We’re having a party…

Well, maybe it’s just lunch. But we’re going to talk about lots of things, with some interesting people.

I plan to talk about what homeowners need to know about the remodeling and additions process, including what to look for in an architect and why it’s usually a good idea to have an architect on the job. I also will discuss the value of design, what it takes to make good design and what makes a good client. Some of this seems obvious, but I have stories to tell that make me believe otherwise. We’ll also go through the steps involved in the project process.

We will also discuss what may be the next step in creating a sustainable living environment; namely a deeper focus on community. From creating common public space with neighbors, to informal sharing of resources, to an increased connection with other people, we’ll discuss strategies to live more sustainably by engaging with your community on a deeper level.

Also presenting:

Ericka Jennings of Green Key Real Estate, talking about trends that increase home values, and how to navigate the legal complexities.

Raines Cohen, who has long advocated for cohousing communities, aging in community, and how to create workable social structures.

Come join us!


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Under Construction

El Cerrito, California:

Nearing completion.

Late afternoon sun reflected on the walls.

Roof overhang


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The Can Van!


Great conversation on Kunstlercast this week about the future of cities. I agree with both of them.


Linea Carta; dinner party and dream house (note: dream house / dinner party house in question is one that I designed while at my old firm )


Dickson Despommier and the Vertical Farm.


Gregory Delaune launches his sustainable urbanism blog.


From Rough Type: Utopia is creepy (was that digital panhandling?)




Like beer? Like clever sustainability solutions? Then help The Can Van get rolling!


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Fourth Street, Observed

Good urban design in Berkeley, California

A gentle ramp makes the main space accessible and separated from the car traffic.


Fourth Street in Berkeley is one of the more successful urban spaces in this mid-density town. It does this without any fancy architecture, within the confines of the existing street grid, and without making extravagant gestures to parking. I think that these elements, rather than being detrimental, are critical to the shopping district’s success. Since I live just a few blocks away, I ride my bike or walk down there many times a week. Following are some of my observations.

One row of shops is vertically separated, which works well in this case.


Without getting too much into the history of Fourth Street, it is an area comprised of a few city blocks in the industrial part of town. The basic design took shape in the early ’80’s, and over the years it has been very successful. Other shopping districts in town have many empty storefronts, yet this area keeps chugging along, with an Apple store opening this past summer. The area attracts many businesses, of many shapes and sizes: global, national, regional, local. There are chains as well as singular enterprises, and many great places to eat.

Non-herioc architecture that helps form good urban space.


Denny Abrams was one of the developers, and the story that I’ve heard is that he crafted much of the central part of the area based on principles learned from Christopher Alexander and his seminal work A Pattern Language. In fact, Abrams is one of the co-authors of the Christopher Alexander book The Oregon Experiment.


Seating nooks in the public area, with the parking lot barely visible in the background.

Some of these patterns are easy to see, and help to create the pleasant environment. Low walls define space, and also function as impromptu seating allow people to take a load off, drink their coffee, and listen to street performers. One of the main public areas is right off of Fourth Street, and is a plinth that is raised above street level. Usually this is a bad move, serving to separate people from the sidewalk, but in this case the designers created plenty of open public space, with lots of movable chairs and tables. This public space is ringed by takeout food shops, coffee and tea shops, and is very well used. It is particularly effective at integrating access, as the main entrance to the upper level is a gently sloped ramp.

Here we are chatting with Manfred, who along with his wife Betty are proprietors of Bette's Oceanview Diner.

Other features that contribute to the good urban design are regularly spaced street trees, lots of convenient seating throughout, and consistent building edges and details that help to shape the public realm. One surprising thing is that the buildings themselves are very bland. Yet by being good urban buildings, they are way more successful at creating a sense of place than a collection of architecturally special buildings would be. The designers worked hard at making a place that is walkable without being hostile to cars, yet without making overly large gestures to them. While it can be challenging to find a parking space, the primacy of people, of the buildings, and of the public space are what make this area so comfortable. The cars have their lots, but these lots are tucked in the back of the blocks. Because there are so many people about, and there is a major crosswalk that is uncontrolled, the drivers on Fourth Street keep their speeds low, and are deferential to pedestrians (which seems increasingly rare).

