Monday, November 23, 2015


After 30 years in architecture, I still hear the same tired old wives tales circulated about remodeling. It’s amazing how long it can take to stamp out a wrong-headed concept. Here are some of my un-favorites:

Replacement windows: As far as energy savings goes,
they're basically a waste of money.
1. Bathrooms should be planned back to back to save cost. Rubbish. This chestnut goes way back, and probably stems from the practice of placing apartment house bathrooms back to back. You’re not building apartments, however, so the meager savings in plumbing cost--something on the order of a few hundred dollars--doesn’t justify straitjacketing your floor plan with a bathroom arrangement you don’t like.

2.  The best way to improve your home’s energy efficiency is by installing new double-glazed windows. Poppycock. In most houses, windows represent a very small fraction of the total heat loss. By far the most heat is lost through ceilings, so attic insulation is the best place to put your energy-efficiency dollars. Once that’s done, consider installing a higher-efficiency furnace and ductwork. Replacing your windows is far down the list of cost-effective energy improvements.

This year's fad: Grey.
Chasing the "latest" color trends is a great way
 to make your house look dated.
3. Remodeling is the perfect chance to choose finishes in the latest colors. Balderdash. Unless you’re aiming for a remodel that’ll be painfully outdated in five years or so, avoid “current” colors like the plague. Choose colors because you like them, not because you read about them in some trendoid home magazine.

4. Skylights are the best way to get daylight into your house. Malarkey. Skylights are a good last resort to improve daylighting, but adding windows should always be your first choice. Why? Because 
Skylight: They're beautiful, but
they can't do what a window can.
 they’re passive solar devices naturally attuned to the seasons, letting in more low-angle sunlight in winter when you want it, and excluding it in summer when you don’t. Skylights do just the reverse. They also look out of place on many styles of homes, particularly those built before World War II.

5. Point-of-use (“tankless”) water heaters are the most efficient way to heat water. Maybe, maybe not. Tankless units can be just the thing for certain applications, such as bathrooms that are remote from the water heater. But their efficiency is typically oversold, with efficiency ratings based on rarified laboratory conditions that are seldom reflected in actual installations. They’re also complex and subject to erratic response under low flow conditions. What’s more, if saving space isn’t your primary concern, there are a number of conventional storage water heaters available with efficiencies in the mid-nineties, some at surprisingly reasonable cost. 

Recessed can lights:
Beware the Swiss Cheese ceiling.
6. Recessed “can” lights are the best way to modernize a home’s lighting. Piffle. Recessed lighting is useful for very specific purposes--highlighting permanent objects or architectural features, for example--but they do a lousy job of general illumination. This is because cans are inherently directional, creating a pool of light beneath them, rather than diffusing light throughout the room. They’re also terribly overused, leading to the notorious “swiss cheese ceiling” effect seen in so many remodeled houses. Be sparing in your use of recessed cans--and if you have a house predating World War II, think twice about using them at all. They’re literally a glaring anachronism in most older homes.

Monday, November 9, 2015


A hand-drawn "as-built" floor plan is fine, as long as
your measurements are accurate. Or...

Last time, we looked at all the un-sexy preliminary steps that are necessary enroute to designing a home addition. Not one of them, you’ll recall, involved any drawing. Rather, there was a lot of preliminary wish-list making (creating the program), fact-gathering (the survey), and ensuring that what you want to build conforms to local zoning codes (your conference with the local planner).

Now, armed with the confidence that your scheme won’t get blown out of the water by unanticipated restrictions, you can move on the the next step:

...if you want to get fancy, you can use a
consumer-level CAD application such as Sketchup
to show your existing house.
• Measure your existing house and draw the floor plan to scale, whether on paper or using a consumer-level drafting program--there are several available at a reasonable price, and others that are free. Take your time and measure carefully, as the success or failure of some designs can come down to mere half-inches.

