Milton Gregory "Greg" Grew, AIA is CEO of Grew Design, Inc and Grew Construction, LLC in Woodbury, CT. Greg is a licensed architect, building official, and contractor with over 20 years designing/building residential, commercial and institutional building projects. www.GrewDesign.com
September 11th, 2010 by Milton Grew
I was pleased to have been invited by the International Code Council (ICC) to participate in the ICC Community Coalition Event held in Denver, Colorado during September 8 – 10, 2010. There were about 40 of us including ICC administration, ICC technology staff, ICC website consultants, ICC members who are code officials, architects, engineers, students, builders, and even some non-members. The objective of the meeting was to determine how ICC can better serve its members and the public through its discussion board, website resources, social media and organically creating groups to share their experience and specialized knowledge.
The ICC has realized that there has been a disconnect that developed between active online members and the code council. The old online discussion board which had been well used by the public and membership to answer questions and exchange ideas was taken down. Then another discussion board was brought online that was poorly received due to its integration with “Communities of Interest”. On top of that the council’s entire website had become cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to search, and unreliable. Active online members went looking elsewhere for discussion boards and found other places to communicate.
Some of us had an inkling that ICC was waking up to the problem when we had been asked to respond to a couple of online surveys that seemed targeted at getting to heart of our discontent. But what an even better gesture when some of us were invited to participate in this event in Denver where we were encouraged to speak freely and the attenders pulled no punches and expressed everything that annoyed them about the ICC’s web presence and resources. And ICC staff, in particular Michael Armstrong, SVP of Membership and Outreach Services, were excellent listeners, willing to admit mistakes, and came prepared to show us a preview of ideas they had for improvements. Even better, they accepted constructive criticism of these improvements and made the committment to gradually role out a new discussion board and website features and resources.
Valerie Mach of Web Teks, Inc. very ably moderated most of our discussions. Tom Walker, President of Web Teks, Inc. helped us appreciate some of the more technical aspects of website development. Sanjay Gupta, ICC Chief Information Officer gave us good feedback on our concerns and discussed how the improvements would be sequenced. Michael Armstrong, ICC SVP kept us in touch with the bigger picture and reassured us of ICC’s commitment to improving. DaMika Lofton of Web Teks, Inc. was a great host in organizing handouts, travel arrangements, and making the event an enjoyable experience. Kyle Volenik, Web Content Editor for ICC was very enthusiastic about his role in expanding ICC into social networks.
I won’t spoil the surprises and don’t want to give away too much so I will leave it for ICC to make their formal announcements when they are ready. I wanted to share with my readers that they should look forward to the improvements and be ready to accept a more user-friendly code organization. These changes will help the public appreciate the value of building codes and increase the professionalism of its members.
July 12th, 2010 by Milton Grew
“It passed inspection!”
“We got a Certificate of Occupancy!”
“The inspector didn’t say anything about it!”
These are responses I sometimes hear from homeowners, building owners or contractors after I have been asked to visit a building upon request because of an alleged problem with construction workmanship or quality. Often an owner and even a contractor may assume that because the building inspector passed the work or even issued a certificate of occupancy that the building meets some kind of standard for workmanship or quality of construction. That is essentially not true.
Building codes, no matter who publishes or adopts them, usually state in the opening pages “The purpose of this code is to establish the minimum requirements” for structural stability, energy conservation, safety and the like. So when an architect or contractor says the project “meets code” they only mean they have designed or built to the minimum standard- neither optimum nor best practices. If they tell you it “exceeds code” then maybe they have given you a superior outcome. Building inspectors can only enforce the minimum requirements of the building codes so they are not really the protection you need.
To give you some examples of why just meeting the building code should not be the only criteria, think about this:
- The building code will not prevent your house from having a bouncy floor so that your dishes rattle when you walk across the floor.
- The building code will not prevent your wood framed floor or stairs from squeaking all over.
- The building code will not prevent cracks in the concrete slab in your basement.
