Monday, January 28, 2013


Traveling the United States has, among other things, gently tutored me that the residents of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania pronounce their town’s name WILKS-bree, not Wilks-BAR; that the good citizens of Vermont call their capital MontPEELyer, not MontepeLEER, and that that lovely town in southern California is called LaHOYA even though it’s spelled La Jolla. These are nuggets of everyday wisdom that book learning can seldom impart, but that being on the spot can teach one in a hurry.

Alas, traveling the U.S. also reveals a dismaying transformation that’s more obvious year by year:  What was once a nation of kaleidoscopic architectural variety is slowly being turned into a homogeneous landscape stretching from coast to coast--one in which freeways and boulevards, suburbs and downtowns all look more or less like their counterparts everywhere else.

As a nation founded on individualism, it’s a sad trend, especially since it’s being furthered by a number of forces we usually think of as positive.

One is our ever-increasing speed of travel and communication.  Among the earliest such milestones was rail travel, whose speed and convenience profoundly shrank the nation during the latter half of the nineteenth century, linking city, farm, and suburb.  Our familiar standard time zones--an attempt to rationalize train schedules nationwide--are one enduring legacy of this period, 

A generation later, the rise of the automobile set off even more dramatic changes, culminating in the construction of the interstate highway system after World War II.  And as American cities were brought closer, regional distinctions became more blurred.  The interstates also hastened the rise of standardized architecture, beginning with off-the-shelf designs of gasoline stations, hamburger joints, and motels.  Suburban shopping centers were next, anchored first by large chain department stores and later by the ubiquitous big-box outlets. 

Now the last bastions of regional distinction, the downtown cores, are succumbing to the same brand of monotony.  In city after city, shopping streets are lined almost exclusively with the usual suspects--the Gaps, Barnes & Nobles, Banana Republics, and the other overfamiliar retail chains--bringing on a rather queasy sense of deja vu. Is this Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine?  

Civic design review boards, who fancy themselves the guardians of the built environment, have only helped increase urban banality by promoting the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” styles of architecture for such settings. At the moment, traditionalism is the reflexively “right” style, and those eerily similar shopping streets with their happy applique storefronts are as much a product of modern planning ideals as they are of chain-store commercialism.   

Lastly, for all its positive effects in networking America, the very universality of the Internet is ironically helping dissolve what few traces of regional idiosyncrasy remain.  What a loss it will be if the brilliantly uneven patchwork quilt that is America is allowed to fade into a monotone devoid of the offbeat or the unexpected--a  nation whose cities have been Wal-Marted, Old Navied and Starbucked, networked and new-urbanized into lookalike places, set apart by little more than signposts reading “Welcome to Wilkes-Barre”, or Montpelier, or La Jolla, or your town.

Monday, January 14, 2013


“Let every house be the middle of its plat,” said one of America’s best-known city planners, “ there may be ground on each side for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country town, which will never be burnt and always wholesome.”

It’s a tribute to the framer of this dictum that modern city planners still fervently adhere to it.  The trouble is, it was made by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, around the time he laid out Philadelphia in 1682.  A lot has changed since then, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our planning codes.

Even though residential building lots have shrunken from acres in Penn’s time to a few thousand square feet in our own, most suburban planning codes hardly acknowledge the difference.  They still doggedly insist on strips of setback land surrounding houses, no matter how narrow or useless.  

Essentially, setbacks are reserved areas on each edge of your property, like margins on a page, that you’re not allowed to build upon.  The idea is to help ensure William Penn’s ideal of houses spaced well apart, with usable land on all sides.  Given the long historic trend toward higher land prices, smaller lots, and bulkier houses, however, many suburban setback requirements no longer make sense.  

Today’s typical five-foot side yard setbacks, for example, serve mainly to mandate sunless, useless slivers of land between houses. Yet rather than doing away with these vestigial separations altogether, moribund planning codes stubbornly cling to them, stymieing the growth of more intelligent arrangements.

