Monday, January 22, 2018

PRIVACY IN THE HOME: Why We Lack It In The West

Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rear Window"
played upon the lack of privacy
endemic to city life.
Two centuries ago, when most Americans lived hundreds of feet from their nearest neighbors, domestic privacy was seldom an issue. But as cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia began to grow by leaps, building lots began shrinking. Ultimately, so-called rowhouses were built cheek-by-jowl, facing directly onto sidewalks or overlooking a patchwork of rear yards, making privacy a precious commodity. In time, this living style was taken for granted. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, in which James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound character kills time by spying on his neighbors, helped turn a lack of privacy into one of the cliches of big-city life.  

Sadly, though, lack of privacy isn’t limited to urban America anymore. Nowadays, even suburban homes are shoehorned onto tight lots with just a sliver of space between them. The privacy issue has come home to the heartland.

Typical Islamic streetscape (this is in
Hama, Syria) emphasizes privacy
and the sanctity of the home.
So how to maintain privacy under such conditions? History yields some excellent design strategies. In Islamic countries, for example, houses were densely packed along narrow alleys, yet were among the most private dwellings we know of. Why?  Islamic cultures placed enormous value on the sanctity of the family, and hence on domestic privacy. Their houses turned inward, with major rooms facing a lush central courtyard.  The street facades, on the other hand, might be completely blank, with only a single door to mark them.  Even roof terraces, which were often used for sleeping in desert climates, were carefully screened from view.

So dear was privacy in these parts that an ordinance in one village declared:  “Anyone may, if necessary, climb up his date palm, provided he previously informs the neighbor into whose house he might obtain a view.”

Traditional Asian houses also placed a high value on privacy, with many ordinary homes being hidden behind tall walls relieved only by a pair of gates leading into a courtyard. Here, as in Islamic architecture, there’s no reluctance whatever to have minimal openings facing the street.

Planting can make an excellent privacy screen; here
it extends the height of a wall without violating
the local height limit on property line fencing.
In the West, however, most architects and city planning officials feel compelled to put a window-filled “happy face” on the street side of every house, offering little visual protection to the occupants, either literally and psychologically. Variations are seldom attempted, thanks to obsolete zoning laws and meddlesome design review boards. And as long as planners hang onto the ideal of houses addressing the street rather than inner courtyards, we will continue to have some of the least private homes in the world. 

Other than starting from scratch, what can be done to enhance the privacy of Western houses?  

A simple but ingenious privacy screen with a window. When
overgrown with vines, this structure will provide a lovely
and enticing garden backdrop.
•  Choose your home carefully.  Avoid houses with windows that look straight into a neighboring house (remarkably common in tract developments with "flopped" floor plans), or directly down a public street. Be wary of rear yards surrounded by taller buildings such as apartment houses— you’ll never feel at ease outdoors with all those windows staring down at you.  

•  If you’re stuck with what you have, consider some traditional ways of increasing privacy. Walls or screens built on the ground some distance away, or decorative grilles or louvers placed directly in front of windows, are both simple and effective devices. Be careful to use a design that complements the style of your house, however—perhaps a traditional turned wood grille for a Spanish Revival home, or a pierced metal screen for a Modernist one. Even leaded or patterned window glass will create a psychological buffer against unwelcome observers.    

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Lots of soft materials dampen sound reverberation
and create a sense of coziness. It's one reason
we perceive this window seat to be so inviting.
Many people consider architecture strictly a visual art—one involving the sense of sight alone. Architects often compound this misconception by concentrating almost exclusively on how their buildings look, rather than striving to involve the full range of human senses. Too often, they seem mainly concerned with how their work will photograph for a glossy magazine spread.

At best, this fixation on appearance leads to flashy but uninvolving designs; at worst, it can produce an architecture of oppression, as Modernism’s own mania for visual order so often demonstrated.

While the look of a building may be the first thing we perceive, senses other than sight must also be brought into play, or the architectural experience is sadly incomplete. Here are just a few ways in which the senses add dimension to architecture:

The sound of a tiny trickle of water
can transform a patio into an oasis.
• Sound. In a Gothic cathedral, the awesome reverberation of footfalls and voices literally amplifies the power of the design itself. But sound plays a role even in ordinary dwellings: big rooms with a touch of reverberation create a sense of grandness; small rooms with lots of soft surfaces and hardly any reverberation convey the opposite—a feeling of warmth, shelter, and coziness.  

Other sounds that we probably take for granted contribute as well: the crunch of a gravel path underfoot; the brassy click of a well-made door latch; the sound of rain drumming on a skylight. How about the chirp of birds in a window box, or the trickle of water in a fountain? A good design capitalizes on such simple ways to add sound to the architectural experience.  

A two-fer: This window box can provide
lovely fragrance and the equally lovely
sound of birds at breakfast.
•  Smell.  If you’ve ever sat beneath a jasmine-draped pergola on a hot summer day, you’ll know just how much the sense of smell can add to the enjoyment of architecture. In your own designs, look for ways to add this dimension, perhaps by incorporating fragrant planting into the architecture, or by using naturally aromatic woods such as pine or cedar. One of my most vivid memories of the old house I grew up in was the subtle smell of unpainted fir that still wafted out of the cabinets after nearly a half century of use.   

 This unusual corridor provides tactile contrast in the extreme.
Who could resist running a hand along both sides? Not me.
•  Touch.  Unlike painting and other visual arts, architecture is three-dimensional—it’s basically sculpture we can live in. Hence it has a unique ability to tantalize the human sense of touch. Something as simple as a handrail, for example, can give us a whole range of tactile choices: do we want the liquid smoothness of brass, the cold solidity of iron, or the familiar warmth of wood? Likewise, the texture of a wall can offer us the grittiness of wallboard, the glassy smoothness of tile, or the coarse power of concrete. Each, in a different way, adds tactile interest. 

Rather than limiting yourself to a single texture, however, try using contrasts—rough versus smooth, warm versus cool—to entertain the sense of touch. Frank Lloyd Wright was a master at juxtaposing such finishes:  stone against stucco; plaster against wood; concrete against glass. It’s one reason his works remain so powerfully involving to this day.  

 •  And about employing the sense of taste in architecture: A friend of mine has this two-year-old. . .

Monday, January 8, 2018

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? Architects Should Be.

Interior by Bernard Maybeck, and...
Some time ago, I visited a contractor friend of mine who was bogged down in framing the floors of an extremely complicated hillside house. The architect had inexplicably specified four different types of floor joists, ranging from solid lumber to laminated beams to I-joists to stranded timber beams, all with different sizes and requiring different methods of installation, and all interconnected in a pointlessly complex manner. 

The hapless contractor was doing his best to cope with this mess, taking it on faith that the architect must have had a good reason for creating it.

In fact, a simpler design—using just one type of joist—would have served just as well. The plain truth was that the architect didn’t have the faintest idea how difficult his design would be to build, because he had no hands-on experience in construction.

...portrait of the architect himself. He knew
what he was doing, because he was the son
of a woodcarver, and he know how to build.
After the contractor had showed me around this disastrous project, he implored: 

“How come architects don’t have to serve an apprenticeship in the field, so they can see how hard their stuff is to build?”

Good question—and one I’ve heard many, many times before. I wish I had a good answer.
It seems perfectly reasonable that someone who designs buildings should also know something about how to build them. Yet field experience is the exception and not the rule among architects. This lack of practical knowledge is one reason the architect’s once-proud reputation as “master builder”—one that goes back centuries—is rapidly crumbling.

In spite of this sad state of affairs, I’m not aware of a single major architecture school that requires a mandatory field internship. Nor do current licensing requirements encourage any form of field work—instead, they stress office internship under the tutelage of a licensed architect.  This is the part of an architectural education that’s considered “practical experience”.     

Via Mizner in Palm Beach, Florida, by architect
Addison Mizner (1872-1933) and...
Perhaps the licensing process is thought to be too prolonged and rigorous already. Maybe so—but the rigor is mainly theoretical. It’s equally important that architects gain a sense of how structures go together in the real-life environment of the building site. No architect can fully appreciate the stupidity of many common architectural details until he’s had to construct them with his own two hands.   

