Stay at Home Advice from an Architect

5 Ways to Make Sure Your Home Supports You

I know these are difficult times. We have been encouraged to stay at home, and it’s normal to feel uneasy without a familiar routine. To maintain physical and emotional wellness, create a new normal — an oasis of your own. Be with yourself, your family or your pet. My stay-at-home advice during Covid-19 is to feel at home both indoors and outdoors.

Architects are problem solvers and have specific knowledge to help others. Most crisis training, such as first responder training, involves remaining calm and calming others around you. Similarly, this list is intended to provide 5 things you can do to accomplish calm in your life, even if it feels the world is unsteady.

Plants, light, reassuring scents. When we are all spending more time than usual at home, remember these are all things you can hold close. Being more centered on the home can actually accent things we take for granted — the feel of a forsythia stem, the warmth of the sun, or the intoxicating smell of a hyacinth. Live a little. Trust that you can find your calm indoors and outdoors. Savor the simple pleasures. Enjoy spring. When you are ready to venture outside, here are 5 ways for you to come and go from home safely:

  1. Trust the process. We can learn a lot from the WELL Building Standard®. This is a rating system for commercial buildings, which are designed to keep the occupants healthy and happy. The rating system is based upon the understanding that wellness is vital to our well-being, and employees are one of the largest assets a company can build. Additionally, the U.S. government publishes standards for facilities to manufacture products that are intended for human consumption. These are referred to as Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). These provide guidelines on how employees are to enter these spaces and clean these spaces, which involve an airlock or vestibule. We can migrate some of these requirements to our homes.

  2. Minimize the amount of dirt and dust that enters your home. The mudroom is designed for this purpose. Think of it as a GMP vestibule. Remove shoes, outer garments, wash your hands, and then put on clean clothes that are only for home. A garage is also a good place to transition into the home because it also serves as a vestibule, with an outer door and an inner door. You can practice a similar routine if you enter through the front door, too. Put linen or newspaper down, place your stuff on top, and then toss it in the laundry. While air contamination may not be directly related to Covid-19, in a GMP facility they clean meticulously to ensure good air quality and surface sanitization. You can do the same at home, to both keep it clean of dirt and potentially other contaminants.

  3. Go for a walk. Not only is it okay to take a walk, it can be especially beneficial nowadays. A nice walk in the sun and fresh air helps to balance your mood. In fact, this is consistent with biophilic design practices, and the Japanese cultural practice of Forest Bathing. Sustained numerous contacts with nature, what architects often refer to as “indoor-outdoor connection” welcome the outdoors in and the indoors out. If you have a garden, bring in a blooming plant. Sow fast-growing lettuce in a box. When bringing in any herbs or vegetables, rinse, dry and perhaps store them in the mudroom, or even a gardener’s pantry if you have one. Integrate this garden-to-table lifestyle to find your calm and self-reliance.

  4. Take your work outside. Have you ever fantasized about working from home? If you can now, make that fantasy a reality. Sit on your deck or atop your roof in a lawn chair. Enjoy the sun shining, the breeze coming across your laptop. Listen to the birds chirping or the squirrels playing from your window. Or maybe it’s the ocean waves or the ripples on a lake. Go outside and see what there is to quietly observe. You may be surprised to find calm and beauty even when it’s raining.

  5. Find a reassuring scent. No matter how many times you clean, you need to feel it’s clean. Mental health and cleanliness go hand in hand. What does clean smell like for you? For my aunt, it’s bleach; for one of my clients, it’s the smell of the seaside. Consider which scent reassures you. This will provide a sensory trigger so that you can say: I’m done cleaning, it feels clean, I feel safe. A couple drops of lavender oil could mean the difference between a good day and a bad day. It’s Spring! Follow time through smell. Nature is full of routine and beauty.

With this in mind, find your calm and help your loved ones do the same. This way, when you enter any building, whether commercial or your home, you can make good decisions.

If you’re wondering whether your home is well-designed for daily living in addition to times of crisis, this could be a good time to talk with an architect over the phone. To schedule a consultation with Synergy Architects and discover your dominant senses through their 5 Senses Design™ survey, call 267-756-7004 or visit us online at www.synergy-architects.com.

Wishing you and your loved ones the best

Happy New Year

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At the Dawn of a New Year and a New Decade, we at Synergy Architects would like to wish you a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year.

Synergy Architects work directly with their clients to develop innovative spaces that exquisitely combine appearance and function. This encompasses not only vision but also every other sense with attention to the unique needs and location of the client. Synergy Architects, Inc. is committed to helping homeowners find their own version of "timeless design." We accomplish this through creative solutions and a unique design process that keep clients in the driver’s seat of their project.

What can we help you design in 2020?

