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Group 41 San Francisco Architects - Modern Architecture

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

As a “Green Architect”, (…oh, HOW I hate that term….I was doing “Green” before it was even called that!….) as well as one who has done a lot of work in Historic Preservation areas, I am finding that there is a burgeoning need and demand for services to “Green the Past”.

Now, what exactly does that mean?  We have all become so utterly “Greenwashed” with every imaginable “green” product and service that I think many people feel ready to banish that term from our vocabularies altogether.  Being *the* hot topic of the day, everyone wants “in”.  There are plenty of fakirs out there too…..snake oil salesmen who will put the term “green” on anything at all in order to sell it.  What is needed is some thoughtful re-assignment of the term.

What interests me is activities that actually can improve on historic structures while being conscious of and interactive with new trends and new awareness of issues in construction, energy efficiency, and materials and methods.  This would be anything along the following lines:

  • Improving Indoor Air Quality of aging buildings
  • Removing toxins including Asbestos, lead, and other typical materials found in many historic structures
  • Dealing with problems associated with outdated forced air systems
  • Finding grossly inefficient systems, including huge old boilers, lighting, and other building infrastructure that works on “old energy paradigms”
  • Updating materials and finishes to current standards, not only “Green”, but also ADA compliant, appropriate lighting levels (in stairwells and the like), as well as being cosmetically attractive
  • Replacing wasteful old toilet fixtures and other appliances that gobble too much water and energy

The importance of Historic Preservation Standards is also key to “Greening the Past”.  The United States Secretary of the Interior has instituted formally written standards for Historic Preservation, Restoration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. (  Each one of these terms has specific meaning to preservationists, and the historic designation of a structure is critically important in determining what can and cannot be done to it.  Many of the suggested ideas above fall within the guidelines for any of these Preservation approaches, but some do not.  Navigating that thicket with the Historic Preservation Planners at City Hall, as well as public organizations intended to protect Historic Resources is an additional challenge of its own.

What can certainly be said of “Greening the Past” is that it’s high time we attended to all the beautiful old buildings in our magnificent city, and brought them up to date in a sensitive, and thoughtful way.

Group 41 Update

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

It has been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly because I’ve been overwhelmingly busy.  I am deeply grateful for that fact, being one of the apparently few offices in San Francisco for whom that is true.  I continue to market actively, and am always looking for new, exciting project prospects.  But I thought that perhaps this moment of economic crisis might offer a pause for reflection on business and architecture in this frightening climate.

I have been successful mostly through sheer strength of will, and some novel ideas.  Thinking creatively is, in my opinion, central to keeping a business vital.  There are literally hundreds of architects out there in practice, many of them excellent providers and strong competitors.  I have found that there must be something **very** atypical that differentiates my firm.

My practice focus continues to be on several “unusual” project types:

  • Shipping Container Architecture.  I have been focused for over ten years, having entered competitions and won awards, for my work in the upcycling of used shipping containers.  Though I have yet to find a serious client to build one, I continue to be actively involved in research, discussion, and marketing for this opportunity.  I hope to build one soon.
  • Residential Development Projects.  As my own client for several projects, and in partnership with a small handful of investor colleagues, I have been able to “even out” my workflows in the office.  The challenge here is that it hurts cash flow because the “pay” only comes at the end of the project, with the property sale. But if one can sustain the monetary issues, this is a very helpful business model for architects to consider.  It provides a type of diversification that is unusual, and I continue to feel strongly that this experience brings a special level of knowledge to my other projects and clients.  Having experience as a developer makes us unusually sensitive to costs and project process.
  • “Unusual” commercial commissions.  My work with our Three Twins Ice Cream client has led to other opportunities in that industry.  In addition, the people I have met through our Synagogue client also have provided a new network.

Of course, simply doing a great job for our clients remains the best marketing we can do.  We try very hard to provide unusually comprehensive services, including detailed assistance with materials, fixtures, fittings and other finish choices, as well as offering our contacts lists for aggressively priced materials, finishes, and subcontractors to all our clients.

