Monday, April 27, 2015

U.S. VERSUS CHINA: Who's Really Greener?

Look familiar? The "new"
dual-flush toilet has been
common in China for
almost two decades.
The other day, a radio program on green technology once again reminded me how out of touch we Americans are with the green movement across the globe. The announcer was talking--with the usual condescension--about “bringing a waterless toilet to China,” as if the Chinese were primitives incapable of figuring out how to save water, let alone build their own toilets.

This ignorance with respect to China’s environmental policies explains much about why the United States is falling behind as other nations strive to develop their green technologies. We arrogantly assume that we lead the world in this regard, when in fact we’re rapidly becoming third-rate.

Americans are scarcely aware of this state of affairs because both our government and our media seldom miss a chance to bash the Chinese over their environmental record. Yet this serves mainly to divert attention from the lagging state of our own green technology and the sclerotic legislators who are to blame for it. The truth is that, despite relentlessly negative press, China is already well positioned to overtake us in environmentally progressive policies. 

Electric bikes: A fixture on Chinese streets
for the last fifteen years.
Seen any of them in the U.S. yet?
Nor is this a recent development. When I first visited Shanghai in 1994, for example, solar hot water heaters were already a prominent feature of virtually every apartment block on the skyline. Electric bicycles, which remain all but unknown in the U.S. to this day, have long been a fixture in China’s city streets. And, oh yes--water-conserving dual-flush toilets were common in China many years before they were introduced in our own country.
The Chinese enthusiastically adopted high-efficiency lighting two decades ago, not only in commercial applications but also in their homes. This should come as no surprise, since China is among the world’s leading manufacturers of lighting. 

The Nanjing subway: Clean, quiet,
and with stops announced in English.
Moreover, the more modern technology of light emitting diodes or LEDs, which is only slowly making headway in the U.S., is already widely used in China for freeway and street lighting, traffic signals, and countless other applications. The LED is an American invention, but once again it’s the Chinese who are making the most of it.

As for gaining independence from foreign oil, many Chinese cities are busily upgrading their public transportation systems or even building new ones from scratch. Not long ago, for example, I had the pleasure of riding the Nanjing subway, and the sad truth is that no existing American subway system can approach it. The trains and stations are both attractive and immaculate. Electronic displays in each car show the train’s progress in real time, and stops are automatically (and intelligibly) announced in both Chinese and English.

Shanghai freeways are lit by LEDs—
an American invention. Why aren't ours?
In another eye-opening experience last year, I rode the new high-speed rail line from downtown Shanghai to my sometime-home in Suzhou. The formerly two-hour-plus trip clocked in at twenty-five minutes portal to portal, and cost me about seven dollars.  
This is the nation we’re supposed to impress with waterless toilets?

In the last thirty years, the United States has become ever more arrogant and complacent regarding its role in a changing world. And so very ironically like the Communist systems of old, our government seems more interested in deriding the progress of other nations than in taking positive steps of our own. Perhaps America really does need another Sputnik moment to regain its vast potential. China is liable provide it.

Monday, April 20, 2015


The town I live in--Berkeley, California--is the capital of shaggy wooden houses. Around here, you could get stoned for saying you don’t like natural wood exteriors. So I won’t say that. But what thirty years of practicing architecture have taught me is this: Natural wood is a fabulous finish inside a house, where it’s protected. But as an exterior wall finish, left to the elements--forget it.

Brand-new natural wood is gorgeous—
no question about it.  But check back in ten years
and see how it's doing.
The reason exposed wood--whether left natural or given a transparent finish--is still so popular on building exteriors is that it looks absolutely stunning when it’s brand new. That’s exactly how most people see it in tony design magazine photos, and so that’s how they think it will look on their own homes. Alas, the reality is that, after a few years, wood is on a one-way trip to Shabbyville. 

I can paraphrase the lumber industry’s stock reply to this assertion, and it goes something like this:: 

“A premium material such as wood needs proper maintenance to keep its beauty, and anyone willing to invest in genuine wood should also be prepared to keep it maintained in top condition.” 

