Thursday, May 15, 2014

Now which are the additions...?
How to unify a discordant house.

We recently have been approached by a number of clients who loved many aspects of their new to them home, whether it be the site, the views, the spacious kitchen, the lavish master suite, the vineyards, the barn.  Their one complaint, though, had been that the design seemed an eclectic assortment of styles.  The living room was 80s corporate, the dining room Sonoma Tuscan Revival, the master foyer French Mannerism and the powder room neo-punk classicist.  The ceilings were different in every room in both height and configuration and ressembled the arrangement of tectonic plates along the California coast.  The floors not only changed from room to room, but featured such varying geometry and materials that I was convinced that the house had been used as a tile store at some point in time. As I stepped outside to take a look at the roof, it too carried on the tradition of eclecticism in an amazing assortment of shapes and materials assembled in unspeakable ways...

Dear me.
So how do you bring consistency and harmony to a house like this?  There are several options to approach this kind of project
Most importantly: Determine your personal style.  We used to recommend to our clients to collect magazine clippings of images they responded to.  Now we steer them to, where you can query architectural and interior design images and arrange them in idea-books. Those can then be shared with your designer.

Once you have determined your personal style, let’s figure out how to apply it to your house.  Some of the fast rules we use to unify a dwelling with multiple personalities:
1.       Simplify:  One  flooring material per room.
2.       One trim package (baseboard, window and door trim, chair and picture rail, crown molding) for the entire house. 
3.       A color palette that works with hues instead of widely varying colors.  Ceilings are white. Period.  If there is a picture rail (decorative molding on the walls, usually a couple feet below the ceiling), then the ceiling color should extend down to the top of the picture rail.
4.       Adjust ceiling heights and types so they carry throughout the house without jarring differences from one room to the next (coffers or coves are never (ever!) acceptable and need to be removed immediately after closing.
5.       One window type throughout.  We always try to raise the header heights (tops of doors and windows) to 8’ wherever possible to let you see the sky and bring in more light.  Ideally all header heights should be the same, although there are exceptions. 
6.       One type of switch and outlet covers throughout.  
.       Kitchens: Simplify shapes and materials.  Choose a few really beautiful materials and stick to them.  Streamline the counter and island layout. The same with the cabinets. Simple is beautiful if executed well. 
Adjustable height...
Lighting:  Consider chandeliers, sconces, floor lamps instead of recessed cans.  They emit a warmer light, allow you to light for different occasions and moods.

9.       Furniture and art:  This is probably the most challenging of the elements to unify, as there often heirlooms and thus emotions involved.  If your assortment of furniture and art is as eclectic as the house you just bought, and you’re not willing to part with it, then don’t bother with the renovation; as the result will not do justice to all of the work you just went through without the furnishing and accessories and art being blended with the new palette of your home.   Sometimes a discordant assortment of furnishings can be made to work in conjunction with new pieces in a way that makes a strong statement, but it will take bold steps to get there and it will not subtle.
10.   The exterior of your home:  If your roof is leaks or needs to be replaced or is just plain ugly, it’s time for a redo. Sometimes several added on roofs can be unified through re-framing into a much simpler roof that can be detailed correctly, will drain properly and look good. 
11.   Excessive roof overhangs can be cut back to provide more light through windows and doors into the house and might allow for header heights to be raised.
12.   Unless there is a very good reason, the exterior finish should uniform, utilizing the same few materials. If there is a water table (a 3”-6” extrusion along the perimeter of the wall, from its bottom to about 3’), then a different material might be used for that. But wood siding, plywood siding and stucco applied on the same wall better have a very good reason to be there, or else...

  1. There is so much more than these 12 points of things that can be done to unify your house, but I wanted to also touch on one more point: How do you know when it’s worth re-doing a home and when isn't it?

This depends on many different factors, which will require a professionals assessment.  Here are some of the many points on our check-list:
1.       Have a budget determined.  This is essential.  Starting without a budget is like starting a road trip  
without any idea of how much money you've got with you...
.       If you are within the County Jurisdiction: The state of your septic system (if your property has one. 
Humor taken too far...
If you are within a city this is not an issue).  This might seem like a strange starting point, but it’s where the PRMD (Sonoma County planning department) will start when reviewing the feasibility of your project.  Get a findings report on your septic system to make sure it’s up to the task.

3. Have your home’s electrical, plumbing, structural systems been updated?  This is important to know from the beginning in order to assess how much more “extra” work your project will require.

