Monday, October 16, 2017

HOW TO CALCULATE STAIRS, PERIOD.

Your basic straight run stair. The flat
parts are "treads", and the vertical parts
are "risers".
Years ago, when I worked as a framer, I always got stuck building staircases because I was the only sucker willing to do the math involved. After a while, I earned the title of Exalted Stairmeister around the job site. Secretly, I had to chuckle at this, because in reality stair design involves nothing more than basic arithmetic. Try it yourself:

First, decide on the basic stair configuration—straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped. Unless you’re a masochist, don’t even think about building a curved stair. The correct choice depends on how much room you have in your floor plan, the sort of look you’re after, and a few other factors that, lucky for you. we don’t have room to address here.

Once you’ve decided on a straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped configuration, determine the total rise of the staircase—the vertical distance from the from one floor to the next. For this example, let’s assume a typical height of 106”.

Traditional U-shaped stair with a half-landing
is space efficient and less strenuous to climb.
Next we have to choose an appropriate height for the riser (the vertical distance from one tread to the next). There a re several guidelines here. For starters, most building codes don't allow any stair riser to exceed 8” in height. Moreover, few good contractors will use a riser greater than about 7 1/2”, since anything higher will yield uncomfortably steep stairs.

Okay.  Let’s say we want our stairs to have a fairly gentle slope, so we’re looking for a riser height somewhere around 7”.  To determine the exact height, we divide the total rise from one floor to the next—in our hypothetical case, it’s 106”—by whole numbers (representing the total number of risers) until we arrive at a figure as close to 7” as possible.

Through trial and error, we find that dividing the total rise of 106” by 15 gives us about 7.07”.  That’s as close as we’ll get to 7” using a whole number, so we’ll settle on that. This means our staircase will have 15 risers of 7.07” each, yielding a total rise of 106”.  Go ahead—check it out on your calculator. It works.

Rise, run, and total rise and total run. Not rocket science.
Now we have to choose the "run" or tread depth measured front-to-back. There’s a handy rule of thumb to help us do this:  Rise+Run=17.  Ergo, since we’ve already settled on a riser height of 7.07”, our tread run should be about 10”. Simple, no?

Now we know both the rise of our stair—7.07”—and the tread—10”. On a straight-run stair, all that’s left is to find the total run or length of the staircase. To do it, we multiply the tread width times the total number of treads to find the total length required by our staircase. Here's the catch: There's always one less tread than the number of risers, since the top tread is formed by the upper floor itself. So, in our example, the total run of the staircase would be:  10” tread x (15-1) risers = 140”, or 11’-8”.

Exterior stair risers should not exceed six inches, and treads
should be at least twelve inches deep. The gentler the slope,.
the better
Now you can check whether your stair actually fits in the space allocated to it (it probably won't; underestimating the space required for stairs is a common problem for both architects and amatuers). If there’s an intermediate landing, as in an L- or U-shaped stair, it’s just counted as an extra-large tread, and it's added to the total run of the stair.

Remember that the total rise is always divided by a whole number representing the number of risers. You can’t start by arbitrarily choosing a riser height, because when you get to the top of the stair you’ll end up with an orphan step that’s lower than the rest. Note also that this works for any number of risers, including deck steps that have only a few risers between landings. However, for any outdoor steps, the riser should be no higher than 6", and treads should be at least 11" deep.




Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ADDING A SECOND FLOOR: Are You Sure About That?

If your foundation isn't able to support a second floor,
are you ready to do this?
Time and again, couples will ask me over for a consultation and happily declare, “We want to add a second story to our house!”  Right then, my heart sinks, and I think to myself:  Rats. I have to spoil the party again.  

Why? More often than not, adding a second story is more complicated and less satisfactory than adding on at ground level. If you’re thinking about “going up”, there are a number of serious issues to consider.

Stairs crammed in a closet or
wiping out a bedroom won't do
your resale value much good.
First and foremost, is your existing foundation up to the task?  The foundations of most single-story homes weren’t designed to carry the additional weight of a second floor. Years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, because building departments were fairly lax about enforcing foundation requirements—that’s why you see so many rinkydink old houses with obvious second-floor additions. But earthquakes and lawsuit-mania have changed that. Nowadays, most building departments require detailed engineering calculations to demonstrate that your existing foundation is capable of supporting an additional story.  

If it isn’t, your only alternatives are to reinforce your present foundation, or to replace it with one designed to carry two stories. Both are expensive propositions. Foundation replacement, for example, requires that your house be supported on cribbing while the contractor demolishes the old foundation and pours a new one. This in turn usually requires that the landscaping and paving around your house be dug up as well.  Not quite what you had in mind, huh?