One of the more recent shops to open.

It’s an area that is worth checking out if you’re in Northern California. The design helps to foster positive social interaction, and that makes it an interesting place to be. While it has its challenges, it is a vibrant destination, and a good model for mid-density urban space.


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Intro letter to a contractor

I was writing this to a contractor that I was recently introduced to, and while it is not a manifesto, it says a little about who I am and what I like to do.

Hummingbird Nest

Nice house!

A little about me, I’ve got an undergraduate architecture degree from the University of Virginia, and a Master’s in Architecture from UC Berkeley. After I finished at Berkeley in 1997 I started working for a small firm in town, doing residential additions and remodels. I worked there for 12 years, learned a lot, worked with many great clients and builders. Just over 2 years ago I opened my own practice (and also earned an MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School).
I enjoy doing residential projects, it is great to work with clients and to help make manifest their desires. While I don’t always enjoy the budget / scope process, I am a big believer in getting a contractor involved in a project early so that numbers can become associated with a project ASAP.
Under Construction

The process of transformation.

I try to bring as much sustainability focus to a project as I can, but I never push this on clients and I always try to work with the desires and comfort of both client and builder. I find that sustainability targets are much easier to achieve in the planning process; by building the right-sized project, by orienting and situating things properly, by using durable and natural materials, and by using good building techniques. Daylighting and proper roof overhangs can be more effective than greywater tanks, pumps and filters (though greywater has its place too). I strive for designs that are beautiful, and as simple as possible while fulfilling the program. I think that all projects must be seen in their broader context (neighborhood, city, place and time) and should be respectful and aware of such. I try to keep the detailing simple and clean, and listen to and learn from the builders I work with. I’m usually able to offer clients a pretty good value, as I do all of the work and almost always beat an architect’s ‘typical’ fee.
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10 cool things I learned in my last semester of grad school.

(Most of) the 2011 graduating MBA / MPA class at Presidio Graduate School.


A week ago I finished up the MBA program at Presidio Graduate School with close to 100 other future change agents. It was a period of incredible personal and professional growth, and I look forward to evolving my own business to more effectively serve my clients, and to help bring about a more sustainable world that benefits us all. In no particular order, following are just some of the things I learned last semester.

1. Investing in the stock market is risky, high frequency trading is probably not good for you and me, and the big markets are rigged. Just ask your senator how their portfolio did last year.

2. We have evolved as social animals, yet practically our entire modern world is set up to isolate us.

3. Writing a business plan can be hard or easy, sometimes both at the same tim, but it is extremely rewarding.


Photo © Heath Cox

Here I am presenting to the class. Photo © Heath Cox.



4. My schoolmates at Presidio were (and are) awesome, and will be making a real difference in the world.

Future Change Agents.


5. Having a long, open view is not just pretty, and doesn’t just add value to your house, but can measurably reduce stress.


6. Our brains are not infallible, and in fact often work to mislead us. Read Cordelia Fine’s book “A Mind of Its Own” and be amazed.

7. If you live in Berkeley or nearby, go check out the Shorebird Nature Park at the Marina. As a thought experiment, see how each of the two buildings makes you feel. They are both “green”, yet there is a huge difference. Also, take a peek at the Adventure playground.

8. Meditation works.

9. Playing golf can be fun, but it’s still not the best use of land.

10. Learning is good, change is certain, and learning how to help make positive change is all our task.

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A Day at the Beach

Sun at last!

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco near the beach for some record temperatures. It felt pretty good to be warm while in view of the Golden Gate bridge, especially after the repeated storms that we’ve had this spring. Maybe some projects under construction will get a chance to dry out a little!

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The Paradox of the Bottom.

We have all heard that now is a great time to take advantage of low prices and and low financing rates for large purchases for things like houses, land, investment property, and for remodeling and addition projects. However, many people are hurting financially at the very time when the most opportunity exists, and are unable to make use of this opportunity. Even worse, many people are struggling to keep their incomes up and the thought of making long range financial decisions is not realistic.

