Subscribe by Email

Your email:

Follow Me

Come See Our Residential Images on HOUZZ

houzz interior design ideas

Blog Suggestion

If you have a suggestion for a Blog Topic or a Question you would like us to answer, please let us know! We will try to answer your questions, and if we think they will be of interest to our audience, we will publish the responses in the blog!

Also See Ben's Blog...
Sacred Space | Holy Place

SacredSpaceHolyplaceEnjoy these reflections on the suddenly sacred sites we see all about us.

Add Me to Your Database, Please!

We periodically send out newsletters and postcards that keep our clients, friends, and supporters informed about what we are doing. In addition we will send blog summaries and other useful information from time to time. We promise not to send you stuff every day or even weekly -- we hate spam too.

Architecture Blog

Current Articles | RSS Feed RSS Feed

The State of Historic Preservation in Texas


I recently spent a delightful day as a juror for the annual Preservation Texas awards program. Preservation Texas LogoMy fellow jury members were Gary Dunnam a preservation advocate in Victoria, Sharon Flemming with the Texas Historical Commission, and Preservation Texas board member, David Bucek of Houston. Along with Preservation Texas staff member, Krista Gebbia, we immersed ourselves in reviewing some really outstanding projects.


There's no spoiler alert here. I'll leave it to Preservation Texas to announce the results. But for me, our discussions were as insightful as the work we were judging. The range of projects sparked some very exciting conversations concerning the state of historic preservation in our region.


Each of us knew all too well of the threatened deep cuts or outright elimination of historic preservation programs. None-the-less, most of our conversations centered on just how effective preservation efforts continue to be. We discussed the positive impacts in rural communities and urban centers. Beyond just preserving history, we examined the way nearly all of these projects were giving our contemporary communities a lift.


In a state such as Texas, where much of our built environment is relatively new, it is impressive to realize the continuing significance of our historic fabric. One of my colleagues offered a quote to summarize how often preservation is misunderstood. She notes that people assume the program has limited potential. "Aren't you going to finally get finished preserving them all?" No the need isn’t going away. Preserving a building is so much more than just fixing up an old place so it looks new.


Here are some of my thoughts on the greater of value Historic Preservation:



It seems obvious, but a preserved environment really is the ultimate history text. Nothing is more immediate than literally walking through the spaces and places from a previous era. But lessons in sociology, commerce and civics are also encapsulated in the architecture of a given time. These disciplines, too, may be experienced physically by experiencing their influence in the built environment.


Economic Development:

We noted a significant number of ways that preservation projects have had an economic impact. Going beyond the submissions, we noted that historic preservation has been successful in sparking redevelopment in neglected areas. The impact is equally striking for both urban and rural communities. Grants and support from numerous agencies can leverage significant public and private investments and donations. Were it not for agencies like the National Trust, the Texas Historic Commission and many civic and local groups, the opportunity for redevelopment or re-investment might have been missed.


Community Identity:

Simply put, a well-built, well-designed building that has provided many generations of use is likely to be a community landmark. Even when activities change, there's something special about the continued use of a space with its history intact. We discussed the importance of civic expression in many forms beyond individual buildings. When entire districts are considered, it is often the historic places that serve as the defining images or the memorable anchors. When these are upgraded, restored and preserved, the entire area is given a boost.

Epiphany Episcopal HoustonEpiscopal Church of the Epiphany is one of the firm's early modernist designs.

These were my musings as I drove back home, exhilarated with the state of preservation in Texas. We're all reaping the benefits of some amazing efforts and we'll continue to enjoy them for many years to come. There's even some exciting new efforts to recognize modernist landmarks and to save them from demolition or neglect.  Check out Houston Mod's efforts. No we'll not be running out of places and projects that need our help. The current downturn is just the latest challenge, but it also is the latest opportunity to make the case for historic preservation.

Design and 3D Imaging -- What it can mean for you!



During the summer of my third year in architecture school, I started work as an intern at Heimsath Architects.  One day, when we were working on a small residential addition, the client came to the office for an update, and due to a number of unfortunate circumstances (a dead car among them), I was the only one in the office when they arrived.  I had pinned all of the freshly plotted plans and elevations on the wall, so I ushered the couple into the conference room, apologized for the lateness of my employers, and then gave them my best graduate school presentation explaining the in and outs of what we had designed and why.  Once I was finished, I turned (as best I can recall this was the first time I looked at them during the presentation) and looked at the couple for what was sure to be excitement, glee, and extreme gratitude.  Instead, I was met with somewhat blank stares.  And then it dawned on me: they did not read plans.  In the end, I ripped the plans off the wall and with some coaxing (and the eventual arrival of Ben), we were able to get them to understand.  Then came the excitement and gratitude.

