Monday, February 1, 2010

Schematic Design I - The Big Picture

St. Helena Schematic Plan
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

Once a program has been developed, it is time for the architect to transform the words and sometimes-eclectic images from programming into a building. This process involves imagination, skill, and dissemination as the conversations, written words, and images from programming are transformed into drawings that represent the "big picture" of a design. This is not typically the proper time to be discussing the size of the drawers required in the Master Bathroom, but is the time to make sure the Master Bathroom is appropriately placed relative to other spaces and approximately the right size to accommodate its use.

It is also the proper time for discussions about building siting to take advantage of the site's natural beauty and attributes. A residential architect must have some way to get a sense of the proposed building site. A good architect wants to visit the proposed building site and see the attributes first-hand. Just as important is a sense of the site over time. If clients have owned a site for a period of time, which I strongly recommend, they can relate to the architect a sense of how the site changes with the seasons and what natural elements play on the site and how (wind, sun, shade, etc.)

A building needs to be sited to take advantage of all positive attributes of the site and mitigate any negative attributes as effectively as possible. This integration of site considerations into the design naturally aligns itself with the schematic design as the massing and orientation of specific building elements can naturally enhance positive site attributes and mitigate negative ones. If there are view corridors they should be integrated into the design. If there are solar orientations that can be taken advantage of schematic design is the time for the architect to take them into account. Likewise, if there are negative site attributes to be mitigated, for example prevailing winds that may affect the use of the spaces being created, both interior and exterior, schematic design is the time for their consideration and integration into the design. 

St. Helena Schematic Elevation
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

The end product of a residential building process is best if the plan fits the lifestyle and desires of the clients as tightly as possible. When an architect presents their first schematic designs to a client it becomes clear very quickly if they were listening to the clients' desires during programming discussions. If there was open communication between the clients and architect and the architect was listening carefully and is skilled, the schematic designs will all reflect aspects of the programming elements.

Each of the different schematic designs presented should relate an entire design solution that turns ideas into a building, not a diagram of the program. During schematic design a good architect integrates all of the program ideas and site considerations into a design that represents a buildable project. The schematic plans should create a building that works programmatically and looks great aesthetically. This integration of ideas, use, massing, site considerations, and aesthetics is a very complicated problem that takes skill and experience to piece together masterfully.

If the end product of schematic design is not a pleasing building that matches a clients' needs, then the design development phase will be a continual effort to redesign the schematics of the building and there will be no time for the true development of all aspects of the design. In this case, if the project moves forward and gets built, the best case is that the details of the home do not work well together, the worst case is that a proper schematic design is never discovered and the most basic elements of the home are not pleasing and do not work in concert to delight the owners.

If, however, the end product of schematic design is a building that aligns itself with the positive attributes of the site and meets its owners' needs, the "big picture" of the design has been accomplished.  In this case, during design development, attention can be lavished upon the details of the aesthetic and use with the knowledge that the efforts will be making a good building even better. 


Schematic Design II - Case Study

Monday, November 23, 2009

Programming - Take Your Time

Finished Kitchen Remodel
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

All clients know they want to do some design and construction work when they hire an architect. Some have thought a lot about what they want and others just have a vague idea. Some have spent a lot of time collecting images from magazines and books to illustrate their desires, some have not. Some have even spent a lot of time writing a narrative of their life and what activities they envision taking place in each room of their dream project.

Images Chosen and Marked Up by Client During Programming

All of these approaches to programming are very helpful to the residential architect as they give the architect a starting point from which to begin the design process. It is imperative that the program get detailed before the design work gets underway. Typically I tend to develop a program with clients, formally or informally, through conversations where I ask questions about their expectations and desires. The key to success for me in this phase of the project is listening carefully to what clients want. Any and all information that clients can bring to the discussion, in any form, helps an architect understand what the client wants and expects from their finished product.

