chasing windmills


Change the things that matter most to you, or at least give it your best try – right?

A few things came up this week that got me worked up – as usual. I admit I vented. I have to be evasive about the details for the sake of propriety, but that doesn’t dilute my point as I share my story. Despite what you may think, my thoughts are solely on architectural matters. I stay out of other news stories.

I admit, I’m a stupid idealist. I wrote about idealism is an attitude before too.

I’m a rather easy going person, but a personal pet peeve is hearing others complaining regularly to everyone but the one who has the power to make a change or reconcile the relationship. This is the purpose of Facebook by the way. There is a professional, intelligent way to influence change; there is a whiny, entitled way to try and it will backfire.

I’m not looking for false enemies in my illusory perception of those around me, but I might be chasing after a system that won’t change on account of me. I am dissatisfied with several aspects that affect the architectural community in my world. They won’t be changing any time soon – if at all. I’m quite aware of that. However, as opposed to some that I talked with this week, I’m not content to throw my hands up and say ‘oh well, that’s too bad.’

I’m also not going to leave.

Things are changing in the larger architectural community. We’re seeing changes in equity, journey to licensure, and perception of our profession. I might not advocate for your cause, but if you are working appropriately to influence changes in the things that matter to you, then I applaud your efforts. There’s nothing worse than quitting and you’re entitled to nothing.


Change can happen, and there are effective ways to accomplish it. Whining won’t get it done but I can empathize with your bad day or week or month. Turn that frustration into energy and motivation. Make your voice heard.

In 1997, several other young professionals (including me) were dissatisfied with the local AIA’s representation of our place in the profession in Pittsburgh. We weren’t being ignored, but the focus was elsewhere. We may have expressed some emotion, but we channeled it into a Young Architect’s Forum and were embraced by our local chapter. I went on to be the co-chair until 2003 and it was quite successful. (I continued from 2003-05 as Pennsylvania’s State Liaison to YAF National). All of these years later, it has evolved into a thriving YAF that has gone farther than I could have imagined it and farther than I could have taken it. Most of them probably have no idea who I am. Either way, I’m proud of how they’ve carried it forward.

Where does that leave me?

The two situations of my week that need to change may never change. I will try to effect change with one it’s important (it’s local). The other I can honestly ignore, but if they invite my observation and opinion, I will share it professionally but honestly. I can’t stand to sit back and watch traditions, policies and processes in place overshadow people.

Tilt at those windmills; some of those battles actually can be won.


photo 1 credit: Bembridge Windmill via photopin (license)
photo 2 credit: The Mill and the Sea via photopin (license)
photo 3 credit: Windmill via photopin (license)

chasing windmills

media blues


I’m singing the blues today as the effects of construction costs for custom work has me feeling down.

Recently my friend Mark LePage wrote a post titled “the HGTV effect” about the impact HGTV has had on the perception of design, the architectural profession and the reality of construction. Something that can seemingly have good intentions can sometimes backfire and cause the opposite.

We’ve all seen this at some point. We’re watching a program, most likely about renovation and within a 30 minute or 60 minute show a lot of information is concealed as we see homeowners getting a very handsome project built within an unrealistic budget in a ridiculous amount of time. There are few headaches, no mention of permits, no cost overruns (at least ones that affect the project scope), no anything. It’s just magically getting projects done with elated homeowners neatly tied up in the end much like fictional programs. Shame on us for falling for it.

As architects we wonder where are the design professionals for the documents, details, planning and the thought that goes behind the execution. Cable television design programming has brought an increased awareness and interest in design to the masses yet in turn it has also resulted in a negative effect when the rest of us in the real world find that custom projects can rarely be built within the time or money as shown on television. It drives people to find cheap alternatives.


It needs to be clear, if you are venturing on building a custom design project, let’s say custom residential project, it’s likely that it will cost more than those seen on television, and more than your friend who built a spec home and possibly more than you want it to cost. A singular project that has never been built before cannot compete against mass-produced structures. Additions and renovations generally cost more per unit than new construction in my experience. Money is often the reason projects don’t get built or built as hoped. Read the May issue of Architectural Record.

Who can afford this? Is it an unattainable goal?

If we narrow our focus today on clean, contemporary architecture where architects strive for lack of ornament and trim, large panels of glass and desire to carefully align certain elements precisely, one will simply pay more. The struggle comes when clients (and architects) have immersed themselves in media sources such as architectural journals, design magazines or one of the plethora of social media sites and dream of having what they see, but diluted down to their budget. It’s the curse of Tantalus.

The glossy images (by the talented photographers) tempt us with projects done for people with deep pockets that give endless freedom to architects to design and experiment. I have no problem with this. However, it’s not the norm for most of us.

Nevertheless, if one wishes to create a miniaturized version of some of these amazing houses, the conflict begins. Architecture can be minimized to pedestrian expressions leaving no room or budget for more enduring features. This is not what I wish to do.

