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.

Monday, March 9, 2015


What’s the biggest, baddest door in your house? Nope--not the front door. In keeping with America’s automotive obsession, it’s much more likely to be the garage door. And though architects and builders like to pay lip service to the importance of the front door, in practice, it’s often the garage door that’s more conspicuous.

This wasn’t always the case. Before World War II, the front door was the undisputed focal point of any house, while the garage was pointedly hidden away at a back corner of the property. In the booming postwar economy of the 1950s, though, Americans finally attained Herbert Hoover’s pre-Depression promise of “two cars in every garage”--and then some. Our houses haven’t been the same since.  

Classic early-20th century biparting doors
with strap hinges and the familiar crossbuck
motif to prevent sagging.
Thanks to the countless Americans who still equate the number of cars they own with their value as human beings, multi-car garages have become status symbols. No wonder garages are the most prominent feature in so many modern tract homes.

As my many prior critiques of our autocentric society might suggest, I don’t like the notion that doorways for cars are more important than doorways for people. Still, I’m a pragmatist, and since in-your-face garages remain a reality for the present, we may as well try to make them look decent.

Bypassing garage doors. These are
a contemporary example, courtesy
of Real Carriage Door Co., Inc.

Let’s start with a look at the most common types of garage doors. The very earliest was naturally enough derived from the simple paired swinging doors used on Victorian-era carriage houses (technically known as biparting doors). Many old houses predating the Depression still use these doors, and other than needing a good bit of  clearance in which to swing, they serve perfectly well. Many of these old timers are quite charming, featuring recessed panels, decorative battens, or windows. Nevertheless, I see many homeowners ripping out perfectly good biparting doors because they think they can’t be fitted with a garage door opener. Well, they can--so if that’s why you want to get rid of yours, please don’t.

With the elaborate period revival styles of the 1920s, garage doors got so heavy and ornate that side-mounted hinges were no longer up to carrying their weight. This brought about a widespread switch to bypassing doors, which are suspended from a heavy overhead track and slide past each other. This arrangement, which was derived from barn door hardware, could accommodate doors weighing up to four hundred pounds, and had the added plus of not requiring clearance for the door to swing into. Over the years, of course, neglect and lack of maintenance can make bypassing doors hard to operate, but this problem can often be remedied just by cleaning and lubricating the track.

Typical mid-century one-piece overhead door
with abstract ornament.
Cheaper, one-piece overhead doors superseded bypassing doors after World War II, and they’re typically found on all styles of postwar houses in both single and double widths. Since most such doors were hastily site-built to complement the style of the house, they’re not as durable as modern factory built doors. What’s more, their spring-counterbalanced hinges can be very balky when coupled with a garage door opener, not to mention downright dangerous if improperly adjusted.

Next week, we'll look at the modern default standard for garage doors,along with some tips on choosing the right design.

Monday, March 2, 2015


One Sunday a while back, I dropped by an open house that had just been remodeled and put on the market. It was a speculative renovation, otherwise known as a “flip”. In keeping with the usual modus operandi of such projects, the builder had refitted the modest mid-Sixties Rancher with shiny granite counter tops, gridded plastic windows, glossy prefinished flooring, and so on. 

For obvious reasons, this isn't an actual photo
of the living room I'm describing.
In any case, this one has more windows.
This familiar slate of so-called upgrades, as painfully predictable as it was, wasn’t the real problem, though. The builder had also made some heavy-handed changes to the home’s original floor plan, evidently hell-bent on pumping it up to the overblown market standards of recent years. And here he made a classic amateur mistake: So busy was he swaddling the place in glitzy finishes that he completely overlooked a number of eye-popping flaws in his “improved” design.

The worst of these errors was the layout of the entry and living room--probably the very last place you want to screw up a house. The builder, convinced that a really huge living area would impress potential buyers, had combined the former living room and master bedroom into one gigantic rectangular space with--drum roll please--no windows at all. Oh, the front door (which led directly into the room, another no-no) did have some glass in it, but this only captured the feeble light from a shadowy, roofed-over porch. Rather than the effect of extravagant space the builder was after, his living area felt more like the rumpus room in a church basement. 

You don't have to go crazy with
glass, but for heaven's sake,
at least allow people to see outside.
(Image courtesy of
 Interior Gallery Design)
Compounding the error, he provided an elaborately-appointed kitchen completely open to both the living and dining rooms--but also lacking any windows. In fact, the only direct light in the whole vast space came from a single sliding glass door in the dining ell.

For the builder to presume that his open floor plan would miraculously allow him to make do with the light from a few distant windows was a blunder of epic proportions. For one, building codes have minimum requirements for window size in habitable rooms, and I doubt that he satisfied even those rock-bottom standards. 

