Monday, November 13, 2017

BEWARE THE DREADED "OVER-RESTORATION"

A '55 Studebaker President just like mine—
except this one runs.
When I was a pimple-face teenager, I bought a 1955 Studebaker with the aim of restoring it. I'm fifty-eight now and my complexion is a little better, but I'm working on that damned Studebaker.  

Many times over the years I've been approached by car restorers who want me to join some auto club or other, but I always demur. Most of these guys are just too fanatical. For example, it’s routine for restorers to insist on tires made from the original molds, as well as hoses, belts, and batteries marked exactly like the originals. Nowadays, restorers will even painstakingly duplicate the carelessly-scrawled inspection marks that were chalked on the engines during assembly. Why stop there? Why not insist on 1955 air in the tires, or 1955 oil in the crankcase?

Her'e a "correct" bungalow kitchen:
Is this really what you're after?
Worse yet, cars restored to these ultra-exacting standards represent such a huge investment that their owners are usually afraid to take them on the road. Rather than being driven as they were intended, they end up languishing in a garage or a museum.  

Car restorers aren’t the only ones to go overboard, however. I see many people with older homes—be they Victorians, bungalows, or mid-century Ranchers—getting caught up in the same sort of mania for authenticity. They slavishly outfit their homes in period furniture and fixtures, no doubt goaded by well-meaning magazines that encourage this sort of thing. One recent article, for example, showcased a restored bungalow kitchen that was correct right down to the intrusive freestanding range and dreadful circulation. It was an authentic bungalow kitchen, all right—clumsy and impractical. 

Don't hesitate to upgrade old infrastructure, such as this
asbestos-laden and extremely inefficient old
gravity furnace. Antique technology is fascinating to look at,
but not much fun to live with.
To be sure, restoring a house to prime condition is an admirable undertaking, and I’m generally the first person to say so. But just as a car is made to be driven, a house is built to be lived in, not just looked at. Hence, putting up with shadowy lighting, a cramped bathroom, or a Luddite kitchen is a pointless sacrifice.  

Fortunately, it’s fairly obvious when to abandon the tiresome constraints of “correct” restoration. So unless you’re aiming to turn your house into a museum, don’t fret over the occasional anachronism.  

Gorgeous—but I bet you wouldn't
want to hear "Back in Black" on it.
Besides, in most cases, you’ll do just fine to adapt certain parts of your home to modern requirements. Few reasonable people are willing to dispense with contemporary products such as dishwashers, microwave ovens or energy-efficient refrigerators, and while these items simply don’t fit into “authentic” kitchens, there’s little to be gained by trying to hide them with clumsy a disguises such as cabinet door overlays. Just call a spade a spade, and be frank about including the modern stuff along with the authentic.    

The golden rule is: Respect your home’s architecture, but don’t be straitjacketed by the compulsion to make everything look “period”.  Feel free to modernize when it comes to functional necessities such as appliances, plumbing, wiring, or heating.

Times change, and the ability to change with them is what distinguishes a living, breathing home from a museum.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

THE $20,000 BATH: And Why You Should Be Glad To Get It That Cheap

Here's the tub your'e not getting: Made by
Arcaro-Martini of Italy, it's plated with 24 karat gold
and will run you about $100,000.
Twenty thousand dollars. That’s the minimum figure many contractors and architects cite for the cost of a major bathroom remodel these days, or for a new bathroom included as part of a larger addition.

Whenever my clients hear this number, however, they guffaw and make wisecracks like, “Hey—I don’t want a gold-plated bathtub or anything.”

Don't worry—you’re not getting one.

One reason bathrooms are so expensive (second only to kitchens) is that they contain a lot of plumbing, mechanical, and electrical work concentrated in a small area. They also require a range of relatively expensive finish materials and cabinetry, as well as some often-pricey hardware such as towel bars and the like.

When I say you can spend any amount of money you want
on a toilet, I'm not kidding. Here's one for those
incurable romantics among you.
And of course there are the attendant installation costs of these items—generally, about twice the cost of the material. So while the possible cost range for bathrooms is wide, $10,000 is not an exorbitant figure, even for a run-of-the-mill bath. A look at some of the costs peculiar to bathrooms may help put things in perspective:

•  Plumbing materials. While the cost of so-called “rough” plumbing materials—piping, hangers, and the like—is comparatively modest, the cost of installing them isn’t. In my neck of the wood (the San Francisco Bay Area, plumbers charge anywhere from $80 to $130 per hour or more for labor. You might get away with less where you live, but it will still put a dent in your wallet.

A little more in line with most people's budgets,
fifty bucks will still get you this standard plastic
 lavatory faucet. Sorry, no German name on this one.
You can also spend as much as you like on finish plumbing items such as fixtures and fittings. The cost of a toilet, for example, can run from $79 for a noisy piece of junk, to several thousand dollars for a top-of-the-line "signature" job designed by an architect who, presumably, had too much time on his hands. Somewhere in between lie simple but well-made models, though seldom for less than $300. Throw in a seat (around $35), a wax gasket ($4), plumber’s putty ($4), a shutoff valve ($10) and connecting riser ($5), and you’re already coming up on four hundred dollars.

