Underground Story in Altadena is Not a Basement?

dbaArchitects is working on a residential project in Altadena, which is controlled by the County of Los Angeles (with regard to Planning Regulations). The Owner of this house wants to put a “basement” under the house for an entertainment area, as he often has extended family over. We are stuck in a quandary: per the Altadena Area Community Standards District, the floor must be primarily above grade in order to consider it as a basement and use it as a habitable room. See the first image:

Description of the Basement as Published by Altadena Community Standards District

A floor that is primarily below grade is considered a “cellar”, but according to the Planning Department, a cellar cannot have habitable rooms.

This image shows the area that we are proposing to have as a Recreation Room below the first floor:

Ground Level Plan Showing the Area of the Basement

And this image shows the arrangement in section:

Section Through the House Showing the “Basement”

Apparently a basement and a cellar are not included in the overall floor area computation (GSA), which might have something to do with these distinctions. We have offered to include the lower story in the floor area calculations and proposed calling it a “subterranean story” in order to use it as a Recreation Room, but this has not yet been approved.

Other options are for the Owner to get a variance or administrative approval of some sort. It’s hard to believe that there are no traditional basements in houses in Altadena.

We are meeting with the Planner tomorrow to try to work this out. The struggle continues…

11/3/22 Update: We went to meet with the planner at 8am, during his published office hours and he wasn’t there. We met with another planner who had no ideas how to help us, but we did get the email information for a supervisor, who I will contact for help.

11/4/22 Update: The head planner, Kevin Finkel, is out of the office until Monday. Hopefully, we will hear a reply from him next week.

11/11/22 Update: We still haven’t heard from the head planner. And I suspect the city offices are closed today, Veteran’s Day. I emailed him a reminder, anyway.

11/14/22 Update: Good news! The head planner has agreed to review this issue and said he will get back to us.

Why do Architects Like Black?

Black is an absence of all colors. Black gets out of the way and lets other elements or events take prominence. Yet it can also have a very powerful presence. It’s a conundrum, which makes it appealing. It is complexity and contradiction personified.

I believe that the use of black hearkens back to our formative years in architecture school. When architects begin their career, they start by sketching with a black pencil on a blank sheet of paper. This restricts the thought process to basic elements of shape, form, contrast, value and shading which are more than enough to deal with initially. Later on, more elements are added to the mix, but the basic foundation is always present.

Design Elements

Black can be used sparingly to set off other elements or colors. A black reveal separates two elements. Black can be used to create elegance: A tuxedo is the epitome of elegance.


Black furniture is neutral. Depending on the item, it can have a high visual impact or it can be relegated to the background. Black audio speakers psychologically help them to “disappear”, which is what I want when listening to music. I want to concentrate on the music and the manifestation of the instruments in the room rather than on the speakers.

It’s much easier to ignore black loudspeakers than red loudspeakers, for instance, even in a dimly lit room.

Product Design

 Compatibility and elegance are primary reasons for selecting black consumer products. Seldom does one grow weary of a black phone, for instance. A black car gives the impression of solidity, prominence, and a driver that knows exactly who he is and what he wants.


 Black is compatible with almost any color. It even goes with black. So any color (except some shades of brown) pants can be worn with a black shirt, or any color shirt (except some shades of brown) can be worn with black pants. Color coordination is a “no-brainer”. A little black dress can be worn almost anywhere. Steve Jobs always wore a black turtleneck shirt for his presentations. His clothes neutralized his body as a presence and allowed the audience to focus on his art and not on him. It’s also the easiest choice to make in the morning when selecting attire.

Some could argue that black, then, seems to be used to avoid making a commitment. But selecting black instead of selecting a “color” is actually making a very bold statement.

It’s also the color of solemnity and mourning. So it must be used wisely, lest something appear completely inappropriate. A black hearst seems completely natural, yet a black house would probably appear quite eccentric.

An architect is the pencil on the canvas of the city.

Phases of an Architectural Project

This article outlines the typical phases of an architectural project through the permitting process. In very simple projects, the phases are abbreviated or overlap and the distinctions between phases are less obvious. In complex projects, the phases also can overlap, especially when there is a short timetable. The phases outlined here are Programming, Pre-Design, Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documents and Plan Check/Permit.


Architects usually work from a “program” that is created by the client, or by the client in conjunction with the architect. The program is simply a list of requirements and desires for what should be included in the project. It’s a “wish list” to a certain extent. It should be prioritized by what is critical vs items that are desirable but perhaps not critical, if they can be accomplished within the budget. The program can include items such as rooms that are required, sizes of functions, rooms and workspaces, equipment that must be accommodated, relationships between the required functions, such as proximity requirements, views or particular orientations, and even stylistic and aesthetic preferences.

Some clients require the latest energy saving strategies, or highly detailed woodwork, for example, whereas others might want a very inexpensive project which can be finished by the owner as more funds become available. Often, a client will collect a number of photographs from magazines or the web showing elements/colors that they like. This is quite valuable in giving the architect a direction. But some clients are open to suggestions of the architect as to what he thinks is appropriate for existing conditions and to accommodate the required functions.

It is not necessary for the client to propose where the functions occur or how the project is physically laid out: This is the purview of the architect during the design phases.


We visually survey the site. Site dimensions and restrictions are obtained from a variety of sources including the Office of the Tax Assessor and the local planning department. Applicable codes are reviewed to verify parking requirements, setbacks, height restrictions, etc. The information that is garnished during this phase is used as a framework within which Schematic Design is done.

If the project is a remodel or addition, existing conditions must be documented. This includes measuring the existing building and drawing the site and building to scale to be used in the next phase. Any drawings of the site or the building that are the owner might already have are often useful in this phase.

Schematic Design

This is a conceptual design phase. Various alternatives and layouts of the functions are investigated by sketching on paper. The schematic designs usually include several options within a range of budgets. The goal is to define the basic layout of all the functions and overall massing of the building, if relevant. Schematic design presentations usually include simplified floor plans and elevations. There will be several meetings where the client and architect discuss the alternatives and express preferences.

In some cases, the owner might not yet have a site, or the project might be tenant improvements of one sort or another. We often help the owner determine the “fit” of his program to a particular site by doing quick “space planning” of the program into several alternative locations.

Design Development

Once the Schematic Design is distilled down to a single design that is agreed to by the client and the architect, more detailed design is done. During this phase, all elements of the project a defined, from finish materials to window types to hardware. The “style” of the project is fleshed out aesthetically. The architect works closely with the owner to select items such as finishes and hardware that meet the owner’s approval. This phase usually overlaps the next phase to a certain extent, due to the method of design and documentation utilized by the architect.

Construction Documents

All elements of the design need to be communicated to the contractor. In order to do this, construction documents are produced. They show the contractor where everything goes in the project and how everything fits together.

Construction documents include architectural drawings that show walls, doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, millwork, light fixtures and outlets, and finishes, etc. They can also include drawings done by engineers for aspects of the project that are not usually done by the architect. Engineers can be retained for civil/site work, soils testing, structural, mechanical (air conditioning, heating), plumbing, and electrical work, as needed. Often in small projects, such as residential additions, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers are not required. These trades are usually done “design/build,” which means that the contractor will hire subcontractors who include the design engineering as part of their work.

Plan Check/Permit

When the drawings are complete, they are submitted to the local jurisdiction for “plan check.” The drawings are reviewed for compliance with all codes and ordinances by several agencies. These can include the planning department, building department, green building review, public works, health department (mostly for restaurants/commercial kitchens), industrial waste, sewer, and others. There can be other very specific approvals required from some local agencies as well, such as the California Coastal Commission or design review boards.

The plan check process can take from a day to many months depending on the complexity of the project, how busy the building department is, and how much you want to pay (Los Angeles, for example, has “expedited” plan check available for an additional fee). The agencies usually send back comments, commonly referred to as “corrections”, that must be addressed by the architect and his team of consultants, and re-reviewed by the agencies. The plans are then resubmitted to the city for review. Once the agencies are satisfied, the documents are approved for permit.

How Much Will It Cost?

“How much will it cost?” is one of the first questions we usually hear. Cost depends on many factors from the price of lumber (which can fluctuate greatly) to how busy a contractor is. My twenty years of employment at a design-build firm has given me great insight into how to logically design a structure so that it can be assembled by any manner of workers. Knowledge of construction means and methods, when taken into account during the design process, will necessarily lead to efficient construction. Efficient construction is critical in keeping the cost reasonable.

In general, the size of a structure is often used for initial budgeting, especially for single family dwellings. You will hear numbers such as $200/s.f., or $250/s.f. for estimating. These numbers are very general and can be adjusted up or down in an attempt to take in to account the level of finish, such as whether you are using wood windows or aluminum windows, expensive finishes, high end appliances and plumbing fixtures, etc. But some costs are “fixed”: bathrooms required plumbing and waterproof finishes. Kitchens require plumbing, electrical, mechanical systems, cabinetry and appliances. All these trades are required to some extent, which is why bathrooms and kitchens cost so much more than a simple bedroom addition.

But using the cost/s.f. numbers can’t always come close to being accurate. If you want to add a 150 s.f. bedroom, it’s not likely that it can be done for $30,000. Estimating the cost of a 1500 s.f. addition using the cost/s.f. method is more likely to come closer to reality. The reason for this is that there are mobilization costs, cost of simply getting to the site, and numerous other things that have to be done for every project, no matter what the size. These things are a much smaller percentage of a 1500 s.f. addition than a 150 s.f. addition.

