Monday, October 5, 2009

Final Plan

This is the final plan. We lost the separate entrance for the guest room, but got the curved great room with unobstructed Strip view that we wanted. We lost a lot of the bar, but gained a much bigger kitchen. We lost the theater door at the end of a long hallway (we were going to make it steel and leather), but gained the projector throw that we needed for our big screen. We lost the elevator (and still have some stairs), but kept most of the house on one level. We lost some of our closet space, but kept the private Master Bedroom area.

Please ignore some of the raggedy lines at the bottom of the drawing. I had to make this up by scanning the full sized plans and piecing it together in Photoshop. Not all of the pieces are exactly the same scale and orientation. But overall, though it has been months that we have had to live with this final design, it meets all of our criteria. We are quite happy with it. No, take that back. We are ECSTATIC about this design. We are already living there in our heads. We are putting furniture in place. Deciding where pictures will go. Contemplating where each kind of book will go (notice, there are a lot of built in bookcases, even without showing the freestanding ones.) We are even ready to hang our clothes (or in James' case, his art) in our closets. If you have a clear idea of how you live and you can communicate this to your architect and he listens to you, all designs will be this good.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Working With An Architect

There haven't been any posts over the summer as we have waited endlessly for a building permit. Sometimes these dull periods appear. You want to do something, but there is not much that you can do effectively. We did meet with several cabinet makers and some flooring professionals, but after a while we simply went into hibernation, waiting for this project to get started again. We are still probably two weeks away from breaking ground, but I want to go back to February when we started to work with our architect.

No matter how detailed your instructions are, there will be some disconnects between what you said and what your architect heard. You might have even changed you mind about the things that are really important. This is the first drawing that Bob Sherman gave to us. Looking at it again, it is remarkably close to what we ended up with, but there are significant areas of change.

The first thing we changed completely was the idea of a two story house. Since this house is on a steep hillside we were pretty sure we would need two stories to get all the rooms we wanted. Since we want this house to be the last house we ever live in, an elevator seemed to be necessary with more than one floor so that we could move from floor to floor even with a walker or a wheelchair. But when we looked at the first design, the two bedrooms on the bottom floor seemed to be more space than we would need. If we eliminated the staircase and the elevator we could use that space to add the one bedroom/cat room/gym that we needed.

The other major change that we wanted was to emphasis the view of the Strip, especially at night. Bob gave us a tremendous covered porch, but we both felt that the columns would get in the way of the view. We were looking for more of a circular wall focused on the view. The bar was too big and so was the formal dining area that we mostly use in our current house as a large desk rather than an eating area. Even when we have guests, we usually use the kitchen area to eat.

But the overall design was terrific. It splits the "public areas" from the "private areas". It gave us two studios, a library and a home theater. It also gave us a private entrance with a huge gallery/hall for art work. Yes, the design needs to be revised, but not as much as we thought it might have to be. Next? What the final design looks like and the compromises we made to get there.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Choosing a Contractor

We started talking to contractors before we talked to our first architect. There may not be a lot of architects to choose from, the there are always a lot of contractors. Since this will be large house with a lot of custom features, we wanted a contractor who had built houses similar to ours.

If you are doing a simple remodeling project it is possible to hire a specialized contractor for painting or roofing or building decks. But when you are building an entire house, you want a general contractor. They will not have all their workers on staff, but it is our experience that the best contractors know the best subcontactors. Several contractors we talked to were pleasant individuals, but they were used to building smaller houses and only building one house at a time. Other contractors were working on several houses at once. For us it was important to not just talk to the general contractor but also to their site supervisors. The general contractor owns the company, but the site supervisor will be managing your project every day. It was also important to us to see houses being built and not just houses that were finished. We wanted to see the rough framing; was it straight, were things level, did joins meet up. We wanted to see the job site; was it tidy, were places not being worked on swept, were piles of materials in order. We wanted to talk to the contractors about their building philosophy; this is a desert, were they careful about insulation and window and door weatherproofing, did they have detailed scheduling and budgeting tools, did they have a website where we could check on progress when we were not in Nevada, had they ever worked with our architect before, did they have a good working relationship with the developer in whose community we were building.

One contractor was recommended to us by our realtor. They built custom homes, but were a very small division of a much large company who built tract housing. They had the advantage of all the budgeting and bidding methods of a much larger contractor, but weren't actually building any homes at the moment, so it was difficult to visit a working job site. They eventually showed us a smaller house that they were building for the company's owner. We found another contractor by visiting a hillside lot during rough framing in the same community as we were building. We liked the attention to detail and the tidy nature of the building site. These contractors were building several very large houses in all stages of construction. We visited their job sites over several months, but none of the job sites were as tidy and controlled as the first house we saw. Sometimes it is the owner and not the general contractor who keeps things in order.

We really liked both of these contractors, but our architect was not sure that they were the right companies for the job, so he recommended two more contractors. One contractor worked mostly in the exclusive areas of Summerlin on the west side. He was building the personal home of a commercial casino architect. It was extremely modern and complex. He was also building a more traditional house with a most untraditional elevated swimming pool with viewing ports in the bottom of the pool. Not only did we like this contractor, but we also liked his site supervisor. However he had never built a house in the community that we were in. The last contractor was building two houses in our community, but both of them were houses built on speculation and both owners had stopped construction when their funds had dried up. The houses were lovely, but we were worried that the contractor might not have enough work to stay in business.

My husband and I went back and forth agonizing about who to choose. We liked all the final four contractors, but each of them had something we were wary about. Our architect wanted to finish the drawings and submit them to the Architectural Design Review Committee, but not before he could talk to our general contractor about the plans. If the contractor wanted to make any slight contruction changes in the framing, the architect had to know about it before our first set of plans was distributed. We had to choose someone soon. We had one last meeting with the contractor from the west side. We wanted to make sure that he wouldn't mind a project that was far from his normal building sites. He assured us that he had built houses much further away and that we would be assigned the site supervisor that we had liked so much. Telling the other three contractors that we had chosen someone else was painful, since we had spent so much time with them all. One of them did not react at all well and blamed our architect for our choice. I guess I am glad that we did not pick him. As we visit building supply services for granite, bathroom fixtures and cabinets, I am glad to hear that all these suppliers think very highly of our contractor. He's been building in Clark County for many years and has a great reputation.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Choosing an Architect

Once you have a set of functional requirements you can move to the next important part of building a house -- choosing an architect. If you are having a hard time visualizing how all of your requirements will come together, it may be useful to study a few plan books. There are a lot of predesigned houses available. Studying these plan books may highlight some things you hadn't thought about in your layout. Do you need an entry area? Does it matter how close the garage is to the kitchen? Does it matter how close together the bedrooms are? Once you start becoming familiar with the language of architectural drawings, how they draw doors, windows, or lighting, you are ready to talk to architects.

You can find architects via friends, realtors, contractors or even Google. First look at their web pages. Have they done structures that you like? Have they done houses in the price range you are looking for? Well known architects are used to design for demanding clients with wishes for large houses and expensive details. But that does not mean that all architects are expensive or only design large houses. There are many small firms that may be able to provide you the unique design you want at a price you can afford. In looking at architects in Clark County, Nevada, we rejected some of the more famous ones. They tend to design the same house over and over. Their houses were grand, but not the functional private spaces that we were looking for.

The first architect we talked to had a small office where she designed both residental structures and commercial structures. We liked her. I can't stress enough that you should like your architect. Unless there is a mutual respect you will not have a successful project. But after talking to her and looking at her portfolio we realized that she was missing an essential ingredient that we were looking for -- vision. We have worked with some passionate architects. It's not always easy, but you will get a better project if you both bring some new ideas into the design. Her designs were boxy and traditional. She could do our project, but it would have the rote details of a tract house.

