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
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


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


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
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


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.