Monday, November 28, 2011


We all know that nothing looks more dated than last year’s red-hot style.  What’s not so obvious is why consumer styles-- whether clothes, curtains, or cars--come and go with such cyclical certainty.  More often than not, the seeds of new design trends are carefully nurtured by their respective industries to spur sales, and then disseminated via design magazines, television shows, and the like.  Clever marketing encourages consumers to believe that they’re the ones driving these trends, when in fact it’s more often the other way around.  

Once a hot trend inevitably runs its course, another comes along to replace it.  Those who literally bought into the previous fashion cycle are left with outmoded items that once again beg to be replaced with more current ones, thereby starting the cycle anew.  

The American auto industry brilliantly exploited this marketing ploy during the postwar era.  Back then, Detroit’s enormous, chrome-laden cars were heavily restyled each and every year, ensuring that the driver of last year’s model would be acutely aware that his near-new car was already out of date.  While most people are now wise to the role of planned obsolescence in selling cars, not so many are aware that the makers of domestic products play the same marketing game.  

Take kitchen appliances, for example.  Since a washing machine or refrigerator will ordinarily last decades, the simplest way to coax consumers into buying a new one is to make them embarassed at how dated the old one looks. Accordingly, over the years, we’ve seen a whole succession of color and finish fads come and go, each by turns energetically touted as the ultimate in chic.  They’ve ranged from the basic sanitary-white appliances of the late 1940s through Turquoise, Coppertone, Advocado, Harvest Gold, Almond, Black, and eventually back to white again.  

Of course, merely ending up right where you started wouldn’t carry much urgency as a fashion statement, so appliance makers found a new sales angle: Why, this wasn’t just plain old white--it was White on White.    

Given that any fashionable item is doomed to look uniquely dated in a very short time, one wonders why people continue to be so easily swayed by the artificial dictates of fashion, rather than recognizing it for the finely-tuned  sham that it is.  

At the root of this susceptibility lies, I think, an unfounded lack of confidence in our ability to judge for ourselves.  Dig even deeper, and we may find a reluctance to trust one of our most important design tools:  our own intuition.  For instance, when clients bring me a range of color choices for, say, countertops, they’ll dutifully run through the ones they perceive to be in step with current design trends.  But at some point, they’ll show me the one color that really makes their eyes light up, which they’ll resignedly dismiss with some comment such as, “I absolutely LOVE this color, but I know it’s way out of fashion.”

I couldn’t think of a better reason to choose it.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I often get calls from nice folks who’ve drawn up their own plans and want me to check them for problems.  Some of these designs are wonderfully creative, yet virtually all of them are sabotaged by the same basic shortcomings:  People never allow enough space for hallways, staircases, kitchens, or baths. 

Stairs are undoubtedly the biggest booby trap for neophyte planners.  Even a relatively steep, straight stair climbing your basic nine-foot-high story requires a bare minimum floor area of three by ten feet--and this doesn’t include the top and bottom landings or the thickness of the enclosing walls.  L- or U-shaped stairs need even more room. Yet people routinely show me designs for second-story additions in which the entire staircase is miraculously packed into a linen closet.  They’re usually crestfallen to learn that, in fact, the new second-floor bedroom they thought they were adding will only be replacing the one wiped out by the stairs. 

Kitchens are typically overcrowded as well.  The absolute minimum aisle width between facing countertops--even those on islands--is four feet.  Although this may seem excessive on paper, it won’t be once you’ve got doors, drawers, and dishwasher racks projecting into the aisle, not to mention a few bystanders “helping” you cook.  Nor should sinks and cooktops have less than eighteen inches of counter space on either side--and again, this includes islands.  

Even when they know there really isn’t enough room to accommodate everything they want, amateur planners will often try to cheat their way out of the problem by cannibalizing other spaces.  Clothes closets are a common victim:  Although they need to be at least two feet deep, people are always trying to whittle a few inches off  them to buy space somewhere else.  Forget it--jacket sleeves cannot be fooled by this strategy.    

Other immutable rock-bottom minimums:

•  Foyers need to be at least six by six feet.

•  Hallways, like stairs, can be no less than three feet wide.

•  Walk-in closets need to be at least five feet wide for a single-sided arrangement, and seven feet wide for a double-sided one. 

•  Double lavatory sinks require a countertop at least six feet wide.  Never mind those dinky five-foot examples you find at the big-box store--that’s just wishful thinking. 

•  Toilets should occupy a space at least 30 inches wide when between a wall and a counter, and at least 36 inches wide when between two walls.

•  Stall showers require a space no less that three feet square; tubs and tub/showers need at least 2 foot 8 inches by 5 feet.

•  Garages must be at least 19 feet deep inside.  And don’t dream of trying to squeeze a furnace, water heater, or washer and dryer into that minimum, either.

When space is tight, both architects and amateurs can be tempted to fudge minimum dimensions by a few inches here or there.  Don’t.  In fact, it’s good practice to allow a few inches more than you need, since finishes, trim, and unexpected errors or obstructions often conspire to nibble away preciousroom from a space that’s already squeezed.  If you can’t accomodate the above minimums, you may need to rethink your wish list.  Better to throw a few things overboard than to sink the whole ship.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Years ago, when I was a punk architect in my twenties, I asked a well-known local contractor what he considered the most important factor in a good remodel.  I  suppose I was fishing for an answer along the lines of, “Excellent design”, or at the very least, “A decent set of plans”.  

