Making Sense of Sustainable Building

Sean Meehan, Architect, LEED AP, ADMG

The concept of sustainability in architecture is an ancient idea.  Roman architect Vitruvius wrote the Ten Books on Architecture, the earliest reference book on building science.  Over 2000 years old, his writings cover a variety of topics but include many concepts encompassed by sustainability today.  In fact, prior to building technologies such as air conditioning and electric lighting, most buildings throughout history would generally be considered sustainable by modern standards.

But what exactly is a sustainable building?  In contemporary terms, sustainability (or green building) encompasses a wide range of concepts, all with the main objective of reducing a structure’s impact on the environment.  Typical strategies include locating the building appropriately on the site, reducing water use and energy consumption, and utilizing safe, local and easily renewed construction materials.

In recent years, sustainability has evolved to include voluntary measures like product certifications and building rating systems, as well as mandatory requirements that are now found in both state and local building codes.  Whether voluntary or mandatory, most sustainability measures carry an increased upfront cost but are offset by substantial long-term savings on energy costs and other financial incentives.  Navigating that cost vs. benefit analysis on a typical building project can be a confusing and time-consuming endeavor.

The good news is that sustainability is a grassroots movement at heart.  It starts with simple things like recycling waste, limiting our use of water both indoors and out, and unplugging small appliances and electronics when not in use.  The even better news is that these easy sustainability measures save money as well!

If you are considering a building project and want to get the biggest return on your sustainability dollar, hire an experienced professional.  They can guide you through the decision-making process when comparing various certifications, rating systems and incentives, while identifying what measures will be most effective and appropriate for your project.  Ultimately, efficiency and economy are the goals of sustainability, and saving money while saving the environment is something we can all feel good about.

Leave a comment

Filed under SUSTAINABLE DESIGN, Uncategorized

Building with Foam Legos – The Debate on Building with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Insulated Concrete Forms

The title of this article is not misleading in the least.  They really do look like giant foam Legos.  Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICFs, have been around for a long time.  Originally developed in post WW II Europe as an inexpensive and durable way to rebuild, the ICF has evolved over the years.  The ICF has really come into prominence in today’s “green building” era and has been used as a successful building component in many modern day structures.

A better understanding of their capabilities, inclusion in most modern building codes, and more choices in manufacturers has contributed to their rising popularity since the 1970’s.  However, classifying them as a sustainable building method/material is widely contested.  Also debatable is their cost effectiveness, practicality, and suitability.  This article aims to explore some of the pros and cons of ICFs as well as explain why there may be no single correct answer.

The ICF is a modular, structural building material much like a concrete masonry unit, the most popular size being 12”-18” high and 48”-96” long.  The thickness varies anywhere from 4”-over 20” depending on concrete fill width and layers/thickness of foam.  The most popular type of ICF is made from polystyrene foam (extruded or expanded), though other materials are available.  Think of a dixie cup, only thicker, and you have the idea.  The blocks are hollow to allow for a solid concrete fill and have webbing inside that provides for a consistent shape and rigidity, while also allowing for the attachment of reinforcing bars and finishes.  The foam is not stripped like traditional concrete forms and remains in place as an assembly component after the concrete is placed inside.

Pros of ICFs

  • They speed up construction in the early phases and can be placed and manipulated much easier than traditional formwork.  They are very easy to handle and transport.
  • The foam increase insulation value or R value.  Polystyrene is far superior to traditional fiberglass type batt insulation in this regard.  The building envelope is also much tighter than traditional framing thus reducing heat loss/gain.
  • Concrete as a building material creates extremely strong, quiet, mold/fire resistant structures that can last hundreds of years.
  • As stated above the use of concrete is superior in areas with earthquake and hurricane concerns.
  • The thermal mass of concrete, or ability to retain and dissipate heat, is much better than in wood or steel.  This is a major factor in sustainable “passive design.”  Simplified:  not using fuels for heating and cooling comfort.
  • Depending on the ICF used you can greatly reduce the comparable amount of concrete needed in a standard poured-in-place monolithic wall.
  • Plumbing and electrical can be done at almost any time in the construction schedule and not just while walls are open.  This may also make remodeling easier.

Cons of ICFs

  • Polystyrene is made up of many different chemicals (mostly petrochemicals) that have a high toxicity level. The fire retardant coating HBDC (hexabromocyclododecane) used on polystyrene has been deemed by the EUs REACH program as chemical of “very high concern.”
  • The thickness of the walls means that on very tight sites (even some not so tight) you are losing interior square footage (and paying for it anyway) by virtue of the walls being thicker than typical 2×6 or 2×4 construction.
  • Embodied energy, or the energy needed to extract, produce, transport, maintain, dispose of and/or replace a given material.  Mining concrete aggregates, transporting concrete and manufacturing foam all consume a lot of energy.  Thus the higher the embodied energy the higher the carbon footprint.
  • There is an argument that the significance of the thermal mass benefits of concrete, when sandwiched between foam, is negligible or not fully realized (see pros above).
  • The recyclability of a reinforced concrete and foam assembly is much less than that of a wood framed assembly.
  • The construction costs for ICF walls as compared to conventional framing can be double in most cases.  The argument is that you make this money back through energy savings or through intangibles such as better overall occupant comfort.
  • Plumbing and electrical costs may increase because of the unconventional way it is installed (see pros above).

As you can see from the above pros and cons there is a big split among experts as to the usefulness and practicality of using ICFs.  The product is most often marketed today as a sustainable building alternative.  This claim is based on the fact that over the building’s lifecycle there is a huge saving in energy costs due to the reduced need for mechanical heating and cooling.  However, green building experts (and pundits) point to the fact that ICFS still have a large carbon footprint by virtue of their embodied energy and also contain harmful chemicals.  How “green” can this really be?  Not to mention there are many other methods of creating a reduced need for fuel consuming mechanical systems.   Using passive design or better conventional building materials and technologies (and craftsmanship) are just some of the ways.

If you take the sustainability factor out of the equation and look at ICFs from a practical standpoint there is still no clear winner.  It comes down to one of the basic tenants of architecture and that is, the design, material and methods must be appropriate to the site and the end user.  You can debate all day as to the virtues and evils of ICFs but the fact is they are useful in CERTAIN circumstances.  They have been proven to greatly increase energy savings, withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, and without a doubt create a structurally sound and quiet living environment that can last a very long time.

Consulting a professional is the first step in any good building design.  Contractors tend to build with what they are comfortable with and make them money and manufacturers, of course, want to sell their products.  A good architect’s highest priority should be that of protecting the owner’s best interests and designing in a responsible effective manner.  This priority would definitely include deciding whether using ICFs is appropriate for you and your next project!

Leave a comment


Savings by Design – Incentivized Green Building

Sean Meehan, Architect, LEED AP, ADMG

Savings by Design

The concept of sustainability in architecture has been around for quite a long time. Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of ‘organic architecture’ advocated the use of local materials, providing adequate ventilation, and breaking down the interior-exterior barrier by maximizing daylighting and views. Even the US Green Building Council, and its LEED green building rating system, has been around for well over a decade. Sustainability remains a hot topic in the industry, and in California sustainability measures have even been mandated by the Code with the recent adoption of the California Green Building Code.

Another sustainability program unique to California is the Savings by Design program. This is a statewide energy efficiency program, tailored to non-residential projects, that is funded by the Public Purpose Program surcharges to gas and electric bills. The nice thing about Savings by Design is that it is an incentive program – both Owners and Design Teams may receive monetary incentives (yes…in the form of a check!) for their participation in the program, based on the type of energy efficiency approach employed, as well as the amount of energy savings that are realized.

Much like the Energy Performance credits in LEED, Savings by Design has two main approaches – either a whole-building energy model, or a systems/prescriptive approach. The incentives available with the whole-building approach are greater, but so too will be the design costs to the owner, and likely also the construction costs. The whole building approach needs to be implemented in the very earliest stages of design to be feasible, and makes sense for larger, more complicated projects. The systems approach is appropriate for smaller buildings, and may be incorporated later in the project, where the specification of higher efficiency building systems and envelope assemblies may satisfy the program’s requirements.

The Savings by Design program employs full time energy efficiency specialists to assist Owners and Design Teams throughout the process. For more information on the Savings by Design program, check out their website. Here you will find FAQs, program brochures and applications, as well as links, resources, and past award-winning projects that have utilized the program.

Leave a comment


The Importance of Project Closeout

Sean Meehan, LEED AP, ADMG

As a typical construction project nears completion, the project team is usually inundated with many last minute issues that threaten to derail the completion of the project.  Often, the team has to commit so many resources towards meeting the deadline, that the administrative elements of project closeout may be neglected.  I will review the basics of project closeout, and their importance to the project in terms of mitigating risk and ensuring smooth operation of the facility.