Mizner in person. Not only
did he know how to build,
but he founded a craft
workshop that made many
of the materials for his
I’m solidly with the contractors on this one: As part of every architect’s training, he or she should serve at least a year on a construction site—if even just to dig ditches or clean up. The nature of the work is less important than simply gaining an appreciation of how difficult constructing a building really is.

History has shown that architects with hands-on experience, from Michelangelo to Maybeck to Mizner, seem to develop an innate feel for the nature of materials, an appreciation for simplicity, and a firm grasp on what things cost to build. All of these are crucial to a project’s success.  So if you’re in the market for an architect, never mind the eye-popping website and look for some evidence of hands-on knowledge.  

I don’t think I’m alone in advocating a field internship. Many of my colleagues might agree that prospective architects could use more practical experience. If they had it, the world might look a lot different.   

Tuesday, January 2, 2018


Wait a minute—didn't this room used to have a window?
Nobody’s perfect, they say.  Heaven knows it’s true of architects, but did you know that contractors make mistakes too? Since contractors are only human, construction projects occasionally end up with, shall we say, minor shortcomings.  Some get fixed before the client ever notices;  some don’t. Only a chosen few, however, achieve legendary status among contractors and become fodder for late-night story swapping.  

Most construction errors happen when the contractor or in a big hurry—in other words, all the time. No contractor has time to supervise his workers every minute of the day, so little things can sneak past. Moreover, a tradesman will sometimes ignore his own error in the fervent hope that the following trade will fix it. That never happens, of course; the trade that comes in later leaves the error alone on the sound premise that the guy who screwed it up will get the blame.

A new meaning for the term "hot seat".
A contractor friend of mine recently recalled a favorite house project in which the harried drywall contractor had unwittingly sheetrocked over the doorway to one of the bedrooms. To top it off, rather than opening the doorway up again, the tradesmen that followed the drywaller simply went in and out through the window instead.

When it comes to construction hijinks, in fact, drywall contractors seem to be in a class by themselves. In a tract house I designed some years ago, for instance, the general contractor was puzzled by how poorly the heating system worked.  Finally, he noticed that the return air grille in the hallway ceiling had been covered over with drywall. Not only that, the subsequent tradesmen, ignoring the obvious bulge in the ceiling where the grille was, had textured and painted over it as well.   

But drywall contractors mustn’t hog all glory. In the rush to get the job done, it’s not unheard of for plumbers to lose track of which pipe is which, thus providing another fertile ground for mixups;   d waited patiently for hot water to arrive. Only after running the faucet for several minutes, with uniformly cool results, did he finally concede that it was connected to the cold water line.

The result of mixed-up mixing valves.
An even stranger case was related to me by a client who had just moved into his new house. He noticed that whenever the toilet was flushed by several people in succession, wisps of vapor would rise menacingly from the bowl. Toxic fumes? A potentially lethal chemical mixture? Neither, it turned out. By gingerly dipping a finger into the bowl, he quickly discovered that the plumber had connected the toilet to the hot water line.

Perhaps the unkindest plumbing surprise of all lay in wait at the house I lived in as a teen.   The single-handle shower valve had been misconnected when the house was built, so that turning the knob to “hot” yielded “cold” and vice versa. Our family eventually grew used to this idiosyncrasy, and so we never bothered to correct it. On one occasion, however, we forgot to warn a visiting relative of this quirk, and I'm sure it was the most refreshing shower he ever experienced.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Back in my homebuilding days, fireplace mantels got no respect.  By the time we got around to building them, we’d have already run out of money and patience, so we’d slap together any old mantel we could. Maybe we had some scraps of crown molding and a few leftover floor tiles . . . alright, there’s your damned mantelpiece—now shut up. And those were the award-winners. Others were just two-by-fours with mitered corners.

Prefabricated fireplace units such as this one typically have
smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors.
Here, a stone veneer surround helps gives
the small firebox more oomph.

If only I knew then what I know now.  If there’s one place you shouldn’t cut corners, it’s on the mantelpiece—it’s the focal point of any room (and often, the most important room in the house). As penance for the many dreadful mantels I’ve built, I humbly offer these suggestions to keep you from treading the same path. First, though, some fireplace terminology: 

Strictly speaking, the mantel is only the shelf or lintel across the fireplace opening; the mantelpiece is the entire structure including the side elements. The recess in which the actual fire is built is called—surprise—the firebox. The material on the floor in front of the firebox is the hearth, and the facing around the edge of the firebox is the surround.  

