Travel through a different lens

As much as architects photograph buildings, I think we tend to live our lives in more detail than most.

I am not what you would call a world-weary traveler. James and I tend to visit the same locations again and again, and I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on two hands – possibly one. And some of those have been on ships, so I don’t know that they really count. Can you immerse yourself in another country in a few hours of walking around?

However, looking back at the traveling I have done, I often wonder if I’m seeing the places I’m visiting as other travelers would see it. Or only as an architect would see it.

As much as architects photograph buildings, I think we tend to live our lives in more detail than most. And if you go back and look through our photos, architects will have a lot of detail shots most people wouldn’t take or wouldn’t notice.

When James was in London for work, his apartment could not have been better just short of being inside Buckingham Palace. Just off Fleet Street, you could walk out the door and go left to St. Paul’s and the Tower. Or turn right and head to Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey.

Naturally I came in for a quick visit. And yes, I got all of the requisite shots. The Tower. St. Paul’s. Buckingham Palace. However, what really caught my eye wasn’t the bigger pictures.

Instead, it was the inside of an ATM lobby.

That’s right. An ATM lobby.

Double volume space. Ornate columns. Wood coffered ceiling. Oval windows with carved wood trim. And incredibly detailed hand-thrown tile everywhere. Everywhere. Walls. Naves. Ceilings. Even the columns had tile applied. Absolutely stunning. How could that not catch my eye?

I even did this while touring the Hemingway House in Key West. Not a single photo of the exterior of the house. What I kept snapping shots of were the details. Bathroom tile. Ceiling medallions. Fireplace surrounds.

Photos taken at the Hemingway House in Key West.

After 20 years of moments like this, James is completely unfazed. I think it started on our first trip to Vegas when I made him stand on a hot sidewalk while I snapped photos of the naked steel structure being erected for the new Aria hotel.

For everyone else – bank employees, other tourists, locals – I probably look pretty odd. Why is this guy so interested in the lobby? Or so close to the bathroom tile? Or in the case of one friend, laying in the middle of the sidewalk in NY?

But for the other architects around me, they’ll know exactly what I’m doing because they’ve been there themselves. Yes, I’m enjoying touring the city. Yes, it is fun being in a new place. And yes, the buildings are really cool.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about the details. Even if the regular traveler doesn’t see it.

Really Unreal

Wouldn’t it be nice though to open a copy of Architectural Record and see a home photographed the way the owners really use it?

Turn on HGTV’s Property Brothers with an architect in the room, and you’ll hear: “Seven weeks my ass.” (Just ask my husband.) Because we know full well that renovation isn’t taking seven weeks. Seventeen maybe, but not seven.

But that’s the fun for architects – rolling our eyes at these programs (while still watching) and complaining about how difficult they make our jobs. And then sharing stories about how unreality TV has really screwed up our clients’ expectations.

But have you picked up a copy of Architectural Record, Architect, or Architectural Digest? Because HGTV isn’t the only one painting pretty pictures or setting unrealistic expectations.

I love picking up an architecture magazine, looking at the photos, and being wowed at the imagery. And there isn’t a building that’s not beautifully shot. Whether a high rise or a house, architects make sure their work is presented in the best possible light.

My favorites, however, are the celebrity spreads in places like Architectural Digest. Take Ricky Martin’s house in the February 2018 issue for example. Nice spread on his family’s home. Everything is perfect. Pillows in their places. Coffee table books expertly arranged. Bouquets of flowers.

Incredibly beautiful.

Incredibly unreal.

Because you can’t help noticing his two sons included in the family photos. And if you can’t remember how you were at 6 or 7, ask mom or dad. I don’t know if I can recall a time when our house was that put together. Or if it was, not for long. I can’t count the times my mother cussed because she had stepped on an errant Lego. By all accounts, Ricky’s house should have had toys scattered across the living room. Maybe an odd pair of underwear on the floor. Even the boys’ room in this shoot was flawless.

But as architects, we set that expectation and that unrealistic image. I can recall looking at proofs for a high-rise apartment project and being amazed at the awesome sunset outside the client’s 6th floor living room. Especially given that there’s really a multi-rise office building next door – close enough to wave at whoever’s working that day.

Wouldn’t it be nice though to open a copy of Architectural Record and see a home photographed the way the owners really use it? Dishes in the sink from the night before. Shoes taken off and left in the front hall. Maybe a muddy dog sprawled across the couch pillows.

Or better yet, open Architectural Digest and see a real celebrity spread? Maybe Mariah Carey’s bedroom with an unmade bed, pillows scattered, a TV remote next to a half-empty cocktail glass on the side table, and the remnants of some late-night Cheetos?

We had a client whose home would have been a perfect fit for Architectural Record. And the first time I walked through was just jaw-dropping. Incredible design. Uber-contemporary. The multi-floor plan that took complete advantage of the sloping site.

