Monday, October 21, 2013


There is a vast arena of jobs that people do in the world, and frequently no one really knows what another person does when they go to work. Most everyone has a title associated with their job, but these titles generally do little to describe what a person actually does.

I don’t know what my family or friends do at work, but every day they get up in the morning, go to work, and come home in the evening. When I ask the question “What do you do all day at work?” the answer is frequently “lots of things.”

As an architect, my answer to that same question could also be “lots of things”.

Architecture is a design profession, but the notion of design goes far beyond lines on paper (or computer monitor). There is a great deal of variation within the field architecture, as there is in most professions. Below is a look into what I do as a sole practitioner architect, working in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have omitted the ‘behind the scenes’ work, such as the work of landing a job, developing a program, discussing and evaluating a budget, and many other associated processes that occur before a project is actively begun.

Due diligence plays an integral role in an architect’s job, although certainly this is not the sexy part of the work. Due diligence includes: local code research; site-specific research; understanding possible site restrictions; and procuring any documents required by the governing agency such as a survey, soils report, etc. Feasibility studies, programming, and budget analysis can also be part of this process. Requirements such as design review, presenting to committees, height and set-back limitations, and discussions and meetings with the governing jurisdiction are also a part of due diligence.

Once the due diligence is underway (and this can be an on-going process), the design can begin. Design is typically broken into three parts: site design, schematic design, and design development. But design is not a linear process with a beginning, middle, and end. It is more of a serpentine movement, one that has a beginning and an end, but with many wiggles in between.

It is nearly impossible to describe a design process, as it is truly a process that begins with a line on a piece of paper that is transformed, based on the site, geography, position of the sun, clients’ needs and desires, program, and what is seen, heard, thought, read, dreamed, smelled, and even eaten. The end product is both an abstract and a dialogue that covers all elements of life, and it is dedicated to the client and to good design.
 There are sub-sets of design that are more tangible and easier to describe than the pure design process. Site design is an important first step in the design process, where geography, climate, solar evaluation, wind and weather patterns, access, views, light quality, etc., are all important factors to consider and understand before beginning the design of a building. Other sub-sets of design which are part of an architect’s work include lighting design (when a lighting consultant is not used), kitchen and bath design, cabinet and furniture design, color, texture, and material palettes, furniture lay-out, office lay-out, stair design, steel design, glass design, even textile design.

As the design and details are being developed, the architect's language is expressed graphically in the conventions of plan, section, and elevation. Plans are views looking directly down at a horizontal surface (a bird's eye view), and include floor plans, roof plan, (showing all roof planes, roof slopes, skylights, and any other roof elements), and electric plan (all light fixtures, receptacles, and light switching).

The floor plan shows location of all walls, windows, doors, stairs, kitchen and bath lay-out, casework, decks and patios, trellises, landscaping features, etc. Dimensions of all exterior and interior walls and components are notated, as well as special instructions. Every window and door is located within a wall and given a number, which is cross-referenced on the window/door schedule (schedules discussed below). Architectural symbols are marked on the plan denoting where sections, details, interior elevations, and blown-up plans (frequently kitchens, baths, and special conditions) have been drawn. The plan becomes very dense with information, and it is a bit of a design exercise to make this sheet easy to read and also look graphically beautiful.
PLUShouse floor plan
Sections are vertical cuts taken through a building, like cutting a loaf of bread into slices. Several sections are frequently taken through a building in order to describe different roof planes, floor elevation changes, wall conditions, etc. Vertical control is identified on the sections, ceiling and roof heights are dimensioned, stairs and railings are layed out and dimensioned, and any other elements best described in sectional view are noted.

