Monday, May 14, 2018


Think of a ramp as an integral landscape element, not as
an ugly afterthought. 
For most of us, a disability is something that afflicts strangers, not people we care about. Yet, much as we hate to consider it, we’ll all have to deal with disability in one way or another as the years pass. And nothing humanizes the term  “disabled” like suddenly finding that person to be your father, your friend, yourself.

Fortunately, we’ve gotten a good start at making the built environment friendlier to the disabled—an aim which, incidentally, makes life easier for the able-bodied as well. For example, who would object to lever-handle door hardware (a boon when you’re holding two armfuls of groceries), or to national park trails with ramps instead of steps?

Doorways should be a minimum of 32" wide
to safely accommodate a person in a wheelchair.
(Image courtesy of
True, some of the earlier efforts at barrier-free design weren’t much to look at. To be blunt, there have been some horrific retrofits done in the name of accessibility. But as architects become more attuned to barrier-free design, we’ll see less and less of those hastily-added wheelchair ramps snaking across the front of buildings.

We should remember, too, that “disabled” doesn’t just mean “wheelchair-bound”. Conditions such as vision or hearing impairment, arthritis, and other ailments simply due to growing older are disabilities as well.

What can be done at home to better accommodate the disabled? Since few of us really plan for such eventualities, we usually end up hastily retrofitting a house built for an able-bodied person—a much bigger challenge than starting from a clean slate.

Lever handle door hardware makes life easier
on everybody, not just the disabled.
•  Stairs and steps present the biggest physical barriers to the disabled (they’re often a nuisance for the rest of us too). To make an existing house more accessible from the street, consider building a ramp from the sidewalk up to the floor level, eliminating the front steps entirely. Make sure you have enough distance between the sidewalk and the front door since, ideally, the slope should be no steeper than one inch for every foot of length. The ramp needn’t be ugly—approach it as a permanent landscaping element, not just a tacked-on afterthought. 

•  Doorways throughout the house should have a clear width of at least 32” to allow a wheelchair through, and thresholds should be no higher than 1/2” to make it easier for a wheelchair to roll over them. Doors should have lever handles rather than knobs—usually an easy retrofit. Ideally, the pull side of doors should also have some “parking” space beside them so the wheelchair won’t block the door as it’s opened.

Grab bars should be in every shower and bathtub—
they are among the most dangerous places in the house,
whether you're disabled or not.
•  Kitchens and bathrooms often present a host of barriers to the disabled. Faucets should be easy to operate, with large lever handles rather than slippery knobs. For wheelchair users, sinks and lavatories should have clear space underneath to provide maneuvering room; the hot water and drain pipes should be insulated to prevent those with no feeling in their legs from burning themselves. Shower stalls and toilets should have enough space beside them to allow the user to transfer from the wheelchair to a shower seat or toilet. Showers and tubs should have grab bars, which are a boon to safety for all ages. Plumbing manufacturers offer specially-designed products for such needs, and can provide excellent planning help as well.

These basic measures will go a long way toward making a one-story home more user-friendly to a disabled person. Unfortunately, making a multistory home accessible presents a bigger challenge and much higher cost; moving to a single-level home may be a simpler solution. If that isn’t an option, consider installing a stairlift—a moving platform attached to one side of the staircase—or a residential elevator to reach other levels.

Monday, May 7, 2018


When this house was designed, the architect agonized over
which kind of roofing to use (like the wonderful heavy
textured shake on this example). Why second guess him
(or her) all these years later?
Most people wouldn’t dream of walking around in striped pants and a plaid jacket. 
Yet when it comes to choosing a new roof, that’s just how many folks dress up their houses. If there’s one error most commonly made in home improvement, it’s choosing the wrong roof. I’d guess that perhaps half of all reroofing jobs use materials that are contrary to the style of the house.

The are two major reasons for this: First, many people allow their roofer to suggest the best material.  That’s like asking the wolf to guard the henhouse. Most roofers will tend to recommend materials—such as composition shingle—that are quick and easy to install, and hence more profitable.  Aesthetics are hardly their first concern. 