If clients come to me with vague ideas I typically learn a lot from walking through their existing space with them. If the project is a remodel of an existing space I like to find out how long the clients have lived in the space. If it is less than 3-6 months I recommend they live in the space for at least this long to get a good sense of what it is they like about the home, the site, and the connection between the two. If they have lived in the home for more than 3-6 months I always ask them what they dislike about the space, its layout, and connection to the site and the surrounding region. After all, I do not want to repeat or emphasize elements of a design that the clients dislike.

I find that my most successful projects are the ones that respond best to the desires of my clients. Typically it is infinitely easier to fit a design to a clients' desires if the client has put some time into the process of describing what they want in any form of communication; drawing, collecting photos, painting, writing, outlining, verbalizing, etc. Be creative in your presentation of your expectations and desires and a good architect will respond with creativity and a genuine desire to fit the project to your vision and lifestyle. 

The bottom line: A well thought out program leads to a finished project that fits its owners' needs and desires like a tailored suit. I love doing completed project walk-throughs with clients as I constantly get feedback about how their project fits their lifestyle. I attribute most of this to my ability to listen to clients and draw out of them what it is they want from their environment during the programming phase.

Take your time in developing a sense of what you want from a design and construction project. If you have not spent a lot of time developing your own personal program expect a good architect to help you describe what you want. Do not take this step in the process lightly and do not rush through it with a desire to see beautiful drawings describing your project. If you take your time developing a program the drawings that come off your architects' board will speak to you in a way they will not be able to if you rush through programming.

Experts from a Written Program (The Most Detailed I Have Ever Received!)
 Marshall Schneider

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where to Start? The Phases!

Typical Schematic Elevation at Schneider Design Associates
 Marshall Schneider

You want to undertake a home design project but have no idea what it entails.

Do you need an architect?
How long will it take?
How much will it cost?

All of these are valid questions whether you are remodeling a bathroom or building a new home. And each question has a different answer depending on your needs and desires. But one thing is for sure, if you do end up doing a project you will go through the following five phases, whether you hire an architect or not.

Let's start with a brief description of the basic phases of design as they relate to a residential design project and then look at each phase in more detail.

1) Programming - The act of describing what spaces you want/need and what you will do within them

2) Schematics - The act of applying the program to plan and elevation drawings

3) Design Development - The addition of details to the schematic plans and elevations, usually details that relate to the use and aesthetics of the space

4) Construction Documentation and Specifications - The addition of enough detail to get permits and allow a builder to cost and construct the project

5) Construction Administration - The overseeing of the actual construction work to make sure that it is being done to plan and with the proper attention to detail

So, these are the five big phases that will be present in any residential design project. There are many other phases that are only sometimes encountered and I will describe some of the major ones after the five basics. They include such things as feasibility studies, site analysis, value engineering, and bidding.

First up:


Monday, November 2, 2009

The Architecture of Details

Being one that always looks around, I noticed these two homes on my way to a cocktail party a few nights ago (I did have fun and I did actually discuss these homes at the party). I went back today to take these photos.

Here is the first:

Home in San Francisco
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

Clearly an old home that has been "fixed up" to preserve its structure but in no way enhance its curb appeal. To be fair it looks like this home was last touched maybe 20 years ago? It might be fun, if you enjoy sketching, to print the large size photo of this house, lay some tracing paper over it, and explore the design posibilities for this home BEFORE you scroll down the page any further.

If you are not someone who enjoys drawing don't worry about the sketch, just try and imagine the possibilities.

Now, are you ready to discover what a design professional saw?

Here is the home right next door:

Neighboring Home
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

WOW! It is hard to believe that the two homes are, behind the facade, the same.

Clearly this home has been renovated more recently than the first home. And clearly the sizes of the existing elements were very carefully studied to take advantage of the proportions and make the home's facade into a coherent whole.

The window sizes have been carefully complimented by the bay addition. The ballustrade has been designed to compliment the bay size and roof overhang. All of the elements are in scale to each other and no one element is dominating the facade. All of the elements work together to create a very appealing and harmonious whole.

