#3 Inside the studio: Get pragmatically poetic whilst anchoring the site.

Place. We are always somewhere, the question that arises is the one that asks if we are aware of where we are at? One does not make a building without having an idea of what will influence it. What breezes or views will inform, what sort of light will fall and cast shadow, what else is present, and most magnificently: what lifelines does the land offer?

When I enter into a dialogue with your site I am seeking information from two sources. One is totally pragmatic and analytical. Here is where the deal-breakers are fished out as it includes assessing the requirements of code along with physical conditions. Zoning code determines what you can build where on the site and to what density and intensity. If the site does not allow what you want to build or if the topography challenges where to build or the geography curtails the options, best to know sooner rather than later. And because I am a researcher, all of my code assessing is done with custom matrices that I have worked out to lead to simple site directives that locate where the building can go and articulating limiting factors such as coverage and height. A survey details topographic information as well as locating improvements such as structures, paths, and utilities. These collect the ‘what exists’ conditions and translate easily onto a site plan where I add solar pathways, views, and dominant wind patterns. At this point, I might begin to make a 3-d physical site model as well to help illustrate the site conditions. It is very cool to look over the site model where you can begin to feel the connections and disconnections.

This notion of being able to feel site conditions leads to the second type of site information that I have come to know as poetic lifelines. These are received when my heart (as opposed to my very competent thinking mind) expands to acknowledge information that arises from being present on the site. No agenda. I walk with open senses. This is where the powerful moves are sourced. In architecture we call them PARTI (a good match). In experience we note them as linking to profound presence. These present options for portals to the mystical/magical life-affirming interventions to enter and arise. If the site model is underway, I throw gestures onto it (I say ‘throw’ only because these are temporally attached with tape or glue gun or tacks) that embody this ethereal information. If the site model is not underway, the gesture model is made as a potential building. When I present these to the client, no words are required and very often a tear falls. These gestures hold lifeline truths. Difficult to talk about thus I make these powerful gesture models. Truth be told – if these gestural explorations do not occur, your project will not soar for the magical/mystical qualities of life would not get their portal. These are not added in after the fact, they are the wellspring for the design.

Ascribing poetic insight into a project is my architectural calling. For decades this was something I did but did not talk about. Too woo-woo. It wasn’t until I went to SCI Arc for my Masters that I encountered the gesture model. This gave me the tool but it wasn’t until I climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, in the Fall of 2001, that my resolve to make architecture in this manner was grounded. By 2001 I had been climbing mountain peaks since 1999, long enough to grow climbing legs and the stamina to keep going. When I stood on Uhuru Peak (the tallest point on Kilimanjaro at 19,341’ above sea level), I had an epiphany. On that peak, I felt an infinite line of humanity coming from and going far into the horizon, eternity came to mind where I was but a speck of dust. A voice inside me rose up and made a vow that I would do my part: I would make my contribution to the evolution of humanity, no matter how miniscule that might be. That vow has resided inside me, quietly watching as I veered my work around it until tragedy struck me clear.

As I meet my vow to humanity through architecture, it is the poetic portals that are captured in the gesture models that provoke presence where we get to touch life and expand our humanity. Not woo-woo at all, it turns out. In fact in our 21st century of complex chaos, an increasing number of us seek to reconnect to our inner peace and perhaps to a greater purpose. There is a beautiful reclamation going on where we seek minimalism and rewilding and biophilic connections not only with our living patterns, but with our physical environments. If you are one such person and you want your environment to be this, I am prepared to offer an Agreement with the forward: The architecture we make requires an authentic and rigorous approach from both the architect and the client; this agreement is entered into with this intent.

Inside the Studio

inside the studio

#1

I have been off-line for a few years – navigating some rough waters (read: tragedy dragged me through an unimaginable darkness), however, ADUs and all things small dwellings remain my passion. And beauty and nature guided me into new work that is actually the work I came into architecture for.  (the story of my coming back from a tragedy to embrace work from its source is HERE)

Boulder has done another ADU update that went live in September 2023, making ADUs more available. You might remember that I used to provide in-person and online ADU information presentations. Today, though, I thought that I would return to my ADU platform from a different perspective, so rather than giving you the code requirements, I am going to share with you what I do when making an ADU by bringing you into my studio, as it were.

