Working with Contractors

Excavation Begun on Quinn Creek Project


The excavator broke ground this fall 2014 on the new home that we’re designing on Quinn Creek Road, just east of Bozeman, Montana (please see a write-up and renderings of this design here). As you can see, this home will be built on a beautiful piece of mountain-side property. We’re excited that the Quinn Creek project is underway and are looking forward to the home being built in the spring/summer of 2015. Thank you, Brad Nolan the excavator, and everyone else who has contributed to this project thus far.






Everyday Architecture: It’s for the rest of us

DIY home improvement, construction, remodeling ideas and thoughts

When I was in architecture school back in the early 2000’s, I found myself falling into the trap of ‘glory design’ or ‘reinventing the wheel.’  While working on my thesis, I discovered that I was missing a crucial piece of the picture, which is that most of the built-world is devoid of ‘good’ design.  Luckily, I found a book called Architecture of the Everyday, written by Steven Harris and Deborah Berke.

This book opened my eyes to a less glamor-oriented type of design, but more importantly, a typology of design for the common dweller. In Everyday Architecture, design revolves around function, form, and beauty, but with less emphasis on stylization and more on regional or local tradition (vernacular). The concern is less on newness and more on the recycling of the old as well as a reduced budget rather than a maximum budget.  Simplicity is a solution set over technological overpowering of issues like heating, ventilation, and aesthetics.

There are many reasons why architecture has been hijacked by glossy, over-stylized, expensive design practices which are not even environmentally sound.  The profession in itself tends towards elitism due to an all-consuming focus towards ‘white collar’ professionalism, first starting during education, then continuing into internship and professional careers.  Architecture has become a very expensive career. Most that follow its conveyor belt to ‘stardom’  not only need to make it pay off their education, but also have aspirations toward higher monetary rewards.

One of my neighbors exercises his creativity.

So how do we return creative, thoughtful, efficient, and affordable design to the average dweller? To start, it is important to not want what others have and instead, concentrate on what our own desires and goals are for our habitation. This sounds rather simplistic, but is very difficult for many to do in a time period where everywhere we look there is a push towards someone else’s vision of what is important, cool, or beautiful. Let’s take back our own vision and begin to create a uniqueness specific to ourselves, our family, and our needs.

Simplification of the home’s necessities is one of the best ways to allow other creativity to come through. The home need not consume every dollar of the paycheck. Many of the greatest design ideas can come from our own ingenuity if we allow time to expand on our ideas, then do the appropriate research into such ideas. As Martin Heidegger put it, ‘to dwell is to actually create or take part of the making of our homes.’  It is sad to say, but the average homeowner is restricted in this day and age to their yard. Most ‘home improvement’ consists of mowing the lawn, killing weeds, or maybe growing a garden. It was not that long ago that most home owners actually built their home with the help of an experienced carpenter. Unfortunately, the modern housing industry has become a maze of technical and codified complexities, which cause most homeowners to feel unqualified to actually make or ‘dwell’ in their own home.

Many systems like heating, cooling, and ventilation have been hijacked by technological complexity.  How many times I have asked a client what kind of heating system they have and where it is located and “they don’t know”.  This is an example of the ridiculousness of this time period. We must return to ‘knowing,’ which will empower us to take back our homes. I have shown on my site much about organizing the home plan to maximize solar gain, to minimize overheating, and to promote cooling. These are rather simple systems that we can all understand and use to drive and support our homes’ energy needs. What I am getting at is “Knowledge is Power'” once we strive to understand a system, then we can make it out own. Modern home design,however, often involves electronic gadgetry to make up for our own lack of understanding (and laziness).