- The building code does not say your floor has to be level.
- The building code does not say your walls have to be plumb or square.
- The building code does prohibit cracks in tile, drywall, nail pops, wavy walls and ceilings, humps in floors, trim that is not tightly joined and windows and doors that don’t operate smoothly.
Pretty much everything that proves to be annoying or aggravating to a building owner after construction is not regulated by the building code.
So if what we consider to be “quality construction” is not really governed by building codes how do we define it and assure ourselves of getting it? Tough question.
If you have a contract with your builder it might have language like this:
- “Contractor agrees to furnish the materials for the project and work in a professional manner. All materials furnished under this agreement shall be construction grade and meet industry standards.”
- “The Contractor shall perform all work in a good and workmanlike manner and in conformance with all applicable government code provisions.”
- “…all work is of good quality, free from faults and defects.”
You can just imagine how many definitions there will be for “professional”, “workmanlike” and “good quality”. Contractors, architects and owners all may define them from their perspective and the way it best serves their interests.
If you are an owner, how do you protect yourself from the sloppy contractor who still meets code and get you a certificate of occupancy? If you are a conscientious contactor, how do you protect yourself from the crazy owner who expects perfection? If you are an architect how do your protect yourself from both of them? There are few things that can be done:
- This may sound self-serving coming from an architect but don’t go cheap and only want to pay for the bare minimum of drawings that may get you a building permit but don’t really provide the details for a higher quality of construction.
- Pay to have your architect provide written specifications that describe the level of quality expected on the project. Drawings alone will not do this. So when you think the floor was not framed level, you can actually measure it and know whether it meets the tolerances required in the specs.
- If you are an owner who intends to your own general contractor, be aware, that you will ultimately be responsible for defects that arise if you are not knowledgeable enough to understand construction documents or properly coordinate, schedule and monitor construction activities, even on a simple residential project.
- Be aware that there are standards in the construction industry that can be referred to in specifications or construction contracts that have to do with construction tolerances and performance. Many builders and architects are not even aware of these, such as, Handbook of Construction Tolerances by David Kent Ballast or Residential Construction Performance Guidelines published by the National Association of Home Builders.
- Don’t hire the cheapest builder or architect. Look at the work they have done. Check out some references. Of course, they won’t give you the bad ones, but good references are better than none. Generally, what kind of reputation do they have? Are they front-loading their schedule of payments so they get more money up front and don’t really have enough left in the hands of the owner to complete the job if they default? Have they provided a time schedule that shows they have actually thought through how to accomplish the project?
Lawyers will tell you that, if you get into litigation regarding defective work, the “standard of care” is what may determine whether the work was defective or due to negligence. The standard of care is usually determined by the standard that would be exercised by the reasonably prudent professional in that line or work. Well, that sure leaves a lot open to interpretation. You will probably get a slightly different definition of standard of care from every architect, engineer, building inspector and contractor you ask. So going the route of litigation is generally not a very satisfying experience for any party involved, including the owner.
Remember that the building codes state inspectors “enforce the provisions of the code”. They will not guard you from not getting the building you wanted as long as it “meets code”. You need a good architect, detailed drawings, written specs, comprehensive contract, a conscientious contactor and a reasonable attitude to give you a chance of getting what you pay for.
June 27th, 2010 by Milton Grew
I admit it! We architects are notoriously bad business people. For instance, we are at the bottom of salary surveys comparing other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and yes, even engineers. For some reason, we are not good at collecting and, when we collect, not particularly good at pricing our services. I know this problem continues based on many online discussions I take part in and local roundtables with other architects. I have been principal of my own design firm for 22 years and still have “business issues”.
Part of the problem is that architects get into this profession for the love of the work and not initially for the money. We love designing buildings and spaces and drawing by hand or by computer and having clients ogle our work and tell us what wonderful solutions we have devised and how we will make their life better. Really feeds the ego.
