Photograph by Eli Pousson, 2018 February 27, Flickr, CC0 1.0
The process of building is complex. Building codes are often opaque to lay people and some people start construction on a project only to find themselves in the difficult situation of receiving a red tag or “stop work order.” So what should you do if this happens to you?
Reasons Why You May Have Received A Red Tag
There are many reasons why you may have received a red tag. The most common reason is for failure to obtain a building permit. You may have gotten the wrong type of permit, you may not be following safety regulations, or there may be some kind of contractor dispute that needs to be resolved before work can continue.
City and municipal governments have inspectors whose job it is to keep track of building activity in their jurisdictions. The inspector may have seen or gotten word of a violation, driven by to inspect, and posted cease and desist signs on your property. The signs will explain what the problem is and how to resolve it.
What To Do Now
Carefully read the sign to understand the problem. Stop all work as outlined in the order. If you do not stop, you may be fined or even arrested. It is often a good idea to call the building inspector or whoever issued the stop work order to ask for further clarification and to signal your good faith intention to follow the law.
Different states have different regulations governing what types of projects require an architect. In Rhode Island, for example, drawings for the construction of any building other than a single or two family residence or any structure of 35,000 CUBIC feet or greater must be stamped by an architect currently registered in Rhode Island. Civil or structural engineers are only allowed to stamp drawings under 35,000 CUBIC feet. And they are only allowed to do so if the work being stamped is within the scope of their normal activity. Additionally, building officials may require an architect’s stamp if they believe a project is complex enough to benefit from one. The rules in Massachusetts are very similar. So you may want to hire an architect to help you navigate the complexities of obtaining a building permit--even in cases where you are not legally required to do so.
For example, apart from developing a design that is attractive and actually makes sense in terms of layout, clients will benefit from an architect’s knowledge and experience if they are building a very large single family home or if the project involves a unique design. If a project is located on an existing city lot, then there will be zoning considerations that determine what type of construction is allowed and what will fit on the lot. Or if your building is in a flood zone, you may need to work with overlapping jurisdictions including city and state conservation agencies, and an architect can guide you through this process. Any project that leads to a change of use of an existing building or site (e.g. from a residential to a commercial use) may require an architect’s stamp.
How to Avoid This In The Future
You can avoid getting red tagged by doing your research before you start your project. Ideally, this should happen in the pie in the sky phase – when you are still conceptualizing the project. Call the building department to ask if your project is feasible and what permits you will need. Or hire a trusted professional to help you with the process. Architects can help you with this because they have many years of experience and understand building codes and zoning rules. Trust their advice. They often have long-standing relationships with building, zoning, and planning officials in various jurisdictions, so they can reach out to one of their contacts informally to ask about the feasibility of your project, and what will be necessary to get a building permit. An informal “yes” is of course no guarantee that permission will be granted, but, it will at least point you in the right direction and make you aware of potential problems.
Common Residential Code Violations: https://realestate.usnews.com/real-estate/articles/5-must-ask-questions-about-code-violations-in-your-home
State of Rhode Island Building Code: http://www.ribcc.ri.gov/
Massachusetts Building Code: https://www.mass.gov/massachusetts-state-building-code-780-cmr
American Institute of Architects, “You and Your Architect”: https://aiala.com/wp-content/uploads/You-and-Your-Architect.pdf
Designs for New and Renovated Homes (Underway and Completed) by David Sisson Architecture
HGTV has been an amazing boon for architects. It inspires everyday people to improve themselves by transforming their spaces. After watching Chip and Joanna Gaines on “Fixer Upper” turn a dated ranch house into a modern Mediterranean-style home complete with faux stone walls, a sliding barn door, exposed beams in distressed wood, and an iron ring candlestick chandelier, excited homeowners are inspired to call up architecture firms like ours.
We are happy to speak to new clients about their dream homes—about opening up their kitchens and living rooms, improving the flow between rooms, updating old-fashioned colors and finishes, adding a guest suite or a mother-in-law apartment, responding to the ever-increasing need for more storage, or planning for aging in place. We ask questions about schedule and budget and get to work on a couple of design options.
The problem is that HGTV creates unrealistic expectations. Chip and Joanna meet with their clients on Monday, share their incredibly convincing 3D designs on Tuesday, and bring in a building crew on Wednesday. By Saturday, they are putting in the new pavers to the front door, and installing the rhododendrons and tulip bulbs. The whole project is over within one week.
