With the passing of columnist, William Safire, Peggy Noonan wrote in Time Magazine, that he once told her, "Write what you see, because 'what history needs more of is first-person testimony'."
So this should serve as my first person testimony. I am going to write about what I see happening and what I think we should do about it. It will talk about issues of architecture, interior design, construction, and public policy.
I hope that you will leave me comments as well.
If you want to subscribe, leave me your name and email in the boxes in the right hand column. Then, click the "Submit" box.
Maria Luisa Castellanos, R.A., LEED AP
United Architects, Inc.
As the country faces an increase in the number of people over 60, due to the baby-boomers reaching retirement, it is a time for us as a society, and as individuals, to plan our homes and our future homes for accessibility.
I think by now, most Americans are familiar to some degree with the Americans for Disability Act (ADA). This is the law that brought us the enlarged public toilet stalls that are now common place in most public facilities. This law came into effect when my child was little. Although this extra space was intended for wheelchairs, I was grateful for the extra space that these stalls provided to mothers who had their children in tow.
Even though most of us do not want to think of the possibility of us becoming infirm or incapacitated, if we get to the 80’s and 90’s, it is likely that we will develop some kind of incapacity.
So if you are thinking of building a new single-family house or remodeling the one you have, it’s a good time to look at the issues that would give you some measure of comfort, in case you were ever to need to maneuver in a wheelchair.
So let’s start at the front door. In order for a wheelchair to enter a house easily, there should be no steps to the front door, only a ramp. And, if it were to be a comfortable ramp, the slope should be 1 in 12 or less. This means that for every 12’ of length or run, there should be no more than 1’ of height or rise to the ramp.
Once inside the house, a wheelchair needs a 3’-0” corridor as a minimum to maneuver, 3’-6” would be more comfortable. All doors need to be a minimum of 2’-10”, if they are hollow-core doors, and 3’-0” if they are solid-core doors. This will provide a minimum of the 2’-8” opening required for a wheelchair to cross the door opening. In addition, all thresholds should have a maximum height of 1/2”.
The Fair Housing Act gives us requirements for apartment building bathrooms and kitchens. I think the kitchen requirements are quite good. They propose several different options from galley kitchens to square kitchens. For me, the most practical accessible kitchen would be a minimum size of 9’-0” x 9’-0” with a clear space in the middle for a wheelchair to be able to completely turn around in a 5’-0” diameter. A 2’-6” x 4’-0” clear space must be in front of each appliance. For me, the best layout would be to design a “U” shaped kitchen with the sink and dishwasher in the center of the “U”, the refrigerator at one end of the “U”, and the range in the middle of the opposite counter. This would provide good space to maneuver. There should be enough shelves at a low enough level to allow for a handicap person in a wheelchair to reach the shelves. Chapter 7 of the HUD User Manual details the Fair Housing Act usable bathrooms and kitchens. See http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/pdf/fairhousing/fairch7.pdf
The Fair Housing Act also details the minimum bathrooms they accept. Of course, this only applies to multi-family housing. But you could use it as a guide for your home. But I think it is inadequate. If you have very little space, the Fair Housing Act explains how to put the fixtures in a bathroom so that theoretically a person in a wheelchair would be able to use it. However, if you want a bathroom that is comfortable and more readily usable for a person in a wheelchair, I think that more space is needed. I would arrange the bathroom fixtures like they are normally installed in a bathroom – first the lavatory with a cabinet, then the toilet, and lastly a shower. I would put enough space between the fixtures and the opposite wall for a person in a wheelchair to turn completely in a circle. That would be a 5’-0” diameter circle. In addition, I would put pressure treated wood backing just above, and on the side of the toilet, behind the drywall or cementitious board so as to facilitate putting grab bars in the future. The same should be done behind the cementitious board in the shower along three sides for future grab bars as well.
Just these few small items would go a long way to preparing your house for accessibility by a person in a wheelchair.
Should you want to discuss your project with me, please call me at 305-552-5465 or email me at MLC@UnitedArchs.com
Suppose you spent months looking at properties, new, old, small, large, whatever. You felt frustrated for a while because you could not find anything you liked. But then, you found a great house or condo in a great neighborhood. You liked it on the outside, you liked the price, and you liked the schools in the area. So, you figured that you could remodel it. Because of the low price, you could actually spend thousands of dollars on the remodeling.
Now what? How do you approach this project?
You need to find an architect, but what else should you do to prepare?
First, think about how you live. What rooms do you occupy most of the time? Is it the kitchen, the family room, or do you do a great deal of entertaining in a formal living room or dining room? Think about this because this could determine what rooms you enlarge and which you want to make smaller or eliminate all together.
Second, visualize how you want your space to change. What style do you want incorporated into the space – modern, contemporary, Asian, Mediterranean? It would be great if you could put your ideas together by getting magazine photos of things that you like, of elements you would like to incorporate into the space. Do you want anything specific for the ceilings or floors? What does the kitchen look like? Gather photos of the ideas you want to incorporate.
