Monday, May 22, 2017

BRICK: One Solid Subject

Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the long, low proportions
of Roman brick, as famously found in his Robie House
in Chicago (1909).
Brick goes back a long, long way. One reason for brick’s popularity is its timelessness.  It was used as early as 3000 BC in settlements of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, although back then it was simply baked in the sun rather than fired in a kiln.

Later, the Romans kept their brickworks running overtime to supply materials for their burgeoning empire. They preferred an unusually long, flat brick which, two thousand years later,  Frank Lloyd Wright decided was the cat’s meow for his Prairie houses. We still refer to that shape as Roman brick.

Victorian era polychrome brickwork in England.
(Courtesy @tuckpointer)
In the sixth century AD, those fun-lovin’ Byzantines got really creative, using brick laid in decorative patterns to form their charismatic architecture. And during the late nineteenth century, the Victorians used both elaborate patterning and color in their brickwork. They were the undisputed Brickmeisters.

Brick is still available in a huge range of colors, and quite a few shapes as well. It’s also more durable than ever—properly fired, brick will actually outlast many kinds of stone, because its surface is harder and less porous.

That’s all dandy.  But in many parts of the country—like mine—there's that nasty earthquake thing, right? Not necessarily. Brick is too fine a material to be ruled out by seismic worries alone. In residential design, the trick is to avoid using it for structural walls, which require costly reinforcement, and to use it as a nonstructural veneer instead.

Veneer brick: some looks real, some not so real. This project
looks pretty promising.
There are two ways to go here. A veneer wall of full-sized brick can be secured to the structural wall behind it using ties. Or, special thin-brick veneer units can be adhered over structural wood framing. The latter is simpler, cheaper, and much lighter. Most of the big brick manufacturers make thin-brick veneer units in the same range of colors they make full-sized brick. A number of companies that make artificial stone veneers also produce thin-brick products of varying authenticity.

Four basic kinds of brick bond.
Brick’s greatest design property is its modularity.  It’s a small unit, so it can be used to produce arches, curved walls, and all kinds of unusual shapes. And because it’s produced in so many colors and types, it has limitless potential for creating decorative patterns. Speaking of which, here’s some bricklaying terminology you can bore your friends with:

Flemish bond utilizing two colors of
brick (John W. Bush House,
Buffalo, New York.
Architects: Lansing & Beierl, 1903)
In a brick wall, each layer of brick is called a “course”. A brick laid with its long side exposed is called a “stretcher.  When the short side is exposed, it’s called a “header”.  The arrangement of headers and stretchers is called “bond”.  There are a number of traditional bonds, to wit:
   
A wall of stretchers staggered in the normal fashion is called “running bond”.  When there’s a row of headers in every sixth course, it’s called “common bond”. Alternating courses of headers and stretchers are called “English bond”.  Staggered courses of alternating headers and stretchers are called Flemish bond, and when used in combination with two or more colors, can produce various lovely patterns.

The strangest of all bonds is called “stack bond”, and predictably, it’s a Moderrnist invention: it has all the bricks stacked one above the other rather than staggered, so the wall has an ultra-rational gridded look, but much less strength than running bond. Even in 3000 BC, bricklayers knew better than that.   







Monday, May 15, 2017

ARCHITECT SHOP TALK: Here's What Your Architect Is Trying To Say

A while back I wrote a piece about the colorful and often impolite terms used by building contractors. Well, architects have some strange jargon of their own. Ours is duller, but it does have more syllables.  


Sydney Opera House: It's extremely architectonic.
It also cost $102 million, rather than the $7 million
first projected—a factor of fourteen.
(Architect: Jorn Utzon; completed 1973)
Like most people, architects use jargon for two reasons: One, it’s the most precise expression of what we want to say, and two, it makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about. As someone who not only practices architecture, but is twisted enough to write about it as well, I’m probably guiltier than most people of using such arcane language.  

Truth be told, most architectural jargon masks fairly simple-minded concepts. I’ll let you in on a few favorites below, but don’t tell my colleagues you heard it here:

•  Architectonic.  This term always perplexed me when I heard it with numbing frequency in architecture school. Well, guess what?  It means something that's done in an architectural manner.  

Yup.  That’s it. Ergo, a building that’s architectonic has the sort of features only an architect could bring to it—a highly articulated (oops, see next entry) roofline, or an imaginative window. A massive cost overrun would probably qualify too.


This skyscraper architect has been having fun
with fenestration.
•  Articulated.  A rather grammatical-sounding word that actually refers to the way the parts of a building relate. If the exterior of a building is highly articulated, for example, it has lots of distinct parts. So is a building that’s just one big clumsy block known as “inarticulate”?  No. Architects call that “tightly organized”.

•  Contextual. The environment surrounding a building is known as the context. An architect who feels his or her work must blend into that environment is known as a contextualist. So when a strict contextualist designs a house in a neighborhood full of mediocre claptrap, at least the result is predictable: It will be diluted mediocre claptrap. 


Enfilade. French royalty loved it.
The peasantry was less impressed.
City planning departments love contextualists, since hardly anyone bothers objecting to good, old-fashioned mediocrity. On occasion, however, city planners will run into an architect who’s not a contextualist, and who wants his building to look like, let's say, a whale. They don’t mind this at all as long as the architect is already famous.

•  Enfilade. Although it sounds like something you spread on toast, enfilade refers to a linear arrangement of of rooms whose doorways are aligned to allow an unobstructed line of sight through the interior.  Ten points for drama; zero for privacy. 

Blame this concept on seventeenth-century French architects, who were obsessed with enfilade’s dramatic effect and were only too happy to dazzle their royal clients with it. While their clients still had heads, that is.  


Architect Richard Norman Shaw
1831-1912:
Don't call my stuff Shawish.
•  Fenestration. This word refers to the arrangement, proportion, and design of openings in a wall. It comes from the Latin fenestra, which means window. So when your architect says, “I’d like to continue exploring the fenestration,” it means he wants to move the windows around some more. This is probably the only fun thing he gets to do all day, so go ahead and let him. 

• -ian, -esque.  Academic architects love to classify buildings by their resemblance to the styles of famous dead architects—e.g., Miesian, Wrightian, Corbusian—you get the idea. Except for Louis Sullivan, whose style is inexplicably not Sullivanian, but Sullivanesque, and Richard Norman Shaw, whose style isn’t Shawesque nor even Shawish, but Shavian. 

No, I’m not making this up.

Monday, May 8, 2017

VICTORIAN DESIGN WAS FAR FROM HAND-CRAFTED

Forerunner of the punch card, Jacquard looms were the
first machines to be automatically controlled
to produce complex patterns. Automated woodworking
machines were not far behind.
I always hear people waxing nostalgic about the hand craftsmanship found in Victorian houses. But the truth is practically the opposite: Victorians, with their incredibly ornate detailing, were largely made possible by technical advances that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Far from being showcases of hand craftsmanship, they represented the stylistic leading edge of the machine age.   

By the mid-1800s, steam-powered machines, some controlled by rudimentary punch-card systems much like those found in player-pianos, were already being used to mass-produce many consumer items cheaply. Among those products was what we nowadays call “gingerbread”—architectural ornament such as moldings, brackets, and balusters.  

"Hand-carved" Victorian ornament?
Not likely. Everything on this
Victorian millwork catalog
was cranked out by machine.
In the past, only the very wealthy had been able to afford such ornament, since its manufacture demanded a great deal of skill and hand craftsmanship. Mass production suddenly put ornament within reach of the middle class as well, spurring the Victorian mania for decorated surfaces. 
  
We’re entering a similar architectural zeitgeist today.  A number of manufacturing innovations, both high-tech and otherwise, are making ornament both more available and more affordable than it has been for decades.  

Not coincidentally, these developments dovetail with the current trend toward traditional architecture.  As a result, we’re seeing a lot more ornament both outside and inside buildings. Here are a few examples:

•  Architectural features such as columns, balusters, and urns are now widely available again, not only in traditional cast-stone form but also in high-tech materials such as glass-fiber reinforced concrete and fiber glass. The latter are often used to replace original cast-stone detailing where seismic considerations make the weight of the real thing impractical.     
Victorian gable ornament.
After 1840 or so, you could
buy them by the boxful.
•  New kinds of wood-based composite materials are replacing expensive exterior trim materials such as redwood and cedar.  Most of these new materials are more stable than solid wood, and are free of defects such as knots and warpage. And because they’re cheaper than high-quality solid wood, builders often use them more generously for cornices and the like. 

•  Highly ornate hardwood floor inlays are now manufactured using lasers, making inlaid borders and decorations—once astronomically expensive—much more affordable.  They’re available as stock items, and can simply be integrated with standard hardwood flooring for a custom look. 

•  Victorian interior moldings such as cornices, medallions, and brackets are now being reproduced in plastics and other composite materials.  They’re cheaper than plaster, and also much lighter and hence more earthquake-safe. They can frequently pass for the real thing once they’re painted.  

Nowadays, we use automation to create incredibly intricate
ornament., such as the laser-cut  inlay in this hardwood floor.
 But is more ornament necessarily better?
•  Molded plastic or Masonite panel doors can be cheaply produced in virtually any pattern.  The 6-panel molded door, for example, had already supplanted the flush doors of the Modernist era decades ago; it’s only a matter of time before even more elaborate styles come into favor.

Just as in Victorian times, there’s a potential danger in all these ornamental products: You may be tempted to use them simply because they’re available, not because they make for better architecture. As always, you should rely on your own taste—not trend-watchers such as design magazines—to decide how much is too much. The Victorians had a hard time knowing when to stop.  We’ll see how our own generation fares in a decade or two.

Monday, May 1, 2017

WHAT NOT TO PAINT

Ask anyone who’s restored an old house to name the most miserable part of the job, and they’re likely to tell you, “Stripping paint.” Countless hours of labor have been spent undoing the work of paintbrush-wielding maniacs from earlier eras. Those of a certain age may remember the psychedelic interiors college kids favored during the Sixties, many of them blithely painted over gorgeous old woodwork.  


If you're not old enough to remember interiors  like this,
count yourself lucky.
Sadly, a lot of us are still doing this sort of thing today. We may be using trendier colors, but the damage is just as permanent. So out of kindness to posterity, please—think twice before you paint over stained wood, brick, stone, or tile.

Older stained woodwork is probably the most frequent victim of arbitrary painting. That’s a pity, because it’s almost always integral to the style of the house. Craftsman-era homes, for example, are known for their abundance of dark-stained beams, wainscoting, and cabinets—a feature people once again appreciate today. Yet a few decades ago, many such stately interiors were permanently ruined by coats of paint to keep up with the “all-white” fad of the Eighties.


Undoing a few hours worth of ill-advised painting can take weeks.
Think twice before you paint natural finishes.
(Image courtesy doityourself.com)
The magnificent oak, mahogany and teak woodwork of many Victorian houses was likewise damaged during the Postwar years, when dark wood happened to be out of fashion and paint was an easy way to obscure it. Suffice it to say that most of the glowing woodwork you see in restored Victorian interiors required hundreds of hours of painstaking stripping to remove layer upon layer of glopped-on paint.

With environmental concerns justifiably making many species of woods costlier and harder to get, it’s unlikely that we’ll see natural wood used in home interiors as profusely as it once was. So it makes sense to preserve what woodwork you already have.
Somebody thought this was a good idea at the time.

A problem that’s thankfully less common but even harder to rectify is the practice of painting over brick, stone, and tile. Short of sandblasting, it’s almost immmm impossible to get painted brick entirely clean again. You can forget about stripping painted stone altogether. And while tiles will let go of paint fairly easily, their intervening grout lines won’t.  

The best rule of thumb for painting over originally unpainted surfaces is simple: Don’t.  

Moreover, if your house still has oil-based paint on the interior trim, there are some fair reasons to avoid painting over that too, unless it’s absolutely necessary. One is that prep work entails its own hazards—many older paints contained lead, and therefore create lead dust when scraped or sanded and lead fumes when heat-gunned. The alternative, using chemical paint strippers, is also toxic and even messier. The waste  from these procedures must also be disposed of carefully.  


Latex paint doesn't like to stick to
oil base paint, and this is
the usual result.
An even more compelling reason to avoid unnecessary repainting is that today's water-based paints, while easier on the environment, simply don’t hold up as well as their oil-based predecessors. Old oil-based finishes are generally more durable and have a higher gloss. So you may go to all the trouble of repainting, only to end up with a finish that's inferior to the one you started with.

So—if you must paint, don’t paint over surfaces that weren't painted originally.  If you already have a marginally presentable oil-based paint job on your interior trim, think twice before repainting it.
And save this column till the next time your spouse nags you about painting.

Monday, April 24, 2017

DESIGNING IN OLD TIME AMENITIES

What could be more convenient
than a laundry chute in the bathroom?
Some quaint features from yesteryear’s homes are being revived, thanks to the current trend toward traditional home designs.  Aside from major retro-spaces such as breakfast nooks and pantries, many new houses are also including old-timey conveniences that haven’t been seen since before World War II.  Some of these are useful, while others (such as built-in flour drawers) remain impractical gimmicks. Here are a sampling of the more practical retro features:

•  The laundry chute, a domestic must from Victorian times through the twenties, disappeared as multi-story homes lost favor.  However, the resurgent popularity of traditional two-story home styles has revived the step-saving laundry chute as well. While the cost of a chute is minor (most are made from twelve-inch diameter sheet metal duct), its planning does demand a bit of ingenuity.  The chute must be in a convenient central location on the upper floor, while still aligning with the laundry room beneath. 