Among these alternatives is zero lot-line development, a way of laying out houses so that one long side--ideally the north side--lies directly on the property line.  The strip of setback land normally required on that side can then be compounded with the setback on the opposite side of the house, yielding one larger and more useful outdoor court, while leaving the actual distance between houses unchanged.  

Typically, to comply with fire codes, houses in zero lot-line arrangements have a solid, windowless wall on the north.  While this feature draws moans of horror from design-review zombies who demand lots of happy-happy windows, it actually enhances both privacy and energy efficiency.  What’s more, it allows proportionately more glass to open onto the south-facing outdoor space.  

Another land-friendly alternative is the courtyard house, which takes the zero lot-line format and bends it into a U-shape or a rectangle.  In this case, all of the outside walls lie on the property line, much like an urban commercial building. Completely enclosing the court in this way gives additional space and privacy without squandering a single square inch to unusable setback land. 

If these sound like radical new ideas, they’re not.  Cities in Asia and the Middle East have benefitted from such arrangements for thousands of years.  Nevertheless, Americans who’d like to develop their own land more intelligently still face an almost insurmountable setback battle in most planning jurisdictions.  After three hundred-some-odd years, even William Penn might find that pretty silly.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Last time, we saw how many well-known brands in the American building industry got their start through innovation and invention . It’s a credential that many of today’s reverse-engineered, flash-in-the-pan competitors can’t lay claim to—something to bear in mind next time you’re tempted by a slickly-advertised brand you’ve never heard of.

Ironically, many old American companies tend to play downplay their long experience, perhaps for fear of seeming fuddy-duddy in today’s high-tech world.  Since I have no such compunctions, however, I’ll single out a few more of our most venerable brands, some of them now well past the century mark.  

Way back in 1901, for example, Chicagoan Albert C. Brown opened a small shop that made plumbing fixtures and other hardware. In 1913, Brown invented a replaceable and virtually drip-free faucet cartridge which he called the Quaturn, because a mere quarter-turn of the handle could turn the water on or off.  Brown’s invention soon became the mainstay of his Chicago Faucet Company. His cartridge has been refined over the years, but amazingly, it’s still interchangeable with any Quaturn faucet manufactured since 1913. 

Some American firms not only go back a long way, but also practically created their own industries. Willis Haviland Carrier, for instance, invented the basics of modern air conditioning in 1902, which helps explain why the Carrier name has been keeping people cool ever since.

Perhaps less of a household name--unless you’re in the habit of reading your door latches--is that of German immigrant Walter Reinhold Schlage.  A master mechanic and inventor, Schlage’s first patent, granted in 1909, was for a door lock with a built-in button that turned the room lights on and off.  The idea didn’t catch on, but around 1920, Schlage came up with the now-familiar lockset with a push-button lock centered in the door knob.  

What’s more, he designed the new lock to fit in a simple round hole bored in the door, eliminating the need for expensive mortising.  This so-called “cylindrical lock” created a minor revolution in the building industry, since it could be installed in minutes using ordinary hand tools.  These two innovations remain the basis of all interior locksets today.

A more familiar household brand traces its lineage back to 1911, when two brothers in St. Joseph, Michigan founded the Upton Machine Company to produce electric motor-driven wringer washers. Eventually, retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. began marketing Upton-manufactured washers under their house brand of Kenmore. Today, the little company founded by the Uptons is Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s largest appliance manufacturer.

More recent domestic products are just as likely to have sprung from innovation by American firms.  A classic example: Around 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, an engineer with Raytheon Corporation, was surprised to find that the candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was working on a device that generated microwaves. The following year, Raytheon demonstrated the world's first microwave oven, calling it the Radarange. In 1967, having acquired Amana Refrigeration, Raytheon introduced the first countertop Amana Radarange oven.  By 1975, microwave ovens were outselling gas ranges.

Today, of course, you’d be hard pressed to find any microwave ovens--including Amana’s--that are actually made in the U.S.A.  Still, it’s worth giving credit where it’s due.