Monday, April 21, 2014


The other day I was rummaging through a local architectural salvage yard when, way out in one corner, past the rows of forlorn toilets and racks sagging with old sinks, I came across a depressing sight. It was a literal mountain of fancy whirlpool tubs, each of which some home buying couple had once considered absolutely indispensable to their master bathroom. In reality, these tubs had been unused, unloved, and finally ripped out and given away. And here they were, a moldering monument to a silly but ubiquitous fad that’s still with us today.

Dubious building fads are certainly nothing new. In tract houses of the 1920s, for instance, a separate breakfast room was deemed a must, even if many of them were barely big enough to fit a table, let alone four chairs. Upscale ranch houses of the 1950s, on the other hand, frequently boasted an indoor barbecue, a patently impractical feature that was almost immediately covered over to net more counter space. 

During the technology-mad 1960s, home intercoms were the deluxe gimmick of choice. Visitors were supposed to announce themselves at the front entrance, and through the miracle of the transistor, their greeting would be transmitted as an unintelligible garble to the “master station” inside--usually located next to the front door, where one might just as easily have spoken to the visitor face to face. 

Topnotch tract houses of the 70s offered buyers the “conversation pit”--a sunken area ringed with upholstered seating, and often equipped with a fireplace as well. Here, guests would presumably chat it up while lounging around in polyester suits. Alas, nothing kills natural conversation like being urged to engage in it, and the conversation pit barely outlived the Carter administration.

I could go on citing such examples--cavernous master bedrooms, gigantic master baths, living room wet bars, multiple fireplaces--but you get the point. What makes home buyers covet such features--often at no small cost--when in retrospect they seem so obviously impractical? Some people blame developers for pushing extravagant gimmicks to spur sales. If this is the case, the strategy has generally been been right on target. For decades prior to the Great Recession, they were rewarded for peddling gimmicks by selling gobs and gobs of houses. Given this history, it seems that home buyers are at least complicit in creating demand for useless bells and whistles. 

In fact, until the housing market finally collapsed under its own weight, we material-mad consumers were still lusting after restaurant-style ranges and refrigerators, dual dishwashers, three- and four-car garages, and yes, even those ever-more-ostentatious bathrooms with their whirlpool tubs. When it comes to buying houses, we’re as susceptible to gimmicks as we are in buying all those other overwrought consumer items we’ve been snapping up by the armload. 

One would hope that our recent economic troubles would sharpen our discernment for what is useful and what is not. If it doesn’t, some of us will be finding great deals on used whirlpool tubs.

Monday, March 31, 2014


For millennia, the only way to build to build a strong building was to pile up lots and lots of stone or brick, forming massive masonry walls that could hold up the weight of the floors and roof. This ancient approach worked well enough as long as buildings weren’t more than six stories tall or so. If they were, the lower walls had to be made impractically thick in order to carry the weight of all that masonry above them--the more stories, the thicker the walls. 

By the late nineteenth century, when American engineers and architects began contemplating structures of ten, fifteen, or even more stories, the limitations of masonry construction reached a critical point. One of the tallest masonry buildings of this era, Chicago’s Monadnock Building of 1891, carried its seventeen stories of brick on ground floor walls six feet thick. Such a ponderous system simply wouldn’t do if tall buildings were to become practical. Fortunately, a new building material--steel--solved this problem just in time. 

Steel’s earliest ancestors date back at least four thousand years, but it was the invention of the Bessemer process in 1855 that first allowed it to be mass produced. Steel’s structural advantages were immediately obvious: Pound for pound, it was many times stronger than masonry, and just as important, it was equally strong under both compression and tension. Steel was also ductile and would bend under a heavy load rather than cracking. These attributes meant that a steel beam could support heavy loads and span long distances much more efficiently than any type of masonry, allowing even the tallest building to be supported by a relatively light “skeleton frame” of girders rather than by hundreds of tons of stone or brick. 

Steel members--including the familiar though now little-used “I-beam”--were typically riveted together (and later, bolted or welded) into a cage-like structure that carried the entire building load. Since the outer walls no longer had to support the weight of the stories above, they could be very light enclosures of glass, metal, or some decorative veneer--hence the term “curtain wall”.

The first tall building with a load-bearing steel frame was Chicago’s ten-story Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney and completed in 1885. Engineers and architects quickly followed Jenney’s lead over the next few years. So sweeping was this change that, while the aforementioned Monadnock Building had marked the apogee of load-bearing masonry construction, an addition to it built just two years later was already being framed in steel.

