Monday, May 23, 2016


Whenever it comes time for them to review their completed construction drawings, many of my otherwise poised clients begin to blanch and sputter protests like, “Oh, don’t even bother showing me those, I have no idea what they mean.”  But that’s a little like signing a contract without reading it. How do you know what you’re getting into?

A simple floor plan with dimensions.
Remember, though, that there are many
different types of plan drawings.
Since an architectural drawing is in fact a legal contract —a graphic rather than written one—it’s very important that a homeowner be able to “read” it.

The good news is that architectural drawings are not that mysterious.  If you can live with the concept of using two dimensions to represent three, the rest is easy.  There are only three basic types of architectural drawings:

•  The first type is called a plan. A plan is any view looking straight downward. The best-known of these is the floor plan, which cuts an imaginary horizontal slice through a house in order to show walls, doors, and the like.  But there are many other kinds of plans. For example, a site plan shows the property that the house will be built on; a foundation plan shows the concrete foundation; an electrical plan shows the location of lighting fixtures, switches, and receptacles; and a roof plan shows the roof surfaces and how they intersect.

Elevations: Front, right, rear, and left, though
in this case, they're labeled by compass direction.
•  The second type of architectural drawing is called an elevation. It shows the house from the side rather than from above. The most common kind is an exterior elevation, which shows the exterior of each side of the house. The standard sequence for a complete set of exterior elevations shows the front, right, rear, and left sides of the house.

There are two other types of elevation:  An interior elevation is used to show interior features like fireplaces or archways, or other features that can’t be fully described in a plan alone.  For example, the floor plan may show an arch, but what kind of arch?  Round, square, elliptical, segmental, Moorish?  The interior elevation helps clarify such features.

Finally, a cabinet elevation (also called a casework elevation) shows the cabinetwork as seen from the front. While a kitchen floor plan can show the basic location of cabinets and counters, a cabinet elevation is needed to show the exact size and location of cabinet doors, drawers, shelves, and the like.  It’s typically drawn for kitchens, bathrooms, and any other complicated interior areas.

A simple section drawing. In this example, it's fairly easy
to recognize that it's a slice through the building.
•  The third and final type of drawing is called a section. Simply put, it’s a vertical slice through the house. To picture it, imagine taking a giant saw and cutting the house in half vertically. The resulting dollhouse-like view lets us actually look inside of walls, attics, and crawlspaces, so it’s useful for showing the house’s structure and other features that can’t be seen from outside.

For most people, sections are the most difficult drawings to read.  Unlike plans and elevations, they don’t always look like a recognizable part of a house.  But once you get used to the concept of cutting slices through the house to see what it’s made of, you’ll find yourself reading them like a pro.

•  Finally, any one of these three drawing types can be used to zoom in on a particular aspect of the building to show it more clearly.  The resulting larger-scale drawing is called a detail.  For example, an unusually-shaped rain gutter may be too small to distinguish on a section, so the architect draws an enlarged version of the gutter to describe it more clearly.

Monday, May 16, 2016


A beautifully defined outdoor room. The low wall provides
a sense of enclosure (as well as extra seating)
without obstructing the garden view.
What’s an “outdoor room”?  No, it’s not one of those aluminum p aluminum patio covers people had in the Sixties.  In architecture, an outdoor room is a living area that relies on landscape elements instead of walls to provide a sense of enclosure.

Considering the expense of real estate today, it’s surprising how few people fully utilize their land for outdoor living space.  Properly-planned outdoor rooms can make a small home seem much larger, and at very reasonable cost.

An outdoor room requires all the same niceties as an indoor one: Sunlight, comfortable furnishings, privacy, and convenient access. Just think of it as an integral part of your home’s floor plan.  
Here are a few design tips:

A pair of doors leading out in the bare minimum—
and the bigger the better.
• Locate outdoor rooms in the areas that receive sunlight throughout most of the day—yes, even if you live in a hot climate.  You can always create shade if you need to, but a shadowed area will be unalterably drafty and uninviting during most of the year.

• If you’re planning several areas with different times of usage—for example, a small deck for breakfasting, and a patio area for afternoon barbecues—orient them where they’ll receive sun during the time of use.

•  Minimize negative space. An area with a strong sense of enclosure—one based on a circle, for example—is termed a positive space.  Negative space is what’s left over from it, like the pointy scraps of dough left over from cutting out cookies.  These harsh, spiky areas are uncomfortable to be in, and they’re also hard to utilize.

