Monday, February 28, 2011


Some folks just aren’t happy with their fronts yards until they’ve erected a miniature stockade around them.  I couldn’t count how many 3-foot-high chain-link fences I’ve seen placed right up against the sidewalk--occasionally protecting a lovely garden, but more often surrounding a stone-dead lawn.

I’m not sure about the psychology of front-yard fences--one could go on and on about it, I suppose--but I’m quite sure about the aesthetic result:  Bad.

Such dinky little fences could hardly be for security, since anyone with a faint pulse could vault over one.  More likely, it’s a territorial thing.  You know--stay off my dead grass, or else.  Rather than keeping the bad guys out, however, fencing off the front yard more often just prevents the homeowner himself from enjoying it.   

Although a fenced-in yard or two is probably inevitable on the average neighborhood street, there’s no rational cause for a whole row of front yards to be partitioned off into desolate little pens--there are plenty of more attractive alternatives.  In my book, the best front-yard fence is no fence at all.  But if a barrier of some sort is de rigeur, here are some things to think about:

•  Before you build, identify your objective.  Fences--and every other form of barrier--have only three basic purposes:  To keep things in; to keep things out; or to sit there and look pretty.  Things to be kept out could include people, pets, noise, prying eyes--whatever.  Decide which of these is your main motivation, and choose the least obtrusive barrier that’ll do the job.   

•  If you’re just trying to discourage casual trespassers--whether the two-legged or the four-legged kind--consider some other form of barrier before you resort to a fence.  A row of dense, low shrubs with nasty thorns or spiky leaves, for example, will keep out the majority of mischievous kids.  If you want to keep pets in or out, an appropriate-sized wire-mesh fence concealed behind the shrubs will handle any animal short of a mad dog.

•  If your aim is to keep out criminal types--forget it.  No fence of any description is going to keep out someone who’s determined to get into your yard.  Moreover, a solid fence is worse than none at all--a burglar will probably thank you for hiding him from the neighbors while he’s breaking into your house.  

As security measures go, it would probably be more cost-effective to connect your existing outdoor lights to a motion detector, which can be had for a reasonable price at any hardware store. 

•  If it’s noise or prying eyes you want to exclude, landscaping again offers an alternative to a privacy fence, which would have to have solid planks at least five feet high to be effective.  Tall shrubs such as privet give a much friendlier look from the street, and their dense leaves actually absorb sound better than fence boards do.  

•  Lastly, if your fence is meant mainly for decoration, don’t settle for a run-of-the-mill chain-link fence.  Chain-link is excellent for many applications, but thanks to its institutional look, it’s probably the last thing you’d want surrounding your front yard.  While options such as plastic privacy slats and cute little finials can help, it’s still just putting perfume on a pig. A fence with conventional wood posts will have a much warmer look, and can be finished with wire mesh, planks, lattice, or any number of interesting materials.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Turn on the television any evening, and chances are you’ll come across some TV lawyers engaged in brilliant verbal sparring in court or in some shadowy back hall.  The law--at least as it’s portrayed on television--is pretty compelling stuff.  It must be, considering the parade of lawyer shows we’ve seen since the Fifties.

Lord knows we’ve also had enough medical melodramas during that time, from Ben Casey to E.R. to all those oogie crime scene/inquest/autopsy shows.

And then we have architecture.  

Chances are you’ve probably never seen a show or a movie about architects, and there’s a good reason:  the preposterous histrionics of “The Fountainhead” aside, seeing an architect in action is about as thrilling as watching ivy grow.
That, unfortunately, is one of the architectural profession’s biggest image problems.  It seems reasonable to pay your lawyer big bucks for slaying the enemy with a well-honed courtroom phrase.  And it certainly seems worthwhile to pay a hefty doctor’s fee when your gall bladder is at stake.  But it’s harder for many people to see the return on paying an architect thousands of dollars for a) talking in dreamy generalities about your project, b) sitting on his or her butt for three months waiting for inspiration to strike, and c) sending you a thumping invoice for the mysterious services rendered.  
You haven’t been spared from six months in the slammer, nor has your gall bladder been restored to making first-rate gall, or whatever it’s supposed to do.  Instead, all you’ve got to show for your hard-earned money is a few lousy sheets of paper.

I’d love to remedy this public-relations shortcoming with a long, comprehensive list of all the nitty-gritty things an architect does for his commission.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  The truth is that designing a building is in fact a vague and amorphous business, because the most valuable part of an architect’s service is purely intellectual.  But that doesn’t make the work any less valid--just less visible.  

Architecture, alone among the professions, is a schizophrenic mixture of art and science—a lot more of the former, if you ask me.  And while an Einstein might be methodical in documenting his work, no one expects a Picasso to explain how he goes about producing great art.  What’s more, it would be utterly unthinkable to ask an artist, brilliant or otherwise, to justify the cost of his work.  

Yet it’s seldom that an architect, upon presenting his bill, doesn’t get a certain look from his client that says:  Exactly what the blank did I get for all this money? 

It’s perfectly reasonable that people want value for their design dollar.  In architecture, however, value doesn’t consist of objects or even accomplishments, but simply of ideas.  That’s a pretty tough sell, and it can lead to bad feelings on both sides.  Still, buildings last a long, long time, and I’d like to think that anyone who cares enough to hire an architect can also appreciate that the road to good design is bumpy and not well charted.   One hopes that, ultimately, the client will find it worth all the effort and expense.

We’re not prime time stuff, but we try.   