Meanwhile, the price of downtown land in large cities all over America was beginning to skyrocket, putting pressure on developers to pack more volume into the same amount of real estate. That meant just one thing: ever-taller buildings. By the late 1890s, the new possibilities inherent in the steel skeleton frame, spurred by rising urban real estate prices and enabled by the invention of the safety elevator, had set off a national skyscraper boom that, for better or worse, is still with us today.

Monday, March 17, 2014


For millenia, the only way to create a strong, durable, and fireproof structure was to build it out of stone or brick. Needless to say, this required plenty of time, material, and effort, not to mention a lordly budget. But for most of man’s history, this tried-and-true ancient method had to suffice. 

There was finally a tantalizing glimmer of change in this situation toward the end of the 18th century, when a material long in use for other items--cast iron--began to be used in building. Pound for pound, cast iron was much stronger than stone or brick. Since it was cast in molds, it could be cheaply mass produced. And lastly, cast iron wouldn’t burn.

Among the first structural uses of cast iron was the celebrated Coalbrookdale Bridge across the river Severn in Shropshire, England, built by one Abraham Darby III in 1879, and still standing today. Darby came from a storied dynasty of English ironmongers who had cast cooking pots and like paraphenalia for generations. Darby reasoned that the same process might serve very well to produce repetitive structural members such as girders--and not incidentally create a vast new market for his products. 

Knowingly or not, Darby opened a whole new chapter in the history of building. Most of the structural innovations using cast iron came from engineers rather than architects, and most of these advances were made in Britain, the cradle of the ongoing Industrial Revolution. 

At first, cast iron appeared to be the greatest building breakthrough since ancient times. It began to be widely used in bridge structures and other civil engineering works. In architecture, cast iron columns and beams became common in factory and commercial buildings. Slender, delicately ornamented cast iron columns even appeared in a few large English manor houses. 

Alas, this promising future clouded over on May 24, 1847, when a brand new cast iron bridge across the river Dee in Chester, England collapsed. An inquiry determined that one of the cast-iron girders had snapped under the load of a crossing train.  England saw subsequent cast iron failures of the Bull Bridge in 1860, the Woolton Bridge in 1861, and finally the catastrophic collapse of the Tay Bridge in 1879, which killed sixty, including the bridge engineer’s son in law. In architecture, too, iron proved vulnerable. Unlike wood, which visibly bends when overloaded, cast iron could appear sound in one moment and shatter in the next. Most--er, ironic--it turned out that while cast iron wouldn’t burn, fire could still weaken it to the point of collapse.

After yet another bridge failure in 1891, it was determined that all cast iron bridges in the United Kingdom should be replaced. Future bridges were supposed to utilize wrought iron—a tougher, more malleable metal that unfortunately lacked cast iron’s ability to be molded. 

However, as so often happens in history, new developments soon rendered these plans moot. By the end of the 19th century, steel--a newly perfected material that was both strong and extremely malleable--was poised to revolutionize building. Cast iron continued to be used on occasion for prefabricated store fronts and the like, but engineering’s age of iron had ended. 

Monday, March 3, 2014


Now and then, you’ve probably heard people describe some interesting old house as having “good bones”.  But what do they really mean by this? What gives one house better “bones” than another? The answer lies in an aspect of architecture that’s little appreciated and even less understood: Composition. 

Many people assume that the way a house looks from outside is just the inevitable consequence of the room layout within. But this is a modern conceit brought on by the idea--equally modern--that “form follows function.” For all the modernist talk about buildings reflecting their internal functions, though, modernist architects were even more attuned to the need for artful composition than their predecessors were. They were fastidious in arranging the purportedly functional features of those otherwise stark facades--juxtaposing big window against small, high roof against low--to wring more drama out of their compositions. 

In truth, any architect worthy of the title will compose the exterior elevations of a house with painstaking deliberation--fussing with rooflines, or adjusting the size or location of windows or doors by a few inches here or there in order to get just the right balance of movement and repose. So few houses, whether traditional or modern, are bestowed with “good bones” just by accident--getting them to look that way takes a good bit of thought.