The insider story: An Interview

An ADU is a small house with all the same requirements of a big house, it needs to: fit into its site; be responsive to its local and regional conditions; accomplish the Owners’ goals – this means dreams, desires, and needs; and, not at all least or last, it needs to meet local codes.

I start all my projects with an interview meeting to make sure the Owners’ agenda matches the work I am interested in.  Yes, the work I am interested in. Post-tragedy, I no longer do any work that does not have the capacity to soar.  Life is far too precious to squander on side tracks. I got sidetracked for a number of years. There were even projects where we had to break up. But even those that did not work out taught me something. What I learned was that I must always include this preface, even, and especially, when the project appears to be simple and uncomplicated:

The architecture we make requires an authentic and rigorous approach from both the architect and the client; this agreement is entered into with this intent.

This statement sets the atmosphere. We are here to work in an intentional and meaningful manner and we are here to give it our full attention. The culture has shifted in the decades I have practiced architecture. Clients come with SKETCHUP and Internet design-surfing skills. Used to be they came with loads of pictures they had cut from magazines. We meet where they are at. But here is the thing, I have a 5-year professional Bachelor of Architecture degree including studies in Mexico City where I got to study and meet the famed international minimalist architect, Luis Barragan. Then I studied at the prestigious SCI Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), taking a semester in Europe with the illustrious founder, Ray Kappe, where we gained access to all the master architects’ studios in Europe as Ray’s reputation preceded us. SCI Arc granted me a Master of Architecture. I am a consummate learner, keeping current with the highest performing building systems and most intelligent building materials, and am constantly growing a highly skilled team. My building system, Poche_Truss, has a patent pending. However, the accomplishment that I am most in awe of remains the fact that I am a published poet with two lines of poetry that were published in UA’s monthly magazine in the 1970’s. I was unabashedly capable of exposing my true self.

The point of bringing all this up? Trust. If we are going to work together, we have to trust each other. Trust is something that seems to have gone out of fashion as everyone can second guess anyone including their medical doctor given the vast highway of Internet information. I am a fan of dialogue, after all it is YOUR house. But don’t forget the path that got me on this side of the table. Making Architecture is like slow food, it takes time to settle and have effect. At the end of the day, however, you will get ever so much more than a good building.

I was on a long walk with a group recently and I found myself walking with a woman who had recently completed a house boat project where she and her husband now lived. When she asked me about my work, an audaciously clear answer came forth: I am interested in the magical mystical qualities of space, this is where the person living in the house gets to feel so alive.

Oooooh she sighed, I wish our architect had offered that. We got a perfectly fine house but… what you offer was never on the table…

The resonance between me and the client will reveal itself at the initial interview. Making the powerful kind of architecture that I am interested in is a true team effort. Not every project is ready for deep collaboration toward manifesting the goals. But if it is, I am prepared to offer an Agreement with the forward: The architecture we make requires an authentic and rigorous approach from both the architect and the client; this agreement is entered into with this intent.

#2 The insider story: what are your goals:  needs…desires…dreams?

I have a spreadsheet (of course I do, right??) whose purpose is to make space for the needs and desires of your goals to be programmed and their use to be dreamed.  It is a matter of provoking the conversations to come through your mind and also your heart. We often risk articulating needs and desires through a lens of consumption: can my bathroom look like the one in Dwell? Or that I imagine while walking down the aisles at Crate and Barrel?

Instead of something like this: I need a shower, (never take a bath even though they always look so peacefully serene sitting next to a wall length of glass with daylight pouring through)… I need a lavatory and toilet…(a bidet? what is that?).  Needs are usually established with fixtures or appliances and dimensions of space. In a bathroom this might look like a lavatory, shower, toilet and the space to use them, they are quantifiable. Once the needs are laid out, the conversation moves to consider desires such as: would you like a sauna or maybe a dressing area or how about a green wall of plants? These are things that require articulation as well and expand or build on the capacity of the needs but they go beyond the fundamentals.