His one-word reply:  “Painting.”  

He went on to explain that he had a sort of fetish for excellent painting.  He maintained that the quality of the paint job was what really set apart a top-notch project, because when all was said and done, the paint was the surface that everyone saw.

At the time, having just recently emerged from Berkeley’s incomparably touchy-feely school of architecture, I remember thinking to myself, “Now, this is one shallow cat.”  But over the years, I’ve come to realize that he was absolutely right.  Not that good design isn’t important--obviously, I think it is, or I’d become a hot dog vendor on the Berkeley Pier quicker than you could say Mies van der Rohe.

But the fact is that even the best design and the finest workmanship can be instantly reduced to a tawdry mess by the sort of slapdash painting that’s all too common these days.

Skilled painters are accorded far too little respect, partly because there aren’t that many of them.  Instead, the field is swamped by low-balling incompetents who think the ability to wield a dribbling roller qualifies them to use the title “painter”. Most find work solely because they’re cheap.  Top-quality painters are further cursed by the fact that the painting phase occurs toward the end of the project, just when overextended owners are most likely to start tightening their purse-strings.  

Alas, whether you’re building from scratch or remodeling, cutting corners on painting is likely to cost you dearly.  My not-so-shallow contractor friend was exactly right:  Painted surfaces are ultimately what most people notice.  Hence, if your house looks like it was painted by Mr. Magoo on crack, all of your earlier efforts will have been in vain.  Here, then, are some bare minimum standards to expect from a paint job:

•  The coverage should be uniform, without a watery, skim-milk appearance.  In addition to proper application, using top quality paint makes a big difference here.  A good painter will automatically insist on using the very best paint.  If you find your painter using econo-buy paint, plan to be disappointed with the results.

•  Borders between different colors should be sharply cut in without wavering.  

•  Painted wood windows should have a sharp, clean line where wood meets glass, not a raggedy edge.  

•  There shouldn’t be a speck--and I mean not a speck--of paint or overspray on stone, brick, glass, tile, unpainted metal, or any other finished surfaces.  Nor should there be overspray on shrubbery, walkways, natural wood structures, or roofing if it’s an exterior paint job.  Don’t buy the frequent excuse that the resulting mess can be cleaned up later--nine times out of ten, it won’t happen.  Instead, insist that all surfaces are properly protected in the first place.  Door lock hardware, for example, should be removed--a procedure that takes a few minutes per door--not painted around as is common with cut-rate practitioners.  

The standard for neatness is simple:  Paint what’s meant to be painted, and don’t mess up the rest.

Monday, November 7, 2011


“The physician can bury his mistakes,” Frank Lloyd Wright told the New York Times in 1953,  “but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”  

Such wisecracking aside, Wright probably new better than most architects the value of integrating nature into his work, and not just as a remedy for aesthetic failure.  

A visit to Taliesin, his home in central Wisconsin, makes this amply clear:  The house is wrapped around the crest of a hill on three sides--”not on the hill, but of the hill”, as Wright liked to say--and the erstwhile farmboy’s love for nature informs every nook and cranny of the place.   

Whether cottage or mansion, a truly livable house should, like Taliesin, seem inseperable from its site.  Sometimes, the simple passage of time and the attendant growth of planting are enough to create this effect, as many an overgrown bungalow will testify.  If you can’t wait around fifty years, however, there are also a number of design strategies that can help weave a new home or addition into its site right from the start.

•   Build decks or terraces as close as possible to the interior floor level, rather than having a back-porch-like stair leading down to them.  Since a house that’s markedly above the outside ground level can feel cut off from the outdoors, creating outdoor space that’s flush with the ground floor will both visually expand the interior space and help integrate it with the surroundings.  

If the vertical distance to the outside grade is more than a couple of feet, consider having several levels of decks or terraces that gradually step down to the ground.  Use level changes of two or at most three steps, each no more than six inches high, and avoid using single steps, as they can create a tripping hazard.  Integrate planters or beds for trees and shrubs into the layout to help visually smooth the transition from indoors to out.

•  Except where there are doors leading outside, don’t install paving or other ground-level hardscaping right up to your home’s exterior walls.  A house with bare paving meeting bare walls has about as much connection to its setting as the hotel on a Monopoly board.  A better approach is to leave a planting bed at least three feet wide between the  foundation and any paving.  Make sure you provide drainage so this area doesn’t become a swamp during the rainy season.  

•  Extend architectural details such as walls, colonnades, or porches from the house into the surrounding landscape.  One of Wright’s favorite techniques was to have low walls radiating root-like from the building, visually tying it to its site.  Often, these walls also formed integral planters that helped from a transition to the natural landscape.  

Traditional architects could be equally adept at this technique: Spanish Revival homes, for example, often featured an arcade or a pergola extending from the house into the garden, or a covered veranda that formed a space halfway between indoors and out.

•  Lastly, always think of your house as an integral part of its site, rather than being an object placed on top of it.  Plan the garden as a series of outdoor rooms that are an extension of the indoor ones, and make the ones nearest the house serve as transition points between inside and out.