The ability (or lack thereof) to make the mental dimensional leap from what is drawn on a 2D piece of paper to what a building will look like in 3D is something that has always been a barrier between architects and most of their clients.  We are trained, practiced, and often have a natural gift for this method of thinking, which is in part why we chose to become architects.  But since we are building for our clients, we need to make sure they understand the plans.  


In the past this has meant doing presentation graphics or models (I have seen architectural models that date back to the Renaissance).  I have always disliked the expense and time involved with stopping design to produce a presentation graphic or physical model.  I can think of many instances where, by the time the physical model was complete and out for viewing, some new constraint had changed the design, and the model which costs thousands of dollars was no longer an accurate representation.


When we switched our drafting software to a 'BIM' (Building Information Modeling) based system, we looked forward to using its real-time 2D/3D capabilities to streamline and improve our work, as well as a host of advantages and future possibilities.  I never imagined one of the most important advantages of the change was to really break down the wall between architect and client.


We have found that we can take our models to client meetings and show the spaces we are envisioning to our clients.  Throughout the phases of design, we can walk through the model and discuss what would work best and in some cases make changes on the fly during meetings.  At the dedication of the Family Life Hall at First United Methodist Church in Temple, one of the building committee members came up to me and happily said the building was exactly what they had in mind, because they had been seeing it in the computer model for a year.


Whether it is a residence, a church, or office space, the ability for our clients to see in 3D what a building will look like is invaluable.  My wife and I have been designing a house, and she is a real word person (she is a novelist, so that is good) who does not read plans and who at the beginning of the five year process (cobbler's shoes) did not have a clear understanding of what she liked except when she saw it.   Slowly, through looking at homes tours and the 3D model (and going through a whole lot of revisions), we were able to create a space that she loves. Now, periodically, I catch her navigating through the model.


Real Time Vs. Animation

Real-time walkthroughs are when we take our model and simply walk through the environment (much akin to the way we navigate through video games these days).  This process is simple, quick, and effective.  The picture quality is not as high as a ‘still’ image, but that is balanced by the ability to quickly move wherever you want.  Animation is a process of setting up a path for a camera to move through the model and then recording the images.  This process takes a lot more time and has a fixed path, but the rendering quality and effects can be much more realistic and the videos can be saved.  What we do for our clients as part of our basic services is the real-time walk through.  Animations, which can be quite useful in promoting a project, may or may not be an extra service depending on what is required and the complexity.


Material and Color

One of the interesting aspects of these new software programs is that decisions such as color and materials are being made earlier in the process.  When we 3D model, everything has a default color or material that shows up in the model.  This can cause troubles if you look at an early massing model and get fixated on the material of the roof when that decision is still a long way off.  Similarly, we have found that the colors of the model have a habit of becoming the actual colors of the project.  Recently, we had a project committee choose an incredibly sophisticated scheme of grey and brown for a Fellowship Hall.  The model that we had been looking at during design had white walls (which come out grey in the renderings) and brown trim (wood) as a default, and because the committee got used to seeing those colors and liked them, the actual building is colored similarly.  The fine line to run is how much energy in early design to put into materials when the focus should be on bigger picture items.


Computer technology has been a tremendous help to architects, not just in designing, but in sharing their vision with clients.  Although many architecture firms use 3D software, though, some still draft by hand, which can make it difficult for clients to envision what their architect has in mind.  If you have a knack for extrapolating 3D structures from 2D drawings, this may not be an issue, but for many people, it can make a huge difference in the design phase – and is something to keep in mind when selecting an architect.


Here are two Animation Clips from a Residnetial Model and from a Church Model.  Note that bothe of these were taken from the actual model that we are designing with.  The Church model is from the Master Plan so it is a very early version of what this building may look like.  The Residential model is from a house that is well under construction.  I will also post a video from the house showing the actual construction.

Building Permits and Development Codes: "Why Do I Need A Permit?"



"How I stopped hating the permitting process and learned to live with building permits and develoment codes."  I've given a lecture with this title several times to graduate school planners and even to a law school class.  This entry will begin a series of articles on how to deal constructively with the impossibly complex codes and the equally confounding permits needed to meet them.

 describe the image

Let's start at the beginning.  When discussing building permits, the first question I hear is: "Why do I need a building permit?"  The next question nearly always follows: "It's my property, can't I build without a permit?" 


The answer to the first question is, "Yes."  You must deal with building permits and development codes for just about any building or construction.  There are all kinds of laws and regulations that come from local, state and even federal statutes.  Building permits are a crucial step in meeting these requirements.


