Monday, January 16, 2017

THE PERGOLA: Made in the Shade

California architect Bernard Maybeck was
a master in building with wood, and nowhere
better than in the pergola structure of his
famed First Christian Church in Berkeley.
I always get a blank look when I mention the word “pergola”.  A few people have even accused me of making it up.  Honest—I didn’t.      

A pergola is an outdoor structure that has two parallel rows of columns supporting a system of open roof beams. It’s more permanent than a trellis, arbor, or espalier, each of which is generally just a flimsy framework for plants to climb on. It's also a less formal structure than a gazebo, which usually has a radially symmetrical plan and a pitched roof.

I know it's January, but if you get started thinking about your pergola now, you can have it all finished and ready for summer.

Craftsman-era architects such as Bernard Maybeck and the brothers Greene well knew that a pergola extending from the house into the garden softened the transition between indoors and out, as well as providing a sensual respite from the hot sun. And indeed, on a hot summer day, a stroll beneath a graceful pergola overgrown with fragrant vines can be a memorable experience.

Stout columns with recessed panes are paired
in this handsome and unusual pergola design.
Since the pergola consists only of columns and an open roof, it’s also a delight to design and build. It has only two functional requirements: To provide shade for humans, and to provide support for climbing plants. The rest is up to you. 

The pergola’s columns should be substantial and not spindly—4x4s, for example, will look like toothpicks in the scale of the outdoors. While you can of course use off-the-shelf classical columns, it’s a lot more fun to come up with your own design. Try experimenting with hollow box columns, building them up to a substantial girth out of stock lumber. Because there’s so little actual material in these columns, you can lavish great detail on them at modest expense. Try adding moldings or decorative motifs, ceramic tile accents, or materials such as iron or copper.  You can even incorporate lighting fixtures if you want to get fancy. 

 Heavy timber makes for a pergola that's both better looking
and more resistant to the ravages of weather.
(Courtesy of
The pergola’s columns usually carry heavy primary beams, which in turn support a secondary set of smaller beams at right angles to them.  If the primary beams run crosswise, the pergola’s width will be emphasized; if they run lengthwise, its length will. Both primary and secondary beams can be cantilevered (extended beyond) the columns, and they can be finished with decorative end cuts such as Maybeck’s trademark “dragon’s mouth”.  Again, the heavier the lumber, the better. Avoid using skimpy  members such as 2x4s, since they look insubstantial outdoors and will quickly warp and fall apart. 

Long curving pergola—this one in Berkeley's
municipal rose garden—invites strollers to explore.
(Berkeley, as you can see, is a sort of pergola nexus)
Finally, a network of spaced wood members—that is, some form of latticework—is usually placed on top of the secondary beams. Although redwood lath is often used, it’s really too flimsy to hold up under the summer sun, and will warp and split after only a few seasons.  Try  1x2 or 2x2 redwood instead, and to lessen the chance of warpage, screw the pieces down rather than nailing them.  

The topmost members are usually installed “self-spaced” (having a gap equal to their own width between them).  This provides a nice dappled mixture of shade and sun, and allows climbing plants to get a good grip.

A simple two-column pergola turns an
ordinary gate into a genuine entrance.
California redwood is the customary lumber for building pergolas. You can also use pressure-treated ("Wolmanized") Douglas Fir, which is much more affordable, if you don't mind the visible needle marks in the surface. If you feel guilty about using redwood for environmental reasons, as I sometimes do, console yourself with the fact that a well-designed pergola such as yours may well last half a century or more. Many of Bernard Maybeck’s already have.

Monday, January 9, 2017


 Grand Staircase of the Paris Opera House or "Palais Garnier".
(Architect: Charles Garnier. Completed 1875)
From medieval times all the way up to World War II, the staircase was the focal design element in a multistory house. Stairs were built in myriad forms, from U- and T-shaped plans to curving and circular ones and even, in one case, as double spirals nested one inside the other.

Following World War II, interior architecture became increasingly ascetic, due both to the rise of Modernism and the need to build postwar tract homes as quickly and cheaply as possible. Staircases became unimaginative functional elements that were often completely enclosed, or else guarded by flimsy iron railings.

Curved stairs made a comeback during the 1970s,
when tract builders noticed that they
seemed to spark buyer interest.
During the 1970s, however, developers began to notice that homes with unusual staircases, such as curved ones, seemed to sell faster.  The public had spoken with its pocketbook, builders responded, and  today a bold staircase once again forms the focal point of many interiors.