However, those same enthusiastic and devoted clients suddenly stop worshipping once they see our fee proposal, or if we are working by the hour, our first invoice. Then we get “It can’t possibly take that much time to do such simple work”, “I could do that”, “I could get the same work from an unlicensed draftsman”, “You can’t be serious”, “I’ll have to think about it”, or “Maybe I’ll get some other proposals to compare”. But you want that project and so you drop your fee or agree to some arrangement that in the end results in you losing money but, after all, you get your building built and they get to reap their investment at your expense. Satisfying?
I have been to many design firm business management seminars where they talk about the “value of your services” and how you should sell yourself, but for most of us, these lessons don’t last long and we fall right back into the same rutt. I will keep going to those seminars to remind myself what I should be doing. At the very least there are a few simple business lessons I have learned and try to apply and I hope they will be of some value to other design professionals. Here are my top four business reminders…
1. DO THE MATH
You don’t have to be math wiz, which many architects are not, to figure out what you need to charge for your services. There are so many types of fees such as stipulated or lump sum, hourly rates, percentage of construction cost, per square foot of building, per sheet of drawing, and the dart throw. Regardless of how you want to present your fee, you need to know what that represents and whether it is adequate to keep you and your business alive. Here is what I do and see if something like this works for you.
At this time I have five employees and a 1,500 square foot office on Main Street, of course. I have to know what all my costs are for operating the business so I add up the annual total for rent, electricity, heat, all insurances, licenses, magazine subscriptions, professional association memberships, employee benefits (including vacation time),paper (architects use a lot), printer ink (same), other office supplies, software and upgrades, computers and upgrades, telephones, internet service, website hosting, gas and anything else that is a predictable business expense. If I don’t have an exact amount for an item from a previous year to use then I estimate. I also include half of my time and all of my secretary’s time as non-billable and, therefore, part of this overall overhead expense. The total annual expenses are then divided by the total number of billable hours for me and my employees to arrive at a cost per hour above payroll. At present that amount is about $25 per hour.
So now I know that for every hour of work in the office, besides payroll, I must charge at least $25 per hour to break even or cover expenses. Now we get to the issue of profit. Some projects you might estimate high, some low, and some just right, but you need cushion for more lows, investment in growing your business, bonuses for jobs well done and money for rainy days, weeks or months. I have used 30% profit over expenses as a fair amount to cover this.
So my equation for arriving at the hourly charges for my office personnel is:
Hourly rate = [ hourly pay + $25 ] x 1.3
Now all I have to do is make sure I budget my project time accurately and all will be well.
The other trick is to have enough projects to fill up the hours so that the overhead gets paid and some profit is made. But that is another subject, marketing, and will have to wait for another article.
2. PUT IT IN WRITING
You may start out on a very friendly relationship with a prospective client and everything looks perfect for the future. When you get that giddy feeling do a reality check. Misunderstandings and disappointments of either party go with the territory and happen much more frequently if you do not put it in writing.
Whether you use standard industry contract documents or write you own, make sure you provide your client with a proposal or agreement that clearly outlines your understanding of the project and its objectives, what services you will provide to achieve the desired result, how much those services will cost, how long it will take you, when you want to be paid, what you will or won’t do if you don’t get paid, and what other services are not included and cost more if it turns out they are needed.
As the project goes along be sure to document by letter, memo or emails any decisions that are made, changes that occur, or events that affect the out come of the project. If anything happens that will have some affect on the terms of your agreement, put it in writing and have it agreed to by your client as soon as possible. Hesitation will cost you.
3. GET PAID
This may seem pretty obvious so why bring it up? Because so many of us wait or put off sending invoices until it is too late to get paid in full. Have we already passed milestones in the project? Have we already given the client final drawings with which to get permits or build? Have we waited until we no longer have any leverage left with which to get paid when we need the money?
It is important to include in our proposals or agreements a list of incremental payments that the client should expect to pay at the time that certain milestones in their project are achieved. I have told my clients “You need me to do many things such as design, meet deadlines, help you sort through options, help you get permits, contractors, and complete the project. I only need two things from you- decisions and checks.” It really is that simple and helps them see that for all the demands the client may put on me it is very reasonable for them to simply pay me at the agreed upon times.
