Interior Decorating, Meet the Hagerstown Home Show

Interiors by MSB Architects participated in the Washington County Home Builders Association Home Show in early March. This extremely worthwhile event allowed us to be in front of a live audience of folks looking to update, renovate or build a new home. They visited our booth eager for ideas and inspiration. And free chocolate.

Our goal in being there was not just to “sell our wares” but to inform and create awareness about the use of a professional decorator. We highlighted ways decorators help solve problems and along the way, dispelled some misconceptions about working with a decorator.

Here are the top three takeaways from our experiences at the show:

Most people confuse the difference between a design professional and a contractor.

The question most asked after, “What do you do?” was “Do you build what you design?” To be fair, we were at a home builders’ show. We explained that we design home interiors and exteriors based on the look, feel and function clients want, then work with contractors to ensure the finished product reflects the unique intent of that design.

There is still an ongoing debate about hardwood flooring v. carpeting.

Surprisingly, even newer homes have finished hardwood floors that have been covered with wall-to wall-carpet. Homeowners then grapple over whether to pull up the carpet when they will eventually end up covering it with another carpet. As a general rule, if you like the look of wood and still yearn for softness and warmth underfoot, use area rugs to create zones. Don’t forget to leave wood floor “borders” and “pathways” to highlight the beauty of the wood.

Interior decorating services are seen as fluff. Expensive fluff.

Happily, we had the chance to dispel this one quickly. We reiterated that interior decorators do not just add pretty things to your space. We make your space livable, using furniture and finishing touches that you find beautiful. Plus, we prevent costly mistakes by making sure the perfect, non-returnable sofa you love will fit through your front door!  And, we’re happy to spread your costs out over time, working with you room-by-room or as an hourly design consultant.

Time and chocolate well spent.

When all was said and done, Interiors by MSB left the Home Show feeling our efforts were well spent. Homeowners left our booth reminded that interior decorators not only help navigate an ocean of design decisions, but also make sure you get the room you always imagined!


A Space of Our Own

Four years ago, MSB Architects signed a lease for our current space, moving us from Myersville to Hagerstown. It was exciting to design our own space and it’s been a great home for the past 4 years. Now its time to embark on a similar journey, but this time we will own the space we inhabit.

As some of you know, we are in the process of buying the Pioneer Hook and Ladder fire station from the City of Hagerstown. It is approx 5,500 square feet, which is much larger than our current 1,200 square foot office. Like last time, we will take our audience along for the ride and give a full view of what its like to experience the design and construction process.

The first step in any design project is the program and ours is no different. What does MSB Architects really need? Our program list is:

  • Managers Office
  • Secondary Office (We are an open plan design studio, but occasionally you need some time in solitude.)
  • Coat closet (I ignored this request in the last design and have been paying for it for 4 years now.)
  • Conference Room
  • Secondary Conference Room
  • Open studio space (10-15 desks)
  • Printing Room
  • 3D printing room
  • Interiors office and material library
  • Bigger fish tank (A bigger office means we need a bigger fish tank.)
  • Exercise room (Its hard to find time to workout. Hopefully, this helps us.)
  • Bathroom with shower
  • Kitchenette with eating area
  • Collaboration space (lots of unique areas to work away from desk area)

Making sure your program needs are well defined is the first step in the design process. As our needs have increased, we have a better understanding of what additional spaces we need moving forward so creating our needs list was easy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is our profession. Do you think we missed any spaces for our new office?

The Sun and Architecture

Sunlight feels like an odd thing to have to study.  Realistically, everyone automatically deals with it every day without thinking about it. We know how, when, and why it works, the path it travels, and we can even predict changes to it.  Yet, every architect and architectural student is obsessed with studying the sun because it affects everything from the usability of a space (standard glare and shadow issues), to the sizing of mechanical systems, to the site layout, to the architectural form itself. 

A building’s reaction to the sun is, of course, dependent on its global position (think back to lessons on longitude and latitude). Depending on location, the solution to harsh summer sun is as simple as shading. We shade buildings just you do when you put on a baseball cap to shield your eyes. However, the closer to the equator a building is the more critical shielding from the sun becomes. In these cases, the goal is to maximize the amount of the building which is in shadow and minimize the number of windows facing the equator.  The further away from the equator, a building is, the more we have to dance the delicate line between providing the shading in the summer months while allowing winter sun to naturally warm the building in the winter months.  

