Monday, April 24, 2017


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


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.”

Monday, April 3, 2017


Wall-to-wall carpet advertisement dating from 1955
(note Ford Thunderbird at background).
Mid-century designers considered "wall-to-wall"
much more modern and sophisticated than
dowdy old hardwood.
During the 1960s, when wall-to-wall carpet really began taking hold in the housing industry, salespeople cleverly managed to portray it as a high-end option superior to hardwood flooring. By the end of that decade, "wall-to-wall" had become the very symbol of luxurious contemporary design, and buyers clamored for it.

In truth, however, the reason builders switched to wall-to-wall carpeting is rather less glamorous: it was by far the cheapest form of floor covering available, and unlike hardwood flooring, it required little if any subfloor preparation. A good carpet and pad could hide uneven subflooring, knotholes, plaster drips, you name it, and hence made the builder’s job that much easier.  

Today, wall-to-wall carpeting remains immensely popular with both builders and buyers. It’s still cheaper than resilient flooring, its nearest competitor, to say nothing of hardwood.   And the price of carpeting includes the pad as well as installation. Even today, a dreadful grade of carpeting can be had for as little as fifteen dollars per yard, with better quality grades costing only about triple that.  

Simple bordered/inset carpeting is
relatively inexpensive and has
a richer, more traditional look.
While its pedigree may be humble, wall-to-wall carpet does have some good things going for it. Besides its low cost and ability to cover a multitude of subflooring evils, it’s also warmer and quieter than other flooring types. Moreover, just because carpet is inexpensive doesn’t mean it has to look cheap.  Here are some tips that can help give an ordinary carpet installations some charisma:

•  One of the neatest carpeting tricks is also one of the least common: combining carpet colors. For example, the main carpet area can be accented by a border several shades darker, or even of a contrasting color. This simple and relatively inexpensive technique can add a great deal of interest to a routine space.

Wrapped bullnose step gives staircase
 a more plush appearance.
(Photo courtesy
•  For an extra charge, carpet installers can wrap the exposed edges of stair treads, lending a more “upholstered” appearance suitable to some contemporary home styles (however, check with your installer first to see whether the carpet you’ve chosen will lend itself to this technique). Or, hardwood can be installed along just the edges of the staircase and carpeting laid in between, giving the appearance of a runner cascading down the stairs.

Incidentally, where floor carpeting meets a hardwood stair (or  vice versa), always terminate the carpet at the base of the stair riser, never at the top.  The idea is to have the stairs appear to “flow” out onto the floor.

Carpet/tile transition using a simple hemmed edge.
Basically, the simpler, the better. Avoid elaborate
thresholds, trims strips, etc. wherever possible.
•  Where carpet adjoins a hardwood, stone, or ceramic tile floor, have it hemmed back rather than covering the break with a metal trim strip.  The strip just attracts undue attention to the juncture, collects crud, and quickly gets scratched and ugly.  

•  Finally, in Modernist and Mediterranean style homes, one of my favorite techniques allows me to dispense with wooden baseboards, which I consider a useless anachronism in carpeted rooms. I have the gypsum wallboard finished to within 1/4-inch of the subfloor, omit the baseboard, and simply have the carpet installed directly against the wall. No awkwardly mitered baseboards, no cluttered appearance. Although I get groans of protest from purists, I find the clean, sharp delineation between carpet and wall to be much more pleasing. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GUESSING YOUR HOME'S AGE: Just Use The Simple Clues

I’ve always been amazed at the way archaeologists can date an ancient site based on, say, the remains of a fossilized bratwurst.  
If your walls look like this beneath the finish,
your house predates World War II.

Compared to what most archaeologists have to work with, determining a house’s age is a cinch.  Assuming that you’re judging original materials that haven’t been replaced somewhere along the line, you can usually come within five years of when your house was built—not bad compared to carbon dating. Here are a few places to look for archeological clues:  

•  Interior finish.  Does your house have a lath and plaster interior finish?  If so, it’s almost certainly a pre-World War II house.  If it has gypsum board (adopted during the war years to speed construction of military housing), it’s postwar. Ah, but if it has "buttonboard"—a transitional substitute for lath consisting of 2' x 4' gypsum board sheets with holes in them—it dates from a few years to either side of World War II. 
Steel windows like these are a giveaway that your house
was built between 1935 and 1955.

