Seeking an Architect — Rebooted

A couple of months ago we started once again on a quest to find an architect who could design our future house. So far we have entered e-mail correspondence or had meetings with five architecture firms: one “starchitect” in Chile, three established firms in Medellin and some newcomers keen for a breakthrough, also in Medellin.

In this post I will summarize some of the lessons learned during the initial interaction with the architects. We’re still undecided about who will win our project but we intend to get to a decision point this month of July. This would give us roughly one year to complete the house design, ahead of the September 2017 delivery date of the lot we purchased.

  • Local experience is valuable: knowledge of locally available materials, reliable engineers and builders among other things.
  • Houses cost COP $2.0M to COP $2.5M per sq m to build in Alto de las Palmas: there’s a broad consensus around that figure. We can attempt to optimize costs but we’re unlikely to do shave off a significant amount. This is not an issue as we budgeted around these figures anyway.
  • Nobody’s keen on BIM: Autocad reigns supreme and Revit is considered overkill for residential housing projects. Cost control can be implement through attention to details and involving builders early.
  • Panelized construction is “in”: Durapanel was used in the Axxis cover page project, Casa La Pajarera. SIPs and especially CLT panels are unavailable in Colombia though. A benefit of panels is that they facilitate achieving the airtightness required for a Passive House.
  • The lack of soil study is a risk: we’re only going to be able to perform a full soil study in September 2017 once the lot is delivered to us. In the meantime, we have to rely on the project’s overall soil study results.
  • Thus building “light” is desirable: the less weight on the land, the less risk of facing nasty surprises once the soil study results become available.
  • Tankless water heaters may be more practical and economical: Bosch sells some popular models in Colombia. For a modular house with potentially long duct runs, a tankless heater is more energy efficient than a centralized solar thermal installation. Since natural gas is available in the area, this could be a viable option.
  • Rotate the house to maximize the views: looking toward the South-South East will open up the more scenic views that can be seen from the lot. The forested hill with the EPM water tanks to the North West are fairly dull.
  • Avoid looking into the neighbor’s house: yet we don’t know where the owner of lot 24 will locate his or her house, possibly blocking the South East views. Thus a South orientation is a safer option, arguably more compatible with passive solar design principles. Some construction and landscaping strategies will need to be devised to preserve our views and privacy.
  • Don’t go overboard with glazing: as a corollary to the previous point, there’s no need to build a glasshouse that neighbors can peek into. Besides, double glazing recommended for Passive House designs in expensive. The “window as picture frame” principle applies here. As a sideline, wood frames for windows are a viable option it seems!
  • A linear organization makes sense: since the lot is elongated, building a house that cascades down the terrain like Alvaro Siza’s “Tolo House” is a logical choice, especially if each module looks to the South East. The drawbacks of that design is that the person living in module 3 has a long uphill walk from the entrance and views to the South are blocked by module roofs (assuming two floors, 6 m, per module over a 10 m to 15 m slope from the top to the bottom of the lot).
  • A staggered arrangement is more compact: by moving the circulation space to the middle and taking full advantage of the slope, all the South-facing modules would have views in that direction as well as to the South-East for half of them. The total length of the house would probably be reduced too.
  • Oh, and that radial design doesn’t work: walking the lot a few days ago, it dawned on me that the Sketchup work I did (see simply doesn’t fit the topology of our lot. Back to the drawing board!
  • Circulation space as library and social space: another idea that makes sense, except if we happen to rent the house in the future, we would prefer valuables, such as books and paintings, to be kept in locked up areas. This is worth keeping in mind but might be hard to implement.
  • Our wishes haven’t changed: the more we think about it, the more we embrace the house characteristics listed in my earlier blog post,
  • An “iconic” house on a budget is a tough proposal: not much to add there beyond the need to focus on spending on what matters most to us.

Next we will be visiting a few houses around Medellin to select an architect and kick off our project.

Originally published at on July 03, 2016

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