I am not going to suggest that every aspect of home construction is DIY, but some are.  Builders are often the worst in staying stuck in a building method or typology. It takes time to learn building systems and it takes know-how to actually build. With that, many builders stay with what they know and have built/contracted before. It is easy for a contractor to continue to use the same building systems because they know how to bid the project and how to specify which materials and subcontractors. This can keep them stuck in certain building typologies. It takes a certain type of builder, as with the client, who actually wants to learn new systems of heating and building. An open-minded client will find more potential with an open-minded builder. In other words, its is important for a client to look for designers and builders not for their websites’ pretty pictures, but the content and hopefully some good looking design. Also, understand that not all builders are receptive to DIY or sweat equity.

A client’s ability to help with the construction of their home is a difficult one to assess.  Certainly the more a client knows about the design and construction method of their home, the better.  However, building is a skill and it takes time to learn and practice, as well as physical fitness. Mistakes will be made along the way for anyone new to building, which can be costly and dangerous. The last thing a builder wants is for their client to fall off a ladder or run their hand through a saw-blade. Along this line, a contractor’s insurance company often will not want to know that a client is working on site. However This is real dwelling.


Follow up on 67 Gray Street Remodel


I recently returned to follow up on 67 Gray Street remodel to photograph the results.  There were a number of talented finishers that all helped to make this design become a very nice home.

Dining room Before


Dining room After


dinning2   dinning4      dinning3   porchview   ceiling2

Ceiling with old beams, new pine ceiling and drywall soffits

Kitchen Before


Kitchen After

kitchen3  kitchen2   kitchen

Living room Before

fireplace   2ndfront

Living  room After

fireplace    livingroom2


New Hall and staircase

 hall    stair2nd  stair                       stair-3rd

New 3rd Floor Office and Bedroom



Collaboration between designer ,builder, client=success

Collaboration between the designer and builder keeps things interesting and more importantly often ‘hits the nail on the head’ in regards to efficiency, economy, and customer satisfaction.  Diversity in design and construction allows the glass to continue to be filled while offering a variety in projects.

Over the last several years I have had the  opportunity to work with Art Albin, owner of AACraftsman, a Bozeman Montana residential construction and remodeling business. Art knows that working closely with the designer is the key to getting his projects off to a good start.  It is important with home remodeling projects to get started with the clients involved with the designer and builder.  This connection ensures that the goals of the homeowner are met.  This plays out as follows:

Often the builder may be approached by a customer who wants their home remodeled .  Most good builders steer the client towards having a designer assist in the process because they know that the time spent here will in the end save time, money, and the headaches of building something that the clients don’t want or cant afford.  When the builder, Art in this instance, calls me into a project we usually visit the customer together.  This is important because Art will see or hear issues about the project that I might not because I am focused on some aesthetic or programmatic concern.  The reverse might be true where I may see opportunities in the design that the builder does not immediately see or think of.

Meeting with both designer and builder allows two sets of ears to hear more.  Most clients are not single, but are often a husband and wife, or a family.  Often the husband  has his concerns that need to be addressed like how the entry to their home is icy after a storm because there are storm drainage issues.  His significant other, however, may be interested in how the entry could be more welcoming or could offer a place to sit.  When Art and I spend time with the client/clients, we are able to glean important information that is pertinent to the whole design.  The images below are of a project that Art called me in on.

rendering of concept

Quick rendering of concept


Another quicky

Concept to Design to construction diagram


Final built product

After Art and I have meet with the clients, we spend some time discussing what we both found out in our meeting with them.   During this meeting we come up with general design parameters for the project that we agree upon.  After my first design iteration we meet again to look it over before producing a set of concept drawings for the client.  At this point small changes are made if there has been some part of the design concept needs further attention.  The client now has their chance to see what we have come up with, look over the drawings, comment on the design, and let us know how they like the design.  It is a process that takes gradual revision to finally get everything dialed in.  The design and communication time is time well spent for it heads off the potential of the builder misunderstanding what the clients actually want.

From here Art and I meet again and talk about further details, methods of construction, materials to be used, etc.   I then go back to drawing what will be a ‘bid set’ of drawings which will help Art in estimating materials, schedule, and other subcontractors bids on various parts of the project.  If we are in a town, a building code jurisdiction set of drawings will be provided to the town building department as it is important that we comply with the necessary codes before anything is built.

