Monday, February 5, 2018

Starting a Design: First Thing's First

I am going to guess I look at the start of a design differently than any of the other architects writing about this topic today.  I think most people picture a person hunched over a slanted drawing table in a dark room, inking lines on vellum under the halo of the single incandescent bulb of an articulating lamp.  While I do get to look at each and every project in our office, my input has more to do with compliance and practicability than design notions.  And instead of ink and vellum, I typically have my codes pulled up on my tablet.  Or I may have one book open on top of another book. 

How TV Shows Portray the Architect.
Normally, I see projects after they’ve taking at least a rough form.  Programming and discussions with the Owner have already taken place, at least to some degree.  Our projects are seldom “simple”, meaning they usually involve a good bit of renovation and connections to existing structures, which means firewalls and other code related goodies.

To get started, I need at least three bits of information.  What is the Occupancy?  What is the height & area?  What is the construction type?  A fourth component may often be:  What are we connecting to?  This is assuming we know which codes to use in this Jurisdiction.

This is What My Desk Really Looks Like at the Start...
Occupancy (or building use) may seem simple, but it can get complicated.  Our focus is primarily senior living projects.  Many of the buildings in communities serve multiple uses.  Are we separating the uses by fire barriers?  Are they allowed to mix?  Can that occupancy be open to the corridor next to that occupancy?

Height and area is pretty straightforward until it isn’t.  First, areas could change due to design changes, so you have to make sure there is some flexibility in the allowable areas or be prepared for heartache.  Do we get extra square footage (SF) for sprinklers?  Do we get extra stories, or is it capped at 4?  Then, where there are more than one occupancy in a building and those uses are not separated, the sum of the ratios of actual SF to permitted SF of each occupancy cannot exceed 1.  And you thought high school algebra was a waste of time!

Construction type is the variable I can help determine.  The further to the right in the code chart, the cheaper it is to build, typically.  But the cheaper construction types are the most restrictive in terms of how high or how big you can build.  So it is a balancing act.  In wood construction you just can't build certain building uses or you can't build them high enough.  In other cases, we have to divide the building into two separate structures, connected at fire walls, in order not to exceed the allowable area.
Exciting, Right?
The dance continues.  In a building containing multiple occupancies, you can separate them or allow them to “mingle” together (unseparated).  Unseparated occupancies must abide by all the most restrictive conditions for any of the uses.  This means if you have apartments and assembly spaces in the same building, you may be looking at a higher level of protection in the whole building due to the presence of that one use.  Or you can separate them with protected construction.

A Little Later on in the Process, Code Books on Top of Code Books...

When buildings are renovated or connected to additions, there is another layer of compliance complexity.  If the building is not separated into two independent structures with fire walls, what do we have to do to the existing building to make it compliant with current codes?  Sometimes this is not much, but other times the added square footage of an addition will require life safety systems that aren’t provided in the existing building, like sprinklers, smoke detection or fire alarms.  There are other triggers for accessibility as well.

This May Be Closer to Reality...
This is the stuff I start thinking about when I begin to look at a building design.  A little more than form follows function, isn't it?  And we haven't even gotten to the details yet. Like:  Where's your vapor barrier?  What's the flame spread of that material?  What's the UL of that roof/ceiling?  But early is the time to address these topics.  

Never has anyone ever told me, "I wish you would have waited until after permit submittal to tell me about the flaw in my fire wall!"

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Starting a Design" and was led by Jon Brown.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
."starting a design..."..

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

Steve Mouzon - The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake