Cottonwood Modern – Job Site Visits

August 13, 2012 — 23 Comments

One of the most useful exercises that any young architect can partake in is to visit construction sites as often as possible. It is one thing to sit in an office all day designing and drafting up construction details and another thing altogether to spend time on a job site seeing how things actually get built.


New Project 3d view 02

I have a few projects I have been working on but recently my attention has been focused on a particular residential project. I first introduced this project at the end of last year (The Next modern Project) but like all construction projects, getting out of the ground seemingly takes the longest amount of time. Drilling piers and pouring foundation walls is not particularly exciting but they are an extremely important part of the process – if something gets missed at this point of construction, by the time you realize it the consequences could prove to be most disappointing. Getting out to the job site as a young architect is valuable for the simple reason that you get to look at how certain decisions made in the office manifest themselves on site … but I’ll get to my example a little bit later.


grade beams in the formwork

Since this initial phase of construction moves so slowly, I haven’t been going out to the job site with the frequency I will at later phases. All the same, making sure things are in the right place now will save some headaches down the road. In the picture above, one of the concrete workers is walking along the top of an elevated grade beam, making sure that there hasn’t been any locations where the concrete has busted out of the formwork.

concrete form work at the job site

I like to think that when I am on a job site, I know my way around, understand what I am looking at, and don’t create problems for the people who are working on site. In the process of taking these record photos, one moment I am focusing in on some formwork detail … and the next minute I am face down in the dirt, fallen into the “Canyon of Death.” Once I was through falling, my first reaction was “is my camera damaged?” follow a millisecond later by “I wonder how many contractor types are laughing at the architect right now?” To my utter amazement and surprise, despite there being no less than 20 people on site, not one single person saw me fall down. Some might have heard what they thought was the shriek of a small little fancy girl but if they looked around, they couldn’t see me.

grade beams have been poured

This project has some tall grade beams – this is a look along the top of one of the grade beams. The 2×4’s nailed across the top are just in place to keep the concrete beam from exerting too much pressure and blowing out (causing to fail) the formwork.

concrete piers

This is a look towards the interior of the house. You can see the plywood formwork that defines the perimeter of the project and the concrete tubes that are used to create the piers on the interior.

rebar and vapor barrier under slab

This is will eventually become the pool pavilion – a concrete slab will get poured here. The city had not been by yet to inspect the rebar so the contractor has been unable to pour the slab. What you see here is the rebar (metal rods) and the 10mil thick vapor barrier which gets placed under the concrete slab . The spaces between the areas covered in the vapor barrier will be grade beams.

rebar and vapor barrier under slab

Here is another look at the slab area for the pool pavilion. The white pipes you see in this photo are where plumbing will get installed. One is a conduit and the other is a drain line for the sink.

close-up look at a "leave-out" for a recessed light fixture

This is a close-up look at what we call a “leave out.” In the slab there are recessed light fixtures and these cardboard tubes are in the place where the fixtures will eventually get installed but during the concrete our, they prevent the concrete from going into those locations – hence the name “leave out.”

joist pocket

Here is a look at another sort of leave out … in the concrete mass (which happens to be the location where two fireplaces will get installed) there is a rectangular gap missing in the concrete. This is a leave out, also known  in this instance as a “beam pocket.” It is just what it sounds like – a place for the floor beam to get supported.

joist pocket

Another look at a beam pocket from above.