A depiction of the paths of the sun throughout the year. MSB Architects

A depiction of the position of the sun on March 8, 2018, and the resulting shadows. MSB Architects

Traditionally, a sun study was done by building a physical model to scale and placing it in a heliodon and moving the light source to simulate time, day, and month of a year.  With the advent of computer technologies, this process has become relatively quicker and more accurate.  With computer-aided modeling, we can see not only how the sun affects the exterior architecture, but also the interior spaces.  While real-world conditions often change how the sun affects a building, producing a sun study gives an architect the ability to shape the building to respond to some of those conditions.

Heliodon method of analyzing the sun’s impact on a building.


There are several ways to respond to the sun. It can be highly technical like the Al Bahar Towers, which utilize a curtain wall with screens that open and close automatically in relation to the sun’s position.  Or fairly traditional, as with the Cesar Chavez Regional Library’s deep roof overhangs.  There are also buildings like Solstice on the Park in Chicago who’s windows angle to provide optimal shading in the summer months. Architecture can also be situated to respond to certain solar events, like the Salk Institute’s “River of Life” that perfectly aligns with the rising and setting of the sun on the autumnal and vernal equinox. But no matter the response, architects are thinking about the sun.

Screens respond to the position of the sun on the facade of the Al Bahar Towers designed by Aedas UK with Diar Consult located in Abu Dhabi.

Using deep overhanging roofs, the Cesar Chavez Library in Phoenix Arizona, designed by Line and Space, shields both the users and the books from the harsh sun.

Carved by the sun, the Solstice on the Park, designed by Studio Gang in Chicago, responds by angling the windows such that the floors below are always shaded in the summer months.

The travertine plaza in the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego California features a water fountain “River of Life” which aligns perfectly with the setting of the sun on the spring and fall equinox.

Crescendo Fund 2017

We have some big things in store here at MSB Architects for 2018. We have some marquee projects in design at St. James School and the Schmankerl Stube Restaurant. Our new downtown headquarters is in the works for an exciting new space and location. And we are working on a new look for our brand. But with all this excitement, we can’t forget the Crescendo Fund.

The benefits to music students are well documented and include increased cognitive, math and spatial skills. Additionally, as teacher Jennifer Jones describes in her application, “there are other benefits as well: perseverance, risk-taking, collaboration, focus, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and self-confidence are a few of the “side effects” of being a part of the band or orchestra program.” Meagan Graff adds, “Music allows our students a form of communication and allows them to express emotions that they might otherwise be unable to express. Students are enthusiastic and engaged in music class, which is not something we can always say in other classes. Music gives them many choices to make – from which note to play next, which song to listen to, or which instrument to play today.” Despite these clear benefits, arts budgets are usually hit first when it’s time to make cuts. The Crescendo Fund is our way to give back to Washington County Public School Music Programs.

Our advisory panel this year included Elizabeth Schulze, Music Director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Weber, Instructor of Art, Music, and Humanities at Hagerstown Community College, and Pieter Bickford, Marketing Executive at High Rock Studios and Member of the Washington County Board of Education. We are lucky to have such distinguished representatives of the community assist in the selection process. They have shown tireless dedication to music and education. With their help, we distributed $5,000 to our applicants.

The 2017 Grant Awards go to:

  • Russell Hicks Middle School Orchestra
  • Russell Hicks Middle School Instrumental Music
  • Fountaindale Elementary
  • Hancock Elementary School
  • Marshall Street School
  • Smithsburg High School Band


While we are proud to have made some small impact, please know that we were not able to fund any of the teacher’s requests in their entirety. And yet, there is still a need. If you would like to help, please contact your local school or we can help put you in touch with the right people. Any time music changes your mood, remember how a small thing makes an impact in your life.

Architectural Podcasts: A modern conversation about architecture

If you are interested in architecture, there are plenty of ways to educate yourself about the industry.  Traditional school, books, documentaries, online courses, and even DIY television are all viable sources. But in the last few years, a new source of information, the podcast, has become a reputable source of information.

Baltimore Harbor. Picture courtesy of and used with permission.

