- in that order! If you insulate first it will be more difficult to do air sealing. This is the top half of that stack effect that started down at the basement rim joists. Seal the bottom and the top and the house stops acting so much like a chimney, sending your heated air up to the sky. The system you choose for insulation will depend on whether you have ventilated, unheated attic space or if you want living space right up to the slope of the roof.

Exterior door weatherstripping This is an in-expensive one you may be able to do yourself. If you are re-siding, you might also check to see whether you even need all of the exterior doors in the house.

Maybe NOT new windows Replacement windows are heavily marketed, but they may not be the energy problem they want you to think they are. There are reasons to replace windows, but dollar for dollar, other improvements may save you more energy.

Other Energy Star appliances and WaterSense fixtures

An Energy Star washing machine will use less hot water, and the super-spin cycle will mean your dryer have less work to do too. Water Sense shower heads can also reduce your hot water usage. Water Sense toilets will reduce your water bill, and will save energy at the water treatment plant. To learn more about the WaterSense Label visit the EPA site.

The value of good planning

Most of these projects can be done without disrupting your life while you live in your home. Like all home improvement projects, you will have a better outcome if you remember the house is an interconnected system and you have a good plan in place before you begin. Afterwards, your home will be more comfortable and you’ll have lower energy costs.

 

Raising the Bar for the Quality of Home Construction

Our country could be building better quality homes, but we aren’t.  Why not?  The number of new homes built has risen steadily in the past 5 years, and continues to do so.   Unfortunately, most of these homes will be built to meet the current building code, and not much better.  Perhaps the worst news is that many of the people buying these homes don’t know that they COULD have a house that cost less to heat and cool, is more comfortable, is more durable, and provides a healthier environment for their families, at less total cost than a similar code minimum house.   We know how to design and build houses like these, and in fact we have for quite a while now.  So why don’t we?  According to Kevin Ireton of Fine Homebuilding Magazine, there are three core reasons.

Cost is not one of those reasons.  Money is part of the story, but the problem has much more to do with the way homes are financed than it has to do with actual dollars spent by the homeowner.  In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Energy comparison from October of 2015, a homeowner in our climate zone would save $43/month if they built a new home to the Zero Energy Ready Home standard than if they built a similar home using the current Ohio Residential Code energy standards 1.   But money can still be a problem because of the way appraisals are done.

Most banks and real estate appraisers place NO value on extra insulation or photovoltaic panels on the roof.  Zero.  None.   Appraisals are important because they are how banks decide whether a buyer will be able to make the payments on a mortgage.  Unfortunately, the factors currently used in making that evaluation do not take energy costs into account.  They consider principle, interest, taxes, and insurance, but not utilities.  Since energy costs are more expensive than either taxes or insurance, this is omitting a key part of the real-world accounting that affects the ability to make that monthly mortgage payment.  In addition,

the basic education required for an appraiser’s license does not cover high performance home features or renewable energy.  Combine these two items with the fact that in most areas it is difficult to find houses with “comparable” energy efficiency features, and it becomes very difficult to get a mortgage that recognizes the added value of a high-performance home.

This is a shame, because when it comes time to re-sell that home, the buyers will recognize this value.  According to a McGraw Hill Smart Market Report 2, 73% of single family home builders say consumers will pay more for green homes.

The unique nature of the home building industry is another reason home quality hasn’t advanced faster. Building science based solutions for homes are not “one size fits all”. While a computer can be designed so it works just as well in Phoenix as in Boston, homes need to take climate into account.  A wall assembly that makes perfect sense in a hot, dry region is not at all appropriate in northeast Ohio.  Even if the best strategies were the same for the whole country, there are roughly 60,000 home builders in the U.S. and there is no single organization, tradeshow, or conference that reaches all of them with the latest information.