But most homeowners and their architects don’t have the advantages that Chip and Joanna have: hundreds of construction workers, donations from lumberyards, paint companies, manufacturers of bathroom and kitchen fixtures, cabinetmakers, and other companies; and coordination by hundreds of experts behind-the-scenes.
In reality, consulting with clients on their needs and desires, developing designs, finding a contractor, securing materials, and getting permits from city and state officials, can take months. The American Institute of Architects' brochure, You and Your Architect, breaks down the process and explains the services architects provide. At David Sisson Architecture, we will guide you through the entire process, from idea to move-in day.
"Westmount" by Loozrboy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 . Source: Flickr
As life expectancy in the US continues to increase, developing a sustainable approach to caring for our seniors is becoming more urgent. At the same time, changing retail trends have meant that brick-and-mortar shopping malls and big box stores are losing out to online retailers and pop-up or other alternative models. Indoor shopping malls have been experiencing high vacancy rates for some time, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated that trend.
Long term care administrators and developers are starting to see these defunct malls (and big box stores, hotels, schools) as an untapped resource in their search for affordable property. A new trend is emerging: the adaptive reuse of “dead” shopping malls as long term care facilities. A Massachusetts developer recently asked David Sisson Architecture to evaluate one such property for this use. Here are some takeaways:
Renovated Boston Row House and Providence Infill House, David Sisson Architecture
Analysts are debating the degree to which the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a mass exodus out of America’s largest cities in search of room to breathe (literally)—more room for physically-distanced social interactions and for the Zoom home offices that so many people have been forced into. Here in Rhode Island though, the median home price increased by 13 % in October 2020 over its level one year earlier, and realtors reported buyers arriving in droves from New York City and Massachusetts.
Regardless of what analysts decide, for decades now, exorbitant costs have slowly priced folks out of the country’s largest cities. Redfin’s data shows that, in 2019, even before the pandemic, people in pricey metropolitan areas searched for homes in more affordable areas more than ever before in recorded history.
Many of those searching—young to middle-aged professional as well as empty nesters—are looking to retain aspects of their urban lifestyles and enjoy big city cultural amenities. For them, the suburbs hold no appeal and they want to live in the city. This presents a dilemma in older, built-up cities like Providence and Boston, where almost every square foot has already been developed and real estate inventory is low. Newcomers have two options—1) wait for an existing building to become available, engage in a bidding war to buy it, then spend time and money renovating it; or 2) identify a difficult-to-find empty lot and build a new house.
Planners and architects call the second approach “infill”. Many people assume that it is impossible to find an empty lot in the city. But, with some research and perseverance, it is possible to find a diamond in the rough. Realtors can be asked to look for empty lots in specific parts of the city. A prospective owner can also look for empty lots by searching on Google Maps (satellite view) or driving through the neighborhood. With the address for the empty lot handy, a search on the city’s online tax assessor database (usually considered free public information) will yield the current owner of the property and information about how the land is zoned. An architect can help prospective buyers interpret this information and evaluate if the desired house can be built on the lot. Even in cases where zoning may not appear suitable—where, for example, a lot is smaller than the size typically required for new residential construction—an architect can approach the Building Department to gauge the likelihood of receiving a variance (an approved exception to zoning or build code rules). Progressive building departments often do want empty lots used, so they are likely to give permission (with certain conditions). Armed with this knowledge, you can make an informed decision about buying the lot, and collaborate with an architect to create an urban home of your liking.
As a firm committed to designing for seniors in care home settings and those aging in place, we’ve learned a lot over the past year. Assisted living facilities have been especially hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic: tragically, over 40% of COVID deaths (over 100,000 people) in the US have been associated with long term care. People living in these communities have higher levels of impairment and chronic illness, which can increase their risk of infection. And residents live in close proximity to each other and are in close contact with caregivers, further increasing the probability of that infections will spread.
What has the pandemic taught us about assisted living design, and how will it change our approach post-COVID? We have put together a compendium of solutions used during the pandemic:
Contact us to discuss our work with assisted living communities, and how we can help you implement new strategies in care home design.
Just 478 out of approximately 116,000 licensed architects in the US in 2019 identified as black women. And there were only 1,847 licensed African-American male architects. Altogether, black-identifying women and men make up 2% of architects in the US.
