Monday, July 13, 2015

A DASH OF WABI-SABI


We Americans routinely beat ourselves up in the pursuit of what we consider to be perfection. In my line of work, for example, it’s nothing for a homeowner to turn apoplectic over a tiny scratch in a newly-installed floor, or to insist that a contractor replace a ceramic tile whose color varies ever so slightly from its mates. In today’s litigious atmosphere, this righteous demand for a very Western ideal of perfection can have even top-flight contractors quaking in fear of their clients—hardly the basis for an ideal working relationship.

A Japanese pottery bowl:
The beauty of imperfection.
(Courtesy of fatrabbitsdelight.com)
Our friends in Japan, on the other hand, have an entirely different aesthetic viewpoint. They acknowledge that imperfection is a quality inseparable from any human effort, and what’s more, they believe that imperfection has aesthetic worth in itself. So central is this idea to the Japanese sense of beauty that it has a name: wabi-sabi. 

Wabi-sabi is a concept roughly analogous to the West’s ideal of perfection, which we inherited from ancient Greece. Western architects, for example, have accepted the Greek architectural orders as the proportional ideal for centuries. Yet the Greek brand of perfection requires an object to have a complete absence of flaws--to be, as Plato put it,  “apt, suitable, without deviations.” 

Wabi-sabi, on the other hand, explicitly accepts and even celebrates such “deviations” as an inherent qaulity of any human undertaking--a belief beautifully expressed by author Richard R. Powell in his book Wabi Sabi Simple

Chartres Cathedral: Are the
mismatched towers a mistake,
or a western version of wabi-sabi?
“Wabi-Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” 

The term wabi-sabi can variously be interpreted as “wisdom in rustic simplicity”—a common Japanese definition--or, more generally, as “flawed beauty.” The word wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, but in more recent centuries has come to mean rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness. Sabi is the beauty or serenity that comes with age—once again, an implicit recognition of imperfection. The Western term patina is perhaps the nearest analog, though its meaning is quite literally more superficial. 

It’s important to note that wabi-sabi doesn’t discourage the pursuit of perfection, but simply acknowledges that true perfection is unattainable no matter how fervently we pursue it. The fortunate flip side of this truth is the belief that time, usage, and the anomalies of human effort--the very forces that obviate perfection--actually add new dimensions of beauty to objects rather than diminishing them.

Rampant imperfection, or a
reflection of our own imperfect humanity? 
Given all the anxiety I’ve seen clients expend on pursuing perfection in their own remodeling projects, they’d do well to experience at least a dash of the exhilarating freedom the wabi-sabi viewpoint can provide. Is it really worth losing sleep over that tiny scratch in the hardwood floor? It will, after all, very quickly be joined by dozens and finally hundreds more. Does this make the floor any less beautiful? To my mind, not to speak of the Japanese mind, it does just the opposite: By evincing the traces of those who’ve crossed it over the years and eventually the decades, it becomes a testament, not to inhuman perfection, but rather to imperfect humanity.

Monday, May 18, 2015

WHAT'S REALLY GREEN?


What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same old stuff you’ve always used, which some corporate PR firm has now managed to repackage as “green”?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest approach to construction is to adapt buildings that already exist--and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.
This building was demolished to make room for—
no kidding—a casino parking lot.
(Columbia Building, Pittsburgh, destroyed 2011;
courtesy of enthusiasticnoise.blogspot.com)

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be in a constant state of upheaval. Here, it’s common for buildings to be demolished after fifty, thirty, or even ten years of use--and the expected life of buildings is getting shorter, not longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of fifty years. Compare this to Europe, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on the Continent is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two World Wars. 

San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square—
a repurposed chocolate factory—
was among the first great
examples of "adaptive reuse".
America’s obsession with change, however, leads us to build quickly and on the cheap, since it’s assumed that buildings will be obsolete in a few decades anyway. Such thinking naturally leads to a vicious cycle of wastefulness: Because permananence is considered irrelevant, buildings are worn out in a few decades whether they’re actually obsolete or not. These, in turn, are typically replaced by structures that are even shoddier and more temporary--whether theoretically green or otherwise. 

Preserving and reusing older, well-built existing structures, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of true green design, since it requires relatively little additional expenditure of energy when adaptation is required, and occasionally, none at all when it isn’t. 

The average old building represents a vast investment of energy--not only in the form of materials, but more importantly, in the form of labor (and by “old”, let’s assume we mean those built before World War II). It’s self evident that old buildings typically used more opulent finishes than their modern counterparts; they were, after all, built at a time when high quality materials had not been depleted and were still used generously. 
The crafts that built interiors like this one—
the Los Angeles Theater—are not coming back at
prices anyone can afford. 

What is less seldom appreciated, however, is that an old building also embodies an enormous storehouse of labor--much of it of a kind modern society can no longer afford. Many once-ubiquitous building trades have all but disappeared over the last century--from stonemasons to stained-glass makers, from plasterers to gilders--and the fruits of their labors remain in every extant building, essentially frozen in time. 

These skills won’t be coming back, except in their current status as boutique trades carrying astronomical costs. Hence, destroying an old building doesn’t just squander physical resources--it also negates forever a huge investment of skilled work that’s no longer affordable and sometimes no longer even obtainable. To my mind, this is a waste of nonrenewable resources more tragic than that of any precious material.

Monday, May 11, 2015

HAUNTED HOUSES OF HOLLYWOOD


The "Psycho" house.
(Courtesy thestudiotour.com)

As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which still stands on the Universal Studios backlot, is probably the best known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others: For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s milestone 1941 film Citizen Kane. The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used both to open and close the film. 

More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the Addams Family’s eccentric television abode (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Kane’s Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting). 

Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel style haunting. Back in the 1960s, old Victorians houses of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily-colored gingerbread houses had a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood moved on to other archetypes.
Is this the world's creepiest Dutch Colonial?

A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character--the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’s house in Psycho, for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for The Amityville Horror, or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull. In this case, Hill House was not just a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon. To get the eye-socket effect, director Wise used a special high contrast film to make the house's window openings seem black and empty (Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel).

The Addams Family lived here—well, sort of.
It's only a painting, though based on a real
house in Los Angeles
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper. These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of slasher films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t see faces in the wallpaper? 


The fact that we never learn just what malevelent force stalks Hill House in The Haunting only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions--only more unnerving questions. 
Ettington Hall: Not so scary in the daytime.

As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

THINK SMALL


In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger ain’t always better--at least not when it comes to our houses. 

My friend's dot-com millions bought him
a home much like this one. 
This truth became even more obvious to me than after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower middle class suddenly became a dotcom millionaire in the late Nineties. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community just outside Silicon Valley. Now, you’d think this would be the proverbial dream come true for most people. But like Citizen Kane at Xanadu, my friend always seemed uncomfortable shuffling around all those echoey formal rooms in his so-called “home”. Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed, or to a tiny storage room that had the size and feel of a normal tract house bedroom—probably much like the one he'd grown up in

Not surprisingly, this made me wonder anew about the use or value of all the rest of all the huge spaces that made up the bulk of the place. The problem with really big rooms is that we human beings are naturally ill at ease inhabiting them. Our primitive brains still feel more secure, and hence more comfortable, in spaces we can traverse in a few steps. 
In the past, the huge public rooms of mansions served mainly to flaunt their owner’s wealth and good taste--though these attributes don’t necessarily go together. Yet even the wealthiest masters of such houses carried on day-to-day life in a much more modest suite of rooms elsewhere in the place. Living in some huge, drafty hall, regardless of how sumptuous the decoration, was no more comfortable then than it is now.

I grew up in an old, 900 square foot Colonial Bungalow.
The real one was demolished long ago, but this house is
 pretty close. Although we were a family of five,
it never occurred to us to feel crowded.
Even now, in the wake of the Great Recession, Americans are only grudgingly relinquishing our thirty-year obsession with bloated house, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before. Around the mid-nineteenth century, houses of every class, from mansions to worker’s cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from under eight feet during Colonial times to twelve feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated. Victorian kitchens alone grew into complex warrens of three or four rooms. Yet, rather than making their owners happier, these vast houses instead provoked a backlash—especially among women, who typically got stuck with the job of keeping them up. This disenchantment with bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early twentieth century, with their credo of smaller-and-simpler-is-better.

I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in such a house—a 900 square foot Colonial bungalow—and it never crossed our minds that we were crowded or deprived in any way. In fact, my family remembers this little house more fondly than any other, regardless of size. 