According the NAHB Research Center, it takes up to 25 years for the housing industry to adopt new technologies.3 The details matter in high performance homes, but there is very little incentive for builders to learn these new methods.  Only eight states have continuing education requirements for contractor licenses.  In Ohio, general contractors for home construction are not required to be licensed by the state at all, and the cities that do require licensing are more interested in making sure the business will be around to complete the project than finding out if they know anything about construction.   Many contractors do in fact know a great deal about construction, and there is a lot to know.  They need to schedule work, order materials, find skilled labor, pay for insurance, market the company, and more.  Adding to their challenge is the fact that many prospective homeowners are focused on getting a low cost-per-square foot, focused completely on the initial construction cost because of the lending system.  As a result, contractors are apt to stay close to the “tried and true” construction methods they know, so they can focus on these other challenges.

So, there is no system in place for getting the latest information on building science into the hands of builders, and little incentive for them to adopt new practices that add yet more complexity to what is already a very complicated and competitive business.   Which brings us to the final reason we aren’t building better houses.

“Because consumers haven’t asked us to.”  This is according to C. R. Herro, the VP of environmental affairs for Meritage Homes, one of the country’s largest home builders.  People don’t buy homes very often, and when they do they typically have a lot of other things going on in their lives.  They don’t have time to do a lot of research, and so they rely heavily on the advice of bankers, home builders, and people who own houses that were built many years ago.  We’ve just covered the reasons bankers and builders are not apt to champion the cause of high performance homes.  With competition so high, it is important that we as consumers learn to ask the right questions, expect the high performance that is completely attainable, and make energy efficiency one of the things contractors need to compete on.

So let’s start asking!   Ask builders for high performance homes, and insist that lenders take the costs of energy use for a house into account when they figure mortgage amounts.  For starters, every house should have a blower door test done during construction to check for air leaks.  Next, ask for the HERS score for your new home.  You would buy a car without knowing how many miles per gallon it gets, why would you buy a home without knowing how it performs compared to a code minimum house?  Likewise, you expect to see drawings showing what the house will look like when it is built, and perhaps even a CAD model so you can see it in three dimensions.  It is perfectly reasonable to expect computer modeling of how much energy the house will use.  Energy modeling can be used to help make cost effective choices about insulation levels and heating and cooling systems.

Even if you aren’t interested in getting your home certified to a sustainable construction standard like LEED, the National Green Building Standard, or Passivhouse, you can these standards as guideposts for learning about high performance home construction.  The U.S. Department of Energy has its own program, Zero Energy Ready Home certification.  Their website includes the “Tour of Zero”, where you can see dozens of high performance homes and their construction details.  I’ve included a link to this site below.  The Zero Energy Ready Home is specifically geared towards investing in a home’s thermal envelope to the point where it will be able to generate as much energy as it uses with the addition of solar photovoltaic panels.  The solar panels don’t need to be added at the time of construction.   These are easy to add on later, while changes to the building enclosure are much more difficult.  Quite a few of these Zero Energy Ready certified houses have already been built in northeast Ohio.

Let’s raise the bar and expect the construction of our new homes to give us better comfort, energy efficiency, and air quality.  We know how to do it.  It will save us money.  Let’s move forward together and make it happen!

This post draws heavily from Kevin Ireton’s article, “Why Don’t We Build Better Houses” in the spring/summer 2017 Houses issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine.  If you’d like a copy of the original article, send me an email and I can send you the pdf.  Or if you like audio you can find the Why Don’t We Build Better podcast here.

Click here for more information on the U.S.Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program.

To tour some homes already built using the Zero Energy Ready standard, see this page: DOE Tour of Zero.

Another good source for information about high performance home building is Green Building Advisor.

Sources:

1)      Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home Savings & Cost Estimate Summary

2)      McGraw Hill Construction Smart Market Report

3)      Sam Rashkin, Residential Architect, November 15, 2012

A Good Fit for New Leaf

At New Leaf, I’ve been working with several people on new home designs, in addition to my usual renovation projects. So I thought I’d share my thoughts about new home design, and what makes a new home project a good fit for New Leaf.