Many home styles weren't meant to be tall and spindly—
as you can seen from this example.
(Courtesy Chicago Bungalow Association)
Even if your foundation is adequate, adding a second story doesn’t always make architectural sense. For example, if the new interior stairs can’t be properly incorporated into the existing floor plan, a ground-floor addition may be a better solution. A steep staircase that’s crammed into a closet, or one that wipes out half a bedroom, may actually hurt your home’s resale value despite the extra space gained. 

What’s more, a small second-story addition will generally be more expensive in relation to the amount of floor space added. That’s because the stairs consume a big chunk of floor space on both the first and second floors—space that has to be recaptured in the addition. Hence, a small second story addition is seldom worth the trouble.  

The proverbial second-floor addition that "fell out of the sky",
crushing this poor little rancher.
As for aesthetics—more bad news. Many home styles, such as bungalows and ranch-style homes, were meant to be long and low. On such homes, a second story can look gawky and foreign, as if it just dropped out of the sky.      

If all this isn’t enough to think about, zoning and design ordinances in a few areas restrict or even forbid a second story addition, so check them out carefully too.  

However, since you've stuck with me up to this point, I'm happy to say that there are a number of instances in which a second-story addition makes sense. If your foundation is adequate, your zoning checks out, and there’s room to accommodate a staircase without disrupting the lower floor plan, then going up may be just the ticket.  If your foundation needs replacement anyway—say, due to seismic requirements or damage from settlement—then the extra effort necessary to bring it up to two-story standards will be nominal, and a second-floor addition may be worthwhile.  Lastly, of course, if your site doesn’t have any room for a first-floor addition, you may not have any choice in the matter. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

RESIDENTIAL DESIGN: Stuck In A Rut, Big Time

Finnish-style dish cabinet/drying rack. Are the Finns
smarter than we are? Yeah, probably.
Despite all the ballyhoo about avant-garde designs, architecture remains one of the most hidebound disciplines around. It takes ages for us to finally change things that are—well, silly. Sometimes we have to see the way ote way ote have to see the way other people approach a problem to realize that maybe the way we do things isn’t necessarily best.

I got an eye-opening dose of this when I visited Finland some years ago. Trying to help out my host in the kitchen after dinner, I offered to dry the dishes, and got a rather uncomprehending look. Know why? The Finns don’t dry the dishes. Instead, they have a wall cabinet above the drainboard that has an open wire rack in place of a bottom shelf. The rinsed dishes are put away and simply drip-dry.  The water runs down the drainboard and into the sink.  


Baseboard: It costs a lot to install,
 but what exactly is it doing there?
The eminent practicality of this arrangement made we wonder why we don’t use it here in the States. The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re just so used to doing it “our” way that we’re suspicious of something that’s better and simpler. We dry our dishes by hand and then put them away because—well, dang it, that’s just the way it’s done.

Another relic of this traditional mindset is the baseboard or mopboard—that wooden molding installed where floors meet walls. Originally, a mopboard was just that—a board meant to protect the wall plaster from moisture and scrapes when you were mopping. That seems sensible enough in rooms that need mopping. Today, however, most rooms have wall-to-wall carpet, and even my mother doesn’t mop that. 


Sear Roebuck precut house, circa 1929:
Apparently far too radical an idea.
Still, builders routinely install a lot of complicated and expensive baseboards in carpeted rooms because they’ve done it that way for years. I get howls of protest from contractors when I try to omit the baseboards and extend the wall finish to the floor instead. They insist that vacuum cleaning will scuff the wall if there’s no baseboard.  True enough—and if there is a baseboard, the vacuum cleaner will scuff that instead—except it’ll be a lot harder to repaint when the time comes.      

Far from being trivial, the baseboard issue is symptomatic of  a larger problem in architecture: The way we build houses has remained fundamentally unchanged since the Middle Ages. We assemble them out of tens of thousands of individual pieces, so that no two are ever quite alike. There have been many attempts to improve this state of affairs: In the early 20th century, Sears Roebuck sold precut homes that arrived via railcar with every brick and stick of lumber required to build it—a step in the right direction, but one that ultimately didn't fly due to public's lower perception of "kit houses" as opposed to "custom-built" homes.