We were quite excited by the next architect. He had designed several houses that we really liked with a modern sensibility and exquisite details. But he was blinded by the hot economy we have had in Clark County for several years. He was not used to selling his services, but instead was used to having more work than he could easily accomplish. He had a dismissive attitude and was not prepared to show us his projects in detail or even listen to our list of requirements. My husband took an immediate dislike to him. We interviewed several young architects. Some of them had worked at larger firms, but none of them had actually designed and finished an entire house. They had passion and vision, but we were not willing to trust our project to someone not familiar with the process from start to finish.

A lot of the homes in Clark County are Tuscan or Mediterranean. We were running out of local architects that actually designed modern houses. We decided to ask an architect we had worked with before from San Francisco if he was interested in a project in Nevada. He had designed an award winning loft for us in San Francisco. If he had worked on other long distance projects and was interested in our concept, he would be a good choice to work with again. When we initially interviewed him about our project we learned that he had done designs in Hawaii and Seattle, though never in a desert environment. We decided to fly him to Las Vegas and let him meet some contractors that we were considering. Unfortunately it became clear as he talked to the contractors that his way of building was not suitable to extreme climate in Clark County. He was not familiar with the construction codes or the materials used in a desert climate. Although we were disappointed that we could not use him, we had one more architect to interview that had been recommended by a builder.

We met this architect in his home office. He has been working in the field for decades. He had designed both commercial and residential structures, both here and overseas. His office was filled with colored sketches of his projects and he brought out some of his most modern designs to show us. He immediately understood the ideas behind our requirements. He was excited by the project and couldn't wait to see the actual land. Although he was not as inexpensive as the annoying architect or as expensive as our San Francisco architect, we knew we would get a first class project for him. We promptly hired Bob Sherman and we couldn't be more happy with him.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Wish List

After outlining the functional areas that you should consider before asking an architect to design a house for you (or even looking to buy an already built house), you might want to see what we used as our design criteria.

Philosophy: We are looking for a contemporary house that is private and functional. The house is not modern (boxy, white, minimalist), but is non-rectilineal, neutral with strong accents, textured.
 It is Desert Contemporary. The landscaping and exterior of the house harmonizes with the desert environment. It is a stage to show art. It is a place to produce art;
 photography, fabric, and culinary. It is a library and a theater. It is meant for intellectual adults. Not specifically Green, but sensitive to the environment:
 Insulated, sheltered from the Sun and Wind.

Functional Spaces: Dramatic Entrance (in the interior), Entertaining Space (Views, seating for large groups, fireplace, bar, powder room)
, Dining Area/Room?, Large kitchen with eating area and pantry. (Modern,
 functional, meticulously designed, 700 cookbooks, near Garage). Master Bedroom (For sleeping, quiet and dark), Master Bathroom (Large and functional)
, Two Master Bedroom Closets (Separate and large), Outdoor Hot Tub and Shower (Very, very Private), Digital Photo Studio (Desk, Computers, large printers, immense amounts of storage. Dark, known as The Cave). Sewing Studio (Sewing stations, Cutting table, immense amounts of storage, Design Wall. Well lit.) Media Room (Home Theater with huge screen, great 
 sound. Looks and sounds great in the dark.) Guest Room with Full Bath. Library (Tons of books. Office?) Laundry Room with sink. Gym area. Roof Terrace. Pool?

Ingredients: Windows that open for cross ventilation, Hardwood Floors, Art niches for sculpture, Walls for Art, Zoned air conditoning, Luggage Storage, Wine Storage, Steam Room, Bali Door, Elevator/Dumbwaiter?

Outdoors: Outdoor Grill and Eating Area, Low maintenance, Trees for shade, Water feature at entrance, Palms, Citrus, Roses, Herbs, Sculpture Wall

As with all design statements, how these ideas get implemented and what ideas are abandoned will be addressed differently by each architect. But if an architect tends to build His House and not Your House or if an architect does not resonate with your design philosophy, then it is time to move on and look for someone else.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

So You Want to Build a House

If you really want to build a house that fits your life, you first have to decide how you actually live your life in your current home. Forget square footage, forget bedrooms and bathrooms, forget living rooms and family rooms. What you need to know are functional spaces. You need to track your life from the moment you get up to the time you go to bed and do that for every member of your family. You need to account for weekends, guests, parties, and hobbies.