•  Windows.  Are your windows steel, with the glass set in putty?   If so, your house was probably built between 1935 and 1955. If they’re bright aluminum, figure roughly 1955-1975, or even later if it’s an inexpensive house.  If the windows are bronze-anodized (brown) aluminum, think 1975 to 1985. If they’re white-coated aluminum, think 1985 to 1995. If they're plastic ("vinyl", as the industry prefers to call them), think 1995 to the present.  

If you have double-hung wood windows, check whether they’re counterweighted by springs (post World War II) or by a weight-and-pulley arrangement (pre World War II).  If you have some other type of wood window, you may be out of luck.  Although proportions and muntin patterns can provide excellent clues, it takes a lot of experience to date a house based on them.  

The butt-jointed casing (trim) surrounding
this door is telling you,  "I'm Craftsman."
So is the door, which is transitional between
the narrow designs of Victorian days
and the horizontal ones of the early
Twentieth century.
 •  Door panels. Notice the arrangement of the recessed panels in the interior doors of your house (fancy exterior doors don’t count).  Wood doors with pairs of tall, narrow vertical panels usually indicate a house that predates the turn of the century. Doors with a stack of four to six horizontal panels (a product of the backlash against Victorian verticality) generally harken from about 1900-1925.  Doors with a large single panel were popular all the way from 1925 to 1955.  After that, builders began switching to flush hollow core doors, and they became the standard until about 1980, when molded plastic panels once again made ornate door styles extremely affordable.
The big rectangular plate tells you
this is a mortise lock, which
typically means your house predate 1925.

•  Door casings. Take a look at the cross-sectional profile of the casings (the moulded trim that frames the doors). Very wide, ornately moulded casings were popular prior to 1905. Plain, four- to six-inch-wide casings with butt-jointed corners largely took over from 1905 to 1925. Narrower molded casings—about three and a quarter inches wide—came back for a brief encore from about 1925 to 1935.   Linear, geometric casing profiles with flutes, steps, or even radiused corners would point toward an Art-Deco-influenced home built between 1935 and World War II. Rounded or streamlined casing profiles were common from about 1945 to 1960, when airplane forms were influencing everything from cars to typewriters.  
Finally, if you have molded casings paired with plastic- or Masonite- faced panel doors, your house dates from the Eighties or later.

• Doorknobs.  If your interior doors have mortise locks (evidenced by doorknobs attached to a square shaft with a setscrew, often with a large rectangular backing plate), your house probably predates 1925; if the knobs are of white, black, or brown porcelain, you can move that date back to at least 1915. Faceted glass knobs in the form of jewels are another easily-recognized style, popular from about 1925 until just before the war.  And those knobs with uncomfortable, sharp-edged cylindrical shapes arose in the Sixties and suggest a construction date between 1960-1975.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Few people are inclined to fret about aesthetics when their roof is leaking all over the kitchen table. So, in their haste to get roof problems fixed, they also make a hasty choice of roofing material.  


Your roof has an enormous impact on the appearance of your house, and a poor choice can easily damage its resale value.  

But let’s begin at the beginning: Before you even worry about re-roofing, make sure your house actually requires it. The majority of roof leaks can be easily and cheaply repaired with a few tubes of calk. So even if your roofing contractor recommends a new roof, get a second opinion from a home inspection service or an independent roofing consultant before proceeding.  
"Dimensional" composition shingles do their best to look
like wood, and also have the advantage of being more
fire resistant and less expensive than the real thing.

If  your roof really does need replacement, take time to choose an appropriate material. Don’t let anxiety leave you at the mercy of roofing contractors who try to talk you into something “better” which they prefer to sell in lieu of other materials.  Most have their eye on the bottom line, not on your roof line. 

Since your home’s original roof material was deliberately chosen to complement its style, it’s often the best choice for the new roof as well. Moreover, many roofs don’t easily lend themselves to the installation of non-original roofing materials. For example, switching from wood shake to composition shingle generally requires re-sheathing the entire roof with plywood—adding needless cost, weight, and complexity, while yielding an inferior appearance.  
 Built-up roofs were a favorite of mid-century architects,
though their propensity to leak has made them less
popular these days.

 Here are some of the more popular roofing choices, roughly in ascending order of cost: 

•  Composition shingles, which are basically tarpaper with a layer of colored ceramic granules embedded on top, are among the least expensive roof materials. If your previous roof was “comp”, replacing it with the same thing will generally be the most economical. If you don’t like the papery look of standard comp, high-end brands feature random-thickness, thick-butted designs—known as "dimensional"— that try to emulate the look of wood shake. I use the word emulate advisedly, however. These roofs have a bit more texture, but their look is easily distinguishable from actual wood shingle or shake. 
There's no mistaking a heavy shake roof for
anything else. On the downside, though, this roof
wood go up in a hurry in the event of fire.

• Built-up (often called "tar and gravel") roofs consist of alternating layers of bitumen and roofing felt. Their appearance depends mainly on the quantity and color of ballast (gravel) applied to the final layer of roofing, and again, matching the original roof is the simplest choice.  Since built-up roofs are generally flat or nearly so, however, they’re much less visible than pitched roofs, and and aesthetics is of less concern. 
A copper roof: If you have one, why are you  even
reading this?

•  Wood shingles (which are machine-made) and wood shakes (which are hand-split from cedar blocks) feature an inimitable rustic look that’s integral to ranch-style homes, as well as many traditional styles. Therefore, if your home currently has a wood shingle or shake roof, don’t replace it with comp shingles—they’ll look papery and two-dimensional, and will detract from your home’s resale value. If fire resistance is a concern, consider using medium-weight cement-based shingles, which carry a Class-A fire rating and will generally last for the life of the building. While they’re not a dead ringer for shingle or shake, they come about as close as you can get. Before deciding, however, make sure your roof structure can support the extra weight.    

•  Concrete tile, clay tile, slate, and sheet copper are premium roofing materials that will   generally last for the life of the building. If your roof is one of these—what are you even reading this for? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

HOLLYWOOD ARCHITECTURE: Design Inspiration from Dreamland

Many years ago, a client of mine sent me to see a film called Memoirs Of An Invisible Man. “The movie was lousy,” he said, “but I really liked the house in it.”  

He’s not the first person to get hooked on Hollywood architecture—lots of us admire the spectacular homes we see in movies.    

Gone With The Wind's Tara consisted of the two walls
facing the camera, and a great deal of matte painting
 to either side. Yet how many fans of antebellum
architecture have been inspired by this image?
Unfortunately, many of these famous Hollywood houses are almost entirely imaginary.  An artist simply creates a painting or  “matte” of a house to save the studio the expense of constructing an entire real one. For example, the exterior of Tara, the grand Southern mansion of Gone With The Wind, actually consisted only of a few sections of wall;  the rest of the house—columns, chimneys, trees, everything—was matted into the shots afterward.  

As for the imposing staircase that Scarlett O’ Hara descended so dramatically, it was just that—an isolated stairway built on a soundstage. Much of the imposing architecture was simply matted in later.

Just because Hollywood architecture is make-believe, however, doesn’t mean it can’t provide design inspiration. In fact, sets are often excellent inspirations precisely because they’re make believe. Set designers aren’t encumbered by mundane requirements like bearing walls and watertight roofs the way we architects are. They can concentrate on the essence of the thing. The result, in visual terms at least, is a remarkably pure form of architecture.  

The post-war Tara staircase, a stand-alone set built at the
Selznick International Studio in Culver City. Note
the obvious matte painted background
of the ruined countryside beyond the carriage.
Hollywood has already helped start some architectural trends of its own. The breakfast nook, for example, caught on after a number of films of the Twenties showed romantic couples having their morning toast and coffee in lovely little sun-filled spaces (in these movies, of course, the cheerful "sunlight' came courtesy of a high-intensity arc lamp shining through the set's windows).

Despite all this artifice, however, you shouldn’t hesitate to find inspiration in Hollywood's  papier-mache monuments. Next time you see a good film (or even a bad one), make a mental note of any architectural spaces that strike your fancy—perhaps a particular room shape, or a style of furniture, or a dramatic lighting technique. You may well be able to adapt that feature to your own use someday.  

More than once, I’ve cribbed an archway or a flight of steps from some old Boris Karloff movie. And why not?  The film industry routinely spends millions to create a charismatic “look” for sets, often employing exceptionally talented designers. Hence, movie sets are the furthest thing from fluff. They’re carefully calculated to evoke a certain mood or to reflect a character’s personality—which is exactly what good architecture does.    

The gargantuan "stone" portal built for Cecil B. DeMille's
epic The Ten Commandments (1927). Bits and pieces
 of these structures still occasionally surface
sat the film's Guadalupe Dunes location.
Incidentally, Hollywood sets aren’t just limited to buildings alone: for his 1927 epic The Ten Commandments, director Cecil B. DeMille once constructed an entire Egyptian city in the desert-like Guadalupe Dunes near Santa Barbara.  The main set consisted of a ten-story-high stone portal flanked by colossal Pharaohic statues. The whole thing was approached via a vast avenue lined by sphinxes.  

Of course,  DeMille’s towering "stone" structures were really just flimsy, hollow sets built of wood and plaster. After shooting finished, his Egyptian city was pulled down by a few men with cables and buried beneath the dunes, where you can  find fragments of them to this day.

That’s the big difference between Hollywood’s monuments and your own.  Yours will last a lot longer. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

DESIGN WITH GLASS: After All These Years, It Still Has An Edge

Glass, one of man’s oldest and simplest products, has been around for thousands of years. Paradoxically, though, glass has always been a symbol of modernity to architects. For centuries, they’ve endeavored to incorporate more of it into their buildings. The ingenious flying buttresses  of the Gothic cathedrals, for example, served one major purpose:  to free up more wall area for windows.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, England—the
sixteenth-century's most celebrated glass house.
In Elizabethan England, window glass remained a very expensive commodity, and the size of a home’s windows was a fair indicator of its owner’s wealth. One ostentatious example, Bess of Hardwick’s manor house of 1590, had so many huge windows that awestruck commoners dubbed it “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.”

Centuries later, glass remained a favorite material of Modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. To them, a house swathed entirely in glass was the ultimate expression of Modernism. In 1950, the architect Philip Johnson built himself exactly such a house, and legions of less talented architects regrettably followed suit.

Another era's most celebrated glass house—
that of Modernist architect Philip Johnson,
in New Canaan, Connecticut.
In recent years, rising energy costs and a related concern for energy efficiency have made glass-walled homes more difficult to design. Yet glass still presents a remarkable palette to the creative designer.  The trick is to concentrate on quality, not size. So next time you’re ready to settle for a plain old clear glass window, consider one of these alternatives instead:

•  Patterned glass offers a range of surface textures ranging from fluting, grids, or circles to that good old “cracked ice” effect. Patterning diffuses the light passing through, cutting down on glare and creating an even level of daylighting. Because patterned glass is translucent rather than transparent, it’s especially useful in situations where privacy is desirable, such as in bathroom windows, interior glazed doors or glass partitions.

•  Colored glass, used sparingly in combination with plain glass, can produce dazzling highlights created by the sun shining through the glass. During late Victorian times, colored glass was often was used as a decorative border surrounding clear glass window panes, creating interiors awash with a kaleidoscope of colored light. While such uses may still be a bit too flamboyant for contemporary taste, the current traditionalist trend makes colored glass a likely candidate for future window designs.

Leaded and beveled glass can add lovely
highlights to a room, though only
only if it's placed where it will
get direct sun.
•  Leaded glass (which isn’t necessarily “stained glass”) has clear, colored, painted, or beveled glass pieces set in metal “cames” or channels that create an image or geometric pattern. In addition to looking great, the various colors, textures, and surface angles of leaded glass can create spectacular reflections on interior surfaces (just remember to locate the glass where the sun can reach it). A large selection of leaded glass is once again available in stock patterns. There are also many talented leaded glass artists who’ll design custom pieces for windows and doors. Don’t go overboard, however;  elaborate works can range into the hundreds of dollars per square foot.

•  Finally, while you’re thinking about looks, don’t forget safety. The Uniform Building Code requires tempered glass—a special heat-treated glass many times stronger than standard window glass—in windows whose sills are within 18” of the floor, as well as in glass doors and sidelights and in many areas of stairwells. Why? You remember that time Aunt Hulga tried to walk through the sliding door. . .

Monday, February 27, 2017


A dark setting gives this
lovely stained glass piece
all the more power.
Imagine a symphony whose movements are all exactly the same loudness and tempo. Without the contrast of allegretto and andante, piano and forte, the music would quickly sink into deadly dullness.
Contrast holds the same importance to architecture. It provides the unexpected twists and turns that can transform a bland design into a powerful one—to turn, as it were, Muzak into Beethoven’s Fifth.