Monday, February 7, 2011


America is a car-centered culture, and its homes reflect that fact.  Since World War II, garage doors have been a dominant feature of suburban streetscapes--and with the widespread adoption of triple garages, they’ve become pretty much the only feature.  True, developers perform all kinds of design contortions in an effort to make their garages less overbearing--whether breaking the doors up into single bays, stepping them backward or forward, or giving them happy little roofs.  Yet, even in these troubled times, the garage is still king on most new homes.

I thought this situation couldn’t get much worse until a few days ago, when I came across an advertisement for some new tract homes ostensibly aimed at middle-class buyers.  I could hardly believe my eyes:  The entire first floor of the home’s L-shaped street elevation consisted of garage doors.  On one side of the L was a double garage; on the other was an additional single door.  In between, looking like the mousehole in a Warner Brothers cartoon, was the home’s entrance.  The one meant for people, that is.

After so many years, it’s finally happened:  The human resident has become an incidental accessory for the support and maintenance of the home’s real occupants--a family of automobiles.

Most thoughtful people would concede that, in these times, using 30% of a home’s area to store cars is pretty silly--much as we now have the sense to eschew gas-guzzling automobiles.  Yet while our battered auto industry has finally throttled back on building gas guzzlers in the face of ever-rising gas prices, developers are still cranking out plenty of houses with three and even four-car garages.  

Who is responsible? Those developers, for doing whatever they can to make a buck?  Buyers, for preaching one thing and practicing another?  Or the governement, for building all those suburb-generating superhighways in the first place?  

The fact is, we’re all to blame for the increasingly corpulent form American homes have taken since World War II.   For their part, developers claim they’ve only been reacting to what buyers want.  Yet their usual reaction time to new ideas--such as the need for more energy efficient homes--has been measured in decades, not months.  Developers are the last people one could expect to set the pace for a changing world.  

On the other hand, the majority of homebuyers still have to drive to everywhere despite their best intentions, thanks to the infrastructure of auto-dependent suburbs we continue to create to this day.  What's more, local government still indirectly encourages driving through their stubborn retention of obsolete, auto-centric zoning laws that encourage suburban sprawl.   

Yet there are ways to break this vicious cycle:  

•  Zoning laws should be revamped to allow more intelligent land use such as courtyard homes and zero-lot-line development for lower-density housing, along with expanded live-work and mixed-use zoning for higher density areas.

•  Developers should weigh the potential value of innovation and leadership, not just their short-term risk.  To follow an automotive example:  In the 1960s, the tiny, strange-looking Volkswagen Beetle hijacked a huge share of U.S. auto sales while Detroit was busy insisting that lumbering, chrome-plated dinosaurs were what people really wanted.  So--who has the guts to be the Volkswagen of developers?

•  Lastly, consumers who are currently shut out of the housing market should loudly demand smaller and more practical homes that they can afford, rather than pining for overblown, gimmick-laden ones they can’t.  Ultimately, it’s homebuyers who’ll dictate what course American housing takes.  

And while we all hope to prosper again soon, let's hope we no longer gauge that prosperity by counting garage doors.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When do building codes meant to insure safety actually hinder it?  

When they’re administered rigidly, reflexively, and without regard for common sense.  In too many instances, building codes--which were originally intended to promote public health and safety--instead end up punishing homeowners who attempt to make voluntary safety improvements.  

Case in point:  A client of mine in a city to remain nameless (but which has cable cars and a pointy skyscraper) recently proposed to replace a rot-damaged exterior stair in her 1920s-era rowhouse.  The dilapidated stair, which stood in a lightwell shared with the adjoining house, was built with “winders”--precipitous, pie-shaped steps radiating from a center post--which are so hazardous that the building code outlawed them many years ago.  

Accordingly, we proposed to build a new stair with generously-sized landings in place of the winders.  Mind you, all of this was being done voluntarily in the interest of safety.  

The building official’s response?  She informed us that altering the stair configuration in any way would, among other things, require us to construct a two-and-a-half-story-tall firewall, complete with foundation, along the property line--a sort of spite fence that would run right down the middle of the shared lightwell.  In her interpretation, the new stairs constituted an addition, which in turn obliged my client to bring the entire lightwell area up to modern codes.  If we wanted to avoid this requirement, we were told, we should keep the stairs exactly as they were, treacherous winders and all, and instead replace the rotted portions piecemeal.  

So much for meeting the spirit of the Code.

Nor is this an isolated example.  In another large city nearby, a client  owned a turn-of-the-century house that was perched precariously atop tall, unbraced basement walls.  Having read numerous accounts of such houses collapsing in earthquakes, he voluntarily decided to replace his crumbling foundation and provide some seismic bracing as well.  

The building official’s response to his plans was to demand that the entire house be upgraded--not just the basement story.  Nice incentive, huh?  Rather than encouraging my client’s voluntary seismic improvements, the official’s idiotically intractable demands penalized him instead.

Such requirements pervert the historical intent of the building code.  They are a twisted product of bureaucratic rigidity and fear of litigation, a mixture which produces frantic adherence to the letter of the code rather than to its broader intent, even in the face of absurdly counterproductive outcomes.  

Which serves the homeowner better, a safe staircase which doesn’t conform to the letter of the code, or a dangerous one which conforms by dint of a technicality?  Which is preferable, a draconian seismic upgrade that’s too costly to implement, or one that’s as effective as possible within the homeowner’s means?  Isn’t something still better than nothing at all?

Such bizarre perversions of the code’s intent are both unfair and unnecessary. Building officials are explicitly empowered to interpret code requirements in the manner they feel will best serve the interests of public health and safety.  The building code, after all, was not handed down to them by Moses.  From its inception, it was meant to be a living, growing, and above all adaptable instrument.  Like any set of rules, however, it requires a modicum of thoughtfulness, reason, and common sense.