• Using the existing floor plan you’ve drawn--and following the planner’s guidelines for the area that’s buildable--determine how the addition will communicate with the existing house. Don’t settle for a half-baked solution such as passing through a bedroom--provide a proper hallway even if it means having to recoup the lost space someplace else. At this stage, you’ll be wasting your time if you’re making neat, careful drawings. Just hang loose, drawing rough bubble-shaped rooms on inexpensive tracing paper. Don’t get stuck on one idea right at the outset--try out as many different solutions as you can.

But DON'T waste your time trying to do preliminary
design on the computer. Rough bubble diagrams
drawn with pencil and paper are much faster and
 less of a creative constraint.
• Still using rough bubble diagrams, determine the ideal solar orientation for each of the new spaces. Typically, major living areas such as family rooms should face south where they’ll get maximum sun. Kitchens and breakfast rooms ideally face east to southeast, while bedrooms are faced to suit the sleeper’s preference for morning sunshine or the absence of it. The least important rooms, such as the garage, secondary baths, laundry rooms, and the like, are given the least desirable northern orientation. Don’t expect perfection, but remember that a decent attempt is better than nothing. 

•  Only now should you begin sketching out some preliminary drawings using straight lines. Whether you’re working on paper or computer, pay careful attention to crucial minimum dimensions such as the width of hallways (rock bottom minimum,  three feet wide), stairs (ditto), clothes closet depths (two feet minimum), and kitchen aisles widths (no less than four feet). You’ll be sorely tempted to cheat on these minimums in order to wedge in just a few more of the features you crave. Don’t--you’ll end up with a nonfunctional and obviously amateur plan. Always err on the generous side.

The irony: If your addition design is really successful,
no one will ever notice it.
• When you think you’ve included everything you want--or you’ve tossed out the spaces or features that simply don’t fit--you can finally begin the “hard-line” drawings of your floor plan using a computer or drafting tools. Note how many steps were necessary before even getting to the portion of the work that most people consider “architecture”. 

It’s the willingness to lay this often tedious groundwork that distinguishes a thoughtful, well-designed end product from standard amateur-hour bungling. Whether you choose to tell admirers how much work your project entailed—or whether, Like Frank Lloyd Wright, you claim you shook it out of your sleeve—is up to you.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Tired of people asking how he came up with his brilliant designs, Frank Lloyd Wright once famously explained,

“Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeve.”

Wright liked to say he just
shook designs out of his sleeve.
Not likely.
It was mostly Wright’s puckish sense of humor talking when he claimed to conjure fully-formed concepts out of thin air. Yet today there’s still a widespread misperception that architects design by invoking some kind of arcane creative voodoo, and that ideas just flow onto the paper without effort.

Alas, there’s a lot more hard work than magic involved in designing a building. This is a great advantage to non-architects, though you might not realize it. It means that if you’re methodical and willing to carry out what is often a tedious process, you, too, could shake a decent design out of your sleeve.

Suppose, for example, that you want to build an addition onto your house. Long before you ever put pencil to paper or finger to iPad, here’s what you need to do:

• Come up with what architects call the “program”--basically, a wish list for your project. As a minimum, it should describe what kind of rooms and spaces you want to add, roughly how many square feet each will require, and which rooms will have to adjoin each other. The program can also include more abstract requirements, from general atmosphere (sunny, restful, dramatic, or whatever) or any other qualities you have in mind. In general, the more complete your program, the smoother your design process will be.

A survey such as this one
will show where your
property lines are—and they
may surprise you.
• Obtain a survey from a licensed civil engineer or surveyor showing where your home sits on your property, as well as major artificial and natural features such as outbuildings, utilities, rock outcroppings, sloping land, large trees, drainage swales, and so on. It should also show any rights-of-way, reserves, or easements that could prevent you from building on the land.

• Add up the total square footage of the addition as dictated by your program and, if it seems that there’s enough room on your property to accommodate it, proceed to the next step (if not, downsize your plans accordingly). Armed with your survey, set up an appointment with a planner at your local building department to discuss your proposed addition. Begin by requesting the property setbacks--the minimum distance you must keep structures from the front, side, and rear property lines. Next, ask for the maximum allowable building height in your neighborhood. 

Your local planning department
will tell you your zoning,
which in turn will tell you
where you can build,
and where you can't.
As obvious as these steps may seem, they’re commonly overlooked by do-it-yourself designers, who typically rush directly into drawing detailed plans only to find out that their ideas don’t comply with one or more of these restrictions. Far from being an antagonist, a good planner will be a great help early on, pointing out such potential booby traps, and perhaps even suggesting alternatives that’ll help you circumvent them. 

What you’ll take away from this meeting are the following crucial bits of information: How many square feet of addition you can build, where and how high you can build them, and whether or not you need to notify your neighbors in order to do so. Next time, we’ll use that information to begin--finally--designing your addition.

Monday, October 19, 2015


"It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don't paint badly like other people."

The same might be said for architects, whose professional success is just as dependent on novelty the commercial success of artists is.  To achieve even a small measure of recognition, architects, like artists, have to stand out from their colleagues. Some do so naturally, others with strained intent. One thing for sure, though: it’s a rare architect who hopes to remain anonymous.
Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall,
at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
A really cool building—except in summer.

As another sage observer—New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—once put it, “Architecture is not immune to the lure of celebrity and shock value in a society that cultivates the new and novel at any cost.” 

A quality of novelty, or even visual offense, is often inseparable from any progressive work of architecture. It took Americans decades to appreciate the hovering, solids-and-voids compositions of Frank Lloyd Wright. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that, however unfamiliar such works may seem at first, there’s some very deliberate thinking behind them.  

Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project,
St. Louis:  It seemed like a good idea
at the time.
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of buildings that were at the leading edge of their time, yet whose novelty nevertheless fell mildly or even disastrously short of their users’ needs. High-profile examples spring easily to mind: Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose occupants routinely plastered the windows with aluminum foil to avoid being roasted by the summer sun; Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where patrons were obliged to view art while countering the gravitational pull of the building’s celebrated spiral ramp underfoot; and Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a carefully calculated social engineering experiment that failed on virtually every level before the buildings were imploded in 1972.  

And these, mind you, are works by the best and brightest of their day. In the absence of such genius, less skilled architects secure novelty by simply borrowing from current fashion. In the modernist era, this entailed stripping already formulaic buildings down to barren, antiseptic blocks. Today’s architectural hacks employ the opposite strategy, taking otherwise mundane work and hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. This, after all, is also an easy way to make something mundane look novel—as Victorian architects, 1950s auto stylists, and even Liberace might attest. 

This explains why more and more new buildings sprout arrays of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac, their architects in hot pursuit of some hey-look-at-me status. In contrast to the textural poverty of modernism, disconcerted clutter is now the crutch for uninspired design. 

Recycled brick and wood
in a Carr Jones-designed residence in
Piedmont, California:
Green architecture from 1932.
How ironic, then, that some of the most truly novel architectural works of the past hundred years have been carried out by architects who remained barely known in their own eras. The Arizona Spanish Revival master Josias Joesler, the industrial architect Albert Kahn, California’s green design pioneer Carr Jones—all were virtually overlooked by their more celebrated contemporaries. 

And all of them, alas, reaped the perverse reward of such a career: their truly novel ways of thinking did come to be fully appreciated, but only long after they’d left us. 

Monday, October 5, 2015


If you set out to create the worst window you could, you might go about it like this:
First, you’d design it to oppose the pull of gravity, and therefore require a Rube Goldberg contraption of weights and ropes, cables, or springs just to keep it from falling shut. You’d also make sure you could never open more than half of it at a time. Of course you’d arrange the sash so that your view would be blocked by a big dividing bar. And naturally, you’d also make it hard to maintain and a headache to paint. Lastly, you’d  conceal the operating mechanism to make it fiendishly difficult to repair. 

Is this the world's worst window?
If you managed to fulfill every one of these none-too-admirable goals, the result of your design would probably be a double hung window.