Composition roofing is inexpensive, but its ultra-flat texture
doesn't have enough visual "oomph" for many home styles—
such as this one. If you home doesn't have composition
shingle now, think twice before switching to it without
good reason. . .
Which brings us to the second reason: Uninformed consumers. You can’t really blame roofers for looking after their own interests. It’s up to you, the homeowner, to inform yourself as to what roofing material is most appropriate for the style of your house. The rationale is simple, and that’s why it pains me to see all those stripes-and-plaid houses out there. Here are a few rules of thumb:

•  First and foremost: If you’re replacing your home’s original roof, use the same material.  Somewhere out there is an architect who agonized over the type and color of roof to put on your house. Honest. That choice was based on the material’s style, cost, and durability, and represented the best compromise of the three. Unless your own requirements have changed—due to your budget or to local ordinances—there’s very little reason to switch to another material. It’s especially risky to downgrade from a quality product, such as shake, to a low-end one, such as composition roofing.  The stylitic unity of your house will be compromised, and so will your resale value.
. . .or without at least considering an unpgraded
composition shingle with texture, such as this one.

•  If your roof has already been remuddled a few times and you have no idea what the original roofing material was, make an educated guess and try to return to that material if it’s at all possible. 
For example, suppose you own a California Rancher with a composition shingle roof. A good style guide will tell you that Ranchers almost invariably featured a heavy shake roof. Since the roof’s rustic texture is integral to the style, consider going back to shake. Or, if there’s a high fire danger in your area, switch to fire-treated shakes, or as a last resort, to a textured composition shake look-alike; some come reasonably close to the shaggy appearance of real shake—at any rate, much closer than ordinary composition shingle ever will.

And most of all, don't re-roof if you don't need to.
If your house doesn't leak, it doesn't need a new roof.
Even if it does leak, it might just need a tube of roofing
mastic. And no, I don't own stock in Henry Company.
•  On the other hand, don’t assume that a more costly roofing material will automatically yield an aesthetic improvement. It ain’t necessarily so. For example, upgrading a California Bungalow from the original composition shingle to a more expensive concrete tile will simply look weird, because bungalows designs seldom employed that material. The roof will call much more attention to itself than the architect intended, and again, the design’s unity will be compromised.

•  Finally, make VERY SURE your house actually needs a new roof in the first place. Many DON'T.  If your roof doesn’t leak, you don’t need a new roof—it’s that simple. And even if your roof does leak, it may only need a few simple spot repairs. If so, your only dilemma will be where to spend all the money you’ve saved.

Monday, April 30, 2018


Nice view of the Eiffel Tower...but it probably would have
been better in the living room.
A student of mine once designed a floor plan in which the laundry room received a spectacular view, and the master bedroom faced the neighbor’s garage. When I asked him to explain his choice, he said:

“The master bedroom always gets the view in other plans, so I thought I’d give it to the laundry for a change.”

Interesting—but not much of a rationale. It’s a bit like saying, “I always put my paycheck in the bank, so today I’ll throw it in the trash instead.” Some decisions are routine for good reason.  

Orient major rooms to the south so they'll have access to sun
all day long.
In life, we rely on a framework of priorities to help make sense of the gazillion decisions we face each day. Architects use a similar system of priorities in the design process—we call them as hierarchies. Without the various principles of hierarchy to help organize our designs, we’d be hopelessly adrift in a sea of of possibilities.  

The principle of hierarchy can help you approach your own design problems in a logical way as well. Here are a few example:

•  Solar orientation. Simply put, the hierarchy of solar orientation dictates that primary living areas—living room, family room, kitchen, and sometimes the master bedroom—should have first claim on the southern exposure, which remains sunny all day long.  Secondary rooms should be located so they get sun at the time they’re used. Hence, a breakfast room would ideally face east for morning sun, a dining room west for afternoon sun, and so on. Ancillary spaces such as closets, secondary baths, and garages are dead last in this hierarchy, so they get the sunless northern exposure. 

Put the fancy stuff in the master bedroom. The other
bedrooms typically get the dregs.
•  View orientation. This one is simple too: the primary living areas always get dibs on the best view. The living room is usually first in line, although the choice really depends on your lifestyle. If you spend more time in the family room, then perhaps the view will be more appreciated there. Inasmuch as people spend relatively little time in closets, pantries—or in laundry rooms, for Pete’s sake—those rooms sink to the bottom of the priority list. 

What if there’s a conflict between view orientation and solar orientation? In most cases, a compromise is possible: the view can be addressed by a limited amount of window, while still maintaining at least partial southern exposure in major rooms. If the view is a real stunner—let's say, the Pacific Ocean—it will take priority even though it means the windows will have to face west.

