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Thinking about Houses

Apr 01, 2018 09:39AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

This morning I had a walk-through meeting at a house under construction, to review the HVAC, plumbing and electrical rough-ins before the subcontractors’ work was completed. In particular, the homeowner and I were discussing with the general contractor our concerns about the way the plumber ran the drain lines and vents. Weeks of work with the homeowner planning the layouts of framing and utility runs was undercut by poor thinking on the plumber's part. 

It is interesting to me the differences in the way people think. Some think everything through multiple times before doing; others give very little thought and just dive right in. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I’m not sure there is a right way to do things, as the diversity of approaches is likely designed into the equation, but as an architect, I find my job is more successful when I try to think through every scenario ahead of time.

In speaking with the electrician on the house this morning, he asked about the location for vent fans in the showers. His preference was to locate them away from the showerheads, to avoid damage from water getting into the units. I considered that; however, I also asked the homeowner what his preferences was when taking a shower. For example, did he tend to face the showerhead, in which case a shadow would be cast by the fan light behind him, or cause a draft at his back while drying off after showering? 

Thinking through the way a space will be used is a large part of an architect's job if a house is to be well thought out and a pleasure to live in. Much of this tendency is also found in the way I work at the drafting table. The vast majority of the trade has adopted the latest design software, referred to as Building Information Modeling (BIM). One of the software’s greatest advantages is adding smart data to the design components in building construction, so the program can identify problem areas in the design before it gets off of the drawing board. 

However, one of its weaknesses, in my opinion, is the way it which it enables the designer to think less about how things go together and why. It is a safety net that quickly becomes the decision maker.

Avoiding conflicting materials and systems in the construction of a house before the construction begins is a valuable thing. But so is having a thinking architect working behind the design tools. In my own design process, I have found the older form of CAD software, drawing each line and arc one at a time, gives me time to think as I work. Each mark I make is done with intention, thoughtfulness, a reason.

This methodology translated into the construction of my own house. The circular rooms and sloping walls of the design made it impossible to use traditional methods in framing. Each wall stud had to be put in place one at a time. In doing so, the framer had the time to think through each piece, every cut, every nail holding each stud in place. So much so that one of the framers went crazy by the number of cuts need for each stud—six as compared to the usual two (or none with precuts). I kept reminding him it was 'rough' framing, not 'finish' carpentry. But he was a perfectionist, and wanted to get every cut a perfect fit.

I guess that is my nature, too, which is why I was willing to accept the longer time it took to frame and the additional material used to re-cut studs that didn't fit just right. I could see the value in a house framed tighter, thought through, in contrast to one rushed to save some money. The time I will spend living in a well-built house is more valuable to me than the time I could have saved building it. That might not be the way most people see things, but then people think differently.

In the end, I hope that my mindset, my approach to design, translates into a better house for the homeowners that hire me. Not just a house built better with every stud and plumbing drain well thought out, but more importantly, a house where the living is well thought through. This includes considering how a space will be used each dayand making sure that the placement of a shower fan won’t cause a chill or create shadows that make it difficult to see. These are the details that make a house more pleasurable to live in, and the things that I try to think about when designing them.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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