Kick the Columns, literally

Renovation projects can come in all shapes, sizes, and conditions.  Sometimes our clients ask us to take on projects that stretch belief as to their starting condition and imagined end.  One such project for our office was the renovation of an existing sheep holding and research facility to be converted into a research laboratory.  When we encountered the building it was fully intact from its first iteration complete with a gantry crane used to move the sheep from pen to pen and the odor of barn animals still hanging in the air. 

As we began the site investigation of the project it became clear that the building was going to require much more infrastructural assistance than previously presumed.   Upon review of the structure, it was clear that the base of the steel column in the holding pen was quite corroded.  As we examined the steel pipe column base it was clear that it had completely disconnected from the foundation. The urine from the sheep had deteriorated the column to such a state where it was doing no work to hold up the roof structure above.   Thankfully, other columns and load-bearing items had taken up the support but it was clear that this unsafe condition would need to be remediated before building occupation.

Aside from an amusing anecdote about the effect of sheep urine on steel building structures, this story illustrates the need to carefully examine those critical building systems that provide literal and figurative support for the building. We might not always be able to see through walls and in hidden cavities but the places where we can see and interact with the structure, mechanical, and electrical systems should be carefully reviewed. All critical building systems that can be observed should look secure.  If anything looks at all out of place, corroded, worn, or dangerous – it’s time to call in some subject matter experts to help evaluate the condition.  The best time to catch latent problems is in the design period where a solution can be proposed and integrated into the overall solution.

In the case of our corroded column, we engaged with a forensic structural engineer to evaluate, assess and determine an adequate solution to the compromised structure. The lower portion of the column was replaced with a new footing to security support the roof above.

As architects, we don’t necessarily have the responsibility for designing those supportive systems. But in partnership with our consulting engineering team, we work to shine a light on the deficiencies. Careful examination of the existing building to be renovated is critical to a successful project; and by all means, keep sheep away from the steel columns.

Tracing the Drawings

We find ourselves hurried to complete projects on shorter timescales and with more aggressive budgets.  Rightfully so, our clients are asking to get the best quality work for the least amount of money equating, for them, the best value.  Often we dive right into our design process and start gathering drawings and building our background information so that the process can begin.  However, it may be that we need to take a beat, stop, and slow down for a moment to improve the ultimate results.

Recent research into cognitive neuroscience has shown that the act of drawing can greatly impact a person’s ability to retain new information.  Researchers at the University of Waterloo in 2019 conducted a study in which an undergraduate population was asked to study lists of common words and either write down the words or draw pictures of them.  Examples given were words like “truck” and “pear”.  The study found that the research subjects remembered over twice as many of the words when pictures were drawn versus simply writing the words.  45% retention was achieved for the group that drew, 20% retention for the note-takers.  This points to all kinds of interesting applications in our work.

One such tool might be a technique that takes many of us out of our digital comfort zone;  a roll of trace paper and a hard copy of the plan.  For many, the roll of trace (aka “trash”) has become an anachronistic relict; a symbol of a bygone era of drafting tables, parallel bars, lead sharpeners, and electric erasers.  However, the exercise of simply tracing the floor plan or detail may for the designer embed the memory of the layout, form, or reveal an oddity that will serve us later. The tactile experience of the hand, pen, and paper may create a more real connection between the representation (the drawing) and the reality.  

Slowing down and deliberately exploring the drawings will feedback information that is salient but not immediately apparent.

Imagine, for a moment, sketching a plan detail of some millwork where there is a regular pattern of reveals running vertically along a length of paneling. The very act of drawing those reveals may force in the designer’s mind their utility. It is more costly to the designer to physically draw the reveals than to copy and array them in their favorite CAD software. In this case, over a large enough scale, this could impact the cost and complexity to fabricate the panels. To get the client the best value – we may discover through this process that fewer reveals accomplish the same design end for less capital. Slowing down and paying the “time” cost on the design process has increased the value for the client.

In the act of detailing thinking through the assembly, its sequence of construction, and limitations can be explored using the mundane tools of pen and paper. The point is that the process is tedious, and forces the architect to evaluate the costs of each move, quirk, or corner. These changes in the details equate to real costs in fabrication. And if we are aware of the personal costs to draw these elements we might be more aware of the value (or lack thereof) that they bring to the design.

it is not a question of “if” but “when”…

A frequent challenge in this part of the country is the condition of the slab-on-grade concerning its moisture content. Existing buildings, in particular, can pose unique challenges on this subject. The Gulf Coast region’s high water table and frequent heavy downpours create situations where the sub-slab soil moisture content is high and that will transmit the same to the slab. That being the case, there is a likely negative impact on new floor coverings. Testing for moisture content: relative humidity (RH) and pH should be conducted as soon as possible to establish a baseline for renovation projects.

