Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Timber frames are personal

I have had the great fortune of being able to assist those in need.  I am privileged to do some volunteer work as a member of the Lions Club, here in Golden, Colorado, which I must admit is not so bad.....pouring beers at big outdoor events for instance.  A lot of people contact and a good outpost to view humans in their native habitat.  It is an enriching experience.

I am also privileged to design homes and timber frames in very scenic and rural parts of the country.  In this case, Michigan.

    I'm equally privileged to have a profession that can be instrumental in the life plans of some wonderful and patient people.  Those people are, of course, the owners of the projects that myself and all other custom home architects work for....who are in great need of someone to help solve the thousands of problems and issues that go into a real, live, genuine, custom timber framed home... not the out-of-the-book variety.  With a custom, it's hard to get out of the gate for many people. We architects get them out the gate and keep the project moving.

    My recent site visit to this home site on Lake Michigan looking west to review a just-raised frame for a rather special project, a legacy house, underlines the importance and power of creative and very personal design, by both architect and owners.

     The owners, we'll just call him "he" and "she", have had to put up with me for 5 years of design, reviews, engineering, recession, pricing, and so on to get to the start of construction last fall, putting the frame raising in the mighty Michigan winter of early 2015. Challenging.

    She had certain reservations about the whole house thing, which was really being driven by he. And it's a big house.  When the frame went up and she visited and walked into what will be her kitchen, they tell me she went into tears, and instantly owned the place lock, stock, and barrel.  At dinner, I was honored to know how grateful she was to have me designing her dream....and they gave  me a rare bottle of exceptional whiskey......

It doesn't get better for an architect.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Timberframe Floorplans

The design of spectacular timber frame floorplans as well as the looks is a complex process of understanding the needs of your clients and understanding what the site itself is asking for. Often when I talk to people who are in the market for a timber frame house, they tell me that they have poured over hundeds, thousands, maybe millions of plans....none of which suit them. The reason is very simple. Each of those plans was likely developed for an individual, a specific location geographically and for very local conditions, be they a slope or a particular relationship to the access, or even soil composition at the site. Not you...not your site.

  A well designed house works with the land, not against it. I typically tell people that all that effort and research into the perfect floor plan, sometimes resulting in the owner's own try at a good all great training and a benificial learning process....but now we start over. The work and graphics that most owners show me are a great tool for me to understand how the owner thinks as well as their priorities in terms of space and some details and appliances, but are not a viable house for them on this lot.

Sass House

For custom high-end first-class architecture, you start at the beginning and work to the end. The beginning is the land. The end is a house that is YOU. There are certain rules and preferences that define the process of good architectural technique, one of which is to avoid making problems for yourself in one area as a result of improving another area. Great design comes for spending the time and reviewing decisions over and over until every area is good, and nothing important is compromised. This is good design. It's not fast, and it's not particularly easy, but rather is a tough mental effort to make a design complete.

Designing with beautiful timberframing is a great challenge, as you must keep a lot of very nice timbers visable but not in the way...of windows, circulation paths, and kitchen seating for instance.

I design my houses so that you flow naturally inside the house, avoiding sharp unexpected turns, things in the way, excess floor height changes, and unnatural placement of room. You should be able to negotiate a house easily and in the dark in the case of power failure, or as a result of disability. Walking the house should feel as natural instead of like an obstcal course. Kitchens if possible should catch the early morning sun, while bedrooms may stay darker longer. Cross ventillation comes with open space with multiple outside walls. In the west, where I live, we take advantage of the long view with the house capturing the outside rather than overloading the inside with.....stuff. 

Christensen House

A blue sky is an element that should be featured in your house, using the right windows and framing the views with timber. Facing a lake or a river can suggest that you have a view down....and don't want to put a deck and railing in the way of the view.  If possible, in snowy country, face the garage doors southwest to get the best sun for melting the snow in your driveway.

Sometimes an existing plan is a good place to start, if it works with the land, but always keep your mind open for new, custom ways to solve the problems of design.
The very fun thing about a custom house is that there are alway things in the house, or the house itself that is a one-of-a kind. It is your reflection and part of your image.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Remodels, Additions, and Timbers

Several years ago, I worked on a project that was both quite challenging and had remarkable potential. It was a remodel of a house here in Colorado on a very pretty perch in rocks surrounded by ponderosa pines. The property sloped to the northeast with a view of Mount Evans and the front range foothills. The house remodel turned out as nice as a new house with modern upgrades, trapezoid windows and opening up new spaces and views.

When I first came over to look at the job, I parked, walked along the garage wall to a little wood stair taking me up to a small landing to face the front door half a floor up. If I looked right, I saw the magnificent mountain view. If I looked left, I came face to face with a I looked right. Upon meeting my client and entering the house, my first thought was...where did the view go?... Everywhere I looked, I saw a tract house from the seventies, cut up, no view, totally out of place with the character of the land, but the first order of business was to improve the walk to the entry, so we built a new catwalk to the front door, meandering through the trees. 
We ultimately remodeled the entire house, adding a dining room, moving the kitchen entirely, and cutting the best view corner to a forty five degree angle to get the best view.
 Adding timber framing to the great room area and a giant log to hold the roof up gave the "new" house a mountain look. A new roof and a stucco exterior gave the house a modern, clean look. The loft above is the office, open to the great room.

I like to do remodels. They tend to be very challenging. Whole house remodels, including some landscape is as rewarding as it is difficult. The reason is that you take something totally wrong....and make it right. Below is the new dining room, meant to hold a very big table and be surrounded by glass. The new kitchen location is the heart of the house.

Getting a non-timber framed house to look like a timbered house is a matter of understanding the structure of the house and wood engineering in general. Beams and trusses should look as though they are necessary for holding up the house, rather than just decorative trim.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Small Houses

It's a new year, welcome. The last one had it's ups and downs. For those of us in the house designing business it was quite slow, due to the seemingly endless recession which hit construction and related fields very hard.  We all hope that things turn for the better, and that folks are able to think about building their long-waited timber frame home instead of merely surviving.

That being the case, there are very important things to consider when contemplating diving into a project like a custom house, especially and custom timber frame house. Costs for construction have not gone down much, even though demand and credit availability sunk. Go figure. As the economy deflates, you have to consider getting more gratification and usability out of a smaller package.

The world of huge trophy houses, big second homes, and extravagant spending has geatly diminished, and in its place is a serious movement toward justifiable costs, environmental responsibility, and trimming down in general.

Smaller structures with greater usability is a focus for young couples with kids as well as empty-nesters who want less to maintain while still accomodating occasional visits from family and friends.  A smaller structure means less outside surface area to lose in money, and is less to pay for originally. Multi-use spaces should be created when possible.

The key to making a smaller structures livable is to design it free of clutter that impedes movement, and to open it up to the outside with proper window and doors that not only make the space visually bigger, but allow for stepping out to a deck or patio. Note: a house can be too small also. It should be sized for the people it is to accomodate, and of course, always have good resale value.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Houses and Fires

Of all the various things that architects of timber frame or any other houses worry about when designing especially in the mountains and wooded areas, FIRE is the highest priority. Since fire, in and around a house, has life threatening implications, not to mention devastating property consequences, it is given careful consideration and attention in both the building codes for structures, and local Fire Marshall requirements dealing with defensible space, accessible roads, and water cisterns for the use of fire fighters.
This year in Colorado, where I live, we had wildfires all over the state. Our fires burned up about seven hundred or so houses on the front range this summer, most of which used to sit very close to the foothill/plains interface.....similar to where I live. Watching houses burn is a humbling experience. Whole neighborhoods went up instantly due to proximity, the hot weather, low humidity, high winds and draught conditions.

What to do about wildfire? Plan for it!  A house can be built up to and above all fire standards and take all site precautions and still explode from the intense pre-heat of a major fire....any house....even those that are built "fire-proof". You must do all you can to protect the house, and still have a good evacuation plan. 

