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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Architect Marvin Malecha

Architect Marvin Malecha answers your questions about "McMansions," designing greener homes and much more.

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Marvin Malecha
I have been in new home sales for almost 20 years and am amazed how cookie-cutter and boring most of the builders are who build in the Triangle. Who is building homes that are innovative and contemporary? I am tired of living in "Pleasantville" amidst the McMansions!! – Cynthia Robinson, Cary

As a member of the real estate profession, I am sure you are aware that home sales are not unlike any other product. What is built is generally a product of the imbedded aspirations of the buyers. The American dream of a home in the suburbs is a powerful driver of what is now on the market.

The harsh realities that accompany building in the fashion we have are not evident in the dreamlike vision we have followed. The true life cycle costs of a home generally do not enter into our consciousness. Energy, water and land use efficiency are rarely discussed, yet the rapid spread of such low-density housing is having a major impact on the quality of the environment. The costs related to residential areas far from employment and shopping areas include the construction of highways and fuel consumption rates that are not sustainable.

Who builds such housing? It is really a combination of builders, county and city planners, bankers and home buyers who are not taking into account the complexity of the picture they are painting. Why are the homes of a cookie cutter nature? Well again it is what appears to be the “safest” solution for sales and acceptability. I have often wondered why it is assumed that we all want to live in a Williamsburg modern mansion. The Colonial Period is certainly an interesting time but it represents a culture that is some 200 years old.

It is time to question such approaches to our communities and to our homes. Some of us prefer to live in high-density situations. Some would rather have a view into center field of the Durham Bulls stadium rather than have a single-family home on a quarter acre of land. The lure of the urban life style is increasingly attractive to new generations of Americans. What is it that characterizes this generation’s desires? How do we wish to be perceived in the manner by which we house and build communities for ourselves?

There are a number of architects in North Carolina who espouse contemporary values in home design. In fact, the Raleigh area is well known for the leadership that was provided in the development during the early 1950s. Unfortunately, a number of these important projects are now endangered. I have witnessed the loss of internationally recognized projects only to have them replaced by the very kind of cookie-cutter house that concerns you.

The good news is that there is an active architectural community in North Carolina and particularly the Triangle who are as fresh and innovative as their predecessors. I urge you to seek out architects who would be willing to explore contemporary solutions that include sustainable design options that reflect your aspirations and desired lifestyle.

I've noticed an increase in sales/prices of homes $200,000 and less and a dramatic decrease in homes sales/prices of homes $300,000 or greater. Do you think in the U.S. this economic crisis will help us become more interested in smaller homes in the future? I'm wondering if we will come to our senses about excess and waste that these larger homes foster. I'm thinking about very long-term sustainability and for lack of a better term "right sizing.” – Randy Long, Cary

I believe we are on a track of smaller homes and situations of increased density. It only makes sense. The architect-author Sarah Susanka in her book, The Not So Big House, makes clear the value of living in more modest square footage conditions that need not undermine the dignity or quality of the experience.

The matching of resources with our dreams is a necessary aspect of life. We have had a period of American domination in the world that has allowed our lifestyle to evolve without a real assessment of the costs associated with our dreams. Now that we are experiencing the rise of other nations who have the ability to compete for natural resources the associated costs are rising and will continue to rise rapidly. Our ability to sustain a particular lifestyle will be affected by this changed reality.

Although it would be easy to conclude that I have a dark cloud mentality, let me specifically articulate that I am optimistic about the future. I firmly believe that the design process will lead us out of this situation. Our quality of life can be continually enhanced by a focus on transportation, walkable community design and affordable housing options that will bring together people of differing economic means and lifestyles. We must change the horizontal zoning practices that keep us apart and rethink how we build in a more community-minded process.

It is my opinion that as we emerge from this economic condition we will be changed. I believe for the better if we use our talents rather than by simply throwing money at the problem. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said something like “Now that we are out of money we will really have to think about what we are going to do.”

