Sliver House is an urban infill project rising in Fountain Square, Indianapolis.
We often get calls from people looking to renovate or develop new projects in this neighborhood. Generally, many aren’t a great fit. To clarify, some don’t appear to have margins to support the level of design we offer, and we prefer to not leave design decisions up to the builder or developer. A lot of great things are happening in Fountain Square, but we feel like some of the residential rehabs + new construction going-on in the immediate area could be of higher quality (on both the design and build sides). There are most certainly exceptions to this opinion, as there are a few architect-designed projects in the area that are excellent.
One of our builder colleagues invited us to collaborate on this unique design opportunity. We helped design their personal residence last year. For that reason, we were happy to continue the relationship on a very unique site with great potential!
Most certainly, we are intrigued with the inherent design opportunities of a unique, ultra-narrow, urban site. However, we’re going into this project with tempered expectations. This is because developer projects in fringe-areas are not usually highly design-driven. Naturally, we expect that budget and return-on-investment may dictate some decisions at the expense of design and execution. For this reason, we need to be sure to conceptualize something ultra-simple that is easy to understand and build.
Project Info – Sliver House, Fountain Square
Architecture: HAUS | Architecture For Modern Lifestyles
Interior Architecture + Material Selections: by Developer and Builder
Structural Engineer: Silver Creek Engineering (Matthew Owen)
Process Photography: HAUS + Contractor
Design Process – Sliver House, Fountain Square
Builder had been doing some work with the developer of this property and made the introduction. Meanwhile, we were able to sit-down for a beer and agree on the design layout concepts for the project in about 90-minutes. And afterwards, we developed more detail and presented concepts for neighborhood and zoning review.
This site is about 18.5′ wide side-to-side (pre-existing house was 14.4′ wide). Certainly, based on the narrow width, it is was not possible to build anything reasonable on the site meeting current zoning requirements. Clearly, even the original house was not close to meeting current zoning criteria. Of course, the City and neighborhood understood the circumstances, and we were able able to proceed with only minor design changes, mostly related to the required fire-resistance and window openings to the side-yards.
We’ll share some diagrams of the design concepts in the near future. In brief, the design concept centers around a stair-well/light-shaft connecting and sharing light to all levels. Indeed, zoning ordinance and building code will only allow fire-protected windows on sidewalls, as neighboring walls are only about 2-3 feet away. From there, we have an upper 2-story volume sliding over a base-volume. Then, the base volume extends visually through connecting ground level deck, privacy fencing, and into one-car detached garage. The two volumes are of a complimentary material to express the contrast between them, with the upper volume “tube frame” highlighted on front elevation.
We have prioritized glazing and balconies at the front and rear for all levels due to the absence of windows on the sides. The goal was to enable front balconies access to some views downtown, with rear balconies getting a visual on the Square. We knew going-in that a slender, vertical house like this was going to require structural review, primarily to address the shear issues in the narrow direction. Since we wanted to maximize the glazing front and back, we started with a structural design solution that integrated steel moment-frames. Contractor priced this option, and the steel + associated footing tie-ins were difficult, expensive, and many footing contractors didn’t want to deal with it.
The contractor requested that the team brainstorm an alternative, simpler solution that would be lower budget and include CMU foundation walls instead of all-concrete. Contractor and HAUS (with Silvercreek collaboration) were able to quickly modify the design to delete the steel, add layered wood-framed shear-walls tying to reinforced CMU foundation walls + concrete footings. We had to reduce the amount of front and rear glazing to achieve the shear walls, but feel this was a good compromise that maintained the design concept integrity.
Construction Process – Sliver House, Fountain Square
This “before” photo shows the property in 2017 or so. These houses have a quaintness and diminutive scale. However, they are mostly in disrepair and the small one too tiny to support an evolving demographic.
We agree that our design solution on this narrow site does not attempt to fit-in with the existing historic context or scale. This area is actually experiencing a high-rate of transformative redevelopment. In fact, it has become common practice in the immediate area to tear-down existing homes in-favor of new construction. This is because much of the existing housing stock is either undersized for the market and/or beyond feasible repair to meet market demand.
