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.

Project Spotlight: Malibu Beach Inn

Malibu Beach Inn, Porte Cochere
Malibu Beach Inn, Porte Cochere
Malibu Beach Inn, Malibu, California

Happy 15th Anniversary! It’s all about the view!

With an outdated pink flamingo Spanish Hacienda-style exterior, seashells stenciled throughout the guest rooms, floral upholstered rattan wicker furniture, overgrown plants, and no in-house dining, the Malibu Beach Inn was hardly conjured thoughts of the luxurious community, people from around the world think of when picturing “Malibu.” 

Built in the 1980’s, the hotel’s interior and exterior remained untouched until it was purchased from the original owner by our client, philanthropist and media mogul, Mr. David Geffen in 2005. This is the only beachfront hotel in the City of Malibu.

Located on Carbon Beach, Malibu, California, just south of the Malibu Pier, the Malibu Beach Inn underwent a twenty-seven month long complete transformation. Nothing was spared, “no stone unturned” as they say. The existing hotel was demolished to its original wood framing: The pink flamingo hacienda would become a distant memory!

dbaArchitects’ design concept was to reimagine the entire guest experience, to bring to life what many envision Malibu to be: luxurious and elegant. The guest experience would begin the moment of arrival at the Inn, with the new addition of a porte cochere and lush tropical vegetation, providing a private formal covered entry and privacy screen, leading you away from the noise and speeding traffic along Pacific Coast Highway. 

The new hotel color palette throughout would be a mixture of warm cream and neutrals tones, dark wenge wood, natural stone, and glass. The environmentally-friendly furnishings would compliment the overall tone with custom furniture (also designed by dbaArchitects), luxurious bedding, and in-house amenities. The creation of the exclusive, guest and member-only, Carbon Beach Club would provide in-house dining with the construction of a commercial kitchen and formal dining room, which was previously non-existent.

The hotel acquisition, design, government approvals, and construction of the once outdated hotel was transformed from a 3-Star to 4-Star, forty-seven room luxury boutique hotel in just twenty-seven months, instead of years. With our efficient design-build method, dbaArchitects was able to shorten the timeline and achieve an enhanced rating, which allowed the hotel to double the room rate and occupancy demand.

The Malibu Beach Inn was sold in 2015 to the current owner, who subsequently remodeled the hotel interiors, we’re happy to celebrate the anniversary of its transformation and evolution.

It’s Going to Cost How Much More???

Time is Money. In the context of a new or remodeling project, a Change Order can mean a lot of time AND money.

Indecision and inadequate construction documents are two of the biggest contributors to Change Orders. A Change Order is a document that is issued after construction has begun, usually by the contractor, that modifies the original construction contract to adjust construction costs related to a change in design. The cost associated with a Change Order is calculated separately, typically at a higher rate than the original contract.

Our Top 2 Ways to Help Reduce Change Orders:

#1 Make Decisions in a Timely Manner

Decisions, decisions. You started a project, but now you’re receiving a lot of requests from the Architect and/or Contractor, requesting a decision. You’re presented with a myriad of options: the amount of information can feel overwhelming. But a decision needs to be made, and only you, as the Owner, have the authority to decide. As an Owner, there is a responsibility to respond in a timely manner to ensure that your project continues to move along smoothly in the design and construction timelines. The longer a decision isn’t made, the more cost and time can be incurred, as a result in change of scheduling of contractor and sub-contractors, availability of materials, and the Architect’s schedule.

#2 Avoid “Allowances”

If a specific item (Appliances, tile, equipment, furniture, etc.) is not specified in the construction drawings at the time when the project is being estimated, the Architect may specify and the Contractor may indicate a budgetary allowance in the contract. This amount is not a guarantee of cost. It is a placeholder to provide all parties (Owner, Architect, Contractor) with an approximate idea of cost for the item. Allowances are typically based upon the quality and type of material being used on the overall project. If the project is a high-end custom project, the allowance would be provided accordingly to reflect the overall quality of the project. Reducing the number of allowances by specifying all of your materials, finishes, accessories, faucets, etc. early on will reduce the number of changes to the contract amount later on due to change orders.