Lavatory sinks, showers, and tubs all have similarly wide price ranges, as well as much higher fitting costs. Lavatory faucets, for example, can run from around $50 for dime-store grade models made of plastic, all the way up to $1,000 and more for ultra-chic creations. Add a German name, and you can add another $200 to the price. And don’t forget:  Labor, labor, labor.

Towel bars can run anywhere from $15 bargain bin models
to Baroque creations such as this one,
which comes in just under two hundred bucks.
• Cabinetwork also soaks up money in a hurry. Costs vary wildly, but better-quality brands of base cabinet are seldom below  $200 per lineal foot, and can go up steeply from there. Installation labor is additional, of course. Lavatory mirrors can set you back as well. Plain old 1/4" mirror glass with a deburred edge will cost you about $6-8 per square foot installed. Polishing, beveling, drilling or other special work will cost substantially more.

•  Finish materials.  The coup de grace for most bathroom budgets comes from finish items such as flooring, countertops and shower surrounds. These costs tend to sneak up on you near the end of the project, just when you thought you were still solvent. Countertops can range from a low of around $15 per square foot for for plastic laminate, to well over $300 per square foot for a custom concrete job. Tile is so wide-ranging in price that, basically, you could spend any amount you wanted on it. And whether you go cheap or fancy on the material, however, the installation is still going to cost at least five bucks a square foot.

•  Lastly, don’t overlook the cost of towel bars, toilet paper holders, soap dishes, and the like. Though they seem like nickel-and-dime items, they add up quickly. A basic, piece-of-junk towel ring, for example, starts at around $20, and if you want anything with a semblance of quality, the price will go up—way up. Hence, if you haven’t been minding your budget, your towels may end up hanging on a nail.

Monday, October 30, 2017

THE CRAPPER TOILET AND OTHER POTTY TALK

Crapper: The thing, and the man.
Almost two centuries ago, Thomas Crapper showed off the effectiveness of his newfangled water closet by flushing down six apples along with several sheets of paper stuck to the bowl with grease. His guests were no doubt suitably impressed by this demonstration. However, few would have dreamed that utilitarian plumbing fixtures such as Crapper’s would one day be marketed as virtual objets d’art in plumbing showrooms everywhere.


You can spend any amount of money you want on a toilet,
if that's really where your priorities lie.
Yet that’s just what has happened.  Toilets, lavatories, tubs and sinks have been elevated to luxurious status symbols. Sure, you can still buy an ordinary white china toilet for under a hundred bucks, although its pedigree may be dubious. But for a healthy surcharge you can also choose from myriad colors—or should I say flavors: French Vanilla, Jersey Cream, and Raspberry Puree are just a few I’ve come across. Toilets can also be had with crackled, speckled, or glazed finishes; with hand-painted flowers or pinstripes; or in sculpted shapes designed by architects who apparently don’t have much else to do. You can even buy reproductions of antique toilets not much different from Crapper’s, except that they now sell for around $1200.  

Of course, people are entitled to pay as much as they want to for a toilet. The thing to remember is that, beyond a basic level of quality, there isn’t that much difference between one toilet and another. The same is true of other plumbing fixtures. Here’s a brief rundown of common fixtures and their relative benefits:  


This is your garden-variety undermount sink.
Note that there is no rim to catch crud and
complicate cleaning.
•  Toilets can range from about $75 to well over a thousand. The better models use ultra-quiet “siphon vortex” flush action and a high-quality flush valve;  cheaper ones use noisier “siphon jet” flushing and a flush valve worthy of the name Crapper. Beyond that, one toilet is about as good as the next; any additional expenditure only goes toward those hand-painted magnolias on the bowl rim. 

•  Lavatory sinks are widely offered in enameled steel, china, or cast iron, in ascending order of cost. A few companies make stainless steel lavatory sinks as well. They’re variously available in self-rimming topmount, metal-framed, and undermount styles.  The latter are the most practical of the three, since there’s no protruding rim to catch splashes and crud. Lavatories made of solid-plastic materials such as Corian can be fabricated integrally with the countertop, yielding a perfectly flush, seamless installation that’s very easy to maintain. And by the way, I'm not even going to mention vessel sinks, those inane bowl-on-top-of-the-counter affairs, because I happen to think it's one of the silliest trends in plumbing history.


Composite countertop materials such as Corian offer
sinks fabricated integral with the counter—
probably the ultimate in ease of cleaning. Alas,
just about the ultimate in expense as well.
•  Bathtubs (the old-fashioned variety, not the kind bristling with jets) are available in both enameled steel and enameled cast iron. American Standard also offers a composite material called Americast, which emulates the performance of cast iron but is lighter. Enameled steel tubs are the cheapest; however, they have a tinny feel, lose heat rapidly, and dent and chip more easily. Cast iron tubs, while about 3-4 times the cost of steel, are extremely durable and hold heat better once they’ve warmed up. They’re also incredibly heavy, so plan on hiring a he-man at installation time.

•  Kitchen sinks are available in enameled steel, stainless steel, solid plastic, and enameled cast iron, roughly in ascending order of cost.  Enameled steel is again the low-budget choice. Stainless steel is scrubbable and impervious to chipping, but requires frequent cleaning to maintain its sparkling look. As with lavatories, solid plastic sinks can be fabricated integrally with kitchen counters for minimal maintenance. Once again, enameled cast iron is the vintage Cadillac of sink materials—solid, durable, but on the heavy side.   






Monday, October 23, 2017

WHEN TO DO IT YOURSELF (AND WHEN NOT TO)

Yes, you really can save a pile of money by doing it yourself.
Labor accounts for about two-thirds of building costs these days. Ergo, furnishing your own labor is a cracking good way to save money on a project—in fact, it’s really the only significant way to save.

Yet when I suggest to money-conscious clients that they take on a part of their project themselves, you’d think I asked them to drain the Pacific with a teaspoon. Their eyes glaze over and they begin mumbling things like, “Well...maybe I could sweep up at the end of the day.”


Framing—it's all standardized. Don't be afraid!
While it’s good to know your limitations, it’s also true that you don’t know what you can do until you try. Many construction tasks, such as rough framing and insulating, are well within the reach of any reasonably skilled person.  

If you feel utterly clueless about how to approach such projects, study a few online videos or, better yet, take a few "hands-on" how-to classes. They’ll be well worth your while, because even if you decide not to pursue the work yourself, you’ll be a better-informed in hiring a professional. I don't recommend written how-to guides because books are  generally less helpful to the serious do-it-yourselfer—the projects they describe usually exist in a perfect world where lumber never warps, cuts are always straight, and no one ever smacks their thumb with a hammer.


Insulation: It's no fun to put in, but neither is it
rocket science. How much is a day of itching
worth to you?
If you’d like to do some of the work yourself but don’t feel confident about taking on conspicuous tasks such as finish work, consider doing phases of the job that won’t be visible later. Here are a few:

• Framing is an excellent candidate for do-it-yourselfers. Framing conventions are standardized and easily learned. Better yet, wood is relatively forgiving, and even a major screw-up isn’t that difficult to fix. Moreover, the standard of “professional” quality framing isn’t always that high to begin with—in production framing, speed, not accuracy, is the objective.  Visit a large housing project under construction to see for yourself. A do-it-yourselfer has a pretty good chance of matching that caliber of work.   


Modular cabinets are easier to design with,
and also easier to specify and install.
Your local building emporium has tons of them. 
• Installing insulation is no fun, but neither is it difficult—a decent online video may be all you need to prepare for it. Weigh the savings-to-itch quotient carefully before committing yourself, though, as this may be one of the most uncomfortable jobs in construction.

Some kinds of finish work are do-able as well:

• Hanging drywall is well within most people’s abilities; although it’s a backbreaking job, the results are gratifyingly visible. Alas, the most expensive part of a drywall installation—taping and texturing—is both difficult and extremely conspicuous, and hence is best left to professionals.     

•  Installing modular cabinets, which come in standard widths of 3" increments, is fairly straightforward. If you’re at all conversant with the use of a spirit level, you’ll probably do all right. Installing preformed plastic laminate countertops is also relatively simple. For other countertop materials such as tile or cultured marble, take a class to gauge your aptitude first.
This, however, is not the place to learn on the job. A mistake
in the foundation, such as an out-of-square corner,
can haunt you all the way through the project.

Naturally, there are also some areas to stay away from: 

• Pouring your own foundation is only advisable if you're a masochist, insane, or both.  Otherwise, stay away. Unlike wood, concrete is an unforgiving material—errors such as misaligned forms or overlooked anchor bolts can create major  headaches throughout the rest of the job. A botched foundation will also dog all subsequent phases with line, level, and squareness problems. Leave this part to the pros. 

•  Installing roofing is seldom cost-effective for do-it-yourselfers, since the learning curve is long, the job is miserable, and mistakes can leave you all wet.    

Monday, October 16, 2017

HOW TO CALCULATE STAIRS, PERIOD.

Your basic straight run stair. The flat
parts are "treads", and the vertical parts
are "risers".
Years ago, when I worked as a framer, I always got stuck building staircases because I was the only sucker willing to do the math involved. After a while, I earned the title of Exalted Stairmeister around the job site. Secretly, I had to chuckle at this, because in reality stair design involves nothing more than basic arithmetic. Try it yourself:

First, decide on the basic stair configuration—straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped. Unless you’re a masochist, don’t even think about building a curved stair. The correct choice depends on how much room you have in your floor plan, the sort of look you’re after, and a few other factors that, lucky for you. we don’t have room to address here.

Once you’ve decided on a straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped configuration, determine the total rise of the staircase—the vertical distance from one floor to the next. For this example, let’s assume a typical height of 106”.

Traditional U-shaped stair with a half-landing
is space efficient and less strenuous to climb.
Next we have to choose an appropriate height for the riser (the vertical distance from one tread to the next). There a re several guidelines here. For starters, most building codes don't allow any stair riser to exceed 8” in height. Moreover, few good contractors will use a riser greater than about 7 1/2”, since anything higher will yield uncomfortably steep stairs.

Okay.  Let’s say we want our stairs to have a fairly gentle slope, so we’re looking for a riser height somewhere around 7”.  To determine the exact height, we divide the total rise from one floor to the next—in our hypothetical case, it’s 106”—by whole numbers (representing the total number of risers) until we arrive at a figure as close to 7” as possible.

Through trial and error, we find that dividing the total rise of 106” by 15 gives us about 7.07”.  That’s as close as we’ll get to 7” using a whole number, so we’ll settle on that. This means our staircase will have 15 risers of 7.07” each, yielding a total rise of 106”.  Go ahead—check it out on your calculator. It works.

Rise, run, and total rise and total run. Not rocket science.
Now we have to choose the "run" or tread depth measured front-to-back. There’s a handy rule of thumb to help us do this:  Rise+Run=17.  Ergo, since we’ve already settled on a riser height of 7.07”, our tread run should be about 10”. Simple, no?

Now we know both the rise of our stair—7.07”—and the tread—10”. On a straight-run stair, all that’s left is to find the total run or length of the staircase. To do it, we multiply the tread width times the total number of treads to find the total length required by our staircase. Here's the catch: There's always one less tread than the number of risers, since the top tread is formed by the upper floor itself. So, in our example, the total run of the staircase would be:  10” tread x (15-1) risers = 140”, or 11’-8”.

Exterior stair risers should not exceed six inches, and treads
should be at least twelve inches deep. The gentler the slope,
the better.
Now you can check whether your stair actually fits in the space allocated to it (it probably won't; underestimating the space required for stairs is a common problem for both architects and amatuers). If there’s an intermediate landing, as in an L- or U-shaped stair, it’s just counted as an extra-large tread, and it's added to the total run of the stair.

Remember that the total rise is always divided by a whole number representing the number of risers. You can’t start by arbitrarily choosing a riser height, because when you get to the top of the stair you’ll end up with an orphan step that’s lower than the rest. Note also that this works for any number of risers, including deck steps that have only a few risers between landings. However, for any outdoor steps, the riser should be no higher than 6", and treads should be at least 11" deep.



Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ADDING A SECOND FLOOR: Are You Sure About That?

If your foundation isn't able to support a second floor,
are you ready to do this?
Time and again, couples will ask me over for a consultation and happily declare, “We want to add a second story to our house!”  Right then, my heart sinks, and I think to myself:  Rats. I have to spoil the party again.  

Why? More often than not, adding a second story is more complicated and less satisfactory than adding on at ground level. If you’re thinking about “going up”, there are a number of serious issues to consider.

Stairs crammed in a closet or
wiping out a bedroom won't do
your resale value much good.
First and foremost, is your existing foundation up to the task?  The foundations of most single-story homes weren’t designed to carry the additional weight of a second floor. Years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, because building departments were fairly lax about enforcing foundation requirements—that’s why you see so many rinkydink old houses with obvious second-floor additions. But earthquakes and lawsuit-mania have changed that. Nowadays, most building departments require detailed engineering calculations to demonstrate that your existing foundation is capable of supporting an additional story.  

If it isn’t, your only alternatives are to reinforce your present foundation, or to replace it with one designed to carry two stories. Both are expensive propositions. Foundation replacement, for example, requires that your house be supported on cribbing while the contractor demolishes the old foundation and pours a new one. This in turn usually requires that the landscaping and paving around your house be dug up as well.  Not quite what you had in mind, huh?


Many home styles weren't meant to be tall and spindly—
as you can seen from this example.
(Courtesy Chicago Bungalow Association)
Even if your foundation is adequate, adding a second story doesn’t always make architectural sense. For example, if the new interior stairs can’t be properly incorporated into the existing floor plan, a ground-floor addition may be a better solution. A steep staircase that’s crammed into a closet, or one that wipes out half a bedroom, may actually hurt your home’s resale value despite the extra space gained. 

What’s more, a small second-story addition will generally be more expensive in relation to the amount of floor space added. That’s because the stairs consume a big chunk of floor space on both the first and second floors—space that has to be recaptured in the addition. Hence, a small second story addition is seldom worth the trouble.  


The proverbial second-floor addition that "fell out of the sky",
crushing this poor little rancher.
As for aesthetics—more bad news. Many home styles, such as bungalows and ranch-style homes, were meant to be long and low. On such homes, a second story can look gawky and foreign, as if it just dropped out of the sky.      

If all this isn’t enough to think about, zoning and design ordinances in a few areas restrict or even forbid a second story addition, so check them out carefully too.  