Dancing Compasses

This illustration is useful as a relatively simple representation of pure design. It contains many elements that dbaArchitects use in design:

Pattern: The elements set up a pattern (of two “legs”) and then break it. The two legs don’t need to be parts of a compass but just design elements.
Humor: The compasses seem to be dancing or, at least, posing.
The sum is more than the whole of its parts: The pieces come together and represent a chorus line or something similar to letters in a word.
Simplicity: The elements are all very simple: black and white images, forms of two or three elements each, similar scale items.
Complexity: Taken together they become some kind of prickly-rounded-sliding-hinging assembly.
Repetition: Individual elements gain justification by repetition.
Engagement: It almost looks like the compasses are letters, spelling out a word. The design tempts you to study it. You are drawn in.
Historical Reference: Drafting tools of days gone by is appropriate for a site about architecture, which, at its most basic, started with very simple hand drafting tools.
Consistency: The elements all functioned in a similar manner: they are hand-held human-scaled tools. All seem to be of the same “family”.
Functionality: The compasses are tools.
Pleasing Aesthetics: The last element is quite subjetive, but I can safely say that the design as a whole is pleasing to the eye.

BIM: Building Information Modeling

In simple terms, and as it pertains to dbaArchitects, BIM is the virtual three-dimensional representation of a building. The building is modeled through all phases of design and documentation. Two-dimensional construction documents are done in the same file by augmenting the model with annotation. Since the building is modeled, it’s easy to view and work in three dimensions, as well as present the project in various stages of its design. All of dbaArchitects projects are done using Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD, which is the first software to make extensive use of BIM.

The earliest schematic design is done by sketching on paper. The sketches are input into the computer for firming up the design and for visualization. Sketches are typically done all through the design process in conjunction with modeling the building.

Construction documents that are produced from a BIM file are less likely to contain mistakes in the building because all elements of the model are simply being viewed from different angles or in different combinations to show/hide the relevant information.

For a detailed description of all that BIM entails, see Wikipedia’s entry.

The Value of Design

“You are wasting space” is one person’s opinion when they don’t value the nature of the space or the impact that the space can have on a person’s psyche. An architect’s job is to create a space that not only functions well but also touches the heart. In fact, touching the heart can often be more important than pure function.

People are adaptable. Habits can be modified, molded and shaped either voluntarily or not. Someone might gladly give up a door or window or a few feet of space if the result is more satisfying spiritually or aesthetically. On a larger scale, someone might choose to have a tiny house in a magnificent setting rather than a larger house in a mundane setting. Witness the increased interest in “Tiny Houses” as of late.

It’s the architect’s job to identify or create these opportunities and to present them to the owner clearly.

Architecture and Music Alter Your Environment

It is human nature to alter one’s environment. People adjust and modify their environment to create an attractive and comfortable living space or work space. They inevitably furnish and decorate a space to their liking. Perhaps they even hire an architect to help create an exemplary space from scratch. An architect modifies the built environment to accommodate a client’s needs for utility, function, and aesthetics.

A building is a fixed size, stationary, and can be revisited time and time again over many years. However, there are variations: Architecture can appear different at different times of the day or year due to changing light and climate conditions, variable architectural elements of the building (such as shading devices), and even changes to the environment around it.

A musician also modifies the environment: Playing an instrument generates sound waves with the intention of influencing the audience in a particular way. People go to performances to find something special to enrich their lives. They seek a calming, exciting, pleasing, or disrupting experience that is not part of their normal daily existence. They have their environment altered.

A live music performance is unique and can never be duplicated. The notes being played at subsequent performances might be the same, but the performance will always be slightly different. There are variables in the performer’s physical condition, emotions, the tempo of the piece, air temperature and humidity etc. The nature of this experience is primarily why people make the effort to attend live music events.

Architecture and Construction: Pribyl’s First Law

This is a basic reality of construction. For construction of a project, you can get two out of the following three, never all three:

Inexpensive * Fast * Good

Inexpensive + Good

This is possible, but at the expense of speed. You will need time to find a contractor who is inexpensive (most likely at the beginning of his career), yet will take the care necessary to build a high quality project.

Inexpensive + Fast

You are most likely to get a contractor who will use the least expensive components assembled with less than meticulous care. Expect cheap versions of the building components. Occasionally, inexpensive items assembled quickly can work out. Expect a lot of “hammer-to-fit” and “paint-to-cover” solutions.

Fast + Good

You will need to hire a very capable contractor who has excellent quality subcontractors and vendors that he has used often. Hope for a break in his schedule where he can fit your project in.

*This entry is half tongue-in-cheek, but often more true than not.

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