It’s going to cost what?

One of the more challenging tasks as an architect is explaining to clients why the construction bids came in over their budget. It’s never a comfortable discussion, but one I have had many times. This occurred on our latest project, except it wasn’t a client’s project. You guessed it–it was our new office. This is the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of this bad news. To make it more interesting, the cost wasn’t just 5-10% over budget, it was almost 50% over budget. I anticipated costs being high, but not this much. I said to myself, “It’s going to cost what?”

The bid came in around 10 am on a Thursday. Honestly, the rest of the day was a blur. I was in such a state of shock that I don’t remember working on anything else. Our sympathetic loan officer, Karen, brought some pizza to help us process the news. While we ate, we took a hard look at the bid to see if there were simple ways to cut costs. Since I review bids regularly, I looked to the big-ticket items first. But the question staring me in the face was how do you cut 50% of the project and retain the essence of the project? This was going to take some bigger thinking.

Unfortunately, the answer was redesign. It was hard to let go of the original design, but there were no simple ways to bring the costs within our budget. So we broke out the sketch paper and printed all the previous concepts. Figuring out how we got to where we were helped focus us. Fortunately, we had some earlier schemes that looked like we could adapt. Times like these really bring us to the core design to find what is critical and what is not.

We have finished the redesign and it’s much simpler than our original plans. We are in the process of getting revised bids and hopefully (fingers crossed), the numbers will be within our budget. While it was a stressful couple weeks, it has been a good experience. I definitely have a better understanding of the stress our clients go through.

Why you should visit Iceland

When studying abroad I took a solo vacation to Iceland. I hadn’t researched anything about it before the day I decided to go, and I ended up just “winging” it. I booked a plane ticket a week before the trip and found a modest AirBNB in a suburb of Reykjavik called Kopavogur. When I arrived I realized it was predominantly residential so I had to find my way to a bus station to get downtown. I walked around Reykjavik for about half an hour before realizing that I had arrived. It rained for four out of the six days I was there, including the day I visited the Blue Lagoon. This may sound like a washout but Iceland was by far my favorite destination during my time abroad. It was a unique experience not only as a human but as a designer and here are a few reasons why:

Historic design based on necessity

During a bus tour to Vík, the southernmost village on the mainland of Iceland, I visited the Skaftfellingur Museum. I learned that since Vík is located so far South, it becomes cut off from the rest of Iceland during harsh weather conditions. Some of Vík’s vernacular architecture came about as a way of protection. In this instance, the use of turf for insulation from bitter temperatures was brought to Iceland by Norse and British settlers during the Viking Age. Apparently, it only has to be replaced every 20 years which makes it a very sustainable design option.

Icelandic Turf Houses. Photo by me.

Urban design in smaller doses

The population of Iceland is quite small and villages are spread out. It was shocking to learn that the majority of Iceland’s population lives in or around Reykjavik. The city itself is less dense than a comparable city in America. The buildings are mainly two or three story houses, while some newer construction along the water could be considered “high rise.” Each street is lined with some type of greenery and the entire layout is walkable.

Lokastígur (Loki’s Lane), the street leading to Hallgrimskirkja. Photo by me.

Contemporary architecture interlaced with vernacular

Since most structures in Iceland came about due to necessity, the newer and more modern architecture stands out while still paying respect to Iceland’s history. Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center stands as a joint effort of Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen and Icelandic firm Batteríið Arkitektar. Its design features intricate facades that enhance natural phenomena. Perception and physical senses were a main driver for the design intentions.

View along Sculpture and Shore Way. Photo by me.

National parks and protected landscapes

An important aspect of Iceland’s landscapes is its glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, fault lines, and sprawling lava fields. I was not expecting to get anywhere near a glacier on my trip, but one of the tours I went on took us to Myrdalsjokull which is sitting on top of an active volcano! Seeing it so close and hearing about the effects of global warming on the glaciers of Iceland was an eye-opening experience. I also traveled to Þingvellir National Park which is located along a fault line. This means that the hike to the Visitor Center follows along the Mid-Atlantic Rift, by which Iceland is divided.

