Why “Synthesis”?


1a: the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole 1b: the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole (mutual enhancement- symbiosis) 2a: deductive reasoning 2b: the dialectic combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth (discussion/debate).


1a: settlement of differences by mutual concessions 1b: concession to something derogatory or prejudicial 2a: to expose to discredit or mischief

2b: to make a shameful or disreputable concession.

To summarize – a solution resulting from the process of synthesis has all the parts of the project working together in an ideal relationship. This is accomplished by talking about the project in sufficient depth so that everyone knows what needs to be accomplished and is desirable. The result of synthesis often has additional benefits by virtue of how well the components are integrated. Compromise, on the other hand, involves leveling everything to the lowest common denominator. Synthesis uses the entire program to build things up – compromise crams the pieces into an arbitrarily shaped box. Everything is positive when synthesizing. Compromise is achieved with negative criteria. They’re not just words, they are a way of thinking and a method of design and building.

What is Architecture?

It is the manifestation of the relationship between all the people involved in the design process. What does that mean? The project is the embodiment of personalities, goals, dreams and ideals into a composition. The people, their attitudes, experiences, abilities etc. form the foundation of possibilities for the project. A developer “designing” speculative homes or buildings for a demographic or location will come up with a very different solution for a project than a world traveler client, an architect with many varied interests and a master craftsman. The first thing a vast majority of developers do is to scrape the site of all vegetation and flatten it out. They remove all the attributes of the site that we would use to help evolve the design. They are not interested in evolving a design, they are making a product for sale or rent.

Architecture is far more than just an object, it is the state of mind and attitude of the people that worked on the project. Synthesis is positive, compromise is negative. Would you rather work with people whose first response is, “We’re going to need to compromise here,” or would you rather work with people that say, “Let me think about that for a bit; I think we can turn what seems like a limiting criteria into something even better.” Architecture is about people, people that want something better than just a building. The team you put together will greatly affect the outcome. The best people make the best project. The most creative, free-thinking people do not necessarily cost more and the project they help you create will have a much greater design value than small-minded, unimaginative ones. The most important decision you make relative to your architectural project will be who you work with.

Architecture is also a process, a continuously evolving entity. Like the raising of a child, a project will develop its own personality, and at some point in its growth, you will begin to make decisions based on what’s right for the project. Just like your child, the project is an extension of yourself, but it must also stand on its own. To help that happen, each project is aided by having a unique set of architectural rules or guidelines as well as a “big idea” above and beyond the basic program, just as parents have social and cultural rules lovingly and caringly put in place for their children that go beyond the basics of hygiene and safety. These rules add clarity to the project by providing a basis for decision making that is within the language of the project. These rules help to avoid chaos and arbitrary decisions (or enhance them if that’s part of the program). The project will have coherence – part of the process and product of synthesis. It will look, feel and function as a comfortable whole. Incoherent projects are not fun and decisions are made on a case by case basis with little if any relationship to other decisions or the project in general. It is hard to remember why certain things were done with that method. An example of a project rule would be, “dimensions will have a relationship to stock material lengths and sizes.” This helps plan and size elements while minimizing waste. The rule is not followed dogmatically, it is there to order the decision making process. If relayed to the builder they will have fewer questions because they will know why certain decisions were made in a project wide sense.

The architectural process should be enjoyable and positive with a minimum of busyness and pretension. You should know yourself much better when the design is finished. I keep the busyness (business) aspect to just the amount needed to have all the parties feel comfortable, this in turn allows for more time to be spent on the project proper. We use a General Agreement as opposed to a contract. It says in essence, “We’re doing a project and we’ll get paid for the work we do. If the client or the architect, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to continue the project, we will stop.” It is fairly simple, easy to understand and to the point. Architecture is all about meeting people’s needs – the client’s, builder, city, lender/bank etc.

What is Green Architecture?

Not forced, arbitrary or incidental – it is thought out to take into account the implications of decisions. You get LEED points for including concrete in a project for mass, but we know that is a high-entrained energy product so we would look for alternatives if it is practical. We consider green design as being part of good design and it is integrated into every project as is possible. Good design is a great investment that you will yield returns every day. Green design is part of the investment. You can only invest in the project what you can afford. We do not force our views or agenda on our clients – it is their project not ours. We do make suggestions of how green design elements and construction methods can enhance the comfort and performance of the project. Often these elements save significant money on monthly bills that in turn can allow you to afford a larger mortgage payment or pay it off faster. The green elements have to make sense and not compromise other aspects of the project. Most people do not want to live in boxes with green hardware glued to it. The inclusion of green elements should be seamless unless the client wants it otherwise. Extra cost for green elements must be justified from a cost benefit, environmental and life cycle viewpoint. For this reason we tend towards passive, green elements.