I make sure I get paid a modest retainer before I start work, which shows the client’s good faith, and I require successive payments when I complete certain phases or important tasks. Invoices are due and payable upon receipt, not 30 days and not 15 days. As an architect the most important leverage I possess is that all invoicing must be paid in full before I will hand the client signed and sealed drawings for a building permit. If during construction I am needed to sign off on draws from the lender or to contractors, my final bill must be paid before I hand over my last signature. These conditions are not surprises to the client because they were down in writing in advance in our agreement.
4. CHECK YOURSELF
Even if you are a sole proprietor working by yourself it is in your best interests to keep good records on how much time you spend on each project. When that project is complete and before you put the files away, review what you originally budgeted and what you actually spent. If you made money, well, you should have. If you did not, immediately figure out why and make sure you adjust your future budgets or determine how to accomplish the job more efficiently in the same time.
Even though I love to tinker with drawings, research new products and techniques, run around trying to please clients, and take photos of jobs, I have to discipline myself to buckle down once in a while to take care of business. After all my family must come first and I do the work I love first and foremost to take care of them. I am blessed that I can do work that I love. What I do is called architecture and it is the art of shaping spaces but, underneath that, it must be a business, too.
This article was originally posted at Biznik.com here:
May 12th, 2010 by Milton Grew
I had a most unusual experience occur recently with a local building inspector that reminded me to question what I do as an architect from time to time.
I have been involved in a substantial 7-figure renovation of a house in Westchester Country, NY. During construction it was revealed that a section of the house’s second floor joists would have to be replaced. We decided to replace the old 2×8 joists with I-joists (http://www.apawood.org/level_b.cfm?content=prd_joi_main), which can support longer spans. This allowed us to open up the first floor and remove some walls and posts. It was a great solution to the problem.
Then the local building inspector got into it. Upon completing the framing inspection, he asked the builder if they were going to install the fireresistance rated drywall for the ceiling under the I-joists. The builder said he was planning to use regular ½ inch drywall and knew about nothing else. Next the builder calls me. Being quite familiar with the NY State Residential Building Code, I confidently tell him not to worry about because using fireresistance rated drywall is not required in the code. Just to make sure I am correct, I check the state code and the local ordinances. I find nothing.
So I send the building inspector an email asking him about his request and telling him I know there is no such code requirement. In part, he writes back:
“Whenever we receive plans showing TJI’s it is our policy to ask for 5/8″ Fire Code Rock covering on all ceilings. It would be a shame to have this residence receive a lesser standard of fire protection than any other in Town…”
Now I am ticked off! We go back and forth and the bottom line is that we are going to have to put in the 5/8” fireresistant drywall ceiling or else the building inspector will find some violation to cite at the job for a fine of $2,500! I consult with the builder and homeowner and we agree to comply with his demand to keep the job moving. However, this matter keeps nagging at me and I finially decide to do my own research in the area of fire safety of I-joists and to send the building inspector an email with my conclusions and criticisms of his way of working. Here is what I wrote to him:
“Dear Mr. [Building Inspector]:
Based on your strong opinion regarding the lessened fire safety of I-joists, I have been doing more of my own research. A balanced approach seems to be that regular gypsum board cover on I-joist floors is a reasonable cover which gives occupants the time needed to egress a single family house. It is clear that uncovered I-joists are worthless in a fire. The IBC assigns 15 minutes of additional fire endurance to 1/2″ regular gyp bd and 25 minutes for 1/2″ type x. Various reports and sources make it clear that even noncombustible members behave unpredictably in a fire situation and laboratory results are never like the real situation. Sometimes materials behave better than expected, sometimes worse. It seems, until more definitive results are published and there is more agreement in the industry, it would be wiser to concentrate on regular drywall cover and inspecting for proper bridging, fireblocking, and smoke/heat detection.
