Being green isn’t that simple sometimes.  What happens when you are faced with a choice between two things that both have some green qualities but aren’t perfect.  Take the often discussed case study of whether it is greener to use disposable plates or to use reusable plates.  Well, the answer is both and neither (and much more nuanced than my simplified version).  Using paper plates saves water, soap, etc because they don’t need to be washed but they use energy and natural resources to make and often end up in the landfill.  One could make an argument for both or neither.

In construction, we have similar dilemmas.  Here are a few:

Steel studs vs. wood studs – Often only used in commercial projects, steel studs are becoming more popular in residential projects.  They are 100% recyclable – a huge bonus – but take a lot of energy to produce.  Wood, on the other hand, is theoretically a renewable resource but it is not recyclable once its lifespan is over.

Floor finishes – Water-based wood floor finishes are better for the indoor air quality (lower VOC) but generally aren’t as durable. In contrast, oil-based floor finishes are filled with chemicals and but are proven to last for years, therefore, they won’t need to be refinished as soon (saving resources).

Fluorescent vs. incandescent bulbs –Fluorescent bulbs last longer and use significantly less energy, which is probably enough to make the case.  However, disposing a fluorescent bulb, which contains mercury, is quite problematic and may lead to compromising the quality of our drinking water in places.

Whole house fans – One of my favorite catch-22’s is self-inflicted.  During the last revision of the building code, there was a study that people didn’t open their windows enough and that was affecting their indoor air quality, leading to stale air and sick house syndrome.  Therefore, they added a requirement for a whole house fan that would constantly bring fresh air into the house.  Seems like a good, green solution.  However, you are also constantly pushing your mechanically conditioned air outside and bringing new unconditioned air inside, seriously affecting the energy efficiency of your building envelope and heating/cooling system (not to mention the power used in running the fan 24/7).

So, where does this leave us?  Well, we should still do our best to be as green as possible that is for sure.  My personal feeling is that we need to dig deeper into the various green categories and create our own hierarchy of importance.  Is indoor air quality more important to me than water use?  And how do those compare to energy efficiency?  If your goal is to do your part to help slow global warming, prioritize energy efficiency over the other categories because that will have the biggest effect on the creation of greenhouse gasses.  If you are more concerned about the availability of water in coming decades, prioritize that.

Realize that no solution is perfect – and neither is any soapbox – but this may help make the decisions easier as you try to wade through a project.  And for everyone’s sake, if you like to open your own windows, disconnect the whole house fan!

In previous posts, we have introduced Design Build and explained how it differs from the “normal” project delivery method. Now, we’d like to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the model as it applies to small projects. For our purposes, I will define small projects as under $250,000 – basically the small additions, kitchen and bath renovations, etc.

The majority of residential clients on these smaller projects are doing their first renovation and are unfamiliar with the process. They have probably heard a horror story or two from their friends or family so building trust in their architect and contractor can be difficult. The Design Build model gives the client the appeal of a single point of responsibility. If there are any issues on the project, there is one entity to go to. There is no worry about a designer blaming the contractor and the contractor blaming the designer with the client stuck in the middle mediating (and often footing the bill for the mistake).

Similarly, the same team that has been championing a particular design solution is the team that is building it. Therefore, there is more assurance that the design intent and integrity that was discussed in the early meetings will be carried through to the final product. This is a huge motivating factor for our decision to get into Design Build – to have more control over the design integrity of the final product, not just the drawings. We have spent too much time training and convincing contractors to pay attention to what we knew were important details but that they saw as superfluous.

Design Build is also more efficient on the schedule and often the pocketbook. In order to successfully produce a final project that has the cohesive vision developed by the architect and client, a large part of the design fee is spent on thoroughly drawing details to communicate the design intent to the contractor. Also, there is another chunk of the design fee set aside for working with the client and contractor during the construction phase to further clarify and define the design intent as the project is being built. Both of these steps can be significantly reduced with Design Build since the communication between the design and build teams happen all in-house. For a project where design integrity is important, it is a very efficient, cost-saving process.