Are we trying to be someone we’re not?


Are we trying to look like the glossy magazines without paying the price?

Rich materials, sensitive details and thoughtful spaces can’t be faked. However, I’ve been seeing expressions giving it the old college try. Commercial versions are more visible, but as I drive about, I come across a few residential examples too.

Without naming names, there’s a breed of lesser expensive, contemporary commercial renovations appearing with cheaper materials, less considered details and ‘flatter’ expressions that may have appeared good in a two-dimensional drawing or in a digital model. I’m glad to see improvement in design, but we all need to get comfortable with the limits of the budget. If all we can afford is concrete block, then embrace it and don’t expect it to look like brick (they actually make that now).


Have we lowered our standards to achieve a false look and experience after being lured by the higher priced buildings in the media? I’m afraid architecture can sometimes follow the way of the fashion magazines.

It has been known for years that the fashion magazines have impacted young people into making themselves look like the models in the images, whether it’s healthy or not. To overcompensate for that, now we are seeing people dressing (or lack thereof) like the runway models yet don’t have the same…um…stature. It’s just wrong. Not everyone needs to be skinny, but we can all find a way to find a fashion that is flattering for who we are and where we’re at in life.


The same is true for architecture. If you’re planning on building, it’s important to come to terms with this. It’s also important to come to terms with the cost of basic construction for your region.

Perhaps we need to start celebrating the projects that have found a way to have rich experiences and spaces for under…say $175 or $200 or $250/SF (without lying). Avoid the cheap expressions of those posing as their rich counterparts. There can be beauty just being who you are rather than trying to be something you’re not. Architecture is no different.


photo 1 credit: Vintage TV via photopin (license)

photo 2 credit: London Bridge is falling down via photopin (license)

photo 3 credit: Simple Masks (Fox, Owl & Bear via photopin (license)

photo 4 credit: Trompe l’oeil brick, Kingwood, Texas 0901091547 via photopin (license)

photo 5 credit: “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” Margaret Atwood via photopin (license)

photo 6 credit: IMG_3866.JPG via photopin (license)

media blues

i make art

site sketch 03

Are these my three favorite words? Well they are today.

I have trouble with naming favorites as many have trouble not saying that everything is their favorite.

What do I mean – I make art? Am I being arrogant? Am I naive? Am I presumptuous? Am I just lost?

Perhaps. You decide.


I will say art is not limited in its definition. Most things that are thought of as art, are in fact not at all.

It can be the way the cashier at the grocery store engages with us as we check out our items, it can be the plumber that wipes every soldered copper joint when they’re not even seen after the wallboard goes up, it can even be the marker scribble a dad puts on his daughter’s lunch bag to make her smile at school. We fill museums with objects that may be art (often debatable), yet if we engage a bit more with people, we might just see art in places anywhere BUT a museum.

I have always wanted to be an artist and when I decided as an 11-year old kid that I wanted to be an architect, I believed that I was not saying no to the drawing and illustration I had done for leisure, I was just going into a career that had more promise, was more satisfying and found that we would later be able to occupy that which I “made.”

For me, ‘art’ is my way of expressing myself in a language more comfortable than words. It is who I am, what I feel, what I think and how I see the world. It’s not merely the pictures, paintings or sculptures. Does that qualify? Perhaps my work will be judged someday as derivative, expected and yesterday. Some might also judge my blog and my writing as insipid drivel too. Living and practicing in a small town might mean obscurity from publications and history books. I’m OK with that. I still make art.

cci railing 01

We exist in a world where the gravitational pull towards mediocrity is sometimes too great to overcome. People who pull away from the norm or eschew what is popular or cool are misunderstood at best and often ridiculed. I dare say most people work because they have to, not because it gives them a medium to create art. This is why weekends and beer distributors are so popular.

Now my point today is NOT to say that the buildings and spaces I design are in fact art. They are buildings and they serve the needs and desires of my clients. My art is not making “pretty” buildings for clients. That’s not specifically the goal.

At this point, some of you might begin to wonder if I’ve been reading Seth Godin and latching onto his polemic and contemporary viewpoints. Yes, I’m reading one of his books, but my definition is a bit less pedantic that his. However, in reading one of his recent books, it finally dawned on me how I transitioned to this career and how I never left making art – it just has been redefined. Illuminated. It’s actually better.