The trouble is, over time--after the initial ten-year honeymoon, let’s say--very few people continue to provide the kind of painstaking maintenance that’s required to protect natural wood subjected to the weather. And once that maintenance level has slipped even a little, a wood exterior is already on track to inevitable decline. 
Thanks to the depletion of old-growth forests,
the quality of natural wood products
 such as shingles and siding isn't getting any better—
but neither are they getting any cheaper.

 Compounding the problem,, the quality of solid lumber in general has declined during the last few decades. Therefore, unless you’re prepared to pay astronomical prices for carriage-trade grades of lumber, a new wood installation will have an even shorter life span than in the past.

Contrast the ongoing maintenance headache of natural wood with the nominal attention required by that longtime bad boy of building finishes, stucco. Over the last sixty years, stucco’s good reputation has been sullied by lookalike mid-century housing tracts such a Levittown, not to mention Malvina Reynolds singing about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Yet stucco is both cheaper and far more durable than wood. It’s also “plastic” in the best architectural sense--it can assume just about any form you can imagine. It can also be permanently colored, doing away with the need to repaint every few years. An exterior finish that can hold up for a century or so with practically no maintenance--not even painting--is about as good as it gets. 

Natural wood siding with flawless modernist joinery.
It's a beautiful house—but man, are you asking for it.
As an architect, I’ve learned that it’s pure folly to specify fragile finishes and then expect people to maintain them forever after. Nor should a homeowner be condemned to this kind of maintenance schedule, no matter how beautiful the finish. So I almost never use natural wood on exteriors any more. There are exceptions--if the timbers are substantial enough, for example, wood can’t be beat for outdoor structures such as pergolas and the like. But for an architecturally interesting finish that’ll last pretty much forever, I’ll take ticky-tacky anytime.

Ouch! Who threw that rock?

Monday, April 13, 2015


In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger ain’t always better--at least not when it comes to our houses. 

My friend's dot-com millions bought him
a home much like this one. 
This truth became even more obvious to me than after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower middle class suddenly became a dotcom millionaire in the late Nineties. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community just outside Silicon Valley. Now, you’d think this would be the proverbial dream come true for most people. But like Citizen Kane at Xanadu, my friend always seemed uncomfortable shuffling around all those echoey formal rooms in his so-called “home”. 
Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed, or to a tiny storage room that had the size and feel of a normal tract house bedroom—probably much like the one he'd grown up in

Not surprisingly, this made me wonder anew about the use or value of all the rest of all the huge spaces that made up the bulk of the place. The problem with really big rooms is that we human beings are naturally ill at ease inhabiting them. Our primitive brains still feel more secure, and hence more comfortable, in spaces we can traverse in a few steps. 
In the past, the huge public rooms of mansions served mainly to flaunt their owner’s wealth and good taste--though these attributes don’t necessarily go together. Yet even the wealthiest masters of such houses carried on day-to-day life in a much more modest suite of rooms elsewhere in the place. Living in some huge, drafty hall, regardless of how sumptuous the decoration, was no more comfortable then than it is now.

I grew up in an old, 900 square foot Colonial Bungalow.
The real one was demolished long ago, but this house is
 pretty close. Although we were a family of five,
it never occurred to us to feel crowded.
Even now, in the wake of the Great Recession, Americans are only grudgingly relinquishing our thirty-year obsession with bloated house, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before. Around the mid-nineteenth century, houses of every class, from mansions to worker’s cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from under eight feet during Colonial times to twelve feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated. Victorian kitchens alone grew into complex warrens of three or four rooms. Yet, rather than making their owners happier, these vast houses instead provoked a backlash—especially among women, who typically got stuck with the job of keeping them up. This disenchantment with bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early twentieth century, with their credo of smaller-and-simpler-is-better.

I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in such a house—a 900 square foot Colonial bungalow—and it never crossed our minds that we were crowded or deprived in any way. In fact, my family remembers this little house more fondly than any other, regardless of size. 