An old rule of the One Percent: Put the money where
people are sure to see it.
•  Room size. Hierarchy holds that rooms be sized according to their importance. Hence, a master bedroom is accorded more space in the floor plan than a secondary bedroom, which in turn gets more space than a guest bedroom. For the same reason, if remodeling dictates that space be borrowed from existing areas, the least important rooms are sacrificed. Say you’re faced with carving a guest closet from either the dining room or the pantry. Which do you choose? Right. Move over, cranberry sauce.   

•  Finishes. No surprise here. Hierarchy says: when the finish budget is limited, spend the money where it’s most visible. Once again, the primary living areas are favored with the best materials.  

The hierarchy of finishes applies to exteriors as well—the areas most visible from the street are first in line for the best materials. It’s a time-honored rule used by many developers, who use fine detailing and quality materials on the facades of their homes, and the cheap stuff everywhere else.  

Monday, April 23, 2018


At Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a cramped,
low-ceilinged entry leads directly up to...
“Ooh, I don’t like this!  It’s so cramped!”

So said a fellow tourist as we stepped through the front door of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Frederick C. Robie house in Chicago. She was objecting to the entry ceiling, which was at most seven feet high—perhaps even less. Wright, who was as Napoleonic in stature as he was in demeanor, didn’t mind a low ceiling; in fact he may have enjoyed making taller people feel uncomfortable. But there was more to Wright’s trick than plain spite, as my tourist friend soon found out. After ducking through the dark entry and then climbing a narrow, twisting staircase, she suddenly found herself in an explosively airy living space stretching the whole length of house.

“Ahhhhh!” she declared, along with everyone else on the tour.

...this vast, light-filled living room. The contrast
in volumes is just about explosive.
(Photograph by James Caulfield)
What made this reaction so pronounced? Among other things, Wright was a master at manipulating interior volumes—one of the simplest yet most effective ways to wring more drama out of architecture. Architects have endless fun playing with interior volume to produce fresh and often startling sensory effects. If you’re thinking about remodeling, you can too. Here are a few starting points:

•  Vary interior volumes in a deliberate and effective sequence. Make some rooms spacious, but just as importantly, make some a bit tighter. Reserve the bigger volumes for spaces that can actually use it. Think twice about using the old tract-house formula that dictates a vast and ostentatious entry—it’s a lot of expense for a room that doesn't really do anything, and worse, it just sets up the rest of the house for disappointment.

The simple trick of varying floor heights—in this case,
the four steps between the living room and dining room—
completely transforms the character of the space.
•  Vary ceiling heights. As the Robie house demonstrates, you can get a lot of impact simply by playing a low ceilinged room against one with a high ceiling. Changes in ceiling height can also radically change the feeling of space within the same room: for example, a low-ceilinged alcove can provide a cozy retreat inside a voluminous family room.

•  Vary floor levels. Changes in floor level from room to room are another good way to add interest to interior volume;  however, for structural reasons, changing floor levels is much more expensive than varying ceiling heights. The resulting steps can also create unnecessary impediments to circulation, so be careful where you use floor level changes. The should be avoided altogether between a kitchen and dining room, for example, or else Aunt Flo may do a double-axel while serving the Easter dinner.

This set of beautifully-proportioned
niches transforms a potentially
boring wall into a focal point.
•  Provide unexpected openings in walls. Architects call this inexpensive technique “punching holes in the wall”—a term that admirably conveys some of the surprise a person feels when he comes upon an unexpected. People like to be surprised; they don’t want every surface in a room to be predictable. A quirky opening (which may have no functional purpose at all) can be a delightful antidote to an overdose of blank wall. This trick is all the more effective if there’s something interesting to see on the other side. 

•  Remember that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Too many designers are obsessed with creating gigantic volumes; they lose sight of the fact that small, intimate spaces are often much more comfortable to occupy. Moreover, a relentless series of vast rooms will fail to capitalize on the effect of huge volume, because they won’t have small spaces to play against.  They’ll just be a bigger bore.

Monday, April 16, 2018


Try having friendly dinner conversation with somebody
who's sitting right next to you.
Sometimes, a stupid idea just won’t die.  It’s certainly true of architecture, in which certain features appear over and over again despite their lack of practicality. Maybe people just get used to them, like we get used to a lumpy mattress, and we don’t realize what a drag it is until we’re rid of it. Here are some of my favorite stupid ideas in architecture.  I’ve got two of them in my own house, and I’m supposed to know better. How about you?