Up close & personal with Myrdalsjokull glacier. Photo by me.

Visitor Center in Þingvellir National Park. Photo by me.

So…did you book your plane ticket yet?! As an architecture student, this experience helped me grasp how a country can have such horrendous weather and still be a hub of culture and history. Now as a recent graduate and intern, I look at the photos I took and remember how it felt to be in such a unique environment. Surprisingly enough, I mainly took pictures of the landscape while I was there. This differs from my normal iPhone camera roll because as someone who is focused on design and the built environment, I usually snap pictures of any building that even slightly catches my eye.

New Office Design Struggles

It’s been a couple months since I posted on our new office space. We have had some delays in closing but it looks like we are nearing the end of that part of the journey, which means construction should start in the next 30-60 days. So where does the design stand?

This has been one of the most challenging designs of my career. Our current space is only 1,200 SF, and the new building is over 5,000 SF. We don’t need all the square footage initially, so tried making the area we aren’t using leasable for tenants. Those design schemes lost so much space creating separate circulation for tenants we decided to abandon the idea and design the just for us.

One of our other struggles was the fire pole. We wanted it as a feature element in the space, but its existing location proved challenging. It isn’t near the front of the building, but it needs to be prominent when clients come to visit. We explored several schemes, but the layouts were terribly inefficient and blocked all natural light from the studio space. Our solution? Move the pole to the front lobby where it can be displayed without the additional challenges.

Early Concepts


Another design struggle was the building itself. Unfortunately, the interior of the firehouse does not have any unique character to influence the design. What do I mean? For example, if the inside had lots of exposed steel it would push the design to more of an industrial space. Ample wood framing would push the design in another direction. Other than the firepole, this building lacks defining features that would guide us to a particular style. While this may not seem like a problem, it is a struggle when you know and love so many styles. This issue became apparent when we developed a scheme with wood in part of the space and metal in the other, which wasn’t really working together. Janelle finally said to me, “pick a style.”

Final Concepts


I did finally decide on a style, but it was hard to let go of all the other possibilities. Our final concepts still have wood, but used as our primary accent which will add warmth. It has taken us a long time to get through some of the design but we are now able to move forward on our office.

How to Go with the Color Flow


My current residential projects all, weirdly, involve the same major focus: creating color plans. The homeowners have lived in their homes for years with walls they’ve kept white or beige. They want to infuse their homes with new energy and better highlight furniture, art and favorite colors. It’s time to repaint!

Some challenges

With each paint color plan come similar challenges:

  • How to blend color room-to-room, when one room flows to another
  • Wall openings between rooms with different colors – where to stop the first color and start the second
  • How to handle ceilings that have bulkheads (a section of ceiling that has been dropped and boxed-in)

Some answers

Room to Room

Select colors that are the same shade, only lighter or darker. The eye travels easily room-to-room with versions of the same color. For different colors in adjoining rooms, make sure the intensity of each color is the same. That is if one room is a grayed version of green (sage), the blue room next door should be a grayed version of blue (a steel blue rather than a royal blue.)

Wall Openings

If your wall opening is an arched or rectangular opening that is not trimmed with molding that connects with existing door, baseboard, window or crown molding trim, paint the inside of the opening the color of the room with the primary directional traffic flow. So, in a hallway with a wall opening to a kitchen that will be a different color, continue the hall color to the internal edge of the opening. Begin the kitchen color on the wall once inside the room. (See below.)








Often in loft spaces, powder rooms or spare bedrooms, there are areas of the ceiling that are dropped, forming bulkheads. If the walls in your room are painted a unique color and the ceiling is white, the question becomes, is the bulkhead the ceiling color or the wall color? The entire bulkhead – even the surface on the same plane as the ceiling – should be the room’s wall color.

Final Caveat

Armed with these suggestions, there is still nothing better than to “eyeball it” before painting is completed. Ask your painter to paint swatches in the transition areas so you can ensure your color flow choices are comfortable and pleasing.

Finding Your Passion

A Guest Blog by Ryan Barnett

How does one choose their career?