Third, how would you like the spaces to flow into each other? Which spaces do you want next to each other? What details are important to you? Do you want travertine, wood, or tile for the floors? Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. What about lighting? Do you have any special ideas on lighting? Do you want ceiling lights, wall sconces, or floor and table lamps? What layout do you want in the kitchen – a galley, u-shape, or L-shape? Do you want an island? What about the cabinets for the kitchen? What style do you want them? How do you want to integrate the inside with the outside? Are you fixed on these ideas or would you welcome the opinion of your architect on the many options?
Fourth, are there any plans for the existing house or condo? If you can get these from your local municipality or county, it will be very helpful to your architect. You will be able to determine if there are any columns or bearing walls in the middle of your space. You will know where your air-conditioning ducts are and how the electrical outlets are wired.
Finally, prioritize which items are more important. This is essential when it comes to a budget. You want to work from the most important to the least important. Get the things into the plans that are the most important to you first. Work from the big picture to the details.
If you work on all these things, and put them in writing, you will be well prepared for your first meeting with your potential architect.
Yesterday, Jack Parker gave a wonderful presentation at Coral Gables Congregational Church. Mr. Parker is professor emeritus of environmental science and chemistry at Florida International University. I have attached his presentation here with his permission.
I wanted to discuss some of the points he addressed.
First, he stated that the science is there that shows that the earth has been warming, slowly but surely. There is no doubt about that! He shows graphs which clearly demonstrate the warming of the planet, especially during the last 30 years, increasing sharply in the last 10. The result of this global warming means an increase in extreme heat, in droughts, and fire. The warming atmosphere will cause more wind events. The problem is that as the arctic ice melts, the changes to the atmosphere don’t stay in the arctic, but actually influence the rest of the world.
He predicts the ocean waters rising 3’ to 7’ between now and 2100 as the temperature increase 4 to 7 degrees. In order to stop this destructive path, we must reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
Second, he said that the highest priority is to stop burning coal and to stop methane gas. We must increase the use of solar and wind energy. He encouraged us to take personal responsibility for those things that we can do individually, such as changing our light bulbs to the fluorescent and LED types, install solar water heaters, and water-efficient landscaping. The biggest problem, as he sees it, is that the poorest countries, and particularly the women in these countries, will be the most affected. Sub-Saharan Africa will suffer incredible droughts and it will be increasingly difficult for these people to feed themselves.
And third, Mr. Parker suggested that we take personal responsibility for our own carbon footprint and contribute to “offsets”. Offsets are a way to monetarily contribute to programs which help the poor in Africa to use solar irrigation, other programs which will help the poor to obtain energy, or programs which support carbon reduction. He suggested ways for us to save gas and reduce our transportation carbon footprint. Then, he spoke about the topic of sustainable urban design. He encourage the use of and canopies to make cities more walkable. Two ways to reduce the heat island effect are to use white or light-colored roofs and paving on roads and driveways. Another suggestion was to use energy-efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances. He added that we really don’t understand how much energy it takes to bring water to our doorsteps, that it is an energy-intensive process. In addition, he suggested raising our home thermometers 1%, use more insulation, seal the ductwork completely, use ceiling fans, use high-efficiency air-conditioning, and use white reflective roofs on our homes.
Finally, he said not to look at global warming as just an insoluble problem, but as a great opportunity to bring the world closer by working on this issue together!
Plaza Cataluna in Barcelona on the left
The last 9 months I have been teaching at Miami Dade College as an adjunct professor. One day the chairman of the architecture department sends me an email to inform my students and me of an event the college was having on social advocacy in architecture in Latin America. My students were expected to attend, and since it was during my class time, I went with them.
I have to say that the speakers that day were not very good. One of them, a landscape architect, did not even discuss anything that had to do with social advocacy. But since it had become a class assignment, I asked the students to submit a paper on the event or to research one of the people or organizations which had been mentioned as being involved in social advocacy in Latin America.
Many students submitted papers on the event itself, but one or two submitted papers on Enrique Peñalosa. Peñalosa was mayor of Bogotá, from 1998 until 2001 and I am fascinated by him and his ideas! He is an economist and not an architect or urban planner, but his ideas and what he accomplished in Bogota are inspiring. He built or reconstructed hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks; more than 300 kilometers of bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, and greenways; and more than 1,200 parks. He transformed of one of the main deteriorating downtown avenues into a dynamic pedestrian pubic space.
Peñalosa says things like, “Public good prevails over private interest.” “In backward cities,” states Peñalosa, “the rich live in isolated spaces where they jump into their cars and drive from mall to mall and can go for months without walking a block.”
According to Peñalosa, a good city is good for the rich as well as the poor. It is good for the children and the handicapped. It should be good for everyone. “Unfortunately, cities are designed by middle class urbanites, states Peñalosa, “who couldn’t care less for the under-privileged.” “Quality sidewalks are the most important elements of a democratic city’s infrastructure,” continues Peñalosa.