The answer to the second question is a simple "NO!"  You can't afford to build without the right permits!  The costs and consequences of violating building and development codes are severe.  Punitive fines, project delays or outright cancellation of a project are possible consequences of getting caught without proper permits. 


Equally scary are the risks of using a shady builder to avoid the permitting process.  In Austin last year, we had a terrifying reminder of why building regulations are often called "life safety codes."  An un-regulated balcony collapsed and resulted in a number of serious injuries.


But the permitting process is often confounding and appears to make no sense.  It may seem like one project is approved quickly and another is stopped for months or years for no particular reason.  I've met people who've been desperate for answers.  "Why are they trying to stop my project?" 


Texas State Capitol and FlagSome people may be trying to stop your project, but most code conundrums, in my experience, result from an ignorance of the codes and how they relate to a particular project. 


The reality is that each rule exists because some group or constituency put it there.  There is no "They" trying to stop you.  When trying to get a permit, you will be facing a jumble of well-intended regulations.  Just be aware that no one has organized them into an understandable system.  To quote Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the unflappable hedgehog, Pogo:  "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Architect as Shepherd -- Church Design


Shepherd and Flock

Sorting through a stack of papers, I ran across a thank you letter from Father Whilhite who was pastor at St. Albert of Trapani in Houston when we renovated/expanded the church last year.  He wrote:

"We all knew that the project was not easy and presented great challenges.  You shepherded us through the journey in a professional and capable way making the experience less stressful and daunting.  To be sure, many obstacles had to be surpassed but you walked with us every step of the way.  We appreciate your tenacity and wisdom in keeping the project on budget and on time without sacrificing quality."

Aside from making me feel good, this reminded me of one of the roles I cherish most about architecture; Shepherd.  It is one thing to create a design that will win awards, or to detail a building so that it will be functional and efficient (both of which we do well), but to be able to shepherd the design vision from its earliest concepts to final completion is a wonderful thing.  You never know where the wolves are hiding, it may be budget, it may be complications from the design (and trust me St. Albert was complicated), it may be city processes (also a challenge at St. Albert), or it may be construction issues, but there are always wolves.  The architect must be able to understand and explain the issues that arise and help the team find the best solution and keep the process moving.  This is especially true for churches (and residences) where the clients are most often not used to building and the issues that can arise.

St. Albert of Trapani needed to nearly double their seating capacity, add an adoration chapel, and improve their circulation.  However they were not ready to build a new sanctuary so we expanded and updated their 1960s sanctuary and fellowship hall.  Throughout even the earliest vision sessions we talked of how to relate to the existing architecture while giving a new fresh look.  There were many many wolves, as expected, in a complicated renovation and expansion, but we made it through and a created a space that will be there for generations to enjoy.


St. Albert of Trapani Exterior

New Tower and Entry Foyer.

St. Albert of Trapani, Cross and Tabernacle

Stained Glass Crucifix Unifies Church and Chapel.  The cross has internal lighting so it can glow from either side.

St. Albert of Trapani, Baptism

Baptismal Font

St. Albert of Trapani Chapel

Adoration Chapel

8138 resized 600

New Imersion Baptism and Font.  Two sided stained glass Crucifix and two sided are shared with the Church and Adoration Chapel

Collaborative Building Design - Does It Really Work?


Collaborative Building Design - Emmaus Forum

Congregation Forum Participants at Emmaus Catholic Church in Lakeway, Texas


I've written before about what happens when a group collaboratively participates in designing and programming new facilities.  But many community or congregation leaders have shared with me their hesitation in "opening up" the process. They tell me their group has too many opposing ideas or priorities.  They worry that confusion or chaos will result when too many people are part of the decision-making.  

How can groups be trusted with complex decisions?  In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki cites the latest research that shows even very large groups can and do make significantly better decisions than any one individual.  In example after example, he notes the ways this understanding of group wisdom has become a matter of faith in our society.  The odds-makers in Las Vegas rely on this just as much as scientists working to prevent the spread of the newest epidemic.

The recent news from Egypt has been a thrilling to watch.  While the end results are still unfolding, a groundswell of crowds accomplished an amazing feat.  They successfully navigated through dangerous and confounding issues to force a peaceful regime change.  What could possibly be more complicated?  How many times have leaders of all sorts, with all kinds of initiatives, failed miserably in this most volatile region?  Yet in 18 days, the unthinkable was realized.  In yesterday's Washington Post op-ed, Anne Applebaum describes the euphoria felt by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of participants.  She also cautions new leaders to be mindful of these people in whatever comes next.


Jubilant crowds peacefully celebrate after they accomplish the impossible - regime change in Egypt.