If that does not sound distressing to you, here are some numbers to put things into perspective: African-Americans represent about 13% of the US population. At the very least, the profession should look like the world we live in.
As Architect magazine puts it,
“The underrepresentation of many ethnic groups translates not only to inequities within the profession, but also to missed opportunities in business.”
The problem needs to be attacked at every level from creating a high school pipeline to the profession, to rethinking the cost of college (architecture is more expensive than many majors because students have to pay for equipment and materials for their work), transforming firm culture so that hiring and retention are not obstacles, and making sure that firms are intentional in their choice of clients, projects, and communities.
Every architecture firm has a part to play in this process. David Sisson Architecture has worked with high school students from underrepresented backgrounds through the Rhode Island College Upward Bound program, and The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center to provide internships. We were excited to work with two high school students from Central Falls, RI, Eliane and Karen, in summer 2019. They shadowed our architects on site visits, meetings with clients and city officials, research trips to libraries and local archives, and sat next to us as we developed designs on Revit. As part of this program, we have nurtured relationships with black-identifying consultants such as architectural historian, Ito Osayimwese, who have spoken with our interns about their experiences attending architecture school and working in the profession.
National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), https://www.noma.net/
Alice Liao, “Increasing Diversity in Architecture: Barriers to Entry,” Architect, May 13, 2019
National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, “Demographics, 2017”
Driving through East Providence, you are likely to notice our office at 345 Taunton Avenue, East Providence. It’s a two-story cinder block box, painted battleship gray, with massive picture windows.
When we bought it in 2018, it had been a semi-abandoned office building for years. Before that it was home to a jewelry manufacturing outfit, Banana Bob.
We found jewelry notions like this scattered all over the place when we moved in. It turns out that Banana Bob was a popular company and their pieces are collectors' items today!
With its large, open floor plan (previously used for assembly line jewelry production), the building was ripe for renovation into modern office space.
Here’s what we did to transform the building:
It’s been a lot of hard work but we are proud of transforming this eyesore on Taunton Avenue into a hub of activity.
345 Taunton Ave. is now home to David Sisson Architects, Mountaincow, East Providence Martial Arts, Elsie Osei Artistry, as well as two new live-work spaces.
Like all old American cities, Providence has many empty old factory buildings—in every size you can imagine. To keep our city alive, we have to reuse these buildings.
David Sisson Architects has worked with multiple clients to renovate some of these buildings, turning their spacious interiors into cafes, print shops, yoga studios, office space, live-work space, etc. See our loft conversions in our portfolio.
Brown University recently announced a scheme to sell off three historic houses on Brook Street and Charlesfield Street to make way for two new residence halls. The houses will be sold for $10 each if the new owner will move them off-site, at their own cost, to a new location. This is an incredible opportunity in a place like Providence where the market for houses is so tight. Investors and prospective homeowners have reached out to us to ask for advice on getting in on this deal.
And what a deal it is! $10 for over 5000 square feet of living space for each house. That’s $0.02 per square foot. That’s a steal compared to the going rate of $250 per square foot. And, with their early twentieth-century Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styling, modern two-family layouts, classic New England cedar shake siding, beautiful bay windows, symmetrical side entry porches, and leaded transom windows, you would be getting far more an average house.
While saving a historic house seems like a no brainer, moving a building is much more involved than you might imagine.
Here are some things to consider:
Moving a building makes perfect sense in some cases – if you need to move your house a few feet in from an eroding coastline, or if it needs to be moved out of a flood zone. If you are a non-profit organization working to save a building, state and local authorities may waive some of their requirements. Either way, contact David Sisson Architects to help you develop a plan of action.
Planning a renovation is both exciting, and stressful. Having the right contractor for your project is the key in turning your home-building plans into a reality. Here are four questions that you should ask your contractor to ensure that they are the right fit for you.
1. Should you move out during the renovation process?
Construction on your home can be both stressful and noisy. So it is always good to plan ahead. If you are planning to live on the first floor during your renovation, it is always a good idea to move your belongings to areas in the house that won’t be exposed. Relocating personal belonging to off – site facilities is another option to look into. Things are going to be turned upside down. So deciding whether to temporarily relocate or not is something to think about.