Therefore, banish angles with less than 90 degrees when laying out planting beds and paved areas. Narrow dead-end alleys, sharply converging slivers of ground, and other leftovers should be avoided. Any such areas that remain can be filled with planting.

Paving patterns are one way to define outdoor areas,
but don't rely on them too much. .Where possible, try to add
changes of level to introduce a third dimension.
•  Use different paving materials to define areas.  So-called hard materials such as concrete, brick, and redwood decking can be contrasted with soft materials such as lawn or ground cover to avoid a barren, hard-edged feel.

Adding changes of level is an even more effective way to delineate different outdoor rooms. A few steps in a logical place will also add interest and help avoid the two-dimensional effect of using borders alone.

•  Use generous openings to access the outdoor room directly from an interior living area, perhaps using a sliding door or a pair of French doors. Direct and generous access is critical, since an area that’s difficult to reach will seldom be used. Adding doors to the garden has an another benefit as well:  By visually incorporating the outdoors, interior areas will appear more spacious.
If there are neighboring houses that look out
onto your outdoor room, make sure you provide
some privacy screening. It won't be comfortable
to spend time there if you feel you're on display.

•   Lastly, provide for privacy. To be comfortable, at least part of your outdoor room should be screened from the view of your local gawkers.  Tall planting, a lattice screen, or just a good old-fashioned fence will fill the bill.  Or, build a trellis or gazebo to provide a private retreat from the main outdoor area.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


A few decades ago, you had two main choices of interior door:  A hollow-core slab door in Philippine mahogany, or one in paint grade. My, how tastes change.

Your standard-issue six-panel Colonial
door—king of the hill since the '80s.
Today, the molded six-panel Colonial door is king.  First made popular by tract builders during the 1980s, these retro-look doors are manufactured of wood fiber formed under pressure and won’t warp or split.  They’re available prefinished in a limited number of colors and can also be had prehung. Mind which brand you choose, though; some have really preposterous wood graining molded in.

From Grandma's house:
An old single-panel door
made of honest-to-God
For devotees of genuine wood, other choices are available.  Stile-and-rail panel doors—the kind your Grandma’s house probably had—have made a real comeback. The single-panel stile-and-rail door, originally seen in homes of the Twenties and Thirties, is currently the most popular style of genuine wood panel door.  These have a single large recessed panel that adds elegance without being as fussy as the molded six-panel style.  Also, because these doors are real wood, they can be stained or oiled.

Stile-and-rail doors are available in many other panel configurations as well, right down to the elaborate vertical-panel formats of Victorian times.  Of course, genuine wood panel doors will cost you more than the molded variety—a basic single-panel door in fir will run around $150.

A flush door is the "correct" style for  Mid-Century
Modern homes, which didn't cotton to a lot of
fussy ornament.
If you’re remodeling a Mid Century Modern home, however, all of these panel doors will look very much out of place. For these modernist-era homes, a slab door (more properly called a flush door) will be more in character. Don’t fear, though; you needn’t use a cheap hollow-core one.  Solid-core flush doors are available in a range of high-quality wood or laminate veneers. They start at around $100.  You may not find these at discount home centers, though—check the better quality lumberyards.

And while we're on the subject, here’s a brief summary of door types:

A pocket door can be a boon
when space is at a premium.
•  Swinging doors are by far the most common type.  The direction in which the door opens is called the hand of the door.  For example, a door which opens away from you and is hinged on the right is termed a right-hand door.  Hinged on the left, it’s a left-hand door.  But if it opens toward you and is hinged on the right, it’s a “right hand  reverse bevel door ”, and hinged on the left it's called a. . .  let’s just forget it, okay?

Bifold doors are sometimes the best
choice for odd-width openings;
in closets, they allow much better access
than bypassing doors.
•  Pocket doors (often mistakenly called sliding doors) slide into a recess in the wall. They usually come as a kit with all the required pocket framing and hardware.  The door itself is just a regular door, however, so any normal style can be used, as long as it doesn't have moldings that protrude beyond the door face.

•  Bypassing doors (also often incorrectly called sliding doors) are the least expensive type for closets.  They consist of two or more panels that slide behind each other, or “bypass”.  They can be of molded wood products, plastic, wood veneer, or solid wood.  They’re also available mirrored, with wood or aluminum frames.

•  Bifold doors are twin pairs of hinged panels that fold to either side of the opening.  They’re available molded or in solid wood (and less commonly in aluminum).  They’re popular for closets, since they’re available with louvers or half-louvers.  Though they look great when properly installed, they’re susceptible to misalignment and tend to bind as they get older.  The louvered type are also a nightmare to paint.