As a result of these same forces, many professionals have seen their incomes lowered drastically, and many are forced to become innovative in their search for work. They may be expanding their offerings, testing new markets, trying new strategies, or taking work that wouldn’t have been profitable, or was too small in the past. But times are different now.

One strategic way to think of this situation is: if there are professionals out there that you wanted to establish a relationship with, now is the time to do it. You will have their attention, and if you don’t abuse their willingness to engage, or expect something for nothing, it is likely possible to create and nurture a lasting relationship. Developing this relationship now will pay off in a few ways. For one, you will likely get whatever you can pay for at a reduced rate. For professional services, you would be wise to make sure to approach this as someone who is developing a relationship, rather than as a bargain hunter.

For those thinking of a remodel or addition, now is a great time to talk to an architect. You will have a more relaxed schedule, you will get more attention, and you will get a better product. Additionally, it is very possible to design your project now for very little of the overall service fee, maybe 1-2% of your construction budget. With time to spend on projects, it may be possible to put together a master plan for your house, along with a strategy for phasing the project, and you can take the time to develop a ‘sustainability strategy’ for your project at the same time. If you are mostly certain that you will do your project, it may be worth it to pursue planning approval; it may even be worth obtaining a building permit. One thing many people are surprised at is the length of time that these approvals take. In Berkeley it can take 4-6 months to obtain planning department approval, and it can take an additional 3 months for the building permit. No one can tell the future, but 9 months from now things may be different, and it is worth considering getting your project in the pipeline now. Keep in mind that these approvals usually come with expiration dates, so if you are uncertain about the construction but want to explore the project, then just working on the design may be the best strategy for now.

There are even some ways that your house can earn money for you while developing usable space. I can help you evaluate various strategies to see how much they could be worth to you.

A few last thoughts: make sure you know what you are asking for, and make sure that you can pay for some amount of service. Make sure to be honest about your expectations and your budget. Even if it’s a small job or project it will make a difference to professional in question, and establishing a relationship now will help get your calls answered down the road when things pick up.


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Recent Work

The new and improved guest house.

The guest house project has just a few punch list items to finish, and it’s ready to go. Here are some before and after photos. For most architects, showing the before and afters is like shooting fish in a barrel, but in this case it’s worth it to show how far the project has come, and how much it now contributes to its environment. Showing just the after shots almost elicits a yawn–the client even told me today how happy she is, and how everything now feels “like it’s supposed to”.

Part of what made this job really special is the attention that we paid to the details. This stair, as is evident in the before photo to the left, was just a leftover jumble. Now it is a gracious way to connect the pool deck to the pool equipment room and the lower portion of the site.

Paul Cerami, and his crew at Cerami Builders did a fantastic job.
Bath Simple is a company that helps make bathrooms, well, simple. Their big advantage is that they put together a package of all the items needed to do the bathroom–from mortar and waterproofing to shower valves, angle stops, fixtures and tile.

New steel frame.

New piers, a new foundation, and new seismic bracing. Not the most glamorous part of the project, but now the owners have the confidence to have guests stay over.

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The Oregon Sustainability Experience, Day 2

Tuesday, July 20
Downtown Portland

We spent one full day exploring urban revitalization and sustainability strategies in downtown Portland. This comprises the confluence of visionary planning, development, and design, and in the cases we looked at was very successful. Rehabilitating old buildings so that they can serve changing needs is a successful way to ensure that cities have the necessary adaptability to meet the needs of present and future occupants while preserving the character of the past.

A view of the Brewery Blocks in downtown Portland.

An area of downtown Portland that has been successfully redeveloped. It’s hard to imagine the character of the downtown area without these buildings.

One question we explored, which was teased out more as the week progressed, was the difference between green and sustainable. Green features are tools that we use in a building to make it more sustainable. Sustainability itself is a larger, more difficult question. The traditional definition of sustainability is that we can meet the needs of the present while ensuring the ability to meet the needs of the future. But what does that really mean? Is it a building that uses water, energy and resources more efficiently? Is it a building that creates its own energy, provides its own water, and converts its own waste into more usable inputs? What about a building that creates more energy than it needs, or begins to question the ecosystem services that have been lost in its creation, and begins to restore those as well?