  • Art can be words. How I talk about architecture is my art. Despite being somewhat an introvert, the three things that will get me talking your ear off are my family, Jesus and architecture. This blog is about architecture, so if you wish to discuss the former two, let’s have coffee (literally or virtually – ask Jeff). At the initial meeting or telephone call with a client I intentionally engage them in a conversation beyond their immediate needs. I want to put them at ease while whetting their appetite to go beyond mere shelter.
  • Art creates change. I cannot talk about architecture without getting wide eyed or at times worked up to a rant. It’s important to me and I’d like to think that in an emotional way, I seek to make change. Change in how others think and change that will hopefully make them better and perhaps even their project or community. Change that they can pass on to others. How does that happen? I don’t feel that’s an answer that ought to come from me.
  • Art is a gift. How I approach my work is my art. I am hired to solve peoples’ spatial, programmatic, building and functional problems through design. We agree on terms and I do the work. That is a business transaction and I do work in exchange for compensation. I use my experience as an architect to do what they’ve asked me to do. What they DON’T ask me to do is give them a gift as well as give the community a gift. I won’t simply draw what they ask me, I don’t regurgitate what they request, it goes beyond solving the program, code, budget, and even basic aesthetics. People expect architects to design on budget, code compliant, technically correct and be pleasing to look at and occupy. It’s not even ‘working hard’ – that’s a myth to deal with on another day. What is that “something else” that is not requested, not paid for, not part of the project but makes the work better – makes their life better? That is my art.

Let’s not mistake giving away free services or doing work for a lesser fee as a gift. That’s just bad business. It’s not art. Doing pro bono work can be a good thing and can really help people with our skills. However, that’s not art either. The good news is art can be made with one’s voice, one’s hands and definitely with one’s heart.

I may not be able to explain myself well. Oftentimes putting a definition on something actually dilutes it or eliminates its meaning. Some things are meant to just appreciate without rationalizing or objectifying.

Perhaps it would cease to be art and then what’s left for me to give?


Below are the three favorite words of some of my friends. Please take time to read and interact with their posts today. #architalks

Enoch Sears – Business of Architecture
3 Words To Get Started

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect
3 Words: Are. Blogs. Important.

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture
3 Words

Marica McKeel – Studio MM
Never Give Up

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet
What’s Your Story – My Three (or Four) Favorite Words

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC
#ArchiTalks: I love it!

Andrew Hawkins, AIA – Hawkins Architecture, Inc.
Three Favorite Architectural Words

Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design
I Am Listening

Cindy Black – Rick & Cindy Black Architects
Spirit of Optimism (my three favorite words)

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect
architalk#9: my three favorite words

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC
My Three Favorite Words

Amy Kalar – ArchiMom
My Three Favorite Words (Architalks #9)

Michael Riscica – Young Architect
How’s it going… Finishing The Architect Exam?!??

My Three Favorite Words

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect
I am in

Jonathan Brown – Proto-Architecture
The Big Idea

Eric Wittman – intern[life]
my three favorite [hardest] words

Jeremiah Russell
three little words

i make art

conversion concerns


Converting a residential building to a commercial use gives me concern.

Converting old (unoccupied) buildings to new occupancies raises even more concern.

This is part of my daily job.

How do we do this? What questions should you ask if you’re considering this as a business or property owner?


In my world as an architect I am frequently contacted to review existing buildings that someone wishes to convert to commercial uses. In many of these cases I find out that the existing building started out as some type of residential use. With many early 1900’s buildings the construction is wood floor/roof construction with masonry walls. Long before we can address energy or sustainability concerns, we must address the many life safety and accessibility concerns.

Local building codes will vary, but these are generally the same everywhere in the U.S. As for determining what is applicable for existing buildings, contact an architect who is well versed in the International Existing Building Code or Chapter 34 Existing Buildings in the International Building Code (or whatever code is applicable in your area). The approach for existing buildings can be different than new construction, but please do not say things are “grandfathered.” The term is never used and the concept doesn’t exist the way most people think it does. It is so often misunderstood.


Every building is unique so there is no exact formula, but here are the primary issues that I find on every one of my reviews. If you’re thinking about purchasing or leasing a building and converting it to something else, think about how your building compares to these criteria. I frequently provide due diligence studies, code assessments and other concept studies to assess whether it is reasonably viable for my clients to act on their desire to purchase and develop an existing building. This is an important step before getting emotionally connected to a project or better yet economically invested in property.


This is not building code related, but if you’re looking at converting a house, the local zoning might not permit the property to be used for commercial uses. If you don’t know the difference between zoning and building codes, I addressed that with a previous post – here. I have had clients purchase property for an intended use only to find out afterwards that the local zoning regulations would not permit that use on that land.

Occupancy Type

This is the general use or activities to occur in the building. Some categories are Assembly, Business, Mercantile or Residential. Within these major categories, there are sub-categories. It is really important to be able to identify if a building has LEGAL occupancy for whatever it is being used for currently. I find most of the time that buildings change owners over time and they are modified without any type of plan review, permits or record of revisions let alone code compliance.

