Tuesday, December 21, 2010


It’s no secret that the quality of many building products has declined over the past fifty years.  Lots of items aren’t expected to do much more than make a brief stop at your house on their way to the landfill.    Yet, miracle of miracles, a few products are actually better today than they’ve ever been.  Here are a sampling:

•  Heating systems.  Few things in the home have improved as much as heating systems.  As late as the 1970s, the typical furnace still had a dismal thermal efficiency of around seventy percent--in other words, thirty cents of every energy dollar went to waste up the chimney flue.  
Then came the nationwide energy crisis of 1978.  Beginning with California, a number of state governments wisely responded with legislation requiring all new homes and additions to meet a minimal standard of energy efficiency.  Faced with this mandate, moribund furnace manufacturers had the choice of finally getting off their duffs or losing sales to more innovative competitors.  They got off their duffs.

Hence, today’s furnaces are available with efficiencies of 96% and better, and many burn so efficiently they don’t require a conventional flue at all.   Add to that programmable thermostats and better duct insulation, and you’ve got a spectacular reduction in the energy it takes to heat your home.

•  Windows.  Mainly because they were cheap and easy to install, aluminum windows had become the standard of the building industry by the late 1950s.  Some standard:  they were flimsy, drafty, and had insulating value that was little better than a hole in the wall.  The new energy efficiency standards worked their coercive magic on window manufacturers as well.  In a mad scramble to meet the legislative mandates appearing in more and more states, first came double-pane glass, then better weatherstripping, thermal breaks, and many other measures meant to reduce heat loss..  

In fairness, window manufacturers have run with the ball on their own since then.  They’ve introduced new energy-efficient windows of clad wood, vinyl, and fiber glass, not to mention a huge range of design and finish choices.  The result is that U.S.-made windows can, for the first time, go head to head with any on the world market.   

•  Cabinetwork.  The widespread adoption of factory-made modular cabinets during the 1980s finally signalled the arrival of mass production to a trade that’s been a longtime bastion of custom craftsmanship.  But whereas the production line often makes for sloppier products, in this case it’s actually proved beneficial to consumers, and not just in lowering prices.  Modular cabinets can also be mixed and matched like a kit of parts, allowing homeowners to design their own kitchens and baths--although given some of the results I’ve seen, that isn’t always a good thing.   

Mass production has also brought a dramatic improvement in finish quality.  Today’s better modular cabinets have more uniform and durable finishes than many reasonably-priced cabinet shops can offer for the same price.  This is not to minimize the value of custom cabinets, which will always hold the premium place on the market, but rather to point out that the mid-priced lines of modular cabinets now offer many of the benefits of high-quality custom work.

Monday, December 13, 2010


The word “architect” is rooted in the Greek arkhi-tekton, meaning “master builder”.  And once upon a time, that’s exactly what an architect was--a person whose comprehensive knowledge of construction made him the leader of a building project.  It was the architect in the role of master builder, not merely designer, that gave the world the Parthenon, Gothic cathedrals, and countless other creative triumphs.

Even as recently as the 1920s, architects such as Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan still spent a considerable amount of time on the construction site.  Maybeck, the son of a woodcarver, delighted in working with his hands--he could often be found on his building sites gleefully experimenting with weird and wonderful new methods of construction.  

Morgan, the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s vast California estate, San Simeon, was the first woman to graduate from the prestigious Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Conquering that male bastian no doubt demanded both determination and impeccable knowledge on her part.   Hence the diminutive Morgan was especially well-versed in the nitty-gritty of construction--on building sites she was known to correct an errant worker by taking the tool from his hand and gently advising him, “Do it this way, friend.”  

Well, things have changed, and not for the better.  Today’s architects have an abundance of theoretical and aesthetic knowledge, but little practical understanding of how buildings are actually put together.  Most of an architect’s time is now spent in an office, well-insulated from the people who construct the buildings he’s designed.  For most architects, in fact, their closest encounter with the building process comes when construction problems—which are practically inevitable under this arrangement—compel him to visit the site.

There are a few maverick architects today who have tried to mend this estrangement of architects from their architecture.  Perhaps the best known is Paolo Soleri, whose Arcosanti project in Arizona has for decades struggled to offer architecture students a hands-on education integrating design and construction.  Yet such practical learning opportunities remain rare.  
One reason for this is that few modern-day architecture schools seem willing to acknowledge the historical connection between the design of a building and its construction.  Hence, the separation of design and construction processes has been institutionalized.  

