Monthly Archives: November 2009

Think outside the parking box design competition – results

The results are in for the Think Outside the Box design competition sponsored by Designboom and Nissan. I find the typical parking lot to be the most unimaginative use of land and almost a complete waste of space and materials. Sure it’s a necessity for parking your car when you visit the local strip mall, but the potential for providing anything else worthy is completely untapped. It’s a microcosm of the gladiatorial relationship between people and automobile.

The top three entries probably best personify the theme to most of the designs – a parking structure that goes beyond our current acceptance of what a parking lot should be, a more typical parking lot that provides a secondary use for the land (i.e. produce energy), and a structure that uses the parking area to define public space with its mass and its facade (in this case a series of giant LED screens). I personally enjoy the ferris wheel parking structure because it leans more towards a built environment that resembles a structure (by its appearance and its use) from a Dr. Seuss story. (I’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss to my son lately, so those illustrations are beginning to look like a more appealing reality than the typical beige suburban development I travel through.) But the ferris wheel parking structure also is along the same theme I have for a proposed mass transit system that resembles a roller coaster. (Also a Dr. Seuss induced construct, but seriously, who wouldn’t want to ride a ten-mile long roller coaster to work every morning? Imagine a world where people get to work laughing and high-fiving each other.)

Of course most of these entries are absurd, but they’re supposed to be – it’s an architectural competition. You can’t expect to get a good idea by just staring at the problem and repeating a solution that doesn’t work. There are enough proposed designs shown that I’m quite positive that you will see something that will make you utter “Wow, that’s actually a good idea.”

For a list of the entries check out

Suburban home project


Proposed 2nd Floor Plan



I just posted a project I’ve been working on involving the 2nd floor remodel of a suburban house. The project can be seen within the ‘Past Projects’ page.

The space planning for most homes usually become outdated within a decade or so. The older homes typically lack the amenities of newer homes including larger master suites and more open kitchens. Newer homes embrace a more open floor plan that allows for multiple functions, whereas older homes were usually constructed in a more compartmentalized manner.

Building information modeling – Learning Vectorworks

Building information modeling (BIM) is more than just an architectural bandwagon sales pitch for architects to upgrade their computer software – it’s the new reality for designing.

Before BIM came to the forefront of design architects primarily used a computer program like AutoCAD, which was essentially drawing in two dimensions on a computer screen. There were some features in 2D CAD programs that made drawing obviously better and quicker than drawing by hand (such as changing the scale of a drawing and making revisions without redrawing the entire sketch), but overall the process wasn’t that much faster than applying pencil to paper. You were still required to draw a line from point A to point B, and the line lacked any inherent meaning other than being merely a line.

When I was looking for a computer program to complement my design process I knew I had to go beyond the 2D CAD programs and make the leap to a BIM program. I have used many different 2D programs like Autodesk AutoCAD (various versions) and Bentley Microstation, but it was my experience with Autodesk Revit that convinced me of going with BIM. Revit made certain tasks incredibly easier (especially during the construction documents phase), but because of its complexity it proved to be not very intuitive.

After extensive research of current BIM programs including Revit, Graphisoft Archicad, Nemetschek Vectorworks Architect, and many other programs geared more for smaller projects (residential and small commercial), I pulled the trigger and went with Vectorworks. There were many reasons that I decided to go with Vectorworks (including technological capabilities, price, ability to play nice with other programs like SketchUp and CAD programs that read .dwg files), but one of the driving factors for my decision were the tutorial manuals created by Jonathan Pickup, an architect living in New Zealand and founder of Archoncad (

Part of my research was finding available resources for learning the BIM programs. It turns out that BIM can be a little complicated, so any learning resource I could purchase would provide a great asset to me efficiently learning the program. When I purchased my Vectorworks Architect it came with two 600+ page manuals. Of course these manuals include insightful information to demonstrate the capabilities of the program, but trying to build the momentum to read such manuals was like watching CSPAN for an entire day.

The Jonathan Pickup manuals read like simple lesson plans. Rather than go through every command and state the sometimes obvious ability for that command (I’ve read manuals that have used multiple pages to define and demonstrate the ‘Move’ command – it moves things) Pickup uses multiple lesson plans that show specific capabilities and combines these lessons into a cohesive project, so that at the end of the tutorial manual you’re left with a project that parallels a real-life architectural project.

We buy computer programs with the resignation in knowing that we will never know everything about that program. (I’m positive that most people using Microsoft Word – my self included – use only 5% of the program’s capabilities.) Buying a BIM program is a huge investment for any design professional, so it only makes sense to have access to resources that allow you to take advantage of the program as best as possible.