Ironically, the verdict on all this effort arrives in the few seconds after we first behold a building in the landscape. This is when our brains try to make visual sense of it and, as it were, give it a subconscious thumbs up or thumbs down. Since our brains find objects with a few bold elements more comprehensible than inarticulate jumbles, compositions with limited elements and a clear hierarchy of features seem more pleasing than those with lots and lots of competing elements. 

The fact that our brains tend to favor coherence over chaos doesn’t imply that buildings should be simplistic or have an absence of detail. It simply means that, no matter how complex they might be, their overall design should still feature a limited number of elements with a clear hierarchy. This concept holds true whether we’re talking about a one-room cottage or the Palace of Versailles. 

To prove the point, let’s distill these two extreme examples into a few phrases summing up the viewing experience. For our imaginary cottage, we might describe the sequence of visual impressions as follows: Big steep gable; lovely front door; towering chimney. As for Versailles, despite its enormous size and complexity, our initial impression might still boil down to just this: Imposing central block; powerful flanking wings; gardens stretching away. Both, we might finally decide, have “good bones”.

Architecture is of course far more complex these few brief impressions can possibly convey. Proportion, scale, symmetry, color, texture, procession, and a host of other concerns round out the experience of a great building. Yet labor as architects might on aesthetic minutae, if the overall composition doesn’t pass muster, the fine points--no matter how beautifully wrought--won’t make any difference. It’s the big picture that we judge in pronouncing a design pleasing or pitiable--as having good bones or bad. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


The other day I was eating breakfast at a cozy little diner called Sam’s Log Cabin, not far from where I live. The place is pretty much what its name suggests--a rustic little box of a building with log siding and a hipped roof. The inside is just as spartan as the outside: there’s no proper ceiling, and the roof rafters are plainly exposed to view. 

I was savoring my pancakes and bacon, idly regarding the unusual construction, when my eyes came upon a curious thing. Apparently the person who’d framed the roof made a whopping mistake and ended it in the wrong location. You could see where the angled hip rafters were framed in, as if the carpenter thought he’d reached the end of the building, and where additional rafters had been appended to continue the roof another eight feet or so. It was clear that this had happened at one time, because the next stage of the work--the boards covering the roof--plainly continued onto the patched-on part.

The intriguing thing wasn’t the error itself--in construction, mistakes happen all the time. Rather, it was that the evidence was still right there in front of everybody, frozen in time, so vivid and immediate that you could practically still hear the expletives bouncing off the rafters.

Compelling architecture, whether magnificent or mundane, seems to have a common property--an ability to record and reflect the traces of human presence. In a great Gothic cathedral, for instance, the original builders may speak to us through a skillful piece of joinery, a beautiful carving, a radiant expanse of stained glass. What’s more, we sense the presence of all those who’ve entered--the generations whose passage has worn a stairstep smooth, or whose grip has polished a bronze handle to a brilliant patina. 

But magnificent buildings aren’t the only ones with this property. Humble ones--a barracks, a barn, or a quirky little restaurant--can have it as well. And sometimes, the thing that engages us is nothing more remarkable than a plain old mistake.

That, after all, is what lured me from my pancakes into a reverie about what happened on the day that nameless carpenter framed the roof of Sam’s Log Cabin. Did he have something else on his mind--a sick child at home, an argument with a friend, an overdue rent payment? Or did he just down a few too many for lunch? 

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case, the exact hows and whys don’t matter. What matters is the momentary kinship with that person-- perhaps long gone--who was probably not so very different from us, and who has reached across time to give us a metaphorical nod of recognition. Sometimes that person touches us with beauty, and sometimes, as in this case, through a personal foible of the kind we’ve all experienced. Either way, the inert matter of architecture has briefly assumed the power to remind us of what it means to be human. Two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon, and a quick lesson in humanity--not bad for $6.95. 

Monday, February 3, 2014


Some years ago I was walking through an old Victorian house that was being renovated. In one room where the original wall framing was exposed, I found a curious bit of workmanship. One of the two-by-four studs had been carefully notched about halfway up, and a small hardwood wedge had been driven in. After a moment’s study, the reason became clear: the two-by-four had been badly bowed, and rather than cutting it up for some lesser purpose, the Victorian carpenter had used an age-old but effective trick to make it straight again. Then he’d installed the mended stud in the wall along with the rest.

Why all this effort to save a single stick of lumber? The answer demands some historical context. In Victorian times, labor was cheap, but building materials were not. Hence, a carpenter would think twice before tossing out a crooked two-by-four if a few minutes work could make it useable. The carpenter’s time, after all, was a trifling expense compared to the cost of that two-by-four.