Here are a few ways to make your own stairs worthy of Scarlett O’Hara:

•  The stair configuration is the most important aspect of a staircase’s design. Straight stairs are space-efficient, but are generally less dramatic (and more dangerous) than L- or U-shaped stairs with an intermediate landing. Landings also provide an opportunity for overlooks or seating that can add great spatial interest.

 • Stairs should be as broad as space allows. Three feet is the minimum width prescribed by code, but anything more is a big improvement.  If you don’t have the space to make the entire staircase wide, create an illusion of width by using wide treads up to the first landing and narrower ones thereafter. At the bottom of the stairs, try using a “ bullnose” step that’s broader and “spills out” into the room. The bullnose furthers the illusion of added width, and its funneling effect makes the staircase more welcoming.  .  

 The bottom "bullnose" tread of this staircase gives an illusion
of additional width. The convex forward bulge
gives a more dynamic and welcoming appearance.
Another visual trick is to make the bottom few treads “bulge” forward in an increasingly convex shape, which further intensifies the dramatic “spilling” effect. Both of these effects are relatively inexpensive if the stair will be completely carpeted; however, if hardwood is used, they can add appreciable cost.

•  Balusters—the vertical elements of the rail—shouldn’t be spindly and insubstantial. A wide range of sturdy wood balusters are available at lumber and hardwood dealers; many of them are designed to work with stock hardwood handrails and don’t require a lot of custom joinery. Metal balusters, too, can be specified in heavier sizes, and can be spiraled or have additional elements welded between them.

The newel post can be an artistic statement
in itself. Just mind the various code
requirements for baluster spacing
and rail height.
Remember that the space between balusters must be such that a 4” diameter sphere cannot pass through. The handrail must be between 34” and 38” above the nosing (the front edge) of the stair treads, and the rail itself must have a grippable shape between 1 1/2 inches and 2 inches in diameter.

• Adding a substantial newel post (the terminal baluster at the top and bottom of the stair rail) not only makes the rail sturdier, but also gives it a more monumental look. For a traditional effect, add a finial to the newel post.  There are lots of styles available at lumberyards, from spheres to acorns to pineapples.

Monday, January 2, 2017

SHHHHH!: Quieting That Confounded Noise

That confounded noise!
Ugh, that confounded noise! Whether it’s the rush of freeway traffic, the drone of a furnace fan, or just the faint tap-tap-tapping of your kid texting in the next room, noise in the home can drive you crazy.

Noise is simple to define: It’s any sound you don’t want to hear. For example, while you may happily tolerate the whine of jet engines at an airport, hearing them in your living room would be something else entirely. Their sound is transformed into noise.

A solid wall is a little like a giant drum head.
Staggered double-stud construction reduces
impact noise by "de-coupling" wall surfaces.
Noise consists of sound waves whose behavior, while theoretically predictable, is very complex. Even acoustic engineers can’t always figure them out—witness the number of concert halls with bad acoustics, or those freeway sound barriers that actually increase traffic noise in homes some distance away. Nevertheless, there are a few simple guidelines that can help you keep out unwanted sounds.

Noise travels via two paths—through the air (airborne noise), and through materials (impact noise). Both have to be addressed in order to contain a noise problem. The sound of that drunken twit banging on the wall next door is an impact noise. It’s usually of low frequency, and it’s best contained by isolating (or “decoupling”) the two surfaces. One way is to build a double wall between the spaces, sometimes using different stud sizes and gypsum board thicknesses to prevent sympathetic vibration. Other methods use special resilient channels to “float” the gypsum wallboard on its supports.

Resilient channels are used to
"float" gypsum board atop
the wall studs, allowing it
to absorb some of the sound energy.
Airborne noise—the screech of somebody else's kid playing a violin, for example—is usually of higher frequencies, and it’s relatively easier to damp. Sound-absorptive materials such as fiber glass blankets can be placed inside walls and ceilings or, in existing buildings, materials such as acoustic tile or tackboard can be installed on the face of surfaces. The softer and more absorbent the material, the more airborne sound is absorbed. That’s why carpet is often used as a sound dampener on airport walls.

A gap this size around an outlet box is
enough to completely negate any
soundproofing in the wall. 
However, putting sound insulation in a dividing wall can only solve part of an airborne noise problem. Any penetrations in the wall—even as small as the cracks around receptacles—will continue to transmit a surprising amount of sound. Such penetrations have to be carefully tracked down and filled with calk or foam materials. The idea is to get the wall literally airtight, since without a pathway of air available, airborne sound waves can’t travel.