As this area is not a protected historic district, we only needed to follow the zoning criteria per the variance approvals noted above. Neighborhood representatives had the opportunity to review the design solution as part of the variance proceedings, and granted their support.
Here below is a progress photo from the street. 1005 house has been removed and footings are underway. It appears that the house to the left will be renovated in tandem with Sliver House (by others).
As we do with many of our projects, we are planning to share key phases of the construction process here. In general, we find the entire process really interesting. This is because there are so many moving parts and design decisions to be made even during construction.
To be clear, Architect availability and involvement is really important during the construction phase. This is true for almost all construction projects, but especially ones like this involving a unique contemporary design with abbreviated design services (by definition, “abbreviated design services” means if the design services were partial, then construction administration services are also unlikely).
The drawings don’t stand alone and may not be perfect. Nor do they detail every important condition; therefore, the construction team will likely require Architect interpretations of design-intent. However, the developer-build team has decided to not hire the architect during the construction phase. So this is a yellow-flag, and we hope communication issues don’t arise (because there isn’t adequate – or perhaps any – communication). For sure, we have a special interest in this project, and are planning to stay in-touch as we are able. For that reason, Architect offered contractor a meeting to help review and head-off possible issues that could come-up during the construction phase – but no response.
Foundation contractor is forming spread footings in this view from the rear of the property looking north-northeast.
This particular 10″ wide CMU wall anchors one of the shear wall locations. Eventually, contractor will fill respective CMU cores with grout to tie-together the rebar reinforcing and shear rods/sheathing. We look forward to seeing framing happen in late November 2018.
One-Car Garage Framing + Cladding
Our design drawings were relatively clear on the exterior details and cladding. However, we aren’t sure how closely the team will follow them. We haven’t had any dialogue about exterior details or color selections. Nevertheless, team has clad the one-car garage in a medium gray corrugated siding. On inquiry, we learned the plan to clad upper two stories of the house in same siding. Of course, we are hoping to maintain the original concepts, which can be achieved with various materials as long as the transitions and relationships stay intact. So it sounds like build team is varying from our concept a bit. We had hoped going-in that our clients would be interested in HAUS feedback with regard to final finishes and details, at least on the exterior. Unfortunately, it appears to not be the case.
We are concerned that developer and builder are going to make all the final design/finish/detail decisions with no architect input.
Here is a view from the alley of the new Sliver House garage structure and cladding. These are tight quarters for sure. Contractor said that this gray corrugated siding will be same cladding used on the upper 2-story volume. This might not be too bad if the details are good.
Framing on primary structure is underway.
It is always exciting to see the project go vertical. Initially, we want to see if it is the correct size and shape and how does it “feel”? Next, are the details correct?
The overall massing and proportions look correct. But here on the front elevation, we noticed that framers added a flat 8′-0″ ceiling to the front third floor balcony. Firstly, this top balcony was to be vaulted and feel spacious, so we are working to get that corrected so as to maintain the distinct front “frame” motif and balcony volume. Also, development team has downsized and/or eliminated some windows and doors without Architect review or endorsement. Looking back, it would have helped to have a team review of the framing package for final coordination items.
We communicated the concern about the front balcony to the build team and they agreed to remove the flat ceiling framing in the front 8′-0″ or so until reaching the shear wall to the left. Contractor said he has ideas for the flat ceiling toward the back and wants to leave it toward rear of balcony. Really, it looks like the contractor platform-framed the roof over 2nd floor, so vaulting it at this point would have been a labor-intensive rework. A vaulted ceiling in the 3rd floor interior at over-sized skylight over stair would have been a nice move. In this case, design services were not comprehensive with regard to interiors and ceiling plans and could have used more detail, or design-build team communication.
To be sure, we are happy for a small victory in maintaining partial front elevation design integrity. And looking forward, we eagerly anticipate further progress.
Design Team Involvement During Construction
Initially, we didn’t notice that the 3rd floor balcony floor framing comes all the way to the front edge – it was to be set-back 6″ +/-. This was a coordination issue between architectural and structural drawings. However, we did mention it later. This is a good example of why to involve the design team during the bidding/construction phase. It’s not just to catch coordination issues, but to be available to answer questions, clarify details, review shop drawings, and ensure that the design meets the intent of the Construction Documents prior to ordering materials. Team didn’t hire architect for construction-phase services, and it appears crews may be overlooking some key details.
No, Not More Design-on-the-Fly
Later, builder shared some ideas about how to accentuate the front facade by alternating burgundy walls with overlapping cedar slats to bring base material into upper frame. He claimed that “burgundy is back, baby”, and wanted to go big on the exterior accent colors inside front balcony porches. We appreciated the enthusiasm and agreed burgundy is back, but not sure burgundy is the best choice for this project. We doubted the goal was to blend with some of the other poor redevelopment examples in the area and likewise be mocked on local web feeds. Also, the idea of “bringing base material into upper frame” isn’t the idea.
With a few quick 3D illustrations, we were able to demonstrate how the theory “less is more” may apply to Sliver House. Builder team agreed to keep it simple with more neutral colors and the right areas of contrast allowing the form to make the expression. So, the jury is still out on the execution of details-finishes-colors. At this point, we are doing what we can to help realize the original architectural concept.
Interior Volume + Light
The width of the 14′-wide living space does feel fine. However, the lack of natural light is a concern. We had the opportunity to add rated glass-block to the side walls for more light, but that may not happen.
Also, in our earlier design renditions, we were counting on moment-frame steel to allow wider openings. As one would expect, the steel moment-frames and associated footings got dicey and pricey for a little project like this. So, we dialed it back at the cost of reduced natural light into interior. Per below, we are hoping the 3-story stair light shaft helps balance the lack of side windows and limited end-wall light. Of concern, the third-floor ceiling has been framed flat instead of vaulted, which is going to reduce some spread of natural light. We have no idea what he stair is going to look-like, as we didn’t design the interiors.
On this project during construction, we have not been involved from a detail, sequencing, or product selection standpoint. On our own time, we have made a few suggestions on details and generally kept in-touch. For certain, we are interested in the most successful outcome.
Due to the proximity to neighbors (less than 5-feet separation), this project was required to include 1-hour exterior rated walls. This rating has to be from both inside and outside to reduce time for fire to jump from building to building. Accordingly, the architectural drawings noted to include an exterior 1-hour rated sheathing tested with overall wall assembly to meet the requirement. However, the team may have only actually used the structural drawings that did not note the rated sheathing; therefore, it appears build team did not use noted wall sheathing product. Perhaps there are other fire-resistive products that team could have added over the ZIP sheathing prior to siding installation. As we learned later, build team added siding without any other approved fire-resisteive sheathing meeting the zoning + code requirements. The building inspector caught it at rough-inspection.
For any potential clients or collaborators reading this, please understand how important Architect involvement is during the construction phase, even on a seemingly simple project. Usually on projects like this with abbreviated services (for lower fees), the design documents are more basic in nature, not covering all the bases. They provide the basics, but not comprehensive details of all important conditions or interior details. Accordingly, the Drawings don’t stand on their own. They require some degree of knowledgeable interpretation, and a coordinated, comprehensive understanding of how all systems work together. Someone has to fill-in the gaps. If budget or return-on-investment is the top priority, then maybe fill the gaps without the architect. But if design and quality is top priority, then Architect participation is a non-negotiable.
Contractor was only referencing the structural drawings for framing. And, it may explain why some of the architectural details aren’t realized. Yes, the details are important. But beyond layout, aesthetics, and details, Architect can help with technical, code-related, and coordination issues before it’s too late. In fact, we have many stories about how the Architect has helped avert issues, saving clients more money than the total design fee amount.