  • Substantial Completion – The term ‘Substantial Completion’ generally implies that a project is sufficiently complete that an Owner can occupy or utilize the work for its intended use.  However, substantial completion is typically a specifically defined contract term that requires numerous conditions be met.  A typical AIA contract stipulates that the Architect will prepare a Certificate of Substantial Completion (AIA G704) that:
    • Establishes the date of Substantial Completion
    • Establishes the responsibilities of the Owner and GC for security, maintenance, utilities, damage to the work and insurance.
    • Fix the time that the GC has to finish all remaining items on a punch list accompanying the certificate.
    • Establishes the commencement of Warranties.
    • Must be accepted by the Owner and GC in writing, and upon acceptance, the Owner is to pay retainage applying to such work (adjusting for work that is incomplete).
  • Final Completion – Again, more so than meaning that the obligations of the contract have been fully performed, there are specific responsibilities established for this critical step in most construction contracts (always refer to your construction contract for specifics).  A typical AIA A201 requires:
    •  The GC to request final inspection in writing
    •  The GC to prepare final Application for Payment
    •  Architect to make inspection and issue final Certificate of Payment
    •  Neither final payment nor retained percentage shall become due until GC         submits:
      • Affidavit that payrolls and other indebtedness have been paid.
      • A certificate evidencing that insurance is in effect.
      • A written statement that the GC knows of no reason that the insurance will not be renewable.
      • Consent of surety.
      • Releases of waivers and liens.
  • Notice of Completion– While not a typical element of a construction contract, a Notice of Completion is an important tool for the Owner to mitigate risk.  In California, a Notice of Completion:
    •  Is to be recorded in the office of the county recorder within 10 days of final         completion.
    • Limits timeframe for a Mechanic’s Lien to be filed to 60 days for prime contractors and 30 days for subcontractors.

We should all endeavor to adhere to closeout procedures carefully to ensure that conditions of the contract are met.  The AIA has a series of free best practices articles on their website.  Their article on the topic has additional suggestions and anecdotes regarding this very important step in the project life cycle:  AIA – Planning for Effective Project Closeout


Leave a comment


Things are Heating Up

Sean Meehan, Architect, LEED AP, ADMG

Yes, the June gloom is officially gone as Southern California enters our true summer of extensive sunshine and hot temperatures.  Of course (especially here at the beach), it’s nothing like the recent heat wave which has gripped most of the south and central US.

But it’s not the temperatures I’m referring to in the title of this article.  I’m talking about fire season.  After the recent 1 million+ acres of wildfire in Arizona, including the biggest single wildfire in state history, communities everywhere need to be aware of proper home fire safety.  While most of the population in California doesn’t fall into a Very High Fire Area Severity Zone or a Wildland/Urban Interface Area and the the Code-required construction requirements that go with them, there are basic measures that we can all take on our property to protect it in the case of fire.

The basics of exterior home fire protection are simple:

1.  Defensible Space – ‘Defensible Space’ is defined by CAL FIRE as ‘the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs or any wildland area that surround it’.  This means 30’ of clear area immediately surrounding the home, and in rural areas another 70’ of ‘reduced fuel’ area to give the house 100’ of defensible space.

2.  ‘Harden’ your home – Fires spread to and between structures primarily by burning embers carried by the wind.  ‘Hardening’ your home means using fire-resistant/non-combustible materials for the exterior finishes.  This will resist the ignition of your home in the event of a fire in the area.  The roof and its related elements are the most vulnerable surfaces and non-combustible materials such as clay tile, metal panels or fiberglass shingles are preferred over wood or conventional paper-backed asphalt shingles.

There are many other guidelines, tips and checklists available to help increase wildland fire safety.  Here is a nice, easy to navigate website with home wildfire safety measures from CAL FIRE.


Leave a comment


Restaurant Design Considerations: Front-of-the-house

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Great restaurant design is a delicate and thoughtful balance of design ideas, technical considerations, and operational concerns.  Each is orchestrated and integrated in order to create an overall customer experience, from the minute he or she sets sight on the building to the moment when they step back outside.  The following are some points to consider when thinking about the design of your facility.

