What a thrill this summer to spot the giant “LIBRARY” painted across the façade of 9 Adams Street. Could Dumbo actually get its own public library? BPL hadn’t added a new branch in almost forty years. This wasn’t just another store, was it?
Not to mention the awesome supergraphics: huge white letters on an orange field run irreverently across both brick wall and windows. The graphics manage to look utterly fresh and modern, while harkening back to the painted brick billboards of the industrial age. It was almost too cool for an institution.
Well, the library opened for real last month, and it’s even better than we’d hoped. It’s gorgeous, and it packs a lot of architecture into its small (6,565 s.f.) footprint. You can still see some of the exposed wood framing and rough brick of the former factory space. But over that, organic layers of sinuous drywall and slotted plywood define and separate the spaces. There are zones for kids, teens, and adults, meeting rooms, staff offices, an info desk, and an efficient row of unisex bathrooms. The raised floor of the kids’ area puts the breathtaking river views at kid eye level. The ramp up to it gets its own room–a nod to the Laurentian Library?
Congrats to WorkAC for an outstanding job!
If you’re planning to renovate or build a new home, the first step is to hire an architect. Well before site work can begin, you first need a design for your home and to apply for city permits. For both of these, most buildings departments require a licensed architect. And last but not least, to get a fixed price from a general contractor, you need the drawings and specifications an architect provides.
Without an architect, you might get a price from a GC, but who knows what that price includes? Whose doorknobs will be installed? How will the foundation walls be waterproofed? Will the bathroom be en suite or in the hall? These are the sorts of architectural details provided in a proper set of construction documents. And these become an integral part of your contract with the GC. But only if you hire an architect first. Here’s how to achieve that goal in five steps:
Word of mouth is a good way to start your search for an architect. Ask friends, neighbors, social media, your broker, your coop manager—someone will have had a good experience. A simple Google search will turn up plenty of architects in your area. Look for one with five stars and glowing reviews. Finally, check online aggregators (e.g., Brownstoner, Houzz, Pinterest, and Remodelista) for firms whose work you admire. Then visit the firms’ websites for a deeper dive into their portfolios. The right architect for you will have lots of photos of projects just like yours. And as a bonus, you can learn a lot about a firm’s approach to design from their website. Is it handsome? Busy or serene? Is it easy to use or labyrinthian?
A less fruitful source is the American Institute of Architects. The AIA is a national organization of architects with local chapters in every state and ready listings of local architects. But membership in the AIA is something any architect can purchase, so the criteria for their listing isn’t much different from Google’s and no guarantee of quality. Why bother?
Now that you have a list of architects, how do you judge between them? The two most important criteria are their experience with your building type and their design aesthetics. The lingo may be intimidating, but the concepts are simple. Find someone who’s done your kind of project, done it repeatedly, and done it successfully. Hiring a shopping-mall architect to design your house is like getting an appendectomy from a dentist.
And “aesthetics” is a fancy way of saying, “Do you like the look of their work? Would you want to live in it? Do the spaces look imaginative and exciting?” You might think cost is equally important, but an architect’s fee is already such a small percentage of a construction project that the cost difference between firms is rarely the deal-breaker.
Most projects take more than a year, so treat it like a relationship: pick someone you get along with, someone who communicates well, someone who listens. And because the path through city approvals and building construction is rarely smooth, pick someone you want in your corner. A good architect fights for their clients and solves problems.
Architects offer a range of services—some more, some less. At the self-serve end, some architects provide only basic layouts and city applications. While at the full-service end, an architect will manage every aspect of the project: beyond basics, to hardware, plumbing, lighting, appliances, and finish materials. Some even do to interior decorating, furniture design, and landscape design.
Architects also run the gamut in their level of involvement during construction. Some do the bare minimum number of inspections required. Others are in daily communication with the general contractor: answering Requests for Information, reviewing shop drawings and submittals, negotiating change orders and payment requests, making weekly site visits, etc. Before you hire an architect, make sure they provide the level of service you want.
And finally, for most projects and for most buildings, you need an architect’s stamp on the drawings and applications filed with the city. Ask if the architect is licensed in your state. And if you care about the environment, ask if they have LEED or Passive House credentials.