Our initial recommendation was to take the siding off and supplement with materials achieving an approved assembly as designed. We felt that we could only recommend and stand behind a U.L. tested assembly. On further discussions with inspectors, contractor and inspectors agreed that we may be able to demonstrate compliance with itemization of burn-through ratings of each building material per Indiana Building Code (commercial version). We initially helped prepare a wall-section indicating a possible solution for approval. However, we had to decline the request to certify the solution, as we had no testing documentation that it in-fact, met a 1-hour rating.
Resolution: With manufacturer letter, Structural Engineer agreed to stamp a solution that included adding a coating of intumescent paint onto the inside of the Zip sheathing. Intumescent paint reacts to heat-flame to form a barrier during a fire event. According to contractor, this solution likely cost more than the original fire-rated sheathing would have cost. But certainly, it was less cost than ripping-off and replacing sheathing + siding.
The form and mass in context is interesting. Is it too big? Or is it fine with ongoing densification of our urban cores?
We had designed this 3rd floor balcony to have a vaulted ceiling. For sure, we don’t understand why anyone would want a flat ceiling up here – not sure if it was a mistake or intentional.
We’ve had a few rounds of dialogue with the build team about the front elevation details. Also as mentioned, we learned there were some minor coordination issues between structural and architectural drawings that would have benefitted from more review and coordination. Besides adding an 8′-0″ flat ceiling to the 3rd floor balcony (partially corrected), nobody seemed to acknowledge our feedback on how the front “frame” concept should wrap around 2nd-3rd floors balconies. The design concept may be a bit cliche at this point, but if executed correctly and simply, it will stand-out in the Fountain Square area.
Besides the original drawings and renderings, we attempted to explain it three times during construction. Surely, we were hoping that the third try would be the charm, but contractor politely replied that it’s not going to change. In an attempt to get the project built per the Drawings, we have spent a lot of our own unsolicited time with limited results.
The HGTV generation may be directly influencing how these types of projects go. Be it home-tours or urban infill, people want to add their personal design flourish. That’s most certainly the fun part, and may be fine as long as there is an overall design concept (guideline for all design decisions). Kudos to our client for actually hiring an architect – not everybody does for projects like this. But adjusting and tweaking the design vision (or maybe just not understanding it) without the author’s endorsement will dilute the vision and could quickly take it from potentially good architecture to whoops!
Importantly, we felt we designed a simple-enough concept with simple-enough details and clear-enough documentation. Due to the challenging nature of this project, we knew going-in it was going to be a big ask for the team to pull it off at our normal expected level of execution. It’s true that the zoning and structural requirements demanded a lot of the up-front effort. We believe that the abbreviated design services (including no construction phase involvement) for such a unique design led to some fumbles that the team could have avoided with just a bit more communication both during the design and construction phases.
To be clear, nobody is perfect, including us. For sure, we have made many mistakes over the years and learned from them. And clearly, perfection is not an industry expectation (for design or construction) – see “Standard of Care“. Certainly, we wish we could have shared more of our expertise in executing modern architecture with this client team. This is especially important if they have little or no experience with a modern build.
This is why construction-phase design services are so important! Ongoing team communication is essential to ensuring successful outcomes. Isolating design from construction is a recipe for misunderstandings and average results. Undoubtedly, we want to share our lessons-learned with our collaborators for the most successful outcomes. In fact, we want to encourage our collaborators and promote their efforts to the extent that we are communicating well as a team with positive results.
Lessons Learned (or Reconfirmed)
- We struggle when asked to provide abbreviated design services, which requires others to fill-in the gaps.
- Good communication is the most important aspect of any design + construction project (and perhaps all things in life).
- Once again, we enjoyed the contractor relationship on the personal side; however, we didn’t share a mutual understanding or respect for the architectural details or the rigor required to pull them off.
- Speculative single-family projects in fringe areas are driven by tight margins, which may squeeze design + build quality.
- For best outcomes, it is imperative that architect be involved during the construction phase to help ensure that installed construction meets the intent of the construction documents.
- HAUS is better-suited to provide comprehensive professional design services for owner-occupied, design-focused, clientele.
Please check back, as we may be adding updates – and we may not :).