And not a thing out of place. As if someone came in to shoot the house for a magazine and just left the rooms that way. Absolutely unreal.

Until we went up to the wife’s private office. Then you realized just where all the clutter was in the house. But no one was ever going to see that room.

Perhaps that’s the reality at the Martins’. Beautifully shot, except you’ll never see the day before when everything was shoved into closets and under beds.

Except that’s what clients need to see – the reality behind the glam.

The really unreal.

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How Honest is Too Honest?

Exactly how much are you supposed to admit to on a seller’s disclosure? Where do you draw the line?

Exactly how much are you supposed to admit to on a seller’s disclosure? Where do you draw the line?

During our last trip to New Orleans, I picked up a copy of The Last Madam by Christine Wiltz. And it’s exactly how it sounds – the life of the last madam running the last known house of prostitution in New Orleans. Very interesting to read. Some for the madam’s story. Some for the sheer amount of corruption during that time.

Norma Wallace. Source: Chris Wiltz.

While the author was nice enough to include a photo of the house from the 1940s, the architect nerd in me had to check out Google to see if the house still existed. Sure enough, there it was. Even better, I found some news links from when the house was purchased post-Katrina.

And discovered that the new owner didn’t know about the house’s history until he was about to close on the property.

Now I’ve been to NOLA enough times, and read about NOLA’s history enough times, to know that when it comes to the French Quarter, I can’t imagine there isn’t a house or building without a history. But this guy didn’t think to ask? And the seller didn’t disclose?

I know a couple whose home in East Texas is haunted. Not pretend haunted. Haunted. Nothing too terrible but just enough to give someone pause. But that’s one of those things I’d want to see on the disclosure form, maybe somewhere between when the roof was replaced, and the house rewired.

Which makes me wonder why it took this buyer so long to find out he was purchasing what was once a house of ill-repute. And as the seller, I think that type of history would add some cache to the home.

At least it would for me.

“Well when I bought the place there was a lot of damage from the hurricane. Wood rot. Holes in the roof. Oh, and did I mention it was a brothel? See? Right there on the disclosure form. Right below termite damage.”

Learn more about 1026 Conti Street.

Main photo: Chris Wiltz

Time To Pull The Plug

When working with a client on a renovation, we always tell them to be prepared for the unexpected.

Sometimes it’s just about letting go.

When working with a client on a renovation, we always tell them to be prepared for the unexpected. No matter how well they feel they know their house, once the drywall starts to come off, you’re going to find a surprise or two. I even wrote about this in 2014 as James and I were dealing with our own renovation.

And most renovation issues stop there. In 21 years, I have only had one conversation where we told the client the time had come to pull the plug and start over. When you pull up to a house thinking you’ll be discussing foundation issues, only to see that the front porch slab has broken free and is pulling the brick off as the porch slides off the foundation, you have very little to discuss. Building new is the only option.

However, we’ve never started a project only to put work on hold while we discuss with the owner why rebuilding is the smart choice. There’s never been that many surprises.

Until now. And it’s not even my project.

A friend and I were sharing stories about current projects (as architects tend to do when we run into one another), and she started telling me about a renovation that had started a couple of weeks prior.

Initial inspection of the house didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary. Brick home. Slab foundation. Wood-framed. Nothing the contractor hadn’t seen before or that would likely impact the project.

Except from the first day, the job super started running into issues. Live abandoned electrical wires in the wall. Rotted wood at the bottom of the rear wall where water from the patio had seeped in. No steel reinforcing in the slab. And most recently, exterior brick sitting not on concrete but on dirt.

Each day at the project seemed to bring new challenges – to the point the designer dreaded answering phone calls from the job super. She didn’t want to hear that something else was wrong.

I joked with here that maybe it was time to put the house out to pasture and bring in something new. Little Timmy is stuck in a well and will just have to stay there.

Fortunately, the owner has taken each new challenge in stride and is determined to complete the project as planned – plus a few extra changes to make sure the house is safe. Which means my friend doesn’t have to worry about having what could be a very difficult conversation.

Because we all love grandpa. But no one ever wants to be the one to pull the plug.

Headline image courtesy of Nolan Issac.

The Road to Renovation Redux – Part 1

An Architect’s Home

With several clients heading down the road to their own renovation, I thought I’d reach back into my past and re-share my personal experience with renovating a house. My house. Well – mine and James’ house. It’s hard to believe that we finished the work almost four years ago, and that we managed to not bury either of us in the process. HGTV makes the work look pretty easy, but the reality is that every project has its own challenges – from the extent of work being done to normal day to day life that add its own special stress.

Join me as I step back over the next few months and delve back into The Road to Renovation, beginning with this post: An Architect’s Home.

Most professionals will tell you not to do business with friends or family. Things never work out well. So what do you do when it’s both?