2. What is the projected timeline for the project?
How long it takes for a project to be completed depends on the size and configuration of your addition. When asking this question, you want to have a specific amount of time in terms of weeks or months. If a contractor is unable to give specifics, they probably were not the best choice, because they could charge you extra for extra time, materials and labor fees for a project that was completed in twice the amount of time it should have taken. Having a schedule that outlines tasks allows for more concrete deadlines. It will also give you better sense of whether the project is lagging.
3. Are there any zoning restrictions to consider?
When it comes to additions, generally, most districts have very strict rules about where and what you can build. Zoning laws vary from town to town, so knowing these laws in your area is a good idea. While it may be annoying or an inconvenience to double check all of your plans with your town, it is easier than beginning a project then finding out you have to alter something.
4.How will the addition tie into the house?
When adding onto you house, you want to make sure that the new space works well with the existing space. Making sure that it looks the same and appears to be a part of the original structure is important. To achieve this be sure to hire an architect to help you with the finishes and even get advice from them. Renovations can add value to your home, so it is important to make decisions that make you happy, but that also could appeal to potential buyers.
Remember there are many things that you and your contractor need to discuss before starting your project. These are just a few suggestions and common issues to think about. Do research and make sure you understand the answers to the questions and it will be easier to make a decision.
The nice thing about wanting to build a home from scratch is that you can choose where you live solely based on location and property. You don't have to worry about what the house looks like when you buy it because you are going to tear it down anyways.
If you are uncertain whether or not tearing down the house is a good option, here are three things to consider.
Is the house worth salvaging?
Talking to a building professional is always a smart decision when deciding whether to tear down a house. If the house is located in a historic district, there may be limitations to what you can do to the house. Contacting the building department in the city will let you know whether or not you can demolish and rebuild the house or not. Additionally, there may be zoning, wetlands or deed restrictions that could prevent any building plans you may have had for the property.
When in doubt look at the numbers. Figure out how much it is going to cost to buy the house and property, then make the decision based on whether it is worth it to add the cost of building something new. If you can use pieces of the old house and build from there, a complete tear down is not necessarily essential. Be honest with yourself about the estimate. Include big-ticket items such as labor and materials. By subtracting the home's potential market value from the total cost estimate, then deduct another 5-10% for extra luxuries or unforeseen issues, what is left over is probably the best offer you can make.
It is very important that your contract include an inspection clause. This goes for purchasing any home or property. This inspection could confirm whether or not the house is in good shape, or help you back out of the purchase if necessary. For example, what if your home is backed by an environmentally protected area, preventing you from being able to build on the land. It is important that you conduct thorough research when purchasing a home.
An inspector's evaluation of the house could also help make the decision of whether or not to completely start over or work with what you have. Major repairs could cost more than just starting from scratch.
How do I decided between a renovation and a tear down?
Several factors influence the decision of whether or not you want to renovate or tear down a house. Mostly it depends on a person's preference. Are you going to be willing to see the project through from start to finish? Viewing the current condition of the house will also influence the decision. Older homes are more likely to have a lot of problems making a renovation a money pit; mold, infestations, and cracked foundation are just some of the factors that may trigger a decision to just tear down a house instead of renovating.
Deciding what you want out of the house is another influencing component in making the decision to renovate or tear down. Wanting a home to be energy efficient, including new windows, doors and kitchen appliances, can help to save money in the long-run. Also what about the layout of the house, did you maybe have something more specific in mind?
Your budget will also have a large influence on what you decide. If you are able to get everything you want for a reasonable price, a renovation makes sense. If the location is what you like, but the house has too many repairs, it would make more sense to just tear it down and start over.
Financing. Where will your budget go?
If you decide that a tear down is what you want to do, make sure to run the numbers and get an estimate of the total cost of the project. Start with an inspection of the house and the land. Then acquire permits for demolition purposes and future plans. Finally contact utility companies for gas, electricity and water to disconnect the house during demolition.
A unique and cost effective method for demolition is to ask the local fire department if they want to use the house for training. This would be free, and help the firefighters train.
Keep in mind that everything in the house must be brought up to code. Every year new codes are created, and some things may be stricter. It is not unusual that multiple inspections at varying stages of the project may occur.
Whichever you choose to do, a renovation or a tear down, it is important to consider all your options before choosing so that you do what is best for your family.