We could learn a great deal from these downsized bungalows of a century ago, if only we found the wisdom to Think Small once in awhile. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

MONEY OUT THE WINDOW


Talk about misplaced priorities: In the name of saving energy, many people think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on replacement windows. But at the same time, they’ll willingly limp along with an obsolete furnace whose replacement would have a far greater payoff, dollar for dollar, on both their their utility bills and their home’s comfort.

Still have an old "octopus" gravity furnace?
They look cool, but are disastrously inefficient
 (and often loaded with asbestos).
The bottom line is that, if improving your home’s energy efficiency is the main goal, replacing your windows is among the least cost effective ways to do it. Here’s why: 

Although glass radiates heat at a substantially higher rate than walls or ceilings do, it represents only a small fraction of a home’s exterior surface area. A typical 1800 square foot, one-story rancher, for example, will have a window area comprising something on the order of just 6 percent of the exterior envelope. 

In the same house, however, the ceilings represent a whopping one-third of the surface area. Therefore, the most cost effective way to improve energy efficiency in homes built before the 1980s is simply to increase attic insulation levels. 

Maybe your furnace has been upgraded to a
more modern forced-air unit like this one—
but don't feel too good about that either.
Its efficiency may still be awful.
So is replacing windows the next logical step for improving energy efficiency? Not by a long shot. Consider that many pre-World War II houses still have their original “octopus” gravity furnaces. If you have a basement, chances are that your house once had--or may even still have--this type of heating system. With their gas-squandering pilot lights and primitive heat exchanger designs, most gravity furnaces have dismal energy efficiencies of perhaps 60 percent (meaning the other forty percent of your energy dollar is wasted up the flue). What’s more, their thinly-insulated ductwork wastes yet more heat just getting it to the register grilles, quite possibly leaving you with a net efficiency of fifty percent or so.

Maybe your prewar houses has already had its old gravity furnace replaced with a “modern” forced-air units somewhere along the line. Or, maybe you’re not worried about your furnace at all because your house is only thirty years old. Alas, any forced air unit predating the 1980s is likely to have an efficiency of perhaps 75 percent--and that one-fourth of your energy dollar being wasted is nothing to celebrate.
A modern, high-efficiency furnace is
a much more cost-effective energy
investment than new windows.

Replacing your furnace with a modern high-efficiency unit (typically around 95 percent efficient or better) not only will yield big savings on your energy bills, but will markedly improve your home’s comfort as well. Most models have variable speed fans that are quieter and do a better job of maintaining a steady temperature. 


 Other improvements, such as automatic flue dampers and electronic ignition, finally do away with longstanding sources of energy waste that have hobbled furnace efficiency for over a century. Last but not least, the new electronic clock thermostat can be precisely tailored to your daily routine, conserving even more energy by turning off the heat at the times it’s not needed.

All in all, a new furnace and ductwork is likely to cost you less than new windows, and will probably have a much bigger impact on both your utility bills and your comfort. So why throw money out the window?

Monday, February 2, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION: Part Two of Two Parts

Is this the porch lamp
you've been looking for?

Last time we paid a visit to the architectural salvage yard--a place where, if you’re diligent, you can find quality building materials that are cheaper and greener to boot. Today we continue the shopping list with more potential bargains, though they may require some careful vetting first.

• Structural items. Many salvage yards stock a plethora of materials such as brick, wood and steel beams, sheet metal, structural hardware, and the like. If you happen to find exactly what you’re look for (or, more likely, something that’s close enough), you can save a lot of money--often fifty to seventy-five percent over lumberyard prices. Occasionally, you may have to massage your plans a little to make use of a real bargain, but that’s the nature of buying anything recycled.

• Lighting fixtures. In general, older lighting fixtures are of much higher quality than modern ones, with heavier parts and more durable finishes. However, you should expect to rewire all vintage lighting fixtures, since their old-style cloth insulation becomes brittle with age and can cause short circuits. Professional rewiring can add appreciable cost to a “bargain” salvaged fixture, but the added expense is still usually justified for a top-quality vintage fixture. If you’re reasonably handy with things electrical, you may also be able to do this work yourself.  

Or this window?
• Cabinetwork. It’s not uncommon to find very high quality cabinets at a salvage yard, since kitchens and baths are always being remodeled to keep up with current fads. However, beware of cabinets damaged during removal, or ones that are so heavily encrusted with paint that refinishing wouldn’t be cost effective. 