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All Successful Projects Start with a Project Coaching Call

Think of each project like a tree. The roots resemble the pre-design phase. This is where we talk about your needs and a general concept for the space. This is where schematic and detail design happen, when the tree breaks ground. As we travel up the trunk, the project flows naturally through more definition. I’m invested in the whole process, from the roots to the top leaves swaying in the sun. The top layer is the construction phase. I like to be involved up there, too, and continue to lead the team and complete the project as it was conceived.

In line with my 5 Senses Design™, you can climb, smell, feel, and sometimes eat the fruits a tree produces. My clients and I use the five senses to communicate their vision... and we explore how 5 Senses Design™ grows a better life.

Where are you now and where do you want to go?

But before the roots, we must prepare the soil. In about thirty minutes, the Project Coaching Call determines where you are now and where you want to go. What kind of environment should we plant your tree — your home?

When you are ready to start a project, or perhaps stuck in a current project and don’t know how to proceed, we can help. I started these calls because of the many times I was hired to fix someone else's projects that had gone wrong. During the call, I can help you define next steps. We take time to understand your goals. I listen and you are heard.

This is an opportunity to speak with a professional problem solver. We ask: What inspired you to do this project? How long have you been thinking about it? What obstacles may be preventing you from moving forward? Do you have a budget? And finally, when the project is completed, we want to understand the image you dream of in your mind: What is your definition of success?

Get your questions answered

The architect is your guide, your ally, to becoming the hero in your own story. Building a new home or embarking on a renovation is possibly the hugest investment of your life. We want you to be happy from the moment we break ground to when you reap the benefits of your realized dream.

We discuss all this in our first phone call. You move forward with confidence and a one-page action plan. Having your next steps in hand, you’ll know if you need to schedule a Discovery and Strategy consultation with me on site. The Project Discovery Report answers other questions that may be on your mind: Can I legally do this? Does it even make sense? How much should I budget? What will it be worth when I’m done?

Results from the call greatly benefit the homeowner and/or many other people involved in buying and building homes. As an architect, I can help real estate agents rescue a deal that would have otherwise fallen apart. Mortgage lenders receive proper documentation from our office to prove a home or property’s value, useful for securing a loan amount.

We provide contractors detailed guidelines for your project so that the client’s vision is honored every step of the way during construction. I mediate all communication between the builder and the client, including the most important conversation — when the client and contractor agree on the budget.

Hire an architect as your ally

Without a good architect, there is anxiety. With us on your team, you get peace of mind. We provide calm on the construction site. Engaging with a good architect saves everyone time. Designing to a clear construction budget, the builder is contractually bound to the client’s best interest. We keep you, the client, in the driver’s seat.

Let’s create a good foundation for your custom project. If your home project stems from a unique perspective, our Project Coaching Call is for you. Our clients start with a special vision for their home and lifestyle. We take the time to learn about your goals. We promise to give you clear steps to success.

Do you know someone considering a project? Refer Synergy Architects. To schedule a free 30-minute Project Coaching Call and discover your next steps, call: 267-756-7004

The Synergy Solution: How We Grow Your Project from the Ground Up

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Successful projects follow 5 distinct phases. Synergy Architects has a proprietary process to guide serious clients through these phases to help them achieve their custom design goals. When you hire Synergy, you hire the tree; we don’t sell just a branch. As in nature, the size of the tree varies with every project according to your needs and expectations. Each project is its own unique variety. The Synergy Solution is about you, and regardless of the size, we keep you in the driver's seat. Our process starts with the roots. Like strong trees and buildings, we start at the bottom. We discuss, design, and build from the roots up.

DISCOVERY. When your vision is prioritized from the beginning, it comes to life.

During the design consultation, we discuss how creating custom architecture happens through the mindful art of problem-solving. The first, crucial part of that process is to start a dialogue about you, your life, project goals and expectations. Our conversation informs the Project Discovery Report where the roots dig deeper into your vision. From the start, I am looking to answer the top three questions most people want to know: How much is this going to cost? Can I do this legally without a variance, and what is the easiest and fastest way to accomplish the client’s goals? After the project is completed, what would my home be worth? Finally, the one question many want to know but don’t often ask: Does this project make sense? It’s an important question. Does the building fit on site? Is what we want within our budget? Our lifestyle? To ensure the best answer, we visit the site and can conduct a site analysis and code review. From the report, the client gains a preliminary budget, schedule and program — peace of mind about whether their project is feasible. In that moment, the project germinates above ground and that little tree symbolizes the client-architect relationship’s new beginning.

DESIGN. When materials complement design, your home gains value.