There are a number of architecture podcasts available.  Some, such as the Black Spectacles ARE Live podcast, are specifically designed to help people pass the tests required to become a registered architect.  Podcasts like Entrepreneur Architect and Business of Architecture are focused on helping owners navigate the turmoil of running an architecture firm. Then there are podcasts like About Buildings and Cities which put their emphasis on the built environments and urbanism.  And finally, there are the general education podcasts, which cover any and all of these subjects.  My personal favorite is Archispeak, a podcast which focuses on what it’s like to live and work as an architect.

Archispeak is hosted by Cormac Phalen, Neal Pann, and Evan Troxel, who all work in the architecture industry. Together, these three bring their differing experiences, styles, and geographical design influences to their discussions. Their topics range from how to search for a job in architecture, work-life balance, technology in the industry, and more. Then, there are recurring episodes like “gifts for architects,” which are essentially their own wish lists. As we head into the summer months, there is usually a discussion of upcoming vacation plans.  This particular podcast truly is an all-purpose, multi-subject discussion about all things architecture.

Because of the diverse subject matter and special guests presented, Archispeak is well suited for anyone interested in architecture. Episodes can be found on iTunes, at the Archispeak website , Google Play, Stitcher, and can be followed on twitter at @archispk.  New episodes are released every two weeks on a Monday, with the next one scheduled for February 19, 2018. If you subscribe to the show, the hosts will e-mail you show notes prior to the release of each new episode.  These notes include links to products they discuss.  Oh, looks like my latest notes just came in, so it’s time to get ready for the next episode.

Olympic Ice

The RODI filters in our fish room.

For those that know me, you know my love for saltwater fish goes deep, right down to the water. There’s also a chance that you will get into a discussion with me about RODI water. What is that? Isn’t all water, just water? It turns out all water isn’t the same. RODI is the acronym for Reverse Osmosis De-Ionized water. It refers to the process by which water is cleaned. In this case, all the ions and molecules are removed leaving only pure water afterward. I use RODI water for my fish tanks to reduce unwanted particulates which feed algae growth. However, I am not the only one that uses RODI water. Believe it or not, it is also the choice of Olympic ice makers.

So, why use RODI water at the Olympics? How does it help with the quality of the ice surface? In a nutshell, RODI water is used to ensure the ice is flat and smooth. The tiny particles in ordinary tap water pool during the freezing process, leaving little dents on the surface. For most of us, that’s not a big deal, but when you compete at the Olympic level, those imperfections make a difference. Depending on the sport, ice quality can make the difference between gold or not.

Olympic curling. Photo courtesy wiki commons.

One sport concerned with ice quality is curling. I’ve watched some matches recently and it is mesmerizing. In case you aren’t familiar with curling, the athletes slide a stone puck, called a rock, down an ice lane. The lane reminds me of a long shuffleboard or bowling lane. The athletes move ahead of the rock, with what looks like a Swiffer, to sweep the ice. Their goal is to get the rock where they want it on the painted target. As you see, the ice needs to be extremely flat to ensure the rock glides straight and true.

If you are watching the Olympics and catch a curling event, think about the ice. And remember, someone carefully chose pure water for a smooth finish. You can also learn more from this article In any case, it’s nice to know I am not the only person obsessed with RODI water.

LEED : An Explanation

This past week, I’ve been working on a LEED project. Not schematic design or construction documents, but the paperwork side of things. While many people seem to have a general idea of what LEED is, many aren’t sure, other than some green, sustainability thing. So I thought it’d be a good time to peel away from the paperwork and discuss it with all of you.

What Is LEED?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a rating system that can be applied to almost any building. While there are several rating systems of building sustainability, LEED is the most recognizable and generally accepted. It’s also been used by some cities as a baseline for their own sustainability requirements.

The first step in the process is to chose which of the various rating systems our building is best suited. They include:

  • Building Design and Construction (BD+C)
  • Interior Design and Construction (ID+C)
  • Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M)
  • Neighborhood Development (ND)
  • Homes

For what I’ve been working on, Building Design and Construction (BD+C) works best since it was new building using the framing of an existing building. And for the sake of this discussion, we’ll be referring to the 2009 LEED version.

Reference Guide for the 2009 version. All those papers sticking out are addenda.

LEED Categories

LEED works on a point based system. In the Building Design and Construction group, there are six sub-categories for classification of points.