However, since you've stuck with me up to this point, I'm happy to say that there are a number of instances in which a second-story addition makes sense. If your foundation is adequate, your zoning checks out, and there’s room to accommodate a staircase without disrupting the lower floor plan, then going up may be just the ticket.  If your foundation needs replacement anyway—say, due to seismic requirements or damage from settlement—then the extra effort necessary to bring it up to two-story standards will be nominal, and a second-floor addition may be worthwhile.  Lastly, of course, if your site doesn’t have any room for a first-floor addition, you may not have any choice in the matter. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

RESIDENTIAL DESIGN: Stuck In A Rut, Big Time

Finnish-style dish cabinet/drying rack. Are the Finns
smarter than we are? Yeah, probably.
Despite all the ballyhoo about avant-garde designs, architecture remains one of the most hidebound disciplines around. It takes ages for us to finally change things that are—well, silly. Sometimes we have to see the way ote way ote have to see the way other people approach a problem to realize that maybe the way we do things isn’t necessarily best.

I got an eye-opening dose of this when I visited Finland some years ago. Trying to help out my host in the kitchen after dinner, I offered to dry the dishes, and got a rather uncomprehending look. Know why? The Finns don’t dry the dishes. Instead, they have a wall cabinet above the drainboard that has an open wire rack in place of a bottom shelf. The rinsed dishes are put away and simply drip-dry.  The water runs down the drainboard and into the sink.  


Baseboard: It costs a lot to install,
 but what exactly is it doing there?
The eminent practicality of this arrangement made we wonder why we don’t use it here in the States. The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re just so used to doing it “our” way that we’re suspicious of something that’s better and simpler. We dry our dishes by hand and then put them away because—well, dang it, that’s just the way it’s done.

Another relic of this traditional mindset is the baseboard or mopboard—that wooden molding installed where floors meet walls. Originally, a mopboard was just that—a board meant to protect the wall plaster from moisture and scrapes when you were mopping. That seems sensible enough in rooms that need mopping. Today, however, most rooms have wall-to-wall carpet, and even my mother doesn’t mop that. 


Sear Roebuck precut house, circa 1929:
Apparently far too radical an idea.
Still, builders routinely install a lot of complicated and expensive baseboards in carpeted rooms because they’ve done it that way for years. I get howls of protest from contractors when I try to omit the baseboards and extend the wall finish to the floor instead. They insist that vacuum cleaning will scuff the wall if there’s no baseboard.  True enough—and if there is a baseboard, the vacuum cleaner will scuff that instead—except it’ll be a lot harder to repaint when the time comes.      

Far from being trivial, the baseboard issue is symptomatic of  a larger problem in architecture: The way we build houses has remained fundamentally unchanged since the Middle Ages. We assemble them out of tens of thousands of individual pieces, so that no two are ever quite alike. There have been many attempts to improve this state of affairs: In the early 20th century, Sears Roebuck sold precut homes that arrived via railcar with every brick and stick of lumber required to build it—a step in the right direction, but one that ultimately didn't fly due to public's lower perception of "kit houses" as opposed to "custom-built" homes.


The luxurious railcar-like interior of Buckminster Fuller's
Dymaxion House of the early 1950, an innovative
design that was to be mass-produced in an aircraft plant.
Sorry, Bucky—it's too far out for the hidebound
building industry.
There have also been lots of interesting alternatives out there: houses formed of gunite sprayed over balloons; geodesic domes; houses built underground or sunk into hillsides; but none of them have managed to lure people away from the standard stick-built house.
While a handful of architects enjoy experimenting with such innovative housing concepts—such as Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house, shown here—in truth the majority are perfectly happy doing things as they’ve always been done, mopboards and all. It’s not that architects are a bunch of reactionaries; it’s just that, contrary to their popular image, most architects are busy enough just making a living. They feel no inclination to reinvent the wheel.

Then, too, contractors are reluctant to adopt new construction methods because the long learning curve can cost them their profits. Moreover, it takes people a long time for people to get used to new ideas in architecture.  If automobile design progressed at the same rate that housing has, we’d all still be driving Huppmobiles.

With all these forces working against progress in housing, what’s going to create change?  Beats me—but I’ll think about it while I dry the dishes.        

Monday, September 25, 2017

THE BEAUTY OF THE COURTYARD HOME

Traditional Persian courtyard house
with pool at center.
Not long ago, in a bleak industrial suburb of San Francisco, I came upon an old house wedged incongruously between a mustard factory and a plating shop. From the street, there was little to see but a garage and a blank facade, with a narrow gate squeezed between them.  

But beyond the gate was a long narrow passage, and when I reached the end of it I had to pinch myself: I was standing in an amazingly lush secret garden, snugly surrounded by the picturesque bays and roofs of the house. At its center, a waterfall burbled placidly into a meandering koi pond, and narrow paths snaked away into mysterious recesses beyond the cool plants. Compared to the harsh streetscape outside, it may as well have been Wonderland.    

