An update, since the world is waiting on me

I think most of these blog posts have to do with me continuing to want to add to the site, but then I never get around to it.  So then a few months go by, and then I decided to write another blog post about how I would like to continue to write blog posts.  I suppose it is some vicious cycle that I just can’t seem to get out of.

Figure 1.  The Blogging Cycle.

Figure 1. The Blogging Cycle.

Actually, I have written a few things, but it has been for my company’s website.  However, I have still decided to hold off on publishing those, because… Well, it’s hard to show anything on my website!  Everything is either in design, in for permitting, or under construction.  As interesting as underground plumbing rough-in is, images of select fill and PVC pipe don’t really state my mission.  But, I guess one sign of me not writing here is: things are actually still going well on the company front.  One of my “career maker” projects is well underway, and maybe I can pay myself (meaning my credit card) back for all of these company expenses.  Although starting an architecture firm is relatively cheap compared to other businesses, it seems like it slowly creeps up on you, especially when bankrolling it without a partner.  Throw on top of that – the decision to do this was right after I made a decision to acquire my first income real estate with a good friend of mine, so say goodbye to tens of thousands of dollars that maybe… I could have used on the business!  I guess by the end of this year, I might add up all of the costs associated with this venture.


Here is my lease property. It has since been painted, and it is nicer and cooler than my own house.  It is also fully leased.  Yay.

I may have written this here before, I’m not sure, and this Saturday morning, over a nice cup of coffee, or eight of them, I’m not interested in researching it – but the reason I wanted to start this was frankly because a mentor of mine told me:

“if you want to do something in this world, and no one else is doing it, go do it yourself.”

So here I am.  Right now I don’t really look like I’m doing anything differently – I have a small architecture firm with a good team of consultants and contract labor, trying to stay lean through the start-up times, but I plan on truly building it.  However, that’s just the start.  I began the company to eventually develop real estate, which has also been done, and the architecture is a means to help start that venture.  I’m starting my first two development projects, so the business is slowly getting off of the ground, but the deal cycle on those is extremely long…  and the design side keeps growing, so I can’t complain.  The ultimate goal here is to have a design-oriented real estate development company. Honestly I don’t know many successful ones, and none in the area.  So here I am!  Just a chick getting out of the shell, but riding a little wave of success on my way out.  Even though there is nothing on the company’s website, I’m pleased to say that ever since I started this, I have been slowly putting myself into a position to make a real impact on our industry and our city, and I’ll be excited to move expand to the next one (I have a city in my long-range sites).

I took a trip to Marfa in September to write out business plans and get a lot of stuff down on paper.  And take a handful of photos.  I’ll be coming up on six months of that trip, and it will soon be time to revisit and revise it. I looked it over during the New Year, and I know there is a lot that will already need to be changed.  Yes, I’m actually living the advice of writing a business plan, and treating it as a “living document!’  Right now, I guess it is for my benefit only.

View of the Rio Grande as I wrote the first draft of my business plan.  Click the image for my shots of Marfa.

View of the Rio Grande as I wrote the first draft of my business plan. Click the image for my shots of Marfa on Flickr.

So more boring stuff coming your way:

  • Want to start an architecture firm?  This is what it cost me… This will be late in December.
  • I have an upcoming trip, late in the summer, which will include the Philippines and a good portion of China.  This trip will include visiting my sister, who has not left just yet, but has set up her blog here.  I’m also planning on making connections in China, both for development and another little business I want to explore.
  • I’m trying to upload “everyday photos” which aren’t posted every day, but I need some activity on the site!
  • I’ll probably write about my experience on my first half marathon.  Running Sucks.

That’s all I have on the docket right now, other than maybe some shop talk here and there… But for whatever reason, writing and publishing this garbage information is therapeutic to me, so just bear in mind… It’s all about me here.


Modular Construction Part 1

One of my favorite pass times is trying to figure out how to make modular construction work.  Over the past ten years I have seen a lot of design work done with the intent of creating viable modular construction, but I cannot really say that I see a lot of successful projects.  There are a handful, but searches on the Internet get you mostly architectural firms and consortiums that have nice looking renderings without any real photographs.  Design magazines say that modular is the way of the future, but don’t put a whole lot of meat on the issue.  Then again, maybe I want too much information from a magazine.  That would bore their readership to death.

There are, of course, a few diamonds.  One of those is Michelle Kaufmann, who has lines of good looking homes and a few larger projects that seem to work.  I ran across her when I saw her as a judge for the Urban re:Vision Dallas design competition and have followed her tweets and website activity ever since.  There are others, but she seems to be the shining light.

Modular Awesomeness by Michelle Kaufmann

Here is my overall take on it: what has been accepted as “modular construction” by architects and designers is really reserved for the elite client.  The elite client who doesn’t want a lot of space, loves modern architecture, and is a little quirky.  Oh yeah, and they have a lot of money.  That really pares down the clientele.  These designs run in about the $200 per square foot and up range, but I have not actually seen a $200 per square foot example (much like when you go to the Mercedes dealership – who can find that C class that is actually $33,000 on the lot?  Who wants that one anyway?).  This, however, does not include land costs, foundation costs, utility costs, soft costs (architecture may be included, but you will need civil engineering, structural engineering (sometimes), geotechnical engineering, permits, etc.).  Oh, yes – and land.