Every architecture firm calculates its fees differently. Some charge a percentage of the cost of construction; some charge an hourly rate; and some charge a flat fee. Many offer combinations of the above: say, a flat fee for the design process followed by an hourly rate during construction.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each. A percentage fee limits the architect’s total while ensuing it’s proportional to the scope of the construction work. But it also creates a conflict of interest by incentivizing the architect to increase the cost of construction. An hourly rate avoids this conflict of interest and instead incentivizes the architect to stay involved through the completion of construction. But it leaves the client without a cap. A flat fee fixes the cap problem, but it typically comes at a cost: either a higher price for the client or reduced services from the architect.
Lastly, ask your architect what their markup is on materials and furnishings or if they pass on their trade discount.
Directing a construction project is a full-time job, so hiring an architect will save you a lot of time and effort. But a better reason to hire an architect is for the value they add to your project. They will show you a range of options to zero in on a design that’s customized to your needs. And beyond that, a good architect will envision possibilities for the building you never imagined. In the strictest terms, this can increase the resale value of your property well beyond the cost of the project. But it can also dramatically improve the way you live in your home, making daily life more beautiful, more graceful, and more meaningful.
As temperatures dropped, we mourned the end of our summer nights dining al fresco in the middle of Vanderbilt Avenue. The COVID winter ahead seemed dark and bleak. But New York restaurateurs, with their indomitable pluck, have come to our rescue yet again.
In a few short weeks, they’ve transformed our sidewalks into a pop-up city of outdoor dining. These plywood and polycarbonate huts are an inspiration. Their creativity, their diversity, their beauty, and their sheer number–it’s staggering. Here’s a sampling of some favorites.
Governor Cuomo plans to relax the ban on indoor dining on Feb. 12, but we’ll opt to keep noshing out on the sidewalk, at least until we get our vaccinations. Granted, some of the new sheds are so enclosed they hardly count as outdoors. On the other hand, cheers to the individual huts, where you can dine in your own private quarantine bubble.
Can the indoor air in our workplaces ever be safe from COVID? As dropping temperatures force us to close our office windows, this question becomes critical. We researched the two most promising options for portable air purifiers–HEPA filtration and the AirPHX system. Here’s what we found:
High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have a long track record for cleaning pollen, smoke, dust mites, and pet dander from the air. But they can also trap bacteria and viruses, especially in sneezed and coughed droplets. HEPA filters can remove 99.97% of airborne particles. And for a typically conditioned office, they can boost the air exchange rate from once in three hours to once every ten minutes.
This is huge improvement in indoor air quality, but it’s not foolproof. The finest HEPA filters will trap particles as small as 300 nanometers (nm), but an aerosolized coronavirus is less than 140 nm. And it’s these super-fine particles that linger in the air the longest. It’s also worth noting that filters don’t kill viruses, so you’ll want to use extra caution cleaning and changing filters, with PPE properly in place.
The AirPHX system doesn’t clean the air as efficiently as a HEPA filter, but for killing viruses, bacteria, and molds, it’s unmatched. AirPHX uses a non-thermal plasma to generate oxidizing molecules to destroy germs at a cellular level. Studies have shown it reduces viruses up to 95%, not only in the air but on contact surfaces. And unlike ozone-generating systems, the low levels of ozone an AirPHX system releases are quite safe.
Of course, the 5% of viruses remaining still constitute a risk. Neither of these solutions will take the place of mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. But we’re sold on the AirPHX system’s efficacy–literally. We’re buying one for our office.
As New York reopens, we take inspiration from designers who have responded to the COVID crisis with drive, imagination, and honor. Here are a few projects of note:
Brooklyn-based lighting designers Rich Brilliant Willing 3D-printed 10,000 PPE face shields and donated them to healthcare workers. “It’s easy to feel powerless in these times of crisis,” said RBW’s Alex Williams. “We saw an opportunity to harness the power of a private business to solve challenging problems. In any society, government and nonprofits alone cannot solve everything.”
The shields are based on the Budmen Face Shield but were initially time consuming to make. By cutting material consumption in half, RBW was able to speed up production and double the count. In particular, we applaud their idealism in making their CAD files and specs publicly available. Now anyone with a 3D printer can make them.