What percentage of students that start in architecture at NCSU as freshman become licensed architects? What is the success rate? – Eugene Langford, Greenville
The College of Design has a six-year graduation rate of approximately 90 percent. This includes students who enter the School of Architecture. This is an exceptional graduation rate track record. While we do not keep exact records on the number of School of Architecture graduates who become licensed architects, we know anecdotally that the number is in excess of 75 percent. Therefore, the point could be made that of those students who enter the College of Design to study architecture approximately 70 percent of them will eventually become registered architects.
What is the most prevalent computer program that you use in the architecture program at NCSU? – Eugene Langford, Greenville

I think the best way to answer your question is to reference the Course Catalog information from the N.C. State College of Design Web site. All students are required to own a laptop computer that will run the following software:
  • Macintosh-compatible software: Microsoft Office 2008 or later (Word, Excel, PowerPoint); Adobe Photoshop CS4 or later;Adobe InDesign CS4 (optional) (Consider Adobe Creative Suite 4, which is now available in several different bundles. "Creative Suite 4 Design Standard: is a good fit for most architecture students. It includes InDesign, Acrobat, Illustrator and Photoshop. Other bundles are available.)
  • Windows-compatible software: Microsoft Windows XP Professional (in addition to Mac OS X) and Windows -compatible software of your choosing. (You do not need to have the same software applications for both operating systems.); Autodesk Architecture or AutoCAD 2008 or later (NOT LT version); (MultiFrame 3D required after first year for ARC331 and ARC332); AutoDesk products and MultiFrame #d do not run in Mac OS X. Users will have to install Windows operating system.
What would be the most green and environmentally responsible way to go about renovating a 51-year-old home? I would like to gain LEED and Green exposure as a result. – Joel Kilgore, Raleigh

I recommend that you consider consulting with an architect. An architect is a design professional who is able to comprehend the complexity or simplicity of your specific situation. Your request is all about the specifics of your situation and the extent to which you wish to undertake a remodeling. Certainly an important aspect of the context for your decisions is your budget. All of this noted, allow me to make the following suggestions for you to consider:

  • Begin by considering your situation on the outside of your home. Is it possible for you to plant trees and vegetation that would enhance the energy performance of your home. For example, deciduous trees on the south orientation of your home will block the summer sun and let in the winter sun providing cooling shade and the allowing in the warming sun. What have you done to address water conservation and the control of water runoff?
  • Review the performance of windows and doors. Do you have single or double pane glass? Review the seal of window and door frames. Do you have storm doors?
  • Is your home properly insulated? A review of attic and crawl space insulation may considerably enhance the energy performance of your home.
  • Have you addressed attic ventilation to disperse summer heat?
  • Have you assessed the energy performance of major household appliances such as the refrigerator, stove, washer/dryer, etc.? Replacing these appliances should be considered in a remodeling if they are aging.
  • Do you have any ability to utilize natural ventilation enhanced by ceiling fans and operable windows?
  • Do you have any ability to look into options for home heating and air conditioning systems that address energy efficiency from later model heat pump mechanisms to geothermal options?
  • Have you considered solar options for water heating and alternative power generation?

All of the preceding considerations are significantly enhanced by a downsizing of the conditioned space that constitutes your living environment. For example if your home is now 2,500 square feet and you reduce its size by remodeling to 2,000 square feet you have made a major energy efficiency move before everything else is initiated. The interactive nature of these considerations is the reason I have encouraged you to seek out an architect for assistance.

We are contemplating a redesign/renovation of a 30-year-old house on the coast. We would also like to incorporate solar/wind energy sources. Who would you recommend for this type of work and what should we be prepared to spend on the plans? – Jeff Maidment, Laurinburg

There are a number of architects who can address your aspirations to develop a wind/solar solution for you. There might be advantage to contacting an architect who regularly works along the coast. I suggest you go to the American Institute of Architects North Carolina Component (http://www.aianc.org/) to solicit expressions of interest from architects. A list of architects is also available for you to review on this Web site. Also with response to your questions of scope and cost for services. I refer you to questions 5 and 8 of this document.
Do you know of communities being designed which address multiple issues: 1) Off-the-grid or at least solar or other green energy 2) Water conserving landscaping, honeybee- and bird-friendly, suitable for growing some food 3) Universal design for an aging population. Thank you so much. I am a retired nurse practitioner who grew up at the N.C. State Student Supply Stores where my father worked for more than 44 years. – Polly Wheless, Chapel Hill

The most prevalent exemplars of the kind of communities you’re describing are found in the northern European countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. A commitment was made many years ago to build on their notions related to traditional communities and extended families to confront the changes under way in contemporary society.

I have had the good fortune to visit several of these communities as a part of professional conferences exploring the roots of these ideas questioning how such explorations could be transportable to other cultures.