A common green building theme of many projects was the collection of rainwater, and the use of that rainwater to flush toilets. Given the precious nature of water, and the energy required to collect, treat, and move it, it doesn’t make sense to use pure potable water to flush our toilets. Further, it makes little sense to then push our building’s runoff and wastewater out into the larger system.

Another more sophisticated green building strategy is to seriously consider the heating, cooling, and fresh air requirements of our buildings. Using heat recovery ventilators to capture the energy in the exhaust air, and to precool or preheat incoming fresh air was a common theme. In this process, the heating and cooling systems were separated from the air delivery systems. Many buildings had “chilled beam” radiant cooling panels mounted on the ceiling, which then allowed the cooled air to fall to the floor while the displaced hot air moved up to be cooled in turn. Heat was delivered in a few ways, one was through floor based radiant systems, either as radiators or radiant floor systems. Another option was low velocity raised floor plenums. This also allowed occupants some measure of control over their workstation’s temperature.

One thing that I was looking for was in which ways can some of the strategies that are being used for large buildings be employed in residential architecture. I still believe that the simplest effective strategy is the best. Most houses don’t provide fresh air through mechanical systems, but as our houses become tighter this is a consideration. Also worth considering is the best way to provide comfort to the occupants of a house, while at the same time using as little source energy as possible.

AIA Portland Interior

Economic and Societal discussion

One of the more intriguing events of the day was a discussion of the economics of sustainability. Our panel discussed many things, one of which was the current under-utilization of our assets. Car sharing companies are one way to try to correct this. Apparently our cars are used an average of an hour a day. For many people, cars are their largest asset, and command a significant chunk of their income for payments, for insurance and maintenance, and for fuel and other transportation costs such as parking and tolls. Cars represent, and often are, such indispensable items that we will pay significantly for them even though by many measures they are under-utilized. Additionally, typical suburbs have 9 parking spaces for each car. Think about the cost implications, the land use implications, not to mention the roads and other infrastructure requirements, and the general waste that each car represents becomes staggering. Thoughts like this make me think that the electric car is not going to solve the problem, and we might not be asking the right questions.

Exterior of the Portland AIA building

The AIA Portland building is a cool little building, with many green features. One of the things I liked the most about it is that is reuses an existing but not so relevant old building. The interior space was simply finished, and provides for maximum flexibility. The building was designed to treat all its own rainwater and reuse it to flush toilets (this was a very common theme in Portland; I guess the rumors about Portland rain are true).

How can we convert our populace from a nation of consumers to a nation of stewards, of citizens? What role can concepts like eco-districts, or eco-blocks play? We saw buildings that process greywater, blackwater, and storm runoff on site, and generate electricity through turbines, solar panels, or even biogas. Many use green roofs to minimize the heat island effect, to have a small garden, and to reintroduce habitat. One roof we saw was covered in bees. Often these systems level strategies are difficult to employ at the scale of one building, but there should be a way to bring other buildings into the mix and pool resources. Office buildings and residential buildings often have inverse occupancy times, surely there is a way to leverage that temporal flux.

How can we put a value on what are typically considered economic externalities? In order to continue to thrive, our cities and our buildings are going to have to include the costs, and hopefully begin to replenish ecosystem services. Can we begin to place real value and / or costs on things like: Rainfall, Sewage, Pollination, Clean Air and Water, Animal Corridors and Habitat? These are the things that we have either taken for granted, subsidized, or not even considered, and these are the things that will define whether we can continue to have rich and meaningful lives.

One of the systems I think about in Berkeley is storm drainage. All of our impervious surfaces, coupled with the minimization of the natural creeks and watersheds along with the city requirement that all rainfall be diverted to the streets has created a big problem when we have rains. It is a problem for the city’s storm drains to handle this, it is a problem for the bay to accommodate all that runoff, especially with all the contaminants. What if we could do something simple, like have our street parking spaces incorporate permeable paving? Integration and consideration of larger systems should be a big part of our planning and zoning, as well as our public works decisions.

One of the best pieces of advice at this panel discussion was that we all need the courage to act on our analysis. If we think the system isn’t working yet we do nothing to alter it then we haven’t acted with courage.

