Inside JAS Design Build, Part 2
Today I attempted (valiantly endeavored, succeeded at?) translating as-built measurements taken by a subcontractor with a high-tech laser device into an anatomically correct building plan. I’m working in the office now at JAS Design-Build as part of the Architecture Department’s summer internship program for 3 year grad students. The majority of JAS’s work is residential remodels, with a focus on economy and craftsmanship. The company does a lot of Craftsman style houses and employs a fleet of carpenters as well as full time shop staff who make custom cabinetry and built-ins.
The thing about working with existing buildings is that nothing is ever quite right. As designers, I think we all have a proclivity toward order. When we add 3/16 and 5/8, we don’t want the measurement taken from the other side of the room to be 7/8 – even if it is an 1/8 or a 1/4 over the course of 15 feet, and even if it is based on measurements taken by someone else using a potentially suspect tool. Around the office, they refer to him (it?) as Laser Dude. This is literally the name on the file that I open. It’s my job to take Laser Dude’s highly precise (to a 16th!) yet preposterous measurements (walls that range in thickness from 4 5/16 to 7 1/4… really?) and deduce from them an accurate representation of a nice little 1912 brick-clad house that is ready for a remodel.
I picture a compact metal cube with no discernible marks or buttons on its surface, small and unassuming but of surprising mass, with a dignified presence (designed by Apple?) sitting on the floor in the center of the living room. Once set down, its operator (Laser Dude) walks out quickly and the machine comes to life. A hidden panel in the top surface retracts and a wide-beam red laser washes the room in a slow, sweeping arc. When it has finished, the secret panel slides shut and Laser Dude enters the room promptly, aware of the precise amount of time the operation requires. The information, of course, is transmitted to his computer wirelessly. I imagine this as I sit in the office deciding whether to take the extra 5/8 out of the bathroom wall or the guest bedroom closet.
Remodeling is a fascinating beast because you’re forced to confront the reality that architecture is an extremely abstract occupation. What I mean is, a board is never straight. The grain wants to curl in one direction like a slowly closing fist. The saw blade takes out an 1/8 and the smallest unit of measurement in the field is a hair (which yes is a technical term, though of course it goes by many names). The fact that nothing is ever plumb, square or level is a frightening thought that most architects rarely have to consider. When we make drawings in CAD, we assume standard dimensions. We use our Ortho snap to draw microscopically straight lines. We are the Apollonian masters of perpendicular intersections! And then of course it’s left to the carpenters to actually make it work. But that’s well after the payment has been approved and the design work is done. Not so in the (Dionysian?) world of remodels.
Our first point of contact with an old house is trying to figure out what size it is. There is a bit of listening involved. We go out in a Volkswagon running BioDiesel to trail our hands across the face of the walls (a noticeable bulge in the kitchen) and prod the house with our tape measures (Fat Max, of course, which supposedly you can extend 11’ unsupported, but good luck with Passion Flower vines climbing the South Elevation). The design that follows necessarily stands in relationship to someone else’s ideas. There is a humility and a dialogue with the house, with its designer and its history. Remodels are less flashy than new construction, and less designy. Missing is the freedom to approach your site as a blank canvas, the element of abstraction. The question is not What is possible?, but rather How can we take what we have and make it what we want? Some elements survive the remodel simply out of inertia, great ideas get pared down due to budget constraints, other aspects inform the new design in unexpected ways, with salvaged materials and stylistic amalgamations. The focus of the design is on creating a great space that makes people happy and fits their budget. Remodels are inherently ecological (reuse) and they have the benefit of drawing upon the lifespan of the building to assess what works and what doesn’t. This makes things more concrete for clients as well as designers.
I’m still very much figuring out where my interest lies in architecture and what I want to focus on after school, and it’s good to have experiences like this. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons, and whatever comes to be, I’m glad I know just how frustrating it can be when you try to reconcile a living, breathing building with a drawing.
Written by Ross Lambert, MArch Candidate 2014.