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Working with an Architect on a Big Renovation

A good architect can help make a challenging renovation less stressful

A once raw West Loop loft was transformed with the help of architects
Nick Fochtman

When considering a big renovation project, homeowners can easily feel overwhelmed with how many directions they can go in and how pricey the renovation can ultimately be. Some will choose to do the work themselves and use off the shelf materials, but others may decide to hire an architect to help with a renovation. However, working with an architect may be unfamiliar territory for many just getting started with their first big renovation. And even then, architects generally have different strengths or specialties. To help answer some of the basics, we've reached out to Matt Nardella of moss design, a firm that specializes in sustainable design.

When working on a big renovation project for a residential client, where do you start?

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After understanding the desired goals for a project, based on our client’s input, we start by uncovering the problems we need to solve and studying all the free elements our project site has to offer. Such as what desirable environmental qualities can we harness through good design that does not cost us anything. For example, how does the sun and wind influence the project site and how, with smart design moves, can we utilize these resources at no cost to the overall project. Only after we understand that, can we start on our favorite part of a project; drawing.

moss design

Sustainable design and materials are important elements in your work. Why do these things matter?

Sustainability matters to me because there is no such thing as infinite resources on a finite planet. And for what can seem to be an insurmountable problem, as an architect I feel as if I can help to shape the built environment and be part of a solution. It’s only a small piece of environmental stewardship, but something that motivates me and the entire moss team to do good work.

What's your response to the people who think that sustainability and environmentally conscious design is just a fad?

That environmental unconscious design was just a fad. Relatively easy access to materials and energy has shaped our buildings over the last century, but I think we are now realizing that it shouldn’t have. The recent bonanza of thoughtless design is just a small blip in our long history as humans building sustainably. Employing passive design techniques and healthy materials is not only better for the environment but can help make people that interact with our buildings feel better and be more productive. Sustainable design is about thinking holistically and is more important than buying so-called "green" gadgets.

When doing a major renovation, what are some of the things that can go wrong?

A whole host of things can go wrong, which is why it’s important to have an architect on your side given the unpredictability of construction. Since we primarily work on projects inside of existing -- sometimes 150 year old -- Chicago infrastructure, we have a pretty solid understanding of how to deal with and take advantage of archaic materials while we are still in the design phase. However, it’s impossible to predict what is under all the layers of previous construction, so problems arise as we uncover during the demolition phase. Working with our builders we can problem solve on the spot when the unexpected happens, while still having the design goals in mind while we do.

moss design

Is it possible to over personalize when doing a renovation?

As long as your personal taste is rooted in good design, no. I think natural light is the most beautiful, useful and timeless building material there is. Ancient architecture that feels good to walk through and be in today was designed with access to natural light in mind. We approach our projects from a volumetric perspective, so we assess how light and air travel through the space. If we get that part right then I think you can apply almost any personal touch you want. The underlying design is what makes the space feel right and timeless. It’s also why architects think everything should be painted white.

What was one of the most memorable renovations your team worked on?

Working with old buildings, the things I remember most are the old things we uncover. Sometimes I feel like we are architectural archaeologists trying to piece together a forgotten history. I remember all the old signs that revealed themselves after demolition, antiquated fixtures, and long-ago-covered structures. It’s why I love working in Chicago.

The moss design HQ
moss design

Are renovations always going to be expensive? What would you say to those who are on the fence about approaching an architect for a job?

Renovations, relative to building something new, is likely to be less expensive. Utilizing existing infrastructure, whether it is the exterior wall or finish materials will reduce costs, and more importantly, keep perfectly good materials out of the waste stream.

If there are numerous project goals that may not be realistic for the project, my advice is to let us develop a master plan for what could be done if the budget was unlimited. This exercise helps to inform the small decisions we are going to make about a project, but also may uncover something that our client didn’t even intend to do in the first place, but becomes an integral part of the project. In a construction project the design fees are only going to be a small percentage (5-20% typically depending on the size) so I think, however biased, that good architecture is a small investment for something that you will live in for years to come. If you’re going through the trouble of doing it, at least allow us to do it well for you.

What's the best end result when working on a big renovation project?

A space that people love to be in, within the budget and projected timeframe. Ultimately, if our client is pleased then we have accomplished our goal.