Unfortunately, most countries and our county in particular, Miami-Dade County, places no importance on sidewalks or civic spaces. The government insists on investing on road expansions and spends almost nothing on public parks or open civic spaces. We spent a ton of money on “roundabouts” in the middle of public streets as “traffic calming” devices, but nothing to develop real public spaces where we could speak to our neighbors and feel that we were inhabiting the planet together!
I recall the summer I spent in Barcelona working through a student exchange program where I saw hundreds of people gather on Sundays at La Plaza Cataluña and Las Ramblas. They did not have to spend money to enjoy the outdoors. They could just consume public space.
“Public spaces, which include public parks, bring a sense of equality because we are sharing the same space regardless of being rich or poor. Crime goes down. We need to invest in parks now because if we don’t there will be no green land left in the future,” says Peñalosa.
It’s time for our county and local municipalities to start thinking in these terms.
I was re-reading an article today that I had saved to my computer. It was called Space Matters. Whenever I go anywhere I notice the space. I doubt other people are as aware of the space they inhabit as those in the construction industry. For us, space does matter! Architects in particular live, breathe, talk space.
It’s been a century since we were an agrarian society. Most people today work in buildings. The interior environment affects us. People will be more creative or less creative depending on the interior environment in which they work. They will be more or less comfortable in a space without knowing why.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with my cousin one day. I love shopping at Publix. It’s my favorite grocery store. But when we talked a couple of weeks ago, we both agreed on how much we dislike grocery shopping at the Publix that is located on Coral Way and SW 87 Avenue in Miami. She didn’t know why, but I knew. It’s because most Publix stores have acoustical ceilings and the lights are in the ceilings. But this particular building, one of the newer stores, has the open web joist ceilings and ductwork exposed. It makes the store darker and it makes me very uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not dark, but it is darker and the light has a different quality from what I am used to in a Publix. So what do I do, I avoid that store!
Even more important, the United States is energy dependent on other countries. We import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria. Buildings use 70% of the electricity in the United States. So every time we build a new building, unless it is entirely designed to use only renewable energy, we increase that energy dependence. So as a people, we are called upon not to be wasteful. We should consider what we are building, how much we are building, and what energy saving elements can we include in a new building.
We have known for years that color has an effect on people and so does lighting. The height of ceilings which are disproportionally low for their size of a room can seem very oppressive to people. Getting these and other design elements right is the all important job of a good architect.
So, it’s true space matters. Creating good spaces matter. Call me at 305-552-5465 to discuss the ideas for your next project.
Photograph by Robert Linder
Public Education Capital Outlay and Debt Service Trust Fund PECO is a primary source of state capital outlay funding for Florida's school districts, community colleges, and the State University System.
It is the only capital outlay fund source for state universities. PECO funds are generated by a 2.5 percent levy on the gross receipts of utility companies and municipal corporations that provide electricity, natural gas, and telecommunication services and those that transmit co-generated electrical power. PECO funds are used not only for new construction, but also for remodeling, renovation, repair, and site improvement of educational facilities. This definition is from the Office of Facilities Planning of the School District of Escambia County.
So what was our state legislature thinking last year when it approved legislation that sent all PECO funds to charter schools? The logic behind this, they would argue, is that charter schools are being used by the public school children to educate our Florida children. But the problem is that we are giving public funds to enhance the facilities owned by private individuals or companies that do not have to continue to use those facilities for charter schools in the future. In addition, there is no public oversight of these funds. There is not even a requirement to prove that the money was actually used for improvements.
Now this year Senator Wise from Jacksonville got Senate Bill 1852 through the Senate Education Committee this week. This bill, according to Fred Grimm in the Miami Herald, “would require school districts to share, proportionately, on a per-student basis, property-tax collections earmarked for construction, maintenance and leasing of educational facilities and equipment.”
This much money again going to private charter schools would again decimate school district budgets for construction. Much of the school districts money has to go to pay for bonds for previous years’ projects, so the actual amount of construction money is minimal.
Having done architectural work for M-DCPS, I can assure you, that these old schools need repairs and replacement on a continuous basis. For example, my firm, United Architects, designed the remodelings and additions to Fisher-Fienberg in 1990-1993 (the school building above was the Media Center or Library Addition and below is the Cafeteria). Three parts of the buildings were remodeled or received additions: the cafeteria, the library, and the administration. $2.8 million were spent. You can read more at Fisher-Fienberg Library Interiors and Fisher-Fienberg Cafeteria. At the end of the project we could have used another $2.8 million to revamp the classrooms and other facilities which we had not touched.
In addition to the previously mentioned objectionable practice of giving public funds to a private organization with absolutely no control or requirement over the money, there are three additional arguments why we should not directly fund private charter school construction:
In other words, instead of spreading millions of dollars among many architectural firms and construction companies, the business can be given exclusively to one or two companies and the state or county has no control over this at all.
- The construction work is not going to be regulated through the Competitive Negotiation Act, which is a state law which assures some measure of competition for getting the best architect for the design work.
- None of the minority and small business ordinances which are in place in Miami-Dade County and Broward County Public Schools would be in effect to assure the participation of small and minority businesses.