Toronto-based textile firm Myant seized the opportunity to shift production to mask design. With Myant PPE, the firm addressed the drawbacks of disposable masks: single use, poor fit, and hard to clean. Further drawing on their experience with materials science and biochemistry, they wove in materials that fight off contagion. Myant infused their filters with silver and copper “to maximize protection against bacterial and viral threats.”
Conventional textiles, like cotton found in non medical-grade masks, can inadvertently provide a landing surface for viruses and bacteria, increasing the risk of transmission. Myant’s masks, however, have a hydrophobic outer layer that repels pathogens and stains. Despite the added protection, the mask is surprisingly breathable.
The need for widespread testing is taxing the ability of cities to safely reopen. To meet the exploding demand for testing stations, Brooklyn-based architects SITU adapted the benefits of the suburban drive-thru to an urban, walk-through model. Their screening booths would need to be quick, safe, effective, and able to process as many people as possible. Here is their solution:
“Each booth is equipped with a clear acrylic window that separates spaces for the medical practitioner and the patient. Sealed onto the partition, durable elbow-length gloves allow evaluation and testing of patients without direct contact. The window allows use of various equipment (e.g. stethoscope, pulse-ox, O2 sat, nasal swabs, etc.). The medical practitioner’s side of the booth opens to a controlled space reserved solely for medical staff, thereby reducing the need for already scarce PPE. On the patients’ side, the booth is decontaminated between exams to mitigate exposure for the next user.”
SITU’s prototype has been deployed at medical facilities around the city, giving the designers valuable feedback from working professionals, which they’ve used to refine their design.
Beyond the immediate need for medical equipment, the COVID-19 crisis will change how we live for years to come. Many large companies expect a broad shift to working from home. How will the design of “homes” and “offices” change when the boundary between them blurs? What is the new vision for parks, event spaces, and public transportation? We look forward to seeing what else our colleagues dream up, while generating our own solutions.
We stand in solidarity with the protesters. Given the ongoing murders, injustices, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people, we share their outrage.
We acknowledge our complicity. As architects, we must learn to recognize the ways our built environments marginalize and oppress. We must act to undo decades of racialized zoning, damaging urban renewal policies, and inadequate housing.
At Delson or Sherman, we vow to listen and educate ourselves to foster change. We are committed to engagement and to practice equity and inclusion in our firm, our community, and our city.
Black lives matter. Stand with us to support equal justice.
When New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, it posed a crushing challenge not only to our front-line medical professionals, but to the spaces they work in. Our overwhelmed healthcare facilities needed instant and widespread augmentation. On March 23, 2020 (a decade ago in corona-time), Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an emergency order that all hospitals in the state up their capacities by 50% to meet the need. But even this steep increase was no match for the surge in COVID-19 patients.
The state raced to build four pop-up hospitals in the middle of the pandemic, some from scratch and others by repurposing existing structures. One was at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, another on Staten Island, a third at the Javits Center, and the fourth in the middle of Central Park. We’ll examine the last two as case studies in adaptation. (The federal government’s wrong-footed deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort deserves its own blog.)
The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is one of the biggest and busiest in North America. The transformation of this 1.8 million s.f. building into a massive treatment facility by the Army Corps of Engineers was just spectacular. In less than three weeks, they erected a 2,000-bed field hospital, later expanded to 2,910 beds.
Long, beige curtains screened off row after row of 8-foot-tall cubicles, a quick and effective way of dividing the vast hall into hospital rooms. Most rooms had chairs, oxygen concentrators, and adjustable cots, with additional equipment and PPE devoted to the intensive-care sections. Large restroom trailers were parked inside, like transplants from a music festival.
The place teemed with active duty and reserve military doctors, deployed to New York from all over the country. According to patients, the place looked, felt, and smelled like a hospital, except for one telltale feature–the high ceilings. “When you lie on your back, you remember you’re in a convention center, staring at sky-high ceilings of steel. At night, the lights are dimmed, but they’re never turned off,” one patient reported in April.