Exterior Image

  • Preconditioned expectations can be overcome by presenting an image that is beyond expectation.  Just because you are a cafeteria style establishment doesn’t mean you need to look like a high school cafeteria!
  • The façade must stand out.  Use of iconic elements such as a particular roof style, particular colors, use of images and symbols make your establishment stand out and memorable.  The gambrel roof of Dairy Queen or the Pizza Hut red roof is recognizable no matter where you are.  What is your icon?
  • The importance of signage is paramount.  With today’s printing and manufacturing technologies signage is affordable and just about anything imaginable in possible.  Signage if often the most recognizable element of any establishment.  Make sure it is given careful consideration from the start.
  • Landscaping can communicate levels of formality.  Appropriateness is determined by image, price level, screening needs, and climate of the establishment.


  • Solid facades vs. opaque or transparent.  Glass doors vs. solid wood and the hardware used. Graphics, vestibules, detailing.  Each offers a very distinct impression and all play an important role in your customer’s arrival experience.


  • The placement of a hostess immediately upon entry is not always the answer.  The customer expectation of greeting is linked to the psychology of service type and must be carefully considered.  Whether or not a waiting area included is another consideration, and whether or not it is just for waiting or used as a secondary sales area.  Lighting and temperature control must be thoughtful especially in colder climates.

Seating, Tabletop, Napery, Flatware, China, Glassware

  • All must be appropriate to the aesthetic, service level, durability, workflow, the list goes on.  Ergonomics are of utmost importance, especially at the bar.  Careful considerations of dining sight lines, floor materials, table mix, and materials are the keys to success.  Avoid gimmicks and novelties and leave room for flexibility and change as operations evolve!

Walls, Ceilings, Floors and Lighting

  • The walls define space, provide interest and function in areas of acoustics, display and storage.  Consider materials, colors, detailing and heights carefully, as well as durability and protection.  Ceilings are too often neglected and must be thoughtful.  Carefully weigh material decisions with mechanical and lighting requirements, acoustics, and space/volume considerations.  Ceilings can have a dramatic effect when done properly. Flooring should be easily cleaned and maintained, be safe and durable while still aesthetically pleasing.  Consider life cycle costs, acoustics, and safety!  Finally lighting; direct vs. indirect, zoning, ease of operation, energy efficiency and power requirements must be analyzed.  Not to mention the possibility of breaking the budget if you are not careful!

Above are some basic points to consider when working with the design team on your next dining establishment.  The points are basic at best and hopefully provoke thought.  The most important thing to remember is that each is important and must be considered, weighed, balanced and integrated to ensure the success of your operations!


1 Comment

Filed under DESIGN, IDEAS

ADMG Completes Unique High-End Sports Bar

Sportswatch Bar and Grill designed by ADMG in affiliation with Curtis Architecture, Phoenix, AZ.   The project is a tenant improvement of a 8,100 SF retail space in San Manuel Village, Highland, CA.  The one of a kind restaurant was constructed by Near-Cal Corp. General Contractors.

The following post if from:

San Manuel Village, neighbor to San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, is adding some iron and grit to its restaurant scene. The Sportswatch Bar & Grill is opening its doors, and turning on its giant screens Saturday, June 18 at 11 a.m.

The 8,000 square-foot restaurant is aiming to become the premier sports watching venue, outside of the actually stadium, in the I.E. The bar and grill boasts 54 HDTVs, of which four are larger than 100 inches. The main dining room will seat 300 people, with an additional 32 at the bar, 40 on the patio, and a 32 seat private dining room.

Chef Joe Ledesma adds his own twist on the classic sport bar menu, taking the traditional American dishes, and adding high end products to them, such as his Lobster Corn Dogs. The bar will house 32 taps, with 26 micro-brews, including a local favorite from Redlands, Hangar 24.

In addition to great food, drinks, and of course, the live sports, the bar will be decorated with rare memorabilia from SoCal sports teams, like the Dodgers, Lakers, USC, UCLA, and even some items from Inland high schools.

The Sportswatch Bar & Grill will be open 7 days a week, with the kitchen open until midnight Sunday through Wednesday, and 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Saturday’s grand opening will feature a t-shirt give-away and coupons for future visits. Fernando Valenzuela, legendary Dodgers pitcher, will be there to sign autographs for guests at 11:30 a.m.

The Sportswatch Bar & Grill is located at 27961 Highland Avenue in the San Manuel Village, just down the road from San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino.


Leave a comment


So You Want to Become a Licensed Architect Eh?

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

Recently I was discussing professions with a couple close friends of mine.  It is understood by most, if not all, that professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers undergo rigorous education and testing to attain the right to practice their respective professions.  The Bar Exam or medical boards come to mind.  What most people don’t know is that architects do the same.  It can even be argued maybe a little more than most.

The process of becoming a licensed architect starts with an education and a degree in architecture.  Professional undergraduate degrees consist of five years of college study.  That’s right, five years, not your typical 4.  Licensing usually requires a Master’s degree as well (unless you complete more intern hours, see below) so that’s another two years (or three if you only have a four year degree) so you are looking at a total of six-seven years of university study.

So now you have graduated with your degree and want to take a licensing exam to be an architect, but wait, not so fast.  First you must fulfill the requirements of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).  This consists of working under the direct supervision of a licensed architect for a time to gain the necessary experience.  It is much like a residency in medicine.   The requirements are currently 5,600 hours of intern work divided over many different training area requirements (see image).  You can double those hours if you only have a four year degree…

All of the hours required above must be thoroughly documented and signed off and submitted to the Board for review and compilation.  Once you have worked for the necessary number of years and fulfilled your hours, NCAARB will let you take your exams.  Yes, I said exams plural.  There are currently seven exams (eight if you live in California).

The exams are lengthy and costly.  They can be taken in any order.  If you fail one you wait at least six months to re-test, thus pushing your dream of licensure back even more.  The required exams are:  Programming, Planning & Practice (4 hours), Site Planning & Design (4.5 hours), Building Design & Construction Systems (5.5 hours), Schematic Design (6 hours), Structural Systems (5.5 hours), Building Systems (4 hours), Construction Documents & Services (4 hours), California Supplemental Exam (3.5 hours) TOTAL = 37 HOURS OF EXAMS.

Now, you have your degree, fulfilled thousands of intern hours, taken 37 hours of examinations and passed; now you can apply for licensure in California.  This process can take many people 5-10 years to complete. Now you can start making the big bucks.  Not quite. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that starting salaries for architects is often 50% lower as compared to other professionals (lawyers, etc.).  That said, it is a long road to the top for the design professional.

A quick side note:  my general contractor’s license exams took me a total of three hours, two exams taken the same day and passed the same day.  I submitted one experience form to the State showing my construction experience.  No degree was required.  I was a licensed contractor in a matter of months.  Recently ENR released the top construction firms and Bechtel topped the list with $19.7 billion in 2010 revenues.  The top architecture firm came in at about 9% of that of that number… good luck with those architecture school student loans!


Leave a comment


Mi Cocina Restaurant Opens

ADMG Design Creates Unique Dining Experience

A little over a year from starting initial design studies, Mi Cocina Restaurant opens in San Manuel Village, Highland, CA.

Please see linked article for details.

Leave a comment


Shipping Container Architecture

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

You have seen it before.  We are talking about the intermodal container or standard steel shipping container.  Today these common reusable freight containers are being used as single family homes, hotels, multi-family housing, barracks, classrooms, and emergency relief structures with unbelievable results.  Although this is not a new concept, it has been slow to catch on in the United States, especially in the private commercial sector.

A typical shipping container is 8’ wide x 8’ high x 20’ or 40’ long (320 SF of floor area at 40’ lengths) and stackable up to 9 units high.  They also come in dimensions up to 56’ long and heights up to 9’-6”.  The price for a typical sized container is only $1,500 making it very economical for construction purposes.  Their inherent strength, earthquake resistance, weatherproof nature and availability makes them an ideal modular structural component or as a whole standard accommodation unit.

On the construction side, projects utilizing containers have shown to cut construction time by 40% and costs up to 20% or more.  They are particularly suited to tight urban areas and infill projects.  The container can be clad with any standard building material making them virtually undetectable as containers!  If that is not enough, they work well for temporary sites as they can easily be dismantled, moved, and reassembled.

The ‘green’ side of the story is that by reusing some of the millions of used containers worldwide you can save energy and resources by recycling and reusing the container.  The alternative is to dispose of re-melt these containers using vast amounts of energy and/or land resources. Many of the projects utilizing the containers achieve very high LEED ratings compared to standard construction.

Given the high price of land in SoCal and the limited amount of it that is available, it may make sense to utilize the modular container method of construction.  The ability to build fast, cheap, and green, while still being able to have an appealing aesthetic, makes it almost a no brainer.  Not to mention the Port of Long Beach contains thousands of these containers every day!

The concept is far from mainstream.  Compared to the relative number of architects and engineers in Southern California, those utilizing the container concept are very small and may contribute to the lack of use.  ADMG will begin further research into the feasibility of such methods for its clients this summer.

While the jury is still out on containers, we have included links to some outstanding projects utilizing the modular container method for you to decide!








Leave a comment