In my area, nicer homes in the nicest neighborhoods sell for about $300 per foot. There are exceptions, but this is a general number for high end homes.  If we were to talk about similar finish levels of the two products, we are no longer close to parity pricing. This may work in some areas of the county with seismic issues or very restricted construction months, but for the majority of the country, this is way off from a market project cost, as the hard costs when said and done end up near sales price.  Awesome projects can be found mentioned on the cover of Dwell magazine, but I never can actually find that “practical modular” home in those issues…

A lot of designers want to think that the modular home should solve the World’s problems, enabling access to cost effective, sustainable homes to everyone.  Some of this actually works: as a Habitat for Humanity, for example, uses a panelized modular system (at least in my area) which is easy for volunteers to erect.  I have not seen a breakdown for costs of habitat houses, but they “compete” with new construction that costs about $60 per foot to build.

Panelized wall system (click picture for source)

Big disconnect there.

So, I am a member of a small team that wants to make this work for the rest of us.  We have started with what does work, which is a far cry from the beautiful designs of Ms. Kaufmann.  I’ve toured a few plants who pump out what they consider modular construction – they are basically mobile homes or construction trailers which are either put together in a sprawling fashion or stacked one on top of the other.  Most are grey and blue or maybe two tone beige with windows which can be easily fitted with security bars.  The level of craftsmanship is there – especially when visiting modular barracks for our armed forces.  Those projects in particular have a unique set of parameters, and the modular systems do answer to those.  So, we know it works.  It is not beautiful, but it works.

Vast majority of modular construction (click for source)

I feel that when working with some manufacturers, they simply do their homework and figure out how to make their product either parity with site built construction or charge a little bit of a premium, indicating that the shortened amount of construction time is where you see the savings (any manufacturers I have sited on this blog are not ones I have toured or had conversations with).  Looks good during a presentation.  However, when you sit down and look at everything, one would find that since the project is so front loaded cost-wise, interest carry from a loan becomes a much larger issue – and a lot of money is spent before anything actually happens on site.  OK for an all cash deal, but not for the everyday homeowner, contractor or developer.  Especially when you’re building a $40,000,000 project.  On top of that there are more complications which I don’t care to get into, other than to say it evens out the playing field to the point where it doesn’t make sense to move ahead using modular construction (don’t forget, you also have to sell this).

There has got to be a way to make this cheaper, as it just makes sense.  Better use of material?  Sure.  Tighter control of craftsmanship?  Absolutely.  Beautiful?  Well, it is the eye of the beholder, and right now it will cost you.  Hopefully that will change!

A few notes on Suburbia

I decided to add some blog posts to my company website, and wanted to do a quick piece with some TED talk references about suburban planning.  Well, half of it will go on that site.  The rest goes here.

Ellen Dunham-Jones gives a presentation on how the next 50 years will be spent retrofitting the suburbs at TEDx Atlanta (January 2010).

Facts presented:

  1. Ratio associated with carbon footprints associated with urban vs. suburban dwellers: 1:3
  2. Suburbs have doubled the amount we drive
  3. CDC has linked suburban living with sedentary lifestyle
  4. ½ of households in Atlanta spend 29% of their income on housing and 32% on transportation (2005 figures).
  5. Through 2025, 75-85% of new households will not have kids in them, meaning focus will turn toward non-family households.

She goes on further to show projects which redevelop “dead malls,” underperforming retail, empty big box.  Goes further to show how cities have connected redevelopments and created ways to restore their original ecology.  She looks to municipalities to determine what should be “re-greened,” restored, or redeveloped.  Watch the video for the good stuff.

James Kunstler has a much more critical view, filmed February 2004.  I saw him speak at SMU in 2007.  His animated, vulgar style has an effect – its up to you if it is positive or negative.  His talk at SMU was very similar, except it was about 2 hours instead of this 20 minute snippet:

From the TED site:

In James Howard Kunstler’s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

This second half of this post I decided not put on my company page, so I am putting it here.  Kunstler blasts architects and the status quo design quite energetically:

“Asteroid Belt of Architectural Garbage.”  Great line.

“Words that must have been in this meeting of the architects: ‘f*** it’”

Yep, that last one made me skip it – the 4th F-bomb in a video is fine here, but I decided to keep it professional on the, uh, professional site.

His point – we’ll get to where Ellen Dunham-Jones talks about if we’re lucky.  No technological breakthroughs will allow us to keep living the way we are living – his take home: live locally – citizens have “obligations responsibilities and duties to their fellow human beings.”

TEDx: Andy Cohen

This presentation isn’t really new to anyone who studies sustainable design, but it is a good quick presentation hitting all of the highlights, and should serve as a good model for those who want to convince a client to build sustainably.  This presentation starts with the global data that is generally accepted about climate change, moves to the data supplied by the USGBC on energy consumption and CO2 emissions, covers a few mega projects that Gensler is working on, then wraps it up with the future of LEED and a little William McDonough reference.

I could not make out the references for the study of construction costs for sustainable design, but it seems a little low.  This is probably due to the fact that most of these studies cover projects that are in the top 5% of the market, meaning large projects that can absorb high soft costs.  These studies rarely indicate total project cost anyway, which by far misses the mark on giving real data on the real estate deliverable.

Still, he makes a solid point that sustainable design should fit both large and small projects.  I have personally designed and built very high performance buildings for no additional cost, but LEED certification was out of the question.  Part of his hidden point is that good architects will do this.  To reference McDonough myself, it is the responsibility of the designer (architect, industrial designer, chemist, etc) to come up with the solution – we should have to ask the user for a concession (high cost, loss of quality, more time) to get us there.