Some green elements to include are obvious. For example: The inclusion of a waste water heat exchanger or bringing in outside combustion air for a wood burner are small extra expenses during initial construction but they will be beneficial for the life of the project with no maintenance needs. The basic design should be the biggest part of green design. Orientation, massing, insulation, zoning, energy efficient lighting (and day lighting) and appliances etc. will always be there and will always work. Active systems have been included in some of our designs after having investigated (by ourselves or the clients) the implications relative to their reliability, longevity and decommissioning. Active green systems are still fairly new and the technology changes rapidly, plus the manufacturers come and go as well as change products and designs, so ironically, commercially manufactured green systems are often disposable by default. We recommend keeping active systems simple and close to home/homemade so the owner can repair or improve it. Green systems should be an investment rather than an impulse buy at the big box store.

Timeless design, quality and type of construction, life cycle “analysis” of materials, and project size (amount of materials used) are components of green design that we take into account every time we design. Timeless design is always in style and doesn’t need to be drastically changed on a regular basis like trendy design. Quality construction is similar to timeless design in that it saves future materials and labor; it is not needed because it was done right the first time. Quality construction also means the project will be cherished, worth saving and rehabilitating rather than demolishing and landfilling it. Low energy, long life materials are the foundation of green design as well as evaluating the size of the project. A smaller project, provided it meets the needs of the client, is the first step to take to save materials, labor and energy.

What is an architect and what do they do?

There are a million answers to this question but the basic answer is: An architect is a service provider. They provide a service as opposed to selling a product.

As a service provider we see ourselves as a tool, a tool you currently do not possess, a tool you can’t fully imagine and possibly think you could get by without. Once you’ve used this tool, our services, you most likely couldn’t imagine tackling that kind of task again without it. This tool teaches you how to use it and warns you of probable accidents. This is a tool that you would be hard pressed to exceed its capacity or versatility and yet is nothing without a hand to guide it. This is a tool that molds its self to the hand that guides it. Because the project is yours, this tool merely makes it possible for you to design it yourself. The tool can’t do your project for you but it will make the difference between using a rusty pocketknife and a laser to craft your design. You will be able to accomplish what you want easily and professionally. Don’t force the tool to do things it wasn’t meant to or attempt to remove the safety features. It will stop working or you will get hurt. Take the time to understand the proper application, function and operation of the tool. Why ask the plumber to do electrical work or a contractor to design? There is a saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” This kind of tool will tell you when you need a different kind of tool to get the job done right, this is part of the service we provide.

What do we do as a tool, a service provider? We counsel, consult, suggest, educate, research, coordinate, document existing conditions and synthesize your program (thoughts, needs, and ideas) into a coherent and assessable form. The images you see on the web pages and the projects you might visit are the results of our efforts. What is harder to depict in a website is the methods we may employ for a completely successful project to be realized. There may be a need to develop a master plan, do a site analysis, phase the project relative to available funds or to accommodate foreseeable future needs, resolve conflicts between clients, develop a strategy to deal with legal, historic, structural issues, lenders, building code etc. We represent the client and defend their interests. A city administrator will say, “We’d like to see such and such?” Our diplomatically worded response is, “To make sure there is no misunderstanding can we have that request put into a document and would you please couch it in terms of what is required by code, statute and ordinance?” And in a detached tone of voice, “Will the city sign off on all liability unforeseen as a result of this course of action? This is not what we feel, as architects, is in our client’s best interests and programmatic needs.” This is as much a part of realizing the project as putting together construction documents. The level of service we provide will be as detailed as you feel you need, from sketches to finishes. We will help you determine the depth of services also; some types of projects require certain documents.

Another aspect of representing the client’s interests has to do with protecting them from people with conflicts of interest in their decision making. Many builders try, and often succeed, in “conspiring” with the client to get the architect out of the picture ASAP. The architect acts as the watch dog for the client’s financial chicken coop. Working by the hour our only concern is getting the best project for the least cost so our clients are happy and we get great references and often some good friends as well. Not so with some other players on the project. It is not always malicious, sometimes it is born of ignorance, a busy schedule or merely opportunity. A quick example: The HVAC contractor knows this project needs an engineer so he calls in a favor on a low fixed fee. The engineer does the easiest thing he can, to at least break even, and calls it good. We review the decision and know that by spending a little more money we can put in a system that will save the client tens of thousands of dollars a year (energy use). Sales people are rewarded for selling the most dollar amount not finding the least expensive, most efficient product that will do the job. Who do you want guarding the project’s funds? Figure out who the guard dog is and who the fox is before all your chickens are gone! Make sure whoever is making the decisions does not have a conflict of interest; we are required by law to inform you if we do.

No two projects are the same. No two people are the same. Some people need a model or a detail mock-up to fully understand or evaluate a design; sometimes the projects are so involved they help us too. Other people have a very good idea of what they want and are comfortable with their ability to visualize. Some people just need a sketch and a pep talk with some direction. Other times we help people find innovative ways to finance their project. At times, using higher quality, more efficient or alternative building materials and methods, or by decreasing and sometimes even increasing the size of the project, it becomes more attractive from a financing perspective. We assist people by helping them past preconceptions of how they believe things have to be done. On every project we work with the clients to ensure that the project will serve their needs beyond their expectations while staying within their budget. We work together to pick the best site which is often different than they had first imagined once we point out other issues and options. We orient the structure, garden or light fixture to make the best use of sun, wind, other weather and views. We use the wind to blow the snow off drives or walks and for cool breezes, we locate the lighting and incorporate controls to enhance the desired intimacy gradient in that area from one of meditation to detailed task, all in one space.

