The Challenges Of Dealing With Existing Conditions As An Architect

 Photos via  Redfin

Photos via Redfin

Recently, I have been considering purchasing a property in San Francisco. This is certainly a challenge for anyone but perhaps more so for an architect, since we are obviously so particular about design.

While I am willing to be flexible in such a competitive market like San Francisco, I came across a surprising example of an extreme design compromise. The kitchen layout pictured above is in a converted warehouse in SoMa. As you can see there is a major problem between the oven and the fridge, making the kitchen unusable in my opinion.

I shared the image of the kitchen as simply a funny post on Reddit. However, after getting hundreds of comments it turned into an interesting discussion.

My post and subsequent response was also shared on Curbed.

If you are thinking, "well it must be a cheap place", guess again. It is a $1 million property:

 Photos via  Redfin

Photos via Redfin

I was poking fun at the designers but I did sympathize with the challenges they faced. As architects we have to decide what materials, layouts and features must be prioritized in order to deliver the project on time and/or on budget. 

You can read my thoughts below on what I think went wrong with the design and led to this extremely awkward layout. I also get into some fireproofing and earthquake questions that came up.  


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What is that thing?

 Photos via  Redfin

Photos via Redfin

You are seeing a small portion of a large cross brace. Similar to what is on the right of this image

When a change in building use is made, in this case from a Factory and Industrial to Residential, it usually triggers a seismic upgrade, meaning the braces were added to make the building code compliant.

For uses list see section 302.1 General in the California Building Code

The listing says it was built in 2001 but I assume that was the latest renovation and the seismic upgrade happened at some time before that meaning the latest designers were stuck with the existing structural layout.

Why didn't they think to put an island there, or something?

This is just a guess but when you are laying out a multi-unit complex inside of an existing envelope there are going to be weird conflicts like this.

I would argue this isn't acceptable, but someone decided it was okay. One of the major challenges in multi-family properties is to stack the plumbing walls on top of each other so that you don't have complicated and expensive rerouting issues.

Also you would set out the standard widths of each unit and be more or less stuck with those dimensions to maximize the total number of units, especially in a high cost per sq. ft. area such as San Francisco.

Why isn't it fireproofed?

 Steel with fireproof coating

Steel with fireproof coating

This is a complicated question and I don't have all the information so this is a best guess. There is a difference between the primary and secondary structure in a building. The primary structure provides the support for the building and its components.

The secondary structure, in this case, the cross braces provide lateral support in the event of an earthquake. However, it not required to maintain the structural integrity of the building. Therefore it is not required to be fireproofed. Only the primary structure.

Thinking about it logically if a fire broke out and burned the secondary structure the building would not collapse, allowing the occupants to exit. If an earthquake hit it would retain the structure, again, giving the occupants time to exit. If a fire then started later, the building would already be vacated.

So the only scenario in which it would make sense to fireproof it would be if a fire and earthquake occurred at precisely the same time. The code recognizes this is an unlikely event.

But earthquakes and fires DO happen together??!!

Yes, while it is common for a fire to start AFTER an earthquake (See 1906 San Francisco earthquake) this does not mean that the secondary structure needs to be fireproofed.

For example, if an earthquake happened the cross bracing would provide structural rigidity for lateral and vertical movement. Then, worst case scenario, if a fire were to ravage the building and melt the braces it wouldn't matter because the primary structure (which is fireproofed) would keep the building from collapsing. In addition, in most cases, the building would already be evacuated before the fire had a chance to spread.

Hopefully this was helpful to give you some insight into the challenges of the design process. Also, if you are interested in a quirky San Francisco kitchen I can put in a good word for you.

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Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

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