I can only speak from experience for the Pickup tutorial manuals I currently own (Architect Tutorial and the 3D Modeling Tutorial), but his manuals are incredibly insightful and exude a simplicity to understanding the program without feeling dumbed down. The manuals include a CD containing movies of each lesson plan, so if seeing is better than reading then you’ll understand the directions that much better.

Any time I work through the manuals I’m usually dumbfounded at the end of each lesson, filled with disbelief that creating architectural pieces (such as a site plan incorporating measurements from a site survey or designing a bus stop using NURBS [Nonuniform Rational B-Splines – also another acronym meaning fancy curves]) was actually much easier that what I was anticipating. Pickup’s knowledge of Vectorworks and his ability to convey succinct directions has allowed me to apply Vectorworks towards an efficient design process that’s typically impossible to achieve using 2D CAD programs and other BIM programs.

For more information regarding Jonathan Pickup’s tutorial manuals check out his website at, where you can find more resources to learning Vectorworks Architect and some of the other versions of Vectorworks. And just to prove his extensive credentials for teaching Vectorworks, his manuals are sold directly from the Vectorworks website here.

Barcode design

If you honestly believe that there are some things on this planet that just weren’t intended to incorporate a sense of design, here is a great example of design penetrating the realm of the truly mundane world of barcodes.

The name of the design firm is Bar Code Revolution ( Here’s an interesting article about the company on Fast Company’s website.

The future of cars and buildings

The above talk from TED features Larry Burns, the Vice President for Research & Development for General Motors. The future of the car – according to Burns – is based on replacing the internal combustion engine to the hydrogen powered engine. His belief is the automobile industry can keep making small energy improvements in the current cars it makes — or it can take a big leap forward to build a whole new kind of car.

Cars are really great at two things – they get us from point A to point B, and they consume fluids including gasoline, oil, coolants, and lubricants. There are some cars that get better gas mileage than other cars, some cars can haul more adolescent soccer players better than other cars, and some look cooler doing doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Despite their specific utility functions and their inherent fashion, cars really just consume energy for transportation.

Larry Burns wants cars to act not only as an energy user but also as an energy producer. He states that if 4% of the current amount of cars in the U.S. were powered by hydrogen, the power produced by these cars could fill the entire power grid of the United States. The idea is that while your hydrogen car sat idle in the garage it could actually produce electricity and send that power back into the grid. (And since the only emission from the hydrogen-fueled engine is water vapor anyone trying to end their life while running the engine inside a closed garage will only be bothered by high humidity.)

Buildings are also good for two things – keep people protected from the elements, and provide a place to keep their stuff. Buildings, like cars, are more geared towards energy usage and not energy creation. Architects and everyone else involved with the design and construction of buildings must also heed Burns’ strategy of completely reinventing and redefining the status quo.

Buildings in the future will not only keep the rain out, or allow you to keep your stuff out of the rain. Nor will it be used as a medium for architects to muse about the theoretical constraints on the human condition. (Sorry for the archi-babble, but truthfully that’s how some architects view the purpose of designing buildings.) Buildings in the future will not only provide the basis of inspirational form and utilitarian function for living, but they will additionally function as a source for creating power and filtering the water we drink and the air we breath. They will become a magic box where the waste leaving the box will be as clean if not cleaner than the resources coming into the box.

The commitment for making the “big leap” requires a faith in knowing that you’ll achieve your goal as well as the rejection of the old ways of doing things. We have the technology and knowledge for creating a sustainable architecture, and the current method for constructing buildings is obviously not the solution for creating a more ecologically balanced environment. We as a society are more than ready for the “big leap.”

In case the above video is not displayed you can view the Larry Burns talk at

High-speed trains and urban growth

I was reading an article about a high-speed rail network in China, and I began to think of the arguments made in America for the potential implementation of high-speed rail in this country. Some of the statements I’ve read compare established high-speed rail systems in European countries and Japan, and essentially argue that the smaller size of those countries allow high-speed rail to flourish better than in a country the size of the U.S. (Just to give you an idea of size Japan is slightly smaller than California, Spain is more than twice the size of Oregon, France is just less than twice the size of Colorado, and the United Kingdom is a little smaller than Oregon.) Of course these smaller countries can have a more successful high-speed rail network because their major cities are closer together.

But even in a country like China, despite being only slightly smaller than the United States, most of their major metropolitan areas are located along the east coast. The United States appears to be the exception when it comes to a larger country that has major metropolitan areas equally spread throughout the country. Despite having major cities located throughout the country there are a handful of mega-metropolises such as the Northeast Corridor (from Boston to Washington, D.C.), Florida (Miami-Tampa/St. Pete-Orlando), Texas Triangle (Dallas/Ft. Worth-San Antonio-Houston), Southern California (Los Angeles-San Diego), and the Bay Area (San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose), and it’s this idea of a regional high-speed rail system that makes so much more sense than trying to create a single national system.

