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In Thoughts

By Melville Thomas Architects

What is value engineering?

On 20, Apr 2016 | In Thoughts | By Melville Thomas Architects

Recently a client asked us to update the facade of his historic storefront in Lexington, Virginia. When asked, he indicated that his goal was to upgrade the image of his storefront and bring it in line with the character of the overall historic streetscape. He thought the best way to do this was to demolish the existing clapboard siding and install a new structural backup wall of sufficient strength to support a masonry facade. Nothing about the request was impossible and perhaps, given the availability of historic hand built brick, it would have met his goal. However the cost of this particular approach made us think about other opportunities to satisfy the owner’s goal at a more reasonable cost. The exercise for us represents the difference between “Value Engineering” and “Cost Cutting” where value engineering meets a goal for less cost and cost cutting requires modifying the goal (i.e., reduce the size, cheapen the materials, cut architectural elements). In our experience cost cutting is not value engineering and in most cases cost cutting is perceived by the owner as a “hard pill to swallow.” Don’t forget that we, as Architects, set the expectations for design and contribute in many ways to our clients’ disappoint when the goals are changed for cost cutting reasons. Isn’t it better to give our clients’ what they want for what they can afford? That is what value engineering is all about and what thoughtful Architects bring to the process.


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Before and after of the Lexington storefront.



In Thoughts

By Melville Thomas Architects

Architecture in the details.

On 26, Mar 2016 | In Thoughts | By Melville Thomas Architects

We are an Architectural Firm that will never design a “Sydney Opera House,” but we can make peoples’ life a little more meaningful with the small things we design. Architecture is not just about the headlines, but can also be the meaningful engagement of one’s senses with those things that people come in touch with.


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um smith-windowscnd pharmacy-glassABET-15cordish-wingstu cook-skylightsCaves-9Caves-2IMG_5040a3 - IMG_9356airy-porchwt-lighttu cook-light fixturesmma-ceiling panelsmma-doormsu spencer-skylightcnd pharmacy-grassmrc-lamptu cook-wallum smith-glasses





In Thoughts

By Melville Thomas Architects

A teaming strategy.

On 19, Nov 2013 | In Thoughts | By Melville Thomas Architects

Much of our recent experience is with other Architects on large scale institutional projects where we take on some of the responsibilities for the project development during the design development phase. We are making a concerted effort to coordinate our BIM initiative so the models are collaborative in nature. Our goal is to fully support this effort in ways that build value for the Prime Architect and our other team members.

Consider this. Most of the Maryland public sector RFPs require 10% to 35% participation by MDOT certified MBE firms. This is not only a prerequisite for the contract but part of the review during the quality based selection process. In essence a Prime Architect will not receive full benefit in scoring their RFP submission unless they have complied with (and sometimes exceeded) the MBE participation thresholds in the RFP. In order to accomplish this a typical team may be:

Architect  50%
Structural Engineer  10%
Mech/Elec/Plumbing Engineer  (MBE)  25%
Civil Engineer  10%
Cost Estimator  (MBE)  2%
Other Specialty Consultants  (MBE)  3%

Total  100%

This arrangement insures two things.  One;  Teams across the board are likely to be very similar for all RFP submissions, the only differences being the Architect.  Two;  The Architect is limited in his/her ability to select other consultants that may better service the project, based on experience, and/or provide a more competitive team in the RFP competition.

But opportunities for strengthening a team are significantly improved by awarding say 20% of the project to a qualified MBE like Melville Thomas Architects? Right away the onus of satisfying the minority set aside is shifted away from the Mech/Elec/Plumbing Engineer, allowing the Prime Architect more flexibility in selecting a critical part of a professional A/E team. The emphasis becomes not satisfying the minority requirement but rather finding the best engineers to do the work and presenting the best possible team for the RFP submission.

So, what can Melville Thomas Architects do to earn 20% of the fee?

  • We know the local consulting community and can help assemble a team, including other MBE participants.
  • We know the ins and outs of the RFP process and can advise the Prime Architect with respect to winning strategies.
  • We can help craft the RFP response.
  • We can develop the existing conditions BIM (renovation work).
  • We can track down site specific information.
  • We can “own” part of the project development following the schematic design phase.
  • We can develop and manage the interiors BIM.
  • We can do some or all of the construction documents.
  • We can be the local eyes and ears for the project.
  • We can do the construction administration.

