Monday, September 28, 2015


It’s a familiar sort of news item these days: A huge and vastly expensive bridge being proposed in California will forever alter one of the Golden State’s most spectacular marine panoramas. It will be the largest of its type ever built, stretching over a mile and a half between landfalls, towering nearly 700 feet above the water, and carrying six lanes of traffic into a once-isolated area containing some of the state’s most unspoiled stretches of coastline.

The Golden Gate Bridge
under construction, circa 1936.
Here come years of political acrimony, debate over cost and viability, interference by special interests, uproar over environmental impact, and all the rest, right?

Wrong. You won’t hear any of this, because the bridge in question was completed across San Francisco’s incomparable Golden Gate seventy-five years ago—in an era when ambitious engineering projects were met with unity of purpose rather than fractious bickering. This may explain why the Golden Gate Bridge could be built in the incredibly short span of 51 months, and at a final cost that was $1.3 million below budget.

Granted, the bridge’s road to completion wasn’t a smooth one. The idea of bridging the Golden Gate had long been pondered, but only in 1916 was any real action taken toward this goal. In the interim came the Great Depression and a series of financial setbacks to the project. Still, construction on one of the most inhospitable sites in history began on January 5, 1933. Four years and four months later, on May 28, 1937, the bridge was opened to traffic. Total cost: $35 million (about  $1.2 billion in current dollars).

The Bay Bridge Replacement Span,
under construction from 2002 until 2013.
Contrast these statistics with those of another project that’s finally been completed just a few miles inland from the Golden Gate, on a shallow and far less challenging site. It’s a new, purportedly earthquake-safe bridge intended to replace the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a portion of which collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Since the old bridge carried some 270,000 vehicles per day, the prospect of another collapse forced a decision to replace it with a safer span before an even bigger quake came along. 

A fairly urgent undertaking, no? Yet instead of unity of purpose, there ensued more than a decade of political wrangling over economic, aesthetic, engineering and environmental issues. Construction finally began a dozen years later, in 2002, attended by the first of many subsequent sticker shocks: The lone construction bidder came in at $1.4 billion--almost twice the State’s projected cost of $780 million. 

The completed span is still mired in controversy.
The old bridge, on the right, is currently
being dismantled.
Today, more than twenty-six years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the intended replacement bridge is finally open, at an estimated total construction cost of $6.3 billion—over eight times the original estimate. Yet the bridge is still embroiled in controversy, this time having to do with some critical construction members that are failing. The arguments about whether the new bridge is truly safe or not continue. 

On the one hand, then, we have a truly daunting engineering challenge, undertaken in difficult economic times on a site that many declared unbuildable, that was nevertheless completed in record time and under budget. On the other, we have an urgent and relatively straightforward project that’s been mired in red tape and controversy for over a quarter of a century. 

As the Golden Gate Bridge approaches its eightieth year, one has to lament the disparate outcomes in this tale of two bridges, and what they say about America today. Here’s to you, Golden Gate Bridge—it’s a shame we can’t seem to build ‘em like you anymore.
Makes you really appreciate
how they pulled off this miracle
all those years ago.

Monday, September 21, 2015


I’ve seen homeowners spend weeks agonizing over which shingle color and texture is best for their new roof. Then, after going to all this effort, they simply leave it to the roofing company to install any old crappy gutter.

Oh, no, a leak! Do you need
new gutters? Probably not.
Since rain gutters and downspouts are often even more conspicuous than the roof itself, you should choose new ones with at least as much care as you do roofing. But first, make sure they actually need replacement. Too often, they don’t.

In the course of bidding on a reroofing job, many a roofing contractor will often say something like, “You know, as long as we’re at it, this would be the time to replace your gutters.” This is a bit like your barber saying, “As long as I’m cutting your hair, I should give you a nose job as well.” 