PLUShouse sections

Elevations are views looking straight at a vertical plane, and are drawn for every exterior wall and frequently for every interior wall. Elevations show windows, doors, roofs, rain water downspouts, and any other elements located on a wall.
PLUShouse north & east elevations
Architectural details are an important part of design, and are in no way subordinate to the overall building design. Details are specific to each building, and respond to the idea and design of the building in the way materials, elements, components, and building parts are joined. If a steel post is exposed, do you see the connection of the post to the beam it is supporting, or is this a blind connection? If you can see the soffit (underside of the roof) when you look out a window, what is the material, color, shape, texture of the soffit, and how does it relate to the building as a whole? Details can be drawn in one or in multiple conventions of plan, section, and elevation. The detailing of the building should be consistent with the overall building idea, and must occur both in a functional and aesthetic manner.
Fisher/Castellano stair details
In order to detail a building well, it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of structure, technique, products, fasteners, weather-proofing, materials, and methods of construction. Said differently, one has to know how a building is built, understand the materials used in the building (their opportunities and limitations), how to keep the water out, and also keep the building beautiful. Detailing is fun and multi-faceted, and it frequently informs the overall building design as well as the structural design.

Mies van der Rohe

 As Mies van der Rohe (a German architect 

at the forefront of modernist design in the 
early 20th century) stated, “God is in the details.”

An empirical task architects perform is the development of product and material schedules. This is typically done in spread-sheet format. All products associated with the project - windows, doors, electric and plumbing products, hardware, appliances, etc. need to be listed and described by type, manufacturer, product identification number, size and color, as well as any special notations (e.g. window gets installed directly to corner post, no return). A finish schedule lays out similar information, and describes all materials and surface treatments used in the building, both interior and exterior. The finish schedule includes wall finishes, paint colors, flooring, kitchen countertop, casework, roofing, soffit, railings, decks and patio material etc. For instance, an interior stair rail will be specified as 3"x1/2" cold steel bar, clear finish, eased edges, blind weld spots. The schedules are ultimately used by the builder in pricing the building, ordering the materials and products, and getting the project built with the intended products and finishes.
Door schedule
Coordinating the architecture drawings with the engineering drawings (structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical), and with recycled water and photovoltaic systems drawings, is also part of an architects’ job. Even though a building may look very simple, it can have a complex structure that needs to be precisely coordinated with the architecture. For this reason, a thorough understanding of how all systems work, and how they are integrated with and become a part of the building, is of great importance. This is one of the tasks I look forward to - I get to use my latent technical skills, and it signifies that the design will soon become a reality of a built building.
Structural/Architecture coordination
The final output, before construction can begin, is a to create a set of construction documents. These documents consist of detailed graphic and written instructions that set forth the requirements for the construction of the project. Included are the architecture drawings, details, specifications, and schedules of materials and products, as well as all building systems (structural, mechanical, electric), site utilities, and other components applicable to the project ( e.g. recycled water systems and solar systems). This set of documents becomes the basis upon which the building is built. It is also the document submitted to the governing city when applying for a building permit, the last step before construction can begin.

An architect’s work does not end once the design and construction documents are finalized, and the construction has commenced. Architects are frequently involved in the selection of the General Contractor (this frequently occurs at the project outset), the bidding and price negotiation process, and with budget analysis and review. Other ‘behind the scenes’ tasks include client meetings, presentations, model building, 3-dimensional drawings and sketches, sun angle calculations (to determine the depth of roof overhangs or sun shades), product research, permit submittals, keeping up with sustainable issues and products, building and coordinating a strong project team, and so on.

Once construction has begun, the architect oversees the construction process with site visits, discussions with the general contractor and subcontractors, review of payments, change orders, product substitution, and any modifications or changes that may occur during the building process. It is extremely rewarding to develop a relationship and work closely with a client, to see a project team work towards a common goal, and to experience the transformation of an idea to a design, to a set of drawings, and then to a beautiful and functioning building.


Fisher/Castellano Residence
Architects are both artists and mechanics. The end product, the Architecture, must be beautiful. It must make you feel a certain way, slow you down, and create an experience both in the approach to, and movement through, the building. A building must also keep out the weather, comply with planning and building codes, respond to a program, meet a certain budget, get built in a timely manner, and be environmentally sustainable. All these items are important in designing and producing a good building.

