architect's glossary - soffit, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

"Soffit" is a word that we architects and builders use so frequently that we forget that many clients have no idea what we are talking about.  A bit more about that below.

A soffit is a section of ceiling that is dropped well below the underside of the roof or floor above.  What it creates is an enclosed space above the ceiling, often filled with heating and cooling ducts.  A soffit is most often designed for an architectural affect - the dropping of the ceiling helping to create an area of space differentiated from other areas.  Soffits can also be exterior and the term is also employed to describe the ceiling-like underside of extended eaves (known more obscurely as the "plantia").

The term owes is origins to a Latin verb meaning to fix underneath, and it is the "underneath" part that we have carried into current architectural parlance.

So, when your contractor says, "we have to add a soffit", that means they are going to drop the ceiling for some portion of the building because something up in the ceiling - ducts, plumbing, whatever, - does not fit in the ceiling run flat.  My advice to that is to check with the architect if you haven't already.  The legends of bad architecture are filled with the stories of ill-advised soffits crashing through rooms, clearly highlighting the fact that someone either forgot about the plumbing or didn't bother to find a better solution.  Soffits ought to existing to help shape the space of a room, not just hide stuff.

"Soffit" is probably one of the most commonly used terms on a construction site.  And it is a term that most layman don't know.  This can lead to endless amounts of confusion and is the raison d'etre for this glossary.  Like any specialty, architecture and construction have their own lexicon of words and usage that are unknown to the uninitiated.  Often on the jobsite, we say things like, "we're going to run that through the soffit", and we assume that everyone understands that.  It is only with some time that you realize that a client, especially homeowners building for the first time, are not clear on the meaning of what was just said.  Worse yet, folks start using the jargon of the trade without a clear knowledge of the terms.  I have countless stories of clients, and occasionally builders,  describing beams as "posts", soffits as "eaves", and lintels as "headers".  These mistakes are easily cleared up without much embarrassment or misdirection, but better avoided.  Don't be afraid to point to something and say "that thing, right there, whatever you call it".

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects


The Writer's Desk

"I look at these photographs with a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans."

 John Updike, in the Introduction to Jill Kementz's The Writer's Desk

 Joan Didion

We have worked on a number of rooms that are creative work spaces.  Some of these have been as "home offices" located within a house or condo, and some have been stand-alone studios or buildings.  In each case, we hope to find something intriguing about the nature of the work that can help inform the design beyond the simple functional requirements of light and space.

 Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Writer's Desk, by Jill Krementz,  is a series of brief glimpses into the natural working habitat of a number of noted writers.  Each entry contains a single photo of the writer at their respective work spaces along with a short comment from the authors on their writing spaces or process.

 Robert Penn Warren

As someone who designs these spaces for creatives, these are fascinating insights.  I think you have to avoid the too-easy temptation to analyze the rooms and contents, the arrangement of furniture and objects, as some kind of treasure map to the author's meaning and muse.  Working with clients over the years has shown that these spaces are far more complex in their relationship to the work than a brief visual survey reveals.  However, in the quotation above from Updike reveals, our fascination is not easily assuaged.

 E. B. White

I have to also admit that I have spent time changing, altering and modifying my studio space far more than any other room I have occupied in a lifetime of houses and condos and cabins and apartments.  It is true that you can create almost anywhere - so many designs have  come to life on my dining room table between the saucers and plates.  But you can only push aside your drawings at dinner time so many times before your  need for that other space, that small creative retreat, becomes a necessity.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Lebbeus Woods, 1940 - 2012

Lebbeus Woods passed away last week.  It is almost impossible to overemphasize the impact that this "paper" architect has had on the world of architecture.  A long-time professor at Cooper Union, he directly influenced generations of students at one of the most important schools in the world, during its most profoundly influential period.  But it was his publications with their hauntingly beautiful images that have become some of the most seminal works in post-Modernist era.

His drawings of re-imagined urban landscapes are stunningly beautiful even in their dark, vaguely dystopian vision. His most widely read work, Anarchitecture: Architecture is a Political Act, is so visually striking that its message is easily lost amidst the revery of the drawings and models on display.  But make no mistake, Woods' work was not just so-much eye-candy.

