Monday, November 30, 2015


Typical late-Victorian "Eastlake"
style door point to a
construction date around 1890
There’s a little parlor trick I like to pull when I’m doing architectural consulting at people’s homes. I ask them what year their house was built, and before they can answer, I quickly stop them with a raised hand. 

“No, don’t tell me,” I insist. After a brief show of Kreskin-like concentration, I give them my guess with a flourish. I seldom miss the construction date by more than five years. Often, I’m within two years, and occasionally I’m right on the money. The look of astonishment on the homeowners’ faces is always gratifying.

Like most parlor tricks, this one is easy to explain. It relies on a simple and rather prosaic yardstick found in every house: Its doors. Unless the place has gone through one of those ghastly home-improvement-emporium “renovations”—in which case the owners would not bother calling me in the first place—the doors are usually original to the house, offering a clear indication of when the place was built. 

Craftsman-era door,
suggesting a construction
date between 1900 and
1925 or so.
Right off the bat, a quick glance at the door panel arrangement will usually get you within ten or fifteen years of the construction date. For example, very tall doors with pairs of narrow vertical panels are a dead giveaway to Victorian era work, yielding a construction date between 1850 and 1900. This broad range can be further narrowed using another test: The more ornate the doors, the later in the nineteenth century the house was built. 

   Interior doors with a mortise lock
like this one (also seen in the
above two images) usually
indicate a house predating 1925 or so.
Doors with five stacked horizontal panels, on the other hand, indicate a Craftsman era pedigree--roughly 1900 to 1925. Those with a single large recessed panel indicate a vintage between 1925 and 1950 or so. Doors with no panels at all--so-called flush or slab doors--point to a modernist-era construction date between the early 1950s and 1980. Molded hardboard doors imitating various traditional panel arrangements point to a construction date between 1985 and the present.

The type of lockset that’s installed in a door furnishes other clues. If the door has a mortise lock (evidenced by a tall, skinny plate in the door edge and doorknobs fastened to a square shaft by setscrews), the house almost certainly predates 1925, although such locks were still used in basement rooms and garages for another decade or two.

"Cylindrical" locksets like this one
invariably postdate 1920,
the year they were introduced.
Knob styles vary widely, and offer
another clue to construction date.
This particular style was very popular
in the 1960s.
On the other hand, doors with just a small rectangular latch plate in the door edge invariably mean the house postdates 1920--the year when Walter Schlage invented the easier-to-install cylindrical lockset that quickly drove the mortise lock off the market. 

Doorknobs, too, have a tale to tell. Mortise locksets with ornate metal or glass knobs suggest late nineteenth century construction dates, while those with plain white, brown or black glass knobs are more typical of early twentieth century houses. Cylindrical locksets with knobs resembling giant glass jewels easily peg a home’s construction date between 1920 and 1935. 

Even hinges can provide clues. Ornate hinges with spiky ornamental pins typify Victorian-era houses. Hinges with plain leaves and ball-tipped pins hark from the Craftsman era, but remained popular through the Depression. Hinges with plain, flat-tipped pins indicate houses postdating World War II, while those with round-cornered plates are a hallmark of mass-produced prehung doors, putting a home’s construction date after 1970.

Monday, November 23, 2015


After 30 years in architecture, I still hear the same tired old wives tales circulated about remodeling. It’s amazing how long it can take to stamp out a wrong-headed concept. Here are some of my un-favorites:

Replacement windows: As far as energy savings goes,
they're basically a waste of money.
1. Bathrooms should be planned back to back to save cost. Rubbish. This chestnut goes way back, and probably stems from the practice of placing apartment house bathrooms back to back. You’re not building apartments, however, so the meager savings in plumbing cost--something on the order of a few hundred dollars--doesn’t justify straitjacketing your floor plan with a bathroom arrangement you don’t like.

2.  The best way to improve your home’s energy efficiency is by installing new double-glazed windows. Poppycock. In most houses, windows represent a very small fraction of the total heat loss. By far the most heat is lost through ceilings, so attic insulation is the best place to put your energy-efficiency dollars. Once that’s done, consider installing a higher-efficiency furnace and ductwork. Replacing your windows is far down the list of cost-effective energy improvements.

