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  • Green Construction: What You Should Know About VOCs in your Home Improvement Project

    paint roller


    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve probably heard something about  the dangers of VOCs.  Since the word is out that they can be quite harmful an array of Low and No VOC products have come on the market so as you go through day to day life, it’s now reasonably easy to maintain low concentrations of chemicals in your indoor environment by steering clear of harsh cleaning materials and not sniffing glue.  But the moment you start a home improvement project the odds of encountering a product or material that contains them goes WAY up unless you are explicitly planning to avoid them.  Here’s what moss recommends you consider to keep your construction project as healthy as possible.


    Big offenders in the building construction department are:


    • Floor:  Carpets, carpet related adhesives and vinyl flooring are all potential big offenders for off-gassing.
    • Walls: Paints and paint solvents (especially oil based products) are also traditionally VOC laden.
    • Furniture: Both upholstery fabrics AND the composite wood product structures underneath them can ben sources of VOC emissions.
    • Built-Ins: Again, composite wood products like particle board make up a big part of most new kitchen cabinets and other built in shelving units.  Make sure your choices here are VOC (specifically formaldehyde) free if you want to do any truly organic cooking in your new kitchen.


    Think Spring: Plant Shade Trees Now for a Cool Summer

    sapling with root ball sketch


    Snow on the ground notwithstanding, spring is coming here in Chicago and with it is a golden opportunity to plant trees.  And why wouldn’t you want to?  Having trees in your vicinity means cleaner air, cooler temperatures and better spirits as well as, potentially, money in your pocket.  A 2009 Auburn University study found that houses with 50% cover by light shade or just 17% heavy shade reduced their energy costs by more than 10% saving more than 30 dollars per month on energy bills.


    Sidebar: You can get even more from planting an edible fruit tree with a recommendation from our post Friday Favorites: Fruit Trees in Chicago, and in your backyard.


    Now is the Right Time to Jump on your Shovel!

    The best time to plant trees in your yard is when they are in their dormant stage – after they’ve dropped their leaves for the fall but before new buds pop out in spring.  Winter, in the midwest, means ground frozen too hard to dig in.   Planting in fall is the second best solution, but it sets a delicate young tree up for a long cold period when water can’t get to its new roots (if you do plant in fall, extreme watering is the name of the game).  So, for best results, plant right now, in the spring.



    How We Operate: Field Measuring in Existing Buildings

    elevation sketching 2

    Capturing the exterior elevation.


    Many moss projects begin with an existing building.  This is a factor both of our urban location (not a lot of open space to build up, our general principals (we like re-using existing structures) and with the type of projects we generally take on (loft and restaurant, alike, are generally re-fits).  We know that the baseline of a project is a good set of field measurements.  Without an accurate understanding of the existing conditions, how can we best work to highlight the best features and improve the rest?  So early in each project, as soon as we have a good understanding with the client about what they’re looking for, we head out to survey the existing space.


    Since we were out documenting a new project yesterday the importance of the task is particularly fresh.  Here’s what we keep in mind (and in our pockets) when we set out for a field measuring trip.



    The Tools of the Trade

    tools of the trade1

    The architect’s essential tool kit for a site visit.


    Think Spring: Four Reasons for Gardening in Raised Beds

    raised bed_frame logo


    It’s been a bit of a slow start after this long and extraordinarily cold winter but spring is finally here.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing and people everywhere are getting out into their yards.  Whether you have access to acres of rolling green lawn or just a little extra landing area on the wooden fire stair off the back of your apartment, you have the ability to garden.  Here at moss, we sing songs in praise of our raised bed planters.  For team moss, this is both work and play – creating great raised beds is a  design exercise which then morphs into after work activity of planting, protecting and then eating the literal and metaphorical fruits of our labor.


    We’ve rapped about our love of gardens many times in the past, most notably in last year’s round-up post of great how-to-start-your-urban-garden ideas, by extolling the virtues native planing in our sidewalk-side box, and showing which fruit trees are a good fit for the Chicago yard scene.   Today we’re talking raised beds – a great choice for city gardeners for a number of reasons.


    At moss HQ we have several raised planting beds, all constructed from re-claimed materials.  We love sourcing from the ReBuilding Exchange in our projects, not only because they find beautiful pieces but because we support their mission of diverting old building components from the landfill. Since repurposing some of the old framing members into new buildings can be difficult (because they don’t fit into modern day joist hangers) we look for alternative uses.  These planter box designs are flexible enough to make a great home for non standard materials so and both the framing members and decking shown below are reclaimed wood.


    Here some photos of the past summer’s glory in our garden beds and our top four reasons you should plant one for yourself:


    moss raised bed deckThe Moss HQ side yard makes the most of sun and space with a combination deck and raised bed.



    Work Life Balance: Following the Classic Cycle Races

    Matt's Roubaix


    We support many outside interests at moss HQ, and spring fever here manifests in excitement about the Classics – the series of one day professional bike races held all over Europe which have been a test of cycling skill since the 19th century.  Matt’s very own Roubaix (pictured above) was designed by Specialized Bikes with shock absorbing zertz and molded carbon fibre monocaque frame to meet the demanding conditions of the Paris Roubaix race with its cobblestone terrain.  It works pretty well on Chicago’s potholes too.  Chris follows the races avidly all spring and has been educating the rest of the office about their ins and outs.


    classics map



    There are an overwhelming number or races to follow altogether (cycling news’ calendar has a comprehensive list) and even the more detailed breakdowns like Bicycling’s list of major Spring Classics to follow seem like a lot.  To get you started with a toe-in-the-water introduction, we’ve picked out three favorite races to watch.  [NOTE:  The only cycle racing you're likely to find on your TV in the US is the Tour de France (and then only in bits) but thanks to the miracles of modern technology you can catch clips, highlights and even full live coverage of these races via the internet.  One of the best clearinghouse cycle race websites is steephill.tv where you can find pages devoted to all three of our recommended races.]


    Transform your Building Into a Restaurant: From Site Selection to Inspection in 7 Key Steps



    How to Convert a Typical Building Into a Restaurant


    In 1765, Monsieur Boulanger opened the Western World’s first restaurant in the old city of Paris, and we’re guessing he didn’t have to file nearly as much paperwork as you will in Chicago in 2014.  His opening process was quicker than yours will be but the safeguards he probably didn’t consider contributed to the equally quick life span of his contemporaries, cut short by foodborne illness, fires and floods, among other curveballs of life in the 18th century.


    Thankfully, we now have the Department of Buildings to protect us from fires and the Department of Health to ensure our cuisine will only delight our senses—not snuff them out. The Business Affairs and Consumer Protection issues Retail Food Establishment and liquor licenses after passing their inspections with flying colors. And The Department of Zoning is the authority on whether you can even break ground on a location in the first place.


    Designing your restaurant (and its cuisine) is the fun part of the process. You can expect to meet in person with your architect about four times from conception of your restaurant design, to final inspection for check-ins. But don’t forget for a minute about the aforementioned governmental bodies—these four gatekeepers stand between you and opening night. Never Fear. We’re here to break down all the hoops you’ll jump through to earn their favor.


    The path from site selection to final inspection

    The path from site selection to final inspection


    Is it Good for Humans? Lessons and Questions from Structures for Inclusion, New York



    While moss isn’t explicitly a public interest design firm, we all definitely try to keep a finger on the pulse of that community.  We helped spearhead the People Spot project here in Chicago, designing the first parklet which is re-installed every spring here in Andersonville.  Team member, Lety Murray, has served on the board of Chicago Architecture for Humanity.  All of our interests stray from the pure design of buildings to the idea that design can be used for good at all scales of our local and global environment.


    We’re feeling particularly fired up about the potential of design used for GOOD on the heels of this year’s Structures for Inclusion conference which took place last weekend at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.  We sent a delegation (of one) to the conference and are bubbling over with the new and renewed ideas that came out of it.


    How to Design your GREAT Restaurant Storefront: Facade Update for Crew Bar + Grill

    crew storefront 3

    moss client, Crew Bar + Grill  recently completed an update to their storefront, giving a strong facelift to the old building, bringing more natural light into the restaurant and making a better connection between the street and the sports bar inside.  Our redesign is an excellent demonstration of several important principles of good restaurant storefront design.  Here’s what you can learn from Crew!



    1. The best sign you can have is a transparent storefront

    We believe strongly that the best advertisement for your restaurant or bar is … your restaurant or bar.  Check out our beautiful  storefronts for 2 Sparrows and Flirty Cupcakes.


    Construction is Underway: Moss re-designs historic Norman Hotel as 1325 Wilson for Flats Chicago!

    wilson construction cover


    We’re excited to introduce you to our latest project under construction for Flats Chicago.


    The historic Norman hotel at 1325 Wilson in Uptown is being given a new life as a group of studios, one and two bedroom units with commercial space (including a new outpost of Heritage Coffee) at street level.  As part of our re-design we’ll be stripping the residential floors down to their foundations and revitalizing the public space on the ground floor, adding in shared gym space in the basement and a roof deck on top to command an impressive view south to Chicago’s skyline.


    Five Reasons To Live in a Walkable Neighborhood

    walk signal

    The team here at moss prides itself on trying to find alternate modes of getting from A to B whenever possible.  Some of us walk to work, others bike whenever the weather (meaning the vortex) permits and we are just a few blocks from the nearest “L” station.  We also bike and walk from work to meetings with our clients whenever possible.  We love how accessible and walkable our neighborhood and city can be.  Here’s why you, too, really want to live in a walkable area:  


    1. You’ll be happier


    Treehugger reports a University of New Hampshire which found that “those living in more walkable neighborhoods trusted their neighbors more; participated in community projects, clubs and volunteering more; and described television as their major form of entertainment less than survey participants living in less walkable neighborhoods.”


    The Dyeing of the Green – St. Patrick’s Day Reminds Us About the State of the Chicago River

    Green Chicago River Sketch

    There’s an old joke most famously spoken by Tommy Lee Jones’s Marshall in the Fugitive: “If they can dye the river green today, why can’t they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”  Just dying the Chicago River blue isn’t a great idea, environmentally speaking, but perhaps we could treat the St. Patrick’s Day dye job as a reminder of the importance of our own dear waterway and let it draw attention to the general health of the Chicago waterways (bad).  We could and should be doing better by our river.


    Food Truck to Restaurant Part III: Making the Move to Brick and Mortar and Restaurant Design

    Flirty Cupcakes bakery


    (This is the third installment of a series we’re writing on the ins and outs of restaurant and food design, where we’ll be exploring topics like food trucks, building conversions and energy efficient kitchens. In this installment, two of Chicago’s finest food trucks weigh in on what you need to know before you start a restaurant on wheels.) Here are part I and part II in case you missed them.


    Part III: Making the Move to Brick and Mortar Restaurant Design


    So you’ve decided you love your food truck but you’d also like a home to rest (ye weary traveler), somewhere hungry customers can return to and enjoy your delicious food, rain or shine. What’s your next step?


    Most food truck owners have dreams of expanding: adding another truck or eventually opening a restaurant.


    “I think Sam, my husband, always saw himself opening up a restaurant one day,” Sarah Weitz, of The Fat Shallot, tells us. “This is my ideal situation: The Fat Shallot has its own kitchen that we work out of, then we also have a storefront that is similar to a prepared foods place like the Goddess and the Grocer. We’d have seating…ten [or fifteen] tables where people can order at the counter, and sit down and eat at the Fat Shallot, but I can also have my own kitchen in the back, [and space to] park our truck. If my husband was here, he’d be telling you he wants a second truck, badly.”