Both the hearth and the surround must be of noncombustible materials (such as brick, tile, stone or stone veneer, marble, or cement). Consult your local building department for the exact requirements.  

Now the suggestions:    

A full-width raised hearth makes a small firebox more visible and provides
a lovely place to sit as well. This trick works well in contemporary
home styles, but may look out of place in traditional homes.
•  Use materials in keeping with your home’s style.  In a rustic home, for example, a lustrous marble surround edged by complicated moldings will look too fussy. Likewise, a mantelpiece of massive boulders will run riot over a delicate interior. The choice of surround material is especially crucial, since it must be noncombustible. The safest course is to echo some noncombustible material used elsewhere in the home—perhaps the brick used on the porch, or the tile used in the foyer floor. 

The mantelpiece itself can be of any appropriate material—wood, marble, plaster, vitreous tile, and stainless steel have all been used to good effect. The mantelpiece can be nearly flat against the wall, or it can project from it. The projecting portion can be topped with a mantel shelf or continue up to the ceiling (in which case, the part above the mantel is called the "overmantel"—reasonable enough, no?  

•  Mind your proportions. A common mistake is to design a really wimpy mantelpiece that looks entirely lost in a large room. Because today’s prefabricated fireplaces have smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors, you may need to  use a big, bold surround to bring the mantelpiece into scale with the room.  

You don't need fancy materuaks to create a
perfectly charming fireplace—this one is just plain red brick
with a big slab of lumber for a mantel shelf.
Another trick to make the fireplace look bigger is to raise the firebox off the floor a foot or so; this also makes it easier to view the fire. Think twice about raising the hearth, however—doing so eats up a lot of floor space, and it’s out of character with many traditional home styles. 

•  Finally, if you’re hesitant to design the mantelpiece yourself, you can choose from among a great variety of stock mantelpieces and surrounds. Remember that the same cautions regarding proportion and material still apply.   

And speaking of fireplaces, don’t forget to leave Santa some cookies.  Merry Christmas.    

Monday, December 11, 2017


Conversation pit of the 1970s, as illustrated in The House Book,
an influential design compendium published in 1974
by the Englishdesigner Terence Conran.
History has shown us that the bigger a design trend is, the harder it falls—and the more sought-after it later becomes as kitsch. For example, tailfins were the hottest automotive styling fad of the '50s, and the stegasaurus-finned ‘59 Cadillac topped them all. Though the Caddy’s reputation sank to abysmal depths soon afterward, it’s now rebounded to become the most beloved automotive icon of the '50s.

This curious law holds equally true in architecture. Given enough time, the odd and the excessive inevitably develop great appeal. In the early 60s, for example, countless kitchens contained that ubiquitous gold-flecked Formica pattern known as “Gold Lamé”. For two decades afterward, it was considered hopelessly gauche by designers. Yet Gen-Xers who grew up in these houses seem to remember the stuff with great affection—so much so that it’s actually being offered for sale again. It’s a case of “so uncool that it’s cool”.

Flock wallpaper: Instant Dodge City brothel.
Given that many products of the Mid Century era are already considered classics, do you ever wonder what kitschy treasures the more recent past might hold?  I do. Herewith are a few of my candidates for the kitsch hall of fame. Most are culled from the 1970s, which have now receded into that soft-focus distance that lets us remember even the crummiest things fondly.

•  The 70s brought us that immortal and un-scrubbable classic, flock wallpaper. With its velveteen texture and rococo patterns, it could magically transform any living room into a Dodge City brothel. I’m confident that genuine flock will soon be a cherished rarity, since hardly any of it survived the “all-white” rage of the '80s.  The largest single concentration can now be found in men’s barber salons.

And here's a '70s kitsch two-fer—a shag-carpeted wet bar.
•  Shag carpet is also bound to be a coveted rarity soon enough—it was so hard to keep clean that not even dogs could stand it after a few years. Hence, a nice big expanse of original shag will be a precious commodity indeed. If you have any left rolled up someplace in your garage, don’t throw it out. It could probably net you some serious money on eBay.