To be blunt, installing new gutters in conjunction with reroofing is simply a way for roofing contractors to make a little extra profit, while freeing their workers from having to protect the existing gutters from damage during the job. These are both perfectly valid reasons to replace your existing gutters. Unfortunately, they're only valid from the contractor’s perspective, not yours.

Yes, I've seen some clueless folks let their roofer
rip out old gutters such as these and
replace them with aluminum dreck.
What’s more, the quality of most replacement gutters and downspouts is typically worse than that of original gutters in sound condition. Hence, homeowners who agree to lump in gutter replacement with their new roof often wind up with a flimsier, less attractive, and quite unnecessary “improvement”. I’ve even come across some clueless homeowners who allowed a roofer to rip out superb old custom-made gutters and ornamental downspouts and replace them with utterly inferior prepainted aluminum dreck.

The rules of thumb regarding gutter replacement are simple: 

• If your original gutters are straight, solid, and don’t leak, they don’t need replacement, period. 

The ubiquitous "K Style" gutter.
• If they do leak, there’s a fair chance they can be repaired. In the case of steel or copper gutters, contact your local sheet metal shop. For redwood gutters, have a good handyman determine if they can be calked or patched. 

• If you do decide on replacement, demand gutters that are at least equal to the originals in quality. Ask a knowledgeable but disinterested party (not the roofer doing the work) to recommend the best material. 

• Lastly, put at least as much thought into choosing the gutter profile (the cross-sectional shape) as you do into choosing the roofing material. Don’t let the contractor make this choice for you; many will simply fall back on the style of gutter that’s the least trouble to install. 

Half-round gutter are suited to Spanish Revival
and many other traditional home styles.
If you’re replacing your home’s original gutters, simply choose the profile that’s closest to the original. Traditional home styles typically have more ornate profiles; for example, the familiar ogee gutter (or “K-style” as it’s known to the trade) looks more or less like a fancy molding when installed. Another common traditional profile—often found in Spanish and English Revival homes—is the beaded half-round gutter, which has an almost medieval appearance and is typically installed with round downspouts. All of these styles are commonly available, so don’t let anyone tell you that what you want is obsolete. That just doesn’t hold water.

Monday, September 14, 2015


Philip Johnson's AT&T Building
(now the Sony Building):
Socks are in the bottom drawer.
Way back in 1978, at the dawn of Postmodernism, the architect and social critic Charles Jencks noted how bad most architects are at gauging public reaction to their work. Unlike most architects, Jencks recognized that lay people, rather than perceiving sly aesthetic references to history or some other arcane theoretical underpinning, associate unusual architectural forms with mundane things that are close to their experience.

To cite a common example, while modern architects considered the monotonous window grids of their highrise buildings to be the apotheosis of form following function, critics and cartoonists routinely lampooned them as grid-paper charts or huge filing cabinets.

Architects often despair over such misinterpretations of their work by less high-minded observers. While Frank Lloyd Wright saw the circular, outward-leaning shell of his Guggenheim Museum (1959) as an organic spiral for the display of art, others saw it as a gigantic beige toilet. Likewise, when Philip Johnson fielded ironic allusions to Georgian architecture in his postmodern, broken-pedimented AT&T Building in Manhattan (1984), many lay persons instead perceived a towering Chippendale wardrobe.

San Francisco's St. Mary of the Assumption:
A giant washing machine isn't
what the architects had in mind. 
It’s natural for people to associate an unusual shape with something more familiar, and this is one reason that popular nicknames for famous buildings stick so easily. Hence, when famed architects Pietro Belluschi and Luigi Nervi designed San Francisco’s ultramodern Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (1970)--topped by a towering white cruciform roof resembling a giant washing machine agitator--locals lost no time in christening the church Our Lady of Maytag.

Then again, there are designs so unusual that they stand as a sort of Rorschach test not merely for the beholder, but for the architect as well. Jorn Utzon’s celebrated Sydney Opera House, finally completed in 1973 after years of controversy, provides a renowned example. It has perhaps invited more interpretations than any other building in history, having been been compared to everything from seashells and sails to angry alligators or trios of copulating turtles. 