It's supposed to be a fireplace. So why does it look like a TV?
•  Kitchen eating bars. Your local restaurant can  give you a good clue as to why eating bars are stupid: no one wants to sit at one. They want a table instead. It’s bad enough eating at the bar when you’re alone, but it’s even more awkward when you’re not. It’s practically impossible to carry on a relaxed conversation with someone who’s sitting right next to you. This was one of those Modernist ideas that seemed to make perfect sense until someone actually tried to live with it. So why is it still with us?  

•  And as long as we’re in the kitchen, here's another dumb idea: cooking islands. People adore seeing them in magazines until they've got one in their own kitchen. Then they realize that everything they cook has to be carried across an aisle for no reason at all. In addition to needlessly interrupting the work area, islands waste a tremendous amount of floor space because they require generous isle space all around them. If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, that’s no problem. Otherwise, beware.

Bypassing closet doors:
Egad—no matter what I do, I can
only get to half of my clothes!
•  Fireplaces.  Once upon a time, a fireplace was a truly charming feature. Unfortunately, it was never a practical heat source, since it's actually negative in terms of thermal efficiency (the draft of the fire pulls cold air into the house faster than it adds heat).  As a result, energy-efficiency requirements have turned the charismatic old fireplace into little more than bland, gas-fired TV screen, with none of the crackling charm of yesteryear. Nevertheless, tract developers insist on featuring them in their new homes, where they’ve become little more than numerical status symbols, as in:  “5 bedrooms, 5 baths, 3 fireplaces.”  

•  Bypassing closet doors (often called sliding doors).  These are like those sliding-number puzzles in which you can’t get at one thing without moving something else.  Bypassing doors first caught on big way back in the 50s, so you’d think that after all these years, they would’ve died a merciful death. No such luck:  They’re inexpensive and easy to install, so tract builders and remodelers alike still love them.    

Vessel sinks: For people who love to clean their bathrooms,
and want it to be really, really difficult.
•  Top-mount sinks/vessel sinks. What’s that you say?  Cleaning the bathroom is too easy?  Then get a top-mount sink, which has a big fat flange that stands above the countertop. First, water will spill all over the place, and you won’t be able to wipe it back into the sink. Later, all kinds of interesting things will start growing around the edges. Still, whoever came up with this idea evidently didn't think it was stupid enough, and so they invented the vessel sink.

•  Double entrance doors.  We all love the idea of bursting through a pair of double doors, like the stars of an old MGM musical. But the reality is that, for security reasons, practically everyone locks one side of the door anyway. The net result: a door that’s actually narrower than the average single door. Fred and Ginger wouldn't stand that for a minute.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Frieze blocks, not freeze blocks.
With its many odd and esoteric terms, the language of architecture seems forever doomed to misuse—not just by lay people, but by professionals as well. For instance, I recently saw a set of blueprints that called for the installation of “freeze blocks”.  After puzzling over this for some time, it dawned on me that the architect meant “frieze” in the Greek sense—as in, “an ornamented band on a building." 

 Not that I’m infallible or anything. In my newspaper column many years ago, I once dozingly suggested using “doors with opaque glass” to brighten dark rooms without sacrificing privacy. Privacy, indeed: An alert reader gently reminded me that “opaque” means "impervious to light.”  The word I wanted, of course, was “translucent.”   
A pocket door. Why?
Because it slides into a pocket
in the wall.

For the inveterate lexophiles among you, I thought I’d set out some of the most frequently misused architectural terms and try to clarify their meanings.  

•  Cement/concrete. This is one of the most misused word pairs of all time. Cement refers exclusively to a fine powder that hardens when you mix it with water. Concrete—a mixture of sand and aggregate all held together by cement—is the familiar stuff foundations and patios are made of.    

•  Contemporary. Back in the 50s and 60s, the stylistic term “contemporary” was more or less synonymous with “Modernist,” since traditional architecture was on the skids back then.  Today, however, contemporary could just as well mean traditional, since the word itself only refers to whatever style is in fashion at the moment.

•  Sliding door/pocket door. Lots of people use the term “sliding door” to refer to a closet door that slides on a track, or to an interior door that disappears into a wall. Strictly speaking, though, the first type is called a “bypassing door”, and the second a “pocket door”.  A sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to the patio.

An honest-to-goodness Palladian window.
•  Wall/partition. This one’s simple: a wall is a wall if it’s on the exterior of a house; it’s a partition if it’s on the interior. In general, every wall is a bearing wall, but not every partition is a bearing partition. Huh?