The design phase starts with color and material analysis. Our biophilic design philosophy approaches the relationship between site and materials in a unique way. Local materials and colors in nearby nature evoke a series of sensory connections, and through our 5 Senses Design™ Questionnaire, the client can discover which sense connects them most easily to the natural world. Upon knowing your material and color preferences, we create schematic (2D) drawings. Then we can point to features and say, "Remember when we were talking about this? This is what I mean." Often we hear clients say, "Wow, fantastic! I never would have thought of this. But this is perfect," or "I like a little bit of this and a little bit of that, can we put these together?" The design phase concludes with environmental studies and developing computer 3D renderings, which can be presented to a local planning board or historical board if applicable, and most of all, help the client visualize their project. At this milestone, clients tend to feel the particular thrill that comes with knowing their project can come to fruition.

DOCUMENTATION. When you hire experience, you avoid missteps.

Sometimes people believe this is where the architect comes in, just to draft the papers, and rely on a builder to bring an architect in at this phase, but when you hire an experienced architect who embarks on the discovery and design phases already described, then the documentation is much more thorough. Now, it’s time for reflection, for watering the growing tree. We document everything in detail and create a construction manual. We can send out a bid set and send it to different contractors who respond with initial bids. Meanwhile, the client selects materials more specifically, by manufacturer, as well as appliances, fixtures and furniture. The design team develops the drawings for the Drawing Approval Meeting where the client offers feedback and can sign off on the instruction manual to send to contractors who we interview and then they send bids for how much it would cost for the contractor to build the design.

COORDINATION. When the construction and design teams work together, you gain efficiency.

Once the client selects the contractor, we begin Contractor Detail Coordination in which the architect, contractor, and client collaborate together — not always the case in every architecture firm. Continuing the collaboration saves the client money and the contractor time. We establish trust by inviting the contractor into the design process. We’re all on the same page, working within the same framework. When the contractor has a question, they know to ask the architect. After permits are received, we get together on site and go through the documentation one more time. Then, if needed, this is the right time for planning board meetings and over-the-counter permit applications.

CONSTRUCTION. When everyone works together, you get results, you get Synergy.

As a result, the client doesn’t see, hear or sense any issues. Our goal is that our construction sites are low to no-stress. The contractors understand what they are building, and why. As the architect, we can provide construction sketches as needed. We’ll ask the client: "Is this the way you want it?" We also conduct construction meetings and construction progress inspections on site. Only when the contractor has reached a milestone do we let the client know it’s okay to make the next payment. Clear communication establishes confidence for both the builder and the client moving forward, and because we’re following this process of growing together, major changes are rare. After the construction is complete, the contractor gives the client the keys, manuals and the Certification of Occupancy at what we call the Turn-Over Meeting. The walk-through is largely ceremonial, as there are no surprises. Next, we encourage a Delivery Event, a small gathering in the home or space for the contractors, design team, and the client’s family and friends to come together and celebrate their full-grown project. This is a great time to have a photographer take After Photos. We reflect on Day 1 of Discovery when I said to the client: "Close your eyes, imagine everything is done. One year from now, it’s everything you wanted." At the party, I ask: "What did you need to see, feel, and hear to make your project feel real? To know you made the right decisions?" That’s when the client opens their eyes to everything they imagined, and more.

Age in Place or Move?

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The first thing I noticed as I approached my new client’s house in her 55+ development was the curved paver steps up to the front door. They would make it very difficult for anyone who has a hard time with balance or who uses a walker, impossible with a wheelchair. The client was a widow with mobility issues; she had previously purchased her home here, thinking it was properly fitted out for years to come. Not so. She now had to decide whether to age in place or move and asked me to evaluate her home. The front steps I encountered, especially with the potential for the pavers to come loose, didn’t bode well.

The layout and features of this home might have been wonderful for a small family or newly married couple. The main bathroom had a shower, tub and vanity, with a separate compartment for the toilet. The problem was, the client was falling down a lot in the bathroom. As a result, she’d had multiple trips to the hospital. She reached out to me in a last-ditch effort to be able to stay in her home.

The Problem With 55+ Homes Today

Home design of 20 or 30 years ago didn’t even consider accessibility or maneuverability. Many times, older homes are difficult to maneuver with a walker, let alone if you have an additional person trying to help you. Today there is more awareness in general, but too many 55+ homes are actually more of a “builder’s special” than a universal design. This is a problem because the consumers are led to believe that these homes have been properly designed for them.

Terms like “single floor living plan” are thrown around with maybe a grab bar here or there. People don’t recognize that these things are not nearly enough until they have an issue. By then, they are already in place, after selling their home of 40 or 50 years and settling in for the duration.