The idea of taking a train from LA to New York doesn’t make a lot of sense when we already have the option of flying between these cities. Of course it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take a 45-minute flight from one city to another, especially when you consider it’s typically recommended that you arrive at the airport 60 to 90 minutes before your flight. So in my mind I don’t see high-speed rail as a substitute for all air travel, but there are instances where short regional trips by air would be greatly improved by high-speed rail. (Think of these regions as European countries.) There are some other issues that plague the air travel industry which would benefit from the option of high-speed rail such as flight congestion, traveling in bad weather, the ability for a passenger to use his/her phone and computer during travel, and connecting to medium-sized cities whose airports have limited travel destinations (and may not be profitable).

But the aspect of high-speed rail that the airlines can’t do is provide a meaningful asset to spur community growth. Airports typically are not located anywhere near the central business district of a city. They prefer a lot of open terrain with very sparse development and low buildings. Industries related to air travel (hotels, rental cars, shipping companies) will set up shop in close proximity to the airport, but for the most part commercial and residential development can’t thrive in that environment. For this reason airports have a difficult time becoming a major hub for local transportation.

Train stations are able to thrive in an urban environment, and thus have the ability to become a major hub for regional and local transportation. It’s a building type that can complement adjacent commercial and residential districts within a major city, but it also provides a physical connection between the central business district (CBD) of a major city to residents from medium-sized cities beyond the metropolitan region. An example of this is if there was a high-speed rail between Chicago (IL) and St. Louis (MO), and there were stops in between in Peoria (IL) and Springfield (IL). (This next sentence might give some people flashbacks to algebra, so for that I apologize in advance.) A person living in Springfield, which is approximately 100 miles from downtown St. Louis, could take a high-speed train traveling 160 mph/260 kph (which seemed to be a nice medium for high-speed trains throughout the world) and reach his destination in just over thirty minutes. So in this scenario not only does the CBD of the major city (destination) benefit but so does the CBD of the medium-sized city (origination).

This type of travel will most likely redefine how people see suburbia. Many people live in suburbia for the openness (whether it’s real or perceived) of the natural environment (i.e. some people like to have a big yard). So what makes more sense – living in a nearby suburb and driving 60 minutes to work every morning or living a hundred miles away and taking a train ride for 35 minutes?

High-speed rail is not the answer for all of our transportation woes, just like how air travel has proven not to be the answer either. A comprehensive system that includes the advantages of all transportation methods, from a national network of airlines and a regional network of high-speed rails to a local transportation network including light rail, buses, cars, bicycles, and even pedestrian traffic. If you want a sustainable built environment the key is to strengthen the connections between all types of transportation and being able to maximize the attributes of each mode of transportation.

Hologram for architects

When I was in architecture school the only way to convey a three-dimensional representation of your project was to build a model. You pulled out the bass wood, wood glue, some Exacto blades, and a few days later you had a small scaled model of your project that you prayed no one would step on before you had to present it. Because of the smallness of the scale it usually wasn’t absolutely accurate, but it proved to do the trick. (The thickness of the wood and your skills for gluing also played a part in the model’s accuracy.)

There were those times when I watched a sci-fi movie where I wished I could somehow implement their fictional yet very cool technology into the presentation my projects. Once instance was me watching Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, where the generals for the Rebel Alliance were sitting around a huge hologram of the Death Star, plotting their strategy. The large red hologram just floated in the air as it spun around so that everyone (except maybe the person sitting behind Chewie) could see how the attack would proceed.

It might not float in the air and spin around, but there is a new hologram technology for designers that allows a three-dimensional representation without the wood glue. The technology offers a great method for understanding the massing and aesthetics for any type of project. And there is the ability to convey different information about the design based on how the hologram is turned (as seen in the video). It’s much more than merely two-dimensional printouts of a three-dimensional computer model because all sides of the model are revealed by the hologram.

For just the video check out this link.


Estimating the cost for your next remodel project

Architects are typically very knowledgeable about many facets of a construction project beyond just the design. We understand the proper way for detailing how materials come together, and which materials are most appropriate for certain circumstances. Because of ever-changing costs in materials and labor, architects typically have to consult a general contractor for a rough cost estimate for projects.

But for the layperson there’s always a hesitation in contacting a contractor (or even an architect) in estimating what a remodel job may cost or what’s involved with making a remodel job a reality. If you’re looking for a rough estimate to at least give you an idea of what a kitchen remodel may cost you or an addition to your house, may I introduce to you the Consumer Estimator.

The costs you will find by using this service are definitely ballpark numbers. Every project is different, including yours.

For more information check out