- The work does not have to be competitively bid as do all school projects, which means all the work could be given to the friends of the charter school’s board of directors and they can pay as much as they want. There are no assurances that the space is efficiently laid out and corridors and support spaces, such as mechanical rooms, are minimized.
It is time that the Florida legislature came to its senses and realized what a mistake it is all the way around to continue to fund private school construction with our money.
At the left above we look at the parking lot where visitors to the MIami Building Department are supposed to park. Then, we walk down this dismal street under the overpass, past an empty lot.
Then, we have to walk down the driveway on the left, through the employee and disabled parking garage, to finally come out on the other side. Then, we walk through this empty, uninviting plaza.
Last week I went to go pick up something at the City of Miami Building Department. For those of you who don’t know, it’s next to the river on SW 2nd Avenue. As I was approaching the building, I looked around for parking. There is a large sign on the entrance to the parking garage that says that the multi-story parking deck is for the employees and the disabled. So I looked around and the nearest parking lot for visitors (except for a little parking in front of the plaza which was full) is across the street in the fenced area underneath the I-95 overpass. The street in front of the lot is also available as metered parking.
I took the photographs above so you could experience with me the lack of urban planning, with its accompanying lack of human scale, and total insensitivity to human needs. I had been there before many times, but never had I seen it as run down and uninviting as I saw it last week.
Now let’s compare that to the City of Coral Gables Building Department, which is in a historic building sitting at one end of Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. It's actually the focal point of Miracle Mile at its west end. This photograph, taken by Thomas Territt at night, highlights the beauty of the building.
Now tell me, which of these two cities invites you to build in its city?
The funny thing is that the City of Miami has the land. It has a huge plaza in front of the building which could be redesigned into a wonderful urban space. The empty lot could be designed as a parking lot. As much traffic as this building gets, the plaza could be developed into a really wonderful space with kiosks and covered spaces, selling everything from pastelitos, Cuban coffee, sandwiches, newspapers, magazines, flowers and possibly even hot food. With a few table and chairs, this dull, uninviting plaza could be transformed into a money-making, wonderful place to gather as we transact business with the city.
So everybody wins! The public wins because they don’t have to go through a dismal street and through a parking garage to get to the building. The city wins because by adding value they can make money.
If architects, contractors, developers, and investors and going to invest and pay taxes in the city, why wouldn't the city administration take notice and make the entrace to the city's building department a welcoming experience?
I heard Peter Lovenheim on NPR yesterday. He talked about the murder/suicide that occurred on his street which made him realized that, like most people on his street, he didn't know the couple. This made him want to get to know his neighbors and he proceeded with a social experiment. The Los Angeles Times has an article about it this month called Social Experiment: Know Thy Neighbor.
I love what Peter says:
In this age of cheap long distance, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, why do neighborhoods still matter? They matter because we are all mortal, and if we have an emergency, a friend even 10 minutes away may be a friend too far.
They matter because all our resources are finite and if you're baking a cake at night and have to drive to the supermarket for a bottle of vanilla — as one of my neighbors confessed she recently had done — instead of borrowing from the person next door, you're wasting gas, energy and your own valuable time.
They matter because our society is too fragmented, and if we want to start rebuilding a healthy civil society by learning to understand and live peacefully with people whose ideas about religion, morality and politics may be different from our own, a very good place to start is with the people in our own apartment building or on our own block.
And neighborhoods matter because the people closest to us may be able to enrich our lives in ways we'll never know unless we actually know them.
But why don't we know our neighbors? Part of it is cultural, but part of the problem is physical. We don't build neighborhoods like we used to. We have no sidewalks in many modern neighborhoods. We don't build porches. We have deep front setbacks so that even if someone is walking down the street, we are too far from them in our houses to interact with the passersby. We live in enclosed air-conditioned spaces with no relationship to the outside. We live in segregated communities which are so boring to walk because there is nothing to see and nobody with which to interact.
I heard a University of Pennsylvania professor recently talking about how people determine the market housing that is built. I don't particularly agree with him. I think that first the general population has to know what's possible. You cannot ask for something which you don't know is possible, or even exists somewhere else.
So here it is, I am putting it out there. It is possible to build walkable cities. The Europeans have been doing it for centuries. We can build mixed-use areas so that there are retail shops to look at while we walk. We can demand that the government start building public transportation systems that work. All of this is possible. It just takes determination and persistence in asking for it, in talking about it. So let's ask!
I was talking to a friend of mine and he got on the topic of the Miami Urban Think Tank or MUTT for short. What a great name! In seeing the contributors to their website, the majority are young people with Hispanic surnames but educated in this country. So I just love the name MUTT because that is what I am, a mix breed. Cuban by birth, but almost totally identified with American culture and the Cuban-American culture of Miami, I am definitely a MUTT.
As a child I lived up north, that’s north of Tallahassee, Florida. It seems that Florida is a place so different from the rest of the traditional American landscape. I lived in St. Louis, Missouri; Rindge, New Hampshire; Athens, Alabama, Macon, Georgia; studied architecture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia; and then over 30 years ago, I moved to Miami. None of those other places had palm trees. They didn’t have orange groves either.