Consider the problem of multiple steps to get into and out of the front door or even the garage; this should be barrier-free. Yet whether this is even possible depends on how the home is positioned on the foundation and it requires working with the topography. If the same home is going to be plunked onto 50 or 100 sites side-by-side, then they won’t all be like the model, which probably has one step or no steps to get into the home. Recall my client had three steps to climb to get into the house. Builders don’t recognize that as an issue. For them, the home was perfect for this age group.

The Poorly Designed Bathroom is the Most Dangerous Place

But it was time to take a look inside the house. On the face of it, my client had a perfectly nice and functional bathroom … for an able-bodied person. When she viewed the property before purchase, she would have seen a beautiful shower … with a seat! So why did she keep falling?

Statistically, the bathroom is the most dangerous place in the house. On closer inspection of the shower, I noticed that the seat was facing the control wall at such a height that the water would spray into my client’s face. Plus, the controls were too far away to easily reach. There was no hand sprayer included and she had installed one, so now there was no shower head anymore. The shower even had a three- or four-inch threshold.

The bathroom featured an overmount bathtub in a large tiled surround, but the tub volume was pretty small. Again, it looked palatial. In fact, sitting in the tub would have you with your knees by your chin. Plus, getting in and out with the tile surround was difficult and had already caused injury. (I’m sure that the glamorous effect of bathrooms like these leads people to pay a lot more for them than they are worth; the fixtures can usually be found at any building supply company.) The toilet compartment was 29 inches wide, which is actually less than the ADA’s required “32-clear.” This was effectively a closet with a toilet and no room to maneuver. The client had already taken the door off. The vanity was nice, but in the afternoon, she would get tired and sit, but had no room for her knees or toes. Last but not least, the floor was glazed. Add water and she was in a dangerous situation.

Heading into the bedroom, the threshold again was not flush. Here was another trip-and-fall hazard. From a builder’s perspective, the problem is that the more appropriate materials, features and fixtures tend to be costlier. However, for someone who wants to age in place, these materials can save a trip to the hospital, rehabilitation, or even the necessity of moving out of your home.  I would go further and say that materials and features that help people stay safe are good for all, not just for those in this position. At any age, thinking ahead is good if you plan to stay in your home forever.

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Our Design Solutions Provide Long Lasting Comfort

For our design solutions, we flipped the shower and toilet. We substituted a walk-in tub, which in general I’m against but the client was adamant, for the bathtub. What I recommend and had proposed was an ADA stand-alone tub, or to not do a tub, just a really nice shower. (I present as much information as is relevant for my client to make the best decision for that time and budget but the client has the last word.)

My client now has a large walk-in shower with several heads and a seat that meets ADA requirements. She can walk right in, sit or stand, even use a wheelchair if it ever came to that. It’s functional without looking like a hospital shower.

In addition, there is now a wall hung toilet for the right ADA height (replacing a special seat that didn’t look or feel good.) A floating vanity designed to ADA principals looks nicer and gives adequate space for sitting. Grab bars are concealed in the finishes. Finally, the floor tile is now a slip-resistant porcelain instead of the original ceramic.

Between the bathroom and bedroom, we eliminated the threshold for easy transition. However, the floor is now gently pitched in case of any overflow or if you needed to wash the whole room; there’s no spillover to the bedroom or leak to the basement, both of which had happened before.

Deciding Whether to Age in Place or Move?

When someone seeks my help on whether to age in place or move, I have a process. We identify the problems, look at how the client uses the space, conduct our own survey, and put together a plan that incorporates all the needed solutions. A lot of people are in situations similar to my client’s. They have a bathroom that doesn’t really work. It’s difficult for them to maneuver and for others to help them. They try to install grab bars, but they’re never quite right. It’s not too late -- contact me at 267-756-7004 or info@synergy-architects.com.

My Cousins: Over, under or through, but never around

Many people have inspired me, including my cousins; one of whom you may have heard of, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt …

My cousin, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt is a figure I draw inspiration from every day. Genealogically, he is my first cousin twice removed; or perhaps more simply, my grandmother’s grandfather was his uncle. While participating in the Spanish American War with the First Volunteer Cavalry, Theodore discovered a U.S. army detachment all hunkered down at the base of Kettle and San Juan Hill. He said, “What’s the matter, why aren’t you advancing? Let’s move!” To which the ranking officer replied, “You’re not my commanding officer.” With that, Theodore announced with force, “Move away, then, and let my men through -- Charge!!!” Theodore’s determination created victory for that battle fought in Cuba, which would lead to victory of the campaign.

I admire his energy, tenacity and fearlessness. He’s such a huge figure, for our family and the world. I love his adventurous spirit. Theodore was an army colonel, a cowboy who rode on horseback in a cavalry, an author, a boxer, a diplomat, and a thinker and negotiator … and explorer. As for me, I’ve learned from his example in many ways, especially through our family’s game -- Over, Under or Through, but Never Around.