After ten years in our home, and a remodel to the front half in 2004, my husband, James, and I decided the time had come to finally change the rest and create a Master Suite we both could enjoy. Our old Master Bath was barely big enough for one with just a shower, toilet, and pedestal sink. And the Master Closet was so small the closet rod supporting James’ clothes collapsed one day under the weight.

DSC07587
One galley Kitchen. Two people. Two dogs. Christmas cookies everywhere. Not sure how we ever did it.

If we had only stopped there.We started the initial project in January of 2012, and here we are at the end of May 2014 and we’re finally to the point of starting construction. What started as a simple addition to the Master Bedroom to create a true Master Suite morphed into a second floor to house the Master Suite and Office and a reconfiguration to turn the existing Guest Bedroom into a Laundry with Garage access.

News came in early 2013 that James would be working from home full time, so we ditched that idea, went back to our original addition plan, and added an office, guest room, and bath on a second floor.

Dealing with bids, lenders, and appraisers ultimately resulted in a much simpler project, still giving us what we need, but not overdoing it. As an architect, watching clients dream bigger than their budget is not unusual.

Amazing how much you ignore that with your own project when you’re the one telling your spouse “No.”

GUEST BATH 02
We didn’t even get the cool 1950s pink tile with an accent trim. Just blue and brown fish scattered around the tub.

At one point we were even having “the-cobbler’s-children-have-no-shoes” moment, and my “client” was getting fussy about getting drawings done and construction started. In that moment, I thought of just hiring a friend to finish the drawings. However, I knew I’d find the time somewhere between dealing with my own clients and running a practice to “pop out” some drawings.

And it only took two years.

Check back in as we start down the road on our renovation. Please try not to laugh as I get to experience this as both the client and the architect. And learn firsthand if I can do business with friends and family – even when it’s me.

Gym Thoughts

Because this is normal, right?

I made the courageous decision recently to dive off into the world of core exercises as part of my gym routine. Enough time had passed (4 years I think!) that I figured I’d better get on it while I could still stand up on my own.

Now if you’re married to an architect – or know someone who is – you know we don’t see the world quite like most people. I always tell people if you walk into a room and someone’s staring at the ceiling, they’re probably just an architect checking out the lighting. Don’t be alarmed.

Consequently, as I’m laying on the mat at my local Y, staring up at the ceiling, what do you suppose I think about? How many crunches I can do before being carted off in an ambulance? Will anyone notice if I cry a little? I don’t recall my abs hurting like this before. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea?

ceiling
My view at the gym. Stunning!

Of course not.

I’m looking up at the ceiling and noticing they’ve used steel roof deck for the exposed ceiling. And now we’re off to the races.

“Did they fill the deck with lightweight concrete?”

“Or is there rigid foam insulation on top?”

“They must have run the electrical for the lighting inside the pans because the light fixtures are attached directly to the ceiling. Who had to lay all of that out? That’s a lot of time on a scissor lift.”

I would love to lie and say none of these thoughts shot through my mind. But I can’t. I’m an architect.

Besides – it’s better than worrying how big a scene I’m likely to create getting off the mat.

Maybe I’ll just lay there a little longer.

It Gets Better?

Isn’t that why it’s called a renovation?

Like most commuters, my drive to work takes me through the same neighborhoods over and over. And you become so accustomed to seeing the same buildings, that you can’t help but notice when one changes – for better or worse.

My current path takes me past an older house in Dallas that’s currently undergoing an exterior renovation. Not uncommon in Dallas. Not the least uncommon for this neighborhood.

Except that every time I go by, the house doesn’t look like it’s getting better. And for me, that’s not the direction you want to see a renovation heading.

RENOVATE

One of the first steps was to remove the windows on the west side that face the side yard with the busy street and cover the openings with more of the two-inch wood siding already on the house. Which means someone thought less light on that side of the house would be a good solution. True, you’ll cut down on the noise coming from the street. However, the 8-foot fence they erected in the side yard is probably taking care of most of that.

Next step? Paint it a bright, bright, BRIGHT color. Like lemon yellow. And not just lemon yellow, but neon lemon yellow. I’ve never driven by at night, but I just picture it glowing even in the dark. So much so you can probably see it from space.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a bright color. Bright colors can make a house pop. But the entire structure? Almost makes my face pucker every time I go by!

Finally – let’s put a concrete porch and steps with the requisite iron rail on the front of the house. The front of the house without any overhang that would indicate a porch goes there. And the front of the house with the gray door you hope is only primer.

I’m thinking there isn’t much left to do to the outside, but I could be wrong. Perhaps some landscaping? And I know I’ll never see the inside.

Maybe the house belongs to a developer who is just flipping and selling. Or maybe it belongs to someone with very specific tastes the contractor must meet.

Except it’s called a renovation. And it’s not getting better.