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Why Construction Is Expensive

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Being a highly cost-effective design-build firm, we spend a significant amount of time and effort on project budgets. We publish the construction costs of most of our projects, discuss pricing in many of our posts, and have even gone to the extent of designing a construction cost cheat sheet. To us, the design and the finances of a project are interconnected. We’ve never cared for the vague and uninformed approach toward construction costs that are all too common in the architecture industry. In fact, it’s common for us to dive into a realistic construction budget discussion as early on as the initial interview for a new project.

We have enough experience behind us now that we’re able to discuss a range of project types in terms of price per square foot. For instance, our residential remodels typically cost $150 to $175 per square foot. This is a quick method to align the design goals with the project budget and set appropriate expectations from the get-go. It allows sensible decisions to be made and it prevents the design from heading in the wrong financial direction. As straight-forward as this math is though, there is an important logic behind it; these square foot costs are averages. You can’t simply select a few defined areas of a home (say the kitchen and the master suite) and multiply the square footage of those areas by $150 to get the total cost of the remodel. One of many potential budget pitfalls is to optimistically apply $150/sf to specific areas, or manipulate the cost per square foot benchmark to meet inappropriate goals.  This “cherry-picking” approach to the math doesn’t work for a number of reasons:

1. Asymmetrical Costs. Some areas of a home are much more expensive per square foot because they have a concentration of expensive features (appliances, plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, hardware, etc.) and are more labor intensive to build (involving carpenters, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, tile setters, painters, etc.). For instance, kitchens and bathrooms typically cost much more, and if pressed we’d say around $400 per square foot. This higher cost per square foot is balanced out by spaces like the living room (if pressed, more like $100/sf), bedrooms (if pressed, $75/sf) and the garage ($50/sf), resulting in a much lower cost per square foot over the entire house.

2. Good design is holistic. Rarely is it a good solution to simply update a couple of rooms in a worn-out house. Updating a home should include improvements to not only the doors & windows, surfaces, cabinets, fixtures, and appliance, but also to the lifestyle. The sequence of spaces, the relationship of rooms to each other, and the visual harmony of the design all play a significant role in a home remodel. If a kitchen and an entry way are each updated in an older home, the living room in between the two needs to be thought of as part of the package. The living room doesn’t necessarily require a complete overhaul, but it should at least be considered so that there isn’t a glaring dissonance of new adjacent to old. Successful remodels approach the home as a whole entity, not just a collection of rooms under a roof; the entire experience of the life within it is taken into account.

3. Systems don’t stop at the walls. Most remodels include updates to the plumbing, electrical and heating systems. Unfortunately, if there are galvanized pipes in the kitchen, they likely run all the way to the meter. Same with that knob and tube wiring and cobbled together ductwork that’s been hard at work for over 50 years. It’s possible to be selective in updating these systems but repairing such systems gets very expensive once the remodel is “finished.”

When you apply the principles of good design to a home remodel, the work usually includes more than just the room most in need of updates. The simple fact is that, no matter how cost-effective you are, doing a good job is expensive.

It’s not unusual to speak with potential clients about their remodel plans for their kitchen and master suite that they’d like to accomplish in the $75K range. We wish this were possible. We wish that construction was less expensive, but when you take into account the points above, the construction costs are typically a degree of magnitude greater. It’s always discouraging news and we hate being the rain cloud at the meeting. But we also like doing a good job and we like being honest (it helps us sleep at night). Bad news up front is free, bad news during construction is very expensive.

We think of ourselves as a design and construction team that has both feet on the ground; this involves realistic planning, clear communication, and setting appropriate expectations. Using these tools, we find that thorough and thoughtful remodels can be accomplished. Remodels which update the desired areas of a home, improve the overall lifestyle and make a home functional and inspiring for another 50-plus years. And the process is typically more expensive than people think. (But always cheaper than coming to the realization while hammers are already swinging.)

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Why Construction Is Expensive

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10 Green Lessons From Mid-Century Modern Houses

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

case study house photo
Alissa Walker’s creative commons homage to Julius Shulman

An acquaintance of ours recently bought a house in the prestigious MCM Hilltop Community about 10 miles east of Seattle. Since we’re in the neighborhood working on a project, we were lucky enough to be invited over for the tour, and we weren’t let down. It’s a gem of a home, designed by Paul Kirk in 1950, the home encapsulates everything we admire about good design. Because the architecture was well thought-out and deliberate, the home had been well cared for over the years and we got a very good idea of the original materials and finishes. Every time we turned a corner or looked in a different room, there were a handful of design ideas that stood out; ideas that, unfortunately, have been lost over the years.