What to do when you encounter an obstacle

Theodore’s character influences our family dynamics through the concept of this game -- when you encounter an obstacle, he believed, you help those with you get through it.

He used to play this game with the family’s kids. It’s a very physical game; and it teaches an important life lesson. Those willing to participate in Teddy’s game, would start at a point outside, often in his backyard, and choose a destination. This game was passed down through the family and I played it as a child also. We would trudge through swamps and climb trees to get to our destination. When a fence stood in our way, we’d have to go over, under or through it … but never around. We reenacted or recreated this game in the movie “The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt”

A fun game, we ended up in some interesting situations. But we figured it out, as a team. The group pulls together in a way reminiscent of Theodore’s straightforward approach to life.

The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt (and Archie)

Teddy impacted my passion for problem solving, as did his son Archie. I actually played Archie in the movie “The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt.” I’ve always felt a certain connection to Archie because he mailed me a postcard on my first birthday. It’s still on my desk.

So at an early age, I knew that I was related to a president, and that this president was one of the country’s best, or most notable. I lived just a mile away from his house, where I volunteered in my teens. My father maintained a close relationship with Archie who passed away in the 1970’s and with Teddy’s youngest daughter Ethel. I met Ethel when I was a child before she also passed away in the 70’s.

Learning more about Archie in school and playing him in the movie. I realized Archie was in WWI and WWII. He was one of, if not the only, soldier to be declared honorably discharged for service related injuries in two different wars. Even though he was considered to have served and physically disabled after WWI, he wanted back in. The military said, “No, you’re done. Be safe.” But he insisted and became an officer in the South Pacific in WWII. His persistence is so inspiring. When his unit was under fire and people died all around, he stood up as the target. He could see where the fire was coming from the muzzle flashes aimed at him. He stood there, risking his live, and communicated the locations of the machine gun nests back to command and saved his men … and greatly assisted securing the victory of that battle. Archie was willing to stand in the face of fire and risk his life for the team, like his father Theodore.

Theodore Roosevelts oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. also served in WWI and WWII. Today, June 6th, marks the 74th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion. TR Jr. was a General in WWII and took part in the Normandy Invasion and the European theater. He heroically made it to safety on the beach, only to return to the landing boats and the shore numerous times to lead and carry more men to safety.

The power of exploration, networking and problem solving

Teddy & his sons, Theodore Jr. and Archie stood in the face of fire: on horseback, on the beach, in the jungle. My cousin Theodore wore many other hats involving a thirst for adventure and bravery to serve our country.

The charge up San Juan Hill is amazing. My takeaways are the power of exploration and networking: Theodore’s volunteer cavalry (deemed the “Rough Riders” which is the title of his book on his account of the war) was the first of its kind, comprised of a consistent cross section of America, people who could ride and shoot, cowboys from Oklahoma and New Mexico, Wild West lawmen, Native Americans, Harvard football quarterback Dudley Dean, tennis champion Bob Wrenn, and the world’s greatest polo player Joseph Sampson Stevens. He networked with all sorts of people, from the east and north and south and west … rich and poor.

Along the way, Theodore followed the rules of our childhood game -- over, under or through, but never around. I follow them, too, as an architect. In design school, my professor said, “There’s no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity to design a solution.” I love problem solving and embracing challenges because they are all opportunities for growth.

When somebody says, “Will you help me solve my problem?” that’s music to my ears. I want to improve people’s lives, and I am fascinated by each problem that is encountered. With the materials and fixtures available to us today, there’s a lot that can be done. Cost is only part of the challenge, another element of the battle plan. That’s what’s fascinating about architecture, rarely do I have formalization of what the solution is going to look like when I start. But when I follow the design process and solve each problem as it arrives, then the result shines.

What’s the fun in knowing everything at the beginning? Fortunately, the Roosevelt family taught me early on that when I move through life, I should never avoid an obstacle. Never try to go around, Teddy would say, go over, under or through.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Sustainability in a new home

When clients come to me already knowing they want sustainability in a new home, it’s not a conclusion; instead that’s where the conversation starts. That’s because sustainability is something people arrive at from different goals. It’s important for us to get at the goals and objectives that drive the request. It enables me to guide the clients and design a home that truly meets their needs.

Here are just some of the goals they might describe:

  • A wish to reduce any negative impact (“carbon footprint”) on the
    world and be a shining beacon for others.
  • As a marketing move or to win an award; especially in commercial buildings, a LEED building might be seen as adding interest.
  • Or maybe a certification that costs $10,000+ doesn’t matter, but implementing the LEED strategies themselves does.
  • Cost savings. It may cost more to design and build the structure, but less to operate it as a result. This is pocketbook green versus environmental green. (Though we try to get people off the cost button, to look more at long-term value.) Sustainability can also help with that; though “going green” environmentally does add time and money at the beginning.
  • Others want to differentiate themselves or build a better world; they might say, “I’ll put my money upfront and let’s do it.”
  • Health. For some, this is the priority, for themselves, their children, or their employees.