Monday, May 2, 2016


One of the most common requests I get from clients is to push out an exterior wall  “just a foot or two” to make a small room bigger. But that’s a very expensive and inefficient use of remodeling dollars: the less area you add on, the higher its unit cost. So that “foot or two”  is astronomically expensive in terms of the space gained.

The simplest and cheapest way to expand a room:
Light walls and more light.
Often, you can make a room seem much larger using less expensive alterations.  Here are a few things to try to before you commit to moving walls:

•  First and cheapest:  fresh paint.  Dingy, yellowed paint makes a room seem much smaller. A nice bright coat of off-white can do wonders by reflecting reflecting a  lot more light and thus visually expanding the space.  

•  For the same reasons, get rid of busy wallpaper and bogus paneling.  Patterns of any kind make surfaces appear closer to the eye, making the room shrink visually.  

Busy patterns converge
on the eye. Lose them
to gain visual space.
•  Heavy drapes may look sumptuous, but they also keep a lot of light out of a small room. Find lighter window coverings, or if appropriate, use none at all. The more light you let in, the bigger the room looks.

•  If you have a non-asbestos sprayed acoustic ceiling, consider having it removed. Acoustic textures don’t reflect light well and also gather dust and smoke, making the ceiling appear low and oppressive. A plain white ceiling will look higher and reflect more light into the room. 

If these nonstructural tricks don’t help, here are a few relatively inexpensive remodeling approaches:

Heavy drapes are not the thing for tight spaces.
If privacy is not an issue, get rid of
window coverings altogether.
•  If the room has a blank wall facing east, south, or west, consider adding one or more windows (however, think twice before adding windows on the north side—they won’t let in much sun and may make the room colder).  Again, bringing in more light—and better yet, a nice view—will expand the room visually.  

The new windows needn’t be smack in the middle of the wall; they could be narrow vertical strips in corners, or a high horizontal band near the ceiling.  Just make sure they won’t interfere with furniture placement; you should have at least one uninterrupted expanse of wall for bookcases and the like.

•  Add skylights.  Although they can get complicated depending on the roof’s pitch and construction, skylights are a good way to make a room look bigger.  If possible, give them a nice, flaring light well to distribute the light and to make the ceiling look higher.  

A bow or bay window (a bow is shown)
visually expands the room without
actually having to move walls.
Take note, however:  In many cases, skylights let in summer sun but often exclude the low winter sun when it’s most needed.  This not only means less light in winter, but also higher heat losses. Try to determine where and when the sun will shine through the skylight, and weigh the benefits before proceeding.

•  Finally, consider a bay or bow window.  A bay (which has three faces) or a bow (which has any number of facets arranged in an arc) can add a lot of character to a room, as well as a lot of light. And by projecting outside of the wall plane, they literally make the volume of the room bigger.  Bows and bays are available as kits from the major window manufacturers.  See your local window distributor. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

SHAMELESS THEATRICS: Taking a Lighting Cue From the Movies

Indirect lighting makes the ceiling vault appear to hover.
(Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, 1931)
Remember the sumptuous and exotic interiors of the great Art Deco movie palaces of the Thirties? Their magic owes a great deal to a technology that was just beginning to mature during that era:  atmospheric lighting.

Today, sixty years on, we can still learn a lot from the innovative lighting techniques of these remarkable buildings.  
The heart of most Art Deco theater lighting was the indirect lighting fixture.  In “indirects” the light source was concealed, producing a soft, glowing light with no obvious source.  The lamp bulbs were often hidden behind frosted or etched glass diffusers, inside niches, or behind pierced metal screens or grilles.  Several different colors of lamp bulb were used in one fixture, and each was controlled by a rheostat (the predecessor of today’s dimmer).  By varying the intensity of each colored lamp, the theater’s atmosphere could be made “warmer” or “cooler”. 
Indirectly lit water fountain niche,
(Pantages Theater, Hollywood, 1930)

Another Art Deco lighting trick was to conceal fixtures in continuous recesses near the tops of walls or in stepped ceilings, producing a halo of light at the ceiling’s perimeter and making it appear to float.  Again, multicolored lamps controlled by dimmers were used to vary the atmosphere of the space.

Still other theater lighting used etched glass panels edge-lit by hidden lamps. Refraction caused the etched design to luminesce while the clear glass remained dark, producing an almost holographic effect.  