While you may plan and specify a seemingly endless list of items during the construction documents phase, there are circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control that will necessitate a Change Order. The intention is to help reduce the number of Change Orders issued later on, thereby reducing the overall cost and time for construction.

Select Your Stove First – 5 Things to Consider When Designing Your Dream Kitchen

5 Things to Consider When Designing Your Dream Kitchen
5 Things to Consider When Designing Your Dream Kitchen
5 Things to Consider When Designing Your Dream Kitchen

You’re standing in your current kitchen thinking to yourself, why doesn’t anything in this kitchen work the way I want? Why is the refrigerator so far from the sink? I don’t have enough storage for all of my cookware. My pantry is so small, it can barely fit anything to last a week, let alone a little extra for a special occasion. After much frustration, you decide, “I’m going to remodel the kitchen!”

You’re excited at the thought of a new kitchen and start searching Mr. Google for design inspiration. You “ooh” and “ahh” at the photos of the latest appliances, cabinet styles, and lighting, searching for the right look, your dream kitchen! After a while, you start to feel overwhelmed with so many options that you don’t know where to begin. 

Here are five considerations when designing your dream kitchen:

#1 The Stove

For this article, the word “stove” is interchangeable with a built-in cooktop/oven combination.

Before selecting any other appliance, select the stove first. The manufacturer, type, size, number of functions, and accessories you select for the stove will start to set the budget for your kitchen. You might want all of the bells and whistles; infrared broiler, griddle, grill, eight burners, double oven (one gas/one convection), wok burner, etc. but do you really need all this? And do you have the space? 

Ask yourself the following:

What type of cooking do you do? Do you prefer quick meals or long simmering dishes, like stew? The type of cooking you do determines what types of burners you will need and the budget of the stove. If you prefer quick meals, you may not need or want the luxury eight-burner stove.

How many burners do you need? Stove sizes vary between 30” wide to 60” wide. Depending on the size, the number of burners range between four and eight. Add-ons such as a grill or griddle will affect the number of burners, stove size availability, and cost.

#2 How will you use your kitchen?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but this is a bigger question to think about than most people realize. The kitchen is often a gathering place, where children will do homework, where you might have idle conversation while cooking, or where you will enjoy a bowl of cereal. You might think, “Well I prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional batch of cookies, what else is there to think about?”

Consider the following:

How often do you bake? Did you know that a kitchen is designed completely different if you prefer baking over cooking. What do you bake? How much preparation space do you need? Do you like to roll pastry for cinnamon rolls and croissants? 

Do you want family and guests to gather around an island while you prepare, cook, and bake?

#3 Allergies or Special Dietary Requirements

Does anyone in your household have special requirements, such as height or reach limitations, allergies, or medical conditions? Allergies or medical conditions may necessitate the need for separate work areas and storage. 

#4 How often do you host large gatherings?

A kitchen should be able to function for your day-to-day living, but could also have multiple people preparing/cooking food simultaneously. Does it feel crowded and chaotic when more than one person is working in the kitchen?

#5 How much pantry and storage space do you need?

Do you like to purchase in bulk? The pantry should be a multi-functional space for storage of small appliances, extra cookware and bakeware, and dry grocery goods (pasta, cereal, canned vegetables). The pantry can be purely functional or a showcase with accent lighting and pullout drawers or shelves to display heirloom dishes.

These five considerations are some of the types of questions your prospective architect/designer should be asking you when working with you to design your dream kitchen. We hope that your dream becomes reality and that you will be enjoying your new kitchen for many generations. 

If you are just starting a kitchen/house/ADU project, contact us early in the process to insure a smooth and comprehensive approach.

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.

Furniture

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.

Clothes

 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.

Programming

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.

Pre-design

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.

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