Contrast works by heightening the perceived difference between sensations. Suppose it’s a sweltering summer day, and you walk off the scorching sidewalk into an air-conditioned building. You, being hot and bedraggled, will appreciate the coolness a lot more than the people who’ve already been inside all day.

In the same way, your senses can best appreciate architectural effects when they’re contrasted against their opposites. There are lots of ways to accomplish this. Here are just a few:

Architect Louis Sullivan was a master at wringing
the maximum impact from ornament using contrast.
Here, the ornate bullseye window practically explodes
from the building's otherwise plain facade.
(Merchant's National Bank, Grinnell, Iowa; 1914)
•  Bright/dark. While a uniformly dark home would no doubt be depressing, a uniformly bright one might just as easily bore you to death. To create visual interest, bright rooms should be played off darker ones. Besides creating variety, the contrast between these opposites heightens the impact of each. That’s the basic premise of using contrast.

•  Plain/ornamented. The architect Louis Sullivan was a master of this type of contrast. His buildings were often composed of powerful masses of bold, rough stone. But against this background Sullivan would add decorative panels of incredible delicacy and color in a few key areas, creating the perfect balance between coarseness and refinement.

The same lesson holds true today: Ornament run wild is not much better than none at all.  To be effective, highly decorative surfaces should be contrasted against plain ones.

At Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House
in Los Angeles, a low entry ceiling—barely higher
than the doorways—supercharges the drama of entering
the soaring living room. (1921)
•  High/low.  Many homes of the Fifties were built with uniform eight-foot ceilings throughout.  When people grew tired of this sameness, vaulted ceilings became the rage, and often whole houses were built with lofty, slope-ceilinged rooms. The ideal lies somewhere between these two extremes, since the impact of a high ceiling is quickly lost if there isn’t a lower ceiling nearby for contrast.

In his First Church of Christ, Scientist,
Bernard Maybeck combined hard
industrial materials such as concrete
columns and steel sash windows,
but tempered it all with lavish,
wisteria-laden wood trellises.
Frank Lloyd Wright frequently dropped the ceilings of his entrance foyers to uncomfortably low, hat-scraping levels. Imagine the sense of impact (and relief) when the visitor suddenly stepped out into the soaring space of a vaulted living room.

Although most building codes now require a minimum ceiling height of 7’-6” (7’-0 in kitchens, bathrooms and halls), Wright’s trick is still effective today. Try playing high-ceilinged living rooms against cozy alcoves, for example, or vaulted master bedrooms against intimate baths.

•  Soft/hard.  Landscape architects have long been familiar with the importance of contrasting plants against “hardscaping” such as brick or stone. Architectural interiors can benefit from the same contrasts. During the Victorian era, interiors were smothered in tapestries, rugs, velvet drapes, and overstuffed furniture.  A hundred years later, during the Eighties, it was fashionable to design ascetic interiors with bare hardwood floors and uncurtained windows. The result was rooms that were cold, harsh, and uninviting. As usual, the secret lies in between. There should be just enough hard surfaces to make the soft ones appreciated.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Low-voltage recessed lighting fixtures used to illuminate
art on a wall.
Recessed lighting used to show up mainly on department store ceilings. In the last few decades, though, it’s grown very popular in residential design as well, and no wonder. It’s flexible, unobtrusive, and relatively cheap—some fixtures start at less than $50.  

Basically, recessed lighting consists of cylindrical “cans” recessed into the ceiling plane.  A rough metal housing installs above the ceiling and contains the mounting hardware, lamp socket, and any necessary electrical hardware. A separate bezel or “trim”  finishes the ceiling opening.   The various trims are what distinguish one fixture type from another, since the housings concealed in the ceiling are all basically similar.  
Slope-ceiling fixture with black Coilex baffle
to reduce specular glare.

The most common type of recessed fixture is an open-bottomed can containing a lamp (the technical term for light bulb) that’s “regressed” a few inches above the ceiling plane.  The portion of the can interior that’s visible around the lamp can be either polished (specular) or fitted with a ribbed, black baffle (“Coilex”) to reduce eye-irritating reflections. A number of other specialized trims are available:  

•  Louvered trims having egg-crate grilles or concentric rings are used to achieve “cutoff” or shielding of the light source, and to direct light downward.

•  Various types of  lenses are available to cover the fixture opening, including   translucent glass, plastic, and Fresnel. Gasketed, moisture-resistant lenses are available for bath or shower areas.
Gasketed fixture with Fresnel lens
can be installed in the shower.