When I tell people about what I do, they often seem a little surprised that most of my projects are addition and renovation designs rather than new homes. Many people think that only big, elaborate projects warrant having an architect. It’s true that most architectural firms focus more on commercial and large residential work, but the projects I’ve done for more than 20 years provide plenty of evidence that smaller projects go more smoothly and turn out better with an architect’s help. So why does New Leaf choose to do more addition and renovation projects than new homes? What makes a new home project a good fit for New Leaf? Is working with an architect on a new house an all or nothing decision? Actually, understanding why I work on so many existing homes can help you understand the kinds of new home projects I enjoy the most. Here are the three basic considerations:

The charm of old houses

First and foremost, I love older homes. I like their craftsmanship, their detailing, and their neighborhoods. I’ve lived in a little 1925 Italian Renaissance house, a big 1930 Colonial Revival, and now my 1959 ranch. I like to find ways to keep these older homes working for us by giving them better Kitchens, more closet space, and more open floor plans. I also enjoy taking the language established by the rest of the house and continuing it so that the new areas look like they belong with the original parts of the house. For houses that don’t have a lot of character to start with, a renovation is an opportunity to create some special features: an archway, a window seat, or perhaps a beautifully crafted front porch for example.

In the original drawings for many older houses, you can see that the designers took the time to create drawings showing what the interior detailing should look like: built in book cases, wainscoting under the stairs, fireplace mantles. For new homes, I enjoy creating details that give this kind of character. This is true for any style of house, from Craftsman to Modern. The important thing is to take the time to think about what the finished space is going to look like, understand how the rooms are going to relate to each other, and design the details that will give each space a unique character.

Every renovation project is unique

The second reason I do so many additions and renovations is that each renovation project is totally unique. There are lots of stock plans out there for new homes, and since you are sharing the design cost for that plan with hundreds, or even thousands of other home buyers, these plans are bound to be more economical than a custom design. This isn’t an option for a renovation. You can’t buy a stock plan for a breakfast room addition, or to add a Master Suite over your garage, so you need an architect or designer to come up with a solution that works for your particular house.
For many people building a new home, stock plans are a good economical option. You can even make a few changes to the plan so it fits your needs better. If they are simple changes, a draftsman may be your best choice. Many stock plan companies offer modification services, or you can find someone locally to work with. You will need to purchase the drawings from the plan company in order to have copyright permission to use the design for your project, but once you have purchased the copyright release you are free to make whatever changes you want.

However, even if you are purchasing a stock plan, a few hours of advice from an architect can get you a better house. I recently had a client come to me with a stock plan that he wanted to adjust. Wali and I met and looked over the design he had been considering, and I asked whether they really wanted to have both a Breakfast area and a formal Dining Room. Since construction costs were a concern, it didn’t make sense to build space that they didn’t need. As a result, he looked over some more plans online and found a similar plan without a separate Dining Room. Like the first plan, this one included an attached Garage, so it still needed some modifications. I put together a sketch showing how the plan would work without the Garage. This process was more efficient and economical than creating a completely custom design from scratch, but I was able to provide some personalized advice and design in a way that couldn’t be duplicated over the Internet.

Quality over Quantity

The third reason I haven’t done more new houses is that until recently, many of the people who approached architects for new home designs have been interested in big houses of 4000 square feet or more, and I’m just not that interested in designing those. In the last few years though, there is increasing appreciation for new homes that are smaller while still feeling spacious and fitting their owners’ lifestyles, and are more energy efficient. It’s much more difficult to find stock plans that do these things well, and these are challenges I really enjoy solving!

Most stock plans aren’t yet detailed to provide the amount of insulation and air sealing needed for real energy efficiency for our climate. As a native Ohioan, I didn’t always realize that most of the country is warmer than northeast Ohio. That means that a house designed for the “average” climate in the U.S. isn’t a good fit for our region. And if you want walls that can accommodate above average amounts of insulation, the wall thicknesses and details in a typical stock plan just won’t work.