Then we arrive at what makes life interesting – dreams: how do you want to feel in the space? How is the space going to influence your state of being? This is a bold notion to be sure, but think about how, as you go through your days, where walking across a park or riding your bike alongside traffic changes your emotion. If even for a moment. Our emotional body reacts. So consider what you want to experience as you groom as simply stretching into that emotional body experience. My go-to strategy to engage this begins with…in a perfect world…then your heart opens up and imagination flows as you propose that your bathroom is, in a garden!…maybe you step outdoors to shower?…and there is lots of daylight, even sunshine, alternately you might be thinking of it as a sanctuary as it might be the one place you can go to be alone. We inhabit our spaces uniquely and although the fixtures may be identical, not every bathroom has the same dream.  

If we are working toward obtaining a project where the magical mystical qualities of space resound and you get to feel so alive, the dream needs to speak. This is not linear information, however, and giving it space with words on a spreadsheet requires enhancement through intuitive input so I often scribble in an image or maybe a line of poetry. The qualities of a dream arise from the intersection of physical space and the supple essences of light and shadow and color and senses, not quantifiable but poetic. I have been bringing information back from this intersection my entire career, decades in however, the process of getting something built wore down the translucency of this dimension and it took a tragedy to shake me back to this source. We all have this beautifully persistent tether to life, it might send a shiver up our spine or draw a wee smile into our cheek but conscious or not, our body connects.   

I was considering a situation one day recently where I realized that I was tired of looking with my eyes and hearing with my ears and instead wondered: what does my heart see and hear? In that moment I looked out my window at the tall grasses from last years’ growth standing above the vinca patch and my eyes recognized that they should have been trimmed back months ago and I began feeling urgency to get that chore done. STOP, what if I asked my heart to look at those same grasses? Without changing anything else, here is what came forth: I now saw tall yellow stems whose fluffy heads were swaying without a care in the world as the frigid wind blew them to and fro. They were elegant and joyful and a smile came as I suddenly felt quite blessed to have this beauty in my winter yard. Minutes. These two scenes were minutes apart with only the means of engaging changing. I made a little move that shifted my relationship to the present moment from my thinking mind to my heart. This is how the information on those spreadsheets gets expanded, and as we consider how to engage the heart, something in your dream begins to inform value.

I hear you say a bathroom in a garden and my heart begins to see mottled light. Or you seek refuge and my heart begins to feel shelter. I cannot know these things before we have the Goals conversation for even if I have worked on dozens and dozens of bathrooms with the same fixtures, they are not your bathroom for they do not have your dream values.

How many self-help or feel good books have your read? Hearing about a non-linear process or even getting detailed instruction often times does not yield satisfying results. I had a daily yoga practice for almost 2 years before I found myself in that non-thinking state with my body easily folded completely over. I was quietly startled: this is yoga – union of body and mind! That very thing – an instantaneous and always remarkable moment of being aligned – is what happens when we step into the intersection of physical space and the subtle. I practice this as it is what keeps me passionately invested in this work. Not every architect knows how to bring back the clues from this intersection and I have found that inspiring as this process sounds, it also requires a willingness on your part to expose your story. Hence, trust. Not everyone is ready to do that. But if you are, I am prepared to take that journey with you under the watchful eye of our forward: The architecture we make requires an authentic and rigorous approach from both the architect and the client; this agreement is entered into with this intent.

ADUs & Poche_Truss

On December 30, 2021 I was leaving my doctor’s office at around 11:00. We noticed plumes of black smoke off to the south but went about our business in Boulder, stopping to eat at DOT’S before noting there was now LOTS of black smoke to the east.  As we ran our errands, the staff at Walgreens were all on their phones with reports of road closures, power lines down, and instructions to shut the shop doors. The winds were tearing up the sky and whipping the car doors from our grip. Eyebrows raised, we went off to McGuckin’s and found it…closed? By 4:15 that hospital and its campus had been evacuated by what would turn into the catastrophic Marshall Fire where 1,084 houses were destroyed, forever altering the lives of those households.

8 months to the day later, the Town of Superior has issued 32 building permits for 3.6% of their 380 houses counted as being destroyed or with major damage. Folks want to get back to their normal.

Here’s what I wonder: after COVID and the Marshall Fire and under the influence of climate change restructuring the planet’s ecology, is that even probable?

