Monday, June 19, 2017

ARCH-ITECTURE

Sometime around 700 BC, the Assyrians began arranging sets of wedge-shaped stones to span drainage channels. From this humble beginning came one of the most momentous developments in architecture—the arch.   

The Romans really knew how to make use of the arch.
Before the arch hit town, ancient structures such as Stonehenge used enormous stone blocks called lintels to span openings. Unfortunately, this meant you couldn’t span any distance greater than the nearest giant monolith that was handy.  

The arch was different. Instead of spanning openings with a single block of stone, it used many smaller wedge-shaped blocks stacked into a half-circle, all pushing one against the other.  Since the width of the opening was no longer limited by the size of the individual stone blocks, it became possible to span much greater distances. 

Those nutty Romans are generally credited with using the arch to its full potential. Perhaps the most elegant of their works are the gracefully arched aqueducts, sections of which still stand today. And of course the Romans also invented that pompous monument of self-congratulation, the triumphal arch. 

Even after the Roman Empire packed it in, the Romanesque architecture of the Middle Ages retained the round arch as its hallmark. Later, in the thirteenth century, a pointed arch became the basis for the incredible structural feats that distinguished the Gothic cathedral.

After traveling in Europe, the American architect H. H. Richardson became positively smitten with arches. In Richardson’s monumental stone buildings of the early 1880s, the use of a single huge masonry arch over the entranceway became his trademark. 

Although today an arch is seldom used to actually hold anything up, its dramatic potential is quite undiminished. It can still turn an ordinary opening into a dramatic focal point. Here are a few tips on designing with arches:

Moorish arch, 10th century Spain.
•  Use an arch to call attention to an important passageway. The most common interior location is between the living and dining rooms, but there are many other possibilities.Echoing the same style of arch in other locations, such as niches, fireplaces, or important windows, can help unify the design theme. Don’t go overboard, however—placing arches at every turn can become cloyingly cute, as well as expensive. A few well-placed ones will carry more impact. 
Door with Tudor arch
(courtesy Tudor Artisans)

•  Choose an arch shape that’s appropriate to the style you’re designing in. For example, most Spanish-based styles use a simple semicircular arch, while French Provincial architecture often uses a segmental arch. Chinese, Moorish, Gothic and Tudor architecture each have their own distinctive arch shapes as well. A few minutes online will help you sort these out.  

•  Mind your proportions.  Don’t bring the top of the arch too close to the ceiling or roofline—the area above it will look visually weak if there’s only a sliver of wall left showing.  In designs having multiple arches, avoid crowding the arched openings too close together, so that only spindly little columns remain between them. A column width about one-third the width of the opening is usually about right.
Mission San Miguel Archangel, San Luis Obispo County,
California. Note that the wall between the arches
is exactly as thick as it is wide.

• Lastly, allow a generous depth for the arched opening as well. If necessary, make the wall thicker to prevent the archway from looking like a paper cutout.

Monday, June 12, 2017

SENSITIVE REMODELING: Don't Destroy the Spirit of the Style

It's practically never necessary to completely gut
the interior of a fine old building.
When I was growing up in a small California town, my best friend’s family lived in a charming French Provence-style cottage built around 1935.  It was beautifully constructed, with a steep roof of heavy shakes, tall multi-paned casement windows, and tiled porches. The chimney was surmounted by a handsome pair of clay chimney pots. Inside the house were pegged oak floors, coffered ceilings, mahogany trim, and a good number of arched passageways and niches.

My friend’s house stood in the way of a high-rise bank project, and was condemned under eminent domain laws.  Rather than being torn down, however, someone bought the house with the intention of moving it to another site and renovating it.

Totally gutting an interior makes it easy on contractors
who want to run plumbing, wiring, and ductwork—
but often to the home's permanent detriment.
Sadly, this seemingly happy resolution turned out to be a fate worse than demolition. Like a person, every house has a spirit, a personality imparted to it by the details and quirks of its design. Take those away, and you’ve got what amounts to a stylistic lobotomy. My friend’s house became a case in point.

The new owner wanted to modify the floor plan, so he stripped the interior of its plasterwork, obliterating the archways, coffered ceilings, and mahogany trim in one stroke.  The tile porches succumbed to an inept attempt at dry-rot repair, as did much of the exterior stucco.  As a coup de grace, the marvelously shaggy, moss-grown shake roof was stripped off and replaced with two-dimensional composition shingle.

It may look bad now, but it's perfectly feasible to repair
an interior in this condition without ripping down
the whole place...
By the time the new owner finished this “renovation”, not a scrap remained of the home’s original character. Nor did he manage to add any spirit of his own—the replacement materials he used were of the bargain-warehouse variety you might find in any modern tract house.  

I’m sure the owner didn’t do these things maliciously. He must have admired something about the house, or he wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place. But that only redoubles my wonderment at his remarkably careless renovation. He should have taken the time to learn about the house’s style, and what made it special.

The lesson here is that, as far as remodeling or renovation are concerned, there’s a definite point of no return. When too many charismatic features or idiosyncrasies are stripped away, a house loses the spirit that makes it special.

...and the result will be superior, because you simply can't
capture the feeling of an interior like this one
with modern-day materials.
There are some simple rules of thumb to help prevent such stylistic disasters. In almost no case should renovation require fundamental changes such as moving whole sections of bearing wall or eliminating major windows. Seldom should the interior ever need to be completely gutted. Both of these actions unavoidably obliterate interior finish and trim, which are always integral to the style of a house, and are more often than not impossible to replace in kind.

I’ve already expended thousands of words in prior essays arguing against changes to roofing materials and exterior finish. Often, such changes are made to keep up with some perceived idea of what’s “modern”, but usually, within a few years, they only succeed in making a house look even more dated.

Aside from their devastating esthetic damage, such drastic modifications simply don’t make economic sense. If you really want a brand-new house, it's better to just buy one in the first place.

Monday, June 5, 2017

ADDING A BUMPOUT: A More Spacious Look For Relatively Small Bucks


Sometimes a bay window is enough to give a room
 the illusion of more space. This is one of the
cheapest and simplest kinds of bumpout.
People often ask me how they can add just a few feet of space to small bedrooms and the like without spending the inheritance. Alas, adding on small areas usually isn’t cost effective, since enclosing a small volume costs more than enclosing a lot. In certain cases, however, there’s a simple way to do it:  It’s called a “popout” or “bumpout”.

A bumpout is really just an overgrown bay window that extends the full width of a room or nearly so. It’s less expensive than an ordinary addition because it’s tucked beneath the existing roof overhang. By sparing the high cost of roof modifications, a simple bumpout can often be built for less than $10,000.  

Cramped bedrooms are the simplest and most common candidates for a bumpout. Tight kitchens or breakfast rooms can also benefit, but beware: Adding a bumpout in these locations will probably cost more because of the additional plumbing and wiring that must be rerouted.

This bumpout probably doesn't
encroach on the building setback,
since it doesn't project any further
than the existing house.
But as for you, check your zoning.
Before you consider adding a bumpout, check your local zoning laws and make sure it won’t be encroaching on the “setback”, the area of your property you’re not allowed to build on. While the roof overhang is generally allowed to project into the setback, the rest of the house isn’t, so don’t assume that a projecting roof gives you carte blanche to add on beneath it.  

If your zoning checks out, and if you have a reasonably broad roof overhang, you may be able to push the room’s wall out and capture two or more feet of extra space beneath the eaves. Although the new wall can be bumped out all the way to the back side of the gutter or fascia, it’s better to leave a few inches of overhang to preserve a small shadowline.  It’ll also reduce the likelihood of leaks.