The problems resulting from this policy are legion.  The success of any object, whether a vase, a violin or a building, depends on its designer’s intimate familiarity with the process of its creation.  Separate the two, and both are diminished.        

Can the architect ever return to his historic role as arkhi-tekton?  In the strict sense, perhaps not.  A cathedral, for all its aesthetic sophistication, is really just an artfully-arranged pile of stones:  it’s well within human comprehension.  A modern-day building, however, with its complex structural, mechanical, and electronic systems, is all but beyond the grasp of a single mind.
That’s not to say that architects can’t learn by doing, however.  Divorcing the design process from the building process, as so many architecture schools continue to do, can only further undermine the historic role of architect as master builder. 

Monday, December 6, 2010


What could be more personal than a favorite color?  Yet more and more frequently, people choosing exterior colors for their homes are finding this most individual of choices being restricted by their local design review board.  It’s an imposition that’s no less outrageous than having some stranger dictate what colors you can choose for your clothes or your car. 

All this is justified in the name of that contemptible concept, “good taste”, which at any given time is nothing more than the sum average taste of the status quo.  Despite what history teaches us about the transitory nature of taste, design review boards profess to have some inside track on what's tasteful and what isn't--wisdom that they self-righteously deem to impose on the rest of us.  To their great dismay, not everyone’s color preferences are as sedate as those of central Europeans like me.  And thank God for that, or America would be a pretty boring place.  

Vivid colors are an integral part of many cultures, and always have been.  The deep burnish of Chinese red bespeaks the whole rich history of that ancient culture, while the sherbet-toned facades of Moroccan hill towns evoke the warmth and humor of the Mediterranean.  The Swedes have a delightful tradition of painting their rural houses a blazing red--not, as I’d always thought, to furnish some winter color, but because the historically high cost of red paint long ago made it a status symbol.

Even the pristinely white temples of Greece, long held by highbrows to represent the apex of good taste, turn out to have been originally tarted up in an eye-popping array of primary shades.  So much for aesthetic pronouncements.
Colors have played such a large role in design history that some have lent their names to historical periods.  In the United States, the proliferation of brownstone architecture during the 1870s earned that era the name Brown Decade, while the 1890s were dubbed the Mauve Decade for their love of that royal shade.   

Times change, however.  Since Modernism swept the U.S. after World War II, mainstream architectural colors have seldom wandered too far from off-whites or mild pastels. Unfortunately, this fashion--and make no mistake, that’s all it is--has been institutionalized by civic officials who now feel entitled to nix any colors outside the tonal range of Butter-Mints.  
Consequently, cultured people who deserve the freedom to make their own color choices must instead submit to having “acceptable” colors dictated to them on the grounds of good taste.  

But whose good taste?   Tastes vary the world over, and America is an ethnic microcosm of the globe.  It’s no coincidence that the colors often frowned upon by design review boards are the same vivid hues favored by many people of African, Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Islander heritage.  It’s nothing short of veiled racism to discourage such colors on the basis of some arbitrary standard of taste most likely established by a bunch of Wasps decades ago.  

When confronted with this obvious bias, defenders of color restrictions hide behind the same tired hypothetical question: “Well, how would you like it if your neighbor painted his house purple with green trim?”

I’d much rather live beside a purple and green house than deprive any person (including myself) of the right to make such a personal choice.  It’s nobody’s business what color I paint my house, nor is it any of my busines what color you paint yours.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Form Follows Function.  So wrote the renowned architect Louis Sullivan over a century ago.  But oh, how he might regret coining that phrase today.   Time and again, it’s been invoked to justify design that’s the furthest thing from functional.  
Despite his role as a founding father of Modernism, Sullivan lovingly adorned his buildings with great swaths of the most sinuous and delicate ornament.  He’d be aghast at the bristly, hard-edged stuff so many designers call “functional” these days. 

To see the dishonesty in passing off haphazard design under the rubric of functionality, we need only consider the beauty and simplicity of a truly functional object.  Take an ordinary, dime-store bottle opener:  Stamped out of a mere scrap of steel, it could hardly be simpler or cheaper to make.  And as if opening bottles flawlessly weren’t enough for such a humble tool, the other end opens cans as well.  