Though a lot easier than regime change in the Middle East, the challenges for any meaningful building program can be pretty complicated.  But again and again, we've seen fabulous designs come from groups of people with diverse backgrounds and differing priorities.  Of course, there has to be a good process to get results from a diverse group.  That will be the focus of future posts.


Even when some group members are fully capable of developing the entire program on their own, the group effort is always better.  We find that groups have an uncanny ability to be creative on many levels.  Collectively, members find ways to express a vision unique to their group, and at the same time, meet fundamental and often challenging constraints.  Having lots of participants actually improves ability to find a balance between creative, out-of-the-box thinking and pragmatic, day-to-day concerns.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but time and again, I'm reminded of why an engaged and focused group is the ideal way to develop a complex building program.  The quote attributed to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales sums it up pretty well - "It works in practice, if not in theory."  

Energy Efficient Design: 3 Insulation Tips For Hot, Humid Climates


Insulation Tips for Hot, Humid Climates

The best way to insulate your house (or church, school, or office building) greatly depends on what type of environment you live in.  If you look at historic houses and buildings, you can learn a lot about how to design for your climate, because early builders had to adapt to the local conditions to try to make buildings as comfortable as possible. 


A quick example of this is the placement of the fireplace in northern versus southern homes.  In the North, the fireplace was placed in the center of the house to maximize the heat gained.  In the South, the fireplaces were moved to the exterior wall of the house -- or even outside the house -- to reduce the heat gain (and fire risk).


In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s,builders decided that technology (air conditioning and the like) could solve all of our problems and started building the same house type throughout the country without much thought for the climate or environment.  Whereas today's houses can be made comfortable, we are no longer able to keep up with the energy demands of this short-sighted thinking.


If we combine the most up-to-date building technology with the design concepts of earlier houses, though, we can make truly efficient buildings that are designed for our climates.  Here are some quick tips from both sides to help you make a more efficient house in a hot humid climate.


Don’t Forget Your Umbrella

In hot humid climates, the majority of the energy used to make the house comfortable is spent on cooling and dehumidifying the house.   Houses must be insulated and sealed to try to keep the heat and humidity that surround the house from getting into the house.  The hotter the temperature and the higher the humidity, the more there is a natural force driving the heat and humidity into your cool, relatively drier home.


However, the bigger heat load to deal with in this climate is the direct radiation from the sun beating down on the roof and west walls.  The sun's rays directly heat up the surfaces of the house, and that heat conducts to the inside.  If you have ever stepped on black asphalt or gotten into a car during a Texas summer, you have experienced how an object sitting in the sun can heat up much more than the ambient air temperature.  Here are some old school techniques that really help.


Light-colored roofs reflect a lot of the radiation away from the house.  This is like wearing a white shirt rather than a black shirt to be cooler.  A new-school technology is the use a radiant barrier to reflect the heat out.


Another best practice is to have a vented air cavity directly under the roof.  This allows a lot of the heat to be reflected and dissipated before it even gets to the roof insulation.  Think of how much cooler it is under a canopy or tree than in the direct sun. Like a canopy, a vented roof basically shades the rest of the house.  As with all roofs, there is heat conduction through the fastening systems, so other insulation methods are also needed, but this simple detail will go a long way toward reducing your heat load.  Vented masonry walls can also help in a similar way.


Using properly sized overhangs and porches is a terrific way to protect walls and windows from the direct radiation of the sun (and the water from rain).  This is especially important on the south and west side of houses -- which is why you so often see large wraparound porches on southern ante-bellum homes.  Not only are they a great place to sip Mint Juleps, but they also shade the windows from the blistering afternoon sun.  


Trees in this climate are also really great for shading the house.  Just like a vented roof, the tree takes the heat gain from the sun.


Here is a recent video showing the vented roof on one of our projects:

Location, Location, Location

More insulation is not necessarily the best way to make an efficient house.  Since the heat load is higher on the roof than walls, just adding more and more insulation to the walls does not necessarily improve conditions.  According to the Icynene web site (Icynene is a top spray insulation provider), “93% of conductive heat flow is already stopped by R-13 insulation. Upgrading from R-13 to R-40 reduces conductive heat flow by only another 5%.”  The 2009 Energy code has brought the insulation requirements up to R-13 in the walls and R-30 in the roof.


While just adding more insulation to the building doesn’t necessarily get great improvements in efficiency, adding insulation to the right locations does.  One of the best things you can do is to move the attic insulation so that the air conditioning ducts are inside the insulated envelope.  This makes the air conditioning units have to work less hard because the ducts lose less energy.  Un-insulated attic spaces in hot humid climates easily reach 140° and higher, so if you have an air conditioning duct with minimal insulation running through the hot attic, you can imagine how much of the cooling is lost before it even gets to your rooms.