The existing conditions of older buildings likely either do not have a vapor barrier under the slab or the barrier has deteriorated beyond utilization. This creates a situation where there is higher than normal moisture content in the concrete. The impact of this condition lessens the likelihood that flooring products will adhere to the slab-on-grade. While slab moisture content and flooring have always been at odds, in recent history, changes in adhesive technology to remove more caustic elements have exacerbated the problem. The possibility of high moisture content should be carefully reviewed with your design team and contingency plans put in place.

We recommend that the following steps be considered for any renovation project where flooring is being replaced on a slab-on-grade:

  1. Assess the age of the building to estimate the likelihood of vapor barrier
  2. Investigate existing drawings to determine the scope/presence of a vapor barrier
  3. Test slab in several areas where the new flooring is to be installed using a qualified testing agency; RH (ASTM F2170) and pH (ASTM F710). The quantity of testing will be dependent on the scope of flooring replacement.
  4. Compare results of testing with flooring/adhesive product data and with manufacturers of flooring products to select adhesive or mitigation strategies.

This list of recommendations does impose greater costs on the design rather than delaying and putting that responsibility on the General Contractor. However, especially in conditions where high moisture is likely, using these recommendations means that a strategy can be included in the design process.

The opposite side to not investigating moisture during design is that the same latent condition will be discovered during the construction process if testing is demanded of the General Contractor. If high moisture is discovered during construction the solutions might be more limited as the project will be more constrained by costs and schedule.

The solutions to high moisture content can include topical measures to the existing slab, improved adhesive, or alternate flooring products. The particular solution will be driven by a myriad of factors too numerous to name here. The takeaway is that the presence of moisture will have an impact on the project, better to take charge of the situation and develop a solution where time and options are most available than to be forced into a solution that compromises other aspects of the project. We can not avoid weather, groundwater, existing building conditions, or the physics of moisture migration – but we can be aware of the condition and plan toward a satisfactory solution.

Entering the 4th Dimension

As if we didn’t already have enough on our plates, now you want me to think about time!? Yes, yes we do.

While the “means and methods” of the construction process is not typically in the hands of the design team we do need to consider the way our renovation projects will be implemented.  This comes by way of our experience in the field, understanding the pain point for our clients, and working with dedicated builders.   The process in which construction takes place should never be far out of our minds or how it is a client will continue to occupy adjacent space for the duration of the project. 

A particularly salient example comes to mind for a major renovation project of an entire floor where we were going to have to modify the medical gas system as part of the renovation.  This project was going to occur in (3) major phases and in each, the medical gas system would need to be shut down for the part of the floor under construction.  As the design process progressed it was discovered that there were no isolation valves for the system and no way to bypass the areas of the floor that were to be impacted by the phased construction. 

It was clear that the project make-ready work and project critical tasks had to be implemented before the first major phase of construction. Modifying the medical gas system required providing additional valves and piping at the start of the project to support the mid-project isolation of later phases. We were able to forecast those tasks, extract them from the phase where they might normally be, and set the project up for future success.

In adding features to the system and thinking about how the construction was going to progress we prevented a hasty direction in the field that could have ended up costing the client much more time and money than initially projected.  The medical gas system was critical to the ongoing occupation of adjacent space.  The sequence of construction in this case was as important as the work.

A short preliminary shut down of the system to cut-in new valves and extend some “loops” allowed for the system to be isolated by phase throughout construction. The contractor performed the task to make the project ready by implementing the phased plans as outlined by the design team. Taking control of the system not only improved its function and capacities but also provided the owner the benefit of a more flexible system. Additionally, full occupation of adjacent space was maintained so that revenue could continue unimpeded during the construction.

Understanding the client’s needs, priorities, and the limitations of the facilities made it possible to provide a solution that best solved the needs and priorities and dealt with the limitations.  Sometimes it is not just the “how” and “what” that needs to be solved, but also the “when”.

WTD – Walls To Deck

At CH+P it is not uncommon to happen upon one of our site investigations and see the lower half of a body perched on a ladder evaluating the space above the ceiling. Many times, when investigating space, especially in the healthcare market, a wall rating will play an important role in the distribution of spaces. The boundary in question could be a smoke compartment wall, the wall surrounding a storage space, an occupancy separation, or all three. Often in older buildings, existing life safety drawings are either not current or non-existent. In the renovation of older facilities, we need to investigate and determine the meets and bounds of the rated enclosures.

The locations of the rated walls additionally affect our MEP engineering team when it comes to penetration details and most critically, fire and/or smoke dampers. These devices can create logistical encumbrances for the building owner as dampers need to be maintained and inspected regularly. When comparing a life safety plan against the as-built conditions we look for a variety of clues. The tell-tale red penetration sealant is one; door frame labels, another; and stenciling on the partition identifying its construction type the most conclusive. Only after careful analysis of the existing conditions, especially the rated walls, can the design team make renovation recommendations to the owner.