Over the past week, I have shadowed the wonderful (and sarcastic) people at MSB Architects. I learned that, from the modern, sleek buildings of today that were once only a dream, to the dark, claustrophobic tunnels of your nightmares, an architect experiences it all. Brianna, who I traveled with to several job sites, told me she loves what she does because every day, an architect is doing something different—each day is an adventure in its own right.

Though my experience was specifically handcrafted to show off the highlights of being an architect, I still believe I have an avid understanding of the career as a whole from the little bit of everything that I did. I helped take measurements on-site, which ranged from a pleasant, suburban home, to a tight crawl-space underneath a cluttered warehouse, with no shortage of broken glass and low-hanging pipes. I observed the process of attaining a client and managing their expectations, and what it is like to communicate effectively with contractors. And, perhaps most importantly, I observed the procedure of designing a building using programs such as Revit and Lumion.

I was even given the opportunity to speak my own opinion about several design choices for the new offices of MSB Architects, despite working purely on intuition rather than design knowledge. Some of my points made it into the final design, such as a design in a downstairs bathroom that has a hexagonal pattern transition from a wall onto the floor. Thanks for that, Scott.

Though I still do not have deep enough knowledge to know what career is best for me, this week has solidified architecture as the leading contender. Engineering and other ideas are still high on the list, but only time will tell as to what the future holds.

Seeking out this opportunity has taught me two lessons. Firstly, experiences such as this are important because they let one recognize their own uncertainty as to their passion, and enable one to work to solve that uncertainty. Secondly, it seems the real question we must ask is not how we choose our career, but rather how we find new experiences that lead us to do things we have never tried before. You must discover your passion through exploration of life’s fruits—few passions will present themselves to you.

So we’re done . . . Right?

The big moment has arrived.  This is it!  All the meetings, all the hours, all that red ink has finally, finally brought us to this one action.  That’s right, our project’s construction document set is complete and we get to hit “Print.”  So we’re done . . . Right?  Well, not so much.

Ahh, the drawings are complete. Print? Photo by self.

So much has gone on up to this point—schematic design, engineering consultation, picking finishes, final design review—but after this one momentous occasion, a whole new life begins for a project.  Three copies travel through the official review process.  These land in the hands of building code reviewers, site reviewers, and fire marshals who all spend time checking for compliance with the various codes that have shaped the design.

(Left and Center) It seems to take great coordination just to print the drawings, but the rolls of finished drawings are immensely satisfying. (Right) The books that hold all the answers you never knew you never wanted. Photos by self.

Meanwhile, the project set is typically sent out to general contractors for bidding.  This is when the project is dissected, the pieces are handed out to subcontractors, and the pieces are returned with costs for materials and labor attached to each piece.  Usually t,here are a myriad of questions that come in from the trades that need to be answered before the end of the bidding process, which can be a tedious task requiring multiple drawing revisions.

(Left) Coordination mini-meeting within a construction meeting. (Center) Official groundbreaking! Unfortunately, it was raining that day, so they brought some “ground” inside. (Right) The submittal log is very long. Photos by self.

Now that we have permits in hand and a contractor selected, it’s time to build!  During this time, questions continue to come in from the contractor, drawings are revised, meetings are held on-site, each and every product in the project is reviewed by the design team and the owner to make sure it follows the construction documents and the design intent of the project, problems crop-up and are resolved with further revisions.  This process takes the whole team working together to keep the building moving forward.

(From left to right, top to bottom) Construction just seems to fly by when you look at it in eight photos or less! Photos by self.

But at last, construction is complete.  The project has completed the final few hurdles of building inspections, punch lists, and final owner walk through.  A quick ribbon cut later, and the project is up and running.  So we’re done . . . Right?

(Far Left) Official ribbon cutting ceremony, those are some serious scissors! (Center Left and Right) The Lobby and Family Store pull you through the space with lofty ceilings and warm wood. (Far Right) The front entry canopy sports the Seton Center logo. Photos by self and Scott Bowen.

