ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

Detailed Design — Learning How To Draw

Well, it was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. The first thing I needed to do was to make up a drawing of my existing house. On several of my previous projects, I used a set of rudimentary drafting tools and some skills I learned in my 8th grade shop class  to draw up some fairly nice plans. In my most recent project (a “catio” more on that later), I used Microsoft Visio to make up a set of electronic plans. That worked OK, but it really wasn’t a full-on CAD program, which is what I figured I needed if I was going to produce a set of building plans (the ultimate goal). So, I started shopping around for an architectural CAD program. Most of these programs are several thousand dollars (Chief Architect — $2695, AutoCad — $4195), and they seemed pretty difficult to learn how to use. I eventually went for a dumbed-down version of Chief Architect called Home Designer. That cost $495, and it promised to be easy to use and had a lot of nice automated features such as detailing of walls and quick rendering of interior and exterior views. So I ponied up and got the program. The term “easy to use” was relative, and I spent a lot of time learning how to use the program. I went about measuring the house and modeling it in this program. After several months of my spare time, I came up with a decent model, but I found out a couple of things: (1) I really couldn’t produce a set of working drawings with this program — it’s for “designers” who give their concepts to real architects who have these expensive CAD programs that produce “real” drawings, and (2) all of that great detailing automation meant that you couldn’t go in and customize things. You had to accept the default materials, dimensions, etc. Plus, the program was quirky and wouldn’t accurately model some of the idiosyncrasies of my house. So I was becoming increasingly frustrated as I saw that I was approaching what seemed to be a dead end.

One day, I was lamenting my woes to a colleague at work, and he mentioned another 3D modeling program called “Sketchup”. He said that he made several remodeling plans for his home with it, and he was very happy with the program. Best of all, it was free.  No kidding. It turns out that there is a free version, now called Sketchup Make, and there is a “pro” version which includes a separate program called Sketchup Layout, which is a full-on drafting program. The pro version sells for $590, which is about the same as I paid for the Home Designer loser program. So, I decided to at least try out the free version, and I discovered that it was not only intuitive, but that there was a HUGE online community that offered all kinds of help in learning how to use it. Plus, there was another group of professionals who were using the pro version to design real buildings and produce real plans. I was sold. So I swallowed my pride and bought the pro version and started afresh. That was a bitter pill because I had to start from scratch. The good news is that as I learned the program, I could customize the model and make it really accurate.

Although the program was intuitive and I picked it up pretty fast, there were a lot of nuances that I needed help with. I ended up reading a whole lot of books, which ultimately gave me a bit of mastery over the program. I have a complete list of my references under the references page in this blog. I think all of them are good, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend them,  but I would suggest starting with either the “sketchup for dummies” or one of  Bonnie Roske’s books. Also, follow the links on the Sketchup home page, check out the SketchuCation website,  or just Google search on Sketchup and you’ll find TONS of You Tube video “how to’s” and other resources. As I mentioned before, there is a tremendous online presence to help you out.

So after a lot of time, I ended up with a pretty good model of my home and some good drawings. I can say that I really came to enjoy the process, and now that I have the skill set, I feel confident that I could approach any aspect of architectural design and drawing. The building department was favorably impressed and was asking if I had any background in design. Well, I guess after 3 years of my spare time messing around with it, I could answer in the affirmative, even though my path was somewhat random at times.

I will post some of the results of my labors when I have the chance, and when I can figure out how to do it on this blog. That’s another skill set which I’m beginning to learn about.

ARCHITECTURAL

The Design — A Systems Engineering Approach

When we first started thinking about remodeling our house, our thoughts were just to fix things that were old and in disrepair. However, the more I thought about it, I started to think about a more comprehensive approach. There are many books and websites that provide information about the design process, but the more I read, the more I came to understand that the design process for a home is the same as the process for any other design. That means that I could (should) use my experience as a systems engineer.

So, what is systems engineering? In a nutshell, it is the process by which you (1) define performance requirements, (2)  break down these requirements into sub sets that ultimately result in tangible design characteristics, (3) develop alternatives, (4) analyze the alternatives and choose the optimum approach, (5) perform detailed design, (6) construct from the design, and (7) test the design to validate that it meets performance requirements.