Also, a home intended to make the most of every square foot needs to consider the site where it will be built. If you can create a beautiful view for the Dining area by placing it on the right side of the house, you will never miss having a two story Foyer. Finding a stock plan that is sensitive to all of the site features, from lot size to views, can be nearly impossible. And of course, sustainable design means that you need to consider where the sun is coming from so you can design for passive heating, natural lighting, and possible solar panel systems. This kind of careful design customized for your family and the site where you will be building will take more time, and therefore a little more of your construction budget will need to be allocated towards design services. But good design can mean that you build only the space you need, you get more accurate estimates from contractors, construction goes more smoothly, and you save on energy bills every year that you live in your new home. Plus, you get a design that is comfortable, beautiful and enjoyable to live in.
Just as I create a new design for each of my projects, I also customize the services I provide to fit each of my clients’ needs. So if you are thinking about building a new home, give me a call and I’ll help you decide what level of architectural services are the best fit for you and your family.

Getting To Know You: Introduction Meetings and Consultation

It’s always nice to know what to expect when you do something new. And for most people, working with an architect is something new. So what happens after you decide to work with an architect and find one to call. During this first phone call, the architect will ask you some questions about your project: what you plan to do, where your home or building site is located, how soon you hope to start construction. You’ll probably have some questions you’ll want to ask too. For instance, how much experience she has with this type of project, how she charges for work, and whether she will provide 3-dimensional images of the design. If it seems like this architect is a good fit for your project, you’ll want to go ahead and schedule either an Introduction Meeting or a Consultation.
The Introduction Meeting has two main goals. First, it’s a chance to see if you and the architect have good “chemistry”. Is this someone you can communicate easily with? Do they seem to share your vision? Are they good listeners? And second, it’s an opportunity for you to describe your project in more detail. For addition and renovation projects, I like to meet at the house that we will be working on. That way we can walk through the house and see the areas to be transformed as we talk. This discussion is primarily about listening to what your needs are, so that the architect can get an idea of how much time will be involved in designing your project.
A Consultation meeting has different goals than an Introduction meeting. In this case, the purpose is to give you immediate information to help with decisions about your project. For instance, sometimes people shopping for a new house will want to know if there is a practical way to get a more open plan, or add on more space. Having an architectural Consultation before making an offer on a house can help you see its potential, or limitations, more clearly. If you have a very small project, like a kitchen renovation within existing square footage, a consultation can help you to think through the possibilities and suggest new ideas. Then you can take those ideas, and perhaps some sketches to your contractor or cabinetry supplier. If you’d like this kind of information exchange, you’ll want to discuss the consultation rate when you schedule your meeting. For most projects, however, the first meeting will be an Introduction that will help you and your architect prepare to work together over several weeks or months. Part of this preparation is answering the question “how much will the design and drawings cost”? Call me so we can talk about!

The Slow Home Movement

Some of you may have heard of the “Slow Food” movement: an approach to food based on the idea that food should taste delicious, be grown in a way that does not harm the environment or our health, and provide fair working conditions for the people who produce it.   Well, now there is a “Slow Home” movement that draws on this same kind of values-based approach.  As it turns out, the New Leaf approach to design has a lot in common with the Slow Home.

According to architect John Brown of the Slow Home Studio, a Slow Home follows three guiding principles:

1. Construct the home in such a way that environmental impact is minimized, and that the materials used are sustainable and friendly to the environment.

2. Ensure the house is well designed for the people who will live in the home.

3. Organize the space and choose furniture to fit how the homeowners will live in the home.   

This all has a lot in common with Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” philosophy, as well as the whole Green movement.  But I think “Slow Home” does an especially good job of emphasizing the relationship between our built environment and how we live.   The choices we make about our homes affect us for as long as we live in them.  Whether it’s how far we have to go to get to schools and shopping, or having a good place for the kids to put their backpacks when they get home from school, the design of our homes determines whether they support us in how we want to live, or become daily obstacles to overcome.

If you’d like to learn more about the Slow Home approach, the Slow Home Studio website has a number of “Design Minute” videos on everything from site design to bathroom storage to spray foam insulation.  Their address is http://slowhomestudio.com

 

 

originally published February 2011