After the first bid set of drawings is completed and bids, materials estimates and such come in, there are sometimes revisions that occur due to budget issues or slight design changes. Very rarely at this point is it necessary for major revisions as most of this has already been understood and agreed upon by the designer, the builder, and the client. This is the beauty of a design/build approach.  The process from the start has been witnessed and understood by all in verbal, written, and drawn/modeled media.

Wood stove heat exchanger, pretty hot

I  want to report some news about the integration of a wood stove heat exchanger into my brother’s shop, WerkHaus (see the project here), that I designed and built.
Yep, my brother has finally finished off the heating system with the help of Norm Walters, a radiant heating tech. Its kind of exciting because its the final product of a giant experiment started about 4 years ago. To get the overall picture of the scheme of the heating system, please see this pic first. Oh, and this one, too.  These diagrammatically say a lot about the general idea we had years ago.
Originally we started with radiant heat tubing in the concrete slab and Phil used a wood stove up until this fall to heat the building using the fan systems to move heat around the building. This really was lacking though because Phil has to work on cars while on a dolly on the slab, which is really kind of cold down at that level. So, he knew that getting the slab up and running as the heat source would be the ultimate solution.

Phil is on a budget, so a typical on the wall, on demand propane condensing boiler was out of the question, at least for now. Originally Phil and I came up with an idea…What if the wood stove came with a heat exchange manifold? Would this do the trick and provide enough heat to run the slab? Well the answer is yes, but it isn’t quite that simple. Norm Walters filled Phil in on the possible scenario that might make it all work. What it comes down to is you need a tank to store the heat and this tank it was decided needed to be well insulated and preferably do some heating, too. So a couple of years ago, Phil purchased this unit.
Then he had Norm hook up his wood stove, which came with a very simple heat exchange coil by using a typical manifold and pump system like this…. Well to make along story short, he got this hooked up to the slab with a typical manifold system and ran it straight off the wood stove, but guess what? It just wasn’t enough of a heat coil on the stove to make it work or run warm enough. So, he resorted to running off the electric hot water heater, and guess what? His electric bill went nuts. So, Norm found a copper coil from some old refrigerator unit and installed it on the top of Phil’s wood stove to increase the heat capturing capability of the stove and water tank. I am making this sound all quite simple but in reality, it took some fiddling and some pumps, and gauges, and sensors, thermostats, and electric meters to make it all work, along with some rather confusing diagrams…I can’t figure it out too much, but what I do know is that Phil is quite happy with the fact that he is running his concrete slab with the wood stove and looks to save some electricity this winter. He sounds kind of excited about it and I would have to say that makes me happy. With some work, it is possible to make these systems happen and it does help to have a radiant heat techy on hand like Norm.

See if you can figure it all out from the the pictures I provided. I understand the concepts, but am not really on top of the electrical and plumbing part.  I believe with the proper research, the integration of a wood stove heat exchanger into homes could save on the heating in your home, too.

ripped into the back of the beast

Well today was the day that we would find out what was under the floor, and yes hopefully not a beating heart. The lads were on hand, Silas, Parker.
Emily assisting in all areas of demolition removal, and screaming when the bees attacked from under the floor.
And Jon managing and assessing all grim findings… which there were a number of. The never-ending hearth of bricks that eventually led to a harvest of field stone. The chimney of solid dirt, and mystery cylinders. And the normal pipes of all sizes, wires galore, and dirt, insulation dust (itchy stuff) and dirt, more dirt, oh nails old rusty nails, and dirt.
We cut up the
floor, pried it up, threw it out, and what did we find, a hole of dirt, strange framing method, and dirt. So what we do now we will see. I am going to sleep on it myself, one should never mix a day of demolition with design thoughts, the two need to be separated by at least one nights rest. Next blog on 67 GreySt