Some people will just have us spend some time reviewing their design and commenting on it, pointing out missed opportunities and areas that need more development and thought. For a few projects that is sufficient and we will tell you if that is all that is needed. For other projects that would be a disservice to the client. Your project may well be around for many generations, it most likely could benefit from more than just a little cleaning up and a bit of tweaking here and there. We design using the concepts of synthesis and integration as opposed to, “Yeah, I guess that works OK.”

The client, like it or not (with a good designer) does the hardest work. We help develop the program, evolve the design, prepare the documents, dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s, but the client has to define the scope of work, make all the final decisions and answer questions. All these things affect the quality of the final design. We will make it as easy as possible, even fun, but the success of the project ultimately rests on the shoulder of the clients. The quality and amount of thought the client puts into their project is directly translated into the final project. You can’t make a steak dinner out of hamburger. If you’re completely happy with fast food, buy a speculatively built home; it’s easy and predictable but you don’t really know what you’re getting and the first criteria of it is maximum profit and minimum effort for the builder.

What are your fees?

I work by the hour so the client sets the scope of work and fees for the most part. They decide, and I advise, when the cost effectiveness or appropriateness of using my services has ended. As a general rule the earlier in the project the better the value relative to project impact. In other words, siting the project is probably the most important factor in most projects, the plan layout next in importance, elevation/sections next, on down to the finishes and hardware. At some point in the process it is more cost effective to use the best products made than have us find an alternate that is suitable and less expensive. The client decides and I advise when the design cost versus project impact effectiveness is being exceeded. That point is different on every project. Working on an hourly basis means a change in direction or scope of work is not cause for contract renegotiations. There is no imperative need to finish a certain project phase because of a commission fee-structure, other than the very real issue that I always have other matters I can attend to. We will take all the time needed to finish that phase of the project and return to it as necessary.

Why not work on commission? One of the reasons is that with a commission often clients want to see many alternate schemes, beyond the initial proposals, just because they feel there is no reason they shouldn’t. The fee won’t be higher they reason, so why not, even though at least one of the first proposals met their needs. Firstly, it creates bad feelings between architect and client, nobody has all the time they want and doing this wastes everyone’s time. Secondly it takes needed time away from other phases of the project unbeknownst to the client because even commissioned projects are based on hourly expense. Thirdly, it muddies the design waters. Clients begin to piece together a project out of many of the schemes, like gluing together pages out of a magazine. This is not synthesis, it is the worst kind of compromise. The resulting scheme lacks coherence and vibrancy; instead of evolution you get Frankenstein.

Hourly, at least with us, is the least expensive. We have very low overhead and are very conscious of waste. We do as much as possible in electronic formats and when we do print we print at the smallest size possible and enlarge at a commercial printer if necessary (most contractors take the bigger documents and shrink them down for convenience). Large format printers and copiers are very expensive to own and maintain, if we had that cost we would have to pass it on. We keep trips to a minimum, this saves hourly costs and mileage. We give the clients the option of coming to the office whenever possible to save them money.

Our hourly rate for architectural services is less per hour than a general contractor, many of their employees, an electrician, plumber, HVAC technician, spa or pool service tech, auto repair etc. We’re less expensive than the commissions realtors charge for selling a pre-owned house and we cost far less than having the builder design it. We are the licensed, experienced professionals that add design value to your project. There is not a project we have worked on that we haven’t added more value and saved more money than we charge. Some projects we save the clients more money with one decision than our entire fee. It is also in the process of earning our fee that we look out for the client’s best interests by acting as their representative in interactions with the general contractor, the city etc. Working on an hourly basis we don’t have the conflict of interest inherent of many other people involved in the project.

What makes hourly fees more affordable?

Affordable services or projects are improbable on a commission basis. A commission has to be large to insure a profit after taking into account all the possibilities of unforeseen circumstances, incidentals and overhead. Ironically, on a commission basis, the worst clients get the “best deal” and the best clients get the “worst deal” relative to the amount of time the firm spends on the project. Project quality is a result of the client and architect relationship. Commissions are based on the cost of the project so there is often no incentive to find ways to make a project less expensive. By the hour, clients pay only for the services they ask for and need. Our clients are pleased with how fast their projects get finished and the innovative ways we find to cut costs and increase performance.

Another benefit of working by the hour is that without a commission to justify, we do not have to produce and submit weighty, complicated documents that invariably drive up the cost of the project. These documents invariably don’t allow the general contractor or trades to perform their jobs as experience tells them to. I prefer to work with the clients to find people that take pride in offering only quality work, then there is little need to tell them how to do their job, just what we want to accomplish. We often consult with the people that perform the construction services to determine the most cost effective methods and materials. We work with trades people instead of having an antagonistic relationship. Rather than an expensive and time consuming bidding process we recommend a negotiated agreement with a reputable contractor. Everything we do is towards the purpose of crafting the best possible project for the least possible cost. We take pride in providing fast, affordable services and having a conscience.