•  Conversation pits—coolest architectural fad of the '70s—will be a virtual nexus of kitsch in the few homes that didn't rip them out long ago to create more floor space. My prediction: not long from now, '70s revivalists will be pulling on Angel Flights, polyester shirts, and platform shoes and slouching into the conversation pit to drink Harvey Wallbangers.  Gold jewelry optional.

If you think the present is immune from future kitsch classics,
think again.
•  “Butcher Block” plastic laminate is my nominee to succeed Gold Lamé in the “God, remember that?” category. It’s rarer than Almond, the other popular laminate finish of the '70s, and for sheer shameless artifice, it pretty much takes the cake. In short, a classic in the making.

•  The wet bar—the only architectural fad to get even less use than a whirlpool bath—was another '70s must. Wet bars have been more long-lived than most architectural gimmicks, but only because ripping them out involves some nasty plumbing work. Consequently, most people just let them sit—a memento of the days when getting sloppy drunk in your own home was considered really cool.

•  Lastly, some advice for the hipsters among us who like to plan ahead: Take good care of that '90s-era concrete countertop, not to mention that vessel sink you installed last year. They'll be kitsch classics soon enough.

Monday, December 4, 2017

SPECIAL WINDOWS: Use Them, But Use Them Sparingly

The Palladian window, a favorite of Colonial-era architects,
is a relatively easy-to-achieve "special".
Unique windows have always been a hallmark of great architecture. Anyone who’s seen the rose window in a Gothic cathedral—that enormous wagon wheel of stained glass—can attest to that.   

A number of other distinctive (and more manageable) window designs have come down the road since then. The sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio lent his name to a handsome triple window with a “lunette” or half-round lite topping the center section. The Palladian window remains a favorite choice when architects want a feeling of understated elegance.  

The "Chicago Window" in its original
setting—an early Chicago skyscraper.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Modernism gave us the Chicago window—a large, squarish fixed sash flanked by double-hungs.  This practical arrangement was originally used on skyscrapers;  later, with the addition of decorative muntins, it became the trademark front window of the Bungalow style.

A special window in a special setting:
Think of "specials" as
jewelry for your home. 
In the 1920s, a fascination with exotic architecture brought us Mediterranean, Moorish, and Provincial cottages with eye-catching window shapes such as triple arches, round “bulls-eyes”, and Arabic pointed arches. After World War II, however, these quirky designs lost out in favor of the uninterrupted “window walls” preferred by Modernist architects.  

Today, due to the resurgent interest in traditional architecture, special window shapes are once again widely available. Most lumberyards carry “specials” such as circles and octagons, as well as half-rounds and quarter-rounds that can be combined with standard rectangular units for unusual effects.  If that isn’t enough to float your boat, there are legions of custom window shops that can build pretty much anything you care to dream up. Unusual window shapes or combinations are a great way to add interest to a home. Like anything else, however, they have to be used with some finesse. Here are a few suggestions:  

Now that's a special window!
•  Keep your window designs consistent with the architectural style you're working in. An elaborate triple arch may look great in a Spanish Revival house, for example, but it’ll look pretty weird on a Rancher. Likewise, a trapezoidal window (one with at least one acute-angled corner) will blend right into many Modern home styles, but will look jarringly foreign in a traditional one.

A window seller's dream, though possibly
an architect's nighmare.
  • Even if special shapes suit the style of your house, don’t go overboard with them. Specials should be used as a focal point, not as a relentless theme. In particular, specials such as round-tops, circles and octagons can quickly become cloying if they’re overused.  Think of such windows as jewelry for your house, and use them just as sparingly.

•  If  you plan to “gang” or combine several windows side-by-side, use an odd number of them. Even-numbered combinations are less pleasing to the eye because the window’s visual center is obstructed by a mullion.  You want glass at the focal point of the window, not wood.   

• Lastly, note that window manufacturers love to come up with huge and outlandish window combinations in their advertisements, not because this represents good design, but rather because they’d love to sell you a whole truckload of expensive special shapes. Over-the-top design is one thing in a sales brochure, but usually, a bit more restraint is advisable in your own home. Quality, not quantity, is the key to memorable results.