It’s a lot of things, and it’s all about taking it from here to there.

Lindy Small Architecture AIA

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


There are so many things we take for granted, accepting that these things will perform as we expect and anticipate them to do. The telephone for instance. An airplane taking flight, a computer giving us information, a simple water meter. There are people who understand how these things work, but to many of us, the operations of these things are more miraculous than understood. I have solidly been in the camp of people who have never taken the time to learn what actually makes a thing work. Until now.

The PLUShouse design is at the end of the development phase, and we have submitted the project to Oakland for planning approval. Included in the submittal to Oakland is the design of the house and the landscape, as well as the design of the recycled grey water system and the rain water collection system. These water systems were designed by our water consultant, Design Ecology, based in San Francisco, California. These guys have been extremely helpful and patient in walking me through the design of the systems. All diagrams shown are from Design Ecology and are intended for the PLUShouse.

PLUShouse water systems design by Design Ecology

In very broad strokes, I will explain how these systems work.

There will be 3 distinct water systems in the PLUShouse:
1.        Municipal water system, for potable water and water used in sinks and showers.
2.        Grey water system, which recycles all water except food sink and toilet water, which will be used in irrigation and toilets.
3.        Rain water collection system, which collects rain water from the roof to be used for irrigation and toilets.

These three water systems are plumbed independently, but will have the ability to feed into each others' systems to satisfy the particular demands for water.

Municipal water system
 We take indoor plumbing and municipal-supplied water for granted, but indoor plumbing was extremely rare until the growth of modern cities in the early 19th century, when better waste disposal systems were installed to prevent disease. In 1845 the first screw-down water tap was patented, and indoor plumbing began to be installed in buildings in the mid-late 19th century.

women carrying water in Nigeria
City-supplied water originated in ancient civilizations to provide public baths, potable water, and drainage of wastes. Standardized earthen plumbing pipes appeared in the Indus Valley civilization by 2700 B.C. The Roman Empire had a vast system of aquaducts to transport water from far away, and used lead pipes to bring the water into homes, public wells, and fountains.

Roman Aquaduct
Roman fountain @ Villa D'Este
We now have more advanced technology and know not to use lead pipes to transport water. But our water can still come from great distances. Oakland water originates from several sources, much of it coming from the Mokelumne River in central Sierra Nevada. This water is stored in the Camanche and Pardee Reservoirs, then transported to Oakland via the Mokelumne Aquaduct. The water is then routed to each neighborhood and directed into each building, where it is piped to each specific plumbing fixture. 

After municipal water is used it is collected in sewer laterals that feed into a network of city sewers, where interceptors (large pipes) carry the water to a treatment plant in Oakland. Here it goes through primary treatment involving screening and settling out large particles. The water then moves to secondary treatment where organic matter is removed and the water is disinfected to remove any remaining bacteria. After being treated, the water is discharged into the San Francisco Bay.

Grey water system 
If a greywater system is installed in a building, all used water is separated into either grey water or brown water.  Greywater comprises 50% - 80% of residential "waste" water, and is essentially all water that has been used, excluding water from toilets and food sinks. A greywater system, such as the one we will be installing in the PLUShouse, recycles greywater for irrigation and toilet water.

The ‘elevator version’ of how a domestic greywater system works is as follows:
After water has gone down the drain (from all fixtures except food sinks and toilets), it is routed to a separate greywater plumbing system. The water passes through a pre-filter, and then enters a greywater holding tank. This tank can either be above or below ground, and is sized according to projected water usage. The greywater tank in the PLUShouse will be a 200 gallon tank (roughly 3x the size of a standard domestic hot water heater), and will be buried underground. When there is a demand for water by either the irrigation system or to fill a toilet tank, the stored greywater will be pumped through a series of filters, then enter the system requiring water. If there is not enough water in the greywater tank to satisfy the demand, water will come first from the rain water tank, then from municipal-supplied water if the rain water tank is empty. According to code, water can remain in the greywater tank for 24 hrs. If the water is not used within this time frame it is drained to the city sanitary sewer line. The brown water, which is not recycled, is directed to the municipal sewer system.

greywater treatment

Stormwater runoff is considered sewage, and goes to a separate facility. Certain cities, including San Francisco, have a combined system for sanitary sewer and sewage.