Understanding goals will help direct which solutions are best. This is what interests me about biophilic design. Biophilic design approaches the human and nature relationship from the opposite direction (asking, what is the impact of the environment on mankind?). It speaks to the symbiotic relationship and endears us to the world around us much more than “armchair sustainability” does. Our philosophy in the area of sustainability is that the environment can help you more than you are helping it. A project that gives attention to that two-way relationship, through the biophilic and the earth-friendly, is optimal.

When it comes to health, it’s important to get specific about what the concern is and what the problem is. It may be circadian rhythm, chemicals, or allergies. If it is a phobia or a sensitivity, there will be unique and specific challenges – and design solutions. An architect in this scenario is especially important because the builder grade, one-size-fits-most house no longer feels like a fit with these kinds of concerns.

If the interest in sustainability is more general, we can start by looking at exposure to natural light and good ventilation. Even this will require some problem-solving. Often, diffused light and avoidance of solar heat gain and glare are desired, too. Glazing, shades, and light reflected off of a “light shelf” will help.

Though we try to attend to sustainability with all clients and projects, we would look to specifically find out what your goals and objectives are so that the end result delights you and makes your life even better. Architecture is a problem-solving method that results in a solution. The process can vary, depending on the project and the problem. These strategies all work to gain sustainability in a new home, but for specific conditions. Design is the beginning, building is the middle, and operation is the next step.

Fantasy Architecture of Minas Tirith Can Inspire Biophilic Design

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Balancing nature with design is a core principle for us. After I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I came home and drew in my sketchbook for hours. The CGI in the film is stunning, very consistent with what I like about architecture. Minas Tirith, the castle and citadel where many characters seek refuge, is a fortified city wedged into the side of a mountain — dramatically contrasted with Isengard Castle, the iron fortress that dominates the natural environment. Fantasy architecture of Minas Tirith can inspire biophilic design, whereas the latter warns us not to stray too far from what nature intended.

Blending natural with the built environment

In Tolkien's story, Isengard is considered evil and Minas Tirith a place for peace. By no means is the built environment evil, yet what makes Minas Tirith so inspiring is its means of balance. Minas Tirith blends two forms, the man-made constructs and the existing cliff. The mountain softly slices the half circle citadel as if it was always there. A gleaming white city set upon a granite rock face, the green plain before it, and the mountain beyond this terraced community where inhabitants and their guests have everything they need — homes, businesses, farmland, communication, and gathering places all climb up the face of a mountain, which provides them with much-needed safety and security.

Embracing a symbiotic relationship with nature

Between the natural and built environment at Minas Tirith, dominance is shared. Meanwhile, The Shire gives glens, rivers and roots full reign. Hobbits, like Frodo and Samwise, embrace a symbiotic relationship with nature. Their form of protection is camouflage; not a war-like species, they just want to enjoy life in the woods. Play flute by the river, eat second breakfasts, and by night, host parties under the stars. Tolkien envisioned the Hobbits free of the stress of strain, anxiety and conflict. They don’t even wear shoes, so the body is deeply connected with the ground.

Each home is burrowed into the side of a hill. From outside, the dwelling looks like a rabbit warren. As a biophilic architect, I can’t help but wonder: Did the hobbit dig the hole and create the hill? Or did they build these things and cover them with dirt? Inside, their love for nature is obvious, the wooden floors and walls are beautifully crafted — an approach where building can take the place of the landscape but also restore it, and reflect it on the interior. Just as the Hobbits rebuilt the lowland hills, Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilt the waterfall at Fallingwater.

Creating a symbiotic relationship with nature through design means you work with nature, not against it. That being said, you can remove something and replace it while asking: Are you moving this tree to a better place where it can thrive? Act with intention, not for one’s own convenience. Remember that nature is strong. Grass grows in sidewalk cracks, and if rusted metal sinks to the bottom of the ocean, coral will happily grow on it — a touching example of how the built environment can lend support to nature.

Most imaginable cities would focus on man-made forms, and be very far off from The Shire. Yet Minas Tirith offers a balanced example — the hill remains as it has been for thousands of years and supports the structure and as a result, its function is to provide physical and psychological support to the community that inhabits it.

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My takeaway: Evaluate what your site has to offer and figure out your occupancy and look for opportunities where they can complete each other. Synergistic and symbiotic — two parts combined can equal something greater.

