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Some things, even things that seem inconsequential and mundane at the time, have a way of carving out in our minds a permanent place from which we can draw mental images as clear today as they were years ago. Such was my experience the first time I saw the V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco.

It was summertime around my 16th birthday. My dad had invited me to tag along with him on a business trip to a couple of his retailers around the Bay Area. At the time, he was making paper lamps for a living based on an idea that he had come up with as an industrial design student in the 1970s.

The way my dad tells the story, the design concept for his lamps was stumbled upon. While in college, he was working in the bookstore shipping department where books were unpackaged and rolled out to the store shelves to be sold. The shipping room was filled with rolled up pieces of cardboard filler material, which was usually thrown away. In one of his design courses, he was assigned to build something out of a found object. He used the packaging paper found in the bookstore to create a paper sculpture. Starting out as a rolled up piece of corrugated paper, he made razorblade thin perforated cuts on the corrugated side of the paper, then folded it around itself and joined the ends of the paper, yielding a three-dimensional tubular structure with varying surface topographies depending on the way it was cut. Shortly after this, he introduced a light source to the center of the paper sculpture, giving it utility as a piece of lighting furniture.

As delightful as the finished product was, whether lit or unlit, the fact that it could collapse from an airy three-dimensional shade to a flat two-dimensional piece of paper, then rolled tightly and shipped in a compact box was just as important to its success as the finished product. It was, in essence, a deployable structure, a transformer between 2D to 3D.

We had just delivered some of these lamps, called “lumalights,” to a furniture store in Berkeley. On the way home he decided to stop by Limn, one of his retailers in San Francisco. En route, he made a few wandering turns through the hills and past Union Square, then coasted down a quiet alley. He said there was a building there that I might like to see.

When I first looked at the building, it seemed very undramatic to me. The narrow street ally it was in of itself made me question that anything remarkable could be found in such a hidden location. It was as if the building was asking to be ignored. But as I studied the proportions of its facade and appreciated its clean lines, I began to interpret it the best I could at the time — as a page.

For the past few years I had spent one period of my school days in a yearbook class, laying out pages and filling them with pictures and words. From staff member to sports editor to editor-in-chief, yearbook was an outlet for what creative yearnings for expression I had as a high school kid.

But this wasn’t a page; it was a building! And with a utility that appealed to me even more than a pretty page. Looking back now, though unremarkable at the time, this day stands out in my mind as a small hinge on which a great and heavy door was hung.

Several months earlier, at the encouragement of my high school yearbook adviser, I had signed up for a drafting class and taken an unexpected liking to it. Using a straightedge and T-square on a drafting board with pencils was not a far stretch from using a cropper and wax pencils to lay out pages. Measuring with an architectural scale was familiar as I was experienced with using picas to measure on my double-page spreads. But what excited me most was that the drawings I was generating on paper — plan, section, and elevation views — were representations of something that would be built in the three-dimensional world.

When we arrived at Maiden Lane in downtown San Francisco, I thought like a graphic designer, but when we left, I was thinking in another way. At first, I could see cyan eyelines neatly laid out over the facade of the building. The row of square lights along the top of the half-wall in front of the building even looked like 1×1 square pica gridlines. But as I remained there and contemplated its understated beauty in the shadows of the adjacent buildings, the picas gave way to feet and inches. My attention turned to what was supporting the building from below, protecting it from above, and enclosing it on the sides. I was taken by what was behind the facade, the space that gave it function as a building. From this time on, I started thinking about design more in terms of a 3D endeavor than a 2D one. My interest in graphic page design was slowly pushed out of the way by 3D building design.

Just as my dad’s lamp started out as flat sheets of paper and transformed into 3D objects, so my career path steered from a 2D medium to a 3D one in the built environment. We drove away from the V.C. Morris Gift Shop and I started thinking like an engineer.


A few years back, the federal trade commission (FTC) published a pamphlet to assist homeowners in selecting a reputable contractor to perform work on their home. In part, it was to inform them of scams out there that were victimizing unsuspecting people. It is filled with useful information that I highly recommend reviewing prior to engaging a contractor. I found it so helpful that I gave a copy to my mom to help her manage a commercial property that she owned. Here is a link to the website on which the pamphlet is based:


In part 1 of this series on hiring building professionals, we discussed the role of the architect. Our focus now turns to the engineer. First, a brief word on today’s division of labor between architects and engineers . . .