Starting from your morning, where is your bathroom? Do you share your bathroom with others? Do you need a tub? A shower? Just a sink? How many people in your house use bathrooms in the morning at the same time? Where do you store your clothes? How do you put on your shoes? Do you need a chair near where you get dressed? Do you watch television in the morning? Listen to the radio? Do you need coffee before you even get dressed? Do you need to take care of young children first thing in the morning? Are their bedrooms close by? Do you have teenagers? Do you need to roust them from bed? Do you eat breakfast? Do you eat standing at the counter? At the breakfast table? In the dining room? Do you make breakfast for others? Do you pack lunch for others? Do others work in the kitchen at the same time you do? Do you leave the house to work? Where do you leave your keys, your wallet, your purse, your briefcase, your coat? Where does your family leave the things they need to take out for the day? Where do you park your car? How many cars do you own? Or do you use public transportation? Does one or more persons in your family stay at home during the day? Do you have very young children? Where do they eat? Where do they play? Where do they nap?

How do you manage your household? How often you eat at home? How often do you cook at home? How many people use the kitchen at the same time? How many dishes do you have? How many pots and pans? How many small appliances? Do you keep any appliances on the kitchen counters? How often do you shop for groceries? Where do you store them? How big a refrigerator do you need? Do you have a separate freezer? How far do you have to walk from the garage to the kitchen? Where do you put your garbage? Where do you do your laundry? Where do you store your laundry supplies? Where do you store your cleaning supplies? Do you have more than one vacuum? Where do you put your mail? Bills? Magazines? Newspapers? Packages? Do you use a shared family calendar? Do you have pets? Where do you keep their supplies? Their food?

What do people in your family do when they come home? Do you need a space for children to do homework? Where do you watch television? How many people watch television at the same time? How many televisions do you have? Do you have a shared family computer? Do you have a work at home computer? Do you need a separate desk for working at home? Do you need a reading chair? How many people eat dinner at the same time? Would you rather eat in a separate dining room or near the kitchen? When do people in your family go to bed? Do you need to have quiet areas for sleeping while other people are still awake? Do you take a shower or a bath before bed? Where do you put the clothes you wore today? Do you need a space to lay out your clothes for the next day before going to bed? Do you read in bed? Watch television in bed?

What do you do on the weekends? Do you have hobbies that need storage space? A workshop? A crafts room? A library for your books? An office for your computers? Do you need to store bicycles or kayaks? Exercise equipment? Christmas decorations? Where do you store your suitcases? Where do you store your seasonal clothes? Do friends and family come to your house? Where do you gather? Do you need a large dining room? Do you need a room for overnight guests? Do you need a separate area for children and their friends? Do you use your backyard? Do you cook outside? How far is it from the kitchen? Do you need an outside play area?

This may seem like a daunting list of questions, but if you are going to spend the money and energy to build a house, then you should have all the spaces in that house that will allow your family to be comfortable and efficient. Once you decide how you live, it's a lovely fantasy to give everyone their own bedroom, their own bathroom, their own workroom, their own entertainment area. But even if you could afford a 10,000 square foot house, do you want to clean it and take care of it? That's why you need to think about multifunctional spaces and not Rooms. Maybe it's time to do away with that living room that you only use to set up the Christmas tree once a year. Maybe it's time to do away with the formal dining room, when you always eat in the kitchen. Maybe it's time to do away with the double oven and large kitchen sink, when you never cook. Maybe you need a larger refrigerator for left over take out instead. Maybe a desk or small area near the garage door or the front door to store cellphones, purses, and briefcases would be more efficient than another bedroom that you only use for junk storage. Maybe a separate playroom would be better than a scattering of toys in the unused living room. Maybe a dedicated study would be better than scattering papers on the kitchen table. Maybe you don't need a dedicated craft room, if you have a craft cabinet in the kitchen or family room. Only you can tell what spaces are necessary for your lifestyle.

Once you know what spaces you need, now you have a plan that you can bring to an architect. And you have a plan that you can use to evaluate the design that the architect draws up.