This level of care in designing a renovated facade is carried through every element of a home that is designed by a competent architect, from the front door, to the shoe storage in the Master Closet. Posibilities that are not always obvious are studied and explored in all aspects of a good design.

This care and thoughtfulness is applied equally to all aspects of the design. Imagine a beautiful new kitchen with top-of-the-line finishes and appliances throughout without careful attention paid to the lighting. Imagine a Master Bathroom with a view to forever without a towel bar where it is needed most.

After the large design gestures have been made it is important for an architect to virtually inhabit the space as an owner will and think through every detail of a design to ensure that each small element will work as well as possible and contribute to the whole, both functionally and aesthetically.

This process of careful detailing takes time to think through. It involves researching options and possibilities and making informed decisions. The reward for home owners that work with a competent architect come endlessly in the ease with which their new spaces fit their needs and lifestyle.

 Marshall Schneider

 Marshall Schneider

Good Architecture is the architecture of details.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Brief Introduction

I am a residential architect practicing in the San Francisco Bay area (website). I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to be a residential architect. I grew up in a very well detailed house outside Washington, D.C. in McLean, Virginia. But what really gave me an appreciation for our built environment was visiting my father in Oak Park, Illinois for summer vacations. I remember walking and riding my bike past Frank Lloyd Wright's houses and buildings and being struck by the long, horizontal lines and deep overhangs. I loved the unique proportions of Wright's buildings and the way they fit into the landscape so well. I also loved racing home and drawing what I had seen. This in turn led to my love of drawing floor plans and elevations of my own creation.

Heurtley House, Oak Park, Ill - Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect
Many years later my love of drawing and designing had not faded. When I was a senior in high school I interned with an architect and met two others that all recommended I pursue a different major in college and do architecture as a graduate student. I decided to take this route and studied engineering as an undergraduate. And am I ever glad I did - for many reasons. First, engineering gave me much more time as an undergraduate to enjoy school, pursue outside activities, and go to parties than architecture would have. Second, being an engineer makes it much easier to internalize the structure of a house as I design and make the structural elements of a home not only visible, but also beautiful. Third, being an engineer makes it much easier to understand what structural engineers are trying to say (not always easy) and translate for clients.

I graduated from engineering and took a year off to travel through Europe. During my trip I took the time to sketch something, no matter how small, everyday.

Sketch Done On-Site at the Acropolis, 1995
ⓒ Marshall Schneider

After my travels I enrolled in a three-year architecture program and realized exactly why the architects I had met in high school had recommended waiting. I applied myself like I would not have been able to as a younger undergraduate. I spent three years in Oregon and barely even noticed that it rained there!

I had a very happy accident during my final critique at the end of my second year. I presented to a professor that has an urban planning firm in the bay area (website) and he liked my project. At the end of the critique I asked him if he knew of a residential architecture firm in San Francisco that he could put me in touch with for a summer internship. He put me in touch with Greg Warner of Walker/Warner Architects (website). I interviewed with Greg on campus (he visited the school regularly as a member of the alumni board), and he gave me a summer internship.

That summer I learned so much about the practice of architecture - the collaboration with interior designers, engineers, etc., and the interaction with clients. Don't get me wrong, I built plenty of models and learned to do computer-aided design as well (paying my dues). But it was the practice of architecture away from the drafting board (yes, I still design with a pencil or pen) that really held my attention that first summer.

After graduating from school I went to work for Walker-Warner and stayed there for six years. I learned not only how to design a home in collaboration with clients, but also how to put together a beautiful and useful set of working drawings, interact with contractors and builders, and rigorously detail a project for full aesthetic effect and longevity.

Since leaving Walker-Warner I have stayed in touch with the partners and many of my former colleagues and have had the honor of working with several clients referred to me by them.

...Stay tuned for future entries on:

- How to hire an architect
- The value an architect adds to a project
- Project phase descriptions
- What to expect from an architect in each project phase
- Recent project walk-throughs, pointing out details only an
architect might notice