This year's fad: Grey.
Chasing the "latest" color trends is a great way
 to make your house look dated.
3. Remodeling is the perfect chance to choose finishes in the latest colors. Balderdash. Unless you’re aiming for a remodel that’ll be painfully outdated in five years or so, avoid “current” colors like the plague. Choose colors because you like them, not because you read about them in some trendoid home magazine.

4. Skylights are the best way to get daylight into your house. Malarkey. Skylights are a good last resort to improve daylighting, but adding windows should always be your first choice. Why? Because
Skylight: They're beautiful, but
they can't do what a window can.
they’re passive solar devices naturally attuned to the seasons, letting in more low-angle sunlight in winter when you want it, and excluding it in summer when you don’t. Skylights do just the reverse. They also look out of place on many styles of homes, particularly those built before World War II.

5. Point-of-use (“tankless”) water heaters are the most efficient way to heat water. Maybe, maybe not. Tankless units can be just the thing for certain applications, such as bathrooms that are remote from the water heater. But their efficiency is typically oversold, with efficiency ratings based on rarified laboratory conditions that are seldom reflected in actual installations. They’re also complex and subject to erratic response under low flow conditions. What’s more, if saving space isn’t your primary concern, there are a number of conventional storage water heaters available with efficiencies in the mid-nineties, some at surprisingly reasonable cost. 

Recessed can lights:
Beware the Swiss Cheese ceiling.
6. Recessed “can” lights are the best way to modernize a home’s lighting. Piffle. Recessed lighting is useful for very specific purposes--highlighting permanent objects or architectural features, for example--but they do a lousy job of general illumination. This is because cans are inherently directional, creating a pool of light beneath them, rather than diffusing light throughout the room. They’re also terribly overused, leading to the notorious “swiss cheese ceiling” effect seen in so many remodeled houses. Be sparing in your use of recessed cans--and if you have a house predating World War II, think twice about using them at all. They’re literally a glaring anachronism in most older homes.

Monday, November 16, 2015


The Chinese are environmental cretins, right? It’s a common perception, one that our own moribund leaders are only too happy to encourage. After all, the worse China’s environmental policies look, the better ours look. 

 Compact fluorescent
bulbs were already
common in China
when I first visited
in 1994.
The only problem is, this stereotype is baloney. As inconceivable as it seems to Americans, our government’s dawdling on environmental issues and its susceptibility to industry lobbies has in fact put China’s environmental efforts on track to surpass our own.

I first visited China in 1994, when the nation was already booming, but well before it seemed a likely rival for the omnipotent United States. Yet even at that time, the Chinese were taking the first steps toward saving energy, if not sustainable development. All commercial buildings and most homes were already illuminated by compact fluorescent bulbs, while many new apartment complexes boasted conspicuous arrays of solar hot water boosters on their roofs. 

Rooftop solar panels on a relatively
clear day in China.
As an ancient mercantile culture, the Chinese rationale behind embracing these innovations was not so much philosophical as characteristically pragmatic: If you could heat water with sunlight instead of expensive electricity, or triple your light output using a more efficient bulb, what was not to like?

Every visit I’ve made to China since then has brought an increased awareness in the importance of sustainable growth, both from the leaders and the ordinary Zhou on the street. And rather than just lots of feel-good talk, there is action. China’s status as the world’s workshop uniquely positions it to adopt the cutting-edge products it makes for others. Hence, for example, China’s highways, urban streets, and traffic signals are already lit by state-of-the-art light emitting diode technology, which is only now slowly making its way into America’s budget-strained infrastructure. 

LED street lighting is already
widespread in Chinese cities.
(These are made by ICAM
Industrial, China's largest
manufacturer of LEDs)
While American cities struggle just to make ends meet, Chinese city governments flush with cash are instead engaged in a race to see who can create the greenest new civic buildings. Architectural competitions for civic work now heavily stress sustainable design solutions, and it’s safe to say that, with the central government’s mandate for green building firmly in place, the commercial sector will soon follow.