Another good practice is to have a continuous layer of insulation by using a layer of rigid insulation to wrap the whole house.  The continuous insulation solves the problem of thermal bridging, which occurs when a structural member, such as a stud, spans the wall cavity and creates a path around the insulation for heat to conduct.  This is especially a problem with metal studs, and recent code updates require continuous insulation when metal studs are used.  In the high performance walls we are building with now, there is a significant difference between the wall insulation (R-17 for a 5.5” Fiberglass Batts, or R-19 for 5.5” of Icynene Spray) and the insulation value of a wood stud (between R-6 and R-7 for a 2x6), so continuous insulation is a good idea—especially in locations where studs are grouped together for structural reasons.


Here is a video showing the continuous insulation on one of our projects.


Our lips are sealed

Well-insulated walls do not do much good if air is seeping in or out of your house through paths like window seals, construction joints, or cracks.  Air seepage not only allows the energy spent heating or cooling to escape, but also creates the possibility of moisture in the walls due to condensation.  Moisture in the wall leads to degradation of the wall materials, rot, and mold.  Fortunately, building science has given us a couple of solutions to help stop unwanted air flow.


First, building wraps like Tyvek and its competitors help block air and water from getting into the house while allowing any moisture that has gotten into the assembly to escape out.  Tyvek flashing around windows and doors is very effective.  However, it is hard to completely seal a building with Tyvek, especially at transitions such as from the wall to the roof.


Spray insulation and the new Owen’s Corning Energy Complete system use expanding foam that fills every little nook and cranny to form a complete air barrier.  Spray foam total fills the entire cavity, ensuring that you not only have a complete air barrier, but also complete insulation.  The Owens Corning system uses blown-in fiberglass to complete the insulation.  In both cases you get good air sealing and a total-fill insulative cavity.


Another new, interesting building science concept is that venting the crawl space or attic with outside air as is traditionally called for causes moisture issues.  This is especially true in humid areas, because when the warm humid air is brought into a crawl space or attic that is cooler, the excess moisture in the air condenses out  and can cause moisture problems.  Moving the attic insulation and air barrier to the underside of the roof deck allows the attic to be part of the insulated spaces.  Keep in mind that you still want to have air venting under the roof, especially with asphalt shingle roofs whose life can be shortened by excessive heat.


Simlarly, not venting the crawl space with outside air helps reduce moisture problems in this area.  Be sure that the floor of the crawl space is sealed to prevent moisture from coming up from the ground.  There is some debate on how best to move the air in the crawl space so that it does not become stagnant.  Recent code changes allow the crawl space to be vented as part of the house air conditioning system, but I am not fond of the idea of the crawl space being part of the main air flow of the house.  Some theorize that you should not vent the space at all, but I am not quite comfortable with that either.  We have chosen to use a small constant fan that sucks a little air out of the house and vents to the outside through the crawl space,  This does mean that we have a small amount of conditioned air leaving the building, which costs money, and it means that we will be drawing a small amount of fresh air into the house, which has benefits and expenses.  We feel that circulating a little bit of fresh air through the crawl space is well worth the small cost in energy loss, and have also wired for a dehumidifier in the crawl space should we later decide to stop the ventilation.



Here is a video showing the spray part of the Owens Corning system


Here is a video showing spray insulation in the crawl space


Stay tuned for updated videos on the installation of the total fill insulation.


I hope these tips help you on your way to making your house (or other structure) located in a hot humid climate a well insulated and comfortable space.  if you have a different climate be sure to research what the proper way to insulate is for that environemnt.



Why Hire An Architect?


It seems pretty basic, but in these tight economic times, people are questioning every expense, and that includes building costs.  Architects are known for their design abilities, but is that all they do?  So, why hire an architect?  I've been asked recently to discuss with a new building committee the value architects bring to a building program.  They are being asked by congregation members and would like to have a good answer.


Simply put, the building process is risky and the architect is your expert guide.  Imagine you were dropped down in a dark jungle near the Amazon River.  (It could be any wild, forbidding place, I just think the Amazon is really scary 'cause of the man-eating piranhas). Just wandering around may eventually get you back safely, but you'll almost certainly encounter some serious difficulties and have some pretty unpleasant experiences. Unless you are a survival expert, you need a guide to navigate past all the dangers.

Why hire an architect? Our expert consultation. 