In the old days, there was typically one man in charge of the design and construction of a building project. They called him, “Architect,” or “chief builder.” This person was versed not only in geometry, form, proportion, shapes, colors, etc., but was also intimately familiar with every detail of how a building was put together. He solved problems in novel ways and without volumes of codes with which to deal, was largely left to his wits and the lessons of historical failures to make proper judgments as to what would work and what would not. This heroic daring made these men well-known and admired throughout the world. Architecture was often seen as the ultimate form of art as it not only provided beauty, but utility as well. For a wonderful read on what is was like for this type of historical Architect, see Ross King’s book, Brunelleschi’s Dome.

As building science progressed throughout the industrial revolution with more sophisticated ways of estimating loads on buildings from gravity, wind and earthquakes, there came to be a division of labor. The work of the Architect came to be the work of an architect and a structural engineer. It was in such an office, Adler and Sullivan, that the young Frank Lloyd Wright cut his teeth as a draftsman after dropping out of his civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin. In such offices, one man focused on the structural function of the building project while the other focused on its spacial function and appearance. As technology continued to progress, additional engineers came to focus on the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing aspects of building projects.

So, with this very brief and general history, let’s return to the purpose of this article — do you need to hire an engineer for your building project? The answer requires a basic understanding of how your local jurisdiction (city or county building department) operates.

While each jurisdiction is slightly different in their approach to regulating the construction of buildings within their boundaries, one thing is universal among them — none of them wants to be liable for damages if something goes wrong. This may sound like an overly litigious approach to how building departments operate, but the reality is that while jurisdictions are charged with ensuring public safety and protection of life, limb, etc. they really need to protect public funds from lawsuits, and so they require that someone else — a design professional — be held accountable for building projects. The way they do this is to assign an Engineer- or Architect-of-Record to a building project. Either of these professionals has a seal of authority to stamp and sign projects and has agreed to abide by an ethical code and is subject to disciplinary action if he or she acts irresponsibly.

In most states throughout the country, a professional engineer who is qualified to do structural design on your building has a degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on structures, has experience working in an actual engineering office, and has passed a state qualifying exam. Generally, an architect or residential designer, after having completed plans for a project, will hire an engineer to perform the structural design. This includes sizing framing members and designing the building for lateral wind and earthquake loads.

There is one exception to jurisdiction re-assignment of liability to a professional, and this involves a prescriptive code provision referred to as “conventional construction.” It allows for buildings that are built within certain guidelines of simplicity to be constructed without the design services of a professional engineer or architect. If the project is a simple, straight forward new wood light-frame construction, or a basic addition that does not include the removal of significant bearing walls that might require calculation, a lay property owner can do everything he or she needs to get permitted. Bear in mind that when a project is built using conventional construction, a jurisdiction will do its best to verify that it is done correctly, but ultimately the liability will be with the owner.

For ambitious project owners with fairly simple projects, it is worthwhile to study the current International Residential Code (IRC) section pertaining to conventional construction. All this said, it is getting more and more difficult to complete building projects without a licensed professional engineer due to the complexity of these provisions, but it is generally doable.

So, in summary, here are your basic options for residential projects of wood light-frame construction:

  1. Hire a licensed architect and/or engineer to design your project.
  2. Hire a non-licensed residential designer and engineer to design your project.
  3. Design your own project and hire an engineer to do the structural design.
  4. Hire a non-licensed residential designer to design your project using conventional construction.
  5. Design your own project using conventional construction.

As you can see, two of the five options requires the hiring of a professional engineer (options #2 and #3). If you have an architect experienced in structural design, option #1 allows you to hire an architect only, but it most cases he or she will opt to hire an engineer to assist with the structural detailing. Options #4 and #5 are dependent on adhering to the simplified provisions of conventional construction.

With a basic knowledge of the circumstances under which architects and engineers should be hired, we will focus in the third and final part of this series on how to hire a qualified contractor to build your project.

If you have any questions pertaining to your building project, don’t hesitate to call (925-286-4676) or email ( Good luck!


When it comes time to build, a large portion of a property owner’s stress can have to do with the building professionals they hire. And let’s face it, nobody needs any more stress than they already have these days. Hiring the right architect, engineer, or builder, can make a huge difference in the success of your project. As a property owner, you will want to find in these individuals the right skills, temperament, cooperativeness, and stick-to-it-iveness to see the project through to the end. This 3-part series of articles will help you in your selection of a qualified team of professionals that will help you get the job done right. We’ll begin with the architect.