Several factors made the Javits Center’s conversion a success. The building was originally designed to adapt to a wide range of events with occupancies in the 10,000 range. Ironically, the virus helped by clearing the Javits’s calendar. What remained was an empty shell surrounding a collection of enormous fully-conditioned spaces. It was the perfect blank canvas for a pop-up hospital.
By contrast, the 68-bed field hospital in Central Park lacked both the benefits and the constraints of a preexisting structure. Erected in the park’s East Meadow, the cluster of 14 tents resembled the set of M*A*S*H, but against a backdrop of Manhattan highrises. Inside each tent was a structural frame of inflatable tubes for compact shipping and quick deployment. A grid of adjustable cots was similar to that of the Javits but without the privacy screens. Ten ICU beds came equipped with ventilators.
Mount Sinai Hospital and Samaritan’s Purse, an evengelical humanitarian organization, partnered to create this facility. But the latter built and ran the site along the lines of field hospitals they’d opened worldwide to address epidemics like the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Unfortunately, Samaritan’s Purse also has a dark side. The charity is run by Franklin Graham, who has an ugly habit of homophobic and islamophobic hate speach. When The New York Times exposed Samaritan’s Purse’s policies requiring aid recipients to participate in religious activities and requiring staff to sign anti-gay pledges, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other local officials called on Mount Sinai to close the field hospital.
By the end of April, the Central Park facility had treated 315 patients, a drop in the bucket compared with Javits. And the spring timing was lucky; tents would have faced harsher conditions in frigid February or broiling July. But the open ball fields of the East Meadow allowed for adjacencies that best suited the medical staff.
Earlier this month as the patient crisis ebbed, all of these pop-up hospitals began to wind down. On May 4, the Samaritan’s Purse facility stopped admitting new patients. Their closing coincided with the downturn of COVID-19 cases, but clearly, they were ducking their own backlash. Mt. Sinai plans to take several more weeks to treat the last patients and decontaminate the tents.
The Javits Center closed its admissions on May 1. Only a few dozen patients remain, with releases anticipated shortly as they recover. But the Javits field hospital won’t be broken down yet. FEMA’s equipment will remain, since officials expect a second wave of infections. Most of the military personnel who staffed the Javits Center, however, have left New York for redeployment.
These facilities show two extremes of potential site conditions — the conversion of an existing building vs. the creation of a new complex from scratch. But both are laudable examples of a quick and reversible adaptation. An urgent need identified, a swift response mounted, and temporary structures built and occupied in less than a month. This is lighting fast for a city that normally takes months to approve a DOB application. We’re inspired by the quick and thoughtful work of the designers.
As we close in on two months of working from home due to COVID, we’re settling into our new normal. We’re no longer arriving at the crowded York Street station from all over Brooklyn each morning, coffee in tow. And we’re certainly not running around the city for site visits. But we’re still very much at work. Like other non-essential businesses, we’re working from home, doing our part to slow the transmission of the virus. Conducting our business remotely poses challenges but also offers some opportunities for growth.
Close collaboration in our bustling DUMBO office has long been a hallmark of the work we do here at Delson or Sherman. Our spacious, open-concept office fosters a culture of communication and mutual inspiration that enhances our work. Working together not only keeps us all on track, but maintains the creative flow of our projects—an idea specific to one job transforms into a characteristic touch we apply to other designs. The focused atmosphere we strive for in the office is fertile ground for new ideas.
Maintaining the collaborative spirit of our office from afar requires adaptation. We checked in with a couple members of our team to see how they’re fairing, and we’re sharing their home office setups here with the hopes that it may prove useful to other small businesses navigating this tricky terrain with us.
Earlier this year, as the threat of COVID worsened, we engaged our tech team to seek out solutions to make our setup mobile. Everyone in the office regularly maintains and works off of files on our server, so setting up remote access to the server was essential. Now, we each have a remote login to our office computers and conduct our work on the same server. This method ensures continuity, and allows multiple people to access and develop the same file. Of course, this necessitates that everyone has adequate hardware.
“The tools we’re using now—Zoom, Bullclip, G Chat—are great,” said Associate Joel Melton. “We’re learning a lot about our communication style, and even identifying inefficiencies in the ways we used to handle things.” Without the full amenities of the office at his disposal, Melton admits that he sometimes has to get creative to accomplish an otherwise menial task. However, small steps towards building a workstation have yielded significant results.