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Well-Lit Walkout Basement: Living wall adds vertical gardening to flowing space

The clients wanted their walkout basement to look new and unique, but they didn’t know how to define this. It was a challenge we relished because we perceived immediately that their need meshed with our ‘inside out and outside in’ approach. We used the design solutions of lighting, thoughtful floor plan, and a living wall for a vertical garden and flowing, comfortable space.

On the one level, the resulting design is familiar – a basement that opens onto an outdoor pool area, with elements that facilitate that connection. On another, it’s completely new, with lighting reaching every corner and a living wall that adds vertical gardening to this flowing space. This is what makes it so exciting -- marrying the best parts of tradition and innovation.

While half of the basement walks out to the pool area, the other half is recessed, underground. One of the biophilic elements we’ve incorporated to make this basement not feel like a basement is a living green wall. Also known as a vertical garden, the plants are often arranged at an angle so the wall appears to be only foliage. The visual benefits are a cool and colorful display; plants line the wall to resemble a hedge. Even better, the plants scrub the air and contribute to a clean indoor air quality. Additionally, this approach lends a nod towards the traditional Japanese practice of “forest bathing.”

A unique soffit and ceiling design tricks the eye into perceiving natural light. In reality, light comes all from artificial sources yet it will feel like light comes from the outside. The materiality of it helps achieve this effect. We orient the spaces that require light (for social interaction) closer to the windows, and the ones that resist light or don’t require it (the bathroom, television, perhaps and an exercise area) further from the windows.

We’re in the schematic design phase now, headed toward design development. My clients want to incorporate a bar and also an in-law suite where the father-in-law will age in place, bringing in a universal design element, another of our specialties.

But, while aging in place plays a role in the project, we focus on biophilic design -- all centered around that moment when your whole body lifts and realizes, “Wow, it’s a beautiful day.”

With lighting, the idea is to have up to four levels, or at least these three: There’s the feature piece, the light fixture that people gravitate toward. Then there is concealed lighting that is targeted on the activity space, and more light that washes the walls so that you don’t have the feeling of being in a spotlight. Interestingly, our perception of the space is governed by how well lit the walls are.

The fourth light source, ideally, is the window, natural light. Often clear glass has a high solar heat gain coefficient; also, when low on the horizon, it’s not comfortable. However, we enjoy the light when we’re outside, so the best option is to have the window provide a view, shaded from direct light while light is reflected into the space. When new windows are being specified we always consider the orientation and specify the right glazing for that project application.

The materials and lighting in this project use nature to interact with the activities that take place within the house. To give the inhabitant the most comfortable light, diffused or light that comes from above is the best. When the light is coming from the side it can be more uncomfortable or less natural. To balance this condition, we’ll use light bulbs or lamps with a similar spectrum natural light from the outside. This also provides the plants on the live wall with the lighting they need. (Various plants and animals require different UVA and UVB light; artificial or incandescent lights don’t always provide that, so we specify the right lamping and lighting for them.)

Now that we’ve focused on bringing the outside in with a vertical garden and flowing, comfortable space, our next step is to bring the inside out. The windows provide picture views of the pool, to which there’s a connection between the interior floor and exterior pool patio. Currently, the client already has outdoor living spaces around the pool. Adding a new door to will connect these two spaces, inside and outside. Additionally, we are planning to add elements to announce that the pool patio flows in the direction of the new space which will continue the biophilic design from the perspectives of both the inside and the outside.

How to Bring Your Home to Life with 5 Senses Design™

Imagine enjoying your day, not just getting through it. That’s the basis of my 5 Senses Design™ -- savoring each moment in your home. When you gaze at a view that inspires you or breathe in a certain smell, doing the dishes becomes less of a chore and more an act of self-care. Here’s how to bring your home to life with 5 Senses Design™:

 1. Savor the Sight.

Vision is the easiest sense to accomplish in home design. That’s because we live in an ocular centric society. As an architect, I like to use Japanese principles to frame what you want to see and obscure what you don’t. For example, a poplar tree line can obscure the neighbor’s house; you’d pick up the view beyond and it would seem that you have a grand space. This is referred to as a “borrowed View” in Japanese design. Multiple rooms may have the same sort of view, like that tree line, which carries a common theme. I recommend to my clients: Be more selective in your material selection. For example, cluttered shelves cause your eye to dart, which is exciting but not necessarily calming. So declutter and decide what’s really important to you. That’s the first step toward savoring sights -- see less, savor more. Then you’ll notice materials in the design, such as the juxtaposition of stone or wood on a white single pane of drywall. As with all senses, I implement art theory … vistas through architecture, of the architecture and within the architecture. To frame Views, of important spaces or from important spaces, to serve as a guide of a focal point.