The luxurious railcar-like interior of Buckminster Fuller's
Dymaxion House of the early 1950s, an innovative
design that was to be mass-produced in an aircraft plant.
Sorry, Bucky—it's too far out for the hidebound
building industry.
There have also been lots of interesting alternatives out there: houses formed of gunite sprayed over balloons; geodesic domes; houses built underground or sunk into hillsides; but none of them have managed to lure people away from the standard stick-built house.
While a handful of architects enjoy experimenting with such innovative housing concepts—such as Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house, shown here—in truth the majority are perfectly happy doing things as they’ve always been done, mopboards and all. It’s not that architects are a bunch of reactionaries; it’s just that, contrary to their popular image, most architects are busy enough just making a living. They feel no inclination to reinvent the wheel.

Then, too, contractors are reluctant to adopt new construction methods because the long learning curve can cost them their profits. Moreover, it takes people a long time for people to get used to new ideas in architecture.  If automobile design progressed at the same rate that housing has, we’d all still be driving Huppmobiles.

With all these forces working against progress in housing, what’s going to create change?  Beats me—but I’ll think about it while I dry the dishes.        

Monday, September 25, 2017

THE BEAUTY OF THE COURTYARD HOME

Traditional Persian courtyard house
with pool at center.
Not long ago, in a bleak industrial suburb of San Francisco, I came upon an old house wedged incongruously between a mustard factory and a plating shop. From the street, there was little to see but a garage and a blank facade, with a narrow gate squeezed between them.  

But beyond the gate was a long narrow passage, and when I reached the end of it I had to pinch myself: I was standing in an amazingly lush secret garden, snugly surrounded by the picturesque bays and roofs of the house. At its center, a waterfall burbled placidly into a meandering koi pond, and narrow paths snaked away into mysterious recesses beyond the cool plants. Compared to the harsh streetscape outside, it may as well have been Wonderland.    

That’s the magic of a courtyard house: It can feel placid and secure in even the most unfavorable location. The ancient Persians, who knew something about harsh surroundings, were wise to this concept thousands of years ago. They built their houses around central gardens designed as miniature representations of paradise, emphasizing the water that was so precious in the parched lands beyond their walls.  

Atrium of a reconsturcted Roman villa at Pompeii,
with the columned peristyle offering shade to
the surrounding rooms.
Urban Roman houses also turned their backs to the street, preferring to face inward toward a garden court they called the atrium.  

But the courtyard house reached its ultimate expression in China. Among the most famous of these is the Wang Shi Yuan (“garden of the master of the fishing nets”), located in a densely-populated district of Suzhou. Despite its crowded setting, the moment one enters the house and gardens, all thoughts of urban congestion vanish. The cleverly convoluted arrangement of pavilions, plants, and water makes the tiny residence seem boundless. 
The Garden of the Master of Nets, located in my second home
of Suzhou, China, is actually a residence
surrounding a central courtyard. First constructed
in 1140, it was restored in 1785.

Given the many advantages of the courtyard house, why don’t we see more of them in the United States? Originally, it was because of our country’s vast area and relatively sparse population. We simply got used to building a monolithic house smack in the center of a huge piece of land. Back then, there was little point in having an enclosed court.

Things have changed, however. Population has increased by magnitudes, and even our formerly spacious suburban lots have shrunk to minimal size, leaving little useful land surrounding our homes. Moreover, urban and suburban streets have become less friendly year by year, making security a top consideration of urban and suburban dwellers.   

The gated courtyard house offers an elegant and time-honored solution to these problems, and many more.  

Traditional Spanish courtyard home in Cordoba.
Unfortunately, U.S. zoning codes haven’t kept pace with the changes in our cities, and they continue to make it difficult to build courtyard houses. Because of long-entrenched setback requirements, regulators continue to frown on zero-setback construction in many residential areas. Most cities continue to demand that homes be surrounded by useless, narrow strips of “setback” land. They still regard a house set in the middle of a property as the norm, making it difficult for progressive builders who wish to use their sites more intelligently.


It’s time our city planners began looking at courtyard houses as a better alternative to conventional, land-wasting houses. Far from being newfangled, it’s an arrangement proven for centuries.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

ARCHITECT FURNITURE: Ouch

Chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the dining room
of the Frderick C. Robie house, Chicago (1909):
Sit up straight, or else.
In a rare moment of humility, Frank Lloyd Wright once conceded:  “I’d hate to admit how many black-and-blue marks I’ve gotten from sitting in my own furniture.”  Wright’s horrific chair designs, with their bolt-upright backs and sharp edges, seem more suited to a medieval torture chamber than to his brilliant and airy interiors.