To start, please review the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) article on selecting an architect. As the primary outreach organization for architects in the United States, the AIA will give you a strong basis for hiring architects in most instances, even for simple projects. My experience working with architects has been almost completely positive, especially when they take the lead on interfacing with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) on behalf of you, the property owner. A lot of the decision comes down to the scale and complexity of the project and at least a few other considerations.

First, how well do you know what you want? If you’re not sure exactly what you want the end product to look like, whether you are building a new home or doing a remodel or addition, an architect can help you to see different options for the arrangement of space, finishes, etc. A good architect can walk through your completed project in his or her mind and see the implications of moving walls around. When they listen to you, they can find optimal design solutions that fit your custom needs. They can also help you understand cost implications and keep you within budget.

Second, how adept are you at transferring your vision to paper? In order to secure a building permit, which is required to legally build any substantial project, you will need to submit drawings to your local building department for review and approval. These drawings will include plan views, sections, elevations, and any details that are required either by your contractor or the building department. Having a basic understanding of how mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems work is essential to completing your plans. Architectural draftsmen work under architects to prepare these drawings for submittal. When drawings come out of a professional office, they are clean and crisp and make a positive impression on the building department. They know that you are working with a qualified team.

Lastly, what is your budget? But before you rush to conclusions, I may not be saying what you think I’m saying right now. There is an old Spanish saying that goes, “Lo barato sale caro,” or “What is cheap becomes expensive (in the end).” In English, we have the saying, “A penny wise and a pound foolish.” I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen owners try to save money early on in a project by not having a well thought out plan only to find themselves spending many times more to correct problems. My philosophy is to do your research, be thoughtful, and do it right the first time. If there is any question in your mind about your abilities to meet the building department’s requirements on your own, err on the side of hiring a competent architect, especially for new construction or major renovations.

It is also worthwhile to explore using a residential designer, which is essentially a non-licensed practitioner who generates the same types of drawings that an architect does, only without a stamp and signature. I have had some very good experiences with seasoned residential designers, who often work out of their homes. An experienced local residential designer who knows how to get through the building department can be a heaven send for an owner with a simple building project. They can also help keep costs down. Whether you go with an architect or a residential designer, be sure to get references and ask to see samples of their work.

So, after considering these questions, do you think you need an architect? Please take note that if you are a do-it-yourselfer and are set on doing your own architectural drawings, go to your building department and request a current checklist of requirements for your project type. These resources are usually available online as well. If you decide to proceed, the chances are you will need to hire a professional engineer to do the structural drawings. There are exceptions to this, and I will discuss them in the next article in this series, “Hiring Professionals, Pt. 2: Do I need a Professional Engineer (PE)?”

If you have any questions pertaining to your building project, don’t hesitate to call (925-286-4676) or email ( Good luck!


In the closing scene of the classic Capra film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, gifts and inscribes his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to his depressed and troubled project with the words, “No man is a failure who has friends.” You may also recall the opening scene when Clarence is playfully chided by God for retaining his copy of the classic Twain novel in favor of something more appropriate for an aspiring angel, like, say, the Bible.

I wonder if the authors and screenwriters of this great American story and film were trying to say something by this; perhaps that friendship is, or should be, even more fundamental to us as Americans than our particular brand of religion. This really would have been saying something back in 1946, a time when Americans on the whole attended church services more than twice as often as they do today.

In 1946, America had just come home from World War II, a war in which, for the first time, Americans of all races came together to fight a common enemy — an ugly form of fascism that excluded minorities of all sorts. Young American men gave their lives on the battlefield for those fighting alongside them, regardless of the chapel they worshiped in or which side of the tracks they were from. They learned to be, as the Marine Corps motto suggests, Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful), and became trusted friends, willing to die for each other in battle. In my opinion, it was in this crucible that a more tolerant generation of Americans emerged — a generation whose children would lead the long overdue crusade for civil rights in America.

Back to our movie. Knowing as we do that Clarence loved Tom Sawyer, he couldn’t have been unfamiliar with its sequel and counterpart, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this gem of American literature, Twain gently guides his reader along with his main characters, Huck and Jim, down a powerful river, masterfully exploring a moral dilemma that was as much then as it is now central to the American story — race. The story’s moral climax is reached when young Huck says that he would be willing to go to Hell before turning his runaway slave friend, Jim, into the authorities.

Clarence knew exactly how to help a suicidal George Bailey from jumping into the icy river. I like to think that Clarence also knew exactly what he was doing when he connected Twain with the idea of friendship. Friendship is so universal a theme that it has the power to change the world, just as it changed the raft Huck and Jim floated on and just as it changed George Bailey’s outlook on life.