•  Palladian/palladium. A perennial goof in real estate ads. The term Palladian refers to a very specific window type named for the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. It’s divided into three parts, with a half-round “lunette” topping the center section—nothing more, nothing less. Realtors, please note: a single window with a half-round top isn’t Palladian, nor is a plain window divided into three parts.  Oh, and palladium?  That’s a rust-resistant metal, among other things.    
The part that moves is the sash;
the skinny dividers are muntins;
the pieces of glass are lites.

•  Mullion/muntin. A mullion is a relatively heavy vertical or horizontal member that divides individual window units—the familiar post between a pair of double-hung windows, for example. Muntins are the narrow members that divide the glass area itself into panes—what many window makers now call “true divided lites”, to distinguish them from the phony two-dimensional grids that are now more common in the window industry.

•  Window/sash/glazing/lite/fenestration. As you can tell from the preceding, window terms are among the most confusing in architecture, but here goes: Window refers to the entire assembly—jambs, glass, the works.  The sash is the portion of the window that moves, if any.  Glazing refers to all the glass surfaces in general; lites are the individual panes of glass that make up the glazing.  Fenestration is the arrangement of windows in a wall, though it can refer to doorways as well.  

Phew. Time for a nice cool drink with plenty of frieze blocks.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018


Landscape architect Thomas Church brought a new simplicity
to landscape design in the mid-20th century.
When I was a kid, junipers and sparkly white rocks were considered the height of good taste in landscaping. Modernist landscape architects such as Thomas Church introduced a new kind of clean geometry to outdoor designs, complementing the spare lines of Modernist architecture. Unfortunately, many lesser talents got carried away with this theme, and too often, barren, hard-edged landscapes were the result. 

In my town, countless front yards were stripped of their fuddy-duddy old lawns and covered with patterns of colored rock in diamond-shaped beds.  Those spiky, kid-hating junipers invariably showed up as accents—just enough of them to scratch you as you rode by on your bike.

Unfortunately, some of these ideas were taken a bit too far
by less talented designers, leading to a landscaping riddled
with free-floating slabs and lots of sparkly white rocks.
All this just proves that landscape design is as subject to fashion as anything else. Yet the basic tenets of timeless design don’t change, regardless of which fads come and go. Here are a few guidelines to help ensure a timeless design for your own landscape:

•  Consider your house and your garden as integrally related living areas areas, not as “indoors” and “outdoors”.  With real estate prices soaring, it makes sense to capitalize on every square inch of land, whether indoors or out. Break outdoor areas down into functions, and design around them. For example, your outdoor needs may range from an area for
Huge, chest-beating outdoor kitchens like this one have become
the latest example of conspicuous consumption in garden design.
barbecuing and eating, to a child-friendly play area, to storage for garden tools. Lay these out exactly as you would a floor plan, with the proper relationships and, especially, the right solar orientation. Place eating areas so they receive sun during the time they’ll be most used; locate play areas so they’re sunny all day long (you can always create shade if necessary, but you can’t get sun where there isn’t any). Use the shadowy, leftover areas for utilitarian needs such as storage. Plan your outdoor space as a series of outdoor rooms, with all the niceties of an indoor one—light, privacy, and a sense of enclosure.

The passage of time may not be
your home's best friend, but it actually is
your garden's best friend.
•  Be conscious of landscaping fads, and think twice before jumping on the bandwagon yourself. The barren, rock-strewn look was everywhere during the 60s. Clumsy, overbearing decks were a hallmark of the 70s, and during the 80s gardens were awash in wimpy-looking, quasi-Victorian gazebos. Ridiculously overblown barbecues became a hallmark of the 90s, and by the new century, this trend had morphed into an even more chest-beating fad for outdoor kitchens. If these things work for you, fine. If they don't, just say no.
Every era has its own plant fads as well—have you seen a trendy shopping center without palm trees lately? Still, you can never go wrong by sticking to your own preferences, whether they’re currently fashionable or not.   

•  Above all, remember to plan your garden in four dimensions, not three. Unlike a building, which can only decay over time, a garden is a living, breathing, and ever-renewing entity. Therefore, pay special attention to how your design will develop and mature as the years pass. Give trees and planting plenty of room for growth over the years. And give yourself room for growth too, because your needs will change as well. This year, you may want a sandbox for your toddler, but in five years, what will replace it?

Not sparkly white rocks, I hope.