Rain water collection system
The third plumbing system to be installed in the PLUShouse is the roof water catchment system, or rain water harvesting system. Similar to municipal water and greywater systems, it has a very long history, beginning in the 3rd century BC with the farming communities in present day Pakistan, Afganistan, Iran, and India. Currently, it is common practice to use rain water for all water needs in many parts of the world. In California it is only legal to use rain water for irrigation and for toilets, although in Alaska, Texas, and Ohio rain water can be used in all applications, including potable water. It is mandated to install water harvesting systems in new residences in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in the US Virgin Islands, as well as in many parts of Australia and other parts of the world with low precipitation.

Cudo system
The rain harvesting system we will be installing in the PLUShouse works in a similar manner to the greywater system, but the holding tank is much larger and there is no time limit for water to be held in the tank. The size of the tank is determined by the average annual rainfall in each specific location. Oakland has an average rainfall of 23.3” per year, which translates into a 13,000 gal. holding tank (100'x16'x6').  Instead of using a pre-fabricated water tank, we will be using a Cudo modular storage system, which is basically a series of 2’x2’x2’ plastic milk-type crates, secured together, wrapped in geotextile, surrounded by sand, and then wrapped in a polypropylene plastic liner. The crates act only to keep the shape of the ‘ tank’, which is really just a large bladder buried 2’ underground.

The short version of how rain water harvesting will work in the PLUShouse:
Rain water from the metal roof will drain to downspouts; run into underground pipes to the rain water tank location; pass through a pre-filter; then enter the rain water storage tank. (Water from the first rainfall of the season gets shed into the sanitary sewer system, as it has too much debris from the roof). A ‘smart valve’ tells the tank when water is needed, and the stored rain water is then pumped, or gravity-fed, from the tank, through a series of filters (backwashing carbon unit, reverse osmosis system or sand filter, UV filtration), and then to the desired location (toilet or irrigation). A valve determines if additional municipal water is needed to meet the demand, which is then supplied if necessary. As we are planting extreme drought-resistant landscaping, and anticipate using a total of 50 gal. of water per day, the greywater and rain harvesting systems should supply 100% of all non-potable water to the PLUShouse. What a wonderful way to go!

underground rain water tank

rain water filtration

Water is something we tend to take for granted, expecting it to miraculously come out of a faucet when we turn a knob, and continue to flow until we close the knob. This is not the case in many parts of the world, where water must be physically transported from miles away, and so is used with great care and thought. It seems wasteful to use water for a single application, when we can easily recycle this water for other uses. Design Ecology (our design consultant) will be canvassing Oakland to approve the usage of rainwater not just for irrigation and filling toilet tanks, but to use rain water as potable water and in all sinks, showers, and appliances. I will keep you posted on our progress.

next blog topic: how photovoltaic cells (solar panels) work

Lindy Small  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Last American Cowboy

The cowboy is an American cultural icon. The cowboy population reached its height in the 1860s, due to the arrival of the railroad and the opening of the frontier. Population growth was also aided by a rising demand for beef and the need for cattle drives, where cattle were herded from ranches to the railheads and to distant grazing lands. The American cowboy still exists today, but due to the end of the frontier-oriented lifestyle, the introduction of barbed wire, and the end of the open range and cattle drives, the cowboy population has greatly diminished.

A skill associated with the American cowboy, and one which seems to be diminishing along with the cowboy population, is the ability to make a campfire. The act of making a fire takes much patience, and a small movement of a piece of wood can have a large impact on the success of the fire.

