Topics of Interest
Builder/Architect Magazine
an architect's viewpoint by William Langdon

Vol 10-6, Nov. 2003

How To Work with an Architect

For most people who work with an architect on a project, it is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.  They might be involved with an architect at their workplace, helping plan a new facility or expansion of the present one, but it is more likely that the architect is helping them design their dream home.  Some folks are even lucky enough to go through this visionary experience more than once.

The profession is shrouded in mystery as to what is exactly that we do, and myths about our motives and methods abound.  Some see us as off beat visionaries with a taste for the bizarre, seeking people to inhabit our experimental geometries. Others expect us to be clairvoyant, having met them only an hour ago, standing at the site hearing "four-bedrooms, three baths" we are supposed to already have a clear vision of what they want to build, not knowing any more about their family needs or how they want to live in that house.  And most consider us a luxury.  If it cost 10% of the project cost to have an architect design and see their house through construction, they ended up with a 10% smaller house.  This is partly a myth too, but I will deal with that in a later column.  

To help those considering hiring an architect, to help them realize their dream project, the AIA Asheville has just released a beautifully illustrated booklet entitled "How to Work with an Architect".   This booklet is filled with all information you need to explore having an architect help you with your project.  "What do Architects Do?"  An essential question, but not an easy question to answer.  What we do is process, a process that will always be partly shrouded in mystery because the process is a little different for each project and each client.  However, the process does have a road map, step by step, stage by stage and this booklet reveals both the milestones in this process and some of the scenery you can expect along the way.  The booklet covers many other bases as well. "Some Questions to Ask When Selecting an Architect"; even "How to be an Effective Client".  

And here is the best part....... this great booklet is available those in Western North Carolina and while supplies last, it is free. Simply call the AIA Asheville at 285-8713 and request a copy or go to our website at enter and go to "Contact Us".  The AIA will mail you a copy.  Businesses who can help distribute the booklet can obtain multiple copies.  

Vol 11-1, Jan. 2004

Modifying Plans

Do You Modify Plans?" This is a question that we are asked on occasion.  Of course we modify plans.  Go into any architect's office and you will see layer upon layer of plan modifications, probably some with felt tip pen or strokes of soft pencil lead on canary yellow tracing paper.  And as each job progresses, there will be many more layers of more precise floor plan modifications on computer CAD drawings.

The floor plan is the form generator of all other aspects of the building.  With any change to the footprint of the building, we are also modifying the site plan, the roof plan, upper or lower floor plans, the foundation plan and footing plans.  A building is three-dimensional, so we are also modifying the massing and appearance of the building as shown in the elevations.    A large portion of our time is spent modifying and improving floor plans and in adjusting and updating all the other elements of a project to embrace these changes.

"We have looked at thousands of plans in plan books and we just can't find one that really fits".   So your search engine just isn't working right?  Typing in a few key words and hitting "search" will not get you that plan that fits.  You can find lots of web sites that supply "house plans".  With so many thousands of floor plans out there that don't work, would you even recognize the right one when it flashes in front of you?  And even if you found it, does it really work with your site?  Does it have a foundation system that will work here? What about the extreme grading that the plan will require?  How many ways must this plan be altered to be built here in the mountains?  Enough monkeys typing on typewriters might eventually create a sonnet, but if a sonnet is what you are seeking, it may be a lot easier and quicker to simply write one.

Finding a plan that you like in a plan book may be a first step, but you are a long way from having a good design to build on a particular mountain site. Most of these "plans" are cut and paste variations of other similar floor plans, all oriented to flat urban or suburban lots.  Few of them, if any, address the complexity and specificity of making the best use of a sloping lot with natural views and other features.  You may want to keep a folder of plans that you like but do not order the "complete set of house plans" as offered by the plan venue until you have explored its shortcomings.  These stock plan sets are not only generally disappointing with regard to quality and completeness.  They are in no way specific to your site, foundation conditions and local building codes.  