“I recently bought a new laptop, fully loaded with all of the fixings,” Melton explained. “I took an extra monitor from the office, so I have a big screen and a little screen. It’s actually a pretty nice setup. My house upstate is an ideal haven from the city to retreat to during all of this. I feel so lucky that we had this place to go to.”
The camaraderie of sharing a physical space is irreplaceable, and without it, Melton finds that communication is a little more difficult across the board. “The hard thing is not having immediate access to coworkers. If I have a question for somebody in the office, I usually just give them a holler. If I have a question now, I have to track them down, maybe on G Chat or with a phone call. It’s an inevitable bit of time that’s lost when we’re not together.”
Of course, what we’re able to do for each other takes the backseat to what we’re able to do for our clients. Connecting with clients in our same, signature way in this new situation requires extra attention.
“It’s easier to have a conversation about a design, especially when they aren’t fluent in architecture lingo, when you’re all looking and pointing at the same drawing together,” Melton said. “There’s an ease and a familiarity with having those conversations around a table. And a close relationship is easier to form when you can look into a client’s eyes. Through a screen, it’s not quite as easy to establish trust.”
Additionally, physical gestures of hospitality are difficult to translate.
“The hospitality that we offer in the office—when someone comes in, they’re greeted, they’re offered coffee and water, they’re welcomed—is part of our brand. We’re very careful about how we treat guests in our office. We aren’t able to provide the same special treatment when doing it remotely.” Melton acknowledges that this is a bit of an irreconcilable loss. “However, it helps that it’s not just something unique to our office. It’s also something that our clients and the entire broader world is dealing with. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
For Project Manager Alena Bronder, the adjustment to working from home meant spending more time than usual in her cramped Bushwick apartment.
“I’ve mainly been working at my kitchen table, because it’s the only suitable surface I have,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll switch to my bed or the couch for a phone call. In a way, I have to be extra strategic, working at the only surface that I have. I conduct my entire day around this table now. I do all my work, eat all my meals, and prep all my cooking. It’s my multifunctional workstation.”
Although balancing the competing demands for her table takes effort, Bronder finds it easier than she expected. “Now that we’ve coordinated all of this new software, we’ve realized our work is more portable than we thought. Bullclip, the markup software, is a great tool to review and markup drawings remotely. And the screen-sharing features on Zoom make it simple to quickly illuminate a concept.”
Of all of the changes, though, Bronder most misses the tangible aspect of designing: site visits. “Obviously, construction has mostly ground to a halt. But it is hard to keep tabs on the incremental progress on different sites. It’s a little difficult to communicate with contractors. They send photos of completed work, but we have less control as designers to explain and instruct on the fly.”
Both Bronder and Melton expressed relief over how manageable working from home has been.
“When I think of all the healthcare workers, first responders, and essential services at the front lines of this pandemic who have no choice but to work through severe personal risk, I’m that much more grateful for how our office is operating right now,” Bronder said. “We’re safe and effective.”
“We are able to do this, it’s not a stretch,” Melton said. “We’re continuing to work on all types of projects in all different stages. While the way in which we communicate with clients and contractors are changing, it’s still working. Some of these tools we’ll even continue to use. An entire office learning new tools together is actually a great way to jump-start efficiency, and prepare for when we’re all back together again.”
Although it’s a bit of a chore to find sources of optimism right now, Bronder thinks “staying inspired is crucial. I’m excited for competitions on the horizon. Other than that, I’m relying heavily on any chance to tap into my creative flow: cooking, bass guitar lessons, drawing, tattoos.”
And of course, Zoom Happy Hours.
Design-build firms garner lots of hype these days, but are they as good as they seem? Reports from homeowners who’ve taken this path of renovation are mixed, with some voicing real regrets. The complaints include sketchy craftsmanship, heavy change orders, stop work orders, and endless delays in job completion. Is this just the bad luck of a few homeowners or a systemic problem?