Fire reports indicate that a very small percentage of the deaths are attributed to structure collapse and then not all of those due to I-joists. If you were really intent on preserving lives to a higher degree than everyone else you would have gotten the town to enact an ordinance to require residential fire sprinklers like in New Castle, not some unofficial policy like 5/8″ type x when the science isn’t really clear that there is any demonstrable benefit. The science and empirical evidence is clear when it comes to the benefit of sprinklers.
Short of that I was disturbed by your insinuation that I, as an architect, and every other town in NY and all other jurisdictions that don’t have your policy somehow care less about people’s lives. Because you are a building official in NY and not CT you might not be aware that I am a licensed CT building official besides architect. Since I took the exam about 5 years ago I still hold the record for the highest score in the state and I keep up my license with the 90-hours/3 years continuing education besides the continuing education I pursue for my architectural practice. The only reason I bothered to take the exam, become a licensed building official, is that I do care about codes and standards and their application and enforcement in building design and construction. I do care about the lives of my clients, contrary to your assertion.
What I find disturbing is when code officials take it upon themselves to create their own little parochial “policies”. It is the same as the old fashioned “that’s not the way we do it in my town”. It goes contrary to the entire reason statewide codes and national model codes and standards have been developed. If you feel strongly about an issue or you think the science is all on your side, would it not be better to push for a statewide change or at the ICC level? Or is the argument not strong enough to be accepted by code enforcers at large? Frankly, why stop at just the ceiling cover on I-joists? There are so many things that could be better in houses than the minimums required in the codes. And certainly some others would enhance public health, safety and welfare, too.
I have provided in the PDF attachment and items below some of the available information on the subject that make it clear that your 5/8″ type x “policy” is not the panacea you may think. I have attached the latest overview report from NFPA (of which I am also a member). It is very revealing because it does not list light construction or I-joists as in issue in resulting deaths or injuries from fires. In fact it indicates that fires have gone down about 50% in the last 25 years. How can that be so at the same time that framing is getting lighter and we are using more engineered lumber and trusses and everyone except [your town] is using 1/2″ regular gypsum board? Could it be that what is more important is the increased awareness and enforcement of blocking, penetration seals, and detection? If you have more definitive information I hope you will share it with me so I can be more educated on the subject. In the meantime, our contractor at [Address withheld] Rd this weekend is either adding the 1/2″ type x to the reg layer already on, or his removing that and putting up new 5/8″ type x. It depends on how his light trims work out. I thank you for raising the issue so that I would could pursue investigating it myself. I am not quite so convinced as you are of your position but I don’t think that means I care less about people’s safety.“
I received no initial reply from the building inspector and I figured I had burned my bridges with him. A short time later I came across an article in SBC Magazine about a fire test demonstration that seemed favorable to engineered lumber and I sent it to him. You can read about it here:
The building inspector replied as follows:
“Thank you for sending along the article. It has done little to sell me on the virtues of Trusses in general. This test has been widely discussed in the fire service. Before too much weight is given to this it is important to recognize who is putting on this show. The Manufactures and distributors of Trusses who derive their lively hood from selling this product to the general public have a different agenda than those of us in Code Enforcement and the Fire Service. The article states that a large number of the skeptics in the audience were older Veteran Firefighters and that the New members of the departments easily accepted the results. This does not surprise me because you learn from what you see, if all you have experienced from truss construction is this demonstration then it is easy to believe that they are safe. If however like me you have in excess of 25 years of hands on experience you tend to believe what you see and that is a dramatic departure from what the Industry wants you to believe. I strongly recommend reviewing current and archive articles from Fire Engineering Magazine or any Publication from John Mittendorf. retired Chief of the Los Angles Fire Department regarding Truss Construction. The important thing to remember is that those of us in the Fire Services are not trying to sell you anything and in many cases it is our lives that are put in jeopardy by these products.”
Now, this issue has made me start thinking about the industry’s quick change over to engineered lumber and whether or not the fire safety issues have been thoroughly investigated. So if any of you who had the patience and interest to read this have more information or sources for me to review please send them on to me. I would love to know what other construction-related professionals think of the fire safety considerations around engineered lumber, especially I-joists.
January 28th, 2010 by Milton Grew
Questions are frequently raised about how reliable charitable organizations are when it comes to making proper use of donated money for disaster relief. Phil Underwood, a writer with the Phoenix Signs of the Times Examiner undertook his own little local investigation into religious charities and makes some interesting observations that we might do well to learn something from….
November 14th, 2009 by Milton Grew
As noted in a previous blog “Looking for Unbiased Information” I had some unit owners from a Connecticut condominium community ask me to evaluate the condition of their cedar siding. This request was prompted because the community’s board of directors had hired an out-of-state engineering firm to inspect the siding and provide a report that would strongly recommend removing all the cedar siding from 54 units and replace with vinyl siding. The project had bids ranging from $830,000 to over $1,000,000 so this was no little home improvement project.
This engineering firm had done their inspections and reported that the siding had deteriorated so severely that the only recourse was removal and replacement with vinyl. They asserted that the cedar was of inferior grade, had been installed incorrectly, and would result in moisture and water infiltration problems unless dealt with immediately. When I arrived at the site and walked around the buildings I thought I must be in the wrong place because whatever these engineers were describing was hardly the case here. I had to go back a couple of times to look over the buildings because I could not believe their report could be so wrong or that I could have such an opposite opinion. Questioning myself, I was fortunate to be able to consult with the foremost authority on Western Red Cedar siding in the eastern USA. This expert offered to drive three hours to the site for no charge just to see the buildings for himself. With his experience and authority he insisted that there had to be some ulterior motive for the engineers’ report because he felt it was blatantly and deliberately wrong. He was able to quickly refute every assertion the engineers made.
Now comes the tricky part. The board of directors had hired these engineers, accepted their report, bid out the project, and negotiated a back loan for the project. The only step left was for a vote of the community to accept the loan. So they had invested their time, many thousand of dollars, and their credibility in the work of these engineers. The two unit owners I was serving believed that most of the unit owners were going along with the board. Could this be turned around?
The board scheduled an informational meeting for all unit owners to attend to listen to the board’s engineer, property manager, attorney, preferred contractor and vinyl siding salesman and to ask questions. Three unit owners gave me power of attorney to speak in their behalf and ask pointed questions. It was very awkward and the board’s limited me to only a few questions with which I tried to sow seeks of doubt for other owners. My clients and I came out of that meeting not thinking we had made any great inroads.
Next, my client owners invited all the other owners to their own meeting where I was able to make a full case for not believing the engineers. We reinforced the argument with a report from the cedar expert and an evaluation from a home improvement contractor. About 20 unit owners showed up and the meeting lasted about three hours. They all seemed convinced to vote no to the loan and the project. We encouraged them to spread the word to other owners.
Finally, the board scheduled a day for the vote. My clients called on other owners imploring them to review the facts and turn down the project. But all along it was very difficult to know if we were really having an impact.
Well, the vote was held yesterday. Last night I could stand it no longer and sent an email to my clients asking if they knew the results. Late at night they wrote back to me that the vote was an overwhelming 40 – 18 to reject the loan and the project! Sometimes the truth prevails!
So the project will likely be changing the making the minor repairs to the cedar siding where needed, replace pine trim boards that are in worse shape than the cedar, and putting the buildings on a good rotating painting schedule. But I wonder about those engineers. They market their services to lots of condominium communities and they claim to “investigate roofing and exterior siding systems, of all types, for specific analysis of defects, installation techniques and replacement or repair alternatives.” If their work for other communities is as shoddy as what they did here then there are lots on boards wasting engineering fees and construction costs on unnecessary and ill-advised work. As I wrote in a previous blog about some architects: How do they get away with it?
August 24th, 2009 by Milton Grew
I get a great feeling when I run into a former client and find out how they continue to be happy with the work I have done for them.
Just yesterday I was across the street from my office in the local supermarket when I ran into a client. She and her husband live in a neighboring town and hired me to design substantial renovations to their house including a family room and screen porch additions, new entry, new kitchen, new master bath and closet, and other upgrades. In addition, they hired us to build it as general contractor. They were very pleasant people to work with. They appreciated my designs and also gave us some good ideas of their own. The construction went reasonably well but did take longer than I planned so we had our touchy moments to work through. However, it was so satisfying yesterday to hear her say “We love the house and how it come out!”. She told me how pleased they are with the finished project and they are working on an album of before, during and after pictures. You can see our photos of the project here:
A few weeks ago I was in a local coffee shop standing in line for the cashier when I realize another client was in line ahead of me who lives here in Woodbury. I had designed an expansion of their second floor to make room for a larger and new master bedroom suite, additional bedroom, new kitchen, and new larger decks. He and his wife were also very enjoyable to work with and we had a good collaborative relationship. They hired their own builder and we heard very little from them during construction. I think the builder called once with a question. I can get a little uneasy when I don’t hear from builders. It can either mean our drawings were very clear and they just breezed through construction or it can mean they are too proud to ask for direction, have messed it all up, but have also blamed the architect so that the owner doesn’t want to call either. So with a little anxiety I asked my client while standing in line, “So, how did the project come out?” You can imagine my relief when he said “Great! We love it! The builder did a great job and everything came out as planned. You should come over and see it.” That I will do. It is one of the projects we do not have in our photo gallery yet, but when I have some time I will visit them and then post the pics.
I have a real feeling of achievement when I am able to see residential or commercial clients enjoy occupying the spaces I design and build. When you get bogged down with the paperwork and the non-design part of owning a practice it is moments like these above the bring you back to why you chose this profession in the first place.
July 21st, 2009 by Milton Grew
Every once in a while an architect is called upon to research and provide a client with an opinion. Sometimes it is very hard to find tuly unbiased information on the subject you are researching. In my case I have homeowners in a condominium association looking to me to help settle a controversy. The development is an upscale residential condominium in southern Connecticut that is about 25 years old and has cedar clapboard siding. The association let the exterior maintenance slip and now the buildings really need attention. Some owners want to remove the cedar and replace it with vinyl. Some owners want to repair and restain the existing siding. Others are interested in alternative siding like fiber cement as long as it’s not vinyl. Now they look at me and want some guidance based on facts and not just my opinion or personal preference. They are concerned about longevity, continuous maintenance, initial costs, and the effect on their property appraisals and resale values.
What I have been amazed to find out is how little unbiased information is available on this subject. Siding materials are probably the most popular, highest produced, and greatest income generating products in the residential building industry, yet, I can’t find that anyone has bothered to do real head-to-head comparisons to find out which is the most cost effective, best performing product out there. Sure, the Vinyl Siding Institute will tell me their members’ products are the best thing since sliced bread! Of course, the Western Red Cedar Association will tell me how cedar will stand up, is easy to maintain, refinish, green, and overall the absolutely best thing ever.
As an architect I am left to sift through biased information and distill it to come up with a real comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of these products and arrive at a well reasoned conclusion. How do I do that and feel comfortable that I have given the best recommendation possible to my client? Maybe there isn’t much market for it and not much money to be made doing it, but it seems to me there ought to be some kind of “Consumer Reports” for construction materials and products where owners and professionals can go to get relatively unbiased information so that we can make educated choices on what products are best for what applications. Technology, the proliferation of synthetic and composite materials, and increasingly stringent building, energy and sustainability codes make it rather hard for an architect to give a strong recommendation to a client without knowing that opinion is limited by our own personal experience and preferences.
Who will step up and help us?