Change of Occupancy

If you’re wondering what one of the biggest triggers is for major code upgrades, this is it. For instance, if you purchase a residential building and wish to make it into an office, that’s a change from a residential occupancy to a business occupancy. If the building has no LEGAL occupancy, that’s a change from no occupancy to whatever use is being considered. I find this occurs often because no record of legal occupancy can be found. In other words, there is no Certificate of Occupancy record from the state or local municipality. No record = no legal occupancy. This gets more complicated when only a portion of a building is being changed – that’s a Partial Change of Occupancy. Whether there is a Complete Change or Partial Change, it has significant ramifications with respect to accessibility upgrades as well as life-safety issues.

Type of Construction

This is primarily the materials that make up the structure. This ranges from Type 5 which is all wood framing much like a house to Type 1 which is all non-combustible construction where the structural members are protected with fire resistive materials. This has a direct relationship to how large and how tall a building of a particular use can be. Type 1 buildings can generally be larger and taller than Type 2, 3, 4 or 5. When one attempts to convert a former residence or wood framed building into a commercial use, it has to be compared against the code for the height and area limitations for a Type 5 or wood framed building. Oftentimes this poses a challenge.

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Mixed Uses

Are you planning on having retail on the first floor with apartments above? That’s considered a mixed use. Simply put, it’s when a single building has more than one Occupancy Type. This can get complicated with existing buildings because generally a building has a fire separation between these occupancies. That’s not always a mandate, but it gets complicated fast when there is no separation between Occupancies.

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Separation of Uses

It seems fairly obvious that different uses have different hazards so having a separation (classified by the number of hours the separation can resist the spread of fire) between uses makes a building safer. You wouldn’t want the fire that started in the restaurant kitchen below to spread to your apartment above would you? Just know this, it’s best to separate uses and that separation must be continuous. That requires an obsessive architect to work through the details and a conscientious contractor to execute them. With old wood framed buildings, this can be complicated.


Fire Protection Systems

The venerable automatic sprinkler system falls in this category. Fire alarm systems, smoke alarms (smoke detectors) and a series of other safety stuff is addressed here. These systems cost money, but they keep people safe, they give time for people to get out in the event of a fire and they can protect the fire fighters who risk their lives to put out fires. The systems in this category vary based on Occupancy, building size and number of occupants. Most people I meet wish to avoid adding automatic sprinklers, but they often don’t realize that in some cases life-safety features are often exempted or reduced in scope when there is an automatic sprinkler system. In other words, it’s not always more expensive. Think of it this way – a smoke detector tells you that it would be a good idea to leave because the building is on fire. A sprinkler tells you to leave too, but it also begins to put out the fire.


Means of Egress

I agree, this can be another complicated category, but this covers how one gets out of a building in the case of an emergency. It’s good for this to be clear, adequate and safe. The major deficit found with conversions to commercial uses is providing at least two means of egress from each floor. This weakness occurs on most early 20th century urban buildings too.

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This is one of my largest challengers when it comes to small projects with small budgets when there is no flat areas in Pennsylvania. However, it’s the law and we wish all people to have access to our buildings. It’s disappointing how many people try to “get out” of addressing this or they ask what is the “least” they have to do. I understand that a budget must be respected, making physical changes takes money, and therefore I work hard to find creative ways to comply. With small projects, a larger part of the budget can be required to be given over to this category in order to get access into the building and provide accessible bathrooms and other features. When one has an urban building from 1915 on a sloping street that is currently two or more steps up to the entrance, I really have to put on my thinking cap. I shared a story in a past blog post about how we overcame this on one of our projects.


Special Conditions – Restaurants

Beyond all of those other categories that must be evaluated carefully, I have consulted with many clients on many existing buildings intended to be converted into a restaurant. This use (A-2 Assembly) adds a unique requirement on top of all of the previous categories – commercial kitchens. Commercial kitchens typically require a hood over the cooking equipment which requires special mechanical equipment. This requires one to be able to exhaust the hood into a legal location and place a make-up air unit with duct work connecting back to the hood. This is in addition to the HVAC systems. Typically the HVAC system for the kitchen is different that the equipment for the dining and other areas of the building. These systems have to be designed carefully and balanced to be sure they all work together. This is why architects hire consulting engineers. They work out the tough calculations, but I am always involved in figuring out how to get the components in and out of the building. Architects have to integrate these components into their designs so that they function properly and either contribute to the visual concept or at least don’t detract from it. Old buildings with skinny tenant spaces and former residential buildings with chopped up rooms and low ceilings are exceptionally difficult.

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As stated earlier, every building is unique, but I find over and over again it is challenging (economically) to convert a residential and/or wood construction building to a commercial use. It can be equally challenging to upgrade 100-year old buildings to current codes. Generally I can be creative enough to find solutions, but budgets, ROI and borrowing potential only permits certain solutions.

If you’re not sure whether the building you’re considering can work, think-architect, I mean call one before you buy that building or sign that lease.

conversion concerns