So, is there significance to the fact that Clarence cheers up George with Twain instead of the Apostle Paul? They could have easily substituted the Bible for Tom Sawyer, and had Clarence inscribe for George Bailey something out of Corinthians, maybe something about charity, which is certainly connected to friendship. Or he could have inscribed the scripture from the Gospel of John that says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” They could have tied a biblical passage into the movie’s theme just as seamlessly, but ultimately, in my opinion, chose not to for at least a couple reasons.

First, Capra leaves out direct commentary on religion in his story of friendship just as Mark Twain leaves it out of his story of friendship because both understood that there are principles more fundamental to us as Americans than our varied forms of worship. “We are all in this together,” each says. “And we can all get a little bit crazy sometimes when it comes to our religion and what each of us thinks God is saying to us — so, let’s just calm down and get to something fundamental,” they encourage. Nothing, it seems, could have been quite so fundamental to either of these men as the power of friendship.

Second, I think one of the keys of the film’s endearing qualities is its accessibility, and once you introduce religion into a concept that doesn’t need religion for it to stand, you can suffocate it. It can also make it unnecessarily complicated. Frank Capra may have taken to heart what Twain himself said: “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. (Fortunately,) everybody drinks water.”

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as in many of his other films, Capra puts a typical American full of failures and frustrations, even bouts of depression, in the spotlight, and shows us what it means to be a success. And, like all great works, there may be something beneath the surface of it that makes the lessons George learns from Clarence as applicable today as they have ever been.


(POSTSCRIPT: As a religious person myself, I am enriched and strengthened in friendship by those within my faith community. I also appreciate works of literature and film that have religious qualities without being “religious.” I believe the stories discussed in this article have that transcendent quality and can lead people to faith. Friendship is not just a principle of religion, religion is an expression of mankind’s attempt to build communities of friends. Communities of faith the world over have gathered around the proverbial fire of friendship. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, the largest religion to come out of the fabric of 19th century America, understood this. He said, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” Much of what we know about his life comes from the accounts of his friends and enemies. Joseph once said, “I don’t care what a man’s character is; if he’s my friend—a true friend, I will be a friend to him.” As if it were a foreshadowing, his life ended violently at the hands of some who were once called friends.)



Here’s how it works . . .

Step 1: Hire a licensed design professional (architect or engineer) to complete and submit a screening form by 9/15/2014. Please call us at 925-817-1120 to set up an appointment with an engineer. Be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Was your building built before 1978?
  • Is your building two stories with a basement or greater?
  • Does your building contain 5 or more dwelling units?
  • Is your building wood-frame (Type V) construction?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of the above questions, you are exempt from the program. Have your engineer submit the screening form (requires engineer’s seal) and you are done.

If you answer ‘yes’ to all of the above questions, please continue reading – you will be required to complete Steps 2 – 3:

Step 2: Retain your design professional’s services to analyze the building and prepare construction drawings.
Step 3: Hire a licensed building contractor to submit your plans. Plans must be submitted for building permit according to the following schedule:

  • School, assembly or care facility  (Tier I), 9/15/15
  • 15 or more dwelling units (Tier II), 9/15/16
  • Commercial building (Tier IV), 9/15/18
  • All other buildings (Tier III), 9/15/17

You will have two years to complete the work from this deadline.

When all is said and done, the City of San Francisco estimates each soft-story retrofit to cost from $60,000 to $130,000. Please note, however, that every project is different. Design fees are a percentage of this total cost and we take great care to provide not only structurally appropriate solutions, but cost-effective ones as well. Our goal is to make your building and the City of San Francisco a safer place to be.

And that’s it. At the very least, this is what you need to know. For the inquisitive, here is a list of some good background and supplemental information:

Briefting/Workshop: Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program – October 28, 2013

Brown Bag Lunch Talk: Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program – October 3, 2013

Seismically Sound by Tom Hui, San Francisco Apartment Association Magazine July 2013
U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 151-99, Understanding Earthquake Hazards In the San Francisco Bay Region – Progress Toward a Safer Future Since the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.


After a brief introduction to the banjo in college, I was very happy to get reacquainted when, for my 30th birthday, my wife got me a California-made Deering Goodtime. With a few years under my belt now, I’m off to the races with this bar performance in nearby Martinez, CA.


“All my life I have been lying. Even when I told the truth. For I never told the truth for its own sake, but only for my sake.” (Stavrogin in Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils”)