As a child, my family travelled by car constantly, mostly to Miami, when my father had time off from teaching as a professor at different colleges. Because of this, I was exposed to much urban planning, or lack thereof, throughout the U.S. My favorite place from my childhood was Rindge, New Hampshire. It had a small “commons” so typical of New England towns. And the town had a real sense of community partly due to its simple plan and the use of the commons for garage sales and monthly dinner club meetings.
MUTT’s website, http://www.miamiurbanthinktank.com is dedicated to bringing attention to ideas which need exposure. I certainly have a pet peeve about Miami.
My biggest gripe about Miami is the lack of urban spaces. For years I watched the big parking lot just north of the old Dupont Plaza building and thought what a wonderful urban space it would make, if it were re-designed and incorporated into the public domain. Unfortunately, I never said anything and now it’s almost all built-out.
But just because that one space can't be used doesn't mean that we can't find land and create other wonderful urban spaces. Barcelona has Las Ramblas and La Plaza Cataluna. Paris has the Champs-Elysées. Munich has the Marienplatz. New York has Times Square. Washington has the National Mall. What do we have? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Miami Beach at least has made a start with its new Performing Arts Center and Park.
Last week I was going to Miami-Dade College Downtown Campus to a conference and the traffic was so backed up on 5th Street that I decided to park by Government Center and walk the two blocks. While I was walking, I saw this poor excuse for a park/urban space. See photo above. Is this the best we can do? As we watch all the Middle East protesters, where would we go If we needed to have a revolution?
When I attended the town meetings during the Miami 21 process, there was one man who stood up at every meeting and lobbied for parks. I am sure that more parks will be included in the new Miami 21 plan because of his effort.
But now we should start generating a consciousness for urban spaces. Miami needs them. We should lobby for them. Why should we have to go to shopping centers to congregate with other people? This should be a free activity. People watching can be fun and it can be free, if we have the public spaces to do it.
I hope we start talking about this - all of us. If we do, eventually we will get this idea into the collective unconscious. And then, maybe the county or city commission will actually listen and start directing their planning staffs to incorporate them into the urban plans for the city and county. We could transform Miami into a really interesting lively place!
When I was a child unlike most Cubans, my family lived in the north – Missouri, New Hampshire, Alabama, and Georgia. We would come to Miami all the time on vacation, sometimes twice a year. I used to visit all my Cuban exile relatives. Everybody lived in a modest house – 2 to 3 bedrooms, 1 to 2 bathrooms. Many had window air-conditioners in the bedrooms. The rest of the house did not have any air-conditioning at all.
What these houses had in common was that they were “affordable”. Nobody called them affordable, but they were built to be affordable, and in large part, the vast majority of the middle class could afford them.
In Key Biscayne the original Mackle houses from the 1950’s had 1200 square feet with 3 bedrooms and one bathroom. They were simple boxes built for the masses. In the 1960’s the Mackle houses were often expanded with an additional bedroom, bathroom, or carport. See for more on Key Biscayne history at http://www.keylife.com/history
Now we build “affordable” houses which are hardly affordable to anyone. According to the Miami-Dade Public Housing Agency the median income for Miami-Dade County is $52,200. The standard for affordability in buying a house is 2.5 times annual income. So for Miami-Dade County the average house should cost $130,500.
The Miami-Dade County Housing Data Clearinghouse 2005 4th Quarter Bulletin stated:
In 1970, the median value of a home in Miami-Dade County was about double the median yearly household income, which at the time was $7,151. In just 30 years, by 2000, a home was valued at $124,000, nearly 3.5 times the median yearly household income. And just four years later, in 2004, a home’s value, $193,906 was more than 5 times the household yearly income of $37,025.
The latest widening of the “Housing Affordability Gap” between 2000 and 2004 was due to an almost static income level coupled with a large spike in housing value. The median value of a house increased by over 56 percent, while there was barely a 3 percent increase in income between 2000 and 2004. Though the highest percentage housing value increase was between 1970 and 1975 (160 percent), the increase between 2000 and 2004 was the largest without a corresponding raise in the median income level.
In 2004, 80 percent of the median household income in Miami-Dade County was $29,620 and 319,931 households earned at or below this level. This was 40 percent of total households.
According to http://www.city-data.com/county/Miami-Dade_County-FL.html the mean price of a detached home in 2008 was $436,278, now it is down to $150,000.
Even after the crash of the housing market and the lowering of housing prices, there’s something very wrong with this picture!
Anyway we look at it, as a community, we could not afford the $436,000 houses. But we still cannot afford the $150,000 houses. I think we need to do some radical things to correct this picture.
We need to build smaller houses with fewer amenities. We need to go back and build smaller houses but better designed houses. Why not start with 1,300 square feet with three bedrooms and 1 and 1 ½ baths, but with a design which has the possibility of adding another bedroom, bath, and possibly a family room? Let’s make it look great, but let’s build it to be really affordable.