And you should plan on building a concrete underground storage vault, typically called a safe room.  I recommend to all my clients that they build a safe room. If you have a basement or a walkout basement, a corner can be found to enclose a space with two additional concrete walls, and a concrete lid. Entered through a secure steel, fire-rated door, it should be large enough to hold: important papers, jewelry, valuables, firearms, and collections that should be kept in a secure anyway. It may also be large enough to put heirlooms and art in the event of an evacuation. Most things in a house can be protected by insurance, but some things should survive a fire.

If you don't plan for the certainty of a fire, you will not be prepared for the off-chance of one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Choosing A Timber Frame Company

The nature of my architecture business is that I do not work directly for any timber frame company.  I only work for client/owners. In my early years, I represented a very good national timber frame company, designed the projects that I landed, and finally raised the timber frame and panel package, employing my office full of young architect types who adapted well to on-site timber construction. They were great years and I learned every aspect of the business.

I took that knowledge and applied it to my  timber frame architecture practice.  I deliberately stay contractually independent of all timber frame suppliers. The reason I remain independent is that I expect the companies to answer to me as the owner’s representative rather than me answering to a timber frame company.

Every timber framer is not suitable for every project. I recommend companies solely based on their ability to do the things that are required to complete that particular job properly in the area where the project is located. Often that means that I need a company that will travel far. Sometimes I need a company that will do or take responsibility for the timber package and the panel package. Sometimes, I am looking for a particular joinery style or great expertise with particular woods.

Each job in my past has been different, requiring great thought about how to accomplish the fabrication and assembly of the multiple pre-cut systems that make up a timber frame house.  I can sometimes recommend several companies that have shown that they are capable of timber framing a particular project in a particular place.  Sometimes I recommend only a single company, based on my prior experience with that business.

When appropriate companies are chosen for consideration, they are asked to bid the work based on the architect’s drawings. I always design the frames in my houses, so companies can bid apples to apples, rather than having to first design a frame to fit the house and then price it. The bidding companies are encouraged to make a good impression and pay a lot of attention to the client, since the client makes the decisions. We typically see the timber framers best price, since he knows that he is competing for the work, and there is less guesswork as a result of the frame having been previously worked out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

People and their Houses, Timber Frame or Not

Arzt Timber Frame House in Homer

We just returned from a trip to Alaska where we visited good friends of many persuasions. My doctor friend (it’s good to know a doctor if you fish like I do),  a ship pilot,  a contractor, a (newly trimmed) bearded timber framer, a soon-to-be-on-TV real estate agent, an artist/guide and others. Besides the fine Alaska fishing, of which we all share a love, and the fine wine my friends collect in order to encourage gentility in the Great State, they have in common an attraction to the built form and specialty construction methods in general. I believe the younger, single artist/guide is likely interested in a different type of built form…… but I digress.

Two families are previous clients, now living in their (exceptionally extraordinarily terrific) timber frame houses who graciously invite my wife and daughters to visit yearly. Sometimes they let me come along too.

Judd and wife Lynn at house above

I have found that people who live in their own space see themselves as staying there forever. By own space I mean a house that not just feels good, but reflects their own leanings, proportions, and especially how they see themselves now and in the future. Mountain homes have ski things and outdoor personalities. Alaska homes typically have all from native art to many fish and wildlife references. Why, you ask? Because those types of people live there…..for a reason. When people for some reason must consider moving, they often believe that they will never get their space again.

This year a talented general contractor friend  who built one of my timber frames in Soldotna, completed his own house (not timberframed) in Sterling, overlooking the Kenai River, valley and mountain range you might see in paintings if you were so lucky. Even though it is not one of my designs… ehem…. it is a beautiful, well designed, detailed, and dramatically perched piece of modern architecture created by my friend and a talented local designer with whom he regularly works. He planned it out for six years, and built it in a year to a polished and unique finished product (besides that big chunk of exposed concrete downstairs that he loves so much). With a combination of heavy timbers and steel structure the large glass windows and complex shape expose a view to die for. When you see him and his family in the house with big smiles and easy grace you know it’s their own.
Bad types on the Kenai River

When designing for people and families you try to interpret their movements, interactions, as well as their tastes and needs, in a way that allows you to foresee how they will be friends with their house once it is built. If the architect  gets invited back, he gets to actually see for himself whether the house fits the owner (success).

Every house done is a huge learning experience both for the architect and the owners.

Hint of the day: I’m really liking wine cellars.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Trim and Finish Work in a Timber Frame House

The building of the foundation, floor systems, timber frame, wall system, roof system with roofing, window and door installation and roughed in utilities are typically what is referred to as “dried-in”. By and large, these are the biggest items of the project and are roughly equivalent to being what I call the “first half of the house”, and can typically be used to gage the costs of the “second half of the house”. 

Sommer House Kitchen
The second half is items such as flooring, wall and ceiling finishes, kitchens, bathrooms, electrical and plumbing fixtures, built-ins, stairs, fireplace, and trim.    
Since much of this work is done in wood, many questions arise as to the species, finish, and design of those items. The issue becomes “how many types of wood can I have in my house before it gets ridiculous?”  The answer may surprise you.

The typical architectural axiom is to use no more than three finish materials in the house. We all have seen spaces in gaudy houses and hotel lobbies that use various stone types, woods, metals, glass and as many different materials as they can pack in. It typically looks bad, and often reflects poorly on the owners. A more reasonable approach is to use fewer materials better. 

When it comes to wood, though, I have found that your frame, ceiling, flooring, cabinets, trim, and doors can be of multiple species without harming the quality of the space. If you like to match woods, match the cabinets, trim and doors. I like light ceilings, and often use aspen for the ceiling tongue and groove.  I like somewhat light floors since they show their grain, and reflect light throughout the space. Also, I generally avoid stains, since natural wood grain is pretty good by itself, and it much easier to repair if unstained.

You can also bravely change the standard (flat) wall, window and door trim found in almost all houses. Trim can be thick and narrow, still appearing large and holding it’s own against the very large timbers. Also, the corner treatment on trim can match that on timbers. Sometimes, moving away from the norm brings the most intriguing results. The Sommer House, below and above, used custom trim shapes, a douglas fir frame, cherry knee braces, aspen ceiling, cherry cabinets and trim, and knotty cherry doors. The floor is maple.

Sommer Great Room
All trim is used to cover areas that would otherwise be unsightly. It has evolved to be it’s own beautiful system and should be seen as a device to bring continuity and interest to spaces. Good, creative finish carpenters love working in timber frame houses, especially if you listen to their ideas. They will do their best work for you if you let them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Timber Framed House and Eternity

Krull Kitchen

The timber framed house is an icon of permanence and strength in a world of disposable everything.  With proper design, construction, and basic care the house will last generations, centuries and eons.

When designing a timber framed house for an individual, couple, or family, there is a certainty that the house represents a life changing event for the owners.  Sometimes the owners are retiring, and this will be their home……. for eternity. Other times the house represents a serious commitment to family, staying put, and raising kids…….for eternity. And every so often the house will be a second house retreat where the owners, their family and friends will go to recreate and strengthen bonds………for eternity. 

You may have noticed a theme. In my years of practice, only two of my houses have been for sale. One, in Colorado, was recently sold because of a job related move.  One other is for sale presently in remote Alaska because of family commitments. Both couples are sad to re-define the bond they have with their homes.

Krull House
For clients, home design is a very personal and scary adventure. Of course, they want to get it right the first time. It is prudent for the architect to get the client involved in the research of everything from windows and doors to electrical and plumbing fixtures. Ultimately, architects can show things and suggest things, but clients choose things, and they choose things that match their personalities. Each item, from the smallest fixture… the house… the site itself, is a reflection of the owners.  

The scary part is the unknown, especially if this is your first time. Those are typically costs, schedules, procedures, and the biggest fear of all—making bad choices that haunt you forever.

The keys to making good decisions boils down to three things: take the time to research properly, get good advice, and step outside yourself.