The more mid-century modern homes we see and work on, the more surprised we are that so many good design ideas have been disregarded or forgotten over the last 60 years. These ideas aren’t just “features” or fashionable details; they’re significant concepts that allow people more opportunity in their lives and an extraordinary quality of life. The ideas we’re referring to aren’t just applicable to mid-century modernism either, they’re universal ideas about housing and they apply to most contemporary housing. Given how important these ideas are, we couldn’t help but make some notes and snap a few photos; today’s post boils down our thoughts to a quick-hit of 10 Forgotten Lessons of MCM Design (that should never have been forgotten in the first place). Here goes:

1.    Modestly nestling the home into the site rather than building “on top of” the ground feels better. It keeps the proportions of the home to a more natural scale and creates a more comfortable setting. It’s also a considerate way to design that affords your neighbors more view and day light. Part of this strategy involves keeping much of the landscaping; this allows certain trees or plants to become view points from inside the home, or while you’re standing on the terrace, it gives you something to look at astutely while you sip your gin martini.

2.    Keep it simple. It’s a consistent rule of thumb in MCM design. Roof planes tend to be simple shed roofs which offer plenty of daylight and view at the high side; the low profile on the opposite side maintains the privacy and low horizontal proportions. They’re straight-forward to frame, handsome visually, and cost-effective.

3.    Good design creates a progression between privacy and transparency. Often, upon approaching a MCM home, the entryway is solid and private. Once you enter the home the interior becomes increasingly transparent, until you reach a common area like the living room where the interiors open up to the view and landscaping. This sequence of experiences accomplishes several things; it maintains the privacy of the home toward the street, it creates a pleasurable experience moving through the spaces, and it rewards the viewer with a delightful view at the end (be it of a mountain, a forest or simply a well manicured back yard).

4.    Connecting the inside to the outside creates harmony with the site. One of the subtlest, albeit most pleasing, design moves in MCM design is the intentional move to extend the material of a wall from inside to outside (or vice versa). This could be an exterior brick wall that extends into an entry area or an interior cedar wall that continues out to frame a courtyard.

5.    Old school passive design is highly sustainable. There are a lot of terms being thrown around these days; sustainability, passive house design, and the overly abused “green-design”. Whether these terms actually benefit the home or environment depends on the situation, but the classic examples of passive design are so sensible that they should be incorporated into every house (and without throwing around a bunch of marketing terms). One of the best examples of this occurs at the roof: well designed eaves are calibrated to keep the interiors shaded during the summer months but allow direct sunlight into the home during the chilly winters. Smart, cost-effective and sensible.

6.    Small, efficient bedrooms are perfectly pleasant. Bedrooms don’t need to incorporate lounge areas and recreational space; that’s what lounges and rec-rooms are for. Often with the smaller bedrooms we see in MCM homes, the ergonomics are more deliberate and the view out the window is more appreciated. Smaller bedrooms also cause the family to spend more time together rather than secluding everyone in their own bedrooms all day playing X-Box.

7.    Outdoor rooms are just as important as indoor rooms. In a temperate climate, like the Pacific Northwest, you can spend a great deal of time outside. Extending the home’s roof out further is a cost-effective way to keep the rain off your outdoor dinner party in addition to defining the space. With a few intentional design moves, a sense of place is created and the outdoor room quickly becomes one of the most treasured areas of a home.

8.    Screen walls offer privacy without cordoning off the interiors. Well designed houses are typically open and spacious (regardless of square footage); one of the best ways to maintain privacy, without jeopardizing the quality of the spaces inside, is by using architectural elements that don’t touch the ceiling. These could be screens, cabinets or panels that frame views and conceal other areas. Etch-matte glass panels make for great screens because they let light in; when backlit they also tend to glow. When depth allows, cabinets provide screening and additional storage. Simple panels also allow for new materials and textures to compliment the home. The same applies at the exterior; a strategically placed privacy screen can eliminate the temptation to encircle the entire yard with a 6 foot high fence, bleck!

9.    Let nature do the work. MCM design is very clever about using the inherent characteristics of materials as finishes within the home. The MCM design philosophy is all about authenticity and once you put on your authenticity thinking cap, materials like CMU blocks, plywood, and car decking look beautiful; they look exactly like what they’re doing.  There are a couple of additional benefits here; it limits the “decoration” of a project and simplifies the decision making process, most of the materials also warm up the interiors, and lastly, it’s typically more cost-effective to leave materials just the way they are.