First, let’s clarify the difference between the design-build process and the traditional architect-contractor relationship. Design-build is a streamlined process that offers clients one-stop shopping. A single company provides all the services needed to design, price, and build the project. At first glance, the process seems collaborative, cooperative, quick, and efficient.
By contrast, a traditional dedicated architect works solely for the client and bids out the construction to a competing pool of general contractors. The bidders struggle against conflicting desires to lower prices to win the job and to raise prices for profit. And if bids come back higher than expected, the architect must then redesign to lower the price. Design-build skips all this back and forth by estimating costs during the design process.
But we’d argue the back and forth is exactly the reason for sticking with tradition. Competition may seem adversarial, but it’s a fight that benefits the client. A builder will always work harder to lower his prices when he’s vying with other bidders to land a job. By eliminating this struggle, design-build costs the client the single greatest opportunity for savings.
Moreover, design-builders exaggerate the time difference between the methods. A design-builder can’t price a job any faster than competing bidders can. And while it’s true that design-builders get more practice at detailed cost estimating than architects do, any architect with a few years’ experience in a given market can accurately predict construction costs.
In our office, for example, our budget estimates typically fall within 10% of the competitive bids we receive. Here’s why. If an architect has recently bid out six similar projects to four contractors apiece, that’s a data trove of twenty-four detailed bids to use for estimating future projects. A design-builder would need twenty-four separate projects to amass as much data.
Another traditional benefit for clients is the triangle of checks and balances that links the contractor, the architect, and the client. The dedicated architect is the client’s agent, not the contractor’s. As such, the architect has a fiduciary duty to the client and defends the client against the contractor’s mistakes. Since most clients have little experience with construction, having a seasoned professional on your side can be a crucial advantage, especially if something goes wrong during construction. And construction is rarely a smooth process.
Here’s a common example. A contractor proposed a substitution for our design: he wanted to cover the chimneys in waterproofing, rather than cut stepped flashing into the brick, as we’d spec’ed. Even though this kind of “repair” is common practice, it’s short-sighted. If you let bricks breath, they’ll last a lifetime, but if you wrap them in waterproofing, the mortar corrodes. You’ll have a few leak-free years, but water will eventually get in and turn the mortar to sand. Since we serve only our client’s interest, we vetoed the substitution.
But in a design-build relationship, by contrast, our veto could never have happened. The contractor gets no resistance from the architect because the two are on the same team. No one defends the client. If anything, it’s the opposite. Against a unified front of professionals speaking their own jargon on their own turf, the client is on her own.
Look, we’re great fans of collaboration. We love the synergy of all parties working towards the same goal: making a project the best it can be. And our design and construction process is rarely adversarial. But when it is, don’t you want your architect on your side?
Home Builder Digest has just published its Best Residential Architects in Brooklyn, New York. And we’re happy to report Delson or Sherman Architects made this short list.
Home Builder Digest is a team of builders, project consultants, and writers united by their passion for home construction and architecture. They publish lists of the best building professionals across the U.S. using a rigorous evaluation methodology based on more than a dozen criteria. The goal of their findings is to help homeowners find the best professionals for their projects.
They singled out Delson or Sherman Architects as “one of the most collaborative architectural firms in New York”. This caught us by surprise. Not that we don’t value collaboration–we do! We just assumed all architects do, too. After all, a successful project requires a lot of people with lots of divergent talents to all work towards a shared goal. It’s more like making a movie than the Howard Roark myth of a solo architect suggests.
On the other hand, Home Builder Digest also noted our specialty is “maximizing a space to its full potential”. Can’t argue with that. Thanks!
Curbed has chosen a project by Delson or Sherman Architects for its list of “New York City’s Most Beautiful Homes of 2019.” The project was the gut renovation of a twin house on Prospect Park West. With only ten projects selected, the twin house stands alongside some celebrities. These include I.M. Pei’s Sutton Place townhouse and Calvin Klein’s former penthouse in the Police Building.
Curbed notes the house “hit the market this year, asking just under $6 million”. In other words, almost double the purchase price from 2014. But the added value isn’t unusual for our office. When sold soon after renovation, our projects typically fetch 20% more than the original sale price and cost of construction combined. Renovation, as it turns out, makes a surprisingly good investment strategy.