photos by Matt Taylor
Chapter 7. Between Design and Build: Assembling the Team (and Surviving Plan Check)
Art Dyson contends that the transition from design to build, in fact, the whole planning process should include the builder. While the logic is infallible, builders are reluctant to get involved. They don’t have time to spend planning—they want to build. They have a better working concept of the cost of materials and labor involved in a design than the rest of the team, but the architect and the client make the give-and-take decisions about what’s worth skimping or stretching on. Ask a builder if the most outrageous idea can be built, and the answer is almost always, “Well, it can be…” with a poignant trailing off of the voice and “here we go again” implied in the ellipse.
Design-build is ideal with the right crew. On the first remodel of the ranch house, Boback Emad was following up his apprenticeship with Dyson, branching into design-build, so we all worked together, designing, building, and paying cash as we went. The plans the County approved were accurate, but simplified. We took the walls between the kitchen and dining room down to studs and made a round table out of cardboard to scrutinize the scale. In an email, Matt Taylor describes a design-build success in a remodel of a 19th-century corner building in Turin, Italy into what he calls a navCenter: “All of the ‘working over and with one-another’ was done with harmony and collaboration. We were all––architect, engineers, construction managers, craft-persons, sun-contractors, suppliers––together, building art.” In both these scenarios, the designers, builders, and clients were equally invested in the outcome and so applied equal energy and commitment to the job.
Frank Lloyd Wright sent apprentices out to live on the site as they oversaw the construction. In At Nature’s Edge: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Artist Studio, Henry Whiting describes Wes Peterson’s role in overseeing the building. Whiting sought out the same craftsmen who had worked on the original construction as he refurbished and repurposed the studio as a residence. In imitation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s model, we ultimately chose, for both houses, contractors who had apprenticed with Dyson; in this way they had a pre-existing relationship with the architect, and, having drafted for him, understood his philosophy, style and core ideas.
The first time, though, in 1986 or so, we sought a contract with pre-determined cost and time. We did some research and toured jobsites and completed residences and chose four contractors. Our budget in 1986 was $80K. The bids came in at 80, 90, 280, and 280. I argued for the apprentice, Greg Potter, at 90. By the time it was complete, and with no little frustration on Potter’s part, the house cost $120K, but we were pleased with the result. I talked to Greg and Belinda Potter recently, and Greg expresses deep pride in the sculptural home he built. Belinda remembers forsaken vacations. A gracious person, she agrees the result was worthy, but Greg never continued in contracting after that experience.
In the 90s, I was subpoenaed to testify on Art’s behalf about that contract. It seems a couple had hired Dyson to design a certain home with a certain budget. When the bids came in higher than the budget, they refused to pay Dyson for his work. In the meantime, they built a color-by-numbers mansion. Art’s counsel called me up and asked if I would testify, which I was glad to do. He announced at the hearing that my house had been built on budget, which, of course, it hadn’t. When I told the true story (and nothing but the truth), the judge leaned towards me and asked, “Was it worth the overrun?” I must have looked at him incredulously because when I said, “Oh, yes!” everyone kind of chuckled, and the McMansion people blushed. Dyson won the case.
Our contractor for the RiverHouse had also been a draftsman in Dyson’s office. While, after an intimate 28 months with the man, it’s impossible to separate the building of the River House from Sid, we had originally narrowed our choice of contractors to six. The first two showed us mansions on “The Bluff” in Fresno, which were massive and well-crafted, but showed no recognition of Dyson’s sense of design–so they were out of the running. After experiencing such a disconnect between our vision and the expression of the first two contractors, we decided meeting at our current Dyson Home was a fair but revealing litmus test; contractors would know what they were in for. If we spoke the same architectural language, then we could travel to see their work. One contractor drove up to the Creek House and started shaking his head in awe as he stepped down from his truck. He held his chin, as if to control the shaking, but he shook it up the stairs, through the whole tour, and as we came down the stairs towards the massive glass and wood front door, he said, “I couldn’t do this,” and laughed in defeat.
Steve Soenke had been working on a Dyson remodel and became somewhat involved in the planning of ours. His craftsmanship and design details on the Fox-Wosika Residence impressed us. We appreciated his articulate expression, his talk of world events, and his border collie Hank, who accompanied him everywhere—in the office, in his truck to the site, and who played well with our Queensland Audrey. A contractor lives closely with you over a year or more; it’s critical to feel comfortable in each other’s company—even better if your dogs get along. Mukai was busy with a big project in the Mountains out of town. We started to think of Soenke as our guy.
Tingling a little in excitement, we pulled up to Steve Soenke’s office in Fresno’s Tower District, also a Dyson design—an aborted restaurant project the contractor cleverly converted with a lot of style—bold colors, drop spot lighting, seven matching panels of abstract oil paintings rescued from another restaurant failure (overwhelmingly, innovative restaurants struggle in Fresno). Hank greeted us with exuberant wagging, and Steve ushered us inside the airy, open office for the bid. We sat down, smug that we’d decided not to be shocked if it was up to 25 percent over budget. The design was brilliant; the contractor was skilled—we could swing it. Steve set down an elaborately tabbed and indexed bid. I noticed he took a step back rather than sitting as well. He launched an item-by-item explanation, but I impatiently flipped to the last page. The bid came in at over $500/square foot: 1.4 million dollars, well over twice what we’d budgeted. The steel bid alone was 310 thousand. Suppressing any reaction and ignoring a roaring inside my head, I picked up the bid folder and walked back to the car. Through the glass wall, I saw Greg stand up, look at Steve, then at me; then he strode out and joined me. “No one will be at Art’s this late,” I grumbled. Greg asked what I thought, but I couldn’t answer. We drove in silence; my brain was whirring like a batch-basic computer, sifting through all the cards to come to an answer. Clamped down, I had to have appeared rude to Steve and cruel to Greg, but I had to think and I didn’t want to cry. We had choral rehearsal that evening, and I had one class in the morning before I could talk to Dyson. Distracted and still calculating, I sang half-heartedly through the Durufle “Requiem,” and I spoke still in mono-syllables to Greg on the way home. He remembers me waking him up in the night and saying, “So, if it’s twice our budget, we’ll slice off the top half.”
Having slept little, I wore a Reedley College sweatshirt and jeans to my Friday morning class and went straight from class to my car. “How did it go?” Art asked optimistically, rising to meet me when I burst in the door. I usually greet Grace and give Art a hug, but I went straight to the conference room and slumped in a chair. I said the same thing to Art that I’d said to Greg in the night, my hand slicing the air: “We have to lop off the top half.” I told him the total bid and price per square foot. It’s hard to unsettle Art, but he was as shocked as we were. I know I began talking too fast, detailing what I’d considered all night: “we’ll make it one story; it has to get back under 2,000 feet; if it’s single-story, do we need all that steel? The downstairs is the important part—if we just bring the master bedroom downstairs…” I didn’t want to destroy his design, but we simply couldn’t afford it.
He said we’d start a new one-story design immediately.
One thing Art says he learned from Bruce Goff was an attitude about revision, but he said it wasn’t easy for him to learn. Art had designed a fireplace for a woman, and she just didn’t like it. At first Art was provoked—that design was perfect! Some time passed before she asked for another design, and he realized he was excited to have another shot at it—and the second design was immeasurably better. Dyson said that when Goff had drawings returned, he responded with “a sort of glee: I get another chance to really get it right!”
River House, Take 2: One story; 2,000 square feet exactly. We were even happier with the elegant simplicity of the one-story elevation. We wanted four bids, but we could only gather three builders we liked. No one, in 2008, would consider a contract like the one we’d had in the 80s. It would be “cost-plus,” but all three promised they would work with us to keep costs down. Steve Soenke, of the first draft, was one; we were still impressed with his professionalism, wit, intelligence and organization even though Art thought he might still be high. In our neighborhood out in the Riverbottom, Kevin, a local Mennonite builder was remodeling a locally-designed organic 1940’s home with built-in furniture that looked out onto Collins Creek. The craftsmanship was beautiful and true to the Wrightian design, and our neighbors and the subcontractors were all content. Because he lived out east of town like we did, we thought Kevin might have a competitive bid, and we had to consider price. Kevin’s brother designed organic homes in Colorado, so he was not frightened by the style. The third was Sidney Mukai, who had been the general contractor on the Geringer House, built not long before the Lencioni Residence. He is an architect-builder himself and had been an associate of Art’s in the 80’s, so, to the extent it’s possible, he understands the inner workings of Art’s mind; perhaps most importantly, Art was partial to him personally. The day before the bid-opening ceremony, I’d told Greg that I also favored Sid. I like the Frank Lloyd Wright model of apprentice-on-the-job. The Geringer House Sid built is a masterpiece, but sensible. It bode well for us that he knows design as well as building, and he does most of the work himself. It may take longer, we considered, but he’s a perfectionist.
The day before the momentous bid-opening ceremony, we picked up Steve’s sealed bid from his office. We chatted with him blithely and said we’d call tomorrow. Kevin was going to drop his off at the house on his way home from the job in the neighborhood, and Sid, who lives near Art’s office, was going to drop it off there. We came home late from rehearsal, and there was no envelope from Kevin, but a message on the answering machine: “I’m sorry,” the message began. “I was so excited to work on a house like this that I didn’t consider all the other obligations I have committed myself to. I have too many projects going, and I have promised work for family. I know I’ll regret this, but I have to withdraw my bid.” We were disappointed because we had wanted four bids for balance, had reconciled ourselves to three, and now, with only two, we wouldn’t be able to gauge high and low bids as well.
Friday morning, we were back in Art’s conference room. The lone envelope lay in the center of the conference table. Greg paced. Art told jokes. I tried to laugh along, but the two-bid prospect seemed teetery to me, and it was 9:00 (deadline), and Sid’s bid wasn’t here. We stalled and told stories. “Remember when you bid out the first house—the variety of bids?”
At 9:30, we couldn’t stand it any more. We’d left messages for Sid, but he hadn’t answered. “Let’s see what we have here,” Art finally said, and we were relieved that he’d been the one to cave first. I opened the envelope slowly, then dropped my elbows onto the table and spread the message between my hands so they could see: “I respectfully withdraw my bid. Steve Soenke.” Greg exhaled in a nervous laugh. Art simply pronounced, “Well!” Before I could wilt in despondent anguish, my cellphone rang. Sid was on his way. We all but froze for the minutes it took him to travel the few blocks between his house and Art’s old office. Sid stood nervously in the conference room doorway. Even though the ceremony had deteriorated, I thought at the time it was important to keep up the appearance of propriety. I looked at Greg and Art and told Sid we’d call him later that day.
Sid’s bid was reasonable and our relief was extraordinary. He was clearly the only man for the job.
Because we liked Steve and thought he liked us, I felt comfortable enough (not comfortable, I suppose, but confused enough and willing to venture) to drive straight to his office and ask, “Why not?” He smiled a smile I like to think carried some regret and said, “I couldn’t make any money on it.” As if he knew I’d show up, he handed me the tabbed and indexed non-bid (I should have had an inkling there was something amiss when the envelope he’d handed us had been so thin). I asked if I could share it with our contractor Sid Mukai, and he said we could. He’d be glad to help in any way he could.
So, we had a contractor; next step was the building permit. When I’d done this 25 years ago, it had been a quick process. Greg Potter had sent me in with the plans (I was 25 with long legs and long blonde hair), and told me to smile. At 50, that ploy is less effective.
The Fresno County planning office is suspicious of anything different. Ron Lucchesi, an architect for the county says he has to look closely at designs from Dyson: “They’re just not ordinary,” he said. Chris Acree, an environmental engineer who “hangs out with” planners, says “the tract home guys” at the County say Dyson’s homes are ‘so cold.’” Chris shrugged, “In planning circles, he may be a joke, but he’s our most valuable asset as an architect in this city.” Before Ann Zimmerman knew her husband Scot (the photographer who introduced us to our architect), or Art Dyson, she was working at the County. She told a story at dinner with the Dysons that one of the one of the guys in planning came to her desk and said, “Ann, you like weird and interesting things. You have to see this house.” He meant the Creek House, of course, where we were eating paella as she spoke. “Hunh,” Art said under his breath. Ann quoted her colleague in a deep voice: “Look at this house—doesn’t it look like hobbits belong here?” “Hunh,” said Art. “He was the inspector,” Ann said. He loved it, she told us, but he added, “This will be a job.” “Hunh,” Art repeated.