Frank Gehry's EMP Museum in Seattle:
Anything than can be said, has been said.
In the case of the Sydney Opera House, however, it’s not really clear that Utzon himself understood the singularly evocative form he’d created. He’d unexpectedly won the competition for the building’s design in 1957--notably, with a set of drawings that was conceptual at best--and one can only presume that the design bubbled up from some intuitive place deep in his subconscious. Utzon later coined the term “Additive Architecture” to describe a design approach based on the growth patterns of nature, and no doubt he already had such a paradigm in mind when he created the opera house’s unforgettable form. It may be this very ambiguity in the architect’s intentions that has led to such a rich variety of interpretations--an architectural Rorschach for everyone who beholds it.

Then we have the even less conventional work of architects such as Frank Gehry, whose later buildings are commonly described as having exploded, collapsed, or been wrecked by a tornado. What these descriptions say about the architect’s mind probably remain beyond our reach, but what they say about us is no less interesting.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Last time, we saw that designing a small remodeling project doesn’t always require the comprehensive services you typically get from an architect working on commission. And we also noted how hiring an architect on an hourly consulting basis can be less expensive while maintaining the benefit of professional expertise in the areas that really matter. 

One small town's Design Review process—
something you might want to
let your architect wrestle with.
At first glance, paying an architect in the realm of $100-$150 an hour may seem not seem very economical. Yet when this time is delegated wisely, hourly consulting is typically cheaper than hiring an architect on commission. What’s more, the design process remains in your control for the duration—if you don’t like the way things are shaping up, you can part company with the architect and look elsewhere.

Naturally, the trick is to use the architect’s expertise where it matters most--and exactly which areas of the design process this entails may surprise you. It’s not well understood by most people, for instance, that the work of drafting construction drawings (or “blueprints”, as they’re still commonly known) is merely the culmination of the architect’s real work, which entails sorting out the whole three-dimensional puzzle of how a building or addition should be arranged. The ability to solve this spatial puzzle in a way that’s both functional and artistic is what sets an architect apart from a drafter.  Hence, this early phase—known as “preliminary design” in the trade—turns out to be the most critical time to invest in the architect’s skill. 

Working drawings: Maybe you draw them,
maybe you don't.
Once the architect has produced a preliminary design that suits you, it’ll probably also be worth your while to have him thread the project through the ever-increasing maze of bureaucratic approvals. Time was, people simply built whatever they pleased as long as it conformed with zoning laws (and often even when it didn’t), but those days are long gone. In many towns, even the tiniest projects are closely reviewed by the city staff or by a special design review board. Often, you have to notify your neighbors that you intend to build, and almost inevitably, one or another of them will raise some objection. Having jumped through these hoops many times before, an experienced architect will be able to head off these potential problems, while quite literally presenting your project in the best possible light. 

Once the architect has shepherded the preliminary design through the approvals labyrinth, you’ll need to decide how to proceed with the actual construction drawings or “blueprints”. If there’s not much left in your architectural piggy bank, and you’re a decent drafter—or if you don’t mind entrusting the job to an unlicensed designer—this may be the time for your architect to graciously bow out. 

Okay—now choosing from among 35 pinks
is YOUR problem.

On the other hand, having saved a good chunk of money by avoiding the commission fee—and hopefully, having gained an appreciation of your architect’s abilities—maybe you’ll decide to have him or her complete the construction drawings as well, albeit with the least information necessary to obtain a building permit. 

In the meantime, you can busy yourself with the time-consuming chores you’ve so kindly taken off the architect's hands: Choosing all those paint chips, toilets, baseboards and doorknobs.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Save money by hiring an architect for hourly consulting
instead of paying the usual commission fee.

In this Do-It-Yourself era, can you also be your own architect? The answer is, yes and no. Though it’s not widely known, you don’t need an architect’s license to draw plans for a wood-framed building, as long as it’s no more than two stories high over a crawlspace. Since the lion’s share of residential work falls into this category, this means pretty much anyone can draw their own house plans, or can hire another unlicensed person to do it for them.