Other examples of truly functional design spring easily to mind:  a pencil; a violin; a pair of blue jeans; a spoon.  What makes these objects paragons of functionality is that they’re as simple as they can be while still perfectly fulfilling their tasks.  

But what architects and designers term “functional” is often something else again.  For instance, I recently received a brochure for ultra-high-end bathroom fixtures designed by an artisan with truly impeccable taste.  As works of art, they’re stunning.  As usable objects, however, they sorely flunk the test.  

The lavatory sink, for example, resembles a kitchen funnel, and is in fact hardly bigger than one.  It would require utmost caution to keep water inside it instead of all over the floor.  This funnel is in turn is supported by an elaborate network of rods and braces that, for all their complexity, don’t look terribly sturdy.  The whole assemblage is executed in high-polish stainless steel, a material that sounds easy to keep clean, but most assuredly isn’t.  In short, this “functional” lavatory isn’t the kind you’d buy to brush your teeth at.  It’s the kind you’d buy to stun the neighbors.

A genuinely functional sink, on the other hand, would probably look pretty much like the one you’ve got in your bathroom:  a generous surface area to catch splashes, an absence of exposed pipes or brackets, and a finish that’s durable and easy to keep clean.  Yeah, I know—that’s the way sinks have looked for the past hundred years.  Boring?  Maybe.  Functional?  Definitely.  

Functionality is a quality that evolves over decades--and sometimes centuries--of continual refinement, not during some overnight design catharsis.  This evolutionary process eventually brings an object asymptotically close to its ideal form, after which it doesn’t have to change much any more.  Would a spoon be improved by adding some “functional” rivets?  Would that bottle opener be better if it had a digital readout showing how many beers you’ve drunk?

Okay, maybe.

Domestic designs evolve toward ideal forms, just as other objects do.  Functionalism has more to do with history, evolution and a timeless way of building, than it does with trendoid malarkey.   

Monday, November 22, 2010


A while back, a client of mine asked me to give the once-over to a house he was hoping to buy.  It was a charming, well-kept little cottage with all the hallmarks of a history—some gouges here, some settlement there, perhaps a few cracks in the plasterwork.  It wasn’t dilapidated by any means; rather, it had a nice warm patina of long use.

Happily, he did end up buying it.  But when I came back a few months later to see what improvements he’d wrought, I was dismayed.  He’d systematically gone through the house and replaced anything that showed the slightest trace of wear with brand-new stuff from the local hardware emporium.  Hefty old doorknobs with the burnish of fifty years had been swapped in favor of tinny, glitzy brass ones;  ditto the old lighting fixtures and bath fittings.  The varnished wood trim (which had a few nicks and scratches, to be sure) had been smothered in a bland coat of bright white latex.  And the wood floor—whose dents and imperfections bespoke the foibles of who knows how many sets of grandchildren—had been sanded glassy smooth and coated with a hi-tech sealer.

So much for a warm patina. 

Still, I can hardly blame my client for wanting to make his little cottage sparkle.  Us Yanks want everything to look like new.  Maybe it’s because the U.S.  is a relatively young country, and newness is practically all we know.  But just as likely, it’s because advertising relentlessly conditions us to believe that new things--whether cars, clothes, or trendy toys for the kids--are always better than old ones.  That goes for houses, too.  Those of us who can’t afford brand new ones opt for the next best thing:  We buy old ones and then “renovate” them into oblivion.  

The point, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, is that new isn’t necessarily better.  So here are a few thoughts to consider before you wield that screwdriver or paintbrush at your defenseless old house:  

•  Think twice before consigning any part of your home to the junk heap.  The quality of the building materials in most prewar homes—whether hardware, flooring, or light fixtures—is generally higher than the stuff that’s available today.  In the long run, there’s little to be gained by exchanging quality materials that show some age for rinkydink goods that’ll briefly look brand-new.   

•  Use that paintbrush sparingly!  The nature of today’s paint formulas makes repainting an iffy improvement.  Therefore, if you have a reasonably intact coat of oil-base paint on your doors, for example, you’re far better off living with it than covering it with a latex paint, which won’t have the same shine or durability. 

