Life is the Great Teacher...
After part 1 of “How Not to Build a Studio,” I received correspondence from people telling me they cringed when they read about my failure in preparation and floor planning for my studio space. If that's you, buckle up, because you’re about to go on a roller coaster ride without a seatbelt (RIP to anyone who has died from an accidental roller coaster eject). Please pour a glass of wine to process the information below correctly…
Skip Around, You Distracted Millenial
This part of the series (2) and the next (3) are intentionally written in sections of interest for those building or planning to build. You’ll want to skip past sections that do not interest or apply to you so that you don’t get overwhelmed with an excess of information or detail.
Most young artists are not in a position to buy property to work in, which simply means that most of us are going to rent studio space for our passions and jobs. When we do that, we want the property owner or landlord to pay to get the space looking like a white box. A white box is a contracting term meaning that the walls, ceilings, entryways and trim are ready to paint.
To prepare a white box, a lot has to happen, and you should not be bankrolling that part of the build as I did. In essence, I paid to get my studio to a white box status - in many more ways than financial. There are several steps to the building process, and I'll try my hardest to make difficult things simple for you.
What I Did:
The beautiful stack of delightful items you see above is what I walked into before starting the building process. It looks like MH370 crashed here (RIP to the victims of MH370). The problem with debris is that you need to move it somewhere, and most landlords or property owners need to be responsible for that. My landlord charged me $1000 to remove of all of that stuff (which would have made srense if it were mine to begin with). I was not aware that debris removal is part of the landlord’s responsibility and therefore did not write it into my lease agreement.
What You Should Do:
Does your space have a fair amount of debris laying around in it? Inspect (or have your general contractor inspect) the space prior to anybody entering to do work and decide what needs to be demolished, moved, torn up (or down), jackhammered, destroyed, incinerated, etc. Find out how it’s going to be transported to the correct landfills, dumps, or debris fields in accordance with local laws and ensure that you are not paying that cost, which should be detailed in your lease.
Also keep in mind that plumbing, HVAC (air conditioning and heating), electrical work and existing walls that need to come down may interfere with concrete and structurally sensitive parts of the building, and because of that, the cost may be higher than a few thousand dollars. At the end of the day, you should have money in your pocket and your space should look like the photo below (my space) when it’s all cleared out:
Plumbling & Pipes
What I Did:
I decided to build a kitchen and full bathroom (including shower) as part of my studio. Plumbing 101 is quite simple: If you want to have water flowing in and out of a building, you need good pipes in good condition that have visible entry points (so that your plumbers can access them). To save the maximum amount of money, exhaustion and confusion, make sure all your pipes are in one central location.
I did not do this. Instead, I later found that the plumbing system was scattered about under 10 inches of concrete, which had to be excavated. Then, the plumbing lines had to be re-routed to a central location, concrete had to be re-poured and the plumbing guys (and we all know plumbers are notoriously sketchy in many ways) made 6 trips, which cost me $7500. I also failed to ask how large my hot water heater was, and mine is rather small. A small water heater results in showers that only stay hot for about 10 minutes. Am I glad I have a shower in my studio? Yes! Do I have the luxury of letting the hot water run for 20-30 minutes at a time? No! All I had to do was ask questions up front and we could have swapped the water heater out before we got ahead of ourselves.
Last word on plumbing. Remember what I talked about in regards to your property owner bringing the space to a “white box” condition? Plumbing is supposed to be your landlord’s responsibility, but mine was sneaky! He was able to shift the majority of the plumbing work to me because the lease I impulsively signed was 100% in his favor - I did the building and he did the relaxing, meanwhile thinking that what I was doing was just normal! It was far from normal…
What You Should Do:
Ask plumbing-related questions before signing a lease or beginning the demolition process - primarily if you’re going to be building anything with sinks and bathroom appliances. Where are the plumbing lines, pipes and water heater located? How new is the plumbing system? Is everything in good condition? Can your pipes and water lines easily freeze if you live in a climate that gets below freezing in the winter? Where are the drains located? Are the drains high enough above the concrete floor foundation to where plumbers can access them? What’s the capacity of your water heater (for those of us with sinks and showers). Overall, make sure the plumbing is in the hands of your property owner, and not you.
Angles, Levels and Slopes
Regardless of the building you’re moving into, you’ll want to know if the floor is level. Common sense, right? Maybe not. Many old buildings (mine was built in 1875) are anything but level. In fact, my studio floor foundation has a gorgeous (sarcasm) 11 degree slope.
What I Did:
Because I brought a general contractor into the build far too late, I never thought to make sure my floor was level. Now why would any of that matter? Simply put, you only have one opportunity to make a floor level, and that’s when the raw concrete foundation is exposed - before the flooring is laid. Concrete is often poured and graded to even out the floor early in the building process. If you don’t level your concrete foundation (and I did not), your floors will be as “un-leveled” as your foundation. And as a result, nothing you sit or place on your floors from that day on will ever be leveled and even. Nothing. Not a piano. Not furniture. Not a person. We made do with some spacers and shanks beneath the flooring, but it’s nothing near perfect. There’s anywhere between a 6 and 11 degree angle on most flooring areas in my building. Lovely!
What You Should Do:
Have your general contractor ensure that the floors are level before laying flooring. This is a simple process that can take some time to correct if work needs to be done, but it will be a gift to your visual aesthetic once furniture starts being placed. And it also means infants and toddlers can walk around without feeling like they’re falling off a cliff.