Wright isn’t alone, however. Modern architects in general are notorious for their dreadful furniture designs. If you’ve ever sat in one of Marcel Breuers’s famed Wassily armchairs—designed in 1926 and still considered a paragon of Modernist style—you’ll know what I’m talking about. Stark and striking to look at, all leather straps and chrome tubing, it’s nonetheless a trial to sit down in.

Wassily chair: Like it or not,
you're going downhill.
Unlike an ordinary chair, which allows the sitter to change positions as comfort or etiquette dictates, there’s only one way to sit in a Wassily chair: the way the architect intended. It’s impossible to sit attentively at the front edge of the seat, for example—the slippery leather is so steeply raked that one inevitably slides back down into the chair. Once there, the razor-strop-like back and seat soon begin to dig uncomfortably into the skin. A few minutes of sitting quickly make it clear that appearance, not comfort, was Breuer’s primary concern.

An even more renowned piece of architect-designed furniture is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair of 1929. To this day, it’s an expensive fixture in every snooty furniture outlet. But as lovely as it is to look at, it’s a sad excuse for a seat. The huge, gridded cushions don’t conform to one’s back or gluteus maximus; in fact, the slumping curve of the backrest opposes that of a normal spine. It’s just the seat to offer to guests whom you don’t want sticking around.  

Chair created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
for the German Pavilion at the
International Exposition in Barcelona, 1929.
Comfortable—if you're built like Gumby.
The architect Philip Johnson nevertheless adored Barcelona chairs, and made them a centerpiece in the living room of his famous glass-box house of 1950. In their defense, he opined: “I think that comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.” In other words, anyone with taste would like them just fine.    

It’s ironic that the Modernists, who were always trumpeting functionalism, were the worst transgressors in the dreadful-furniture department. Modernist chairs might have been stunning works of art, but as objects intended for comfortable seating, they were often less functional than the most ormolu-encrusted chair of Louis XIV.

The standard metal folding chair: More comfortable
than any of the above—and not designed by an architect.
If you're interested, look up "Nathaniel Alexander".
What makes contemporary architects so hopeless at designing furniture? I think it’s the same thing that makes many of them bad at designing people-friendly buildings: an overriding concern with radical style at the expense of function and comfort. Too many architects are terrified to do something that might be construed as traditional or evolutionary, and so are willing to abandon what centuries of history has taught them about humankind for the sake of newness and novelty.

No amount of well-meaning theory or rationalization will change people’s natural habits, however.  If you like to sit on a chair sideways, or slumped down, or with your legs crossed, for example, you’re more likely to choose a chair that accommodates you than you are to adjust your behavior. Still, architects seem ever-hopeful that the power of their ideas can change the way people behave. And hey—sit up straight when you’re reading this.




Monday, September 11, 2017

DESIGNING ROOFS: Don't Get Carried Away

Can you count how many different roof types
are visible on this house?
(1890s-era Queen Anne Victorian
on Military Street in Port Huron, Michigan).
Victorians could get away with this,
but you may not be able to.
Every day I see more new traditional-style homes topped by tortured, often incomprehensible roofscapes. Variety is good.  Surprise is good.  Bedlam isn’t.

You can’t design an interesting roof simply by melding a bunch of disparate roof shapes together. Even if you’re after a picturesque effect, the elements have to be deliberately composed, and with a touch of restraint at that. Even the most flamboyant Victorian houses will, on close inspection, reveal basically simple roof shapes enlivened by carefully-controlled accents such as turrets and dormers.

If you’re into the Grand Teton school of roof design, it’s especially critical to think through your roof scheme very carefully—it’ll probably be the most visible part of the building. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of common roof shapes, followed by some suggestions and caveats for combining them:

Classic gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial home
featuring the English-style "dustpan" dormer.
•  A gable roof is the most familiar type, having two sloping planes with a triangular gable wall at each end. By contrast, a hip roof slopes on all four sides, yielding corner “hips” that climb toward the center. A flat roof has little or no pitch. A shed roof is sort of like a tilted flat roof—it slopes in one plane only.  A gambrel (commonly seen on barns) has two different pitches: steep on the sides, and shallow on top. A mansard has a very steep pitch on all four sides and a flat roof on top, often concealing an attic story inside.