•  Learn to live with a few scratches here and there.  Americans are obsessed with keeping their homes pristine;  unfortunately, the nature of the universe puts them forever on the losing side of the battle.  Home ownership is a lot more fun when you learn to take the odd flaw in stride.  That’s not to suggest that you neglect your home, but rather that you learn to accept a reasonable level of imperfection.  
Europeans, I’m loathe to admit, are way ahead of us on this count:  They’re quite comfortable with buildings that are old and timeworn, because they regard age and imperfection as a badge of honor, not as a sign of decrepitude.

•  Finally, remember that any idiot can make a home look new, but only time can produce one with a history. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


What kind of horrible person could find fault with a home improvement that saves energy?

You guessed it.  Me.

The improvement I’m talking about is window replacement.  Some folks do it to reduce maintenance, others to update their home’s appearance.  Most people replace their windows in an effort to lower their energy bills.  If that’s your main motivation, take a clear-eyed look at the benefits first.  Then, if replacement still makes sense, be absolutely sure to choose new windows that’ll suit the style of your house.  

First, an acknowledgement:  There’s no question that replacing single-glazed windows with new double-glazed ones will substantially cut heat loss through windows--usually by around 50%.  What’s more, if your old windows are poorly weatherstripped, it’ll also greatly reduce the infiltration of cold air.  

Here’s the catch, however:  In the average tract house, windows are not the major culprit behind heat loss--ceilings are.  So if saving energy is your main objective, you’ll get more benefit from adding (or increasing) attic insulation.  Even incremental improvements such as upgrading duct insulation, replacing an obsolete furnace or swapping out an inefficient refrigerator are likely to pay back your investment faster, because the modest energy savings you’ll realize from new windows will be wiped out by the initial cost for years to come.

On the other hand, if your windows have other problems--balky hardware, flimsy construction, or whatever--window replacement may be the right move.  However, choose the replacements very carefully.  If you have a prewar home with wood windows, and you want to replace them with new color-coated aluminum or vinyl ones, make sure the replacements have the same hefty frame thickness and a similar finish.  And unless your old windows are already white, avoid the tell-tale bright-white frames that are typically seen in replacement work.  Instead, choose a color that’ll complement your home’s existing color scheme, and ideally, any possible future scheme as well.  

Postwar homes with aluminum windows pose a special problem.  For some reason, people who wouldn’t dream of ripping the wood windows out of a Victorian think nothing of scrapping their postwar home’s aluminum windows and substituting clunky white vinyl ones with fake muntins.  That’s a mistake.  If the original windows are natural or bronze-anodized aluminum, insist on the same finish for the replacements.  Don’t arbitrarily “upgrade” to some other window type because it happens to be in fashion at the moment.  

The slender, flat, and unashamedly metallic look of aluminum windows is an integral part of many postwar homes designs.  While it may not seem like it from such a close vantage point in history, these houses have a style as valid as any other, and they deserve the same respect you’d accord their more popular predecessors.   

In sum, two suggestions:  Ixnay on replacing your old windows solely for energy savings alone--put the money into more effective measures first.  And if you’ve got some other good reason to scrap your old windows, do your home a favor and replace them with double-glazed versions in the same material, finish and frame thickness. 

Monday, November 8, 2010


Picture this intersection in a middle-class residential neighborhood:  On one corner stands an aging fast-food joint; on another a ramshackle grocer.  On the third corner is—surprise!—an ill-kept liquor store.  On the fourth corner there’s nothing at all—just a weed-choked empty lot.  Ugly?  You said it.  Yet in the past, whenever I’d drive through this dreary crossroads, I’d excuse it with, “Well, you can’t expect to find beauty everywhere.”

But you know what?  Not only should expect to find beauty everywhere--if you don’t find it, by thunder, you should demand it.   

Nowadays, it’s become somehow sissified to insist that one’s built environment be beautiful--not just decent and functional, but inspiring to look at.  Yet rather than being a quality that everyone can expect, beauty has become the exclusive franchise of architects, planners, and decorators—professionals who, let’s face it, are generally perceived as a bunch of wimpy prima donnas.  We leave it to this lonely bunch to harp about the way things ought to look.  