The building process can be a jungle.  The commercial building process is especially challenging.  Literally hundreds of decisions must be made, and made in the right sequence.  Any one wrong decision may be costly, in dollars, delay or just simple aggravation.  In the worst case, serious defects or a complete shutdown can occur.  An owner, especially a congregation or non-profit responsible for donated funds, can suffer greatly from a failed building program.  We know, we've been brought in at times to fix all kinds of mistakes!


The Oklahoma AIA has a great resource on the subject.  They list three big reasons to hire an architect.  The architect: 1. saves you money, 2. solves problems, 3. makes your life easier.


How bad can it get without an architect?  Well, something as simple as balcony couldn't be so difficult, could it?  Check out these images of silly failures for a laugh (at some poor owner's expense). 

Why hire an architect? Balcony mistakes!

Your architect is your expert from the earliest stages of the building program through the completion of construction and beyond.  We work entirely for you, independent of any construction interest, government agency, or product supplier.  Oh, and about those design abilities.  That's the real bonus of hiring an architect.  We really love to make things beautiful.   

Designing Church Kitchens -- Part 3

Part 3 – Appliances, Drains, and Space Planning

Designing Church Kitchens

Commercial Appliances

When it comes to the equipment for the kitchen, once you get past the big code related issues of the vent hood and grease trap, most of the decisions really are based on how you use your kitchen and what your budget is.  There are some stipulations on sinks, dishwashing, and refrigeration that a fully regulated commercial kitchen will need to deal with, but these do not usually apply to the majority of church kitchens.  The commercial-rated equipment tends to work better and longer, but it is  more expensive and more foreign to the average volunteer.  We most often see a mix of appliance types.



Commercial refrigerators provide more room and better temperature control, so we see these used a lot.  Occasionally, if the kitchen is really going to be used for feeding lots of people regularly, we will use a walk-in refrigerator.  These are more expensive and take planning to make them fit into the building. 


 All Saints Kitchen, Southern Shores, North Carolina

Open preparation and serving islands with mix of commercial and residential.

All Saints Episcopal Church, Southern Shores, North Carolina

Commercial ranges are great for cooking large meals, as their bigger surfaces and smooth tops easily allow for the use of bigger pots.  They often have large griddles, which are great for pancake breakfasts; in fact many have large removable griddles that can be placed on the normal burners. This can give you a little more flexibility in that you don’t dedicate a section to a griddle.  Keep in mind that choosing a commercial range with almost certainly bring in the Type 1 hood requirement.



Commercial ovens also greatly increase your baking and cooking capacity.  Stand-alone ovens usually come in stacks of two and each oven has multiple racks inside.  They tens to be convection ovens, which can be a bit scary as your baking times have to be adjusted for the faster oven. However, more and more residential ovens have convection features, so your average volunteer is more likely now to be ready to deal with convection.  There are commercial microwaves as well, which like the ovens are more powerful.  In both cases, the controls are very functional and are not as user-friendly as residential appliances.


Warming Cabinets

Another commercial appliance that is fairly foreign to residential users is the warming cabinet.  These are vertical units that can hold many racks of food and keep the keep food warm (and in some units cold) until it is time to serve.  This allows a group to pre-cook parts of the meal to be ready and then serve it all at once.  You have seen these cabinets if you have ever seen a caterer provide food away from their kitchen.



There are two types of commercial dishwashers: slide through, and under counter.  Each of these can use one of two types of cleaning systems: high temperature and chemical.  The great advantage of a commercial dishwasher is that it cleans a load of dishes in a few minutes rather than the longer time it takes a residential dishwasher.  High temperature dishwashers need booster heaters to get the water hot enough for sanitation (170°) so you need to make sure you have capacity for the added load.  Chemical dishwashers use lower temperatures plus chemicals.  Make sure you have room beside the dishwasher for the chemical bottles and know that you will most likely have to have a contract with a chemical provider. 

 Emmaus Catholic Church Kitchen, Lakeway, TX

Full Commercial Dishwasher in Separate Cleaning Zone

Emmaus Catholic Church, Lakeway, TX


Sinks and Floor and Drains


Triple Sink

Commercial kitchens will be required to have a triple sink for sanitation purposes (though if you have a commercial dishwasher this can often be reduced to a double sink).  We have found that even in our residential grade kitchens, the triple sink is a cost-effective way to get nice deep sinks for washing large gear.  The commercial sprayer valve is also a pretty useful device.  Note: in all commercial kitchens the drains are required to have a visible air gap between the drainpipe and a floor sink.  This is so that if the sewer backs up, it spills on the floor and does not continue into the sinks or dishwashers.  This is a good idea for residential grade kitchens as well.