Roof & Exterior Gutters
What I Did:
Simply put, I did not think to ask what condition my roof was in, how old it was, which direction it sloped, and whether or not the gutter system could handle heavy rains or adverse precipitation. My findings? My roof is due for a rebuild and slants toward my front entrance, 85 feet away from my control room. Slants and slopes on roofs are normal to ensure that rainwater and melting ice don’t sit stagnant on your roof, which could lead to leaks.
What I didn’t find out until it was too late is that the gutter system over my front entrance was never designed to actually catch all the water that the roof was sending it. Let me simplify that for you: my roof slants towards my front entrance, sending all rainwater and melting ice toward the front entrance - and the gutters above my main entrance are not made to handle large volumes of water, which means that they are overwhelmed quickly. When your gutters overflow, the excess water, ice and snow collects in giant pools, both on your roof, your front patio and in some cases your front entryway, which means you no longer need to take a shower…you get one on the way in!
Water is your primary enemy on any building project, and in several cases when I’ve had heavy rains or snow/ice conditions, the front entrance of my building actually floods. How does this happen? It’s quite simple. The rainwater which my gutters cannot handle clings to the front brick surface of my studio, flows downward (thanks, gravity) and actually sucks itself under my front doors into my main lobby area in large volume. In the last 12 months, I have had over 300 gallons of rainwater, snow and ice enter into my studio space. This has cost me $8,000 in floor, trim and drywall repair, and insurance companies do not pay for debris removal and repairs for damage that initiated with rain, snow, ice and flooding.
I’d put my money on your ability to guess whether or not this could have been avoided had I properly read and adjusted my lease agreement from the outset. Watch the video below for a live-action experience:
What You Should Do:
Ask about the quality of your proposed building’s roof. When was it built? Which direction does it slope in? How many degrees or angle are we talking about? Investigate the gutter system - the drains and runoff as well - can they handle the elements based on your geography and climate? And finally, ensure that your front doors and entrance are weather-proofed. Can you spray a hose at your front doors without water getting into the interior of the building? Can you feel air blowing in from the outside when there’s a breeze (or a -7 degree windchill)? Can you see gaps of space between the weather stripping on the doors? All fair and necessary questions to ask - and all fair and necessary responsibilities of your property owner to meet.
Framing Your Walls
Get ready to pour another glass of wine. Also, feel free to download Acoustics 101 and Soundproofing 101 from my friends at AcoustiGuard. Their information is quite detailed and complex, but extremely helpful for the technical aspect of how to construct walls.
What I Did:
Wall Framing is a pretty simple job - it involves connecting pieces of wood to create the structural skeleton of your studio. These frames will hold insulation, electrical cabling, conduit and everything you don’t want visible to the naked eye. They’ll also be support systems for things you want to hang on them throughout life - everything from concrete vanities to Christmas stockings). Ultimately, for acoustic purposes, I wanted standard walls for all the rooms that didn’t matter a whole lot, and thick, durable sound-controlled walls surrounding my my control room (sound room). I wanted my control room walls to actually be double walls - two layers of wood per wall with 2 inches of air between each wall. The air between walls is what deadens bass frequencies (a 20Hz sound waveform can extend longer than 53 feet whereas a higher frequency waveform is often just a few feet). Air stops bass. Drywall and acoustic treatment stop high frequencies.
Overall, the framing went quickly, and quick (in the building world) should freak you out. “Quick” is rarely combined with great quality. I did not know this. I failed to check to see if the walls constructed for framing were actually level. Not just in an up and down sense, but in a right to left sense - and none of them are level, resulting in hilarious gaps that children can fall into when things are put up against them…see below:
Lastly, I didn’t think about heavy objects needing to be mounted to walls. I installed a custom concrete vanity into the wall of my bathroom, and I failed to ensure that the bathroom wall had been reinforced with extra studs - mainly because I didn’t map out a good floorpan to begin with! In the end, we ended up having to actually sit the vanity on the ground because the wall was too weak to hold it
What You Should Do:
Have your general contractor bring in a crew to frame the building. Ask them to use standard frames with 16 inch distances between studs for walls that won’t have a lot of weight hanging on them - and this means you need to know where everything’s going to go (like I was not). For walls that will have significant weight hanging from them, double the studs (meaning they’ll place twice as much wood into the frame) so you can accommodate things like concrete vanities, hanging shelves, etc.
When it comes to your control room, tell your floor planner and contractor that you want two independent walls with 2 inches of air between each wall surrounding you. They’ll think this is odd if you’re not in Nashville, LA, or some audio epicenter, but that’s okay. Remind them they’re not sound engineers and inspect every part of the process to ensure they’re not cutting corners. Remember, the goal is that you want a layer of air between your control room walls - not wood or insulation (insulation will be packed into each wall frame already), you want air. If you need help, call the team at AcoustiGuard in Canada. Their website and sound isolation tools for wall construction are unparalleled.
Your control room door (or doors) need to be of solid material like oak, pine or cedar. They can of course be coated in acoustic absorption, but a solid door is absorption and sound blockage itself. Most pre-fabricated studio “soundproof” doors look terrible, which is why I opted to purchase an antique pine door.
Now how on earth are you going to build in a door (or series of doors) on a wall that’s nearly 2 feet thick? Remember, if your control room has double walls you can’t just slap a door randomly into the framing. You need to build a threshold. Thresholds are like fancy recessed Narnia entrances, and they’re built as a cosy little home for your doors so that when they close, the seals around the door are air-tight. This means that no sound can come in or out of the room. Thresholds also allow you to determine where to place to door. I have found no extravagantly helpful resources on how to get this done (since it’s really your preference), but attached is a photo of what my final product looks like: