peach crisp


The local farmer's markets are bursting with peaches and nectarines lately. So before we wrap up this summer, we can all use a little peach crisp. I know its back-to-school and the top of the calendar now reads "September," but we can still pretend its summer time when you have a mouth full of this peach pie.

I'm currently well into 5 months pregnant with twins. Yes, TWINS! One of the most common questions people love asking me is if I have any cravings. Cravings, that I do not have but plenty of aversions. One of them being baked goods, you're not going to catch me eating a muffin or cookie any time soon, unless its my toddler shoving it down my throat insisting that I MUST eat this and he MUST feed it to me. You'll be surprised how often this scenario plays out in our household. Just think in another two years, I'll have two more pair of hands doing this to me. Mmmm... parenthood.

Anyways, back to my crisp. Even though sweets is off my to-eat list lately, I still love fruit. The joy of living in California is that you can have such a variety of fruit all year round. My summer diet has been chock full of plums, figs, watermelon, peaches, berries, I can go on... Thankfully, my twins are okay with me eating some baked peaches because this peach crisp is a must eat. I'm sure I'll be baking one of these every peach season from now on. peach crisp

the entitlement process (part II)


It's been two months since we submitted our application to the Design Review Board, so what's the update? Drum roll, please.... I am very happy to say that after a lot of work and some tears, we finally got our approval from the DRB for the design of our house (3d rendering above). Our once ultra-modern house has turned into a mid-century modern one after this long, tedious process.

So what happened during these past two months? After our disappointing first meeting (which I mentioned here), we engaged our neighbors, whom were mostly against our design. Most of them made an effort to keep their distance and only sharing their opinions, while others became our friends and were helpful in suggesting different approaches (i.e. built examples, variances, scope change, etc). We took everyone's (friend or foe) comments into consideration and looked at it in all directions with our house. With sketches in hand, we presented the redesign to the DRB last month to see if we were headed in the right direction. I have to admit, it was not the most encouraging meeting. But with another layer of feedback, we turned the sketches into hard lines.

As I had mentioned previously, the submittal requirements are quite extensive. In order to get onto the agenda, drawings needed to be submitted to the Planning Department for review two weeks before each meeting. It was a scramble to get all the drawings in place but we did it... barely... and was back on the agenda.

However, before we could stand in front of the DRB again, I needed some community support to back our redesign. I reached out to the neighbors that left us their contact information. I even walked around the neighborhood at different hours of the day to catch a passerby to show them our renderings and floor plans.. It was well worth the effort because at the end, I got 6 names on a letter supporting our project. Having a support letter makes the voting process easier for the board member who is already in favor of your project.

At the final DRB meeting, there were 4 out of 5 members present (we need 3 to get the approval). We presented our project with our story, renderings, plans, and even a powerpoint presentation. Then, the floor was open to the public, there were a couple who spoke for our project, some who were neutral, and of course, those who were totally against it. The board then asked their questions and made their comments. In order for the DRB to approve any project that comes across their laps, they must find that the design and layout of the proposed development abides to the following (which the Planning Department refers to as the four findings):
  • Is consistent with the General Plan and any applicable design criteria for specialized areas. 
  • Will adequately accommodate the functions and activities proposed for the site, will not unreasonably interfere with the use and enjoyment of neighboring, existing, or future developments, and will not create adverse pedestrian or traffic hazards.
  • Is compatible with the existing character of the surrounding neighborhood and that all reasonable design efforts have been made to maintain the attractive, harmonious, and orderly development contemplated by this Section, and the General Plan; and 
  • Would provide a desirable environment for its occupants and neighbors, and is aesthetically of good composition, materials, and texture, that would remain aesthetically appealing with a reasonable level of maintenance and upkeep. 
In the end the DRB concluded that our redesign checked off the list and we got the approval! Next up, permits! 

Thank you for those who have been reading and supporting us! Please check back in soon on our progress. 

the entitlement process (part I)


So you think because you own a piece of land, you have the right to build whatever you'd like on it? Think again.

Many areas around California (especially Los Angeles) have a long, tedious entitlement process depending on the location, project type, project size, etc. Even for a single, family residential home like the one we are building, we are looking at months of approval process. In addition to the typical plan review for permits, the town has a design review board. So, what has been the process been like for us?

Back in February, we submitted sketches for a concept review to the Design Review Board. The meeting went quite well. The overall consensus was that street had a mix of styles and a contemporary design would be acceptable taking into consideration the design guidelines set by the Planning Department. Off we went to design our dream home.

The requirements for the design review application for new construction is quite extensive. I even had to bring on a landscape designer to put together a hardscape and landscape plan. For those who don't know, you typical hire the landscape designer much later in the process, basically when the house design is finalized. All the houses on the block are single story homes and massing is one of the major contextual elements we have to consider. So, we started to communicate with a structural engineer to minimize the height of our two-story house. We finally got our package together and submitted in June.

Here is a list of requirements we had to prepare for the application:
  • Project narrative
  • Photographs of all the houses on the street
  • Site Plan
  • Floor and roof plans
  • Exterior elevations
  • Building sections
  • Exterior details
  • Door and window schedules
  • Landscape and hardscape plans
  • Manufacturers' brochures of all exterior materials
  • Materials board
  • Renderings
  • Colored elevations
  • List of all neighbors within a 300' radius from property and mailing labels
  • Tree removal plan
Phew. That's why it took 4 months to get our application together.

My husband and I were so naive to think that after all that work, we could get this approved in a month or so. To our surprise, more than a dozen neighbors (keep in mind there are only 16 houses on our street) came to protest against our design. At the time, I was so overwhelmed by the comments, I even cried. Here are some of the comments (abridged):
  • Doesn't fit in the neighborhood.
  • Hideous.
  • I want a small, Craftsman style house here.
  • Too large and too tall.
  • Massive.
  • Contemporary is inappropriate.
  • Build a multi-family house instead.
  • No coherency.
  • Completely out of place.
We heard the word "Craftsman style" so many times, I lost count. After some research, only 3 of the 16 houses are even considered Craftsman. In general, many of the neighbors had fear that this new contemporary house would change the neighborhood for the worse. Some are resentful that we are allowed to build 2 stories or use aluminum windows, but they were turned down years ago when they wanted to do an addition. Guidelines and regulations constantly change, so this is something we have no control over. 

After our June meeting, we set up a community gathering (which was highly recommended by the DRB) to discuss some of the redesign ideas with our neighbors . I'm glad we did that because I felt like we are starting to form personal relationships with some neighbors (the ones who want to help). While others just came out to speak their wants, turned around and left. We realize that we cannot make everyone happy, all we can do is come to a compromise. This is the world of real estate development! 

Following our not-so-productive community gathering, I was practically at the Planning Department every other day. The planners are amazing to work with. They have been feeding me information, confidence, and guidance. After being knocked down at the DRB and community gathering, I was able to pick myself up and am ready to face the next challenges. This is a part of developing in California and what I'm learning now will only prepare me for future endeavors.

Tonight, we are presenting our redesign in sketch form to the Design Review Board only to see if we are heading towards the right direction. Wish us luck! 

finding the contractor


Meet my new best friend, Boswell Construction. They will be our general contractor handling the construction of our house. It was a long (and necessary) process finding them and I'm going to go through how I did.

First, I compiled a list of contractors. I asked fellow architects and colleagues for recommendations, talked to friends who have had major construction done on their house, and even jotted down a number off a sign hanging outside a house that was under construction. I called all of them and received a range of responses. Some never picked up my call or took weeks to respond (after a few more calls). Some picked up right away and were ready to answer my long list of questions.

As for questions, I started with a list that Life of an Architect posted here. I then added a few of my own that were more specific to our personality and project. After my calls, I looked up each contractor's license to make sure it is valid and what type of permits have been filed under them. It's a great way to get a grasp of the contractor's project experience and align what they've told you to what you actually see on public records. Once that all checked out, I narrowed it down to two contractors and asked for references. Again, I called all of them and used the list of questions for references from Life of an Architect. I found that most of the references would not stop talking about their positive experience with so-and-so contractor. To get the most out of your call, have your questions ready so you don't get side tracked.

