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.