Today, the situation is exactly reversed. Lumber and many other building materials are relative bargains compared to the cost of labor, which typically consumes at least two-thirds of the building budget. Hence, a modern-day carpenter wouldn’t bother fixing a crooked stud because, given his hourly wage, the time he spent would easily exceed the value of the lumber he was saving.

There’s no doubt that this situation often leads to unnecessary waste, because it’s ultimately cheaper to use extra material if it speeds up the work. For instance, a hefty 4-by-12  header is typically installed over windows and doors even when it’s structurally unnecessary, simply because it takes less time to install than numerous smaller pieces of lumber. 

On the bright side, though, escalating labor costs have actually forced the construction industry to become faster and more efficient. Among the earliest labor-savers were fully pre assembled windows, which arrived in the 1930s (previously, windows were built on site, either from stock parts or entirely from scratch). 

The construction exigencies of World War II spurred another great labor saver--gypsum wallboard. So-called “drywall” did away with the tedious process of wet plastering, which entailed nailing up thousands of feet of wooden lath, applying three separate coats of plaster, and waiting for days while each coat dried. 

After these developments came pre-hung doors, manufactured roof trusses, modular cabinets, and all the other prefabricated components so important to reducing onsite labor. There’s no doubt that mass-producing components in a purpose-built factory, immune from weather, dirt, and damage, is more efficient than building them onsite. The only downside is a subtle but unmistakable aesthetic change: As houses increasingly trend toward being mere assemblies of manufactured items, most of what meets the eye--windows, doors, cabinets--has the unvarying consistency you’d expect from mass-produced products. 

Hence, there’s less and less distinction among houses, and fewer and fewer traces of the individual prerogative that was a hallmark of hand craftsmanship. This, I suppose, is the price we pay--for the prices we’re paying.

Monday, January 20, 2014


A contractor once told me an interesting story about a house he’d built for a man in Connecticut. Winter was already setting in when he’d gotten the place weather tight, so as soon as he finished the fireplace, he built a fire in it to keep the house warm. When the owner found out, he demanded that the contractor tear out the bricks inside the fireplace and replace them because they’d gotten sooty. He told the contractor that he was paying for a brand new fireplace, and he was damned well going to get one.

This brought me back to a paradox I’ve pondered from time to time. When some people build, they become obsessed with getting everything absolutely perfect. It’s not uncommon for owners to have brand new materials ripped out again because they’ve picked up a tiny scratch or a little ding somewhere along the line. This happens even with materials predestined to show age or wear from normal use--say, hardwood flooring, painted trim, or in the case of our unlucky contractor’s client, the inside of a fireplace. 

What’s odd about this obsession with newness and perfection is that the sort of buildings we seem to admire most--Europe’s storied old cottages, let’s say, or perhaps China’s ancient courtyard houses--are precisely the ones that are old and thoroughly beaten up, with a patina that bespeaks their many years of history. And “patina”, after all, is really just a nice word for the flaws that arise from age and use--if anything, it’s a sort of anti-perfection. And given that we covet the patina of age in old buildings, why do we place so much value on flawlessness in new ones?  

In architecture and construction, quality--soundness, durability, and fitness of purpose--is never negotiable. On the other hand, we’d lose very little in easing our compulsion for flawless surfaces. For one thing, time and Mother Nature never allow us the pretense of perfection for any length of time--something modernist architects have usually learned the hard way. Better to start with the assumption that our work will get a good thrashing over time, and design accordingly. 

One way to do this is to use materials that don’t demand a high degree of finish: Oiled wood, rough plaster, wrought iron, to name a few. Better yet are materials requiring no additional finish at all: Natural wood, stone, brick, textured concrete, clay tile, weathering steel, and tinted stucco, among others. Beside requiring negligible maintenance, all of these materials can absorb years of abuse, and in return just keep looking better and better. 

Take a look at much of today’s architecture, though, and instead of materials that improve with age, you’ll find mirror-polished surfaces, razor-sharp corners, and demanding and intricate finishes. Seeing these flawless designs in photographs, forever protected from the indignities of daily use, it’s no wonder so many of us have come to expect flawless results in our own projects. To this rarefied school of design, I suppose, a soot-blackened fireplace would indeed be seen as a thing that’s ruined and imperfect, instead of being testament to a human tale unfolding.