A commercial water hammer
arrestor, especially advisable
near laundry machine faucets.
Many common noise problems are best addressed in the construction stage. Water hammer in pipes can be reduced by making sure that all piping is securely attached to the framing, and by placing isolators or expansive foam in the holes that pipes pass through. Commercial water hammer arrestors are also available.

The drone of a forced-air furnace fan can be muted by locating the furnace outside  the living space, and by placing the return-air intake (which is like a superhighway for furnace noise) some distance from the furnace itself. The rushing sound of air exiting from registers can be reduced by increasing the register size and hence reducing the air velocity through the diffuser vanes. External sounds such as highway noise can be damped by using triple glazing in windows, adding drapes, and even by planting leafy greenery outside the house.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Concrete block has always been the neglected stepchild of architecture. Even today, the humble material most us call “cinder block” still conjures up dreary images of warehouses, barracks and roadside motels.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in Los Angeles
used his vaguely Mayan-looking "textile block" system.
(Courtesy Catherine M.  Austin, ASID)

A few architects have made noble attempts to change block’s image. In the 1920s, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a system he called “textile block”, in which custom-made blocks cast with various geometric designs were combined into a sort of tapestry in concrete, vaguely Mayan in appearance. A number of his better-known homes used the system, including the affordable-housing prototype “Usonian House”. Yet even Wright’s creative efforts failed to ignite the public’s interest in block.

Some years later, a lesser-known architect of the Prairie School, Alden Dow, devised a truly ingenious twist on the ubiquitous rectangular block: He designed it in the form of a parallelogram with equal sides—not just to be different, but so that he could build walls with perfect 45° angles as well as right angles. Dow built many intriguing homes using this method, but alas, the system passed away with him.

Back to the Sixties: An interesting use of screen block.
All right then, let’s face it: Outside of the Everglades, you won’t find many big fans of concrete block houses. Still, for do-yourself applications such as low garden walls, privacy screens, or foundations for outbuildings, block is unbeatable. It’s much less stressful to work with than poured concrete, since you can stop anytime you like—try that when you’ve got a dump trailer full of concrete starting to harden on you. And it’s actually lots of fun mixing and matching the umpteen patterns and colors of block that are available. Like Wright, you can weave a custom pattern of your own making. Here are a few concrete-block specifics:  

A split-face block, which is made by
extruding a single square block and literally
splitting it in half to produce a broken face.
•  Concrete block is technically referred to as CMU, for "concrete masonry unit". It isn’t cast, but is actually extruded through a die using a very dry concrete mix. The result is a masonry unit that’s relatively light, extremely strong and—let’s not forget—pretty darn cheap.

 Bond beam blocks used to strengthen a foundation.
• A standard concrete block is nominally 8” high by 8” wide by 16” long, so that when it’s laid up in a wall, the joints fall on the familiar 8” module.  However, 4” and 6” widths are also available, along with goodies such as end blocks, wall caps, and bond beams (special trough-shaped blocks that form a horizontal beam when filled with concrete, often used to strengthen walls or span openings).

Creativity makes a difference: This interesting combination
of block textures, colors, and sizes goes a long way
toward overcoming the usual concrete-block doldrums.
•  There are literally scores of different block types and colors available, so you needn’t load up on the usual dull gray variety. In addition to the familiar flat-faced block—available in a surprising range of colors—there are dozens of special types as well: Patterned block embossed with diamonds, triangles, or starbursts; screen block, which has variously shaped openings that form a pattern when laid up; and split-faced block, which imitates rustic quarried stone. Also available is slump block, a cousin of concrete block, whose bulges and irregularity are meant to imitate adobe.

•  Lastly, one caveat: Laying concrete block is a skill that’s not as easy as it looks, but can usually be picked up with a little perseverance. Before you go out and build that cinder-block Taj Mahal in your back yard, however, don’t forget that block walls must be reinforced with steel and then filled with a special thin mixture of concrete called grout. Leave out the rebar and grout, and you’re liable to end up with a lightweight pile of rubble.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Drywall makes it easy to produce massive-looking details
such as these arches. Note, however, that it's best not to mix
different styles of arches as has been done here.
Gypsum board—commonly known as "drywall" or "sheetrock"—has taken a lot of hits over the years, but despite its low-rent reputation, it's a marvelously adaptable interior finish. It’s relatively lightweight, easy to work, and lends itself to a variety of complex shapes.