Where budget is a main limiter to the scope of the project – and really, when isn’t it – the ability for the design build team to simultaneously develop a design and a construction cost estimate allows the design to be literally developed within the confines of a budget. Many architects will do cost estimates along the way to guide their projects but few have the resources and relationships to have suppliers, fabricators, and subcontractors as active members of that early cost estimating process. The ability to identify potential cost overruns early and make budget-minded design decisions saves time and mitigates the risk of having to spend additional money redesigning later in the process.

We’ve talked a lot about the pros of Design Build, and there are a lot. But to be fair, there are some perceived weaknesses, too. One of the criticisms of the process is that it gives too much power to the design builder without the checks and balances of a separate designer and contractor. The thought being that if the same entity that is determining the design quality is profiting from the construction, there is an inherent conflict of interest. That is hard point to defend because if someone suspects the possibility of corruption, it is difficult to prove that it won’t happen. Our solution, in addition to maintaining a strong personal and professional level of integrity (that should be apparent through our references), is to have a very transparent cost and billing structure.

We will see in the next entry in our design build blog that there are other pros and cons to Design Build on large projects which relate to the added complexity and risk involved in those projects.



What is to be gained by certifying your project as “Green”?  Setting aside any discussion of whether or not to build a green project, I’d like to look at the decision to certify a project as sustainable.

As I mentioned in a previous post, LEED certification and GreenPoint Rating are examples of voluntary programs through which scrutinize a project and give a score of how “green” it is.  Points are earned in a variety of categories from selection of an appropriate site to the toxicity of the materials used for interior finishes.  Although there are prerequisites in each category, theoretically, you could certify a building that is nowhere near green in some categories as long as it is exceedingly green in others.

These certification systems are imperfect and controversial, especially with dyed-in-the-wool environmental advocates, but they do provide a starting point.  The certification process is very thorough.  It starts in the design process but appropriately most of the review is during construction phase to verify that the green specifications are actually being met as the project is built.

However, the certification process is not cheap.  It starts at about $20,000 and can be much higher.  Therefore, it is rarely seen in the residential industry outside of large housing or apartment projects.  We have begun to discuss LEED certification at the point of large office build outs of 20,000 square feet or more.

The decision to get the certification is almost always one of appearance and has little if anything to do with the desire to build a greener building.  After all, a design and construction team can include all of the sustainable features on a project without needing the certification process to do so.  However, like “Certified Organic”, the certificate shows that the sustainable features have been verified by a third-party.  The certificate expresses to potential tenants, buyers, future clients, or the general public that the design and construction teams are going to extra lengths for reasons of social responsibility.

So, the decision to get a project certified generally comes down to a business decision for the company; whether a certification get more or better customers, attract more talented staff, or somehow position the company at a higher level.  It is looked at with the same metrics as any marketing campaign. At the upper levels of the industry, a LEED certification can often be a prerequisite for a project.  Anything less would be considered lacking.

One of my favorite stories really makes one wonder about the usefulness of the certification process:  Facing a $27,000 certification cost on a new ice arena, the Mayor of Park City, Utah decided to not pursue LEED certification but instead took the money set aside for certification and purchased three wind turbines to power the arenas Zamboni.  Now if everybody considering certification would take this approach, we might get somewhere!

Classically, there were no architects as we think of them today. Instead, there were master builders. The designers of Greek temples and medieval cathedrals were the stonemasons and carpenters in charge of building them. During the Renaissance, an emphasis on the individual began.  Buildings started to be credited to specific architects, who were the designers and engineers, but they also oversaw construction. There was no dividing line between artist, architect, engineer, and builder.

During the industrial age, with the rise of new building technologies, architecture and engineering began to separate, and the architect began to concentrate on aesthetics and building use. There was also the rise of the “gentleman architect” who usually dealt with wealthy clients and concentrated predominantly on visual qualities derived usually from historical prototypes. Formal architectural training in the 19th century emphasized the production of beautiful drawings above constructability. The design and construction of buildings began to separate into totally different trades.  In fact, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) until 1979 in its code of ethics actually prohibited its members from providing construction services.

In the 80’s, Design Build started to become more common, as contractors started teaming with architects or hiring their own in-house designers. In 1993, the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) was formed. Finally changing course, in 2003, the AIA published “The Architect’s Guide to Design-Build Services”.

Today, Design Build accounts for 40% of all non-residential construction and is growing steadily.  It is mostly led by the general contractor but there is a segment of architect-led design build firms, like ours, which emphasize design and are able to integrate design and construction to not only streamline the process, but to create a better design.

So, although Design Build seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, it is actually the “traditional” design-bid-build method that has only been around for about 150 years.  Design Build, and the “master builder” before it, has been around for millennia.

LEED.  Build It Green.  CALGreen.  There seem to be so many competing ways to measure the sustainability of a built project that it’s hard to keep them straight.  How do they compare to each other?  Should you do any of them?  Do you have to?

For starters, let’s look at how they differ.  Green Building Certification programs, such as the USGBC’s LEED program and Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rating System, are voluntary point-based rating systems with various levels of certification.  These provide companies or individuals a way to certify that their project is “green”.  This doesn’t mean that everything about the project is energy-efficient or sustainable but it does mean that they have sufficient features in a variety of categories to be certified as a green building under these programs.

Certification in these programs is usually done for marketing purposes, for pride, or to keep up with the Joneses.  After all, the important part is to build a green building, not necessarily to officially validate it as such.

CALGreen is different.  CALGreen is the California Green Building code which overlays the basic building code to set minimum green building standards for the design of a building.  In place since 2011, the code is being phased in over time. Currently, it applies to larger and mostly non-residential projects but will eventually apply to all projects.

Again, the LEED and GreenPoint Rating Systems are voluntary.  CALGreen is mandatory (for qualifying projects).

Prior to the state’s adoption of the CALGreen, it had become increasingly common for cities and other municipalities who felt strongly about green building to adopt legislation requiring projects to be LEED certified or the equivalent.  For example, in August 2008 San Francisco adopted the San Francisco Green Building Ordinance, requiring proof of green building practices and LEED certification for all residential and commercial buildings in the City.

Faced with this patchwork approach to green building regulation, the state decided to adopt a unified system. Perhaps when a handful of influential states have developed green building codes, those sustainable requirements will be written directly into the model codes and we can finally stop using the term “green building”.  There will just be one standard to which all buildings must conform, including health and life safety standards, accessibility standards, and standards that help reduce the impact of the building on our planet.

As we defined in our previous post, the two different ways to structure a project (commonly referred to as a project delivery method) are Design-Bid-Build and Design-Build.

Design-Bid-Build is considered the traditional project delivery method and has some clear benefits.  The most commonly discussed is that, during the construction phase, the architect acts as the owner’s agent. For example, the architect reviews the contractor’s bills for accuracy and acts as an advocate for the owner if there is a dispute between the owner and contractor. In theory, under the traditional method the owner is more protected from construction problems because the architect only role is to make sure the contractor builds the design according to the plans. But is that really the case?

As we’ve said before, Design-Bid-Build relies on separate entities, with separate motivations, working towards a common goal.  However, that statement alone has some inherent problems.  The architect is put in the position of policing the contractor without any contractual relationship between them.  It seems that makes the likelihood of conflict increase.   And any conflicts will eventually cost the owner money.

Design-Build, on the other hand, is attractive because it provides a single point of responsibility to the owner.  This is a huge advantage to the traditional method because if there is a problem, there is only one entity the owner has to turn to for resolution.  This is especially the case on smaller, less complex projects.  Also, by removing the coordination between the design and construction entities, projects are often completed faster with Design-Build.  Although not always the case, faster can also lead to cheaper.

Ultimately, although Design-Bid-Build provides more layers of oversight between the design team and the construction team, supposedly to eliminate errors and the possibility of corruption, Design-Build provides a more direct and efficient process to deliver a successful project.

We initially hesitated to discuss sustainability on our blog.  After all, it has become so ubiquitous over the past decade, especially in the building trades (and especially in the SF Bay Area) that there isn’t much more to say that hasn’t already been said.

The reason I am interested in discussing it is partially because I wonder if our company is doing enough.  Are we keeping up with the Joneses?  Do we need to push our clients to do the right thing even more than we already do?  In fact, whose responsibility is it to champion sustainable strategies on each project?

The field of sustainable architecture, green building, ecological or resource conserving design – all terms used interchangeably – has become overwhelming.  In the larger push for environmental stewardship that has made its way into virtually every different sector of the economy over the last decade, the impact on the building trades has been transformative.  And rightly so; the construction and operation of buildings is still one of the highest uses of energy by the human race.  Therefore, it is common sense that we – as architects, contractors, and those who commission built projects – take responsibility for doing all we can to reduce the impact of our projects on the environment.

But is this a moral imperative?  Should someone who simply doesn’t like the design of their house feel bad about renovating even though it hasn’t reached its usable lifespan?  And are we obliged, as architects (and businesspeople), to resist requests by our clients because they are not aligned with the interests of the larger society?

In future posts, we look forward to dissecting sustainability and looking at its subgroups.  For example, water conservation strategies vs. indoor air quality.  What really matters for the design of an office park is quite different for the design of a custom home.  We are also very interested in the real life dilemmas it poses.  Hopefully, we can come up with some answers and perhaps give both us and our clients some guidance on how best to simultaneously achieve their goals and do their part.

To kick off our discussion about Design Build, we need to first define it.  In general, Design Build is the process where you hire one company or entity to provide both design and construction services.  It is more than that, though; it is an integrated process from beginning to end where we think about construction during the design phase and are still considering design as we are building.

The most familiar process to most homeowners – called Design-Bid-Build – is where the client first hires an architect who draws the project.  Then, once the drawings are complete, they are sent out to various contractors for bids.  The contractor then builds the project with the architect providing support for the client during the construction phase.  This model has some strengths but is a linear process that can be inflexible and provides difficulty when trying to compress the project schedule.  Additionally, it relies on two separate companies with separate motivations to work towards a common goal – this is where the trouble often starts.

The strengths of the Design Build model is exactly where Design-Bid-Build falls short – by aligning the motivations of the project team.  It is becoming more and more common in non-residential projects, because those industries realize it leads to better projects due to the collaborative nature of the project team and the flexibility it lends to the project.  It currently accounts for 40% of all non-residential projects, up from 30% in 2005.  It can also lead to faster (34% according to Construction Industry Institute) and cheaper (6% according to CII) projects.

The industry we serve, residential construction and remodels as well as commercial tenant improvements, has specific needs and pressures that the Design Build model works very well for.  We will discuss these in-depth in upcoming blog entries.

We began offering Design Build services for several reasons. For one, it allows us to draw on Jason’s history and experience as a contractor, something many architects do not share. It also allows us to more fully serve our clients by providing them care and consideration of the design quality regardless of project size.

Design Build isn’t perfect – we will also address some weaknesses in future entries – but our clients are finding it very compelling because it alleviates their concerns and gives them a single point of responsibility for the entire job.

Welcome to our resurrected blog! Over the years, we have had many questions from our clients about design and construction: How do I hire an architect? What drawings do I need? How do I decide whether or not to install radiant flooring? Since we have learned lot over the years (and we kind of like to hear ourselves talk), we thought it would be fun to start sharing our insights.

The first topic we’ll discuss over the coming months is Design Build. As you may have noticed in our logo and on our website, AT6 isn’t just an architecture firm; we are a design build team. In other words, we actually build some of our designs. But what does that really mean? How is that any different from a regular architect or contractor? Check back soon for our thoughts!

We will also be tackling Sustainability. Yes, we know there is a glut of information about green building practices; we would rather discuss how we make decisions about incorporating sustainable principles into our projects.

As we explore these and other topics, we welcome your comments and questions here on the blog and directly, by calling or emailing us. We hope you find these discussions helpful.