 With the arrival of
permanent press fabrics,
most built-in ironing boards
ended up looking like this.
•  Built-in ironing boards, a common feature in many homes from the 1920s and 30s, are once again growing in popularity.  The reason: a resurgence in the popularity of cotton clothing has also revived the drudgery of ironing. While a well-located built-in board can be a useful convenience, a badly located one is worse than none at all.  (The house I grew up in, for instance, had a built-in ironing board that barred the back door when lowered). Locate the board so that when it's lowered, there’s at least three feet of clear aisle space on one side—better yet, on both sides—and make sure it doesn’t block circulation paths when extended.

•  The “cool closet”—a tall, built-in kitchen cabinet designed for storing fruits and vegetables—was a very popular home feature from the turn of the century until mechanical refrigeration caught on big in the 1930s. The cabinet was located on an outside wall and fitted with a set of louvers near the top and bottom to admit outside air, creating a natural draft that pulled cool air over the food inside.


The two stacked louvers seen on this Berkeley, California
bungalow are the telltale sign of a "California Cooler"
or convective cooling closet. No electricity required.
(Photo courtesy of diginstructable)
The energy conservation movement and rising concern over ozone-depleting refrigerants such as Freon have created renewed interest in the cool closet, which works without electricity (and also doesn’t impart a “refrigerator smell”).  It’s still a useful feature today, especially as part of a pantry. However, to comply with modern energy-efficiency codes, note that it does have to be carefully insulated to increase its efficiency and to prevent heat loss from the kitchen.


A long, long hose is just about the only drawback to
central vacuum systems—other than their initial cost.
(Photo courtesy of DTV Installations)
•  Built-in vacuum systems, which were popular during the 1920s and 30s (though mainly in commercial buildings), are also appearing in homes again. Today’s domestic systems have a powerful, remotely-located central motor and canister and a network of ducts leading to wall-mounted vacuum ports. A lightweight hose and suction head are attached to the ports for vacuuming; no other equipment is required. 

Central vacuum units are quieter, and their large capacity also requires less emptying. Neither is there a power cord to get tangled up, nor a heavy unit to lug up and down stairs. There is, however, a hose up to thirty feet long to contend with. The systems are most useful in large homes or those with multiple stories or levels.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Now that's a porch you could spend summer nights on—
(Rayne Mansion, New Orleans.
Thomas Sully, architect. 1890)
When I was a kid, I lived next door to an old lady who actually used to sit on her creaky front porch in a rocking chair. No kidding. She’d spend a good part of the day there, chain-smoking Salems and chatting about flowers, floor wax, or the weather with anyone strolling past.  Her porch got more use than her living room.

It’s no wonder that the front porch has been an American fixture since Colonial times. Before the advent of air conditioning, it was a natural place to sit on breezy summer days and watch the world go by. By the Victorian era, porches had grown so popular that many large homes were completely encircled by elaborate “verandas” that created varied outdoor living areas for morning or evening gatherings, and that could be used for sunning in winter and shade in summer.

Porches were a big visual feature of the
California Bungalow style, but they couldn't hold a
candle to the earlier porches of Victorian days.
Even after after homes were significantly downsized following the turn of the century, the porch retained it importance. In fact, it became the single most prominent feature of the new, smaller homes known as Bungalows.

After World War II, however, the newly-requisite double garage literally crowded the porch out of prominence. In ensuing years, it slowly withered away to a bleak little patch of concrete, with a tiny scrap of roof overhead carried on spindly 4x4 columns.

Today, after years of neglect, the porch is back. With traditional architectural features in high demand, many developers are now offering spacious front porches again, sometimes even including upper-floor terraces on their roofs. 

Broad steps give the porch an inviting look,
 and are always a welcome place sit.
If an old-fashioned porch is a part of your design agenda, here are some ways to get the most out of it:  

•  First and foremost: be generous with size. In order to be useful, a porch must be at least eight feet deep—otherwise, furniture, planters, and the like will make it too crowded to negotiate. If you intend to have an outdoor dining table on the porch, make it even bigger—twelve feet deep at least. Consider it an inexpensive way to add living space to your house.