I have to say amongst all the contractors, only Boswell Construction invited me to visit one of their current job sites, which really surprised me. Of course, I went. I highly recommend this when possible. I got to talk to the superintendent, scope out how organized and neatly the site was kept up, and got an overall feel of how the company runs each project.

After all the due diligence, I can't tell you who is the best contractor but I can only say who is the best contractor for our project. Every project is different, so therefore, every project requires a different contractor. If we were doing a simple bathroom renovation, we may not be working with the same guys. Just keep that in mind when selecting yours.  

Once we knew who we wanted to work with, the next item of discussion was contract. Basically, there are two types of contracts: lowest bid and cost-plus-fee. Coming from commercial development, I knew from the beginning I wanted to do cost-plus-fee for our house. There are pros and cons for both contract types, but I just felt with this particular project, cost-plus-fee was most appropriate. Here are a few reasons why:

  • This was my first residential project. I knew I would miss a few things here or there. I didn't want to get hit by some big change orders under a lowest bid contract. 
  • This was my first project on the west coast. The construction process here is quite different from the east coast, again I didn't want to miss anything and result in a big change order. 
  • This is going to be our own house, we want it to be perfect, which means minds will be changed along the way, I guarantee it. When that time comes, again I don't want to get hit a change order. 
  • We have a tight budget, so having a contractor on board during the design process allows us to value engineer along the way. 

A cost-plus-fee contract creates a very honest and transparent relationship between the owner and contractor. You will basically see every bill from a subcontractor or every check the contractor cuts for your project. Boswell will be bidding out each trade to at least 3 different subs, so we will know we're getting a fair price for the work. The industry standard for a contractor's fee is 15%, anything significantly less makes me ask some questions.

Sometimes, contracts like these require some time and effort on the owner. For us, this is what I do, so it doesn't seem that tasking. I'm really excited about working with Boswell Construction and can't wait to share more about my project with y'all.

finding the site


As some of you can tell, my blog has been lagging in posts lately. That's because for the past couple of months my time has been consumed by one of my biggest projects yet... designing and building our own house.

Let's rewind back several months, Gary and I were looking at a house to buy here in Los Angeles. We narrowed down our search to a few locations due to commutes, schools, conveniences, and amenities. The house hunt was bleak, the good ones got snatched up in bidding wars and the bad ones were still $300+/sf for a little shack that we would have to put some more money and sweat into before it is livable.

We then took a little break but it wasn't really a break because it was still on my mind. I was obsessed with South Pasadena. It had everything we wanted: good schools, walkable, Metro, quaint main street, a weekly farmer's market, great parks, and so close to Pasadena with all the shops and restaurants. I started to study the satellite maps of South Pasadena, going down street by street. That was when I discovered a few parcels that didn't have any structures on it. I noted those addresses and when I drove to the first location I found a sign that read "For Sale by Owner" with some stats of the parcel and a phone number. When I called the number, an older lady answered, she told me her asking price and if we were interested to meet her with an offer. I then checked with my amazingly wonderful real estate lawyer (who dropped everything on his plate to put together our letter), who confirmed that this was a great off-market deal. Basically, I called on a Saturday, I was at her house by Tuesday with a letter of intent, and we closed 2 weeks later.

The story is this lady had owned a house on this piece of land and it had burnt down 40 years ago. She's held onto it since; for whatever reason I'm not sure but I have a few guesses. I do really believe in things-are-meant-to-be. She said she had put up the sign only a few weeks before I found it. The timing was perfect, the land is perfect. It's walking distance to the Metro, elementary school, park,  Mission Street (where all the restaurants and shops are), farmer's market, and even Trader Joe's. It's also flat and large enough for a house and a generous yard. Check. Check. Check.

This is every architect's dream come true and I am extremely blessed to have this opportunity and the support of all my husband, family and friends on this big endeavor. My architectural background is mainly in commercial buildings on the east coast, so designing this house has been a huge learning curve. I'll be posting more about the whole process: design, city review, permitting, bidding, construction, and down to the interiors. So, please check in when you can.
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