So much for my hypothetical bad-design contest. In reality, the origin of the double hung window is British. Its invention is often attributed to Robert Hooke (1635-1703), surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. Hooke assisted Wren during the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666. 

Since this catastrophe left most of the city in ashes, it was probably a perfect opportunity to pioneer a new type of window. And indeed, the oldest surviving double hungs date back to English manor houses of the 1670s, such as London’s Ham House. As old as these windows are, their appearance hardly differs from modern examples--they feature the same six-over-six muntin arrangement that’s still popular today.

Double-hung windows were ubiquitous in
Georgian and Federal architecture.
Naturally, when the English came to the New World, double hung windows came with them. Although very early American Colonial houses used simple-to-build casement windows, the homes of well-to-do colonists began boasting double hungs as soon as they became available. They remained an architectural staple throughout the Georgian and  Federal periods (the White House, you may recall, has double hung windows). 

The emphatically vertical architecture of the later Gothic Revival and Victorian eras--which demanded windows with tall, skinny proportions--meant their popularity only increased.
It was the multitudes of these strangely pinched-looking double hung windows that the young Frank Lloyd Wright noted with dismay on his walks through Chicago, and which he later dubbed “guillotine windows” in his prose. 

Victorian-era houses, too, are known for their
double-hung windows—this example
even features curved ones in the corner tower.
(Charles Copeland Morse house,
Santa Clara, California, 1892)
The Romantic Revival home styles of the early 20th century briefly challenged the primacy of the double hung, since their architects preferred the more Medieval-looking casement window. But by the time large-scale home building resumed after World War II, double hung windows made a huge comeback in mass produced, Colonial-Revival-esque tracts such as Levittown. Only the widespread introduction of horizontal sliding aluminum windows during the 1950s finally made a substantial (and lasting) dent in their popularity.

In fairness, there’s no doubt that today’s double hung windows, while still looking pretty much like their ancestors of the 1670s, have been greatly improved. For one, they use spring counterweights instead of that quasi-comical arrangement of ropes, pulleys and counterweights. They’re also far more energy efficient and easier to maintain than their predecessors. 

Still and all, they don’t make a whole lot of sense as windows. Robert Hooke was a brilliant man, but the double-hung window is one thing he got wrong.

Monday, September 21, 2015


I’ve seen homeowners spend weeks agonizing over which shingle color and texture is best for their new roof. Then, after going to all this effort, they simply leave it to the roofing company to install any old crappy gutter.

Oh, no, a leak! Do you need
new gutters? Probably not.
Since rain gutters and downspouts are often even more conspicuous than the roof itself, you should choose new ones with at least as much care as you do roofing. But first, make sure they actually need replacement. Too often, they don’t.

In the course of bidding on a reroofing job, many a roofing contractor will often say something like, “You know, as long as we’re at it, this would be the time to replace your gutters.” This is a bit like your barber saying, “As long as I’m cutting your hair, I should give you a nose job as well.” 

To be blunt, installing new gutters in conjunction with reroofing is simply a way for roofing contractors to make a little extra profit, while freeing their workers from having to protect the existing gutters from damage during the job. These are both perfectly valid reasons to replace your existing gutters. Unfortunately, they're only valid from the contractor’s perspective, not yours.

Yes, I've seen some clueless folks let their roofer
rip out old gutters such as these and
replace them with aluminum dreck.
What’s more, the quality of most replacement gutters and downspouts is typically worse than that of original gutters in sound condition. Hence, homeowners who agree to lump in gutter replacement with their new roof often wind up with a flimsier, less attractive, and quite unnecessary “improvement”. I’ve even come across some clueless homeowners who allowed a roofer to rip out superb old custom-made gutters and ornamental downspouts and replace them with utterly inferior prepainted aluminum dreck.

The rules of thumb regarding gutter replacement are simple: 

• If your original gutters are straight, solid, and don’t leak, they don’t need replacement, period. 