That’s the magic of a courtyard house: It can feel placid and secure in even the most unfavorable location. The ancient Persians, who knew something about harsh surroundings, were wise to this concept thousands of years ago. They built their houses around central gardens designed as miniature representations of paradise, emphasizing the water that was so precious in the parched lands beyond their walls.  

Atrium of a reconsturcted Roman villa at Pompeii,
with the columned peristyle offering shade to
the surrounding rooms.
Urban Roman houses also turned their backs to the street, preferring to face inward toward a garden court they called the atrium.  

But the courtyard house reached its ultimate expression in China. Among the most famous of these is the Wang Shi Yuan (“garden of the master of the fishing nets”), located in a densely-populated district of Suzhou. Despite its crowded setting, the moment one enters the house and gardens, all thoughts of urban congestion vanish. The cleverly convoluted arrangement of pavilions, plants, and water makes the tiny residence seem boundless. 
The Garden of the Master of Nets, located in my second home
of Suzhou, China, is actually a residence
surrounding a central courtyard. First constructed
in 1140, it was restored in 1785.

Given the many advantages of the courtyard house, why don’t we see more of them in the United States? Originally, it was because of our country’s vast area and relatively sparse population. We simply got used to building a monolithic house smack in the center of a huge piece of land. Back then, there was little point in having an enclosed court.

Things have changed, however. Population has increased by magnitudes, and even our formerly spacious suburban lots have shrunk to minimal size, leaving little useful land surrounding our homes. Moreover, urban and suburban streets have become less friendly year by year, making security a top consideration of urban and suburban dwellers.   

The gated courtyard house offers an elegant and time-honored solution to these problems, and many more.  

Traditional Spanish courtyard home in Cordoba.
Unfortunately, U.S. zoning codes haven’t kept pace with the changes in our cities, and they continue to make it difficult to build courtyard houses. Because of long-entrenched setback requirements, regulators continue to frown on zero-setback construction in many residential areas. Most cities continue to demand that homes be surrounded by useless, narrow strips of “setback” land. They still regard a house set in the middle of a property as the norm, making it difficult for progressive builders who wish to use their sites more intelligently.


It’s time our city planners began looking at courtyard houses as a better alternative to conventional, land-wasting houses. Far from being newfangled, it’s an arrangement proven for centuries.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

ARCHITECT FURNITURE: Ouch!

Chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the dining room
of the Frderick C. Robie house, Chicago (1909):
Sit up straight, or else.
In a rare moment of humility, Frank Lloyd Wright once conceded:  “I’d hate to admit how many black-and-blue marks I’ve gotten from sitting in my own furniture.”  Wright’s horrific chair designs, with their bolt-upright backs and sharp edges, seem more suited to a medieval torture chamber than to his brilliant and airy interiors.

Wright isn’t alone, however. Modern architects in general are notorious for their dreadful furniture designs. If you’ve ever sat in one of Marcel Breuers’s famed Wassily armchairs—designed in 1926 and still considered a paragon of Modernist style—you’ll know what I’m talking about. Stark and striking to look at, all black leather straps and chrome tubing, it’s nonetheless a trial to sit down in.

Wassily chair: Like it or not,
you're going downhill.
Unlike an ordinary chair, which allows the sitter to change positions as comfort or etiquette dictates, there’s only one way to sit in a Wassily chair: the way the architect intended. It’s impossible to sit attentively at the front edge of the seat, for example—the slippery leather is so steeply raked that one inevitably slides back down into the chair. Once there, the razor-strop-like back and seat soon begin to dig uncomfortably into the skin. A few minutes of sitting quickly make it clear that appearance, not comfort, was Breuer’s primary concern.

An even more renowned piece of architect-designed furniture is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair of 1929. To this day, it’s an expensive fixture in every snooty furniture outlet. But as lovely as it is to look at, it’s a sad excuse for a seat. The huge, gridded cushions don’t conform to one’s back or gluteus maximus; in fact, the slumping curve of the backrest opposes that of a normal spine. It’s just the seat to offer to guests whom you don’t want sticking around.

Chair created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
for the German Pavilion at the
International Exposition in Barcelona, 1929.
Comfortable—if you're built like Gumby.
The architect Philip Johnson nevertheless adored Barcelona chairs, and made them a centerpiece in the living room of his famous glass-box house of 1950. In their defense, he opined: “I think that comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.” In other words, anyone with taste would like them just fine.  

It’s ironic that the Modernists, who were always trumpeting functionalism, were the worst transgressors in the dreadful-furniture department. Modernist chairs might have been stunning works of art, but as objects intended for comfortable seating, they were often less functional than the most ormolu-encrusted chair of Louis XIV.

The standard metal folding chair: More comfortable
than any of the above—and not designed by an architect.
If you're interested, look up "Nathaniel Alexander".
What makes contemporary architects so hopeless at designing furniture? I think it’s the same thing that makes many of them bad at designing people-friendly buildings: an overriding concern with radical style at the expense of function and comfort. Too many architects are terrified to do something that might be construed as traditional or evolutionary, and so are willing to abandon what centuries of history has taught them about humankind for the sake of newness and novelty.