How to survive the economic downturn?  I will simply continue to look for the most unexpected project types, do the best work I am capable of, and hope that this is rewarded with referrals and repeat clients.

Architect as Developer. Why so many fail.

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I am routinely asked why I am able to stand so comfortably with one foot in each of two territories: “High Design Architect” and “Real Estate Developer”.  Many people view these two disciplines as mutually exclusive.  It amazes me that, even with my extensive schooling in what are considered “prestigious” architectural institutions, many of my architect colleagues think that real estate developers are the lowest form of pond scum, and the developers I frequently deal with have the strong feeling that architects cannot be trusted within ten miles of their projects.

This intrinsic disconnect is at the core of the failure of many architect/developer client relationships.  There is such a deeply rooted distrust and cynicism between the two that, even before they begin a relationship, they are doomed.  This extends all the way through the relationship, and the challenge of working together slides ever further downhill.  The architect’s defenses go up, the builder starts pointing fingers at the “substandard” set of drawings, the developer/owner thinks he is getting taken advantage of by both parties, and eventually everyone ends up furious at best, and suing each other at worst.

I believe the genesis of this problem is in the age-old nature of the constructs behind each of the practices of the builder and architect.  These paradigms, which date back as far as 600 to 1000 years, have become albatrosses around all our necks, and have resulted in only continuing to mire us in the old bad habits.  The traditional education of the architect, which dates to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris around the 1860’s, but in fact has its roots in medieval stonemasonry teaching techniques, is based on the notion that the “Master Architect” is the one with all the knowledge, and it is his or her responsibility to “direct” the work of the builder.  As this has evolved, the American Institute of Architects has stepped in to mediate, beginning sometime in the 20th century’s litigious environment. Nowadays we simply have been unable to sustain that model, and architects have had to step outside of the process to become “third party observers” both legally and contractually.  If you read an architect’s contract today, he or she will not claim direct responsibility for the actual construction in any way whatsoever.

The builder, on the other hand, who comes out of a proud and centuries old tradition of craft, was typically not a highly **educated**, but rather a highly **skilled** tradesman, trained through years of journeyman and apprentice practice.  His pride came from the elegance of his craft and the beauty of his product.  He innately mistrusted the architect as an interloper who wanted to impose a different design sensibility than his own, onto his work.  That historic wariness has evolved into a built-in adversarial relationship between the architect and builder in our modern construction environment.  Even in the most gentlemanly versions of these arrangements, there is a deep and abiding lack of trust.

The only workable solution to this problem is to invent a brand new paradigm for this relationship.  Since both traditions are deeply rooted in history and steeped in tradition, it takes truly enlightened parties on both sides, as well as an unusual client to transform the nature of these connections.  In fact, it is the role of developer that most easily affords the opportunity for this freedom.  This is the very reason that I, personally, am able to be successful at both creating “High Design”, while still acting responsibly in a developer environment.  Of course dollars matter.  We operate in a free market economy where the cost is **the** primary driver.  But making high design and being a developer are not fundamentally mutually exclusive.  They can coexist happily, and particularly in a real estate climate like San Francisco’s where the unnaturally restricting forces of anti-development drive prices continually higher and housing stock continually tighter, it is possible to do both.

In a truly collaborative environment, much more of the design is allowed to flow to the builder’s side than typically would be even dreamed of by the architect.  Because of the litigiousness of our culture, the fear surrounding this option keeps most practicing architects from letting go of any of this responsibility.  In fact, this is a system that is currently in place, and has worked amazingly well in Japan for decades.  I lived and practiced this approach for five years, and was delighted and amazed to see it in actual working practice.  Designers are on the jobsite every day, working in partnership with the builders to devise solutions to the myriad of design challenges that simply cannot be addressed in drawings.  It’s an enormously efficient and cost-effective way to approach design.  Additionally, it allows much more flexibility and creativity along the way.

The essence of collaboration is not for everyone to say “We work collaboratively in our company” or some other such marketing buzz-talk.  Where the rubber hits the road is when both architect and builder really stretch and flex to each others’ needs, without even thinking about change orders, pointing fingers, finding fault, or looking for blame.  The change is organic, and at the absolutely most fundamental level.  It doesn’t work any other way.


Earthquake at DBI

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Things like this can sort of slip under the “news radar”, but to people like me, they are bona fide earthquakes.  Isam Hasenin, the director of the Department of Building Inspection of the City of San Francisco resigned quietly this past week.  He had held the post for only 18 months, at the personal request of Mayor Gavin Newsom, and with the very specific charge of streamlining and reorganizing the department and what has become an accretion and a mess of tangled thickets for approvals process, tortured reviews and endless delays in building permit issuances.

The most important problem that practitioners like me, and builders, developers and others in the field face is the uneven application of building and planning review standards.  This has been the single most problematic issue at both DBI and Planning for decades, and has grown increasingly worse under Mr. Hasenin’s watch.  Although he has made genuine efforts to eliminate what is viewed as “favoritism” in plan reviews, it is still widely known that the self-same drawings, when reviewed by two different plan examiners can either sail through approvals, or end up in an endless vortex of back-check comments and corrections, seemingly at whim.

One other significant item to his credit is that the Director did institute a long-overdue streamlining of over-the-counter approvals process for smaller projects.  This has enormously improved the lives of we who do projects like interior renovations, cosmetic upgrades and the like, along with larger architectural/structural ones.  However, by “shaking up” the department and requiring that all plan checkers participate in “counter duty” he successfully made many enemies who had become quite comfortable working within their own narrow “comfort zones”.  It’s one of the worst kept secrets that nearly no one down at the department much likes Mr. Hasenin, so no wonder that he has decided to move on.  Of course, the Mayor is putting a positive spin on his “accomplishments” during his tenure.  But there is an iceberg of trouble sitting beneath the calm waters.

What is absolutely critical is the need for stronger leadership from the Mayor. We must have a plan-check process that is **actually** fair and even-handed, and even more important, San Francisco crucially needs to simplify the Planning approvals process and re-empower the Planning Department to exercise its authority over the Planning Code, and not simply refer every case upstream to the full commission.  A huge problem currently is that the full Commission is hearing cases that should never even be qualified to appear before them in the first place.  Planning Staff is legally empowered to reject cases outright, but will not do so, out of conditioned fear generated by a Planning commission that routinely hears, and reverses established Planning Code or Design Guidelines, based solely on Political whim, not on established policy or law.  This is a practice which ruins San Francisco’s credibility as a fair and responsible place to do business as a builder, developer, architect, or any trade professional.  The absence of any change in this area will result in ever rising housing costs, a more difficult regulatory environment, and increasing headaches for San Francisco as a city overall.

Politics 101 teaches us that the more highly regulated an environment, the less successfully market economics are allowed to work, the more the system slowly breaks down.  The collapse of the Soviet Union was a perfect example.  The removal of rent control in Santa Monica California is another excellent recent example of how well it solved problems to remove market controls, in fact **improving** the housing stock, lowering rents, and making the community a better place to live.

Until the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors recognize their complicity in the failure of DBI and Planning to allow the market to self-regulate at least somewhat (without letting San Francisco become Houston, Texas, of course!) and work toward removing controls, making it easier to do business, they will continue to back themselves into a tighter and tighter corner.

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Renovation on a Budget

Friday, July 18th, 2008


Contrary to what some architects may want you to believe there is some renovation work that does not require the involvement of an architect.  Even most municipalities’ building departments recognize a homeowner’s right to do minor cosmetic improvements without an architect’s licensed stamp or a structural engineer.  It is important that the owner be careful about respecting these boundaries, however, both in terms of their property values and for bona fide life safety issues.  ”Just moving or opening up a wall” is not necessarily a minor operation, and can have serious structural consequences, even when it is not on the exterior of a home.

However, keeping in mind that there is a wide latitude of work that the ”weekend warrior” can undertake, this article is meant to help him or her find ways to make the most of home improvement dollars.  Even when doing these sorts of projects, it is still advisable to pull a building permit.


True cosmetics like new tile, fixtures, faucets and fittings, and light fixtures, can be replaced without architect’s involvement, though in some urban locales a licensed electrician and plumber are required.  In our experience as developers, we have found that many times, online retailers are able to cut prices even lower than local wholesale operations, especially in the lighting and plumbing trades, because these typically work on such tight profit margins anyway, that the online companies can save by not maintaining showrooms and sales staff, so they can slightly undercut even the local wholesalers.  We frequently do major development projects as well as smaller remodels using ”drop shipped” products from online retailers.

Some of our favorite resources for especially terrific modern products these days are:



Some of the best ”weekend warrior” projects are the little space savers and storage projects that are a godsend in everyone’s home.  Someone once told me that ”….you can never have too much money or too much storage space….!!”  While I’m not sure I subscribe to the philosophy, I think most people have a lot of stuff they want to put away.

Finding ”lost space” is astonishingly easy in most homes.  Spaces underneath staircases, ”thick walls” around closets that were framed out to align walls and ”soffits” where ceilings were dropped down are places that have empty, unused space in them.  Many of these can be recaptured elegantly as nice, do-it-yourself projects.

  • THICK WALLS Framing contractors frequently double up stud walls in many places, even in newer homes, in order to ”flush out” or make walls even.  If you look carefully, you may find these in your own home.  It is important to be careful to note than many times, walls will contain plumbing pipes, heating ducts, and other building systems, but in many cases, they will be completely empty.  A simple ”stud finder” from your local Home Depot store will help you find two studs where you can open up a small area of the wallboard and take a look inside, making the re-patching relatively easy if you find ”spaghetti” when you open it.
  • SOFFITS Many spaces, for example, above kitchen and bathroom cabinets, above and around closet spaces and the like, are sometimes built out to ”meet” the cabinets or doors, with nothing more than airspace.  Again, some judicious investigating would be a good way to find some of those lost spaces.


JUST PAINT is one of the most magical renovation tools available to every homeowner.  What you can do to make a space sing by simply using color and texture creatively is extraordinary.  Taking a blandly painted off-white room and giving it a strong accent wall color, or an overall wash of rich pastel can transfer the feel of a space.  Be bold.  If you decide you don’t like it, it’s easy enough to paint over again.  The only consideration is that, if you paint a highly saturated color, then repainting light color back over it will require at least two coats of light primer, so be careful when considering strong, deep colors.  Textured and glazed paints can also require additional preparation when painting over, but they offer a rich feel as an accent, and can add dimension to a space.   Other options include adding tonal accent colors to moldings, and choosing focal points for color, like at the end of hallways.  We also like to use ”Photographic White” or ”Dead White” for ceilings, which makes a room look larger.


Instead of making a sanded mess of refinished floors, we have recently come upon a new floor refinishing process that we like which doesn’t use sanding, but rather a non-toxic chemical system to strip the floor and refinish beautifully.  They can do the work in one day, and it is totally child and pet safe.  Nice option that doesn’t require totally sealing off or moving out of the house.

There are other ”sandless” floor refinishing methods as well:


There are endless options for low-cost improvements.  I like to think creatively by looking through books and magazines, and shopping at rummage sales.  You never know where a great idea may come from.

Happy renovating!

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COMMERCIAL PROJECTS for the small business

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

I am almost daily struck by the extraordinary lack of information available for small retail shop owners and office tenants about how to go about improvements in their spaces and the raft of legal, leasing, technical, construction, permit, and other issues that confront them. Just a couple days ago, in chatting with a commercial leasing broker, she expressed her own frustration in not having available information to give her smaller clients who don’t know what it takes to do a fit-up on a new space.

The biggest problem is that small tenants think, for example “…Oh, this isn’t a big deal, we’ll just do some display cases, a few refrigerated displays, a small toilet room in the back for the staff, shouldn’t be a big deal…”. The single sentence I just quoted contained a virtual minefield of potential issues to confront that could take several months to iron out, and cost significant amounts of money for a tenant. In the case of an inexperienced or uninformed small business owner, that could result in the negotiation of a very unfavorable lease, and enormous problems down the road. Businesses come and go all the time. But as a small business owner, the one and only thing you most care about is your business, and if you do not take the steps necessary, you could find your business bankrupt as well. When a lease clock is ticking away, there can be significant financial burdens, if not virtual financial ruin before the doors of the store ever even open.