Also ubiquitous on Chinese streets are electric bicycles and scooters, which remain virtually unknown in the United States. What’s more, on my last visit, I came across a local beat cop driving a new Chinese-built electric vehicle--another sign that the erstwhile Middle Kingdom takes electric cars much more seriously than Americans do. 

Nanjing's glittering Xinjiekou subway station. In the last decade,
China has been building state-of-the-art subway systems like mad.
Still, it’s perfectly obvious to the central government that China can never sustain American rates of car ownership (about eight cars for every ten people), no matter how prosperous its citizens may become. This makes the low Chinese rate of car ownership, which is currently about one-tenth that of the United States, no longer seems like a sign of lagging development but rather a blessing in disguise. In an effort to stem a future deluge of private cars, the Chinese have been busily building or upgrading public transit systems--and quickly: In my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, an entire subway system has been built from scratch in the span of three years. 

Ultimately, the success of our generation’s environmental policies will be judged not on their platitudes, but on their outcomes. And while America has been talking, China has been acting.

Monday, November 9, 2015


Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the past twenty years, and having witnessed its spectacular rise, I’ve always been puzzled that this remarkable nation still cares so little about the quality of the things it makes. Today, almost forty years after the Opening in 1978, China has yet to address this shortcoming: Everything from dime store trinkets to high rise buildings continue to show an astonishing indifference to detail. 

 The Chinese don't really sweat the details—
even when they're counterfeiting.
As a Westerner steeped in the Protestant work ethic, I’ve written thousands of words and done much hand-wringing about Chinese quality over the years, wondering when China would follow in Japan’s footsteps—when it would finally pull off a miraculous reversal in its attitude toward quality, as Japan did in the decades after World War II. It hasn’t happened, and from what I can see, it probably won’t.

All of which has gotten me to wondering if it’s my own Western concept of quality that’s become obsolete. Perhaps making things last has become pointless in a world that changes so quickly. 

It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a fundamental shift in the prevailing idea of what constitutes quality: America’s own early history furnishes a parallel. For obvious reasons, the relatively crude buildings and manufactured goods of the young United States couldn’t compare to those of the Old World—one reason wealthy Americans in the early 18th century still insisted on importing their building materials, hardware, and dishes from Great Britain. 

The Brits were once like us—used to leading.
But by 1876, when this American-built
Corliss steam engine wowed the crowds
at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia
they suddenly realized that those
crude and clumsy Yanks were passing them by.
Naturally enough, the British remained more than a little condescending toward their renegade former colony, whose building and manufacturing efforts fell far below English standards. This was, after all, an England whose houses were built with cut stone and massive oak timbers, whose cabinets used fine hardwoods in places you couldn’t even see, and whose steam engines were routinely polished, painted, and pinstriped in gold.  

Yet by the time the Yanks showed off their latest products at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, it began to dawn on the Brits that America’s mass produced products, as coarse as they appeared, were overtaking their own. This passing of the torch was symbolized by the towering Corliss steam engine that formed the fair’s iconic centerpiece, but it was apparent in all kinds of exhibits, from to stoves to clocks to furniture.   

From the British viewpoint, nothing had changed. They had scrupulously upheld their accustomed standards of quality, steadfastly insisting on the very finest workmanship even when--like those gilded steam engines--it had no conceivable purpose. The eventual result of this shift in perception was an end to Britain’s industrial preeminence, and the beginning of our own.

The Chinese-built Geely, now being
exported to the United States.
Will it even matter if it's a piece of junk?
It’s likewise possible that the world is once again changing, this time in a way that’s unfamiliar to our Western frame of reference. Perhaps China builds quickly, cheaply, and with indifferent quality because the pace of change no longer demands permanence. 

Then again, perhaps the point is moot. China comprises nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and serves, by our own admission, as “America’s workshop”. Its attitude to quality--like it or not--will inevitably affect our own.

Monday, November 2, 2015


A hand-drawn "as-built" floor plan is fine, as long as
your measurements are accurate. Or...