No amount of well-meaning theory or rationalization will change people’s natural habits, however.  If you like to sit on a chair sideways, or slumped down, or with your legs crossed, for example, you’re more likely to choose a chair that accommodates you than you are to adjust your behavior. Still, architects seem ever-hopeful that the power of their ideas can change the way people behave. And hey—sit up straight when you’re reading this.





Monday, September 11, 2017

DESIGNING ROOFS: Don't Get Carried Away

Can you count how many different roof types
are visible on this house?
(1890s-era Queen Anne Victorian
on Military Street in Port Huron, Michigan).
Victorians could get away with this,
but you may not be able to.
Every day I see more new traditional-style homes topped by tortured, often incomprehensible roofscapes. Variety is good.  Surprise is good.  Bedlam isn’t.

You can’t design an interesting roof simply by melding a bunch of disparate roof shapes together. Even if you’re after a picturesque effect, the elements have to be deliberately composed, and with a touch of restraint at that. Even the most flamboyant Victorian houses will, on close inspection, reveal basically simple roof shapes enlivened by carefully-controlled accents such as turrets and dormers.

If you’re into the Grand Teton school of roof design, it’s especially critical to think through your roof scheme very carefully—it’ll probably be the most visible part of the building. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of common roof shapes, followed by some suggestions and caveats for combining them:

Classic gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial home
featuring the English-style "dustpan" dormer.
•  A gable roof is the most familiar type, having two sloping planes with a triangular gable wall at each end. By contrast, a hip roof slopes on all four sides, yielding corner “hips” that climb toward the center. A flat roof has little or no pitch. A shed roof is sort of like a tilted flat roof—it slopes in one plane only.  A gambrel (commonly seen on barns) has two different pitches: steep on the sides, and shallow on top. A mansard has a very steep pitch on all four sides and a flat roof on top, often concealing an attic story inside.

Once upon a time, bargeboards
were a favorite location for ornament.
Not so much today.
A few technical terms may be useful here: Roof slope (properly called pitch) is described in inches of vertical rise over horizontal run—a “4-in-12” roof, for example, has rafters that rise 4 inches in every 12 inches of horizontal distance. The peak of a roof is called the ridge. The lower edge is called the eave. The sloping side edge on shed, gable and gambrel roofs is variously known as the rake, the verge, or the barge—pick your favorite. And now some game rules:

Mansard-roofed Victorian, circa the 1880s.
•  Limit yourself to just one or two roof shapes. For picturesque roofs, the two most compatible shapes are gables and hips; roof shapes.  For picturesque they were a favorite on late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes.  Flat roofs, too, will combine with almost every other type, though they won’t always produce an intelligible style.

Other roof shapes are much more difficult to combine successfully. Sheds, hips, gambrels and mansards will usually get into a stylistic brawl when any two are combined. If you pine for one of these shapes, it’s safest to use it exclusively. If you’re adding onto an existing building, the rules are even simpler—copy the pitch, massing and details of the roof that's already there.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Chicago, c. 1909:
Now that's a real roof overhang.
•  Use powerful proportions.  If you want overhangs, make them generous—at least two feet or so.   Use heavy barge rafters to prevent the sloping roof edge from looking papery. If you're planning  to have a fascia (a trim board behind the gutter), make it substantial as well.  Avoid fussy elements such as narrow sub-roofs and tiny dormers; they usually end up looking like Snoopy’s doghouse.  When in doubt, make elements bigger than they need to be.

•  Unless you’re absolutely sure of the effect you’re after, avoid combining different roof pitches. More often than not, varied pitches look disorganized or, worse, like a construction error. Stick to a uniform pitch, and rely on the size and arrangement of roof masses for effect.
















Tuesday, September 5, 2017

THE CULT OF MINIMALISM

Minimalist kitchen: Hey, where do you keep your Crock-Pot?
It’s no wonder architects have such a dreadful reputation among practical-minded people.
Some of us really ask for it. For example, I recently saw a so-called “kitchen” designed by a trendy British architect. Though I generally bend over backward to remain impartial, I’ve just got to come right out and say it: As a kitchen, the design was utterly ludicrous. It consisted of a few huge slabs of Carrara marble serving as counters in an otherwise flawlessly barren space finished with fanatical attention to detail. More telling, however, is what was absent. There wasn’t a single unscripted item—like a cooking utensil, maybe?—that was allowed to disfigure the absolute purity of the architect’s conception.

Minimalist "living" room:
Come on in and make yourself at home.
I was enormously pleased to learn that this kitchen was in the architect’s own home. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

The cult of minimalist architecture essentially consists of spending the maximum money possible on the least visual results. It has its roots in the International Style of the 1930s, when many architects blindly accepted Le Corbusier’s motto of  “less is more” with little independent thought and even less humor. Architects loved the pseudo-science and precision of the International Style, which for a change made them feel like intellectuals instead of artistically gifted louts.