Due to its unnatural direction, indirect
uplighting creates an otherworldly effect.
(Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, 1929)
Another atmospheric trick used in these building is indirect uplighting. Since the shadows cast by upward-facing fixtures are the reverse of what we’re used to seeing in sunlight, the effect is eerie and highly atmospheric.  

Shamelessly theatrical?  Yes.  Too wild for residences?  Hmmm. . .

The aptly-named Fountain of Light consists of
frosted glass panels backlit with colored lamps.
(Paramount Theater, Oakland, 1932)
•  Indirect lighting is still one of the simplest and most effective lighting schemes.  The fixtures themselves can be inexpensive, since they’re often totally concealed in the architecture.  What's more, the advent of affordable LED (light emitting diode) lighting has vastly expanded the range of indirect lighting possibilities. For example, LED "tape", which contains rows of tiny lamps on a flexible backing, can be fit into tiny spaces that could never have accommodated incandescent or fluorescent fixtures.

Uplit buddha figure with glowing eyes.
(Fox Theater, Oakland, 1928)
• Since the real impact of indirect lighting depends on the way it’s incorporated into the architecture, try unusual locations like beneath cabinet toe spaces or stair risers to achieve a floating effect.  Staircases can be lit by strip lamps concealed beneath handrails. Use indirects LED lamps hidden behind the front edge of niches to light objects inside, rather than lighting them from above.  The objects themselves will appear to glow.

•  Dimmers, a longtime staple of theater lighting, are becoming much more popular in residential work as well. By having several types of dimmable fixtures in one room, you can produce an infinite range of moods to suit any occasion. High-end dimmer systems even feature programmed “scenes” which adjust the lamps to preset light levels at the touch of a button. 

•  Colored lighting, which fell out of favor by the end of the Art Deco period, was dealt another blow by none-too-subtle usage during the psychedelic era of the 1960s. But it still has its place. LED lighting is available in a range of colors and can also be programmed into"scenes". Subtly varying light color can have a remarkable effect on room ambience, just as it did in the days of the movie palaces. Combined with dimming, varying colors offers a tremendous range of lighting possibilities.
Indirects work outdoors, too. Exterior uplighting
create a dramatic gradation of light from bottom to top.
(Senator Theater, Baltimore, 1939)

Shameless theatrics? You bet.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'll be away this week, so I'm reprising one of Architext's most Googled posts below. 

“Won’t it leak?”  Those are the first three words I hear from clients when I propose using a skylight.   

South-facing skylights may work great in winter,
but beware overheating in summer.
Not to worry.  Today’s skylights are all but leak-proof when they’re properly installed and flashed.  Least troublesome of all are the self-curbing variety, which feature a one-piece welded aluminum curb in place of the old-fashioned wooden curb and its associated waterproofing headaches.  Even interior condensation problems have been eased with the use of built-in gutters which either drain away condensate or hold it until it evaporates naturally.  

However, while skylights may give you fewer technical worries these days, their aesthetics and functionality still demand careful thought.  Here are a few tips:

Integrate your skylights into the design, as seen here;
don't just have them floating at random in the ceiling.
•  Choose the skylight’s location carefully.  First, determine its solar orientation, so you’ll know how much light you’ll be getting.  Too little light won’t justify the installation cost, while too much can make a room intolerably hot.  South-facing skylights in sloping roofs are especially liable to overheat rooms;  north-facing skylights will admit a soft, diffuse light all day long, though they won’t give that sun-splashed effect.  

Most manufacturers offer a range of glazing tints, from clear to gray- or bronze-tinted to translucent white, to suit the skylight’s orientation.  The gray and bronze tints help reduce overheating but still allow direct light, while the translucent white diffuses the light as well. However, you should also plan on some additional form of shading, whether an old-style roller shade or a pleated fabric one on tracks.   

•  Consider the skylight’s appearance both indoors and out.  Inside, try to align the skylight opening with a door, window, or some other existing feature, so that it doesn’t look haphazard.

Mind the skylight's appearance outside.
If possible, avoid having them face the street.
Low-profile skylights or "roof windows"
may look better from the outside.
Outside, avoid installing the skylight on any roof surface that faces the street.  Front-facing skylights look jarringly out of place on traditional home styles, since they were seldom used in the original designs, and often yield a cluttered-looking roof even on Modernist homes.  Discreet concealment is the safest course.