Last time, we looked at all the un-sexy preliminary steps that are necessary enroute to designing a home addition. Not one of them, you’ll recall, involved any drawing. Rather, there was a lot of preliminary wish-list making (creating the program), fact-gathering (the survey), and ensuring that what you want to build conforms to local zoning codes (your conference with the local planner).

Now, armed with the confidence that your scheme won’t get blown out of the water by unanticipated restrictions, you can move on the the next step:

...if you want to get fancy, you can use a
consumer-level CAD application such as Sketchup
to show your existing house.
• Measure your existing house and draw the floor plan to scale, whether on paper or using a consumer-level drafting program--there are several available at a reasonable price, and others that are free. Take your time and measure carefully, as the success or failure of some designs can come down to mere half-inches.

• Using the existing floor plan you’ve drawn--and following the planner’s guidelines for the area that’s buildable--determine how the addition will communicate with the existing house. Don’t settle for a half-baked solution such as passing through a bedroom--provide a proper hallway even if it means having to recoup the lost space someplace else. At this stage, you’ll be wasting your time if you’re making neat, careful drawings. Just hang loose, drawing rough bubble-shaped rooms on inexpensive tracing paper. Don’t get stuck on one idea right at the outset--try out as many different solutions as you can.

But DON'T waste your time trying to do preliminary
design on the computer. Rough bubble diagrams
drawn with pencil and paper are much faster and
 less of a creative constraint.
• Still using rough bubble diagrams, determine the ideal solar orientation for each of the new spaces. Typically, major living areas such as family rooms should face south where they’ll get maximum sun. Kitchens and breakfast rooms ideally face east to southeast, while bedrooms are faced to suit the sleeper’s preference for morning sunshine or the absence of it. The least important rooms, such as the garage, secondary baths, laundry rooms, and the like, are given the least desirable northern orientation. Don’t expect perfection, but remember that a decent attempt is better than nothing. 

•  Only now should you begin sketching out some preliminary drawings using straight lines. Whether you’re working on paper or computer, pay careful attention to crucial minimum dimensions such as the width of hallways (rock bottom minimum,  three feet wide), stairs (ditto), clothes closet depths (two feet minimum), and kitchen aisles widths (no less than four feet). You’ll be sorely tempted to cheat on these minimums in order to wedge in just a few more of the features you crave. Don’t--you’ll end up with a nonfunctional and obviously amateur plan. Always err on the generous side.

The irony: If your addition design is really successful,
no one will ever notice it.
• When you think you’ve included everything you want--or you’ve tossed out the spaces or features that simply don’t fit--you can finally begin the “hard-line” drawings of your floor plan using a computer or drafting tools. Note how many steps were necessary before even getting to the portion of the work that most people consider “architecture”. 

It’s the willingness to lay this often tedious groundwork that distinguishes a thoughtful, well-designed end product from standard amateur-hour bungling. Whether you choose to tell admirers how much work your project entailed—or whether, Like Frank Lloyd Wright, you claim you shook it out of your sleeve—is up to you.

Monday, October 26, 2015


Tired of people asking how he came up with his brilliant designs, Frank Lloyd Wright once famously explained,

“Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeve.”

Wright liked to say he just
shook designs out of his sleeve.
Not likely.
It was mostly Wright’s puckish sense of humor talking when he claimed to conjure fully-formed concepts out of thin air. Yet today there’s still a widespread misperception that architects design by invoking some kind of arcane creative voodoo, and that ideas just flow onto the paper without effort.

Alas, there’s a lot more hard work than magic involved in designing a building. This is a great advantage to non-architects, though you might not realize it. It means that if you’re methodical and willing to carry out what is often a tedious process, you, too, could shake a decent design out of your sleeve.

Suppose, for example, that you want to build an addition onto your house. Long before you ever put pencil to paper or finger to iPad, here’s what you need to do:

• Come up with what architects call the “program”--basically, a wish list for your project. As a minimum, it should describe what kind of rooms and spaces you want to add, roughly how many square feet each will require, and which rooms will have to adjoin each other. The program can also include more abstract requirements, from general atmosphere (sunny, restful, dramatic, or whatever) or any other qualities you have in mind. In general, the more complete your program, the smoother your design process will be.

