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The Modern Estate
Bones of a Mansion

by Robert G. Brunetti

It takes complicated construction techniques—and possibly steel framing and concrete floor slabs—to produce a massive new “advanced home”

Construction_Spring_07.jpgThe scene is familiar to any commercial builder: A construction site bustles as a 50-ton crane sets steel, an engineer inspects the concrete deck for the upper garage, an elevator representative takes measurements for the installation of support rails, and multiple site supervisors dot the area, hard hats bent over hundreds of pages of specifications. It’s a common sight, but the scene unfolding here will have an unusual ending: The complicated construction techniques employed on this site will produce not a complex commercial structure, but a private house.

This is no ordinary house: It will have more than 15,000 square feet of living space, its own private movie theater, a garage (on two levels) for five cars, a backup generator capable of running a small factory, and automated systems that control everything from the temperature of individual rooms to the working of the video security cameras.

Building an advanced home like this imposes unique challenges for builders and architects, and so they are turning to construction materials and methods normally reserved for commercial applications. Design elements like extremely high ceilings, 30- to 40-foot-tall atriums and open foyers, and multiple rooms large enough to hold a cocktail party for 100 people, push the limits of conventional lumber sizes and residential construction techniques. Additionally, the finishes chosen for these homes are intricate, leaving little room for the imperfections typically tolerated in conventional home construction.

To construct these homes, builders are using the same structural-steel frames, concrete floor slabs, and metal stud framing found in most small- to medium-sized office buildings. They may even use three-phase electrical services, central chiller plants, elevators, commercial-grade lighting systems, smart-house management systems, extensive security systems, and computer networking solutions found previously only in the workplace.

A home built with these techniques can be alluring—dramatic in its proportions, perfectly tailored to the owner’s sophisticated lifestyle, and able to function with minimal staffing. But be warned: The use of commercial building technology mandates engaging a huge team of engineers and technical experts, and the design and construction effort is far more complicated—and much less tolerant of changes and refinements during construction—than the traditional home-building process would be. Even so, though, there is a growing demand for advanced homes built with materials and methods formerly reserved for commercial ventures.

The Greenwich residential market, in particular, is a hotbed for the application of commercial technologies. Though there’s no particular trigger for the employment of these methods, a home valued at around $5 million is likely to contain a generator, a lighting-control system, and, possibly, some structural steel (there were 75 such houses sold in the Greenwich area in 2006). In homes valued at more than $7 million, most of the commercial technologies described above (with the exception of concrete slabs and metal studs) are usually employed. And once a home’s price surpasses $9 million, the full gamut of commercial technologies will most likely be considered.

If you suspect that your dream house will require commercial technologies for its construction, ask all of the prospective builders and architects you are interviewing to show you examples of completed projects in which they have implemented these technologies. You may feel as if you’re caught in a classic Catch-22: You can choose to interview only architects who have the experience to handle construction design challenges, but that may severely limit your pool of candidates. Furthermore, how do you know whether you’ll need an architect experienced in the use of commercial technologies before your house is designed?

One option is to initially hire an architect, whose job covers only the development of the initial design concepts. If it is determined that the construction will require commercial methods, you can then choose an architect who has the expertise to deal with that. This option lets you find an architect with the right artistic approach to get your vision onto paper, but still gives you the freedom to later choose from a narrower pool of architects who have the full experience and extensive staff necessary to actually bring the concept into reality.

Another solution: Very early in the process—sometimes even before you hire an architect—you might engage an owner’s representative to provide guidance on technical options. His or her job is to work directly for you, guiding you on design and construction issues and assisting with the management of the project. This professional is usually given the authority to direct both the architect and the builder on the owner’s behalf (thus adding checks and balances to the process). Since it’s often unclear whether it’s the architect or the builder who has the lead responsibility at any given point in the design/construction process, centralizing the authority in an owner’s representative both stabilizes the project and relieves the owner of much of the burden.

Whether your dream home can be built the traditional way or requires more advanced construction methods, you can be a more active (and savvy) member of the home-building team if you understand the lingo your professionals will be tossing around. What do you know about steel superstructures, structural concrete floor slabs, generators, three-phase electrical service, a central chiller system, metal wall studs, security options? My additional article, featured on The Modern Estate’s Spring Issue Web site, www.themodernestate.com, will enlighten you. TME

Robert G Brunetti, PE, is director of construction services for Pecora Brothers, Inc., a custom-home builder and project management firm located at 67 Holly Hill Lane, Suite 300, Greenwich, Connecticut. 203.863.9555; rbrunetti@pecorabrothers.com; www.pecorabrothers.com

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