We need to build “green” houses which have cross-ventilation and fans. If we are going to air-condition the house, then it needs to be really efficient. 97% of heat gain is through the roof and not the walls, so for cost efficiency the majority of the insulation needs to be placed in the attic. There are many other green ideas, but to me the most important are the ones which save energy costs for the future resident. Let’s plant a few trees and maybe design a pergola for living outdoors.
If we can’t do anything immediately to raise salaries, then let’s lower fixed costs.
I think it’s time to live smart. As the population ages, we don’t need so much space. The children grow up and leave home. What are we going to do with all that square footage? Let’s think things through. Do we really have to have the McMansion or can we live with a MansionJunior? Let’s re-focus our energies and build what we can afford and what we need. We can still have the American dream, we just need to have a clear picture of what we want to afford. Happiness comes from wanting what we can have.
There was an interesting article in the Miami Herald today which jarred my mind and made me think.
Apparently, the article called International Appeal says that 22% of all real estate sales to foreign nationals are occurring in Florida. California attracts just 12% of the international market. Nationally, the market for residential property by buyers who owned primary residences in other countries was $41 million, 4% of the total market. At one time a few years ago, our market share of international investors was as much as 26%. Of all international buyers in Florida, 31% are Canadians. Although there were many buyers who bought multi-million dollar home, the average, according to the article, was $219,400. In Florida 82% paid with cash.
So what do all these statistics say to me? They say that foreigners still like Miami. Miami is still hot! So what do we have to do to cash in on all these foreign investments? Before the economic downturn, people just invested, waited, flipped their properties, and collected their profits. So what now? Well, now is the perfect time for that age old concept of "value adding". In other words, we cannot invest and collect money. We have to add value to whatever property we invest in. But there is a market still. The market is lower, but it's still there.
There are foreclosures out there. Labor costs are down. There are opportunities to rehab, to expand properties, to build new. If you can lend the money, there is even more opportunity for those cash buyers who want an improved property. This is the time to buy property, improve, and sell to foreign investors. With less expensive properties, even taxes are down. What are we waiting for?
my previous blog I was very excited for those who may be in serious jeopardy of
losing their homes, but then I read an interesting letter to the editor in the
Miami Herald, February 21, from Professor Donal Jones, law professor at the University of Miami.
from what Professor Jones says, my enthusiasm was baseless. He says, "If it [the house] is not sold the
bank is often able to maintain the repossessed house on its books without
showing a loss. The bank can list the value of its asset based on what it would
be at ''maturity.'' The now-empty house may have been vandalized and have
rotted drywall. But on paper the repossessed house is as valuable as it was
before the bubble burst. The bank has no skin in the game."
since so many of these homeowners at risk of foreclosure are underwater with
their mortgages, without a considerable amount of debt forgiveness, homeowners
who continue to pay their mortgages will continue to pay mortgages in which
they will have no equity for a long, long time, unless the real estate market miraculously
Jones tells us that the Federal government has started a Foreclosure
Alternative Program, where they pay incentives to mortgage companies to allow
homeowners to sell their homes through short sales or to allow homeowners to
turn over their homes in lieu of foreclosures.
Mediation is not the panacea that I thought.
It looks that the Federal government will have to lend a hand to
homeowners after all.
have been watching the foreclosure crash for a year now while our Federal
government bailed out major banks across the country. While Main Street sat in ruins, Wall Street
continued to reward their executives with millions of dollars in bonuses and
pay back only a portion of the losses caused by the banking and insurance
Almost all of us have heard of
somebody who lost his house to foreclosure after losing his job. And although this presents excellent opportunities
for those who have cash to buy foreclosures, remodel them, thereby adding value
and then selling them at a profit, it must be a gut wrenching experience for
those who put their hard earned money into their homes, only to lose them to
Good news in
on the way for homeowners in Florida who are in jeopardy of losing their homes.
The Supreme Court of Florida on Monday, according to the Miami Herald editorial
on Saturday, "issued an administrative order requiring a statewide managed
mediation program to handle all the foreclosures inundating state courts." The courts are forcing banks which are
reluctant to offer homeowners alternative to foreclosure to sit down, talk, and
"to negotiate rather than automatically foreclose."
I think this
is welcome news for desperate homeowners, overworked courts, and the majority
of us who think this will be a benefit to the middle class in Miami-Dade County
by stabilizing neighborhoods and allowing otherwise responsible citizens some
time to work out their financial problems without losing their largest asset.
Views of Barcelona - El Ensanche
Yesterday was a great day for the City of Miami. The new Miami 21 Zoning Code was approved by the City of Miami commissioners.
Miami 21 is the most comprehensive zoning code change I have seen in any part of Miami-Dade County in my over 25 years of practicing architecture. It took 4 years of meetings and discussions to complete.
The very talented town planning firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company, hired as the lead consultant to produce this code, held hundreds of meetings throughout the city and took testimony from many residents. It was a controversial process.