Vernacular Architecture

Yesterday, while perusing my Google alerts on architecture, I stumbled across an article titled “Is Vernacular Architecture Dead?” and thought it was worth a second glance. My first step after that was Googling ‘vernacular architecture,’ which, according to Wikipedia, is a style of design based on local needs, materials, and traditions. This made me think of both adobe homes and igloos, where people gathered materials and built their homes, and my knee-jerk reaction was yes, it is.

An adobe building as an example of vernacular architecture.

As I read further, the argument for vernacular architecture being dead included things such as our increasing connectivity and global awareness. It is so easy to find something on the internet you like that you may have never seen before or may not have been exposed to if not for the wonders of the world wide web. So why not bring pieces of another culture into your area?

Another contributing factor is cost. Building the same structure(s) over and over bring about some financial savings for construction companies and developers. There is an economy of scale in buying a few materials in large quantities and allowing for customization based on colors and finishes. The tradespeople also become more adept at creating these buildings because they understand how things are going together and can find better/quicker ways to construct them. Anyone looking to build is going to be aware of costs and want their money to go as far as possible.

While there is logic to these arguments, my experience would say that there are people who are embracing local architecture. We have people call the office who have found home plans online but find they just aren’t working. Sometimes, things just don’t fit the location or respond to the site. Can you imagine a lovely tiki hut on a snowy mountaintop? Sure, you can do it, but why? It doesn’t address climate issues. The heating bill would be outrageous.

These huts wouldn’t be quite right on a snowy mountain.

There is also an increasing awareness of utilizing local materials with “green” building design. This is something we try to do as much as possible. It’s environmentally conscious and it’s cost-efficient. Why pay to have materials brought in, when you have it in your backyard already? There is the additional benefit of saving fossil fuels during transport.

There are practical reasons to embrace vernacular architecture. Climate would certainly be one of them. Sustainability would be another. There’s also the question of whether a building is appropriate and “fits” the area. This is almost always an underlying concern for our staff when designing. So, based on my experience, vernacular architecture is alive and well.

Architecture as Pop Music

Architecture has been compared to music in many ways over the years. Some think that architecture is frozen music. So, let’s have a little fun with this. Imagine if architectural styles were people taking one of those online personality tests – something like “What Song Is Your Theme Song?” or “What Song is Your Anthem?”. We’ll be limiting ourselves to music between 2000-present because using songs from their own time period is far too easy.


The Renaissance spanned the 14th – 17th centuries. It took a lot of inspiration from the Roman’s and is known by its symmetry, proportions, and geometry – it’s so very orderly.

I’m going with Lindsey Stirling’s cover of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. A classical instrument making something new.


The Victorian era was all about showing off your status. New money and cheaper goods were expanding the middle class, who were only too happy to spend their money making them feel a bit more like royalty. The only problem was the upper classes weren’t too keen on these nouveau riche. “Royals” by Lorde is perfect for people that wish they were part of the Victorian upper class.

Arts and Crafts

This anti-industrial movement pushed for handcrafted items. Every person in The Vespers plays an instrument (if not more). Their music has a handmade quality about it – very different from the highly electronicized music we sometimes have.

Art Nouveau

Stemming from the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau was all about the arts and took its inspiration from nature – particularly curvy lines….you could say that they were bringing sexy back.

Art Deco

Big and bold, Art Deco combined the Modernist style with the love of craft that was prominent in the Arts and Crafts movement. The style represented luxury, glamour, and technological progress. As it gained steam, it featured rare and expensive materials. This style requires a flashy, catchy song. Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” is catchy and the music video is a little more than flashy.

International Style

The international style brought in a stripped down architecture.

Pentatonix’ stripped down version of Havana fits in perfectly. As an a capella group, Pentatonix removes all the instrumental ornament from Camilla Cabello’s song.


The post-modern movement was a rejection of modernism’s sleek, clean lines – similar to the Arts and Crafts rejection of industrialization. The post-modernists looked to historical references and re-interpreted them.

Postmodern Jukebox’s cover of Creep by Radiohead takes a modern song and reinvents it by throwing a vintage vibe on it.

This was actually far harder to write than I expected. I foolishy thought it would be easy to match current music to architecture. What do you think of my choices? There are lots of other architectural styles – what music would put to them?