10.    Quality of light is more important than the light fixture. Nothing bothers us more than lights that are overdesigned. While it’s appropriate to have a couple of special, well-designed lights within the home (often above the dining room table or at the kitchen island) for the most part we want the light without having to see the light fixture. MCM design is brilliant in this regard; lights are often tucked into soffits and softly wash light over a wall, or they’re hidden on top of a bank of cabinets to highlight an exposed wood ceiling.

Those are just 10 design ideas that jumped out at us on our recent house tour, there are hundreds more. Let us know about your favorite MCM design concepts that should have a role in contemporary design.

Original Post Here.

Green Lessons From Mid-Century Modern Houses

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Chinese Drywall Update: Medical Fears Persist

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Up to now, major court cases in the ongoing Chinese-made drywall situation have not dealt with any medical or health-related claims. But health issues are sure to come up in court eventually; and in the mean time, fears about possible health effects of the defective material are likely to impact the market value of affected housing — even after all the bad drywall has been removed and replaced with U.S.-made material.

The past month has seen a handful of news items about drywall-related health fears. In one case, the U.S. Army is looking into the possibility that drywall may have contributed to the death of an infant child at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to Raleigh-Durham television station WTVD (“Fort Bragg investigating infant deaths”). Army investigators are examining ten infant deaths in Fort Bragg base housing, all classified as “sudden infant death syndrome” (SIDS) fatalities, and are trying to determine whether any aspect of base housing may have been a contributing factor in the deaths. Parents of three of the infants told the station that they believe Chinese drywall may have been to blame. Specialist Nathaniel Duke, father of one victim, said the Army gave him several different test reports: “One shows two pieces of drywall from their home which tested positive for Chinese drywall – giving off gases at levels higher than a positive control sample.” But a different test, for elemental sulfur within the actual board, came back within normal limits, the station reports (“New information in Bragg baby deaths”).

In South Florida, meanwhile, physician Kaye H. Kilburn, whose California firm Neuro-Test Inc. specializes in “chemical disorders,” says he suspects the drywall emissions of causing premature aging in occupants of the home, reports Tampa Bay Online (“Physician links Chinese drywall, premature aging,” by Sherri Lonon). Dr. Kilburn toured the Tampa area and talked with residents of contaminated homes at the invitation the Greater Sun City Center Contaminated Drywall Coordinating Group, an advocacy organization that contracted with Kilburn to conduct a health survey “to demonstrate the need for government intervention and epidemiological testing on residents in contaminated environments,” according to Tampa Bay Online.

According to the report, “ ‘This is premature aging,’ Kilburn said after touring two homes in Sun City Center and listening to resident complaints. ‘This is a death-causing problem.’ According to Kilburn, the lack of response is often caused by financial motivations and an unwillingness on the part of government officials to delve into issues.’ “

But there is wide uncertainty within the medical field about the health effects of Chinese drywall — one reason why Judge Eldon Fallon, who is overseeing combined federal litigation of drywall-related cases, has deferred taking up any health-related lawsuits. Under the so-called “Daubert standard” for expert witness testimony in federal court, juries aren’t expected to assess competing “hired-gun” testimony — instead, judges are

tasked as “gatekeepers” of expert claims, and must determine whether a witness reflects the broadly accepted science in his field before allowing a jury to hear the evidence. Assertions like Dr. Kilburn’s typically are not admitted as court testimony, unless they represent a broad consensus within the expert’s field — particularly if the expert earns significant income from testifying in high-profile cases, or appears to display a personal bias. (In his website bio page, Kilburn is quite frank about his emotional involvement with his message about chemical injuries — a personal stance which may endear him to victims of pollution, but could throw his testimony into question when a judge, not a jury, is evaluating his opinion’s scientific basis.)

With or without a mainstream scientific basis, however, even the claim of a health problem can affect the market value of a property — and “stigma” that affects property values is an expert field of research in its own right. That’s a factor that could come into play in cases such as the Williamsburg, Va., rental development known as Wyndham Plantation. In that housing area, the owner, H. R. “Dick” Ashe, says he has replaced all the offending drywall and has test data showing that the homes are now free of contamination, reported the Newport News Daily Press (“Controversy brewing with renters over presence of Chinese drywall in homes,” by Joe Lawlor). “But renter Kianna Hart and former renter Cheryl Radcliff said they became sick from the air inside their 2,100-square-foot townhomes after they moved in late last year,” reports the paper. “Hart, who is still living in Wyndham Plantation, said she and her children are constantly sick, and she’s blaming the drywall gases.”