• Windows. Here’s a classic recycling dilemma: Currently, most state energy codes require new or replacement windows to be double-glazed, and at this time, only a small percentage of salvaged windows fill the bill. However, if you find a single-glazed window that you simply can’t pass up, you may be able to make tradeoffs, such as upgrading your insulation, that will keep you in compliance with the law. 
Or this pedestal sink?
They're all available
at architectural
salvage yards.
Modern building codes also require that windows in certain hazardous locations (and all glass doors) be glazed with safety glass, which is seldom found in salvaged items either. Since reglazing is expensive, make sure the code allows plain glass in the specific window locations you’re pondering.

• Plumbing fixtures. Like recycled windows, salvaged plumbing fixtures can be a real bargain, but they can also stick you with some insoluble code conflicts unless you’re careful. Most states, for example, require that newly installed toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Older toilets can use as much as six or even eight gallons per flush, and there is no practical retrofit to bring them into compliance. Likewise, older faucets may not include flow restrictors and hence cannot comply with water conservation requirements. Until conservation codes are rewritten to reflect total water use rather than attempting to micromanage individual fixtures, reusing old toilets and faucets will remain a problem.

• Lastly, note that two materials now considered health hazards--asbestos, and paint containing lead--are both common in vintage materials. Traces of asbestos insulation are often found clinging to old ductwork, register grilles, and heating appliances, while virtually any prewar woodwork that’s painted can contain lead. Be informed, gauge your own level of concern, and buy accordingly.

Monday, January 26, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION Part One of Two Parts

Suppose there was a place you could buy high quality building products at fire sale prices, and do it in the greenest possible manner to boot? Well, there is such a place--it’s your local architectural salvage yard. If you can live with a few little nicks and scratches, you may be amazed at the bargains you come across. 

A good architectural salvage yard
will have doors like this aplenty, at
prices well below new.
What? Build your esteemed project with someone else’s castoffs? Well, yes. And there are three good reasons to do so. 

First, the quality of older building materials is often superior to what you’ll find at modern home improvement stores. 

Second, salvaged items typically sell at discounts of fifty to ninety percent off new prices (some items are in fact brand new products misordered by contractors, rejected by customers, or discontinued by their manufacturers--occasionally, they’re still in their original shipping containers). Lastly, salvaged items are infinitely greener than new, so-called “green” products, since they already exist and consume no additional resources. 

But be forewarned: Buying from an architectural salvage yard isn’t for everyone. Unlike shopping at your local building emporium, you can’t just grab all the generic, Made-In-China goodies you need and be on your way. You need patience. It can takes months, in fact, to find just the right items for your project. 

On a good day, you might even find
brand-new high-end doors like these,
perhaps still crated for delivery.
You also have to remain flexible and willing to change your mind. For example, you may be looking for a pair of double entrance doors, but come across an absolutely beautiful single door with sidelights that works just as well--perhaps better. Far from being a drawback, having to keep your design options open will often elicit more interesting, less off-the-shelf solutions.  

Now, some salvaged items that can be especially good values:

• Front entrances are one of the most commonly replaced items in home improvement, so salvage yards are usually well stocked with them. Often, these are very fine old doors that have been changed out merely to keep up with some new design fad. If you’re willing to live with the patina that accompanies a previous life, you can get  a high quality front entrance for dimes on the dollar. Your best bet is to look for units complete with the original jamb and hinges, since fitting a new door into an existing opening can be very labor intensive. 

One of our local architectural salvage yards—
Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, California
• Interior doors can also be a good buy, as long as you know exactly what to look for. Again, if you’re building from scratch (rather than just replacing an existing door), it’s better to buy the doors complete with jambs and hinges--”prehung”, in building parlance. Make sure each door has the  proper “hand”--the direction it swings--because it’s not cost effective to rehinge a door later. Avoid doors that are glopped with multiple layers of old paint, which is usually more trouble to remove than the door is worth. 

• If you’re restoring an older home, the salvage yard is also a good source of hard-to-find vintage hardware items such as lock sets, brass switch cover plates, ornamental heat registers, and the like. They may require some TLC to be put back in use, but their quality is generally superior to that of new reproductions--often including the stuff available from those ostensible “restoration” catalog houses.

Next time, some more salvage yard bargains, along with a few items to approach with caution.