Increasingly, American planners and architects are championing exactly the kind of communities that you cite. Many of the characteristics that you value are appearing in new developments. However, we are some distance from the ideal you express. Perhaps the best American model of this type of living is at Village Homes in Davis, Calif. (http://www.villagehomesdavis.org/).

This is a community that has evolved over some 40 years and now provides a mature model of a lifestyle that is more sustainable. I recommend a publication to you, Village Homes: A Community by Design by Mark Francis, published by the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

I retired from the military here in Colorado. Until entering the military, I grew up in Sampson County. I plan to return when I retire. I have an idea for my last home and was wondering about how much it would cost to have an architect there draw up plans that I could submit to get approval to build. Thank you. – Steve Lewis, Elbert, Co.

You have asked a question that is not answered easily. As the president of the American Institute of Architects, I am restricted by a Federal ruling to answer any questions regarding fees for services that may imply a fixed-fee structure for architectural services. Therefore, my answer to your question will relate more to how you might move forward on your project.

It seems to me that you should determine if it is indeed the services of an architect that you are seeking. Depending on how I read your question it may be that you are in fact looking for a builder. You also seem to be interested in seeing to the work that accompanies plan submission and construction administration. That changes the responsibilities of an architect you might engage.

The role of an architect extends far beyond simply getting plans prepared. There are questions of programming, site evaluation and design that enter into the process. As the process proceeds construction documents can become an extensive effort if material and product selection are among the tasks that you expect. There is also the matter of zoning and building codes as well as meeting energy management expectations. Depending on just what you wish to be accomplished the range of services you require may be arranged on an hourly billing process or as a percentage of construction that could be as high as 15 to 20 percent of construction cost.

The definition of what you expect is an important first step. I suggest that you contact several architects and inquire of them what their experience is relating to the scale and nature of your project. This can be done with a simple phone conversation. Once you identify an architect, I would recommend that you request a meeting of one or two hours to review your project. Expect to pay an hourly fee for this consultation. It will be a small price to pay for such advice. From this conversation it will be possible for you to determine what the best course of action is for your needs.

Good luck, remember that this process will require considerable patience. What you accomplish in this project will have a significant influence over your quality of life.

As a former architecture student at NCSU, I had spent four years getting an undergraduate degree and planned on continuing on into the fifth year program. With the inability to relocate to another college for architecture, I had since been stuck with a degree is only part of what it needed to complete the AIA exam. Why does NCSU not let student that maintained above a 3.5 GPA continue on into a fifth year program like other architecture colleges? Stinks to bleed Wolfpack red for four years and then have to go elsewhere. – B J, Raleigh

At the core of my answer to your question are the resources available to us to deliver programs to students. We have a limited number of seats to conduct our fifth year Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture Programs. We also value the time an individual can spend in practice before returning to finish an architectural education. This experience enhances an individual’s qualifications for advanced study.

Your assertion that we should reconsider our approach is reasonable. It will have resource implications and therefore we will have to consider a change in our practice carefully. I have already asked the head of our School of Architecture to consider your situation and consider a change to our practice. In the meantime, I would be willing to meet with you.

My daughter is interested in sustainable architecture. She will graduate high school early (in December 2009 at age 16, top of her class) and would like to attend N.C. State's School of Design. Do you accept students mid-year? What would she need to do to make herself attractive to the School of Design for admission? Thanks! – Anne Brantley, Louisburg

I am delighted to hear that such a talented young person is interested in the study of architecture. The future of my profession is dependent on such talent. N.C. State University does accept students at mid-year; however, the College of Design does not enroll first year design students at mid-year because of studio course sequence requirements.

We are seeking individuals who are empowered by the creative spirit. This is demonstrated to us by academic record – excellence is expected in all course areas, creative endeavors demonstrated by a portfolio submission and performance on college entrance examinations such as the S.A.T. The portfolio should include exhibits such as free hand sketches, photographs, sculpture and any other creative activities. We are most interested in those activities undertaken by the individual rather than directed by an instructor.

I have two suggestions. First, please come to the college for a tour either by appointment or during the University Open House program coming up in October. We would be delighted to meet with your daughter. Second, the college conducts a summer Design Camp program. We will conduct three week-long sessions this summer for high school students interested in the design disciplines. I know we are already full for this summer, but it never hurts to check in case there is a cancellation.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that you have found my observations useful. I believe in the power of the design professions. The questions posed for me to answer make that point. Remember that the College of Design is committed to the continuing well-being of the North Carolina community. I look forward to having you visit one of the most important design schools in America.


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