Cantilevered room section in SketchUp

One of the exciting features about this house are the three cantilevered rooms that hang off the rear of the building. Here is a section through the SketchUp model I made at one of the cantilevers.

steel for cantilevered spaces

These cantilevers are supported by a steel frame structure – as seen above. They are basically glass boxes which hang over the edge of the grade beam but the final result should visually be pretty exciting.

steel getting welded for cantilevered spaces

A look at one of the steel fabricators welding the structure in place.

steel for cantilevered spaces

Just the perimeter cantilevers have steel framing, the interior is still traditional wood framing. Since we are in Texas (where it gets hot) we will need to provide air conditioning out at the perimeter edge of these boxes. In order to get ductwork out to the edge, we had to thicken up the floor a bit. We still want the floor of the box to appear as thin as possible so we tapered the edge of the floor joists as they continued out to the edge.

framing in the steel for cantilevered spaces

framing in the steel for cantilevered spaces

Here is a picture looking up at the corner of one of the cantilevered rooms and the tapered floor joists.


floor framing

The other things that are moving on at this point is that the plumbing is getting roughed in and the HVAC at the lower level is started to get installed. It is really important to get these items located properly at this point – especially so for a modern house like this one. You know how the air register should be centered exactly in the middle of some wall? When there is no wall built yet to locate the grill, this can be a difficult process – having well dimensioned drawings at this point is critical for this sort of reason.


termite shielding

I included this picture so you could see the termite shielding that is in place around the entire house. See that bit of silver metal in the picture above? Somehow it’s suppose to stop the bugs from crawling up the wall and eating into the piece of wood that is sitting on top of the concrete.

plumbing rough-in

As an architect, whenever you see a cluster of pipes all grouped together, popping up in a bunch of different locations “sorta” close to one another, it’s always a red flag to go check out. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong, but when the convenience level for the guys who installed it goes down, the likelihood that someone took the easy path rather than the proper path goes up.

clean-outs at the exterior wall

In our case, I discovered the clean outs for two sinks in the kitchen. Normally not a big deal, they are required my code to exist but in this case, these two clean outs – if installed in this location – would be right by the front door and would be poking through large cut limestone slabs. I asked the contractor about them and he said they were already working on where to move them (and in the case of this particular contractor I believe him). This is the photo that supports the point I was starting to introduce at the beginning of the post. If you never get out to the job site, you can’t possibly know all the things that you see going on at the project. IF you rarely get out there, you wouldn’t necessarily even know what you are looking at (and if you are an architect and you are going to tell me that you draw in the locations for your plumbing clean outs I am going to call BS on you).

If you are a younger architect, get out to the job site even if it means going by yourself on your lunch break. I promise you will be a better architect for having taken the time and made the effort. If you are a boss-type person, let your employees out of the pen from time to time and get them on the job site. It’s a win-win situation.






Print Friendly

even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • werunga

    Great article

  • Richard

    Drawing clean outs? Highly unlikely. I’m one of the few residential designers I know that actually even considers plumbing runs while in the design phase, but I’ll be honest when I say considering the clean out locations isn’t one of the items I think about…But because you pointed this out, and it obviously had such a large impact on the final result, I’ll add it to my checklist….
    As stated previously, excellant post Bob. I especially enjoyed seeing the termite prevention method you use. We don’t have termites here on Vancouver Island, but we do have a problem with carpenters ants. It would be interesting to see a drawing detail of the method you folks use as the photo isn’t clear.
    Falling on a worksite isn’t embarassing until they need to call an ambulance…

  • Darren

    Bob, At the steel cantilevers how is the wood framing attached to the steel? Are there threaded studs welded to the steel frame which you use to bolt the wood framing on with?

  • SteveR

    Excellent post Bob. Really like the photos with your added explanatory comments. Even though I’m a landscape architect, and normally might not show up on site until construction is a little further along, I really enjoy watching the construction process and like to see the progress from groundbreaking to final punch list time. The nice thing about photographing projects during construction now, as opposed to 25-30 years ago, is that pixels are a lot cheaper than slides and prints. Please continue with these sorts of reports–and the details!–as well as discussions of interesting or specialized products you might be incorporating into the work. And no, you’re not preachy at all.

    • Thanks Steve, I like doing these sorts of posts as well – maybe because I would have liked seeing this stuff when I was a bit younger. You are right about the photos, I had to go through about 200 photos just to cull these out. Trying to decide which ones to use is really the most difficult part of a post like this one – writing the descriptions is easy 🙂

      Thanks for leaving a comment, I look forward to seeing some more from you.