4.  Are you willing and able to live through the “inconveniences” of a construction project.  Will you be living in the house while construction is going on?  It really helps to have realistic expectation before you embark on a renovation project. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Super sleek lighting, smart home systems and hidden sound in Orange County

Linda and Jerry Hanrahan, the owners of Energy Plus, took Jessica and I to Orange County this past week to learn the latest on the residential smart home, lighting and sound scene.  Energy Plus is a local Sonoma County lighting wholesaler and designer, with whom we work on pretty much all projects requiring lighting.

The next morning we got a tour at Sonance, an audio product developer and wholesaler.  It was pretty cool to learn not only about in-wall speakers, but speakers that were plastered and painted or wall papered over, aptly called their "Invisible series".  Not only are they recessed into the wall, but they are plastered and painted (or wall-papered) over, so there is no way of knowing where the speakers actually were unless they were turned on and you were standing right next to them! Cool!!! (Just make sure you've got a drawing of where they actually are, so you don't try to accidentally hang a picture or install a shelf right over them...)  Honestly, we were skeptical at first! I mean, how is that even possible? How would the sound not be muffled? And would there not be cracks developing?  But, surprisingly, it sounded awesome! Crisp, clear, a full spectrum of sound. It something to be heard to believe.  They had several rooms dedicated just to listening to their various products. It’s true that you don’t know how bad your average sound is until you have heard the real good stuff…

Their other cool  product line was Trufig. They have figured out ways to completely camouflage pesky things like outlets, switch plates and diffusers for heating and air-conditioning  ducts).    After working on creating beautiful spaces, who wants all this technology to spoil the picture?

The finished outlet box gets installed after all of the construction is completed and is held in place by magnets!  And, as you can see, it be customized to match your wall finish perfectly. The only thing is, as with the invisible speakers, that your outlets might be so well hidden, that you'll have to go hunt for them if you're not sure where they are...

We also liked the sleek hvac diffusers.  Gone are the days of those tin atrocities that were undoubtedly designed by a legally blind German mechanical engineer, and while functional,  they are rather, well, ugly. Trufig has a variety of different patterns, that can be customized to any length, can be painted to match your wall and will meet all the California building code requirements.

Later the same day we were hosted by Bruck Lighting for an informational seminar on the latest in LED technology.  Beautiful products matched by brilliant use of technology.  Tremendous color and design options and with the tiny scale of the LED the possibilities s of incorporating  into design projects is staggering.
  The owner of Bruck, Alex Ladjevardi, took our group out to a wonderful meal and entertained us with his charm and insight about starting this American company by importing the best of European lighting.  Today any of Bruck's products are truly reflective of the American melting pot; metals forged in China, handblown glass blown in Italy and Austria, and designed right here in the USA.

The next day we found ourselves at Lutron's headquarter to tour "The  Experience Center".  Never realized just how "un Smart" our own home is.  Truly to the age of George Jetson, where with the touch of a key, you pick your environment, be that "entertaining", "reading", "sleep", etc..  All personalized to your preferences with the lighting and shade systems automatically programmed to that create that atmosophere.  Additionally for second homeowners, the "smart" house becomes truly brilliant, in that your home away form home can be warmed or cooled (let alone well lit and safe), hours before your arrival through the touch of your own online app.  Amazing!  We are encouraged to bring interested clients down for their own tour, so if inclined....

Friday, September 7, 2012

It's been a very busy summer here at Zeitgeist!  We have had projects ranging from small to complex and everything in between.  Jessica has just completed two new kitchen's with more under way.  She is also heading up two large renovations, while finishing up several smaller projects.
...classical with a pinch of modern or...
...eichler interpreted
We at Zeitgeist are always thinking about ways to improve the service we render our clients.  Since Jessica has been working on several kitchens lately, we talked about how we could get more control over the end-product, especially when it comes to cabinetry.   One of the main decisions is whether to go with a custom or standard system.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  Obviously, a custom system has more options, however, the actual product, and particularly its finish, are not 100% known until it’s – well – finished…  A standard system, on the other hand, might require unattractive fillers and other ways to mitigate a less than perfect fit and the details and craftsmanship are often not up to our standard.  There is, however, a third option, in a new partnership with a long established manufacturer; each piece is made to our specifications, down to the 1/8th of an inch!  We in house produce the shop-drawings, all the details on the drawings, before anything is ordered.   No more back and forth between the manufacturer and the designer!   Clearly another cost savings in the overall process.  With amazing selections in both wood species and paint, factory hard finishes (not available in California!), they meet the best green building guidelines. This furnishes you with all the bells and whistles of a custom product, with the consistency and price point of a standard one.