Proving a link between vague symptoms like cough, wheezing, runny nose, or itchy eyes — which can also be caused by a wide range of allergies to anything from pollen to dust mite droppings — is difficult in any particular case. But even the rumor of contamination and health effects could be enough to affect the value of a rental property, or an owner-occupied home for sale.

“Stigma,” defined as a loss of value that persists even after a defective dwelling has been fixed, is the specialty of experts like John A. Kilpatrick, Ph.D., of the Seattle firm Greenfield Advisors. In a 2009 presentation at a conference about Chinese drywall, Kilpatrick explained that even without health issues, homes with construction defects can suffer a loss of economic value that persists even after repairs are accomplished.

“The concept of stigma arose in the 1980s,” explained Kilpatrick, “when practicing appraisers observed that the decline in the market value of an impacted property was consistently greater than the engineering costs anticipated to remediate that property. In the 1990s, we also found that properties impacted by construction defects were similarly affected by stigma. For example, we worked on many of the synthetic stucco cases and found that even after affected homes had been re-clad by other siding materials, there was still a statistically and economically significant negative market impact.”

In a chapter of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good Property, by Robert A. Simons (Environmental Law Institute, 2006), Kilpatrick lists a set of criteria that are typical of situations where stigma can dog a property:

1. Responsibility — Is someone or some company specifically shouldering the blame?
2. Exposure — Has there been a risk amplification, such as in the media?
3. Disruption — Does the contamination affect daily lives?
4. Concealability — Is the risk hidden?
5. Aesthetic effect — Can the contamination be seen, felt, or smelled?
6. Prognosis — Will the contamination be cleaned up in the near future?
7. Peril — Is there a health risk?
8. Fear — What is the general concern level associated with this contamination?
9. Involuntary — Are the property owners themselves innocent in this contamination?

Plainly, if these are the signposts for likely stigma to attach to a property, Chinese drywall seems to fit the bill.

But the problem is not merely subjective, explained Kilpatrick in his 2009 presentation, because even if a home is repaired, lasting effects of the contamination or of the repair itself could raise the long-term financial cost of owning the house. “Simple remediation of the obvious problem will frequently leave secondary issues which can’t be addressed so simply,” he said. “For example, when we worked on moisture intrusion cases, we found that remediation may include replacement of windows, or seals, or some other quick fixes to stop the leak and remediate the obviously damaged parts of the dwelling. But the presence of the increased moisture itself for a period of time often causes damage to the hidden structural members, such as studs, joists, and sills, which can’t be replaced without tearing the whole house down. We are still learning about the residual damages from chinese drywall, and from an appraisal perspective, we want to know what sort of hidden residual damage remains, after a remediation is concluded.”

In some cases, said Kilpatrick, the combination of costs and value impairment could wipe out the whole value of a building. “There are certainly circumstances in which the remediation costs, the loss of use and enjoyment, and the loss of marketability, as well as the increased costs of ownership, all taken together, actually exceed the unimpaired market value of the home,” he said.

It’s unlikely that repaired houses will quickly catch up with the value of unaffected houses nearby, said Kilpatrick. In a neighborhood with appreciation rates of 5% a year, he said, a house that suffered a 30% or 40% loss of value from stigma would have to appreciate at 10% a year in order to catch up over a 10-year period — and that’s without considering any lingering claims about health effects. So for owners of affected houses, it’s likely that remediation will not fully solve their problem — and that even after the house is “fixed,” the house won’t really be fixed

Original Post by Costal Contractor Chinese Drywall Update: Medical Fears Persist

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Rent-a-Goat in Action! Clearing Brush the Way Nature Intended It

Sunday, November 1st, 2009


In 24 hours, the goats reduced a bed of ivy to a mat of bare vines. They riddled the once-imposing blackberry thicket with tunnels.

In less than four days, the invasive plants would be vanquished, allowing sunlight to stream through the vacant lot next to the King County Metro bus depot in Bellevue.

With their four-chambered stomachs and insatiable desire to nibble on anything even resembling a plant, goats have gained credibility as land clearers among Seattle-area government agencies and private developers.

“Getting them to accept it is always the hardest part,” said Craig Madsen, an Eastern Washington rancher who’s part of the urban trend. His rentable herd of 270 Boer and Spanish goats has never been more in demand.

Skeptics, he’s found, quickly become converts. Once the hooves hit the ground, few can question the tenacity of these ruminants to devour unwanted foliage.