Floor and Drains

Whichever type of kitchen you have, make sure your flooring material is ready for water.  This means it needs to tolerate spills and mopping, and more importantly, maintain the required amount of slip resistance to make the users safe.  Floor drains are very useful because at some point in the life of the kitchen, there is going to be stuff all over the floor. 


One note on floor drains is that if you don’t use your kitchen a lot (especially if you don’t get a lot of water on the floor) the water in the trap under the floor drain will dry out.  This will allow sewer gases to seep up through the drain.  You will definitely know when this happens as the smell is quite distinctive.  There is an easy solution though—just pour a good amount of water down the drain and the trap will seal itself.


Accessibility and Planning



Typically, accessibility rules do not apply to commercial kitchens because these are limited use areas.  However, church kitchens fall into a gray area because of their use by volunteers.  If you have accessibility review, make sure you go over what will be required.  Appliances are most often exempt because they are considered equipment.



 All Saints Kitchen, Southern Shores, North Carolina

Open stool area for meetings

All Saints Episcopal Church, Southern Shores, North Carolina

If you have a walk in cooler, be sure to know how the accessibility reviewer will look at this both in terms of turn-around space and door hardware—most walk in coolers are not accessible.  One possible solution is to have another refrigerator that is accessible. 


You will most likely be required to have at least one accessible sink and 30” minimum accessible counter space.  One way we meet the sink requirement is to provide a hand sink (required in a commercial kitchen) that is accessible, thus solving two issues with one sink.


Space Planning

Church kitchens need a lot of flat preparation space.  Think about people flow, especially if you plan to serve people from within the kitchen.  It is important to keep the serving and cooking sections separate - and don’t forget drink stations! If possible, it is also a good idea to keep dishwashing in a separate area, so the dirty dishes don’t mix with serving and cooking.  Functions in church kitchens generally involve a lot of conversation, so openness is key.  Kitchens are also noisy, so be sure to think about audible separation between the kitchen and the larger spaces.  Make sure openings to the main room will contain the noise—smoke seals are essential not just for fire code, but because they limit air flow and thus limit some noise transference.  We like to use solid door rather than roll-down doors if possible.  If you do use a roll up door, especially one with a counter in front, pay close attention to how it will be opened and closed.  These doors can get pretty hard to move and often the person who is trying to close it is not a body builder.

 Spiritual Renewal Center Kitchen, Victoria, TX

Separation of serving area from cooking area.  Note: Great storage under serving island

Spiritual Renewal Center, Victoria, TX


Storage and Management

Don’t forget storage!  You will need dish storage or paper good storage depending on whether you use re-usable dinnerware or paper.  You need to think about which groups will store what food where.  For example, a licensed day care facility needs to date and label their food so it can be disposed of when required.  This group will have different and sometime conflicting needs from the youth group storing popcorn and drinks.  A good church kitchen will have lots of different uses and functions. A good kitchen “Czar” or a well functioning kitchen committee will go a long way in setting up and enforcing the rules of the use of your kitchen—especially when there are commercial requirements.


Putting it All Together

I hope this has helped.  Designing the right kitchen for your facility takes a lot of work.  Be sure to have an architect with experience working with churches to help you listen to all the possible user groups and discern their needs.  You need to know who is using the kitchen and how to determine and best design.  The choices of types, layouts, appliances, and finishes need to be balanced with the users, the code, and the budget.  We have from time to time found that the needs of the different user groups varied so much that it was actually better to design two different kitchens in different locations.


I cannot stress enough that you need to talk to the building officials during design when changes can be more easily made.  It is not a 100% guarantee that something may not change in the requirements, but it should get you pretty far down the path.  Commercial kitchen appliance vendors also have a lot of god advice, but remember they are trying to sell their equipment.


Closing Statement

Good Luck with your new kitchen—I’m hoping this article will ensure hundreds of successful pancakes suppers.

Visit our Church Kitchen Resources Page.

Designing Church Kitchens -- Part 2




Part 2 – Vent Hoods and Grease Traps:  What are they and do I need them?

describe the image

Vent Hoods

There are three basic vent hood types.  First is the typical vent hood you would have in a residence.  These simple hoods can either vent back into the room or can vent outside.  They are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, but don’t move a lot of air.  Second are Type 2 hoods, also known as stem hoods, which vent directly to the outside.  They move a lot of air and thus in many cases, outside air is blown into the room to makeup for the air that is removed by the hood.  The third type, Type 1, involves much more.  These hoods move a tremendous amount of air, and because the air could be grease laden the exhaust pipe has to be welded stainless steel and has a lot of restrictions on number of turns and length.  They also incorporate their own fire suppression systems designed specifically for grease fires.  Type 1 hoods work great and if you are doing a lots of cooking (especially if you are frying), they add a lot of safety.  However, they are expensive, loud, and intimidating to the casual user.  They also require a make-up air source, which can make it difficult to control temperature in the space when the hood is on.