The ubiquitous "K Style" gutter.
• If they do leak, there’s a fair chance they can be repaired. In the case of steel or copper gutters, contact your local sheet metal shop. For redwood gutters, have a good handyman determine if they can be calked or patched. 

• If you do decide on replacement, demand gutters that are at least equal to the originals in quality. Ask a knowledgeable but disinterested party (not the roofer doing the work) to recommend the best material. 

• Lastly, put at least as much thought into choosing the gutter profile (the cross-sectional shape) as you do into choosing the roofing material. Don’t let the contractor make this choice for you; many will simply fall back on the style of gutter that’s the least trouble to install. 

Half-round gutter are suited to Spanish Revival
and many other traditional home styles.
If you’re replacing your home’s original gutters, simply choose the profile that’s closest to the original. Traditional home styles typically have more ornate profiles; for example, the familiar ogee gutter (or “K-style” as it’s known to the trade) looks more or less like a fancy molding when installed. Another common traditional profile—often found in Spanish and English Revival homes—is the beaded half-round gutter, which has an almost medieval appearance and is typically installed with round downspouts. All of these styles are commonly available, so don’t let anyone tell you that what you want is obsolete. That just doesn’t hold water.

Monday, August 24, 2015


“Crackerbox.” That’s only one of the unflattering names we’ve given postwar tract houses thanks to their thin, flimsy look. Funny thing is, most of these houses are actually better built than their predecessors. Why do they look so insubstantial?

The Fagus shoe last factory in Alfeld, Germany,
designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer
and completed in 1913.
The architects treated its windows like a
cellophane wrapper. Having thin-looking walls
was the whole point.
The single biggest reason comes down to a tiny little difference--in fact, it’s just a matter of a few inches. Prior to World War II, wooden windows were installed slightly recessed from the wall surface, leaving a visible recess or “reveal” showing all around. This simple feature provided a subtle visual cue that the surrounding wall had mass and thickness. 

Ironically, to modernist architects of the 1920s and 30s, this reveal was bad news. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe espoused walls that looked as thin as possible. After all, the revolutionary new building materials of the early twentieth century—steel and reinforced concrete—no longer demanded the massiveness of traditional masonry construction, and many architects believed that truly modern buildings should honestly reflect this fact: Walls should be thin, precisely because they could be thin. Likewise, windows, rather than being mere holes punched into a heavy-looking wall, were to be treated as a sort of cellophane wrapper stretched over an ethereally light framework. 

Delicate aluminum frames were the
ultimate expression of Modernism—
look Ma, no structure!
By the end of the Depression, most people believed that traditional architecture was stone dead, and that modernism was here to stay. It was around this time that a number of window manufacturers began doing their own part for modernism. They introduced new windows with extremely slender frames--initially of steel, and later of aluminum--whose glass was purposely set flush with the outside surface of the wall, lending the ultra-flat look modernists craved.

Alas, while this two-dimensional aesthetic might have been ideal for highrise office buildings, it was not so well received for dwellings. And despite the best efforts of modernists such as Le Corbusier to retrain the public, most people continued to believe that their homes should look massive, permanent and secure, not thin, light and ethereal.

By the time modernism’s purposely flimsy look started to bother home buyers, however, the new windows had already conquered the housing industry. Not coincidentally, they were also much cheaper to install, which meant there was no going back to the old, labor intensive wooden windows of yore.

Another valiant attempt to give depth to
those flat, flat windows.
It’s ironic, then, that for the last three decades, architects and builders have been on a frantic quest to make those two-dimensional modernist windows look more like their substantial old wooden predecessors. They’ve tried using clunky trim, fake stone, or foam moldings to suggest a reveal where there isn’t one. They’ve tried flanking the windows with shutters to make them more massive. They’ve added phony grilles between panes of double glass to mimic a traditional look, but in all of this, they’ve only succeeded in making the walls look flatter than ever. 

Ultimately, there’s only one way to capture the look of a traditional window, and that’s to install it in the traditional way. There’s just no substitute for that critical couple of inches.