A 'naturalistic' park in the middle of the Pearl

Tanner Park
Tanner Park is an urban park. The metaphor of the park is that it shows, in one block, a cross section of the vegetation that existed in the area before intensive human settlement. The park is nicely designed, with a more traditional lawn and park at the uphill side through the native plants then to a wetland, culminating in a water feature that doubles as a containment pond. The site collects and processes its own rainwater by circulating it through the vegetation on site. The sunken nature of the park allows a brief respite from the urban noise and visual chaos. Apparently some of the osprey have taken to patrolling the pond on the off chance that someone has tried to introduce goldfish / carp to the pond.

Still room for humans to gather

Revitalization of historic buildings
The University of Oregon committed to downtown Portland by converting a few historic but dilapidated buildings into a fine example of rehabilitation.

Entry lobby at the University of Oregon's downtown Portland building

Many people have heard of the 2030 building challenge, with the goal of having our buildings be fossil fuel neutral in 20 years. Another goal is the Living Building Challenge, which extends this concept not only to energy, but to water and materials. The buildings in this framework collect all their own water, even drinking water, and process waste on site. Materials are to be sourced locally, within a certain radius. There is even a provision for bridging the current gaps in feasibility so that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.

A joint between two of the buildings

UofO discussion
One question that many architects are now asking is how do our buildings interact with the larger systems in the region, including water, energy, transportation, and human. Can we tell, just by looking, what city our buildings are in? And how can we build in adaptability and flexibility with respect to these systems over time. We often make an attempt to respond to our regional climate, but this is guaranteed to change over time. The typical office building strategy is to neutralize the existing factors and to make a building that ‘fights’ its climate. A glass box with shaded windows and a beefy air conditioning and heating system is not easy on resources and is not a pleasant place to be. The varied climates that we all live in have tremendous value, and if we can design our buildings to work with and leverage the climate then perhaps we can begin to repair some of the disconnection that our buildings have from the natural world. That disconnection filters through society. I’m always surprised when I return to Florida to visit my family that everyone has the air conditioning set to 65 degrees. I always pack my summer clothes but then wind up needing a sweater.

Truss support detail

An interesting question to ask ourselves is whether, or even how much, the environmental degradation we’ve all witnessed over at least the past 50 years has resulted in a loss of meaning, or a lack of care. Does the conversion of farms and wilderness to undifferentiated suburbs create places that we just don’t care about? If so, what effect does that have on us as members of society, as stewards of the land, and as parents of children. The concept of civic ecology is the idea that we are all responsible for the care of not only the structures we inhabit, but for the spaces between and for the larger decisions that our communities make. We are all responsible for the society that we’ve created, and for how our values are handed down to our children. The concept of cultural capital is that value exists in a healthy and vibrant community, and that this value is not dependent on material wealth. We discussed 5 principles that a vibrant community possesses:

Consideration of whole systems
Focus on Place
A New Social Contract
Adaptive Frameworks
Dynamic, responsive to Constant Change

It is becoming clear that, as important as specialization is, seeking the inputs of others is also important. What can biologists teach us about buildings? How can we get city bureaucrats to become part of the solution? How can we refine the questions that we are asking?

Truss detail, with north facing clerestory

The architecture studios are on the top floor, under these trusses. Not a bad studio space.

An example of how we are not always asking the right question is looking at how we design our mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The typical solution is to ‘force’ air at the desired temperature through ducts. More advanced systems separate out the systems so that each can do its job better. Placing radiant panels in the ceiling where they can function as sound panels and also carry cool water allows the dynamics of convection and radiation to work effectively. Conversely, providing heat low in a room allows the heat to effectively mix through all the air. Even more savvy systems can carry undesired heat from one part of a building to a cool part of the building that needs it, in a way thinking of the entire building as having its distinct microclimates and planning for that.

Joint of old and new

Mercy Corps

We ended the formal day by touring the Mercy Corps building. A beautiful new building was added to a beautiful old building. The old building was preserved as a historic piece of architecture, and the architects did a great job blending the new with the old. Each stands separately, yet they feel like parts of the whole. Mercy Corps is an incredible organization, worth exploring further.

Interior volume of Mercy Corps building

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