Why I Love Spec Homes



The famous Architect Mies van der Rohe, author of the quip “less is more” was once asked by a client what he envisioned for a site.

“Nothing, until I get a soils report!” was his response.

Thus it is with good architects – they don't speculate on what's possible with a project until they have all the information they need to do so confidently. They complete a thorough analysis before putting pen to paper (or mouse to mouse pad these days). Architects like challenges, and existing building renovations are always more challenging than their ground-up equivalents. Lots of unknowns - which is perfect if you like a challenge.

Last week I was working on a home remodel for client with a what I suspect is a “spec” home on a hillside. Spec homes are built by developers to make as much as possible in as short an amount of time as possible. They are thus "speculative" in that the builder is gambling that they can make a profit by building and selling the home quickly. Quality and thoughtful design take a backseat to curb appeal. They are rarely well thought out, and architects get involved only in the most high end spec homes.  The result is that most are marginally functional, barely up to code space planning / architectural nightmares.

(not my client's home ;-)

I love 'em!

The client had purchased the home some years ago and it is now bursting at the seams. They are a married couple with a growing family, and relatives frequently visit for extended periods. The client wanted to remodel the interior to make it more spacious and wanted to create a new bedroom by relocating the kitchen. Because of a lack of space, they asked me to investigate expanding the interior to capture some exterior balcony space. They also wanted to renovate the facade for a more contemporary appearance, and to take advantage of the spectacular view denied by thoughtless window placement.

Slam dunk, right?

Well, not exactly. Before I explain why, a little background is in order regarding zoning and building codes.

Building codes have been around since the dawn of civilization. The very first building code was contained in the code of Hammurabi. It is one the oldest documents ever discovered and deciphered. The penalty for the builder of a structure that collapsed and killed someone was death.

And people complain that codes to day are too strict!

The code of Hammurabi makes perfectly clear the purpose of building codes. They exist to protect life and limb. Planning and zoning codes perform a related function, in that they are concerned with the quality of buildings as they relate to their surroundings. In rural areas, planning and zoning is usually minimal. This changes dramatically when trying to build in dense urban and suburban environments. Each city has its own planning and zoning codes, and failing to understand and work creatively with them is the number one reason people have problems getting building permits. These codes are complex, and often seemingly arbitrary or contradictory. They are legal statutes, so laypeople have difficulty understanding and interpreting them. Because they change from city to city and over time, it's useless to try to memorize them. The design of any building project – even an interior project – must start with a thorough code analysis. Failure to do this leads to major problems down the road.

So my client is chomping at the bit, excited by all the expansion possibilities. “Can we do it” he asked.

“Maybe" I answered
"...but first I have do a code analysis”

So a few days later I sat down and did the analysis. As I suspected the home was built to the maximum square footage allowed on the lot. No additional square footage can be added legally. 

So how did I figure out expansion was out of the question? First I researched the codes. Then I drew up the existing building from my own field measurements and did an area calculation for both the existing building and the lot. This allowed me to calculate the ratio between the two, which was .35 home to lot size. This ratio is what's called the “Floor Area Ratio” or FAR. FAR refers to the ratio of habitable built square footage allowed relative to the overall square footage of the property the building is sited on. Let's say you own a piece of property that is 1/8 of an acre. That's 5445 square feet. If your local zoning code specifies a FAR of .35 (35%) you are allowed to build no more than 1,905.5 square feet. Any competent developer will try to use the FAR to its full potential by building as much square footage as possible. That means that so called “spec” (speculative) home developments are almost always maxed out in terms of square footage. FAR calculations are not always this simple – some spaces are not counted in some jurisdictions, like garages. Large commercial mixed use projects may get what are called a “density bonus” for including certain public or private amenities like affordable housing units or dedicated public spaces. FAR also impacts parking requirements which are usually based on square footage.

Sometimes budget, or height restrictions or view corridors or soils geology prevent maximizing the FAR. That's why its important to check rather than assume it is already maxed out. This is just one part of the rigorous analytically process needed prior to designing any building.

So what about my client? What about their need to expand?

Well, after doing some space planning, I figured out how they could better use their existing square footage. The Achilles heel of speculative development is its utter lack of creativity. Wasted space and missed opportunities abound. There was so much wasted space I was able to add two bedrooms and expand the master bath without adding a single square foot to the floor plan. They got a much better dining area in the bargain, and the new design will make the interior feel much larger. I was also able to open up the master bedroom and living area to a spectacular view to the south as part of the facade renovation. The careful use of overhangs will allow sunlight to penetrate and warm the house in the winter, while shading the glass in the summer to keep the home cool. This will save them money on both their heating and cooling bills while making the home more open and inviting year round. Creating good architecture requires a mix of analytic skills, creativity, and a mastery of construction techniques, materials, and methods.

So that's why as an architect, I love  spec homes. There are challenging opportunities for improvement, and nothing is more satisfying than helping an ugly duckling blossom into a graceful swan.

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811 N Catalina Ave,
Suite 2306
Redondo Beach, Los Angeles County 90277

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