It is these small movements that make a difference. In architecture, as in building a fire, small movements can make a large impact. Take, for example, the size of the PLUShouse.

After the initial schematic design the PLUShouse totaled 2,235sq.ft. Laurie (the client) requested the house become slightly smaller in size. An evaluation of spaces was discussed, and minor revisions were made: the open public space became slightly more narrow; the master bedroom and guest room became slightly smaller; while the master bath became a bit larger. These moves had a very minor impact on the design of the house, as solar orientation, volume, air flow, and the interrelationship of interior and exterior spaces remained constant. 

But one small move - the elimination of the third bath -  had a large impact on the house. As with small moves of rearranging kindling when building a fire, this particular small move strengthened and improved the design of the entire house.

The interior ramp increased 18” in length, reducing the slope and allowing the interior ramp slope to correspond with the exterior ramp slope (1:8). In addition, the guest room entry has more privacy, a wall at the stair has been eliminated, the guestroom bath is reduced in size, and a very small powder room was added (sharing a w.c. with the guestroom bath). The new powder room is landlocked, and receives natural light from a large interior window, which aligns directly with an east-facing exterior window. This exterior east window originally provided light to the stair, and now also channels light into the powder room and the entry.

The minor programmatic moves in the PLUShouse satisfied Laurie’s request to reduce the size of the house to 2,100sq.ft. Equally as important, the seemingly minor modifications associated with reducing the size of the PLUShouse opened the opportunity for a new level of complexity and transparency.

Small moves make a big difference. The isolated and often dangerous life of the cowboy has been romanticized in Western movies, and the gas-lit fire has become customary. But I am still a fan of making my own fire, maintaining a degree of patience as I move bits of kindling to encourage the fire to blaze.

Lindy Small Architecture

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

About the Wonderful Letter H

Lindy's posting of "Alphabet City" gave me yet another reason to love my new house, which is my delight in the letter "H" in the Latin alphabet.

When I began programming Postscript in graduate school, one of the challenges was to learn to "see" letters of all scripts as mere combinations of simple shapes. We used a system that classifies letters based on specific attributes, like whether the letter is made up of lines or circles or a combination of those, whether the shape is symmetric horizontally or vertically, its degree of angle, etc. In some ways such a system is similar to how we classify intervals in music as "perfect," "major," "minor," etc. The term "perfect" in music refers to an element of symmetry, not unlike the symmetry we've given a few of our language symbols.

Most letters are a combination of lines and curves. O falls into the "perfect" and "circle" groups -- actually, O is the quintessential perfect letter, completely symmetrical, since it doesn't matter how you turn it or flip it, it is always the same. X is the "perfect line" letter for the same reason. Two letters, uppercase H and I, which fall into the "line" and "right-angle" groups, are also perfectly symmetrical -- right-to-left and up-and-down, flip the letter either direction and it appears the same. H also makes a bed to sleep in, or builds a ladder to climb. And I (in its serif form, anyway) is H's complement, since if you flip H 90 degrees, it becomes an I.

It seems somehow significant that the two perfect letters X and O in the Latin alphabet are our symbols for love, and the two perfect right-angle line letters H and I spell our symbol for communication and friendship.

So I am thrilled to discover that my house's symbol is one of my favorite letters! If you consider O a musical perfect prime, X the perfect octave, I the perfect fourth, then I'll be living in a perfect fifth!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alphabet City

Diagrams are effective pictorial tools used to describe many things. They are an abstract representation of information, and are depicted in simplified figures, intended to convey essential meaning, clarity, and simplicity.

When I taught architecture design studios at UC Berkeley and at CCA (California College of the Arts), I would always ask my students to draw a diagram to describe their project design. The only rules were that the diagram had to be drawn in 3 seconds or less, and be a clear indication of the form and/or organization of their design. If the student could not do a quick diagrammatic sketch, their building was either unclear or too complicated.