To a large extent these capabilities are made possible through BIM project delivery. Whereas hand drafting or CADD limited a Prime Architect’s ability to monitor our work by virtue of the difficulties associated with printing, plotting, and distributing drawings, BIM is a shared resource and continuously available to the Prime Architect and the project team. This provides a mechanism for sharing a project over multiple offices, in real time, and allows the Prime Architect to monitor our work on a continuous basis. In fact we are currently sharing models, residing on remote servers, over Citrix. Clearly the ability to carve out meaningful scope and produce it thoughtfully from remote locations is a capability that we are promoting aggressively and doing successfully with other Architectural firms on large scale institutional projects. These include most recently:

Inn and Conference Center Renovation
University of Maryland University College (with HKS Richmond)

Health Sciences 3 Research Facility
University of Maryland Baltimore (with HOK Washington and Design Collective Inc.)

The HOK project lead and principal-in-charge said of our efforts to date.

“I just wanted to touch based and let you know that we have been very happy with your team’s performance during DD. We hope that we continue to have great success during the next phases. Thank you for your effort to date.”

Timothy O’Connell
Principal/Director, Science + Technology
(11/5/13 email memo)



In Thoughts

By Melville Thomas Architects

From the Architect’s notebook.

On 21, Aug 2013 | In Thoughts | By Melville Thomas Architects

  • Architecture comes from desire, not necessity.
  • There is no bad color, only bad use of color.
  • Form does not exist without light.
  • Scale is relative.
  • Architecture embraces the unexpected.
  • There is no view without edges.
  • Creative people are good at re-defining a problem.
  • Most people look at a chair and see the chair. A creative person looks at a chair and sees what is around the chair.
  • Who needs a 9,600 s.f. house?
  • A line of trees doesn’t divide, it connects.
  • There is energy in a curve.
  • Whether an answer is right or wrong depends on how you look at the question.
  • An Engineer looks for the best answer while an Architect looks for many best answers.
  • Anyone can draw as long as the eyes and brain are engaged.
  • Symmetry is not always symmetrical.
  • Structure is not just columns and beams.
  • Architects make buildings. Landscape Architects make magic.
  • Whether something is big or little is relative.
  • A small sign may display a more powerful message than a big sign.
  • Architect’s deal in ones or threes, but not twos.
  • If you think a good work of architecture is expensive then try to imagine the cost of something that is worthless.
  • What would the Parthenon look like if the marble columns were made of fiberglass?
  • If there were nothing good then how would you know what is bad?
  • You are fooling yourself if you think vinyl siding looks like wood. So why is it made to look like wood?
  • A trained eye can identify a snap in window mullion from 100 yards away. They really don’t fool anybody.
  • A real shutter casts a shadow. A fake shutter doesn’t.
  • There is no excuse for mediocrity.



In Thoughts

By Melville Thomas Architects

What makes good project management?

On 09, Sep 2012 | In Thoughts | By Melville Thomas Architects

Our overall project management principles include:

  • We believe in communicating clearly and consistently.
  • We set realistic goals and monitor them regularly.
  • We develop real schedules and expect real results.
  • We know the “action points” and we act on them.
  • We look at quality assurance as an on-going exercise, not the end of a phase.
  • We work to exceed expectations.

Consistent, timely, and accurate communications is the most difficult aspect of project management. We believe in stating the goals for our points of interaction, listening carefully, summarizing the highlights, assigning actions points and follow up responsibilities, and getting a clear agreement from all parties that they understand what will happen next and what they are responsible for. We monitor these action points very carefully for compliance, knowing that in many cases it is constant cajoling that gets desired results.

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It is our job to lead a consultant team. This starts by establishing clear lines of communication, well defined goals, and a reasonable schedule. Information about the project, and in particular the Owner’s needs flow through us as a way of maintaining control over the process. We are the single point of contact for the Owner in matters relating to the consultants’ work.

We know what the action points are for a project and we articulate these clearly. Follow through on the steps needed to complete the required actions is an on-going process and part of the “Get It Done” attitude that differentiates our project management. We find that the final product, in many cases, is not as important as defining the process of getting to it. We are goals oriented and process driven.