•  Wall washers use a special shielded trim to illuminate or “wash” wall surfaces, so that the wall itself becomes a dramatic indirect light source. They’re generally installed about 24” away from the wall, and spaced about twice that distance from each other.   

•  Trims having small-aperture slots or pinholes are available for concentrating light on specific objects or areas.
Classic eyeball spot,
a mid-century favorite.

•  Eyeball spots (which require a special type of rough fixture) have a lamp installed in a spherical socket that allows aiming.  Eyeballs are useful for spotlighting particular objects or areas, and for installation in sloped ceilings.

•  Fixtures with angled bottom edges are also available for installation in sloped ceilings.  They feature vertically-oriented cans with elliptical trims that eliminate awkwardly angled light beams or protruding eyeball trims.

Many of the above fixtures are also available in low-voltage versions that use high-intensity lamps.  There are also special recessed fixtures designed for retrofitting into existing ceilings; they install through the hole cut for the trim. 
Wall washers (at background) provide dramatic illumination
of the textured stone, without annoying glare.

With so many configurations available, you can really go wild with recessed lighting—sometimes too wild.  Here are a couple of important caveats:

•  Choose trims according to performance, not just looks. For example, plain recessed fixtures with specular reflectors look great but can create unpleasant glare or “hot spots”. If you want the light source to be less obtrusive, consider baffled trims or use Coilex-baffled fixtures instead.   

•  Lay the fixtures out carefully. Most people simply place recessed fixtures according to what they'll be lighting on the floor. Unfortunately, the resulting arrangements often look cluttered and haphazard when viewed in the context of the ceiling—the infamous "swiss cheese effect". While you should obviously consider the room’s lighting requirements, it’s also important to arrange the fixtures so that they produce some kind of rational pattern on the ceiling.   

Monday, February 13, 2017

"ECHOING": The Key to a Seamless Addition

Nothing here worth "echoing"? Au contrare, my friend!
The lap siding, shutters, pedimented porch roof, and
flanking brick chimneys are all good candidates
to be repeated in an addition.
 “Echoing” is a simple and highly effective design trick architects use to visually tie an addition to the existing building.  It involves searching out the small details that are unique to the original building and echoing them (reproducing them in their original or a slightly modified form) in the new work. Judiciously chosen, these echoed details help create a seamless addition without costing a fortune.

Often, when I suggest echoing the style of the existing house in their addition, my clients respond, “But our house doesn’t have any style!”   In fact, regardless of how humble you think your home is, it probably has plenty of style once you’re alert to it.  It’s just that living in a home for any length of time tends to make one immune to its charms.

The real trick is finding what to echo. To do this, try to look at your home with fresh eyes. What details make it different from the neighbor’s house? Perhaps the porch railings or the gable vents? How about the trim around the front windows? Homes from particular stylistic eras have lots of characteristic details that can be effectively echoed.  Here are some common ones:

Spanish Revival homes, like other Romantic Revival styles,
offer a wealth of details for echoing. Repeating details such as
the clay tile, arches, clay pipe vents, and ironwork
will practically guarantee a seamless addition.
•  In Victorian homes, echoing elements such as fish-scale shingle, cornices, and finials will go a long way toward integrating an addition. However, while Victorians have a wealth of detail that can be echoed, they also demand scrupulous reproduction in order to be successful. Two-dimensional renditions of highly-modeled details will look papery and cheap.

Note that the overall scale of the addition—window size and proportion, ceiling height, and massing   —should be in keeping with the original building as well. This rule invariably applies to any addition that's meant to blend in.

•  Colonials are much simpler to echo. Their characteristic details, such as columned porches, boxed cornices, and divided-lite windows with shutters, can all be easily and inexpensively reproduced with modern materials.

• Bungalow style homes have very characteristic front porches with stout "elephantine" columns and, often, unusual gable vents, porch balustrades, and the like, yielding plenty of details that can be echoed in the new work.

• Revival styles such as Spanish, Normandy, and Tudor, present the most specialized cases. Their builders took considerable pains to create highly original details for each, and hence no two are quite alike.  Look for details such as wrought iron grilles; round chimneys, or ones made of brick interspersed with stone; attic vents made from clay pipe or barrel tiles; and unusual stone or brick decoration around entrances.  Then, echo these in the addition where appropriate.  

California Rancher have lots of echo-able features. In this example,
some of the "must-have" details include the low-pitched shingle roof,
the used brick detailing, window shutters, and classic
items such as the "kickers" holding up the ends of the roof gables.
•  California Ranchers have a whole slew of neat details which have grown more charming with the passage of time.  Many ranchers featured countrified “crossbuck” X-motifs on porch railings and door panels, as well as diagonal knee braces or “kickers” near the top of porch posts. The more elaborate among them had projecting beams supporting the bargeboards and shamelessly phony “birdhouses” on the garage gable or astride the roof ridge. All of these details are relatively simple and inexpensive to reproduce in the addition.

•  Many of today's contemporary home styles are once again featuring “traditional" details such as heavy stucco or wood columns, heavy window trim, and windows with divided lites, making it easy to echo their designs. Better yet, it’s likely you’ll still find the exact same materials that the contractor used.

Monday, February 6, 2017

MODULAR CABINETS: Are They Better Than Custom?

Years ago, each time a craftsman set out to build some cabinets, he started from scratch. There were no agreed-upon standards for cabinet sizes, so he might make a sink cabinet 37” wide for one kitchen and 43” wide for another.  He might even make the countertop higher or lower, depending on the stature of the homeowner.
Modular cabinets are sort of like Lego blocks: They can
be put together in many different ways, and
still fit together well.

All this customization was great—if you could afford it.

Today, the advent of modular cabinetry has made decent-quality cabinets much easier on the pocketbook.  Unlike custom cabinets, the dimensions of modulars are standardized so they can be mass-produced.  That, of course, means lower cost to the consumer: a bare-bones, modular 36” base cabinet can start as low as $120.  For more elaborate styles, you can still figure on paying about half to two-thirds of what a custom cabinet would cost.

Countless accessories are available with
modular cabinets, many of which can
really boost your storage space.
Designing with modulars is easy. Their widths are always a multiple of 3”. If you have a space, say, 11’-7 1/2” wide available for cabinets, you simply choose an arrangement of modulars that’ll fill up as much of the space as possible. For this example, the largest total width possible is 11’-6”, since that’s the biggest multiple of 3” that fits in 11’-7 1/2”. The slight gap left over at each end is closed in with a strip of matching wood called a “filler”.

Modular cabinets have standardized heights, too. Base cabinets for kitchens are built to yield a 36” counter height. Wall cabinets are generally available in 30”, 36”, and 42” heights (corresponding to 7’, 7’6”, and 8’ ceilings), as well as in special sizes made for installation above refrigerators, ranges, and peninsulas. A variety of bathroom vanities are also available.

As in any mass-produced product, there have been some compromises in materials and workmanship—particle board and plastic shelf brackets are common, especially in the cheaper lines. On the plus side, the finish quality of good modulars is often better than that of custom units.

Wine racks, shadow boxes, and glass doors are
just a few of the goodies you can experiment
with in your modular kitchen design.
Designing with modular cabinets is a bit like playing with Lego blocks: no matter how you arrange them, they always fit together. Of course, they still have to be arranged properly, so if you’re not familiar with basic kitchen design conc epts, consult a kitchen designer, an architect, or a good kitchen design book. 

Here are some easy steps to laying out a modular kitchen:

•  First, choose a cabinet manufacturer that suits your budget and offers the type of accessories you want. For example, some manufacturers provide pull-out shelves as standard equipment in base cabinets; others don’t offer them at all.
The finishing touch: An incredible
selection of door and hardware
combinations means there's
something for everyone.

•  Next, decide on the location of the range and/or oven, the sink, and the refrigerator.  These placements are critical, so get help here if you need it. Once you’ve figured out the basic arrangement, you can experiment with various accessories.  Most modular cabinet manufacturers offer interesting add-ons such as knickknack shelves, wine racks, and range hoods in matching finishes. Beware, however — like new-car options, these items can get very expensive.

•  Determine where you’d like specialized cabinets such as drawer stacks, tray cabinets, or full-height pantry cabinets. Also, if your cabinets will turn a corner, decide between a lazy susan cabinet or a “blind” cabinet with a conventional door. Refer to the manufacturer’s literature for the available sizes and types.

• Finally, choose your favorite door style and surface finish from the manufacturer’s catalog. Oh, and when your kitchen’s done, how about baking me a nice pie?