Designing a building is complex, as there are many systems that make up a functioning building: the physical design of the building, it’s form and the way it sits in and responds to the landscape; the structural design that keeps the building standing and secure; the civil, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems design which make a building comfortable to live in; and the sustainable design of solar energy and reclaimed/reused water, which make the building responsible. All these systems are diagrammed as a means of communication, and the simpler the diagram the more clarity of the design.
A diagram is typically not the staring point in architecture, but is something that emerges as a design develops. Both tangible and intangible factors contribute to this process. The tangible, or empirical factors include lot shape and size, solar and wind orientation, mandated planning and building codes, and budget. The more subjective and intangible factors include client/architect relationship, aesthetic values, the project program, and the opportunity to create a sustainable building.

The diagram for the PLUShouse developed in response to these factors, and emerged as a simple upper case letter ‘H’
The 3 lines composing the letter ‘H’ correspond to the project in the following way:

Imagine the letter ‘H’ where the bottom of the letter faces south: 
• the west (left) vertical line of the ‘H’ is the location of the open salon/ living/dining room (spaces listed north to south)

• the east vertical line of the ‘H’ is the location of the guest room, service areas (laundry/pantry/bath), and master bedroom suite (spaces listed north to south)

• the center horizontal bar of the ‘H’ is the kitchen and ramp (reference blog entry “The Ramp” for more information on the ramp).

These spaces are organized in a very lyrical and fluid manner, where only the east (right) vertical line of the ‘H’ has a certain density, with interior walls for privacy.

As the solid lines composing the ‘H’ have spacial assignations, so also do the voids, or negative spaces, created by these lines. This negative space surrounding the letter is equally as important as the physical letter itself.

Imagine the negative space around the ‘H’:

• the void directly below the center bar is the south courtyard, an outdoor room adjacent to the kitchen and protected from the westerly prevailing winds. A 16’ wide wall, represented by the horizontal bar of the ‘H’, can be completely opened to blend the kitchen with the courtyard.

• the void above the horizontal bar is the north, or ridgeline courtyard, a private outdoor space for the guest room. The west and south walls of this courtyard will be landscaped ‘living walls.’

• to the west, or left of the ‘H’ is an informal patio which we refer to as the west ridge. This area has views of the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and will be landscaped in an intuitive and natual manner. A steel trellis will mitigate the direct western exposure.

• the east side of the ‘H’ has a landscape loop which provides access from street level to the front door of the PLUShouse. The first leg of the loop is composed of concrete pavers on grade. As the path turns and loops back towards the front door of the house, it transitions into a bridge above grade.

The letter ‘H’ is no longer a simple composition of 3 lines, but becomes a more complex diagram of solids and voids

Solids and voids are seen as equal wholes in many fields. When drawing, you consider the negative space equally to the positive space. If you are drawing a human figure and the model has her hand on her hip, you will look at the shape and size of the void created by the curve of the body, the arm and the hand, and consider this to be a positive shape. You draw this void, not the physical body.

Voids, or spaces, are also important in music. Consider, for example, a Mozart piano sonata. A pattern is set up of theme and variations, with slight pauses, or rests, between the repetition of theme and variation. These rests are equally as important as the combination of notes themselves, and help set up a rhythm and process. You can hum along with the music, even if you do not know the piece well. You anticipate the rests, or holds in the music, as a method of organization. 

Whether it is a constructed 3-dimensional form, a 2-dimensional drawing plane, or an audible piece of music, the void becomes emotional solid space, and is inherently a part of the diagram.
Back to the diagram. 
A diagram clearly expresses organization.The diagram for the PLUShouse is the letter 'H' - it can be drawn in less than 3 seconds, and clearly explains the organization of the building. A diagram need not be a letter, or even a representation of a thing. Just a reflection of the inner and outer landscape, conveying elegance and simplicity, and implying complexity.

Lindy Small Architecture