The public, however, hated the International Style. And although it took fifty years, popular opinion finally managed to stamp it out, no thanks to us architects.

A bathroom, or a near-death experience?
(Architect: Wannemacher+Moeller GmbH.
Photography: Jose Campos)
Still, despite the International Style’s thorough trouncing in popular opinion, its ever-chic minimalist branch has refused to die. Instead, like a spoiled child, it survives on vast-budgeted commissions from the ultra-rich who, incidentally, are the only people who can afford houses no one can really live in.

While the two terms “minimalist” and “vast-budgeted” would seem to be in opposition, they aren't: As the Modernists quickly learned, the more pristine and perfect a design must be, the more it costs to build. So, given the extravagant materials and pointlessly fanatical standards of finish demanded by minimalist architects, big money is a precondition of this style.

In fact, were it not continually subsidized by the over-rich and slavishly showcased by snob magazines, minimalist architecture would quickly die of its own disconnection from reality. The reason is simple: Minimalism runs counter to the laws of entropy. Rather than being in harmony with the inevitable effects of time—wear, aging, and kids spilling Cokes—these obsessively-finished environments are predicated on time standing still. They aspire to a sort of encapsulated perfection, like a gem under a bell jar.

By the way, if you don't like minimalism in white,
here it is in gray.
We’ve already seen how well that approach worked for the Modernists: It didn’t. But at least they made a pretense of doing some social good with their every-man-equal ideals. Minimalist architecture can’t even lay claim to that.  Beneath its pretense of asceticism, it’s just an inverse version of showboating.

In the years since the last gasps of Modernism, we’ve learned (or thought we had) that real people with real lives can’t be fit into theoretical constructs, no matter how elegant or rational.

Most can’t, anyway. So, Mr. Minimalist Architect—I hope you really love your new kitchen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

WILL THE SMART HOUSE PASS THE TEST?

High tech, Victorian style: Close up view of a
leading-edge shower faucet of the era.
For the past thousand years, housing technology has advanced with all the urgency of dripping molasses. Perhaps every half-century or so, some fairly important breakthrough has come along to change the way houses are built. It happened around 1840, when heavy-timber construction methods dating back to the Middle Ages finally gave way to the lighter, 2x4-stud “balloon framing” system still in use today.

There was another big technology blip in the late 1800s, when gas lighting, telephones, central heating, indoor plumbing, and finally electricity all made their appearance in Victorian homes within the span of a few decades.

Nutone intercom "master station" of the kind fitted to
many super-high-end houses of the 1940s-1960s:
"BzzzzzzzHebbo?Bzzzzz..."
In the hundred twenty years since, there have been very few substantial changes in the way houses are built. Today, however, the incredibly swift advances in computing, combined with the second generation of internet technology—the vaunted "internet of things"—promise another revolution in housing. Systems such as communication, lighting, climate control, security and entertainment will all be linked via the web. In the resulting smart house, we’re told, the position of the drapes, the fire in the fireplace, even the temperature of your bath water will be monitored by a central brain somewhere in the Cloud, waiting to be controlled by little old you at the touch of your smartphone.

While exercising all these godlike powers over your furniture and appliances might be exhilarating to Silicon Valley propellerheads, they also engender some problems.

To begin with, I'm not at all sure I want the faceless Cloud—much less some mighty Big Brother corporation—to know how warm I like my bath water or what time I draw the drapes at night. But such privacy issues aside, it’s worth remembering that time hasn’t been kind to a lot of domestic innovations once considered state-of-the-art.

The incredible Electro Sink Center, which not only
featured push-button controls for a whole slew of
faucet functions, but also had electric (!) motors
at either end for food preparation.
No doubt you’ve strained to make out the garbled speech from those hokey and unintelligible intercoms that ultra-high-end houses boasted in the Fifties. In the early Sixties, there was the Electro Sink Center, an elaborate kitchen tap with a Jetsons-worthy control panel that dispensed cold, hot, and soapy water at the press of a button. And, it also had a built-in blender! Wow!

Is this the omniscient thermostat of the future,
or the Electro Sink Center of the future?
Only time will tell.
The Eighties brought us one of my personal high-tech favorites: A shower faucet knob containing a digital readout of the water temperature. Just so you could tell exactly what temperature "uncomfortable" is.

For their time, these features were the at the leading edge of technology. Today, they’re just charming anachronisms that draw chuckles instead of awe.

Now imagine a whole galaxy of outdated hardware built into a formerly-smart house. That could be just as embarrassing. After all, no matter how advanced the software might be, drawing drapes and opening valves necessarily requires good old-fashioned electromechanical actuators—very old-school industrial items in themselves. Their slow but inevitable failure could provide enough hijinks for a Lucy Show episode.

The key to making a house smart lies, not simply in having every doorknob and coat hanger wired up to the internet, but doing it in a way that can grow and change with today’s rapid advances in technology, whether electronic or simply physical. If you’re in the market for smart house systems, make sure both the software and the hardware can be easily updated. Like a person, no house can claim to be smart unless it keeps on learning.