In some instances, you may not even need a new foundation beneath your bumpout.  If the floor joists in the room you want to expand run perpendicular to the outside wall, and if there’ll be at least 18” of clearance to the ground beneath them, you may be able to “sister” new joists onto the existing ones in order to cantilever the bumpout beyond the foundation wall.  

Top-quality materials make for a
beautifully-integrated bumpout.
The foundation, however, makes
for a very expensive one.
If the joists run parallel to the outside wall, or if there’s less than 18” clearance to the ground outside, you’ll probably need a conventional foundation beneath the bumpout. That means appreciable extra cost, so ask an architect or contractor if this route will be worthwhile.

Since the bumpout will usually be very conspicuous from outside, it should be carefully integrated into your home’s architecture. The exterior finish is especially important. Either repeat your home's existing finish on the bumpout, or use a high-quality accent material such as wood siding, shingle, or whatever best suits the style of your home. Don’t just slap some bargain-basement plywood; it’ll look tacked-on and will hurt your home’s resale value. Go rattle your architect’s cage if you need design help.
 Whoah—these wimpy brackets don't
look visually strong enough to
support this bumpout.
Think, man, think!
 
On the interior, the floor material should extend from the existing room into the bumpout without any obvious change in floor level.  The ceiling will have to be lower inside the bumped-out area because of the roof’s slope, and because a beam will usually be required to support the roof where the wall has been removed. If the room you're expanding has a flat ceiling, it’s generally best to soffit or “box in” the bumpout ceiling rather than following the sloping underside of the roof.  The soffit can also contain recessed lighting if appropriate.

Finally, because of structural reasons, the bumpout will cost less if it’s slightly narrower than the room, rather than full width.  Combined with the dropped ceiling, it may also look better—it’ll give more of an alcove effect.







Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BAD TRAD: Designing With Traditional Details

Traditional, or a grab-bag of cliches?
Ironically, one of the downfalls of modern architecture was its very simplicity.  The designs of brilliant architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were rational, austere, and carefully calculated down to the last detail. These deceptively simple works made it seem as if anyone could design a Modernist building.

As a result, just about every bozo tried. A lot of architects, contractors, and homeowners copied the superficial elements of Modernism—stark white walls,  flat roofs, and acres of glass—but flunked out on the rest.  The resulting phalanx of “Modern” designs, some merely mediocre and some exquisitely horrible, was largely to blame for Modernism’s decline during the 1970s.

No classical column in history was ever
piled up in this manner.
Unfortunately, much of today’s co-called “traditional architecture” is going the same route. People are propping some Roman columns here and there, tossing in a couple of arched windows, and calling the result “traditional”. But like good Modernism, authentic traditionalism can’t be randomly culled from a grab-bag of cliches. All the columns, arches and urns in Tuscany won’t ensure a successful design unless they’re arranged in a meaningful way.

And this, alas, demands a little homework. If you don’t want to hire an architect to sort out the fine points for you, try the next best thing: before you undertake your project, comb the internet, or even—gasp—look in a book, to find as many authentic examples of your favorite style as you can (by "authentic" I mean actual historic examples, not some real estate promoter's wet dream). Make a note of your special favorites.

Or proportioned like this.
Now comes the homework part. Rather than simply admiring the examples, be more analytical. Ask yourself exactly what you like about the style. Is it the building’s lightness or its mass?  Its width or its height?  The shape of the roof, or perhaps the breadth of its overhang?  

Look a bit closer yet.  Do the walls of your favorite examples look thick or thin? Are the windows deep-set, or flush with the surface of the wall? Are the railings open or solid? Is the chimney tapered or straight? Are the stucco corners sharp or softly rounded?  Is the color uniform or mottled?  Such characteristics are can be crucial to recreating an authentic traditional design. If it’s authenticity you’re after, these little details are the key to re an authentic traditional design.