It is imperative that small business owners consult knowledgeable commercial realtors, as well as architects if they plan to do any sort of work at all in improvements. Simple budgeting of costs can reveal all sorts of problems, but in the example above, there are Health Department issues (refrigerated displays require exterior drip lines to floor sinks which can be extremely costly), ADA Accessibility issues (a “small toilet room in the back for staff” still must meet all handicapped access guidelines, eating up serious square footage at significant costs), even “dry” display cases must meet accessibility requirements for wheelchair access, and a store must provide a wheel-up, low and accessible transaction counter at the register in addition to the normal height one for customer transactions. This will also add to the cabinetwork costs. Put these kinds of headaches that could add enormous costs on top of all of your normal business start-up or move issues, and you could back yourself into a serious corner after signing a lease. Issues could come up, like occupancy counts (do you know why 49 is a magical number in a store? If you don’t, you could cost yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars without knowing it after you sign a lease) and egress doors (how many inches will keep you from having to install a full sprinkler system at tens of thousands of dollars cost?). And what about food? Are you planning to serve any food in your coffee café? Do you know if you need Type I or Type II hoods? If you don’t you could, again, cost yourself a ton of money.

The cost of a few hours of consulting time by an architect and an experienced real estate broker are worth far more in the long run in potential problems and headaches to you. Any experienced architect will be happy to spend an hour or two at their normal billing rates to advise you of the major pitfalls related to your particular situation. In a complicated regulatory environment like San Francisco, unfortunately, there are too many constraints and requirements to be condensed to a simple text or “guidebook”. An experienced architect is the resource that will give the small business owner the best perspective on what the primary issues will be for that particular location. Get some good advice before you dive into your venture!!

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Architecture in light of the adoption by the State of California of the International Building Code

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Today’s first installment deals with the sweeping change brought about by the adoption by the State of California of the International Building Code (IBC) as of January 1st, 2008. In late November of last year I had my entire staff, including myself, trained to the new code. That day, after spending a mind-numbing 8-hour session taking a 600 mile-an-hour race through a litany of bullet points that barely grazed the surface of the most important changes to the code, two major, important issues jumped right out at me:

  • A great deal of this really won’t affect most homeowners and smaller architects who deal mostly with residential construction, though there are a **handful** of important items that will trip up even them…
  • There are so many changes that have not clearly been tested in a plan check process that it is going to take years for the DBI (Department of Building Inspection) plan checkers to figure out exactly how to deal with it all. Of course they will never admit to this openly, but it was quite clear to everyone in this seminar that there are way too many “gray areas” that are untested in the local specificities to have hard answers right away.

What this really means is that most architects will not be able to give their clients clear, certain answers to many code related questions for some time to come. The good news is that much of the “standard knowledge” that we architects have internalized as rote memory, like stair rise-and-run ratios, legal dimensional clearances, legal headroom, and such issues, are virtually all unchanged. The major changes relate almost exclusively to fire ratings, rated separations, separations along property lines etc. The changes to the code should not be onerous for most architects to “re-learn”, but I will try to outline some of the major points, as reference for us all, in a subsequent posting.

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Joel Karr

Group 41’s First Blog Posting

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Diving headlong into the wild world of the blogosphere, we are embarking here upon a journey, the direction of which we don’t yet know, but which will certainly be interesting, entertaining, and ultimately uplifting. There may be items logged here by any of us in the Group 41 team, as we all bring particular expertise to the mix, and can add valuable insights to the experiences of our clients, partners, and friends.

It will be our hope to share bits of knowledge gained from our daily struggles, challenges, and lessons learned, as practicing architects in San Francisco, as residential developers, as folks who spend a good bit of time in real estate endeavors, and as small business owners. Many of our irregular postings will fall into one of these categories, and will be tagged under each as such. Others may simply be random observations. But we promise that they will offer you insights into various aspects of business in building and its allied fields.