 2. Savor the Sound.

What you hear is the second easiest to grasp. So if we incorporate that poplar tree line, we can welcome the outdoors in … easy-to-open windows allow for a gentle breeze to pass through, as the leaves rustle in the wind. You may also want to hear the birds perched on the branches. I ask my clients: When you wake up in the morning, what do you want to hear? Kids want to hear mom walking down the hallway; Mom may want to hear their voices around a breakfast table. Then we get grounded, enabling us to consider how the floor material sounds. Some don’t want to hear footfalls, but in some cases it’s important to hear. It’s often nice to announce an area with a different material -- you can make that announcement through sound, the way you hear feet across wood rather than the carpet or concrete. This is especially important in universal design. I think of my dad, who was blind. I felt comforted, hearing him move through different parts of the house. Alternatively, a soothing sound of a water feature is another way to bring your home to life with 5 Senses Design™. I ask my clients: Which materials do you feel connected to? How does this impact your life?

 3. Savor the Smell.

Just as sight can offer sound, it can also offer smell. One of my clients enjoys the smell of the beach. That’s just one example of an obvious, noticeable fragrance. Others are mountain air or freshly cut wood. The poplar tree line lends to sight and sound, as well as the sense of smell. My approach is all about connecting the materials from the outside in, with poplar wood paneling on the walls or the ceiling. Aromatic cedar works well on laundry shelves because it reduces moisture and soaks up those ‘less than friendly’ smells. Aromatherapy has the power to conceal scents you don’t like, and enhance the scents you do enjoy. When you wake up in the morning, what do you want to smell?

 4. Savor the Touch.

The sense of touch is important for furniture selection, even faucets and light switches. People who are kinesthetic walk by a stone wall, and want to touch it. You can touch tree bark in the yard and savor the feeling of a wooden countertop (not laminate!) in your kitchen. It’s satisfying to connect your indoor and outdoor experiences. With clients who gravitate toward materials in this way, we discuss how they interact with each item in the home. For example, where do you want to plug in devices? Would you rather not bend down to plug in? Touch is all encompassing. Being mindful of body posture and how you move through the space can change your daily life.

 5. Savor the Taste.

Taste is the most challenging sense to incorporate in architecture. (You don’t really lick a building.) So we can think of a space being consonant with taste. How do we design a dining room with the meals in mind? Look at restaurants. You can go to a fast food chain, sit on cheap materials, and have the expected fast food taste. Yet, if you put that food in a 5 star restaurant environment … the cheeseburgers would be wonderful, because the space has been meaningfully designed around the meal. Some fixtures are reminiscent of certain foods, like a marble lamp that looks a bit like a block of gouda. Then the cheese plate becomes more appealing. When clients select stone for their dining room and kitchen, I ask: How can we make this look delicious?

Bring it all together

One way to unite all these sensory experiences is in an interior garden. Elements of both my 5 Senses Design™ and the concepts of biophilic design come into play. If you like to grow your own food, perhaps you already have herbs in the kitchen window. Imagine taking it a step further: a greenhouse adjacent to the kitchen, like a butler’s pantry where you can go in and pluck the peas you need for soup … watch the vines spread, listen to the peas pop out of their pods, take in the aroma of fresh herbs, really feel the ingredients between your fingers, and taste the freshness. Instead of cabinets on that wall, you could have a garden. I recommend this to clients who already like to cook, eat and share culinary experiences. Bringing the outdoors in makes it so much more exciting; a ritual that will amaze your family and guests.

When my clients talk about their kitchen, I want to know how they cook and who cooks. How often do you entertain? Is it like a cooking show, with multiple people involved? Even if you don’t like to cook, having a pantry garden could change how you perceive dinnertime.

My 5 Senses Design™ is a powerful tool to improve my clients’ health and overall enjoyment of life. We think, together, about their activities, and add ritual and convenience through design.

When you live in a boring bland box, that’s when you loathe to make a fire or take a shower or cook. We can feel like these things are chores, not self care. ‘Just gotta get through the day,’ I’ve heard. Why are you doing that? Why don’t you enjoy your day? If every room in your home was designed around interaction and beauty, moving from one space to the other no longer becomes a chore. People would no longer hate their kitchens. With 5 Senses Design™, going through your day isn’t a chore anymore; it’s beautiful.

To connect with your senses

Recall your fondest memory … it probably involves an activity at least two senses can identify with. My approach recreates that feeling in the home. Through my initial design consultation, clients can take my 5 Senses Design™ questionnaire. I find people will gravitate toward certain senses -- first vision, the confirming sense, then 1 or 2 more. Many of us use our eyes to locate what we want to interact with, then we move to that area and touch it, smell it, listen to it, or even taste it. What will you do next?