With gypsum board, it's easy to create dramatic interior effects such as coffers, vaults and arches on even the tightest budget. All that’s required is furring (false framing) made from ordinary lumber, and a clear sense of the interior effect you’re after. To wit:

Wood furring or false framing is typically used to provide
a structure for attaching the gypsum board.
There are also many products that make it easier
to create arches and other details.
•  To make walls look more substantial, use furring and gypsum board to increase the “reveal” or thickness of the wall at openings such as archways. In many modern homes, the reveal is only about 4 1/2” (the thickness of a standard 2x4 partition)—one reason for the notoriously flimsy look of many postwar homes. Increasing this thickness to 8” or even 12” will produce a very dramatic effect of mass. Since your eye can only judge a wall’s thickness where it’s penetrated, you don’t necessarily have to furr the whole wall to achieve this illusion—just the area around the opening.

You can heighten the appearance of mass if you give openings a shape characteristic of masonry construction, such as flared sides or an arched top. Avoid designs using acute angles, since they’re seldom seen in masonry work. Also, to maintain the illusion of mass, be consistent—don’t have an archway passing through a supposedly massive wall that also has a skinny standard doorway in it.

Furring make these elliptical arches look massive.
Compare this example to the no-no at the bottom of the page.
•  If a streamlined or Modernistic look is more to your taste, capitalize on gypsum board’s ability to form curves. Curves are created either by slitting the back of the board, or by wetting it to make it more flexible.  Really tight curves usually require two layers of 1/4” gypsum board instead of a single layer of 1/2” board. Special rounded or “bullnose” corner beads are also available to complement the streamlined look.

•  Other effects such as tray ceilings, vaulted ceilings, niches, and complex archways are easy to achieve at modest expense. However, avoid fussy, overcomplicated details; bold, generous proportions usually produce the best results. If you’re unsure of your design, build a mock-up out of white cardboard before committing yourself.

A groin-vaulted ceiling using prefabricated furring
proves that almost anything is possible in gypsum board.
(Courtesy NH Drywall)
When combined with a smooth finish or veneer plastering (a thin plaster coat that yields an extremely flat surface), it’s not that expensive to get really impressive results.

Good results also depend on the accuracy of the furring underneath. Arches and the like must be carefully built up of wood to provide a solid backing for the gypsum board. Prefabricated furring pieces for creating arches and curves are available to simplify the job. Once the furring is complete, the gypsum board should be attached with drywall screws rather than nails—they’re less likely to disturb the position of the furring, and won’t pull out as easily.

Unless you’re experienced in gypsum board installation and tape-and-texture work, leave the creation of curves and special shapes to a professional.  A good tape-and-texture contractor can also help you figure out the most economical way of achieving the effect you’re after.  
To avoid a crackerbox look, don't put arched openings
in standard-thickness stud walls like this one.
Furr the walls out to make the arches more convincing.

Monday, December 5, 2016


The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum
has been replaced by a lot of clinical tapping.
Architecture, that most hidebound of professions, was long ago won over by the computer. CAD (Computer Aided Design), once the exclusive domain of huge architecture firms, is now virtually the rule in one person offices as well. 

In the main, CAD has been a blessing to the architectural profession. Having begun my practice in pre-computer days, I can testify that CAD has taken much of the now medieval-seeming drudgery out of architecture. By replacing paper and pencil with a computer screen, architects are no longer smudged with graphite by day’s end. Likewise, the hours of messy erasure once required to revise drawings is now a neat and simple matter of point and click. Powerful capabilities such as virtual reality are soon to come. 
Would architecture such as that of
William R. Yelland ever have
arisen on CAD....?
(Normandy Village,
Berkeley, California, begun 1926)

However, there's no denying that CAD has taken some of the romance out of architecture as well.   The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum, leaving a crisp and charismatic hand-drawn line, has been replaced by the clinical tapping of keys and mouse buttons.               

Neither can the computer compensate for a lack of creativity. An architect who’s incompetent on paper is just as dangerous on a computer—his lines are straighter, that’s all. In fact, by concealing sloppy thinking in a tidy-looking presentation, computer drafting sometimes legitimizes a caliber of work that would otherwise not be passable. 

CAD contains booby traps even for accomplished architects. Too many are seduced by the easy flashiness of computer drawings, sometimes to the point where the process supersedes the product. For one thing, the tempting ability to copy and paste details with a computer can make an architect lazy, and it shows in some CAD-produced work. Details, and sometimes whole sections of buildings, become repetitive and rigid. 
...or Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps (1954)?