 Petaluma Residence:

I am getting started with a new addition, am working on two renovations, while assisting with construction administration on one of Jessica's renovations.  Some of my larger projects are finally on the home stretch.  You might remember the modern house with a separate granny unit and garage.   Floor finishes have been installed, finished electrical is under way.  Unfortunately the protective plastic wrap on the windows takes a bit away from the photos...  

Sonoma Residence:   Hard to say what I like more - the amazing views or the beautiful railings and deck system we have just completed. To be able to see San Francisco from Sonoma......

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

sonoma inspirations

This project’s clients are a young couple immersed in the local ‘culture du vin’, and the fresh parents of a now one-year old.  They had purchased this home just prior to engaging us.   We were asked to update the living room and master suite, along with other bathrooms, furnishings, lighting, colors etc. This home featured some grand spaces and some very ordinary ones.   As with all of our projects, we started by asking ourselves: How can we infuse this fairly ordinarily built and finished house with inspiration of the Sonoma County life-style combined with the calm but engaging spirit of the family. 
We started by thinking of natural materials, their tactile qualities, their temperature. We also thought of the quality of light specific to this area, and how to use it best to articulate the design, the spaces, the materials.
The master bedroom (below) with its ( see link below)8’ ceiling and its small and poorly placed windows presented us with one of the trickier challenges.  
It worked great as a pool table room, but for a inviting and restful master suite?  How one wakes up can set the tone for the day!  The ceiling felt oppressively low, so we took out the existing roof trusses and replaced them with conventional framing  (without touching the existing roof).  
We created a fake ridge along the center of the space, and added a small window centered on the south wall, sending a small square of sunlight (and moonlight too) wandering across the room, while framing foliage from adjacent trees. We also added new large windows that come down low to meet a built in window seat and open the room up to the beautiful back-yard. A new gas fireplace adds to the ambiance on cold or rainy days.

We feel that the renovation has transformed the residence to fit our clients’ life-styles and greatly upgraded it, without feeling pretentious. Additionally, the design allows the re-designed spaces to co-exist with existing spaces, creating a elegant and appropriate fusion bringing back an integrity to the architecture that was sorely missing.
The living room (right) featured, front and center, a very large and quite heinous white brick fireplace. and some seriously gothic chandeliers.   Again we thought of what materials would lend themselves to turning this into a Sonoma County space. We decided on Travertine and re-purposed, re-milled wood to bring a sophisticated but earthy and organic quality to this space.   We kept the design minimalist, asymmetrical, and uncompromised. The result is sleek, modern, but warm and quite tactile.

The Master bathroom (left):  We came across a gorgeous slab of blue marble with heavy diagonal veining. That slab became the design inspirations for the entire master bath. We ended using it on several walls, in the shower and around the tub. The new large windows were carefully placed to light  the stone, making it radiate like the edge of a glacier, turning the walls into natural modern art. The coolness of the stone is offset by warm blue walls and radiant custom colored walnut cabinetry, also adding warmth.

Children's Jack and Jill bathroom (below):  Correlating with more traditional styling at this location, we have octagonal tile flooring and antique reproduction brushed nickel faucets. 
This overall aesthetic is given a playful, contemporary edge with gorgeous stacking glass tiles.  The custom cabinetry was designed to work around the lower sill height of this window, providing a lovely stoop and viewing spot for a young child.

Please see our website for many more photos and information on this and other projects.  Thank you!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mexican Inspirations

A family event recently prompted us to take a short trip to Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita, Mexico. The simplicity, innovation and expressiveness of the architecture there very much inspired us.
There is so much beauty here! We especially loved the rich colors (including the reddest red…), the simplicity of shape, the richness of textures.  It seemed much more art than just architecture. More expressionism than space-engineering. More poetry than technical writing. Just reinforced with me the point that American architecture has been reduced to an (almost) Germanic Funktionsarchitektur, a sort of utilitarian engineering, lacking the pure flame of inspiration, or simply cohones...
Less is more? That certainly seems to be the case with Mexican architecture:  You can tell a lot of it has been built with a tight budget in mind. Nonetheless much is beautiful. Stairs are narrow and steep, made out of concrete, the bamboo railings are sturdy and about 2 feet above the top of the treads. You’ll find sliding doors on the second floor without a railing. Sort of a built-in Darwinian filter system…