  • Site Selection (SS)
  • Water Efficiency (WE)
  • Energy and Atmosphere (EA)
  • Materials and Resources (MR)
  • Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)
  • Innovation in Design (ID)

The next step in the process is to complete a score sheet denoting which credits you intend to achieve. Some categories have a lot of points available.

Preliminary score sheet

LEED Thresholds

Each category (except Innovation in Design) has at least one prerequisite and a few credits. Credits are where you can get points – there are a maximum of 110 points. The points will show what threshold you were able to achieve in your chosen LEED rating system. BD+C has the following thresholds:

  •  Certified (40-49 points)
  • Silver (50-59 points)
  • Gold (60-79 points)
  • Platinum (80+ Points)


You may have seen these letters, but aren’t sure what they mean. A LEED AP is a LEED Accredited Professional, that specialize in one or more rating systems. This means they have studied and taken an exam to show their understanding of the program. For instance, I am a LEED AP BD+C. So from what you’ve read above, you may have figured out that I’m a LEED Accredited Professional (AP) that specialized in the Building Design and Construction (BD+C) rating system.

LEEP AP’s are useful in the process for a couple reasons:

  1. They help streamline the process by reviewing credits and ensuring their completeness. This may aid in getting additional points since a LEED AP may see synergies between credits. A credit you may not have gone after previously may have a synergy with another credit you are trying to achieve – make a few adjustments and badabing badaboom you get another point! One additional point can mean the difference between gold and platinum.
  2. You get one additional point for having a LEEP AP on your team.

MSB Architects and LEED

MSB has several LEED projects:

Left to Right: APUS IT Center, APUS Finance Center, APUS Academic Center, Lucy School

What do you think about green building practices and LEED? Have you been in any LEED rated building? If so, what did you think? Did you sit back and think, gee, this building is just like every other building or was it wow – what a great building! Or do you want to ponder everything and research a bit more? Below are two links so you can discover more:

United States Green Building Council

Green Business Certification Inc.

Alternatives to the LEED program:

Green Building Initiative or Green Globes Certification

Energy Star – not just for appliances!

International Living Future Institute

Managing Expectations

An architect’s job goes beyond design, but is just as important as design. That job is managing client expectations. Many clients have never used an architect before, so they are unfamiliar with the process. Whether they mention it or not, some questions usually come to mind for almost everyone. How long does the process take? How do you take my ideas and create a plan? When will we know what it costs? How long will it take to build? Let’s explore a few of these.

How long does the process take?

There are a lot of factors that influence this answer. If you are building a new building or addition, you will likely require site plan approval. Depending on the jurisdiction, it typically takes 6-12 months to obtain those approvals. This doesn’t mean you can’t start the process though. In fact, because it  takes approximately 6-12 months to design the building, you should absolutely start the building design. This is broken up by several phases starting with schematic design, i.e. the old fashion napkin sketch, and followed by construction drawings for pricing and permitting. For the design team 6-12 months isn’t very long, but for the client who is excited to get things started it can feel like a lifetime.

How do you take my ideas and create a plan?

This is harder to explain. As designers we have spent years exploring space, between school and real world experience. This one too high, this one too low, this one just right. It sounds like we’re reading from Goldilocks. But, it’s those personal explorations and learning about proportions, transitions, and movement that are used to create each project’s design. Once we come up with some design options, we present them to the clients. Sometimes, they like a piece of this along with a piece of that. We then redesign the space accordingly. As a new architect, this can be a frustrating experience because those components don’t always work together. It is our job to understand what you like about those sketches, which goes beyond the plan layout into underlying psychology. This might mean a change that is different, but conveys the same feeling.

When will we know what it costs?

This is one of the most emotional items on any project. Construction always costs more than you think. I blame all those HGTV shows we have been watching for the last decade, as I mentioned in a past blog. The truth is architects and general contractors don’t really know what your project is going to cost until it actually bid. Any preliminary costs are based on past projects, recent bids, or personal experience. While we can be fairly accurate in determining the cost of materials, other factors also play into the final price. For example, the construction market is constantly changing, and prices reflect those changes. We can’t determine how busy the market is, or predict the labor prices that adjust based on demand.


The key to managing expectations is to have an open dialogue with the client from the start about the process. Hopefully, when challenges arise, you have established trust to work through it. I always assume clients are unfamiliar with the process and spend significant time discussing the project from start to finish. It’s much easier to manage expectations when you’re armed with knowledge.