 Christ Lutheran Kitchen, Georgetown, TX

Residential Ranges with Type 1 Hood.  Hood sized to later allow a commercial range.

Christ Lutheran, Georgetown TX


Generally (as with all of these issues, local conditions may vary), there are two factors that determine when a Type 1 hood is required.  First, if you have a full commercial range or a fryer you can pretty much count on the Type 1 hood.  Second, there is a section in the code (Section 507 of the International Mechanical Code) that says residential appliances used for commercial purposes must be treated as commercial.  The interpretation of ‘commercial purposes’ varies by jurisdiction. We have been required to put a full hood over a residential range in a warming kitchen because the code official interpreted the fact that the church was a commercial building to mean the kitchen was for commercial purposes.  The trend seems to be moving towards requiring the Type 1 hoods, so be sure to discuss this with your building official.  The only thing worse than being forced to add a Type 1 hood in your plans is to try and do it once construction has started.


Grease Traps


Grease traps are special tanks designed to separate and contain the grease that ends up in the drain water of the kitchen.  Cities require these because if not captured at the kitchen, the grease coagulates in the city sewer lines and eventually clogs them.  City officials seem to be growing more cognizant of this issue and we are seeing more requirements for grease traps.  Having a grease trap is not a huge imposition other than the initial cost, which can range from $3,000 to $10,000.  Periodically (depending on your amount of grease) they need to be cleaned so they should be located in an accessible spot (most often buried).  They can smell, especially if above ground, so take that into consideration.


Also, if you do not have a full commercial kitchen, there are smaller sized grease traps that may be acceptable to the code officials.  This can save you some money.


Coming Next:  Part 3 Appliances, Drains, and Space Planning.

Visit our Church Kitchen Resources Page or get the entire article by clicking below.

describe the image

Designing Church Kitchens -- Part 1

Part 1:  Essential Things you must Consider

Almost all buildings used for religious assemblies have some sort of a kitchen.  Faith and food seem to go hand in hand, well, hand to mouth.  Church kitchens range from a folding table with crock-pots and chafing dishes for pot luck dinners to full commercial kitchens that make restaurants jealous.  There are two main factors when designing or renovating a kitchen: how you plan to use the kitchen and how the code authorities apply the code to what you are doing. 

Foundation United Methodist Kitchen, Temple, TX

Full Commercial Kitchen.  Note: hand sink is used as accessible sink

Foundation United Methodist Church, Temple TX

Most people think the difference between a commercial and a residential kitchen is whether the appliances are commercial grade.  The appliances do have some bearing on kitchen requirements, but the most important factor is how you use the kitchen.  Church kitchens, historically thought as being like larger home kitchens, have become more akin to restaurant kitchens (especially in the eyes of the code). If you are regularly serving the public (not the just congregation), if you are charging money for the food, or if you are serving an accredited day school or mother’s day out, you most likely have a commercial kitchen.  If you only serve your congregation but still cook full meals, it is a little gray as to whether you are commercial or residential.  If you just have a warming kitchen or a catering kitchen where food is brought in already cooked, you probably have a residential grade kitchen, but you should check with the code officials as this can still be seen as having some commercial requirements.

Different jurisdictions have slightly different codes and varying interpretations of how these codes apply to religious uses.  It is critical that you and your architect/designer contact the code officials during the planning stage to try to understand how the code will apply.  This is not a 100% guarantee, as enforcement in the field can be different than review, but it will get you on your way.  Also, keep in mind there may be multiple people within the jurisdiction that have purview over a kitchen, and don’t expect one to know what the other will or will not accept.  The building official is the most obvious, but often cities and counties have a health department that also regulates commercial kitchens.  You need to be in contact with both groups.


Why is this distinction important?  There are three main reasons.  First, commercial kitchens are likely to be required to have a Type 1 vent hood over the cooking equipment. These hoods and their integral fire suppression start in the range of $20,000-$25,000 (more on this later).  Second, commercial kitchens are going to be required to have a grease trap, which can easily be an additional $3,000-$10,000.  Third, commercial kitchens require regular inspections and may incur requirements and training for the volunteers who work there.

First Church of the Nazarene Kitchen, New Braunfels, TX

Residential Grade Kitchen

First Church of the Nazarene, New Braunfels, TX


Coming soon: Part 2 -- Vent Hoods and Grease Traps:  What are They and Do I need them?

Visit our Church Kitchen Resources Page or get the entire article by clicking below.

 describe the image

All Posts