We could learn a great deal from these downsized bungalows of a century ago, if only we found the wisdom to Think Small once in awhile. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

WHICH WINDOW? Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we talked about choosing replacement windows that suit the style of your house—whether the type is casement, double hung, slider, or something more exotic. This time, we’ll look at the different window materials available, and which choice is best for your project.

First, however, comes the fundamental question about window replacement: Does it really make sense for you? The answer, in many cases, is no. If you’re replacing your windows solely to lower your utility bills, for example, forget it. Energy loss through windows comprises only a small fraction of overall energy loss throughout the house, and you’ll be far better off investing your money in additional attic insulation or even, in many cases, a more efficient furnace.
Low initial cost has made vinyl (PVC) windows
 the default standard for most new home construction.
However, they're not always the best aesthetic choice.

Even if you think your current windows are in terrible shape, you may wish to get an estimate on repairing rather than replacing them. This is especially advisable if you’re lucky enough to have a prewar home with original wood windows--in this case, replacement windows will almost certainly detract from its market value. Bear in mind that window replacement is generally an iffy investment, since it has a very long payback period. It’s also one that can radically change your home’s appearance--often for the worse.

If you’ve determined that replacement is for you, however, here’s a rundown of the different window materials commonly available. Remember, we’re not talking about the window type--double hung, slider, and so forth--but actual material.
The slender proportions of high-quality aluminum
windows has long made them the favorite choice
 for Modernist home designs, including
mid-century designs such as Ranchers.
(Photo: Benjamin Benschneider, The Seattle Times)

• Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride plastic, to be specific) is currently the ubiquitous material for replacement windows, but that alone doesn’t make it an obvious choice. The moderate price can be attractive, but the jury is still out on vinyl’s durability over the long haul. What’s more, the thick, doughy frames typical of these windows are inappropriate to many home styles, and the slim choice of colors makes them easy to spot as replacements. 

• Aluminum windows are still available, but no longer carry the bargain-bargain price you may remember from years past. There’s a good reason for this, however: They’re now better built and far more efficient than the cheapie units of the 1960s. If your house was originally built with aluminum windows--most postwar houses from the mid-1950s through the 1980s were--there’s no question that new-generation aluminum windows will be your best aesthetic choice for replacement.

Wood windows remain the best replacement
choice for pre-World War II traditional homes.
Vinyl windows are a good second option.
• Wood windows, whether standard or clad, remain the premium choice for replacement. Clad windows, which variously have an external shell of aluminum or fiber glass to protect the wood elements from weathering, are represented as doing away with maintenance headaches. However, unlike plain wood windows, they can’t be easily repaired or refinished if they’re damaged. You’re also permanently stuck with the color of cladding you choose. Hence, you should weigh the premium you’ll pay for clad windows against the occasional headache of repainting the standard wood version. Be prepared for sticker shock with either product, however--these windows are truly a lifetime investment. 

As long as your budget allows it, the simplest rule of thumb for choosing window material is to replace like for like--aluminum with aluminum, wood with wood. In ten years, after the latest window fad has come and gone, you’ll be glad you did.

Monday, March 30, 2015

WHICH WINDOW? Part One of Two Parts

I recently came across a nice mid-century California Rancher that had been “upgraded” with new windows and doors. The trouble was, every single replacement evoked a different architectural style, none of which, alas, was appropriate for a Rancher. 

Perfectly nice, but a long way from mid-century.
The living room had originally had an aluminum window that was gracefully divided into three parts, but its replacement was a single huge, doughy-looking vinyl picture window. An adjacent sliding patio door, on the other hand, had been swapped out for a vinyl one with fake Colonial-style divided lites. Another nearby window had the now-inescapable Craftsman-style divided lites with crisscrossed corners. To top it off, the original clean-lined Rancher front doors had been supplanted by a pair of faux-Victorian leaded glass jobs with an ornate floral motif. 

This kind of incoherent jumble is the architectural equivalent of wearing striped pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and a houndstooth jacket. They just don’t work together.