  • Keith

    Good post Bob, looks like an interesting project. I’m also a firm believer in being at the job site, always have and I always will. I would also suggest to interns and young architects starting out, take a lot off photos while on site. Not only do they serve as documentation of progress, they are also a decent ‘second check.’ Numerous times when back at the office I’ve caught issues while reviewing the photos that I missed while on site.

    • Photo documentation has come light years since digital cameras same on the scene. At the end of the project, we sometimes burn all our record photos onto a few DVD’s and give them to the client so that years from now, they can go back and see where that drainage line in the yard was buried ….

  • Pingback: Cottonwood Modern | Life of an Architect « SOuthMODern()

  • After performing an inspection and sending the report, I had an architect call to argue about a violation I had noted. I do occasionally make mistakes so I was willing to hear him out. After a few minutes of him describing the condition, I finally realized that he hadn’t visited the site yet and was just looking at what he had designed.

    • :/

      I love going out to the job site and when the project budget doesn’t allow for the time, I still go on my lunch breaks, way home from work, etc. I really feel bad for the architects who work in offices where they never get to go see what they’ve been drawing.

  • wadedesigninc

    Thanks for doing this post about the actual conditions on a project, good information for those who do not normally see the impact of the design decisions made in the office. Sorry to hear that you “mis-stepped” (if nobody saw you, was it really a fall?) during your visit, but maybe good to share so others are more wary. Can you give us any more information on the cantelevered sections of the house? Those details of construction are super interesting!

  • architectrunnerguy

    Enjoyable post Bob. I always highly recommend getting out to the jobs, or better yet, building stuff ourselves. It’s a whole lot different when we’re spending our own money!!

    • I am typically crippled as a designer when I am my own client. As far as building things for myself goes, I obsess and most of my work (at the speed I am able work) makes me one of the most expensive contractors ever to walk the planet … but it does look pretty good 🙂

  • TALV58

    Great post Bob. I really enjoy seeing the differences in construction techniques that various areas of the country use.

    • Thanks Todd – one day I’ll have to take you on a tour.


  • LOL, if a tree falls… well it does when the tree sends out a PR notice : ) Glad you & the camera are alright.
    The termite shields – they are not there to necessarily to “stop” the termites but rather to force them to leave a visible sign that they are there.

    • wouldn’t the wood that the termites are eating be a visible sign that they are there?

      We normally require the lumber to be sprayed (it’s a city requirement in our area of the world) and don’t see the shielding too often. We didn’t require it on this job but the contractor put it in at his discretion.

      • +1 for the contractor, borates & others can wash out / lose effectiveness / or not be installed properly
        Yes the damage to the wood can be a good visible indicator, but it all depends on where they enter, and when you spot it.
        With the shield (and the word I couldn’t think earlier) is that they leave a visible tunnel so that they can be caught sooner before to much (if any) damage can occur.
        That is one reason why people doing closed crawl spaces have to leave a 3″ band open in the insulation for inspections if they do not use a shield

  • Bob,
    Loved this post. You out-did yourself on the photo documentation on this one. Sounds like you’re risking life and limb for the good of your clients. Stay safe on those job walks. This looks like an amazing home coming together! Again, really like this one!

    • Thanks Erik – I worry about creating these sorts of posts, not sure how people will respond. Do they give you tired head or do they come off preachy?? At least I know you liked it.


      • No, not preachy at all. In fact, I enjoy these posts as much as anything else on the site. I know it takes planning, forethought, and a lot of effort to put something like this together. It’s appreciated more than you know.

      • Not preachy. You speak from real world experiences and it reflects well in the blog. The amount of effort you put into these posts are not wasted on most of your readers. It is apparent that that you do good work and you like the work you are doing. Glad the camera is OK!