Architects took sides. There was the Duany Plater-Zyberk and their University of Miami colleagues and then there was the Bernard Zyscovich side. The AIA had meetings about it. Generally, there were many fights about density and height restrictions - and design, of course!
While most codes are based on the multiplication of a number times the size of the lot to obtain such things as maximum lot coverage, maximum buildable area, floor area ratio, green area, etc., this new code emphasizes physical results. It is a form-based code. It does not care so much about the size of the lot, as what the building will look like. Will it have porches, covered walkways, and other items which make it pedestrian friendly? Will people want to walk down the street in this new designed city? Yes, that's the idea!
What makes a city walkable or what makes it anti-pedestrian? Liz Plater-Zyberk has lectured often on this issue, and at one of the many meetings, she explained their planning theories and their system of Transets T1 to T6.
Among the many issues they discussed, one of the most important, is the issue of car parking. Large parking lots, whether surface parking or garage parking, will deaden any street. No live human will want to walk in front of a parking garage or parking lot. So in their code visible surface parking on a major street is prohibited
In traditional zoning, if the lot is large, then the building (as a multiplication of the size of the lot) gets to be a tall large building. In this zoning, the zoning tells the owner how many stories to build. Everyone on the same street gets to build the same number of stories. So one lot won't have a huge, tall building with the lot next door allowed only a much shorter building.
Many parts of the city will have mixed-zoning with the street level dedicated to commercial space with residential units above that.
The opposition's position is the new code would limit "design flexibility".
As I attended meetings, listened to, or read about the discussions, I was reminded of the many cities I have walked - Barcelona, Paris, Munich, Madrid, South Beach, etc. And then I think of the ones I would never walk - Miami, Atlanta, Houston, etc.
Many things limit design flexibility - our present City of Miami Zoning Code. It has setbacks, it has height restrictions, and it has all kind of details that hamper design flexibility. Our current code does not produce any cohesive cityscape. It produces a bunch of independent buildings which have no cohesion as a group, a neighborhood, or a city.
I spent a summer in Barcelona, while I was in college, working for an architectural firm on a student exchange program. I think this is why I am such a fan of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company. That summer in Barcelona I walked and walked and walked. I took rolls of photographs and discovered the contemporaries of Antonio Gaudi. See, Gaudi did not work in a vacuum. I am sure he influenced his contemporaries and his contemporaries influenced him. His buildings are in context. They are a part of the city. That is what Miami needs - buildings in context, not floating, independent self-involved structures who fail to integrate with their environment.
In physical codes (and I am sure that Barcelona must have one) things change but they stay the same. Here I have several photos of Barcelona streetscapes and you can see for yourself. The number of stories must be regulated. The location of the building on the lot must be regulated. See for yourself, balconies change, but there is a consistency which makes the buildings flow from one balcony to the next. Some details change while some stay the same. There are no shocking changes - radical height changes, radical recessions from the street, etc. The ground floor is all commercial. The parking lots are sheltered from the main street.
In my opinion what we will see eventually is that there are a many design possibilities within the constraints of this code. And by implementing this code we will see the new cohesiveness that will develop within city buildings. Where there is always a tension between independence in building design and a unified urban plan, the pendulum had swung in the direction of independent building design. Now it will swing once again in the other direction. I, for one, I think that yesterday was a great day, the start of a movement toward an organized pedestrian city we can all enjoy!
For every person who buys a property at foreclosure, there is a terrible story of someone who lost a valuable asset. It is the story of someone who saved and saved until he was able to provide a downpayment for a new house and then paid for that mortgage one year or 20 years. We don't know. What we do know is that the loss of the house was probably due to this horrible economic downturn which all of us in the construction business are suffering.
So what can be done now to turn this terrible crisis around? Well, I don't know if I can tell you what to do, but I can certainly tell you what not to do.
But the appraiser's website states," ...I set out to establish the right values for all properties in the County. The assessments on the 2009 Notice of Proposed Property Taxes (TRIM Notice) mailed to you last month, reflected market value reductions of as much as 20% to 30% in some municipalities. I have met my promise to you, the property owners of Miami-Dade County and my Office has done its job." The question becomes, if he counted foreclosures, how much lower would these values be?I read Jackie Bueno Sousa's column this yesterday in the Miami Herald, Disconnect in home values is killing deals. Apparently, the new property appraiser which we elected in 2008, Pedro J. Garcia, is not counting foreclosures in his appraisals.
Sousa states in her column that a purchaser gave up on a deal when he found out that a house which sold for $600,000 a couple of years ago and was now on the market for $300,000 would still be taxed at the higher value. How can this be? Apparently, from what Sousa says, this is happening all over Miami-Dade County killing deals and preventing the economic recovery that could so help the county as a whole.
How is it possible that Mr. Garcia can just ignore foreclosures?
Here is what the Florida Statutes says on "factors to consider in deriving a just valuation":
- 1. The present cash value of the property, which is the amount a willing purchaser would pay a willing seller...
- 2. The highest and best use to which the property can be expected to be put in the immediate future and the present use of the property, taking into consideration the legally permissible use of the property...