“It was unbelievable,” said John Iwanczuk, a project manager for Saltaire Construction in Seattle. “We’ve been in the business for 25 years — we’re skeptical about everything. But not only did it reach our objective, we saved a pile of money and made incredible inroads with the neighborhood.”

Bringing goats into the city to do what they do best has its advantages: They’re cheaper than manual laborers, chemical-free and popular with parents and children. Even the critters’ droppings are in demand.

Last month, Iwanczuk was faced with a steep quarter-acre lot on Dearborn Street covered with impenetrable brush. He figured it would take a crew at least a week to clear the lot, filling eight to10 trucks with waste.

When a real estate broker suggested goats, Iwanczuk agreed to give it a try. His colleagues laughed — at first.

Four days and 60 goats later, the blackberry vines and Scotch broom were gone, and Iwanczuk had risen to neighborhood hero status. Elementary school groups came to watch and pet the goats as they dozed on the sidewalk. Moms brought freshly baked cookies. Local gardeners lusting for free fertilizer scooped the lot clean of droppings.

Iwanczuk estimates he saved $6,000 to $9,000 on the job.

Madsen charges $450 a day for the goats, a $250 transportation fee and extra for setting up their fencing.

“They are just eating machines,” said Tammy Dunakin, who runs Rent-A-Ruminant on Vashon Island and contracted with Iwanczuk. “They suck down blackberry vines like it was spaghetti. I don’t understand it, (but) the thorns don’t bother them at all.”

Metro joined Seattle City Light and Seattle Parks and Recreation this year on a growing list of goat-hiring public agencies. The trend started in the early 1990s in Los Angeles County, where goats were found to be an effective tool for clearing underbrush on fire-prone hillsides. That practice spread to parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Oakland, Calif., hills.

“It’s common as sin,” said Frank Pinkerton, who recently retired from Langston University in Oakland, where he researched the use of goats for weed and brush control.

  Craig Madsen
  Zoom Paul Joseph Brown / P-I
  Craig Madsen and his border collie Mac stand guard while Madsen’s herd of about 270 hungry goats eat their fill of blackberry vines and ivy at the Metro bus depot in Bellevue on June 6. An Eastern Washington rancher, Madsen spends five months a year touring Western Washington in a semi with a 30-foot double-deck trailer full of goats.

In some places, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Appalachian trails, the animals are being used to combat invasive species, Pinkerton said.

When it comes to steep slopes covered in blackberry vines, goats are faster and cheaper than human crews or heavy equipment. Goats can’t compete with herbicides for speed but can work in wetlands and along stream banks with minimal threat to water quality or salmon habitat. If allowed to return to an area for a couple of years, they can almost entirely remove English ivy, Scotch broom and blackberries, Madsen said.

“Those little buggers really did clear away a good part of the bank,” said Suzanne Hartman of City Light, which used goats last year to clear brush from around the North Substation in the Roosevelt neighborhood. “You could finally see the fence.”

City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco saw goats being used near San Francisco before he came to Seattle and quickly approved the idea when his maintenance staff proposed it. The goats will be returning to the Roosevelt site later this summer to finish the work.

Both Madsen and Dunakin, who started their separate rent-a-goat businesses less than five years ago, are now booked months in advance.

Dunakin leaves her island farm once a month for work in Seattle, while Madsen spends five months a year touring Western Washington in a semi with a 30-foot double-deck trailer. Both say demand is being fueled by the growth of the “green” building industry.

Accompanied by their border collies, the goatherds are with their critters 24 hours a day when on city jobs. They sleep in their trucks. Madsen has a guard dog to protect his goats from coyotes on rural assignments.

“But when I’m in the city, I worry about people,” he said.

Last month, 15 goats were shot near Oakland while they were clearing land for fire protection.

So far, Madsen and Dunakin have had no such urban problems. After setting up an electric fence to keep the goats from straying, they have little to do but keep watch over the herd and answer questions posed by curious neighbors.

“I read a lot,” Madsen said.

As for the goats, “As long as there is plenty to eat, they’re happy.”





Bet you didn’t know:


  • A goat’s pupils are rectangular. 


  • Their average life span is eight to 12 years. 


  • Worldwide, meat and milk from goats are consumed more than the meat and milk from cows. 


  • Goats can eat up to 8 pounds of green foliage a day. 

    Sources: Ohio State University, American Boer Goat Association

  • Original Post by Colin Mcdonald  Seattle PI

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