•  Make sure the porch will receive ample sun. A dark porch will always be drafty and uncomfortable. On the other hand, a sunny porch will be livable in winter, yet can easily be shaded from excess sun during the summer sun if necessary. If you expect to use the porch mostly in the morning, favor an easterly orientation. If it’ll be used most during the afternoon, face it west.
If you're on a tight budget, scored concrete
can work wonders, but brick paving
is hard to beat for a welcoming warmth.

•  If possible, raise the porch floor even with the interior of the house. Besides making a smoother transition from indoors to out, a raised porch has a more comfortable, sheltered feel. It also gives you a nifty excuse to have a broad set of steps leading up to it—always a welcome place to sit on summer days. 

Carefully consider the floor material. If your budget will only allow a concrete floor, consider scoring the concrete to give it a finer scale. If you have a little more to spend, stone, clay tile or brick paving will create a more inviting effect. Choose the material that's most appropriate for the style of your house.

For raised porches, wood decking or tongue-and-groove flooring may be a better choice. Remember to provide plenty of ventilation below the floor, however, or your old-fashioned porch will also be subject to old-fashioned dry rot.


Monday, April 10, 2017

CHOOSING FINISH MATERIALS: NO SUBSTITUTIONS, PLEASE

The hell I can't...
For years I argued with health-nut friends about eating butter versus margarine.  I always insisted that if I wanted the taste of butter, I’d eat butter, not some yellow-tinted glop that claimed to “taste just like butter.” Like most health nuts, they usually became apoplectic at this, and veins popped out on their low-cholesterol foreheads.

“Butter is BAAAD for you!” they would chide with a certain tone of superiority. "It has too much cholesterol!"

Does this look like wood to you?
Then along came a medical study saying margarine wasn’t healthier after all—that it's a so-called "trans fat" and is actually BAAAD for you, and butter is actually a lot healthier. Well, what do you know?  All this time I’ve been enjoying my butter, and they’ve been choking down the bright yellow grease and getting heart disease.

As you might’ve guessed by now, there’s an architectural connection here. Like margarine, there are a whole host of building materials that claim to be “just like” something else. Some are good substitutes; many are not. The simple reason for this is that any product basing its appeal on a resemblance to something else is, by definition, inferior. So if you like the look of the products for themselves, great. But if you’re hoping to fool someone, forget it. Let’s take a look at some of the margarine materials:

Ahem—not that believable as shakes.
 •  Wood-look sidings made of aluminum or vinyl are ubiquitous pretenders. Frankly, both kinds can be easier to maintain than real wood—a definite plus. But alas, few actually look like wood. Some brands, in an attempt to outdo the real thing, are embossed with egregiously overdone woodgrain patterns that look like they were pulled from the set of A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond their surface shortcomings, these sidings also give themselves away with flimsy window and corner trim that reveals the ersatz nature of the product.

If easy maintenance is of prime concern, vinyl or aluminum siding are fine choices. But if you’re serious about your siding looking like wood, buy wood.

"The Look of True Divided Lites"?
Come on, who are these guys fooling?
 •  “Shake-look” composition shingles were developed to counter the floppy, colored-paper look of standard "comp" shingles. They have irregularly-spaced notching, thicker butts, and variegated colors meant to resemble weathered wood. But while they’re an admirable attempt to improve on comp shingles, these products still don’t look anything like real shingles, let alone shakes. If you really want the look of shakes, buy shakes. If you need fire resistance (a requirement in some jurisdictions), look to fire-resistant treated shakes or to medium weight cement shingles or shakes, which have the three-dimensionality comp shingles lack.

Not all imitations are as bad as those above.
Take this stone urn, for example.
(It's fiber glass).
•  Windows with “divided lite” grids sandwiched between the panes of glass really do look like divided wood muntins.  In your dreams. In reality, the obviously two-dimensional look such windows present from the street don't fool anybody.  So why bother?

To end on a positive note, however, there are a lot of substitute materials that work just great. Many stone and brick veneers, for example, are just about indistinguishable from the real thing when properly installed. I’ve even seen some “stone” urns mounted high on a building that fooled me for years:  they were actually fiber glass, and hence were infinitely more earthquake-safe than the genuine product.

Likewise, lots of plastic laminates look so much like granite or marble that I’ve had to touch them (they’re warmer than the real thing) to be sure they're not the real deal. So there really are good reasons to use a “fake” product on occasion. But as the cola ad used to say, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.”