So, to be more specific, my wife and I sat down and had a discussion (actually a series of discussions) about what we wanted in a home. We came up with the following top-level requirements:

(1) Age in place. Since this would probably be the place we would live in for a long time, we wanted to make it such that we could stay here as we became older and make it safe and accessible.

(2) Have a modern home infrastructure that would allow for accommodation of new features.

(3) Maximize the energy efficiency of the home.

(4) Eliminate chronic maintenance problems and fundamental architectural design flaws.

(5) Pay off the house in 15 years. (No house payment when fully retired).

Having these requirements agreed upon, we considered two alternatives: Selling the place and moving to a new home, or remodeling our existing home. We then took a look at the relative advantages and disadvantages of each approach and compared them.

Attribute New Home Remodel
Age in place None that met requirements. Would require retrofits. Easily incorporated in the design.
Modern Infrastructure Most new homes have sufficient capacity for expansion Would have to upgrade the electrical system and add data/video/security systems.
Energy Efficiency New homes are energy efficient by code. Remodeling would trigger incorporation of energy efficiency code requirements.
Maintenance problems Minimal risk in a new home Would require redesign of the roof over the front porch to fix a chronic rainwater leak.
Pay off house Not likely. Likely if the remodeling budget were kept to less than $100K

So, after visiting a lot of new homes, and finding that the cost would be too high and that we would have to change them to meet our age in place requirement, we decided to proceed with a more detailed design for our home.

To set the stage for the detailed design, I looked at each high-level attribute and studied what kind of physical attributes would be necessary.

1. AGE IN PLACE: I learned that the best key word for this is “universal design” which is a term that implies design for accessibility without making the place look like a hospital. The Center For Universal Design at North Carolina State University is an excellent resource , as is the book Universal Design for the Home by Wendy Jordan, and Universal Design Ideas for Style Comfort and Safety by Reed Construction Data (my personal favorite). Design attributes that comply with universal design include curbless showers, ADA complaint fixtures (toilets, sinks, faucets, shower fixtures), countertops of different heights (30″ and 36″), wider doorways and passages, elimination of trip hazards (e.g., steps), and… LIGHTING. No kidding, I didn’t realize that lighting was a big deal until I thought about it. As you age, your ability to see becomes less. So you need more light to see properly. If you don’t see where you’re going, then you may trip and fall. This is a big deal because if you trip and fall, you’ll likely break something badly and lose your mobility. And when you’re older, that can be a death sentence.

2. MODERN INFRASTRUCTURE: There were a few things that I noticed about the new homes that I felt would be good to incorporate into my remodel: (a) air conditioning (!), (b) increased electrical capacity, (c) automatic fire sprinkler system, and (d) smart home infrastructure. Each of these required some additional research to come up with a design, and I will detail these in future posts.

3. ENERGY EFFICIENCY: California Title 24 requires that all remodeling projects comply with  performance requirements based on an energy analysis computer program. Being a geek at heart, I found this really interesting, and I took the time to properly model the house and understand the program so I could make some tradeoffs in how I approached the remodel. For example, I found that the energy savings for replacing my single pane windows with fancy double pane vinyl windows was not very much compared to the cost. Plus I found that the reliability of the vinyl windows sucked, so I decided to refurbish my existing windows. Again, I will have a separate post dedicated to energy efficiency.

4. ELIMINATE CHRONIC MAINTENANCE PROBLEMS: The primary one that had to be addressed was a leak over my front porch. This was kind of tough to figure out by myself, but fortunately, some of the other houses in the neighborhood had come up with a fix that looked pretty good, so I adopted that. More on that later as well.

5. PAY OFF THE HOUSE: We really couldn’t see how we could accomplish that if we moved based on the value of our existing home and the features we wanted in the new home. We set a remodeling budget of $100K and would plan on a pay-as-you-go approach to the maximum extent possible.

With that part of the systems engineering process complete, it’s on to the detailed design!