This is what happens to "traditional" design
when you skimp on the details.
Pay special attention to design features such as columns, brackets, quoins and the like—they’re notorious boobytraps for casual designers. Note where they’re used and, just as importantly, where they aren’t. Note the spacing and relative proportion of such elements too—if you cut corners on these elements, your design may look "watered down".

Isn’t this just copycat architecture?  In a word, yes. And there are legions of architects out there anxious to provide more innovative design solutions. But if hiring an architect or other design professional is out of the question, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by authentic examples of traditional architecture.  Being guided by the past is, after all, what tradition is all about.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BRICK: One Solid Subject

Today, a nice solid subject:  Brick. A professor of mine called it the Sara Lee of building materials.  “Nobody doesn’t like it,” he said.

Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the long, low proportions
of Roman brick, as famously found in his Robie House
in Chicago (1909).
Brick goes back a long, long way. One reason for brick’s popularity is its timelessness.  It was used as early as 3000 BC in settlements of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, although back then it was simply baked in the sun rather than fired in a kiln.

Later, the Romans kept their brickworks running overtime to supply materials for their burgeoning empire. They preferred an unusually long, flat brick which, two thousand years later,  Frank Lloyd Wright decided was the cat’s meow for his Prairie houses. We still refer to that shape as Roman brick.

Victorian era polychrome brickwork in England.
(Courtesy @tuckpointer)
In the sixth century AD, those fun-lovin’ Byzantines got really creative, using brick laid in decorative patterns to form their charismatic architecture. And during the late nineteenth century, the Victorians used both elaborate patterning and color in their brickwork. They were the undisputed Brickmeisters.

Brick is still available in a huge range of colors, and quite a few shapes as well. It’s also more durable than ever—properly fired, brick will actually outlast many kinds of stone, because its surface is harder and less porous.

That’s all dandy.  But in many parts of the country—like mine—there's that nasty earthquake thing, right? Not necessarily. Brick is too fine a material to be ruled out by seismic worries alone. In residential design, the trick is to avoid using it for structural walls, which require costly reinforcement, and to use it as a nonstructural veneer instead.

Veneer brick: some looks real, some not so real. This project
looks pretty promising.
There are two ways to go here. A veneer wall of full-sized brick can be secured to the structural wall behind it using ties. Or, special thin-brick veneer units can be adhered over structural wood framing. The latter is simpler, cheaper, and much lighter. Most of the big brick manufacturers make thin-brick veneer units in the same range of colors they make full-sized brick. A number of companies that make artificial stone veneers also produce thin-brick products of varying authenticity.

Four basic kinds of brick bond.
Brick’s greatest design property is its modularity.  It’s a small unit, so it can be used to produce arches, curved walls, and all kinds of unusual shapes. And because it’s produced in so many colors and types, it has limitless potential for creating decorative patterns. Speaking of which, here’s some bricklaying terminology you can bore your friends with:

Flemish bond utilizing two colors of
brick (John W. Bush House,
Buffalo, New York.
Architects: Lansing & Beierl, 1903)
In a brick wall, each layer of brick is called a “course”. A brick laid with its long side exposed is called a “stretcher.  When the short side is exposed, it’s called a “header”.  The arrangement of headers and stretchers is called “bond”.  There are a number of traditional bonds, to wit:
     
A wall of stretchers staggered in the normal fashion is called “running bond”.  When there’s a row of headers in every sixth course, it’s called “common bond”. Alternating courses of headers and stretchers are called “English bond”.  Staggered courses of alternating headers and stretchers are called Flemish bond, and when used in combination with two or more colors, can produce various lovely patterns.

The strangest of all bonds is called “stack bond”, and predictably, it’s a Moderrnist invention: it has all the bricks stacked one above the other rather than staggered, so the wall has an ultra-rational gridded look, but much less strength than running bond. Even in 3000 BC, bricklayers knew better than that.  






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 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
1831-1912:
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 he has 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

VICTORIAN DESIGN WAS FAR FROM HAND-CRAFTED

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.