When I turned on the tape recorder at the planning desk and asked Lucchesi about Art’s work, his comment was that the buildings need space. “They’re ‘different,’ so it’s better when they’re not surrounded by ordinary houses.” Being a space junkie myself, I tend to agree. I prefer any house to have ample breathing room. But Marc Dyson defended his father’s in-town designs: “I think it’s cool to have an angle jutting out in the midst of uninspired architecture. You’re going down the street and suddenly you’re pleasantly surprised.”
Sid was finishing a project in Bass Lake (out of town on the other side of Fresno), so he said he couldn’t start until November. I was impatient. As teachers, we were anxious to get going while it was summer, but Art consoled me—it’ll take that long to get all the paperwork done, he said. Indeed, I filed for a permit in July. It came back for extra engineering in September. Our engineer had quit engineering to teach high school math in Farmersville, so we found a substitute. We resubmitted, the County demanded that the labeling be accurate—some of it was referenced wrong—and wanted more specifics for which brackets and what type of air conditioning system. We repeated that there was no air-conditioning. Lucchesi agreed there was no need, but we needed a water test to check flow so close to the River. At first, the guys at Rasmussen Pump learned from Irena at the County that the test could only be done at low-water mark in September. By now it was November. Rasmussen, bless them, managed to convince Irena that the water was low enough for an accurate test, so we wouldn’t have to delay almost another year; still, they were busy, so it would have to be after the holidays.
Greg and I had planned ahead to have some time off at this point— Originally, we thought the house would be done; we were both turning 50, and we decided to go to New Zealand for five weeks for our 50th birthday. In education, we must plan way ahead for time off or sabbaticals, so we had the time off, but we couldn’t both afford to be away in the midst of permitting. I’d gone to France with a friend back in June, so it was Greg’s turn. He fled the drear of Fresno’s January for a week’s writing retreat in Cabo San Lucas and waited for updates via email. I came into Fresno–to the County, the engineer, Dyson’s office—almost every day. Greg emailed about his tremendous productivity and breaks spent diving in the Pacific. After the fourth attempt at the permit, on a Thursday, I couldn’t concentrate on writing, so I read the newspaper—every word, including the horoscope, and emailed Greg in Mexico:
I’ve devolved into consulting our horoscopes. You had a glorious 4-star day (not a 5-star day, but still very good). Your Aries reads: ‘An infusion of energy allows you to complete anything that needs to happen. Understanding evolves to a new level, if you want it. Realize that others just might not be able to keep up with you.’
I, on the other hand, had a day worthy of erasing. I was going to erase that– because it’s not true. There’s a lot of good news from today, but some exhausting bad news. Here’s the good news: We passed zoning permit!
Regarding the building permit: I had everything together, except I knew my pump test might not fly b/c Irina had to make a full official report. Irina had told me I should be able to get it through if she signed the data sheet her report would be based on–which she did when she was up at the River monitoring the test herself. The first County guy said we had to have the final report on record. That meant we’d be held up until Monday at the earliest because Irina was out sick today. But Robin (I remember Robin from 25 years ago, AND he’s related to Sid somehow) simply tried again on our behalf. He had the same answer from Irina’s colleague, but he ran into the supervisor who said, ‘Is that the Elwood Place? That well is amazing. It way outperformed expectations.’ He gave us the completed ‘yellow sheet’ and we could have pulled the permit if the plans checked out.
There are still 9 items. Ron Lucchesi came in saying he was in a good mood ‘so far,’ causing Sid and me to laugh nervously. But he saw a few problems (one major enough), then visibly resigned himself to fault-finding. Perhaps it’s like receiving a revised essay that ignored the professor’s notes. He was not unreasonable at all; he crossed off 2/3 of the items, but some areas needed detail. We’re pinning our hopes now on Tuesday. I know–it’s all been delayed so you’ll be back for the grand moment. In fact, after today’s disappointment, I’m thinking you can go in with Sid on Tuesday and take all the glory without me. I’m wary of anti-climax. If we don’t get it another time, I’ll be miserable. If we DO get it (as we should), I’ll have a celebration waiting.
My one-star Scorpio horoscope for today: ‘If you are tired, it is understandable. You can only get so much done, so fast. Someone could be difficult as you want to charge forward. Know when to play the waiting game.’
Tuesday, January 12, 2010, I mustered my courage, and Greg and I both arranged to meet Ron Lucchesi at the County for another shot at passing the permit. We had picked up the revised engineering plans from Paul Miller at Vernal. Paul had done a careful job with clear details overmarked in red. At Art’s office, we reattached engineering plans to the official three sets. Marc Dyson started school that day, so he left a message with his dad and had already called twice for updates, “Did they pass?”
Before Sid even got there, Ron Lucchesi started ticking off the changes which both Paul and Marc had indicated very clearly in red in the margin with page number references and special annotated details. First were several satisfying RL initials filling the circles around certain items: check! Then we came to the corner connections where Paul had still called out upside down brackets. Again, Lucchesi paused. Heat crawled up my neck. “Can we bring Paul Miller here?” I asked “This ridiculous: he explains it as clearly as possible: he has shown that the load is carried this way, so it is stronger upside down. Miller says it doesn’t really matter—there’s minimal load on that joint in any case, but his professional opinion is that it should be upside down.” Greg enjoined, “It’s just a bracket. Why don’t we put one right side up and one upside down?” Ron shrugged and smiled. “I’ll have to talk to my supervisor.” “Should I call Paul?” I asked. “No,” Ron muttered (he knows Paul). “We’ll call him if we need to.”
One time, Dyson was pulling the permit on a large house for a family with seven children, so he had drawn a bedroom wing for the parents and a long wing for the children’s bedrooms with a second staircase for the children. When the staircase wasn’t approved, Dyson took the plans and made some changes, then returned to the county. Where the label had read “staircase,” he had instead written “sculpture.” When the permitter asked what the sculpture was made of, Dyson replied, “metal staircase components.” “But it’s a sculpture?” the permitter asked. “Oh yes,” said Dyson, and the plans were approved.
Sid joined us, and the three of us paced the government office as if we were awaiting a delivery in a maternity ward. We were, in a way: we needed this birth, so this baby could get on with the business of growing. Sid said, “we know there will be modifications in the field. We just need to get out there and get building.” I asked for change for another dollar and walked down around the corner to feed the parking meter. I returned and Greg walked outside for air. I tried to play the game I play in my head of visualizing different activities in the house, but it was hard to concentrate. Lucchesi returned and discussed the mischievous brackets with Sid. They pulled out the massive Simpson Catalogue. “This just gets bigger and bigger every year,” commented Ron. Everything gets bigger—plans didn’t used to be 29 pages long. Sid and Ron found a heavy-duty bracket they could agree on. Sid labeled the specific bracket and signed on each of the three official plans.
We waited: What next? With utter understatement, Ron flipped through the sheets of corrections to make sure he hadn’t missed any, then muttered, “That’s it. Come over here.” Sid looked at me silently but his eyes conveyed exclamation. I, likewise, side-glanced at Greg. Evidently, one is supposed to remain cool and contain one’s exhuberance at this climactic life moment. Then Ron smiled at Greg and me. “Now it’s time for the music of the stamping.” What a delightful phrase! “How are you two at flipping pages?” he asked. “Expert,” said Greg. “Let the wild stamping begin!” While Sid took out the actual permit under his contractor’s license, Greg lifted a page, I lay it flat and Ron stamped each page, “Approved” (!), 87 stamps in all. We rolled two sets of plans up, one for Sid and one for us, and Ron carefully folded the County’s set in a complicated origami, which wrapped the plans around the booklets of certification for engineering and energy and soil.
Then the zoning permit guy said, “No so fast.” He watched as we unwrapped and unrolled: he needed to stamp and sign each site plan. Okay—now? “There’s one other thing,” said R. Nahigian (according to his name badge). His eyes were antithetically kind: “Effective January 1, the Council of Governments (COG), has added an assessment to all new buildings. A ‘Regional Transportation Mitigation Fee.’ Not only was this anti-climactic, but it also didn’t make any sense. How would paying a $1200 fee mitigate traffic a half-hour east of the city? “We began the permit process in July,” I retorted, feeling insult on injury. “It’s taken six months to pull this permit. We shouldn’t be penalized for it taking so long to pass.” He told me that the date they use is the date the permit is issued—today, January 12, 2010. I tried to remind myself how elated I was that we finally had a permit in hand, but this felt like extortion and I suggested as much. “You can check with COG. They may not charge you.” With the suggestion of (unwarranted) hope (we did have to pay), I headed for the glass door; Greg was already outside. But Sid, ever patient, reminded me, “First you have to pay the County.”