History tells us it wasn’t always so.  The Greeks, those aesthetic rascals, sought beauty at every turn, and they weren’t embarrassed about it either—their prose alone makes that perfectly clear.  Their successors, the Romans, may have lowered the hallowed Greek standards a notch or two, but they could still appreciate a well-turned arch of triumph when they saw one. 

The Japanese obsession with beauty is legendary, as evidenced by that culture’s art, architecture, landscape design, and even by its ritual tea ceremony.  Nor is this eye for beauty confined to the wealthy--even the humblest Japanese home shows a fastidious concern for the pleasing arrangement of furniture, flowers, and food on a plate.      

In the United States of the late-19th century, concern with the declining quality of life in urban centers led to grass-roots improvement societies aimed at beautifying neighborhoods and creating public parks and amenities.  By the turn of the century, such concerns were galvanized under the rubric of the City Beautiful movement, led by architects such as Daniel H. Burnham.

“Make no little plans,” said Burnham, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.  Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.” 

How sad, then, that we’re willing to settle for so much less today:  lookalike strip malls; acres of asphalt; crackerbox housing.  I believe it’s not so much a shortcoming of the American character as a general sense that, with all the troubles we have as a nation, a beautiful built environment is just too much to expect.  

That’s a pity.  Perhaps, like the Greeks, the Japanese, and even our own 19th-century forebears, we should consider the possibility that beauty is actually an integral part of a healthy society, and not just so much window dressing.  

The search for beauty begins with the individual, however.  It isn’t something to be ceded to blundering bureaucracies—the jolly folks who brought us the blight of downtown freeways, cheerless housing projects, and retrograde design review boards.
Don’t hang your hopes on a change from without.  Take a look around you.  A more beautiful world could begin on a street like yours.

Monday, October 25, 2010


In the field of art restoration, there’s a thing called “the principle of reversibility”.  It decrees that a restorer should never make any alteration to a work of art—regardless of how well-meaning—that can’t be undone again at some later date.   
The world of architecture would be better off if so-called “modernizations” followed this rule too, and for many of the same reasons.  In architecture, as in art, aging is a natural process to be cherished, not frantically concealed.  Just as the aged and crackled surface of a Rembrandt doesn’t detract from its beauty, we should regard the effects of time on a building as part of its charisma. 

But, please, somebody pinch me—I’m dreaming. 

Alas, the reality is that most homeowners eventually become bored with their homes, no matter how wonderful they are, and develop an itch for something more fashionable.  Conceding that people will always yearn for such “modernizations”, the least I can do is to invoke my own Principle of Reversibility:  Always be able to undo what you’ve done in the name of fashion.  
Here are a few guidelines:

•  Be wary of adding  “quick spruce-up” materials such as acoustic ceiling tile, flimsy paneling, and the like unless you’re absolutely sure you can remove them later without damaging the original stuff underneath.  Enthusiasm for such materials usually has a notoriously short lifespan, but the installations themselves often don’t.  Case in point:  The living room of my brother’s Colonial cottage, which was cursed with walls of ghastly 70s-era diagonal cedar planks for a decade after they’d gone out of fashion, all because the installer had affixed them with a permanent mastic that removed the plaster along with the planking.

•  Don’t paint over surfaces that weren’t painted to begin with.  Every few decades, decorating fads swing back toward their cyclical infatuation with paint;  it wasn’t so long ago that owners were busily painting over the gleaming hardwood interiors of their Victorians in an effort to make them more “modern”.  Those who resisted the incessant pull of faddism were ultimately rewarded with beautiful (and original) showplace interiors; those who didn’t became very intimate with paint remover.  That, by the way, is not what I mean by reversible.  

The “make-it-reversible-or-leave-it-alone” policy goes not just for wood, but for brick, tile, metal, glass, and concrete, not to mention truly irretrievable finishes such as lincrusta (a type of linoleum wainscot that was originally stained and varnished to resemble tooled leather) and—for Pete’s sake—stone and stone veneer. 
For those unswayed by aesthetic arguments, here’s a cold, hard factoid:  A house with its original interior finishes intact almost invariably commands a higher price at resale.  Not a bad return, considering there’s less effort involved.

•  Lastly, try to get to know your home.  Find out when it was built, and check into a few architecture books to learn about the ancestry of its style.  Knowing why your house looks the way it does, and appreciating it on its own merits, will go a long way toward relieving the incessant longing for change and “modernity”— whatever that is.