June 10th, 2009 by Milton Grew
Recently it was discovered that some candidates for the national Architectural Registration Examination had improperly shared information on the content of exams and basically cheated on the test. This is the exam that qualifies an architect to be licensed to practice in the states. The announcement regarding the action taken by the national board is found here:
Now one might say this is an isolated event and we should not draw broad conclusions. But hearing about this got me thinking about the continuing erosion of honesty and ethics in our profession, all professions and society in general. Notice an interesting observation made in AWAKE! magazine:
Older persons can remember a time when, in many places, people did not lock their doors. They did not think of stealing from others or of cheating them. If they borrowed money, they felt honor-bound to repay it. And their word was ‘as good as gold.’ True, there was dishonesty, but it was not all-pervasive. Today, however, stealing, lying, and cheating are commonplace throughout the world. And many dishonest acts originate with so-called respectable people who live and work in nice neighborhoods, dress well, may have a religion, and consider themselves good citizens. Indeed, dishonesty has become notorious among officials of government and business. (Nov. 15, 1986)
The Apostle Paul wrote: ”We trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things”. (Hebrews 13:18)
It seems everywhere one turns today we must navigate through a dishonest world. Owners that don’t want to tell the truth on permit applications about the construction cost. Clients who want to pay cash or use other means to bury money so they don’t have to pay taxes on it. Clients who offer us cash if we keep accounts off the books thinking we would likewise not report the income for taxes. Owners and contractors who don’t want to take out permits for the construction. Employment candidates who inflate their credentials. I could go on and on.
Architecture is a noble profession but it does not appear that it is any more noble than others when it comes to ethics. How many architects have read the AIA Code of Ethics or the rules of ethics written into their state’s practice regulations? What meaningful education on ethics, honesty and honorable practice is really given to architecture students? I just make a random check of the listing of courses for a prominent university’s school of architecture. Not one class on ethics in practice or honesty in life. That says plenty.
Why has honesty and ethics in society and our profession become so unimportant? We create environments to promote the well being of humans, to lift their spirits, and bring them comfort combined with guarding their health, safety and welfare. How could we cheat on anything having to do with our profession?
June 4th, 2009 by Milton Grew
What is being an architect all about? That question could illicit a myriad of responses but an appointment of mine today brought it home to a very simple answer.
This afternoon I had an appointment with a prospective client at his home in a suburb of New Haven. They have lived for five years in a nondescript ranch built in 1963 with 1,400 square feet in a lovely quiet neighborhood of similar homes. Nothing very exciting or sexy you might think and you would be right.
Here’s the good part. They need more room. The bedrooms are small for their family and they share one bath. They simply want to get a larger master bedroom and master bath along with another bath for the kids and some additional living space. The constructed project probably won’t cost more than $200,000. What did they do? They didn’t call builders or remodeling contractors. They didn’t call an unlicensed residential designer. They call an architect!
Why did they call an architect? Because they felt they had the best shot of getting comprehensive advice from an architect. Which way to expand- up or out? What range of construction cost could they expect? What implications might there be with zoning regulations and their old septic system? Is their house structurally sound enough to carry a second floor? Could an appealing exterior design be devised?
Now this is not a project that I am going to get rich on. I don’t believe every project has to be a home run. If I can get to first or second base on every time at bat do I win the game? You bet I do! I usually do much larger projects, but frankly my profit margin on the small ones is often better. Very often when I meet with prospects like this one they tell me they called other architects before me and the architects would hang up when they find out the size or budget of the project. Too bad for them. Good for me!
But it doesn’t help dispell the notion that architects are elitest snobs who can only be bothered designing for the rich and famous or when they can rack up a big fee on a big budget. Why are more architects not happy with the notion of ordinary mid-middle class folks calling on them for help? More architecture is seen in ordinary middle class working neighborhoods and some of that is bad architecture simply because architects hung up the phone on the homeowners and so they called contractors who hashed something together or remuddled.
This is what it’s all about. Not masterpieces or monuments. Simply good design for ordinary folks who appreciate it and know it will enhance their family life. There’s a lot that being an architect means but this is actually as good as it gets. What do you think?