- 3. The location of said property
- 4. The quantity or size of said property;
- 5. The cost of said property and the present replacement value of any improvements thereon;
- 6. The condition of said property;
- 7. The income from said property; and
- 8. The net proceeds of the sale of the property, as received by the seller, after deduction of all of the usual and reasonable fees and costs of the sale...
It seems to me that if the property appraiser follows the Florida Statutes above, particularly "1" and "2", he would be forced to consider whether the property in question actually went through a foreclosure, whether the property value of said property is being affected by a nearby foreclosed property, or whether the selling price is actually much lower than the last time it sold. Once the property sells it should be assessed at the lower value!
If we can get the construction industry moving again with the restoration of the real estate market and the reconstruction of many of these distressed properties, we can again move Miami into the economic engine it usually is, and get make more jobs available to those who have suffered so much in this environment.
Maybe it's time to get the legislature to put more teeth into the Florida Statutes and make sure the local property appraiser considers foreclosures in his valuations. Contact your representative and make sure he knows about your wishes on this issue.
Last Thursday, October 1, I was driving around when a new report on WLRN piqued my interest. The report said that Florida was going to allow the raising of insurance premiums again for homeowner’s policies.
I wondered how this could happen. After all, we haven’t had a hurricane in 4 years. Those insurance companies must be raking in the profits - 4 years of not having to pay out on any losses, 4 years of not having to send out any insurance adjusters, 4 years of sitting around on a pile of cash. “Hum, how could this happen?” I asked myself. The story stated that one of the reasons was that the insurance companies were losing too much money on the wind mitigation credits - they were not getting enough money from premiums.
As it stands now wind mitigation credits are offered for strengthening roofs by reinforcing roof-towall connections, roof decking and attachments. Concrete slab roofs also yield mitigation credits. In addition, credits are also granted for preventing water intrusion with secondary water barrier
protections. And lastly, protecting door and window openings with shutters, or providing impactresistant windows, also qualify for credits.
So why are the companies losing money on the credits?
I decided to research the issue. I came across a couple of articles on the internet that speak to the issue and can actually give us more details. The Florida Commission on Hurricane Loss Projection Methodology, Windstorm Mitigation Committee Hearing Report (September 17) states that some counties are actually paying too little while others are paying too much. But then the report adds:
Florida Association of Insurance Agents Executive Vice President Scott Johnson provided
testimony relating to agent issues. After his presentation, there was significant discussion
regarding inspection fraud and that some agents may passively allow fraud to occur. Mr.
Johnson recommended that policies should be adopted to give a policyholder "skin in the
game" regarding verification of premium reductions. Dr. Nicholson noted that the system is
"sick" and that there should be laws against tying financial incentives to wind inspections.
Agents should not have business relationships with inspectors.
There is also an interesting article by Scott S. Koedel, CPA, president and COO of Don Meyler Inspections, Ensuring the accuracy of windstorm mitigation credits, where he argues:
As awareness of the windstorm mitigation inspection has increased, so has the sheer
quantity of inspectors performing inspections, which now number in the thousands. This
rapid growth has resulted in a widely varying level of quality control processes among
inspection companies. While one company may … submit them to a quality control
department run by a professional engineer, another may handwrite the inspecti on results on
a paper form and leave it behind with the homeowner.
Unfortunately, fraud has become a topic of concern. Underwriters have reported numerous
instances of inspectors not entering policyholders' homes or attics, an obvious prerequisite
for a proper windstorm mitigation inspection. In the most examples of impropriety, doctoring
of the mitigation inspection form has occurred.
In the article, he continues with what steps could be taken to rein in the inspectors.
So apparently, the problem is not the issue of the wind credits, but the fraud that is occurring with the inspections.
The other question which could be asked would be: Would the credits save insurance companies money if a hurricane were to occur?
If we go back to the September 17 report:
Applied Research Associates Chief Technical Officer Larry Twisdale continued his
presentation on a loss relativity study from the previous Committee meeting. The study
indicated that a well-mitigated building will reduce loss by 40-60 percent.
In conclusion, the problem that the insurance companies are losing money is not due to the mitigation credits when they are properly applied. A building which is properly built to the new building codes, and roofs which are either concrete or have the latest attachments and roof coverings, will reduce the losses that an insurance company will have to pay out should a hurricane hit the area.
So the solution to the problem should not be to raise premiums but to control who can sign off on wind mitigation credit forms.
Residents of the state should demand that inspectors hold a special license where they are liable, as any professional engineer, or architect, or general contractor would be. Or as an alternate, they must be licensed architects, professional engineers, or general contractors. The inspection for should be sent directly to the state by the professional. No leaving behind any forms for the homeowners to doctor or fill out. And, then we can demand that premiums remain the same and not be increased.
Feel free to leave me comments and ask any questions you might have. No question is stupid and I am here to help you. Please feel free to leave any question you may have regarding architecture, construction, or the management of a construction project. I don't know everything, but I can be of help on many issues about which you may have questions. Send me an email, MLC@UnitedArchitectsInc.com or call me at 305-552-5465.