Considering that architects customarily charge a commission fee of between ten and fifteen percent of the project budget for residential work, the do-it-yourself route may seem pretty appealing. After all, the cash you’d save would probably buy a whole truckload of goodies from your local building emporium.

Alas, the fact that it’s perfectly legal to act as your own architect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. There’s a lot more to deal with than a little drafting: Municipal zoning and design review regulations have become ever more complex, as have national building codes. The learning curve in these areas alone is forbiddingly steep, even for professionals. But there’s also the larger question of whether your home—which is likely the single biggest investment you’ll ever make—is the best place to cut corners.

If you're willing to do this part
of the architect's job,  you can save big $$$.
And the more of it you do, the better.
(Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Fortunately, there’s a middle-of-the-road solution to the extremes of hiring an architect at full fee or doing the work yourself. Basically, it’s architecture by the hour, and it works by doing away with any work that’s not strictly necessary to your project.

When you hire an architect on a commission fee basis, you’re paying him for a whole package of professional services—things like choosing finish materials, paint colors, lighting fixtures, hardware, and so on. Usually, an architect will also include exhaustive detailing and specifications for such items as windows, appliances, and the like, so that if multiple contractors are bidding on the plans, they can compete “apples to apples”.

Like many homeowners, however, you may be perfectly willing to choose finishes, colors, and fixtures yourself. Moreover, if you already have a contractor firmly in mind, or if you plan to do all or part of the work yourself, it may not be necessary for the architect to nail down brand names and models for each and every item in the project—a time-consuming and therefore expensive task. If your contractor is willing to work with you on these choices instead, you can save some more money and also have a bit more time to choose the things you want.
Paying for architecture by the hour can get you
to this point for a lot less money.

Suppose you’re hoping to add on a master bedroom and bathroom. You’re working on a shoestring, and there’s no way you can stretch your budget to pay a full-bore architect’s commission fee. Is there a leaner, more targeted way to use the architect’s expertise? 

This time, the answer is quite often yes. The first step is to relieve your architect of the chores that you’re willing and able do yourself, and this means scrapping the commission fee and hiring him to consult by the hour. But exactly what should you be consulting about? We’ll find out next time. 

Monday, August 24, 2015


“Crackerbox.” That’s only one of the unflattering names we’ve given postwar tract houses thanks to their thin, flimsy look. Funny thing is, most of these houses are actually better built than their predecessors. Why do they look so insubstantial?

The Fagus shoe last factory in Alfeld, Germany,
designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer
and completed in 1913.
The architects treated its windows like a
cellophane wrapper. Having thin-looking walls
was the whole point.
The single biggest reason comes down to a tiny little difference--in fact, it’s just a matter of a few inches. Prior to World War II, wooden windows were installed slightly recessed from the wall surface, leaving a visible recess or “reveal” showing all around. This simple feature provided a subtle visual cue that the surrounding wall had mass and thickness. 

Ironically, to modernist architects of the 1920s and 30s, this reveal was bad news. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe espoused walls that looked as thin as possible. After all, the revolutionary new building materials of the early twentieth century—steel and reinforced concrete—no longer demanded the massiveness of traditional masonry construction, and many architects believed that truly modern buildings should honestly reflect this fact: Walls should be thin, precisely because they could be thin. Likewise, windows, rather than being mere holes punched into a heavy-looking wall, were to be treated as a sort of cellophane wrapper stretched over an ethereally light framework. 

Delicate aluminum frames were the
ultimate expression of Modernism—
look Ma, no structure!
By the end of the Depression, most people believed that traditional architecture was stone dead, and that modernism was here to stay. It was around this time that a number of window manufacturers began doing their own part for modernism. They introduced new windows with extremely slender frames--initially of steel, and later of aluminum--whose glass was purposely set flush with the outside surface of the wall, lending the ultra-flat look modernists craved.

Alas, while this two-dimensional aesthetic might have been ideal for highrise office buildings, it was not so well received for dwellings. And despite the best efforts of modernists such as Le Corbusier to retrain the public, most people continued to believe that their homes should look massive, permanent and secure, not thin, light and ethereal.

By the time modernism’s purposely flimsy look started to bother home buyers, however, the new windows had already conquered the housing industry. Not coincidentally, they were also much cheaper to install, which meant there was no going back to the old, labor intensive wooden windows of yore.

Another valiant attempt to give depth to
those flat, flat windows.
It’s ironic, then, that for the last three decades, architects and builders have been on a frantic quest to make those two-dimensional modernist windows look more like their substantial old wooden predecessors. They’ve tried using clunky trim, fake stone, or foam moldings to suggest a reveal where there isn’t one. They’ve tried flanking the windows with shutters to make them more massive. They’ve added phony grilles between panes of double glass to mimic a traditional look, but in all of this, they’ve only succeeded in making the walls look flatter than ever. 

Ultimately, there’s only one way to capture the look of a traditional window, and that’s to install it in the traditional way. There’s just no substitute for that critical couple of inches.

Monday, August 17, 2015

GET THE HELL OUT! Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we noted how few people truly take advantage of the land around their homes, and we saw how a simple change like replacing certain windows with doors could radically increase the usefulness of outdoor areas. This time, we’ll look at ways to make the land outside your walls serve as an extension of the interior floor plan—to create genuine function in outdoor areas, rather than just providing the usual eye candy of cutesy-pie flower beds and lawns.
Avoid gigantic or long, skinny decks (in this
case, both). They'll feel vast
and uninviting.

On any given residential lot, the land outside the house typically ranges from two to four times the area of the house itself.  Yet remarkably few houses have outdoor areas that are truly functional extensions of the interior floor plan. Here are some ways to make sure you’re getting all you can out of your property:

• Decide which rooms have the most potential for access to the exterior. Consider such factors as how high the floor is off the ground, how you’ll ensure privacy, how much space is available for a deck or terrace beyond the door, what the solar orientation of that area is, and how it will transition to the rest of the garden. Don’t rule out any area for direct access to the outdoor—the living room, dining room, and bedrooms are obvious candidates, but a breakfast room or even a bathroom might benefit as well. 

Always make outdoor steps much, much
wider than interior steps. Six feet wide is a bare
minimum, and there's no such thing as too wide.
(Image courtesy Simon Fletcher Landscapes)
• Once you know where the new exterior doors will be, lay out the garden as a series of rooms, just as you would an interior floor plan. Draw up a list of functional requirements—say, a deck area with room for outdoor dining, a barbecue area, a flower or vegetable garden, tools storage, hot tub, or what have—and arrange these areas with regard to access, function, privacy, and solar orientation, just as you would arrange the rooms in a house. 

• Plan for a central area (the main “outdoor room”) that’s at least as big as a real room—that is, a minimum of twelve feet square, and preferably bigger. The shape should be squarish to rectangular. Avoid skinny decks or terraces that surround the house like a gangway—they won’t accommodate furniture, and hence won't be used. On the other hand, don’t pave over huge areas with decking or hardscape. Any area bigger than about twenty by twenty feet will start to feel vast and exposed, and won’t be a comfortable gathering place .

An interesting use of paving to define various outdoor rooms.
(Image courtesy
• Make steps leading from raised decks or terraces to the ground as wide as possible, but never less than six feet. Full-width steps on one or more sides of a deck or terrace will yield the smoothest transition to ground level.

• Define the various functional areas by using different paving materials or levels as appropriate. Add three-dimensional elements such as benches, planters, or other permanent features to give each outdoor room its  own identity and sense of enclosure.

• Avoid leftover bits of unusable “negative” space such as pointy triangular areas, narrow strips with no purpose, and the like. These are just as undesirable on the outside of a house as they are on the inside.