Prairie yes; mid-century, no. 
Different styles of windows unavoidably evoke different architectural eras, both traditional and modern, so it’s important to choose windows that complement rather than contradict the style of your house. Here’s a quick rundown of which windows go with which style:

• Casement windows are probably the oldest type of operable windows, and their use dates back many centuries if not millennia. This long pedigree suits them not only to almost all period revival home styles except Victorians, but also to postwar styles ranging from Bauhaus to contemporary. Although the proportions of the individual casement units are tall and narrow, they can be ganged (combined side-by-side) into broad visual “ribbons”, as Frank Lloyd Wright often did in his Prairie style work. 
Top it off with a Victorian-style front entry,
and a formerly clean-lined mid-century house
becomes an architectural ragbag.

• Double-hung windows are typically found in Colonial, Victorian and inter war home styles, and have relatively tall, narrow proportions. Hence, they can look very strange indeed on postwar homes, which typically emphasize horizontal lines and broad proportions. It’s find to replace existing double hungs with new double hungs, but otherwise, avoid them. 

• Horizontal sliding windows are a hallmark of 1950s and 1960s design. Usually made of aluminum, with delicate frames and broad proportions, they’re well suited to the low-slung California Rancher styles that dominated this era. Hence, arbitrarily replacing sliders with other window types is generally a bad idea. In particular, substituting “modern” vinyl windows for aluminum ones is, ironically, just as misguided as the common mid-century practice of replacing Victorian wood windows with “modern” aluminum ones.

• Awning and hopper windows (awnings are hinged at the top and open out; hoppers are hinged at the bottom and open in) are both products of mid-century modernism. As such, they look quite alien on any home style predating World War II, and indeed on neo-traditional late century styles as well. 

If replacing your existing windows makes sense--and as we’ll find out next time, it often doesn’t-- you’ll get the best aesthetic results by replacing like for like. In other words, replace casements with casements, sliders with sliders, and so on. Just as important, don’t arbitrarily add decorative divided lites or other features if the originals didn’t have them. That way, you can be sure the style of your windows won’t fight the style of your house. 

Next time: Okay, we’ve settled on the style--now which material?

Monday, March 23, 2015


The single greatest misconception in architecture is the idea that we build in three dimensions, when in fact we build in four. And any architect who deems to neglect that fourth dimension—time—does so at his own peril. 
Try as one might, it's hard to find a more shopworn
example of Modernism than Corbusier's
Palace of the Assembly in Chandigarh, India.

The modernists of the twentieth century are already infamous for this oversight, to the detriment of their legacies. Many of our most celebrated modernist works--Mies’s Scharoun Residence, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Gropius’s Bauhaus buildings--would be in a sorry state indeed if not for the constant and fastidious curation they now receive. Even so, they remain most impressive when seen in the handful of historical photographs that first wowed the world eighty-odd years ago. It’s these old images, not the pampered works themselves, that remain the most compelling argument for Modernism’s perfectionist aesthetic. 

Among the pinnacles of Postmodernism,
the Best Products showrooms—there were once
many—provided belly laughs, but no lasting
architectural lessons. This one stood in Houston.
Move away from acknowledged masterpieces to the second and third tier of modernist works, however, and the story is different. Here, the high-finish industrial materials beloved by the modernists show the same confounding inability to patinate over time, but without benefit of landmark-caliber maintenance. Under these less rarefied conditions, the modernist’s beloved snow-white marble is soon stained and dirty; his flawlessly smooth stucco riddled with cracks, his sparkling glass canopy littered with leaves and rubbish. Check out a few modernist buildings in your own town, and see if they still exude Corbusian purity. 

Addison Mizner's Spanish Revival work in
Palm Beach, Florida, built almost
ninety years ago, has survived beautifully.
Mizner understood the fourth dimension.
Alas, the International Style modernists weren’t the only architects oblivious to the fourth dimension. In their consuming search for irony, the Postmodernists used intentionally diagrammatic design, chintzy materials, and pointedly tawdry detailing. The greater irony is that in doing so, most managed to seal their own dooms as far as timeless building was concerned. A glance at the numerous moldering Postmodernist works in cities large and small will quickly confirm this fact. 