I also loved some of the playful detailing of the buildings.  Bands of stone meander across sidewalks, surround pools, outline parking lots.  And these or not just flat stones, no, they are beautiful, matching river pebbles, set on end in concrete, creating a wonderful texture under your bare feet.  It was also evident in the exterior painting of buildings, for which the walls were often used like a canvas, making small windows pop out, or framing a door like a portrait of a loved one. No effort was spared to create palappas over windows, so they could stay open when it rains.  Balconies are decorated with brick tile patterns, allowing air to pass through, while conserving privacy.
The use of form and color and the way in which natural materials are combined with very modern elements were captivating and reminiscent of some of Corbusier’s work we’ve seen in Chandigar, India.  It took us both back to our roots in design school, and you might notice some of these elements surface in future Zeitgeist projects…
I could go and on...                                      
I hope to weave these inspirations into my work from here on out.  I also hope to incorporate some of the Mexican savoir vivre in my life and work. To work hard, yet to enjoy life as if took place on the beach in Sayulita… Anyone thinking about building a concrete house?  It’s way greener than a lot of these allegedly green materials!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain Road renovation / addition:
The original architects of this house (who shall remain nameless) are not known for individualizing designs, but rather using a kit of parts and assembling them per the client’s wishes. While a great business model, this really compromises the overall integrity of the design and the site is rarely taken into consideration.  Built on a sloped site, this means expansive (read: unusable) crawlspaces and a dwelling that looks misplaced.  Perched up in the hills, this residence suffers from the cantilever effect.While we love our views, what is one to do with these derrières of our home, 20 feet off the ground?  We’re addressing that by designing a wall that will close off the space underneath the new expansive deck. That wall will be featuring Parasoleil’s  decorative metal panels interspersed with wood columns and will be resting on stone-clad foundation walls. 

 They will ground the whole assembly by connecting it with the earth in a beautiful and committed way, but ohh, will we miss acres of the ever lovely lattice-work... This renovation will orient itself around the new beautiful deck space, really creating the indoor outdoor living space the client desires.  By changing out poorly placed and economy doors and windows, we are able to refocus on the beautiful views of Sonoma Valley. We are also adding guest quarters room in the expansive crawlspace below the house.
By adding stucco over the existing siding, a metal roof and most significantly the live able deck space around grandpa Oak, the overall character and level of sophistication of the residence will change considerably.  These changes will transform what is now pretty much a run-of-the-mill ranch-style (one design fits all!) home into a substantial Sonoma-style residence with expansive, multi-tiered decks, sweeping views and almost transparent (as in don’t block the view) cable-rails. This project is slated to start construction in early summer.
Los Angles Hills, addition:
We are also designing an addition for a residence in Los Angeles.  This project is challenging because of its site constrictions. We are adding a master-suite with a master bedroom, a master bath and a walk-in closet. Especially challenging was making the addition feel spacious and fun while working with a very narrow layout dictated by the site.  We added jogs, windows at the end of hallway, some extra space and large pocket-doors to be able to keep the space flowing when privacy is not needed, while being able to spaces up when it is needed.  It is fun to have project down there, and thanks to the direct connection from our Sonoma airport it’s a breeze to zip down there and back up and still be home for dinner, all in one day!
Healdsburg, renovation / rebuild:
While it is always a joy to reconnect with our old clients, and a wonderful confirmation on the work we do… we so wish this project were under different circumstances.  Their home recently suffered a 60% loss due to a house fire. This Healdsburg site, is on a beautiful hill-side overlooking a large pond, and surrounded by lots of large old trees. We are placing lots of glass to frame the best views and take advantage of the sun angles. We have also incorporated a two sided fireplace to help articulate the now larger living room and dining room.  The original space’s usefulness was compromised by several angular walls and their proximities. We are enjoying tweaking that space to transform it from an auxiliary space into what will be a main living (and dining) room, taking full advantage of the best attributes of the site. Jessica had helped these clients with some interior design a couple of years ago.  We hope to get them back into their home really soon with it feeling more beautiful and functional than ever.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is this a good time to realize your construction project?