More importantly, though, windows have a purpose beyond just providing adequate light--otherwise we could fit every home with artificial lighting and call it a day. When humans occupy an enclosed space, they have a very clear psychological need to see natural light, not to speak of some sense of the world outside. Hence, any purported living area that lacks windows inevitably feels oppressive and claustrophobic.

The lesson is simple: If you’re remodeling, don’t miss the forest for the trees. Lavish materials and fastidious detailing are fine, but by no stretch of the imagination can they compensate for a fundamentally defective floor plan. Therefore, approach any architectural problem from the broad-brush aspects that really matter--the things that will make the place livable, like solar orientation, circulation, and convenience--and satisfy these fundamentals before fretting over details of color and finish. Otherwise you may end up as this builder did: With a very fancy mess, but a mess nonetheless.

Monday, February 23, 2015

LE CORBUSIER: Order Above All Else

“Architecture,” pronounced the famed modern architect Le Corbusier, “is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” 

And what a preposterous statement that is, even coming from this supremely dogmatic thinker. Astonishingly, Le Corbusier’s definition manages to overlook the single operative purpose of every proper work of architecture in history--that of enclosing interior volume, or in plain words, providing shelter. The “learned game” Le Corbusier describes is much more akin to sculpture than to architecture, though no one seemed willing to call the great man’s bluff at the time.
Pessac worker housing: Le Corbusier
putting "function and objects in order."

If Le Corbusier’s bizarre definition managed to neglect architecture’s central purpose, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Of all the great modernists--and despite his many addled theoretical excursions, he was certainly that--his works have proven the most susceptible to the critical lens of retrospect. He was perhaps the greatest modernist to see architecture as a social tonic, and the architect as a social engineer who should be dispatched to change human behavior rather than accomodate it. 

Pessac today, after being personalized by its owners.
“To create architecture is to put in order,” Le Corbusier further proclaimed, betraying a notable nonchalance for the human variable. “Put what in order? Function and objects.” 

Yet the Corbusian style, with its fastidious oranization and near-supernatural purity of form, proved to be an aesthetic ideal whose underpinnings seldom held up under the messy rigor of real-life use. The wealthy owners of his villas naturally deferred to his aesthetic no matter the cost, but the less heavily vested users of his buildings----the very bourgeoisie he hoped to educate and rescue from their traditional lifestyles--did not always react so favorably. Time after time, Le Corbusier’s public works were famously subverted by their users.

The Plan Voisin, which proposed razing a large
portion of downtown Paris and replacing it
with a more orderly grid of highrise buildings.
Note the Ile de la Cite at lower right. 
 In 1925, he built his first large-scale project at Pessac in France, a pristine and flawlessly proportioned low-cost housing development, only to find its residents chafing under his efforts to put their “function and objects” in order. Over the next forty years, Pessac residents variously grafted on traditional pitched roofs, turned terraces into extra bedrooms, and hung planter boxes from windows, all in an effort to personalize the project’s pointed anonymity.

If  Pessac’s shortcomings seem relatively innocuous, though, consider Le Corbusier’s contemporary Plan Voisin, in which he proposed to raze a good portion of Paris and replace it with a phalanx of identical concrete highrises. Nor did this brand of thinking change to any great extent later in his career. His Unite d’Habitation, completed at Marseilles in 1952, once again proffers the ideal of the gridded concrete tower, this time with a purported rooftop “garden” entirely paved over in concrete and relieved only by a number of abstract concrete sculptures. Almost thirty years after Pessac, the architect was still exasperated to find residents outfitting his pristine interiors with wrought-iron chandeliers and Louis XIV furniture.
Chandigarh, Palace of the Assembly. 

Also begun in 1952 was the crown jewel of Le Corbusier’s career, his complex of government buildings in Chandigarh, India. Here he once again utilized coarsely formed concrete buildings on a monstrous scale, seemingly oblivious to the physical and cultural context. And once again, he played his “learned game...of forms assembled in the light,” while neglecting the human beings whom it was created for.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly;” said the American Revolutionary Thomas Paine. “It is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Much of what America has accomplished in the last two centuries is indebted to that understanding--whether we’re talking about the cost of liberty, or the impetus for our celebrated Yankee thrift. Alas, as great a nation as we remain today, we’re clearly losing sight of Paine’s premise. 

In the face of better alternatives, the fossil fuel-
powered automobile is overdue for oblivion.
For much of its existence, America has been blessed with cheap and plentiful resources, many of which have come at the expense of our global neighbors. In the last hundred years, however, no single resource has shaped the nation as profoundly as our easy access to cheap oil. It’s led to the primacy of personal cars, which in turn has radically affected the design of American cities during the course of the twentieth century. 

Under the relentless growth of automobile ownership, America’s infrastructure geared itself almost exclusively to internal-combustion vehicles. Slowly but inexorably, we abandoned public transportation in favor of  building freeways to ever more distant suburbs. In response, businesses fled dense city centers for suburban sites where they could provide “cheap” parking. Meanwhile, American homes sprouted two, then three or even four garages, which became the dominant architectural emblem of postwar housing. 

An unintended consequence of cheap petroleum.
Somewhere along the line, though, automobiles became not so much desirable as simply indispensable. We now find ourselves trapped in this ironic cycle: Since virtually the whole nation has been built to suit cars, cars are now practically the only way we can get around. Our homes are strung along miles and miles of automobile-choked highways--sometimes so far from our jobs that we drive for hours just to get to work each day. Even our economic health is inextricably tied to the business of building more cars, giving a sclerotic government and a technologically moribund auto industry even less stomach for intelligent change.

Yet our world is now forever different from the one that came before--due in no small part to American ingenuity. Brought closer by the miracle of global connectivity, and simultaneously haunted by the specter of diminishing resources, it’s now a place in which all peoples feel entitled to participate. We can no longer ignore that what comes cheaply to us often exacts a heavy price from someone else.

The Chevrolet Volt: Better way too late
than never.
Thomas Paine could hardly have anticipated such a state of affairs, yet his observation is all the more trenchant today. Gasoline prices have sunk to record lows  in the past year, but in the long run, it’s no cause for celebration. It’s the availability of cheap fossil fuels that’s made us Yanks uncharacteristically slow to develop motive power more intelligent than the internal combustion engine. By any measure--whether of politics, depletion, pollution, or economics--it’s been clear for decades that our petroluem-based society is unsustainable. Yet only in the past decade have we made any real progress at finding better alternatives to vehicles powered by fossil fuels. 

While low oil prices may seem like a blessing, in the long run they serve only to reinforce our addiction to a dead-end fuel source. Perhaps, as Paine foresaw over two hundred years ago, the blessings we enjoy aren’t yet quite dear enough.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Talk about misplaced priorities: In the name of saving energy, many people think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on replacement windows. But at the same time, they’ll willingly limp along with an obsolete furnace whose replacement would have a far greater payoff, dollar for dollar, on both their their utility bills and their home’s comfort.

Still have an old "octopus" gravity furnace?
They look cool, but are disastrously inefficient
 (and often loaded with asbestos).
The bottom line is that, if improving your home’s energy efficiency is the main goal, replacing your windows is among the least cost effective ways to do it. Here’s why: 

Although glass radiates heat at a substantially higher rate than walls or ceilings do, it represents only a small fraction of a home’s exterior surface area. A typical 1800 square foot, one-story rancher, for example, will have a window area comprising something on the order of just 6 percent of the exterior envelope. 

In the same house, however, the ceilings represent a whopping one-third of the surface area. Therefore, the most cost effective way to improve energy efficiency in homes built before the 1980s is simply to increase attic insulation levels. 

Maybe your furnace has been upgraded to a
more modern forced-air unit like this one—
but don't feel too good about that either.
Its efficiency may still be awful.
So is replacing windows the next logical step for improving energy efficiency? Not by a long shot. Consider that many pre-World War II houses still have their original “octopus” gravity furnaces. If you have a basement, chances are that your house once had--or may even still have--this type of heating system. With their gas-squandering pilot lights and primitive heat exchanger designs, most gravity furnaces have dismal energy efficiencies of perhaps 60 percent (meaning the other forty percent of your energy dollar is wasted up the flue). What’s more, their thinly-insulated ductwork wastes yet more heat just getting it to the register grilles, quite possibly leaving you with a net efficiency of fifty percent or so.

Maybe your prewar house has already had its old gravity furnace replaced with a “modern” forced-air unit somewhere along the line. Or, maybe you’re not worried about your furnace at all because your house is only thirty years old. Alas, any forced air unit predating the 1980s is likely to have an efficiency of perhaps 75 percent--and that one-fourth of your energy dollar being wasted is nothing to celebrate.
A modern, high-efficiency furnace is
a much more cost-effective energy
investment than new windows.

Replacing your furnace with a modern high-efficiency unit (typically around 95 percent efficient or better) not only will yield big savings on your energy bills, but will markedly improve your home’s comfort as well. Most models have variable speed fans that are quieter and do a better job of maintaining a steady temperature. 

 Other improvements, such as automatic flue dampers and electronic ignition, finally do away with longstanding sources of energy waste that have hobbled furnace efficiency for over a century. Last but not least, the new electronic clock thermostat can be precisely tailored to your daily routine, conserving even more energy by turning off the heat at the times it’s not needed.

All in all, a new furnace and ductwork is likely to cost you less than new windows, and will probably have a much bigger impact on both your utility bills and your comfort. So why throw money out the window?