Category Archives: DESIGN

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!

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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


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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!


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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!


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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!








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Award-winning Architecture

Sean Meehan, LEED AP, ADMG

Writing these articles every month isn’t easy.  Between the various responsibilities of running a design firm, running a personal life, running through California’s endless regulations (in preparation for the California Supplemental Exam) and just plain running (literally…I’m planning on running another marathon in the fall), time is sometimes at a premium.  Whew.

So this month, I’m combining activities to save on time.  I like to surf the web and check out notable architecture projects around the country and beyond.  ADMG will be submitting one of our restaurant projects for design awards in the near future, but while we eagerly await completion…check out a few award-winning projects that others have done:

Combs Point Residence – A serene lake house in upstate New York

U.S. Land Port of Entry – U.S. Customs checkpoint on the Canadian border

John E. Jaqua Center for Student Athletes – Proof  that college sports is a big business


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People that Live in Glass Houses…

Glass technologies

Sean Meehan, LEED AP, ADMG

I recently had to move an old 37” cathode-ray tube television set down a couple flights of stairs, and my back is still recovering.  Fortunately, glazing and glass display technologies have made incredible advancements in recent years, and will likely feature heavily (but weigh less) in the built environment of the future.

I keep encountering electrochromic glazing in hotels, allowing users to control the privacy or shading function of their glazing with the flip of a switch.  While ‘smart window’ technology has been around for some time, the low quality and high price of the technology has generally precluded its widespread use.  But as the technology has matured and energy costs have risen, the incentive to make glazing do more for the building is finally becoming persuasive.

Even more innovative ideas appear to be on the horizon.  Smart glazing will likely be advanced so that it won’t just block the sun, but will incorporate solar panels to harness electricity and offset energy costs.  Another potential application is the addition of OLED lighting into glazing, allowing it to serve as a window during the day, and a light fixture at night.  Add in possible uses in the transportation sector – automotive, public transportation and aircraft glazing, and the opportunities appear to be endless.

The one application where we have all experienced recent advancements in glass technology is the touchscreen.  This application in our computing and smartphone devices has revolutionized the efficiency and simplicity of these devices, and touchscreen technologies may have a myriad of uses in the future.  Check out this recent, rather corny video from Corning (pun intended), showing some of the possibilities for the future:

A Day Made of Glass


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Programming – Criteria Development Consultant

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA, ADMG

What does my proposed new facility need to include?  This is one of the most daunting questions an owner has to answer. The problem is that most organizations and businesses do not have the ability to allocate the required time and resources into exploring this question. Or, they do not have staff that is trained in preparing and organizing this type of technical information. The end result is usually a lot of wasted time (and dollars) spent with a design professional starting at square one to develop the standard from the bottom up.  Worse yet, is getting to opening with a building that does not fully meet your needs!

At the heart of the question lie all the requirements for a building to function properly for its intended end use.  These requirements do not only include the structural and aesthetic considerations, but more importantly the “programmatic elements” or the various pieces, such as different functional spaces that make up the “whole.”

A client may approach an architect or engineer and spend a lot of time trying to determine the spaces a building requires, their sizes, the seating, storage, the adjacency and circulation to other spaces, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing requirements, audio visual and the list goes on.  Figuring out what each pieces is, what its requirements are, how it fits in to the puzzle, and that it includes everything you intend is where a Criteria Development Consultant can come in.

The solution to this problem is to have a written standard of requirements, “criteria”, used as a guideline standard for your organization or business.  By doing this you can ensure all stakeholders have their say in the design process and that nothing is left out when it may be too late, too costly to redesign or even rebuild.

Before starting a new building project it may be a cost effective solution for your organization to talk with a Criteria Development Consultant. Handing off an approved written standard to a designer is a lot easier than trying to get all stakeholders on the same page, let alone the same room during design and construction.   Doing so just might save you a lot of time, money, and headaches down the road!


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The Future of Retail






Sean Meehan, LEED AP, ADMG

An open letter to Retail projects:

Dear Retail,

We miss you.  We cherish the fond memories of partying with you just a few years ago.  You used to overwhelm us with acres of square footage, generous fees and an endless supply of tenants…and now, we would consider ourselves lucky to find a hot dog cart or a lemonade stand remodel.

Please send us a sign.  Were you kidnapped by an Amazon warrior?  Were you Netflix’d out of the picture?  Were you auctioned off into slavery on Ebay? Retail, we will not give up the search.  We are holding out hope for your safe return.



Okay, let’s be serious.  There is a glimmer of hope for retail, especially here in Southern California.  Marcus and Millichap recently released a promising 2011 retail report for San Diego, LA and Orange County.  While all of these locales have traditionally been at the top of this list due to the development restrictions inherent in California, even a slight projected strengthening is promising news.

And while some brick and mortar retailers like Blockbuster and Borders have fallen on hard times due to virtual competitors, others are poised to increase their market share.  The same report forecasts significant future development for drug stores and ‘extreme value’ retailers like Dollar General and Family Dollar.

ADMG boasts an extremely strong and diverse portfolio of retail projects, and we will be working hard to ensure we are in attendance at Retail’s big welcome back party.  Just as value is driving the decisions of the average consumer in a down economy, so too will it drive those of our clients.  Our service-oriented approach benefits both small-box and big-box retailers alike.


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