A survey such as this one
will show where your
property lines are—and they
may surprise you.
• Obtain a survey from a licensed civil engineer or surveyor showing where your home sits on your property, as well as major artificial and natural features such as outbuildings, utilities, rock outcroppings, sloping land, large trees, drainage swales, and so on. It should also show any rights-of-way, reserves, or easements that could prevent you from building on the land.

• Add up the total square footage of the addition as dictated by your program and, if it seems that there’s enough room on your property to accommodate it, proceed to the next step (if not, downsize your plans accordingly). Armed with your survey, set up an appointment with a planner at your local building department to discuss your proposed addition. Begin by requesting the property setbacks--the minimum distance you must keep structures from the front, side, and rear property lines. Next, ask for the maximum allowable building height in your neighborhood. 

Your local planning department
will tell you your zoning,
which in turn will tell you
where you can build,
and where you can't.
As obvious as these steps may seem, they’re commonly overlooked by do-it-yourself designers, who typically rush directly into drawing detailed plans only to find out that their ideas don’t comply with one or more of these restrictions. Far from being an antagonist, a good planner will be a great help early on, pointing out such potential booby traps, and perhaps even suggesting alternatives that’ll help you circumvent them. 

What you’ll take away from this meeting are the following crucial bits of information: How many square feet of addition you can build, where and how high you can build them, and whether or not you need to notify your neighbors in order to do so. Next time, we’ll use that information to begin--finally--designing your addition.

Monday, October 19, 2015


"It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don't paint badly like other people."

The same might be said for architects, whose professional success is just as dependent on novelty the commercial success of artists is.  To achieve even a small measure of recognition, architects, like artists, have to stand out from their colleagues. Some do so naturally, others with strained intent. One thing for sure, though: it’s a rare architect who hopes to remain anonymous.
Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall,
at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
A really cool building—except in summer.

As another sage observer—New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—once put it, “Architecture is not immune to the lure of celebrity and shock value in a society that cultivates the new and novel at any cost.” 

A quality of novelty, or even visual offense, is often inseparable from any progressive work of architecture. It took Americans decades to appreciate the hovering, solids-and-voids compositions of Frank Lloyd Wright. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that, however unfamiliar such works may seem at first, there’s some very deliberate thinking behind them.  

Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project,
St. Louis:  It seemed like a good idea
at the time.
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of buildings that were at the leading edge of their time, yet whose novelty nevertheless fell mildly or even disastrously short of their users’ needs. High-profile examples spring easily to mind: Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose occupants routinely plastered the windows with aluminum foil to avoid being roasted by the summer sun; Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where patrons were obliged to view art while countering the gravitational pull of the building’s celebrated spiral ramp underfoot; and Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a carefully calculated social engineering experiment that failed on virtually every level before the buildings were imploded in 1972.  

And these, mind you, are works by the best and brightest of their day. In the absence of such genius, less skilled architects secure novelty by simply borrowing from current fashion. In the modernist era, this entailed stripping already formulaic buildings down to barren, antiseptic blocks. Today’s architectural hacks employ the opposite strategy, taking otherwise mundane work and hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. This, after all, is also an easy way to make something mundane look novel—as Victorian architects, 1950s auto stylists, and even Liberace might attest. 

This explains why more and more new buildings sprout arrays of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac, their architects in hot pursuit of some hey-look-at-me status. In contrast to the textural poverty of modernism, disconcerted clutter is now the crutch for uninspired design. 

Recycled brick and wood
in a Carr Jones-designed residence in
Piedmont, California:
Green architecture from 1932.
How ironic, then, that some of the most truly novel architectural works of the past hundred years have been carried out by architects who remained barely known in their own eras. The Arizona Spanish Revival master Josias Joesler, the industrial architect Albert Kahn, California’s green design pioneer Carr Jones—all were virtually overlooked by their more celebrated contemporaries. 

And all of them, alas, reaped the perverse reward of such a career: their truly novel ways of thinking did come to be fully appreciated, but only long after they’d left us.