If there is one takeaway for building owners that comes from this discussion. That would be, to the greatest capacity possible, to maintain accurate life safety drawings. There is a cost associated with this effort, but the payoff is varied. First, it may be a requirement of the Authorities Having Jurisdiction. Secondly, successful renovation projects rely on an accurate picture of the existing life safety features. Your design team may still need to spend time with their torsos above the ceiling grid to verify, but that is much easier with an existing plan in hand than trying to construct an accurate life safety plan from scratch. Finally, your Facilities Operations teams will be able to better survey, inspect, and repair the rated enclosure boundaries if they are clearly delineated.

The image of your design team on a ladder is often bookended by an inspector in a similar position. In nearly every inspection of a building, the walls above the ceiling are a frequent source of attention. We want to be confident in the conditions of rated enclosures before, during, and after a renovation. When the satisfied inspector, steps off the ladder and a complete life safety strategy is in place. We can be confident in the design and execution. The persons who will occupy the space will be safe and the building will perform in an emergency as expected.

A New Chapter

Fire up your address books and get ready to edit…..

Courtney Harper + Partners is excited to announce that our office will be moving to the Heights. As of March 1, 2021 we will be here:

611 West 22nd St, Suite 202 Houston, Texas 77008

Our phone numbers, emails, fax number, and all other methods of communication will remain as-is. And we are going to be directly above one of the best bakeries in Houston. So when COVID-19 is in our collective rear view mirrors – stop by for a cup, a pastry, and a tour of our new digs.

#cupofjoe #movinonup #kraftsmenbaking

Existing documents are key….

A pediatric clinic requested CH+P to expand and renovate an existing location by incorporating an additional 2,900 SF.  As we kicked off the design effort, we visited the site and measured both the existing space and the expansion area.  Our client, in this case, was an institution who was leasing space from a third party landlord and did not have the base building drawings for the design team examine as part of our initial investigation. 

We returned to the office after our investigation and began the planning and programming effort. As we worked we came to notice that there was a small dimensional “bust” in the east/west direction.  The sum of the field measured interior dimensions did not equal to the overall clinic width. When this occurs we know it is time to redouble efforts and work out the discrepancy, because it could have consequential down-stream impacts and, spoiler, it did!

Being tenacious seekers of existing documentation provides the best foundation possible to launch a project and have a successful outcome.

While working on the early design our team continued to search for the solution for our bust with additional measuring, studying of the initial build-out documents of the clinic, and requesting of the base building documents from the building owner.  

It would be the existing shell building documents that would provide a solution to our question and the resolution of the dimensional discrepancy.   After several weeks of requests and inquiries with the local municipality, the documents were finally provided. The design team quickly discovered the party wall (between existing and expansion space) apparently contained a structural brace that thickened the wall. The discovery of the structural brace in the drawings provided a plausible explanation for the dimensional discrepancy.  While the discovery of the brace solved the initial problem, it’s existence created a second. 

The location of the brace was in the precise location we had anticipated a new open nurse station – joining the existing and expansion sides of the clinic.  This effectively caused a fundamental rethinking about some of the early planning assumptions.  However, even after our initial site investigation, early design work, a few meetings, and subsequent site investigation this discovery was much easier to incorporate into the design rather than it being discovered as part of demolition after the design was complete.  The advantage of being persistent in perusing the existing drawings taught us something about the building that would have never been discovered until the party wall was removed.  Adjusting and re-planning the clinic upon the discovery during demolition might have been catastrophic to the project and very costly to remedy. 

Ultimately, the project was canceled due to COVID-19, but the renovation lesson is still well learned:  Existing documentation and careful examination of such will pay back dividends during the design process.  The more documentation to your design team has access to expands the possibility for catching those items hiding in the walls or above the ceilings.   Being tenacious seekers of existing documentation provides the best foundation possible to launch a project and have a successful outcome.

#renovationlessons #structuralcoordination #big-o-brace


You might be thinking to yourself at this moment – What is that. The tone of that phrase likely somewhere between a question and an exclamation. And funny enough, the mark you see represents that very emotion. 

We present to you: The Interrobang.

Courtney Harper + Partners is proud to roll out, in this new year, a blog where we explore the line between question and exclamation. Throughout 2021, we will be producing a series of short posts looking at some lessons born out of our renovation experience. They will contain a dash of inquisition and a sprinkle of interjection.

We invite you to join us and hopefully, we all come out of 2021 with a few of our questions answered and some of our exclamations resolved. The first 50 people to email will receive a special gift at the end of the year for being our inaugural class of – interro-bangians.

For a more academic dissertation on the interrobang, check out its wiki: