Tag Archives: Classical Architecture


This post is inspired by a Facebook post by Architecture MMXII.  An anonymous architecture student writes:

“Hi, I’m in uni studying architecture (going into second year in September),  I was hoping you could give me some advice. When I design in a classical manner, my lecturers say ‘we don’t design buildings like that anymore, and that’s just copying, no imagination, etc. What do I do? How can I respond to these criticisms? As i have seen from your photos, architects still design in a classical manner.  Please help.  Thank you.”

Here’s my advice to him/her, and all other architecture students interested in designing in the classical tradition:

1.  The architectural style of the building is of little importance.  Just as there is more to a person than the color of their skin or their ethnicity, there should be more to a building than its architectural style.  A building is built for its intended purpose (program) and needs to comply with current building codes and local zoning ordinances.  The purpose for the building codes, and purpose for hiring an architect to design the building, is to protect the safety of the public and the building’s users. Become familiar with the building code.  Make sure your building has sufficiently sized fire exits that are remotely located, and make sure that there are no dead end corridors that could trap someone during a fire.  If the building is to be used by the public, you may also need to make it wheelchair accessible.  Become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Design Guidelines to assure that clearances on each side of doors are met, corridors are proper width, and that wheelchair turning radiuses can be achieved wherever necessary.  The purpose for insisting this is because you never want to present a traditional project that does not meet code.  If you present a project that does not meet code, you are falling into their “You-can’t-build-this-way-today” trap set up by your design professors.  If you can demonstrate that your building satisfactorily comply with the building codes, and that your building is wheelchair accessible, you have more credibility in your argument that you can in fact build this way today.

2.  Do not compromise the program and building siting for the sake of tradition.  Make sure that your building is designed to meet the program as best you can, and that you didn’t have to force the program to fit into the traditional design.  The traditional design should work naturally with the program.  For example, don’t force the program to fit into something symmetrical, if it doesn’t work.  perhaps an asymmetrical composition will work better.  Make sure that circulation paths are worked out and the necessary spacial adjacency requirements are met.  Make sure that the building is properly sited, the loading dock is not facing the public square, the principal rooms are positioned so that they have views of the lake, etc.  You have more credibility if you presentation shows that you were thoughtful about the site orientation, how the building is sited, how the building satisfies the program all functional requirements.

3.  Become familiar with how traditional buildings are detailed.  Whether designing modern or traditional buildings, it is always best to design with technologies and systems that are most familiar and readily available.  More builders and contractors are familiar with brick veneer over a stud framed wall than the latest high tech rain screen.  A simple shingled hipped roof is better than a bunch of offset flat roofs with multiple penetrations.  Make sure that you have some thought about how your building will be constructed, and that you know, for example, that the cornice, besides being a decorative element, is often a device used for guttering the rain water, or throwing it away from the exterior wall.  While the other students may propose projects that have weird shapes and angles that may be difficult to waterproof, and may have no clue how to waterproof their projects, you want to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about construction techniques, and that you are using time tested materials and techniques, that are most readily available and most familiar with builders and tradesmen.  This is also how you are more likely to fall within the construction budget.  Whereas the fancy high tech wall system may cause the modernist project to exceed the budget, and there may be no other solutions other than the system as it was designed, a traditional architect has more available options at his/her disposal.  Gypsum board can be substituted for plaster, stucco finish or brick veneer substituted for stone, asphalt shingles substituted for tile or slate shingles, etc.

4.  Do not copy.  If you are going to design in the classical tradition, avoid the obvious copy or reference to a specific historic building.  Do not design a building that somewhat looks like Monticello, and is obvious that you were inspired by Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s work.  Instead, be inspired by all types of classical buildings, including the anonymous buildings in small town centers that are not in history books, or that are not well known.  If you are accused of copying, your response should be to request a specific example.  “What building do you think I copied this design from?”  You should also keep all your developmental sketches so that you can show the progressive development of your scheme.  This is often used when architects are accused of plagiarizing other architect’s work.  The developmental sketches are often used to prove that the work was developed by the defendant architect, and is not a copied work. 

5.  Learn the classical language of architecture.   you will have to study this on your own.  Make sure that you get all the details and proportions right.  Make sure that the entablature is properly aligned with the columns/pilasters below, make sure the pilaster/column bases align with the pedestals below, etc.  Make sure the proportions are right and make sure you understand the importance of hierarchy of architectural elements when it comes to composing your facades.  If something is not right about your design, such as the details or the proportions, it will be obvious to the jurors.  Although they may have no idea what it is, or be able to correct it, they will label it pastiche.  Design your building as if it were a load bearing masonry building, even if you propose it to be masonry veneer on stud framing.  By this I mean make sure that arches are located not too close to building corners, the alignments of architectural elements don’t give the appearance of over burdening the columns and pilasters above or below, rustication is used on the lower floors, not the upper floors…obvious things.  

6.  Determine your audience before presenting your project.  If you are presenting in front of a jury of traditional architects, then by all means explain the building’s traditional inspirations, but if you are presenting in front of jurors bent on modernism, then explain the building’s response to site and program.  Remember that a modernist juror can’t give you any advice on how to build a better looking classical building, or offer any advice on how to correct any details that are not quite right, so don’t bother asking them.  Avoid discussing the style of the building. Explain how the building is sited, how it works diagrammatically, how it accomplishes the program, how circulation is arranged, how certain rooms are adjacent to other rooms, etc.  If the they bring up the issue of the building’s style then downplay the importance of the building’s style and try to steer the conversation back to functional and programmatic issues.   

7.  Don’t worry about your grade.  Make sure that you work hard on your design and put a lot of effort into it.  make sure that you produce all of the drawings required of the assignment and more if you can manage it.  Produce beautifully detailed drawings, and as I said before, keep all of you sketches to demonstrate your work effort.  If your design professor doesn’t like that you produced a traditional design, he or she may give you a C; don’t worry about it.  If he or she gives you a D or a failing grade, bitch and complain about it, and show them all the drawings you’ve produced and all the sketches and developmental drawings that demonstrate that you’ve made a strong effort in the design.  Argue that your efforts are worthy of a higher grade and that a D or failing grade is for those that put very little effort into the assignment or who didn’t complete all the required drawings required.  Most professors will concede and move the grade up a letter rather than go to battle with you, but it you have to, go for it.  Complain to the dean or college professor if you have to, or find out if there is a way that the grade can be arbitrated.  If you end up with a C in your design class, remember that architects usually don’t care about academic grades, and architects that practice traditional architects are least likely to care about grades. so don’t worry about it.

Finally, when you get out of school, you should seek employment at an architectural firm that specializes in traditional work.  You will find that there is a greater market for traditional design than modernist work.  When you take your architecture license exam, the graders are only interested in how well you satisfy the building code, the zoning and the design program.   Once you are a licensed architect, you can practice architecture however you want.

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Awhile back, I did this conceptual design for the Dury Hotel expansion in New Orleans, which is currently under construction, but unfortunately, this design was not developed as I originally designed it.  The program includes five levels of parking over first floor meeting rooms and topped by three floors of guest rooms.  The upper floors of guest rooms are set back one bay on the Lafayette Street (left) side.  Whereas this building fronts on Carondelet Street, the main hotel building fronts on Poydras Street, on the right side.  The main hotel building is set back by a large surface parking lot on the corner of Carondelet Street and Poydras Street, so the connection to the main hotel occurs at the rear corners of both the main hotel and this annex.

The Carondelet Street facade has a rusticated base with segmental arched openings, a large cornice, and a mid section with arched openings below where the parking levels occur, and punched openings with double hung windows where the guest rooms occur.  The upper floor of guest rooms have windows that are located below the main cornice, and have a continuous architrave band in place of the sill, creating a complete entablature with the band of upper windows and the recessed panels between the windows forming the frieze of the entablature.

The lowest parking level occurs at the transom of the first floor segmental arched openings.  The arched openings are articulated as two floors and an arched transom, but actually the two floors are actually concealing three parking levels.  These deceitful devices are necessary on parking garages because the floor-to-floor heights are often so short, and the squat proportions that would result if each level were articulated would be undesirable.

The structural column grid lines are shown at the bottom of the elevation, and its the location of these columns that made the composition of this elevation so tricky.  Notice that the second bay from the right and from the left is slightly smaller than all the other bays, but because of the setback at the Lafayette Street side, the main portion of the facade starts off, from the left, a short bay, three equal bays, another short bay and then another large bay equal to the other three.  The challenge was to get this main portion of the facade to be symmetrical, but since that was not possible, I had to make it look like it was symmetrical.

To achieve this appearance of symmetry, the first and last bays of arched openings are pushed as far to the left as they can go, with the structural columns falling right at, or very near to, the face of the structural column.  Similarly the second bay of arched openings on the left side that is within the same structural bay is pushed to the far right, as close as it could possibly be to the column.  The resulting pier width between the arched openings is then duplicated on the right side, and the other arched openings inserted in between at equal spaces.  The result is that I have eight bays of arched openings with the first and last bays separated by a slightly wider pier than the middle bays, which is desirable in classical architecture.

The large space between the arched openings and the corners of the facade are articulated with pedimented aediculae.

The guest room windows, which are six-over-six double hung units, are each aligned over the vertical axis of the arched window bay below, and smaller two-over-two double hung units are located over the aediculae.

The cornice has regularly spaced block modillions.  The modillions are spaced, starting at the corner of the upper bed moulding on each side, and are arranged so that there is a space between each that is approximately twice the width of the modillion.  The bays are then tweaked, that is they are slightly adjusted so that, in this case all the windows are centered between two modillions.  There is one exception:  The small windows on the right side are centered on the modillion rather than the space between the modillions.  That’s your one clue that this facade is not quite symmetrical; it has the appearance of symmetry.

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This is a drawing I did awhile back of the Classical Orders of Architecture.  What is unique about this drawing is that the columns are depicted at the same height throughout, but with varying shaft diameters, starting with the Tuscan being the fattest and the Corinthian and Composite being the most slender.  Usually, the orders are drawn with similar base diameters, but with varying heights, starting with the Tuscan being the shortest and the Corinthian and Composite being the tallest.  When I started studying the Classical Orders, I soon realized that the ratio of column height to entablature height was 1 to 4, or another way to look at it, if the portion of the facade with the columns (or pilasters) and entablature is divided into 5 equal height bands, the entablature would occupy the upper band and the lower four bands would be reserved for the columns or pilasters.  This works out regardless of the order.

Tuscan:  Column Height = 7 diameters; Entablature Height = 1.75 diameters.

Doric:  Column Height = 8 diameters; Entablature Height = 2 diameters.

Ionic:  Column Height = 9 diameters; Entablature Height = 2.25 diameters.

Corinthian and Composite:  Column Height =10 diameters; Entablature Height = 2.5 diameters.

Another advantage to depicting all the orders at the same height is that often the overall height that is required is known, and the column diameter has to be solved by dividing the overall height into the proper number of modular units.  For example, if your are working within a room, you usually know what the floor to ceiling height is, and if the Corinthian Order is desired, then the height is divided by 12.5 (10 + 2.5) to establish the required column diameter.  It seems rare that it would occur the other way around, where a column diameter is selected and the height must be determined.  This also makes it easier to swap out one order for another during schematic design, if the Ionic Order is preferred over Corinthian, then divide the ceiling height by 11.25 (9 + 2.25) to achieve the required column diameter.

Optional components of the Classical Orders include the pedestal and the balustrade/parapet.  The columns may stand directly on the building’s base or water table (or on a lower order) without the pedestal.  Similarly, the facade may have a pitched roof that sits directly on top of the cornice without the need for a balustrade or parapet.

To achieve the heights of these components I used the same 1 to 4 ratio as with the column and entablature.  The balustrade/parapet is 4/5 the height of the entablature, or the column height can be divided into five to determine the balustrade or parapet height.  The pedestal height is shown as being 1/4 the height of the column + the entablature.  (I’ve taken some liberties here; more often the pedestal is depicted as being 1/3 the column height, but I felt compelled to continue the 1 to 4 ratio as a theme throughout.)  According to Robert Chitham‘s book on the Classical Orders, he indicates that James Gibbs used this method for determining the pedestal height, so it can’t be all wrong.

Finally, I’ve used the same 1 to 4 proportion to determine the pedestal base height from the pedestal’s overall height and the balustrade/parapet’s base height form it’s overall height.  The pedestal cap and the balustrade cap is determined by the taking remaining height of the pedestal or balustrade/parapet and again divided into 5.

The next thing to notice on this drawing is that certain alignments must occur for the Classical Orders to look right.  When these alignments are ignored, for example, if the base is too wide, or the soffit of the entablature is too wide, it makes the column appear to be weak or over burdened in its effort to support the loads.

The alignments, starting at the bottom, are that the pedestal width aligns with the width of the column plinth; the width of the entablature’s soffit aligns with the upper shaft of the columns.  (The columns have entasis, which is a gradual tapering of the upper two thirds of the column shaft, the lower third remaining cylindrical.)  The planar face of the balustrade or parapet base aligns with the base plane of the entablature (the frieze if it is without relief and the bottom of the architrave).   There is a continual diminishing of material as the facade increases in height.  This makes since because the base of the facade must be thicker to carry more weight, and the upper portions must be lighter to not over burden the supports below.

As for the column’s entasis, I’ve shown the top diameter of the equal to 7/8 that of the base.  This is not exactly right, but it is close.  The purpose for using 7/8 was to make it easier for carpenters (again some liberties taken).

Modern lightweight frame construction has made it easy for architects to ignore this alignment of components and the required diminishing of material, and it is this perhaps more than anything, makes an amateur’s work stand out among one who thoroughly studies classical architecture.

Finally, there are some specific dimensions related to each of the orders.  The Tuscan entablature  includes an architrave that is .5 diameters in height, a frieze that is .5 diameters in height, and a cornice that is .75 diameters in height (.5 + .5 + .75 = 1.75, which is 1/4 of 7, the column height).  The Doric has an architrave that is .5 diameters in height, a frieze that is .75 diameters in height, and a cornice that is .75 diameters in height (.5 + .75 + .75 = 2, which is 1/4 of 8).  Also the Doric’s frieze has an alternating pattern of metopes and triglyphs.  The metopes are square, or .75 diameters wide and the triglyphs are .5 diameters wide, with a vertical proportion of 2 to 3.  The intercolumniation of the Doric, or the spacing of the columns, is done in increments of 1.25 diameters (1.25, 2.5, 3.75, 4.5) so that the column is always centered on the triglyphs.

The Ionic has an architrave, frieze and cornice heights of 5/8, 6/8 and 7/8 respectively.  (5/8 + 6/8 + 7/8 = 2.25, which is 1/4 of 9).  The Ionic cornice has a continuous band of dentils, therefore the intercolumniation is not as critical as the Doric.  The Corinthian and Composite both have architraves that are .75 diameters in height, friezes that are .75 diameters in height, and cornices that are 1 diameter in height (.75 + .75 + 1 = 2.5, which is 1/4 of 10).  The Corinthian and Composite cornice both have modillions that are spaced at increments of 2/3 diameters, starting with 1 1/3 and moving upwards (1 1/3, 2, 2 2/3, 3 1/3, 4).

Notice also that when modillions are used at a corner, the column center lines are aligned with the second modillion from the corner, and the outside face of the modillions at the corners align with back fascia of the adjacent side.

There is so much more to classical architecture, including proportion, composition, hierarchy, etc. that can’t be covered in this blog post, but it is hoped that builders, carpenters and designers who are unfamiliar with the Classical Orders will find this to be a helpful worksheet and introduction to their proper use.

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My Tulane Thesis Project from 1989 is the expansion of the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The project was designed in the classical manner, just like the original museum building, and in doing so, it challenged the Venice Charter of 1964, which establishes guidelines for the preservation of historic structures and sites.  The problem with the Venice Charter of 1964 is Article 9 which requires that additions to existing buildings have a “contemporary stamp.”  The charter was written when modernism dominated the architectural profession, and traditional architecture was looked down upon.  Prior to the Modernist Movement, there was no “contemporary stamp” of architecture, or at least not anything that was obvious.  Prior to the charter, an architect would design an addition to an historic building in a style that would complement the existing building;  the historic building with its new addition had to be designed as a single composition.  The real purpose for Article 9 is to allow architects disciplined in Modernism to be able to work on historic buildings with no remorse for designing something that was not in the same style as the older building.  It didn’t have anything to do with preservation of the older work.ImageImage

My proposed expansion to the New Orleans Museum of Art is similar in a lot of respects to another very well known classical building, the U. S. Capitol Building in Washington D. C.  An older version of the building had a lower copper clad dome that was designed by Architect Charles Bulfinch.  When the Senate and House wings were added onto the each end of the capitol building, the dome appeared to be too diminutive.  The architect of the new wings, Thomas U. Walter, replaced the low rise Bulfinch dome with a higher cast iron dome over a colonnaded drum, similar to Christopher Wren’s dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The Senate and House wings were designed in a classical style, with a Corinthian Order that was extended onto the new wings, and with the heightened dome, produced a seamless classical composition.

Similarly, my expansion of the gallery spaces to the original museum building, extending the existing building’s Ionic Order, created a long, spread out building that desired to have some kind of vertical element that would be visible over the large canopy of oak trees that covered Lelong Avenue, the axial approach roadway that extended into City Park.  One slight difference is that the vertical element that I proposed was positioned behind the original building, not over it.  In fact, my proposed expansion, which included the renovation of circa 1970’s era wings on each side and replacement of a gallery addition to the rear, also built in the 1970’s, has minimal additional contact with the original building.

The vertical element that I designed is a large pavilion like structure with engaged Corinthian columns similar to those of the Choragic Monument to Lysicrates.  I chose that column style because it was the most refined of the Greek Corinthian Order, and because the original building was done in A Neo-Greek classicism, I insisted that the expansion would also be in a Greek style as well.  The dome had not been invented yet when Ancient Greeks built their temples, so capping this vertical element with a dome was out of the question.  I chose a stepped pyramid similar to the Monument at Halicarnassus, which I topped off with a statue of Isaac Delgado, the museum’s original founder.Image

What appears to be a stepped pyramid roof from the ground turns out to be in section a series of concentric square baffles positioned on carriage beams, and placed so that they are able to diffuse natural light into a skylight that is placed below on a low pitched built-up roof below.

The pavilion structure would contain a rooftop restaurant with dining terraces over the gallery wings, and with scenic views throughout City Park.

In contrast, Daniel Libeskind’s expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum takes the complete opposite approach to designing an addition to an historic building.  Here, the Venice Charter’s Article 9 mandate for a “contemporary stamp” is perverted, and the result is a metal and glass structure of random, chaotically arranged shapes graphed onto a traditional stone museum building.  It is a narcissistic kind of architecture demanding attention to itself, extending out beyond the facade of the old building, and seemingly pushing it away.  The composition of the new, tangled up, chaotic structure with the old historic building is an uncomfortable one, meant more for shock value than anything artistic.  The old building begs to be restored, with the hideous monstrosity graphed to it’s side, demolished and hauled off to a landfill somewhere.


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Hello WordPress!!! Here’s my Architecture Thesis Project from 1989.



This is my Architecture Thesis Project that was done in the Spring of 1989 at Tulane University.  This project was featured in The Classicist No. 2 published by the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture (Now the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America).  The text that I wrote for the Classicist No. 2 is as follows:

The New Orleans Museum of Art was built in 1910 to the designs of Lebenbaum & Marx Architects of Chicago.  Unlike other museums situated at the edge of urban parks, the building is located well inside New Orleans’ City Park, where it sits within a traffic circle thatterminates the axis of Esplanade Avenue.  The museum was therefore designed to be a classical island in a picturesque setting.

In the late 1960s, the museum embarked upon an expansion program that would more than double the amount of gallery space.  The expansion was executed in a minimalist expression so as to not compete with the original building.  The addition comprised two wings on opposite sides of the building and a larger gallery wing at the rear.

In 1983, the museum held a competition for a second expansion to double again the amount of gallery, administration and curatorial space.   My intent was to design an addition that blended in with the original museum building.  The precis was that any contemporary mode of expression, such as that utilized for the expansion of 1971, would further compromise the premise of the first building.

The two existing wings flanking each side of the existing building were retained, but were given new facades on the exterior and replanned on the interior.  Most of the rear gallery was demolished.

The new rear addition repeats the two pavilions of the original structure, suggesting a square in plan.  Within this square rises a new third level that would contain a restaurant, while increasing the monumentality of the original building.  The height from the building’s base to the third floor cornice is the same as the central pavilion’s width and depth forming a perfect cube in proportion.

The museum completed its second expansion in 1992.  The winning scheme from the 1983 competition was abandoned and the existing building was enlarged with a modernist addition within the existing traffic circle.  The vision of a unified, classical museum therefore remains unrealized. 

It may have been edited out or it wasn’t mention in the text, but the wining scheme from the 1983 competition proposed that the addition be located outside of the museum traffic circle with a pedestrian bridge that linked it back to the museum.  It is a possibility that this scheme was not built because it was outside of the museum’s property and the property acquisition from City Park would have been too complicated.

This project done over 20 years ago is more relevant today because architects commissioned to design additions to traditionally styled buildings are persuaded to design additions that contrast the old style with a newer modernist style, with the result of compromising the entire composition. This project proposed that a building could be expanded the same way that the United States Capitol Building was expanded throughout its history.

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Architects are no longer capable of designing large scaled buildings, as can be seen in the proposed rendering of the building that is being proposed for the corner of Canal and Rampart streets.  In an attempt to break up the mass of the building, the architects create a large building mass that is a random, asymmetrical collage of various fenestration types and materials.  There is nothing at the street to engage the pedestrian on Canal or Rampart streets.     

The attached sketch was traced over the rendering of the proposed high rise building proposed for Canal and Rampart Street, and shows how a traditional building would be designed for the site.  An “H” or “I” shaped tower would sit on top of a five story base that would have set backs on Canal and Iberville streets, providing a low rise scale for those street facades.  The long Rampart Street façade is broken into five parts that are articulated where the tower wings meet the base.  The mass of the tower is less apparent when viewed from up or down Rampart Street due to the setbacks created by the light courts created by the “H” or “I” shaped tower plan.

The building is also divided vertically into a tripartite composition, with the base, the “H” shaped tower and a small penthouse.  Changes of materials, cornices, moldings and ornamentation further break down the mass of the building.  



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These are the interior elevations showing my proposed design concept for the master bathroom, shower, dressing room and walk-in closet.

The shower is a curbless and open (with no shower door), and is completely tiled on all four walls and floor.  Because it is difficult to slope tile work to the drain with large paver tiles, I’ve decided to use a small 2 inch square travertine tile that would also be used on the wall surfaces.  The shower would have a conventional shower head, a body spray, and an over head rain spray.  Opposite the shower heads and valves is a built in seat, all of which is tiled with the same 2 inch square travertine tile that is used throughout.

The dressing area would have all wood vanity cabinets and a granite top with under mounted lavatory bowls.  The granite variety that I would like to see used for the vanity top is something light in color such as Luna Pearl, a white granite with small gray speckles, or New Caledonia, another light colored granite that has a variety of grays and tans on top of the light crème color.  Both of these granites would complement the crème or tan color typical of travertine.  The dressing room mirror would be a large plate glass mirror that is trimmed with wood casing on the sides and top matching the typical door casing profiles that are to each side.

For the sake of continuity of the material palette, the bathroom combines the same vanity top granite with the small travertine tile.  Because the shower is curbless, it seemed appropriate to use the same 2 inch for the bathroom floor with no threshold or transition between the shower and the bathroom.  The tub is built into its own alcove with a vaulted ceiling above.  A 4 inch wide band of granite forms an impost band located at the spring point of the vault with the 2 inch tile used below.  The 2 inch travertine tile would also be used at the tub apron, and the similar 4 inch wide bands of granite would be used to case the shower opening, and the window, as well as for a base.  Adjacent to the tub, against the rear wall is the water closet and bidet.  A requested window may be located above the toilet and bidet in a future revision.

The walk-in closet has built-in wood shelves with double hanging rods.  Both the walk-in closet and dressing room would most likely have a strip or plank wood floors that match whatever is selected for the master bedroom.

All of this could change from now until the time it is built, but this is the master bathroom concept as I envision it now and what is being priced by the builder.        

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