Architects of the last two decades have made many of the same errors, though by a different route: they built substantially and expensively, but used a palette of demanding finishes--highly polished metals and stone, complex paint schemes, acres of plate glass--that make their works both costly to maintain and highly susceptible to the indignities of daily use. 

If anything promises to improve the architect’s cognizance of time and nature, and their inevitable impact on our best efforts, it may be the growing prominence of the green movement. With its refreshingly broad insights into how much energy we invest in creating building materials, putting them together, maintaining them, and then tearing them apart again, green architecture has the potential to change our entire architectural aesthetic. 

We'll see how green design stands the test of time.
Demonstration green home, Bornholm, Denmark.
(Copyright Kristoffer Tejlgaard and Benny Jepson,
the architects).
For many architects, the ideal of beauty has meant using precisely those materials and design details that evoke the greatest possible separation between man and nature. This school of design routinely demands costly, highly finished, and technically complex materials assembled in as  flawless a manner possible. 

 The green architect, by contrast, may well include materials that have already lived one lifetime, making this usual standard of perfection quite moot. After all, time--that most exacting of judges--has already proven them worthy. 

Monday, March 16, 2015


Last time, we talked about the various types of garage doors found in older homes. This time, we’ll look at the modern standard for garage doors, along with some tips on choosing the right style for your home’s architecture.

Interior view of sectional overhead door, today's
default standard. Unlike older one-piece doors,
they're very kind to garage door openers.
Today’s most popular door type by far is the sectional overhead door, which typically consists of four or five horizontally-hinged sections that roll up into the garage ceiling on a curving track. There’s little doubt that this is the most easily operated garage door design since the Victorian biparting door--a fact that explains its wide use as a replacement for older types. 

First, a quick rundown on sizes: Single-bay doors are typically eight or nine feet wide by seven feet high, while double-bay doors are typically sixteen feet wide (occasionally eighteen) by seven feet high. Double-bay doors are mainly found on broadly-proportioned home styles such as California Ranchers. 

Well-chosen garage doors complement this contemporary
California Bungalow-inspired home style.
(Courtesy of Roberts Garage Door Professionals)
On the other hand, a bland, unadorned garage door will look very strange on a traditional home style. The best approach is to reflect the same general level of detail that’s found on your home: If you have a traditional-style house with lots of exterior moldings and trim, then a moderately ornate garage door will probably look fine. However, if it’s a relatively clean mid-century home style, you’re better off choosing a simpler door with a plain plywood finish.

Contemporary carriage-style garage door—
yes, it can be fitted with an operator.
So if you have the real thing, don't get rid of it!
Pre-Depression era homes, which were originally fitted with either biparting or bypassing garage doors, present a special case. The horizontal proportions found on most stock sectional doors, whether plain of fancy, look foreign on houses of this era. Door manufacturers do offer super high-end designs that attempt to hide the sectional door’s telltale horizontal joints, mimicking old-fashioned bypassing or biparting doors. But the prices of these doors can be astronomical, sometimes ranging into five figures. 

Therefore, if the original doors are still in place, you’re probably better off reconditioning rather than replacing them. And regardless of what naysayers tell you, an automatic garage door opener can indeed be installed on biparting doors (they’re even occasionally installed on the inner leaf of bypassing doors). 

No filigree please: Clean-lined aluminum garage door
is an excellent fit for this modern design.
Lastly, a word about windows: Most sectional door manufacturers offer optional glass transom lites for their doors, as well as a whole array of muntin (divider) patterns to fit over them. Although additional light in the garage is always welcome, choose these window designs carefully. The now over-familiar sunburst pattern, for example, is very well suited to colonial style houses, but not to much else. Likewise, arch-topped windows are probably not the thing for a California Rancher. 

Take your time choosing the right style of garage door for your home--after all, it’s the biggest, baddest door you’ve got.