I jumped in with the rebuilding effort of Superior for two reasons:

1. Within months of the fire, Superior amended its zoning policy to allow ADUs to be built before the main house.

2. Xcel, the energy supplier for the area, was offering a significant rebate of $37,500 to rebuild to PassivHaus standards.

ADUs and PassivHaus will NOT give people back their normal. Instead, they set a whole new bar: better living, better building.

Better living: our ADUs are built with the Poche_Truss where the building form, both inside and out, are custom shaped to the contextual environment and desired experience, without a custom build upcharge. Living in an intelligent (think responsive) small (think less stuff) house will realign your living to what matters most – being present.

Better building: our ADUs are built to PassivHaus standards bringing superior thermal, audio, and environmental comfort; and by using the Poche_Truss building system, our ADUs achieve passive survivability in these times of uncertain utility reliability and climate upheaval.

Moving forward. Not going back. Good design is like that.  

Architecture for the joy of being

Old growth redwoods outside of Crescent City CA, September 2021 (c)mlRobles

I have lived in Boulder since 1978 when I stopped on my way to Seattle from Tucson. I was a bright-eyed romanticist architecture graduate from the University of Arizona College of Architecture. Boulder struck me as so very very obviously beautiful, it hurt my eyes after the austere and sublime desert of Arizona. I was annoyed at all this beauty just oozing out everywhere I looked. But the city was so sweet and kind and accessible after the endless sprawl of Tucson, so I stayed, and stayed, and stayed.

I began to see beyond the obvious beauty of this natural setting and to love the seasons that transformed verdant landscapes into wet yellow clumps and to find streaks of ochre and lime green in the dirt and rocks and to engage the fog in hide and seek and allow the clouds that sweep over the foothills to blow my mind.

As the decades passed it was the city that began to hurt my eyes and ears. I would travel away and come back to a renewed letdown at the small-mindedness that was driving change in my city. What had been a remarkable Frank Shorter running through the city became every wannabe in spandex flashing through the neighborhoods. What had been neighborhoods of modest bungalows and ranch houses with big mature trees became neighborhoods of houses and trees scraped clean to make way for shiny super-sized and paved mcmansions to satisfy the appetites of the increasing influx of people wanting something from our city. As though that early sweet kind accessible city that nurtured the likes of Frank Shorter and Mo Siegel could be had with a bulldozer!

I have sat in stillness these recent years as bulldozers’ dust made my eyes tear and the loudness of STUFF moving in and around made me deaf. The quieter I got, the less the influx mattered. The raw greed, massive consumption, and little regard for what was already here became innocuous. I stopped fighting and surrendered. And then something remarkable happened. The simple joy of being began to rise. And the questions that pressed my mind had little to do with annoyance at the state of my city, rather they became instances of insight that touched my heart. You can read about this evolution in my previous posts, today, we feast at the center of this insight: architecture for the joy of being!

If this sounds dubious to you, stop and look around. Take a few breaths. What do you feel? Then take another breath and see what you feel, then another and another until you find you aren’t looking around but rather looking within. And all you feel is space. This is the point of architecture: to articulate space such that its inhabitants can find their way to inner space. The noise stops. Joy rises. It is the highest calling of my profession.

I return to being a bright-eyed romanticist but I am also a mature architect and I know that not everyone is ready to be still and to find their way to the space within. The dazzle of stuff remains strong. Architecture for the joy of being, however, is here, for those who are ready.   

01 Poche_Truss: a patent-pending building system

Say you woke up tomorrow and found that the world no longer held to the rules you had invested a career holding on to. Rules such that land was malleable and light was functional, and that stillness was a phenomena to be debated but not apparently useful. And you found that instead, there was a growing awareness of a web of life stirring just below the surface of the land; and that light began to give way to emotion wrapped in atmosphere; and that stillness revealed its power to manifest everything.  Do you think this would change anything?

I have invented a new way to build. And it solves many of our current day construction issues such as lack of skilled labor, unstable material cost, and the lean toward making more environmentally robust buildings. As an architect, I am a problem solver, intelligent solutions come from fixing attention on the situation. And so it did with the Poche_Truss. The image below claims all of the above in its patent application.The thing, though, is that parallel to my inventing the Poche_Truss Building System, life happened. It brought with it tragedy beyond comprehension of a magnitude that dissolved my world. The conceptual way of thinking that is so prevalent in architecture slid away with it.                                                                

I feel like Peter  Zumthor must feel; I see like Glenn Murcutt must see;  I hear Ray Kappe’s quiet gaze, yet, more than anything from my learned world of architecture, I sense the presence of a profound reality that I can no longer dismiss.

No – I have not gone all woo-woo. I have held death in my arms and the gift has been to have life implode, snapping presence right here, right now, into the very current of life. This phenomena is not held by thinking, but is simply present in a humble breath.

Here is what remains: I have a patent-pending building system that addresses many of the challenges in our residential construction reality. The Poche_Truss Building System is an audacious disruptive innovation that will rock the construction world. I am just saying…this IS a tangible solution.

Have a look here, though. The thing about poche is that it has a substantive thickness capable of creating a threshold between a deeply human interior and the forces of nature and society on the exterior. If we engage this inherent quality of poche with rapt attention, we can reach a dimension of profound wellbeing. Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name. The poche in our truss building system not only sets up for tangible intelligence, it suggests a new way for buildings to Be* by upping their capacity to change our environment.

*The extent to which a building can Be is determined by its ability to enable the currents of light, air, views, and precipitation to flow and by it being situated such that people can inhabit these currents.

4-06-2021 Boulder, CO

Many of us woke up and have found that the world no longer holds to the old rules and that this in fact changes everything. If you are interested in attending a presentation on the Poche_Truss Building System and/or if you are interested in executing and/or co-founding the Poche_Truss Building System project, please get in touch:  ml@studiopoints.com

Poche_Truss

It is said again and again in the recent decade: housing is the one major industry that has resisted disruption. In spite of the facts that material costs are all over the map; there is a severe labor shortage; buildings account for upwards of 30% of greenhouse gases; extraction, manufacturing, and construction carbon and waste are generally unaccounted for or to; and, there is a severe housing crisis for those having no home to those affording a house on a middle income. Yet the industry barely budges. Small residential projects and developer houses are built as they have been for centuries, with few innovations. Aren’t we done with this? I am.

Introducing the Poche_Truss (PatPend), an audacious disruptive innovation in residential construction. It is a low tech invention that sits right under our collective construction noses, embodied in the humble truss.  

What is not to love? The thin profile of the structural frame and the spacious unfolding of setting them sequentially to magically create space. In my career it was inevitable that this humble construction strategy would take hold of my imagination. In 1997 I flipped the trusses upside down on the Shaffer house and never looked back.

A short two dozen years later, On January 22, 2021, a provisional patent was filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office: Wall Roof Truss Building System, Inventor: ml Robles. Presentations on this building system are ongoing.

ADUforMe 2021

Our first wee house in a backyard is done!  #14 under Boulder’s revised ADU regulations. Its total cost, excluding land, in 2019-2020 was $190,600, at 540sf that translates to $353/sf.  

Our second wee house in a backyard is under design. This one is substantially different. For one, lumber costs have more than doubled in cost and preliminary cost came in at almost $500/sf. A 41% overall increase! Plus – Boulder adopted the IECC’s 2018 energy conservation standards. But wait, there is more – COVID-19 happened and the city approval process is spiraling in excess and redundancy. Yikes. I, however, remain undeterred in building ADUs to change the way we make small houses and use our urban land. ADUforMe and Studio Points are making their way through all of this. We bring a solution to the table. Coming soon…the Poche_Truss!

ADUforMe.com Forum

ADUforMe ONLINE Forum & FAQ

The purpose of this forum is to give ADU users, owners, or builders a place to seek answers and find community. Although we see ADUs increasingly referenced these days, they are still somewhat of an enigma as some folks think of them as small versions of big houses or house versions of cheap condos; others see them as prefab boxes; others consider them high yield income options; others see them as opportunities to provide housing for many who might not get to live (or remain) in amenity rich neighborhoods. Essentially folks come to ADUs from many and varied perspectives. As an architect I defer to the notion that in providing site specific housing, there is no one-size solution. Single family house’s backyards are always specific sites and the owners’ needs and goals are going to differ across the spectrum of ADU owners. All that being noted, however, there are definitely many things all ADUs have in common. Size and backyards being two obvious ones. Having non-developer homeowners is another.

I will kick off the forum with my takes on the common ground:

ADU size: Where will all my stuff fit? is a common reaction to size.  I can definitely feel the pain of one’s attachment to their stuff. You have to be uber awake to dodge the constant temptation to consume this or that, even in the grocery store we over purchase from a make-believe reality that we will hurry home and chop and dice and simmer and produce those picture perfect morsels. Truth is, we throw away one pound of food each day!  It is supremely hard to back off from the consuming we have undertaken most of our lives. Yet read any of the stories of the ones who have escaped and are living a minimalist ideal. By hearing how those few are shedding the stuff and all the stress that comes from buying and living with it, we can feel an exquisite exhale. Now this is what I am interested in: losing the drive to buy, buy, buy and replacing it with empty. Just space, and light. This is the start of right sizing your ADU.    

Backyards: used to be this is where most of our urban nature living took place, where we kids were free to imagine. Today’s backyards have been usurped by rarely used designer outdoor kitchens, electric pump activated babbling brooks, and manicured landscaping. No self-respecting kid would play ‘fort’ in those bushes, do kids even know how to play ‘fort’? It seems backyards are up for a revelation. Without getting into all the social justice issues of zoning, my take on backyards is that they are gems of nature waiting to be of use once more, waiting to burst us open with imagination. Hold on to that feeling and it will guide these backyard houses toward a right fit.

Non-Developer homeowner: changing regulations in cities and municipalities across the nation have hurled hundreds upon hundreds of homeowners upon the doorstep of building a small house in their backyard. Talk about lost! ADUs wobble like Jell-O as builders and bankers drool over an untapped market. The good news here is that most of the folks peering into the ADU market are gearing up at about the same speed. Will it be the profit-seeking developer or the game-changer agency or the one-by-one builder who will slide ahead and define the future of ADUs? If I am to believe in a right sized ADU of space and light guided to land in service of an emerging societal shift, then my two cents are with the game-changer. And I do not take the lost homeowner as truly lost but rather momentarily disoriented. Here is where my decades of architecture practice and studio teaching will guide. We may all be gearing up at the same speed, but the path I take cuts directly into a world where we will want to live.  

FAQ

What is an ADU? ADU: Accessory Dwelling Unit, backyard house, granny flat. ADUs are basically a second house on your single family property. They can be inside your existing house or stand alone as a separate house.

Where can I find out if my property can have an ADU? ADUs are subject to zoning law. In most states these are established by your local county or city. In California and New Hampshire the state has established base ADU regulations making them legal on every single-family property in the state, local government cannot deny them. You find out what your local ADU regulations are by checking with your local planning department, it might be your county or city. Some cities and private developers have set up very cool planning tools where you can check your property’s capacity for an ADU online.

What are some resources for getting ADU information? First place to check for resources will be your local planning department, this will lead you to the specific requirements for your property. There are also many non-profit agencies dedicated to ADUs as well as university programs. Additionally you can check online for local architects and builders who specialize in ADUs. When I provide ADUforMe presentations giving the general public basic how-to information, I announce them on my local Nextdoor. You could also try MeetUp. Coming soon, ADUforMe.com will provide a comprehensive resource for all things ADU, so save the link and be sure to check back as we launch. 

ADUforMe ONLINE Forum will launch with our ADUforMe.com platform. In the meantime if you have an ADU relevant subject you would like to bring up, please leave a message and I will get back to you.

ADUforMe.com

ADU for Me.com will be the platform for all things ADU. Looking to build one? Rent one? Find architects or builders who specialize in them? Just wondering how and what others are doing? ADU for Me.com will be the AirBnB for ADUs plus the HomeAdvisor of ADUs plus the NEXTDOOR for ADUs. Accessory Dwelling Units – aka ADUs – are swelling across the country and placing regular folks in the position of being a developer and landlord. ADU for Me.com is the resource to help successfully make those transitions. So, interspersed with the Good Design is Like That writing, you will find information about ADUforMe.com until that site gets launched. Pardon the dust.

ADUforMe Boulder – Do you wonder if you can have an ADU on your property and where it can be located and what size it can be? I can help find answers.