Operations that are difficult on a computer can influence designs as well. For example, drawing complex curves is quick and natural with a pencil, but relatively cumbersome with CAD. Hence, an architect may relent—consciously or not—to the simpler option of using straight lines instead. The idiom of the computer begins to dictate the idiom of the architect.  

In fact, it’s inconceivable that the fantastical, free-form Hansel-and-Gretel cottages of an architect like William R. Yelland—or even the sinuous carved details of Bernard Maybeck—could ever have arisen on CAD. The process is just too rational. Ditto for highly sculptural masterpieces like LeCorbusier’s soaring chapel at Ronchamps, which has scarcely a straight line or simple curve in it. This very shortcoming is, ironically, why an architect such as Frank Gehry requires a whole army of drafters using massive computing power to even approach the freedom of a hand-drawn design.
Ironically, it now takes a whole army of CAD technicians
to create a building that aims to look hand-drawn.
(Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003)

Progress always brings tradeoffs, however. And as CAD programs continue to become more intuitive, designing on a computer may one day one day become almost as natural as drawing with a pencil.  

At the same time, though, we should recognize that architecture is closer to social science than rocket science. Architects must satisfy human beings, not just sets of numerical parameters. While computers can can help us sort out the cold-blooded logistics of door sizes and floor heights, they’re less useful in the creation of passionate architecture. They can never equal the power of a pencil in a sympathetic hand.

Monday, November 28, 2016


The typical Western architect's way of dealing with a view:
Beat people over the head with it.
Western architects of the Modernist era customarily addressed exterior views with huge walls of glass.  This method of framing a view, known as a panorama, relied on the vastness and breadth of the view for impact. 

Western architects loved the panorama because it created a near-invisible transition between indoors and out.  The ultimate example of this concept is the house that architect Philip Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Connecticutt in 1950: A rectangular box with walls made entirely of glass. Only the bathroom was concealed by solid walls. 

Architect Philip Johnson's famous—or infamous,
as you prefer—"Glass Box". The cylinder
inside contains the bathroom.
In recent decades, however, the traditionally Western concept of the panoramic view has been severely constrained by energy-efficiency regulations that limit glass area to a fraction of that commonly used in Modernist architecture. In effect, we’re no longer able to build glass walls to bring in the scenery.  

Fortunately, there’s another way to wring drama out of a view.

In the Orient, and particularly in Japanese architecture, a beautiful view has traditionally been treated as something to be savored in small quantities, not gorged upon. This concept, known as the vista (or, if you like, the “Zen view”) treats a beautiful view like a jewel, placing it in a carefully framed window that can be best appreciated from a particular spot, rather than from anywhere in the room. The designer thereby controls the exact viewing angle, allowing him to compose the view seen through the window exactly as an artist might compose a landscape painting.  

The controlled "Zen view" directs the eye
toward an intentionally composed scene.
Deliberately framing a beautiful view by concealing it from portions of the room has the effect of renewing our appreciation for it.  We’re not constantly exposed to the same scene, so we don’t become desensitized to it. It’s a more subtle way of treating a thing of beauty, just as a painting is more subtle than a wall mural.

Better yet, the vista concept dovetails nicely with today’s attitudes on energy conservation. Because windows lose heat about ten times faster than walls do, reducing their size reduces heat loss and cuts down fuel consumption.  Smaller windows help to conserve energy while still showcasing a good view.

In all, you have nothing to lose in aesthetics and much to gain in efficiency by designing with vistas rather than panoramas. Here are a few hints for capitalizing on vistas:
A comprehensive "view inventory" should be made
before you even begin planning.

•  Before committing a design to plans, make a careful “view inventory” of the site. Figure out the exact angles at which views are visible; don’t leave it to chance or count on moving windows later during construction.  There’s no reason that the location of a view window can’t be determined within a few inches of its final position before any plans are drawn. 

•  Conversely, determine the location of unattractive views (telephone poles, the neighbor’s garage roof, and the like) and arrange the windows so that these views are screened off by walls.  Or, if it’s imperative to have windows in areas with unattractive views, provide them with opaque glass, or hang translucent art-glass pieces in them.

•  Consider the “station point” or position from which people will most often glimpse the view.  The scene framed by the window should ideally be composed from this point in the room, so that it has an intentional impact on the viewer.