If you are having a hard time finding or resolving a floor plan that really fits, hourly consultation with an architect can help generate a floor plan to wed your needs to a given site.   Bring the architect photos and a plat of your property, as well as any topographic information you have.   You may also bring photocopies of floor plans that you like.  The architect can help you explore what you like and what you dislike about each floor plan, and with site information provided, the architect can advise you how well this plan works with your site.  The hourly consultation will at least help you get started in the right direction, and with your architect you can explore alternatives for completing the needed design, drawings, and getting the project built. You may even decide to take things to the next level and ask your architect to simply proceed with schematic design services.

Vol 11-2, Mar. 2004

Schematic Design

Schematic Design is the most important stage in the entire design process.  It establishes the foundation for everything in design that will follow.   It is the stage when creativity can be at its peak.  During schematic design, the clients needs, goals and budget are defined.  An inventory is taken of the natural features and topography of the building site. Microclimatic and sun angles are often considered.  Where are the best views? With the existing slopes and grades, how can grading be minimized?  As schematic design progresses, many ideas and options are explored on paper.  These ideas and tradeoffs are discussed and analyzed in client/architect meetings.  In subsequent design sessions, the client needs and preferences will revisited again and again.  

Two common schematic design issues require far more attention on sloping mountain sites than on flat urban lots.  One is the location of each floor level with its interior spaces relative to exterior daylight, views, and access.  The other challenge is providing for vehicular access, parking and storage, with a minimal disruption of natural site grades.

Most sloping sites generate a home design with a main level at or near the finish grade level on one side and a storey above finish grade on the other side.  The level below is usually above grade on one side, and thus can be utilized for living spaces and bedrooms as well as for garage space or storage.  Some clients will opt for an inverted plan  with their bedrooms below the main level.  Most clients with upscale tastes prefer the home to have a second storey above the main level for bedrooms and private living.  Thus a common solution to the sloping mountain site is a home that has two levels above grade on one side and three levels above grade on the other.

The biggest challenge when siting a home on a sloping mountain site is the question of what to do with the automobile.  Whether the driveway accesses the home site from above or below, the driveway will choreograph your movement and what you see as you approach the house.  There must be an area for guests to park, a place which leads directly to the front  or main entry door.   In addition to guest parking and areas in which to turn around, most homeowners today want a garage area for two or more cars.  If the lower level of the home is used partly for a garage, there should also be at least a parking area near the kitchen service entrance on the main level, if not if not a one-car garage or carport.

Schematic Design is the least understood stage of the architects work.  It is an abstract skill which combines specific human needs with a range of physical, technical and aesthetic criteria, to create a useful and attractive building.  Schematic design is only 15% of the typical time allocation for a full-service project by an architect. While it is the single most important stage of design, it is one that is most often skipped by the owner seeking minimal services.  

What happens when schematic design is skipped over or ignored?  When a plan is taken from a plan book and carelessly stuffed onto a site?  The most jarring results are homes with useless front doors that do not connect to anything outside; where guests arrive by automobile to park behind the house and enter through a service entry.  Many other shortcomings will come back to haunt you if schematic design was never properly executed.  
As the schematic design phase nears completion, your home is placed optimally on your site with driveway grading and automobile issues resolved.  The various floor levels of the home are established with the location of key rooms on each level delineated.  These spaces are linked in a logical way by horizontal circulation pathways and tied together vertically by stairways.  The final stages of schematic design explore in thumbnail sketches or in three-dimensional color media how these spaces assemble into an attractive building form.  By the end of schematic, the project design has a clear organization and direction, both functionally and visually.

The architectural process begins during schematic design with the most general items, the building site and the goals of the client.   As the floor plan is modified and refined, a palette of forms and materials is assembled that meets with the clients approval.  Ultimately, the resultant floor plan is one that becomes unique to your building site combined with your personal goals and visions.

William Langdon, AIA is principal of Wm Langdon Architecture PA, located at 8 College Street, Asheville, NC 28801.  We provide consultation and architectural services for a wide range of residential and commercial projects.  Please visit our website at or call us (828) 252-0296.