Crucial question - what is an inconsistent pattern? The cities of an experimental culture will be formed on inconsistent patterns, and will produce them.  These will be their chief products, the result of a way of living driven by the need for clarity on shifting landscapes of the ephemeral.

I attended undergraduate and graduate schools of architecture during the height (or maybe bottomless, self-flagellating, pit) of post-structuralist architectural theory.  Architects, insecure in their creation of forms, looked under every academic, esoteric rock to find some secure impetus to justify the nature of the work - imposing forms upon others.  I won't go on about the absurdity and idiocy of the near-abandonment of 3,000 years of architectural history and practice for the tawdry attractions of French philology.  It happened, I witnessed it, even dipped a toe in it.

"Politics of construction: who designs, who builds, who owns, who inhabits?"

Woods' work shattered it.  He, among others, placed architecture back in the realm of buildings, the act of building, and the meaning of actually making buildings.  And the images he produced cemented that argument with an outrageous glorification of forms, color, plasticity and imagination.  Though his vision of shattered cities and expropriated spaces were often dire and almost always devoid of people, what comes through is the joy and beauty of making.  That may sound contradictory to what I said above, but it is not.  Great architectural ideas have never been planted so firmly as when they are not merely texts or images, but the synergistic amalgam of both, like LeCorbusier's Toward an Architecture and Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

I would avidly place Woods' Anarchitecture in that lofty neighborhood.  He was the most important and influential unbuilt architecture of the last century.  Not too bold a statement I think, and not befitting enough of his animating vision.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects


Container House Taking Shape, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

The shipping container house that we have been working on for quite a while has finally started to take shape.  The first box was delivered on Wednesday, lifted high above the neighborhood and swung into place on the second story.

Another container will be set in a few months immediate to the north of this one, making a long line with a small terrace between.  A very challenging building site, hemmed in with zoning requirements to a maximum building envelope of 20' wide by 145'  long, suggested the use of these long, narrow boxes.  The homeowner's desire for a eco-conscious house, including these re-purposed containers, drove the much of the design as well.  The restrictive solar shadow ordinance here in Boulder allowed us to build up to only 10' wide on the second level.

The final outcome will be sustainable design that incorporates the owner's solar panel array and stretches north to south over 140'.

The lifting and setting of the first box was quite an event, bringing out curious, and somewhat concerned neighbors.

The amazing views from this new second level will reveal Boulder's famous flatirons to the south and the city dropping off to the northeast.  The neighborhood of two- and three-story homes will be joined by this construction, long and narrow, of shipping containers anchored in their new port.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Las Mesitas, southern Colorado, photos by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

These are images from a roofless church in Las Mesitas, in southern Colorado on the western edge of the San Luis Valley.  I have been going there over a few years now and I am hopelessly fascinated by the stark simplicity of the place and its robust, stoic presence.

Photos by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

enter ACI - architecture, construction, integration

We haven't added new blog posts in quite a while as we have been more than ordinarily busy with a new joint venture - ACI design/build. Jim Walker and I have been friends since our Chicago-days, now almost 16 years ago.  Jim is also an architect and he has spent many years with New York architecture firms doing design/build work as the on-site architect and construction manager.  In the same capacity, he and I have done a number of projects over the years both here in Colorado as well as in Chicago.  Now our occasional collaboration is a full-time occupation embodied in ACI.  While M. Gerwing Architects still exists and works with a number of excellent local contractors, some of our projects will be joint ventures with ACI as both design and construction professionals.

The design/build process offers some unique advantages over the traditional architect-and-contractor process.  The communication and coordination is certainly streamlined as is the process of designing, detailing and documenting a project.  This realizes significant savings for our clients and makes the process much more rewarding for ourselves, being able to spend more time on design and less on paperwork.

For as interesting as design/build is, there are limitations.  Very large or significantly complex projects benefit from the long experience and solid focus of an experienced general contractor.  And, for my part, I have learned so much from general contractors over the years that I would never give up using that more traditional process for many of my projects.

We spend a lot of time custom designing a project for clients.  We avidly search through the project to find the unique aspects of the client and the site to highlight these issues and create tailored projects.  However, we don't often adjust our process to the needs of our clients.  We are the experts at that process and we often bend each client and project into that form.  I think now, with the addition of ACI, we have options we can present to our clients for not just the design of the project, but the process to get there as well.