    Alexis Leverenz, of Kitchen Chicago, describes the point at which her small businesses often find it makes sense for them to expand.  When clients start using her space on a daily basis, “it gets more expensive than their own space would be, monthly, cost-wise,” she says. The start up costs of finding, setting up and opening a new space keep people using a shared kitchen during the first years of business, “but ultimately they might end up spending $3,000 a month here, whereas they could get their own place for less,” says Leverenz. “Once they grow to a certain point, I don’t think it makes sense for them to be [in a shared kitchen] anymore.”


    Coming Soon: Jolly Posh Foods is Moving to moss Designed Expanded Shop and Restaurant on Southport Avenue

    jolly posh perspective check out counter


    We’re excited to introduce you to our next project under construction: the new location, expanded shop, and restaurant design for Jolly Posh Foods.


    Jolly Posh Foods has been a feature of the Lakeview neighborhood for two years; bringing the taste of classic British food to America.  An anglophile’s dream come true, the shop currently serves classic sandwiches, High Tea and stocks a plethora of British imported products as well as a range of packaged meats created by British ex-pat owner, Nick Spencer.  They started out as a farmer’s market stall, grew into a storefront and are now ready to expand into a fully designed restaurant on Southport Avenue, all while maintaining their stock of meats and import goods!


    jolly posh new location


    We’ve been working with Nick Spencer and the Jolly Posh team for three months to put together a design for their new restaurant and now that the permit has been pulled, Jolly Posh has made their own announcement of the big news and all is ready to get started, we want to wet your whistle with a little rundown of the design.  Jolly Posh is planning to be moved into their new space by spring so look for construction updates and the completed photos here on the blog in the very near future!


    Why Chicago’s City Flag is So Great!


    Chicago.  The City of Big Shoulders.  The Windy City.  The Second City (even though its been third for decades).  Now Chiberia.  Our home city is 177 today, and we’re celebrating with a shout out to our beautiful city flag.   



    chicago flag sketch


    [To share in the celebration, head to Daley Plaza for live music,  a Mardi Gras parade AND a flock of food trucks including Flirty Cupcakes, (who's beautiful restaurant space moss designed two years ago) and Windy City Patty Wagon (featured in last week's post on food trucks).  The Chicagoist has the breakdown of birthday events here.]



    Chicago’s Grand Old Flag

    Roman Mars’ fascinating and meticulous 99% Invisible Podcast (a moss office favorite) describes the Chicago city flag as, “a beaut: a white field, two light blue horizontal stripes and four six-pointed red stars across the middle,” and notes the flag’s “complete buy-in across the city” with a presence on every municipal building and every 20-year-old’s messenger bag.  The city flag is reverently placed on the caskets of fallen cops and fire fighters.  There’s a feedback loop between the love of Chicagoan’s for our city and our flag – each boosts the other more.


    Food Truck to Restaurant Part II: Keep your New Food Truck Running Hot & Developing Your Concept

    030414_Food Truck Sketch


    (This is the second installment of a column we’re writing on the ins and outs of restaurant and food design, where we’ll be exploring topics like food trucks, building conversions and energy efficient kitchens. In this installment, two of Chicago’s finest food trucks weigh in on what you need to know before you start a restaurant on wheels.) Here’s part I in case you missed it. 


    Part II: Keep your New Food Truck Running Hot & Developing Your Concept



    Tip #1: Get some real world experience in the industry, however you can.


    ”A lot of people that were not in the food business don’t tend to last as long, once they get started as food truck owners”, Alexis Leverenz, the owner of Kitchen Chicago explains, in her sunny conference room. “The ones [that have] are the ones that stick around. The ones that know that the food business is hard, and you’re gonna be working holidays and on your feet. I think it just helps to have had that experience and know what you’re getting into. Whereas I think a lot of people think it’s a lot more romantic than it is. They just see Food Network.”