Archive for April, 2017

Project headed “south”

Author: Travis Kinney

Here’s a project that I started that did not turn out so well.

As a residential designer it is often difficult to explain the design process in just a few sentences. So here’s a little behind the scenes look at what happens with a custom design and why the hours add up and therefore the cost.

Some homeowners think the design process is flat and/or linear. If they have a tight design budget they will want me to focus on floor plans only. Simply put, this doesn’t work. Or, to put it another way; if a house is built using this approach it won’t look too good and besides didn’t you contact the designer because you do want it to look good?

So here’s the thing, architecture is a 3-dimensional art which you can occupy and interact with. I know, sound fancy doesn’t it?

Good design that looks natural and simple is often the hardest to design. All the pieces have to fit together 3-dimensionally which is a difficult process. Most of you have probably tried a Rubik’s cube and had great success solving one side. How did it go trying to solve three sides? Not easy, you have to think of the other planes at the same time. Custom residential design is a lot like that. When I am working on a first floor plan layout I am also thinking of what could be happening above, usually not in a concrete way but schematically. For instance, I might be designing the kitchen and developing a volume for that and thinking that that shape is perfect for a master bedroom and both of them could be on that end of the house which faces east and will get morning light. At the same time I might be thinking about ridge lines and site views. Again, I’m working on the first floor plan and most of my thought process is consumed with that, but at a visceral level I’m also thinking of these other things. A designer is able to do this quite efficiently because they are drawings from years of experience.


So here’s a first floor plan that I drew for a project that had a small building window and a narrow view corridor of ocean to lower left. Driveway enters the site on far right. The owners gave me their program requirements, first floor laundry, open floor plan, screen porch, TV room etc. The basic puzzle pieces. So I began sketching some layouts. What the client often doesn’t realize is that I am often thinking about site lines through the house, flow from room to room, size of openings between spaces and how they may be framed, if a space is single story or two story. Now of course I could just “wing it” and ignore all that other stuff and develop a killer first floor plan. However, after having designed many houses over the years you do learn a thing or two. To ignore these other aspects is to find yourself in corner later in the design process where your first floor decisions have complicated all these other future decisions because you ignored them. This is where friction with an owner can occur because they don’t see the piles of trace paper you may have gone through to draw this simple looking floor plan. What they don’t realize is how much time you probably saved them by planning for future design decisions.


Stairs can be difficult on story-and-half structures because of head height issues as you go up the stairs. There is a reason many online floor plans and spec houses are full two-stories. The reason is, they are simpler and less expensive to build and you don’t have as many puzzle pieces, there are no low knee-walls, dormers and sloped ceilings to contend with. But in my opinion, the end result often looks like a spec house. Not always, but often.


I was struggling to the find the right location for the stair because I was thinking ahead of where the roof slopes were probably going to be and where the roof valleys might be. I could have simply ignored all that and just told the owner that they should have a stair tower and how cool it would look! But if I did that I’d be ignoring their budget, so I needed a real solution. This plan (below) shows two stairs, not because I thought they should have both, but because the flow up and down from basement to second floor works really well with both. We needed to pick one and I wanted the owner’s feedback to help push the decision toward one or the other. A note of importance; most of my clients hire me because they want to be involved in the design process and don’t just want me to appear one day with a completed design that I must then “sell” them on.


The second floor layout is ok, but still needs work. The stair is either a tower here or, what I was hoping was making it into a dormer which would be in budget unlike the tower. Problem I was having is that the flow was not working on second floor. I had a large left over area by the stairs that could have been open to foyer below (wonder why so many houses have two story foyers, it’s often because there’s excess space up above and difficulty with roof lines). I  thought this would make a great laundry room. However, I knew the owner wanted laundry on the first floor but wasn’t sure that maybe they wouldn’t mind this as it makes for a nice location at top of stairs and wasn’t sure if the first floor laundry was an absolute must-have. The priority list of “must-haves” and “ok’s” develop with the design as the owner begins to realize the complexity of the layout and the designer begins to learn what is most important to the client.



So this elevation is to show the owner “roughly” what I am thinking for building forms or volumes. They may say “Why are you showing us that now? We want to figure out a floor plan first.” Well the answer is “You can’t.” Again, a house is 3-dimensional and must be designed 3-dimensionally if you have hired a designer to help create a specific look with nice lines and proportions you need to look at it holistically.



I presented this sketch to say that we can tweak the exterior materials to either push the design to more modern or more traditional, more shingle-style or more farmhouse-revival.



A quick glance at what the other sides may look like. Most of my projects are on oceanfront lots so there tends to be one side with a lot of glass and one side with fewer windows. This influences the plan because I won’t have a pantry and powder room on the ocean view wall where it limits the view. The spaces that require more wall and less window will tend to be pushed furthest from the view. Again, thinking three dimensionally and with views in mind.



Stair stair stair

I knew we wouldn’t end up with two stairs like the other sketch so maybe the best area is dead center. If designed well, a central stair can look great as well as function great. Many houses have stairs that are in the foyer and are an attraction when entering. So here was a thought where the stair was in the center and people could go up the stairs to the balcony without passing through the master suite or guest room which was  a client requirement. In the end the client decided they did not want to see the stair upon entry, they would rather have people see the view when they walk into the house even it meant more hallway space on second floor and I agreed. All this stair research led us to a single run stair in the living room. It is far from the kitchen and garage but after researching various options, this seemed like the best spot.



These sketches had included a few comments that I wanted the owners to notice, like the large open space in foyer. Maybe it was too large and what would the space be used for? Something we needed to think about. The second floor sketch pointed out the fact that the stair was going to reduce the usefulness of the second floor space over the living room making two ensuite guest room that much more difficult to solve.



Now that I had a much better understanding of the layout the owners were drawn to and what is important and not important I could then begin to see how it was fitting on the site. I knew for the most part it was close and that eventually we’d get the size of the building squished down through efficiently looking at each space and remove all the waste that we could. So now I put the plan on the site and started running lot coverage calculations and shoreline expansion calculations and saw more concretely what I had to do.



The second floor plan shows that the ensuite guest rooms could not fit in the space over the living room. I would had to have increased the size of the living room to make the space above work. Notice how the one floor influences the other! The owner suggested expanding over the TV room which I agreed had to be done.



These elevations are basically the same drawing. I am just showing what it could look like with black sashes, dark sashes and dark trim, colonial grille patterns as opposed to greek revival. Again, I wasn’t expecting them to point at one of these and say “That one.” I was giving them a chance to see if we’re headed in the right direction. This would be the time without a lot of investment to say “No, we are more drawn to a rambling organic feel. Something less rigid.” To a designer that is great feedback and we as a group would talk aesthetically what that means so that when I go back to the drafting board I have a better feel for roof locations, slopes, knee-walls, orientations etc. I should have noticed that the owners did not comment much or look at these elevations too long. I took that to mean they liked the direction and we could keep moving forward on the plan. In reality and with the clarity of hindsight I believe they were getting pissed by my spending their time and money on elevations when a plan solution hadn’t been finalized. I did mention at one point that the building style is important to know because different styles have different a massing and they have an impact on the floor plans. It may have been too late for that comment to help lessen their irritation with me.



I revised the exterior sketches and showed what a two-story structure at the end of the house would like from the driveway side. I could see from this sketch that I could make it look fine. This exploration sketch is important because it gave me the confidence that a solution was possible so that I could “table the thought” and move onto more pressing design matters like back to the plans.



This is where things began to go south on me. I did not get a particular email that the client had sent expressing their frustration that they were paying me for designs that did not “work” and felt I was abusing their trust. I knew what the problem was; they thought you could design in a linear fashion – first floor plan layout, second floor plan layout, front elevation, side elevation, etc etc. Problem is, custom design work does not work that way and it’s difficult to explain that without giving a lengthy speech on the design process of custom coastal houses within the Shoreland zone. At this point and time that would not have been wise as the stress was already at a point that that approach would have felt combative. We decided to part ways and they feel they can find better value buying a drawing set online. Should I have known they were leaning toward spec-house plans I would have told them on day one that they should not hire me. That is not what I do. I get at least two calls a week from people inquiring about buying plans of designs of mine that they like and I tell them that it won’t work for them. Each house is unique to that particular owner, site, view, solar orientation and budget.

Unfortunately I had created these two sketches below to present to the client before things ground to a halt. I was having difficulty reducing the floor plan size, keeping lot coverage below that required by code and having the house face the view. If any one of those parameters were removed, then I’d be good. So instead I went back and looked at the site and felt a semi-attached (or attached) garage in a different location may be the answer. I could even give them a two car garage if they were ok with this location! This layout kept lot coverage down in shoreland zone, kept house oriented toward best view and kept the majority of the floor plan intact. I felt like this was a great option and we’d be close to a schematic design solution for their property. However, the damage was done and feelings were hurt so I was told to stop all work.





It’s an unfortunate ending to a project on a great piece of land and a great couple to design for. For some reason we were not on the same page initially and I did not catch on to that soon enough. I know from talking to other architects that this scenario is not an anomaly and happens to many of us. We try to “walk” our clients through a challenging process that has a lot of competing priorities. We often cannot explain everything that goes into our work during our first few meetings as it would be overwhelming. So instead we work alongside our clients and they begin to see the complexity and are often drawn into the challenge of finding best case scenarios as a design progresses. Sometimes a project goes south and you can’t grab it back without adding fuel to the fire. You just hope that they somehow stumble across an online drawing set that somehow fits their site, view and budget and that in the end they are happy and have a house to enjoy and pass on to the next generation.