Once upon a time, bargeboards
were a favorite location for ornament.
Not so much today.
A few technical terms may be useful here: Roof slope (properly called pitch) is described in inches of vertical rise over horizontal run—a “4-in-12” roof, for example, has rafters that rise 4 inches in every 12 inches of horizontal distance. The peak of a roof is called the ridge. The lower edge is called the eave. The sloping side edge on shed, gable and gambrel roofs is variously known as the rake, the verge, or the barge—pick your favorite. And now some game rules:

Mansard-roofed Victorian, circa the 1880s.
•  Limit yourself to just one or two roof shapes. For picturesque roofs, the two most compatible shapes are gables and hips; roof shapes.  For picturesque they were a favorite on late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes.  Flat roofs, too, will combine with almost every other type, though they won’t always produce an intelligible style.

Other roof shapes are much more difficult to combine successfully. Sheds, hips, gambrels and mansards will usually get into a stylistic brawl when any two are combined. If you pine for one of these shapes, it’s safest to use it exclusively. If you’re adding onto an existing building, the rules are even simpler—copy the pitch, massing and details of the roof that's already there.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, Chicago, c. 1909:
Now that's a real roof overhang.
•  Use powerful proportions.  If you want overhangs, make them generous—at least two feet or so.   Use heavy barge rafters to prevent the sloping roof edge from looking papery. If you're planning  to have a fascia (a trim board behind the gutter), make it substantial as well.  Avoid fussy elements such as narrow sub-roofs and tiny dormers; they usually end up looking like Snoopy’s doghouse.  When in doubt, make elements bigger than they need to be.

•  Unless you’re absolutely sure of the effect you’re after, avoid combining different roof pitches. More often than not, varied pitches look disorganized or, worse, like a construction error. Stick to a uniform pitch, and rely on the size and arrangement of roof masses for effect.















Tuesday, September 5, 2017

THE CULT OF MINIMALISM

Minimalist kitchen: Oops, I spilled the molasses.
It’s no wonder architects have such a dreadful reputation among practical-minded people.
Some of us really ask for it. For example, I recently saw a so-called “kitchen” designed by a trendy British architect. Though I generally bend over backward to remain impartial, I’ve just got to come right out and say it: As a kitchen, the design was utterly ludicrous. It consisted of a few huge slabs of Carrara marble serving as counters in an otherwise flawlessly barren space finished with fanatical attention to detail. More telling, however, is what was absent. There wasn’t a single unscripted item—like a cooking utensil, maybe?—that was allowed to disfigure the absolute purity of the architect’s conception.

Minimalist "living" room:
Come on in and make yourself at home.
I was enormously pleased to learn that this kitchen was in the architect’s own home.  I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

The cult of minimalist architecture essentially consists of spending the maximum money possible on the least visual results. It has its roots in the International Style of the 1930s, when many architects blindly accepted Le Corbusier’s motto of  “less is more” with little independent thought and even less humor. Architects loved the pseudo-science and precision of the International Style, which for a change made them feel like intellectuals instead of artistically gifted louts.

The public, however, hated the International Style. And although it took fifty years, popular opinion finally managed to stamp it out, no thanks to us architects.

A bathroom, or a near-death experience?
(Architect: Wannemacher+Moeller GmbH.
Photography: Jose Campos)
Still, despite the International Style’s thorough trouncing in popular opinion, its ever-chic minimalist branch has refused to die. Instead, like a spoiled child, it survives on vast-budgeted commissions from the ultra-rich who, incidentally, are the only people who can afford houses no one can really live in.

While the two terms “minimalist” and “vast-budgeted” would seem to be in opposition, they aren't: As the Modernists quickly learned, the more pristine and perfect a design must be, the more it costs to build. So, given the extravagant materials and pointlessly fanatical standards of finish demanded by minimalist architects, big money is a precondition of this style.

In fact, were it not continually subsidized by the over-rich and slavishly showcased by snob magazines, minimalist architecture would quickly die of its own disconnection from reality. The reason is simple: Minimalism runs counter to the laws of entropy. Rather than being in harmony with the inevitable effects of time—wear, aging, and kids spilling Cokes—these obsessively-finished environments are predicated on time standing still. They aspire to a sort of encapsulated perfection, like a gem under a bell jar.

By the way, if you don't like minimalism in white,
here it is in gray.
We’ve already seen how well that approach worked for the Modernists: It didn’t. But at least they made a pretense of doing some social good with their every-man-equal ideals. Minimalist architecture can’t even lay claim to that.  Beneath its pretense of asceticism, it’s just an inverse version of showboating.

In the years since the last gasps of Modernism, we’ve learned (or thought we had) that real people with real lives can’t be fit into theoretical constructs, no matter how elegant or rational.

Most can’t, anyway. So, Mr. Minimalist Architect—I hope you really love your new kitchen.