Is this a good time to realize a construction project?  Clients have asked us that question frequently, especially over the last 3 years.  We thought it might be helpful to provide some information pertaining to that question.  Instead of referencing abstract indexes and financial analysis, we’ll draw from our own experience and that of our contractors.  We’ll take a look at construction costs, the cost of living, how to choose a contractor and why this is indeed a good time for a construction project, provided that you are prepared for what’s out there! 

Are construction costs really down? While there is always some flux within the costs of building materials, stemming from the supply / demand relationship, we do not see construction costs to be much lower than they were in the summer of 2008.  Several factors might play a part in this, but we believe the cost of living here in Sonoma County is a large factor, as well as the Californian workman’s comp. requirements, which add heavily to a contractor’s overhead.
The cost of living in Sonoma County has gone up, not down.  Inflation is most likely a major factor, distorting the true balance of goods and services versus their financial value.  One only has to reference gas and food prices to realize that the cost of living has not gone down. If the cost of living is not down, but has actually has gone up, and you’re using a local workforce to get your project executed, it won’t take rocket-science to figure out that those bids can’t be lower now than they were when the cost of living was lower. 

While there still is fierce competition between builders, the contractors we have talked to, agree that at least some large variations in bids are simply a matter of “pay now or pay later”. Some bidders will heavily underbid projects to get a foot in the door. Beware of a deal that seems too good to be true – it usually is.  Sometimes that’s out of despair to keep themselves and their sub-contractors busy, sometimes it will simply mean cutting corners during construction and / or a parade of change-orders. They won’t however, make an appearance, until your house is torn wide open and then rains are on their way… 

What we do see, however, across the industry is that profit margins are way down, due to the aforementioned competition in the field.  What does that mean for you?  It means you’re getting a better deal. But remember that your contractor’s leeway is also much less than it used to be. Which is only one of the reasons why we encourage our clients to get multiple preliminary bids after the conclusion of schematic design.  At this point in the design process the scope can still be changed easily (=inexpensively!)  without getting into the complexities of the re-drawing of construction documents.  This is also the time when you as a client get a chance to meet several contractors. You get to review their bid, see how professionally it is put together, how detailed, and how complete. We also recommend you to take a look at some of their projects and talk to previous as well as current clients.  Another, important thing to remember is to not make changes after the construction drawings have been issued to the contractors. Less profit also means less ability to absorb any cost derived from changes. 

Permit fees also play a big role in the costs of projects. This pertains mostly to new construction, although there are increased requirements on renovations as well. Permit fees as structured by the County of Sonoma are a hefty 5% of a new single-family dwelling to be constructed! These fees include, among others, the plan-check fees, affordable housing fee, school fees and a host of smaller permits required and their associated fees.  The County’s overarching goal here seems to be to stifle single-family development.  In our opinion that sort of attitude is commendable when the economy is going at a furious pace. When, however, the building industry is already on its knees, it seems rather questionable to further curb single-family housing growth.   

Lastly, with the adoption of the new Residential Building Code (effective since January 2011), there are extensive requirements for new residential construction. They range from catch-basins to catch all storm-water run-off on site to extensive energy and water-flow calculations and a plethora of items in between.  The feasibility of a projects requires more up-front investigation, and a thorough investigation of what the financial ramifications are. Civil engineers should be consulted early on to evaluate the site-work, which can have a great impact on design and budget. 

Should all of these factors deter you from pursuing the project(s) you have been planning?  We don’t think so.  If you can qualify for a loan, interest rates are still incredibly low. But we do think that you need to be prepared for what’s out there right now.  Your budget needs to accommodate realistic construction cost, plus at least 10% overage.  You might want to hire an architect or designer for them to talk to the building department, talk to their consultants, to find out what’s really at stake with your project, and what the implications are. This is especially true for new construction. Keep in mind that there are no shortcuts in terms of budget or getting plans approved.  Building departments are understaffed and their employees are worried about their job-security, - for good reason. This means they will do an extra good job scrutinizing the projects they’ve got to review. 

In summation, I would say that as long as you’re prepared to meet the market’s financial demands, are willing to do some footwork prior to getting started and you’re not trying to pull a fast one on your contractor or building department, this is a great time to realize a residential project. Why?  Because if  got a realistic budget, do the initial investigation, choose your contractor carefully, you can benefit from getting a good value, a comitted contractor and a beautiful end-result.  Now all you need is a creative architect and designer. Feel free to give us a call for some recommendations…

Please feel free to comment.  Don't be shy to disagree either, as we would love to have some discussion started on this blog!

Thank you