•  Choose a skylight that’s as large as orientation and aesthetics will allow.  A large skylight is cheaper than small one per unit area, and the premium in labor is often marginal.  Frequently, a single large skylight is also preferable to an equivalent group of smaller ones, even if it requires minor reframing.  Multiple units admit less light due to the intervening mullions, require proportionately more labor to install, and have a greater likelihood of leaks due to improper flashing.  

Why complicate things?  Single skylights are widely available in sizes up to five by eight feet, and at least one manufacturer offer standard units up to ten by twelve feet.  

Lots of unusual shapes are available, too.
•  Take advantage of special skylight options.    If you’re not keen on conventional “bubble” skylights, for example, some manufacturers offer special low-profile models.  Some firms will furnish some of their standard skylights with flat glass in place of the usual acrylic plastic bubble.  However, make sure the glass versions will meet your local building and fire codes.

Unusual shapes such as circles, octagons, and pyramids are also available.  Many rectangular skylights can be ordered “operable” (hinged to open a few inches for ventilation).  They can also be fitted with an electric operator controlled by a wall switch--probably a waste of money if the skylight is easy to reach, but a great convenience if it isn’t.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Author's note: Storybook Style, the 2001 book I co-authored with photographer Douglas Keister, is being republished by Schiffer in a renewed and expanded edition that will arrive next Spring. I've written on a number of the architects featured in the book, and in anticipation of its arrival, I'll reprint some of these essays in this blog from time to time. The following piece sketches the life of one of my favorite architects, Carr Jones.

If you think today’s “green” architects are pioneers, take a look at the work of Carr Jones.  An obscure engineer-builder, Jones clung stubbornly to environmental priniciples we’ve only lately come to cherish--and he started doing it back in the Teens.    

 Rear courtyard of the c. 1932 Hermans Residence
in Oakland, California. Jones both designed
and constructed his singular homes.
(Photograph by Douglas Keister)
Jones was born in Watsonville, California in 1885.  He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911.  Around this time he designed and built a simple redwood cottage for his parents in Berkeley, kicking off a long and colorful career as what we’d nowadays call a “design-build contractor”. 

But Jones was ahead of his time in other ways.  He worked in large part with recycled materials--brick, slate, timber, scrap steel and bits of salvaged ornament--from which he managed to conjure lyrically beautiful homes that transcended their humble origins.  

Carr Jones homes were often wrapped around
an interior courtyard that provided a quiet
sanctuary from the street.
Jones’s houses are almost invariably built of roughly-laid bricks left unfinished to show their natural range of colors; many have a gently curving floor plan embracing a central courtyard.  His unmistakable elevations are graced by an array of turrets, dormers, and chimneys.

Interior walls in a Carr Jones home are of exposed brick as well, enlivened by a variety of arched openings.  Overhead, massive, exposed roof trusses of salvaged timber provide dignified drama.  The genius of these houses lies in their perfect balance of the familiar and the unexpected--on the sense of calm lent by an ancient palette of materials, played against the builder’s continual ability to surprise.  In a Jones house, every window frames a charming vista; every room is a spatial banquet; every corner holds architectural delight.

Jones combined salvaged timber and brick with
factory-sash windows and clay floors
to create a uniquely natural style.
(Photo by Douglas Keister)
Though Jones’s houses share many traits with the Storybook Style homes of the 1920s--aged appearance, serpentine curves, and whimsical details--in his hands these features are organic rather than superficial.  It’s a happy result of building in a true medieval vernacular, without undue concern for perfection or popularity.  Jones chose his materials and designs not because they were fashionable, but because he believed in their absolute fitness for domesticity. 

Just where someone trained as a mechanical engineer acquired these refined sensibilities, we may never know.   There’s no doubt, however, that Jones would have been quite comfortable working in today’s era of earth-friendly architecture.

In view of where green architecture is now headed,
Jones's designs are about as old as tomorrow.
Like many pioneers before him, building with an unwavering conscience brought Jones neither financial success nor even much recognition during his lifetime.  When Revival styles lost favor after World War II, the demand for his lovely and personal works became even more modest.  He completed a scattering of postwar commissions in the Bay Area and designed his final residence in 1966, dying on the morning that its foundations were being chalked out on the site.  Jones’s stepson, Doug Allinger, completed the project following his death, and has admirably carried on Jones’s building philosophy in his own work.

Alas, Jones didn’t live to see the birth of the ecology movement in the late 60s, nor the subsequent rise of green architecture--events grounded in the very ideas he’d been practicing for half a century.