Wednesday, December 26, 2012


China is a nation filled with ironies.  It’s a purportedly Socialist state in which the images of Chairman Mao that used to gaze down from buildings have largely been replaced by an equally paternal-looking Colonel Sanders.  It's also an enormously proud culture, but one whose ideals of beauty--whether smiling women on shampoo bottles, virile men on packs of underwear, or googooing babies on diaper boxes--are more often than not depicted as Caucasian.

As for everyday Chinese life, forget those romantic images of rural schoolhouses, peasants tending rice paddies, and ancient villages in the clouds.  Such scenes do exist, of course, and though they cater to our lovely perception of China, they’re roughly as accurate as having modern America represented by the shootout street in  “High Noon”.  

In fact, most of China’s people are packed into a narrow band hugging the East Coast, and most of them in turn live in relatively modern housing projects.  This trend is likely to continue, as more and more people leave the countryside for the comparative wealth of the urban centers.

What’s more, despite the bucolic images so dear to Westerners, few Chinese regret trading a rural lifestyle for an urban one.  For many, farmhouse life meant hauling the day’s water supply from the local well in buckets, using a covered wooden pail for a toilet, and heating bath water by the kettleful on a charcoal fire.  South of the Yangtze River, the climate was not considered harsh enough to require heating, so living in these warmer regions ironically meant occasional freezing temperatures indoors.  My wife, who grew up in this region, vividly recalls waking up on cold mornings to find the household towels frozen solid.

Farmhouse living in summertime brought stifling heat and humidity, along with flies, mosquitoes, and various other unwelcome critters in abundance--conditions that can make a clean, air-conditioned apartment with hot and cold running water seem more than a small step up..

While China’s highrise housing blocks may appear impersonal to Westerners, their design has improved dramatically in the past few years.  Most are equal to our own, and the fancier ones have all the conveniences you’d find in an American dwelling and then some:  One well-to-do government official I visited proudly showed off his Japanese-made toilet, an improbable looking device bristling with electronic controls whose various functions I’d rather not guess at.

Curiously, many rural customs persist in this dazzling new urban setting.  The Chinese still prefer to buy their meats and vegetables daily from local farmers, who set up stalls in the local market hall each morning.  This points up another of China’s ironies: While vast portions of the nation are too arid to grow crops, it’s precisely China’s richest farmland--that of the coastal regions--that’s being consumed by development.  Already, vast areas of prime farmland have been paved over with endless ranks of housing projects. 

If building continues at this pace, where will the nation’s food supply come from?   And who will grow it after farmers have abandoned the land or been forced from it by development?  America faced these same questions at the end of the nineteenth century, when fully half of us still lived on farms.  Today, only two percent of us do, and we’ve not only survived but prospered under this trend.  Given its ingenuity and determination, China may well do the same.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Last time, we saw how many well-known brands in the American building industry got their start through innovation and invention . It’s a credential that many of today’s reverse-engineered, flash-in-the-pan competitors can’t lay claim to—something to bear in mind next time you’re tempted by a slickly-advertised brand you’ve never heard of.

Ironically, many old American companies tend to play downplay their long experience, perhaps for fear of seeming fuddy-duddy in today’s high-tech world.  Since I have no such compunctions, however, I’ll single out a few more of our most venerable brands, some of them now well past the century mark.  

Way back in 1901, for example, Chicagoan Albert C. Brown opened a small shop that made plumbing fixtures and other hardware. In 1913, Brown invented a replaceable and virtually drip-free faucet cartridge which he called the Quaturn, because a mere quarter-turn of the handle could turn the water on or off.  Brown’s invention soon became the mainstay of his Chicago Faucet Company. His cartridge has been refined over the years, but amazingly, it’s still interchangeable with any Quaturn faucet manufactured since 1913. 

Some American firms not only go back a long way, but also practically created their own industries. Willis Haviland Carrier, for instance, invented the basics of modern air conditioning in 1902, which helps explain why the Carrier name has been keeping people cool ever since.

Perhaps less of a household name--unless you’re in the habit of reading your door latches--is that of German immigrant Walter Reinhold Schlage.  A master mechanic and inventor, Schlage’s first patent, granted in 1909, was for a door lock with a built-in button that turned the room lights on and off.  The idea didn’t catch on, but around 1920, Schlage came up with the now-familiar lockset with a push-button lock centered in the door knob.  

What’s more, he designed the new lock to fit in a simple round hole bored in the door, eliminating the need for expensive mortising.  This so-called “cylindrical lock” created a minor revolution in the building industry, since it could be installed in minutes using ordinary hand tools.  These two innovations remain the basis of all interior locksets today.

A more familiar household brand traces its lineage back to 1911, when two brothers in St. Joseph, Michigan founded the Upton Machine Company to produce electric motor-driven wringer washers. Eventually, retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. began marketing Upton-manufactured washers under their house brand of Kenmore. Today, the little company founded by the Uptons is Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s largest appliance manufacturer.

More recent domestic products are just as likely to have sprung from innovation by American firms.  A classic example: Around 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, an engineer with Raytheon Corporation, was surprised to find that the candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was working on a device that generated microwaves. The following year, Raytheon demonstrated the world's first microwave oven, calling it the Radarange. In 1967, having acquired Amana Refrigeration, Raytheon introduced the first countertop Amana Radarange oven.  By 1975, microwave ovens were outselling gas ranges.

Today, of course, you’d be hard pressed to find any microwave ovens--including Amana’s--that are actually made in the U.S.A.  Still, it’s worth giving credit where it’s due.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Aside from my usual grumbling over Hewlett Packard products, I seldom mention brand names in this blog.  Today, however, I’m going to mention a whole raft of them.  Before I’m accused of selling out, though, let me say that none of the firms I mention have paid me to drop their names, nor so much as taken me out to lunch.  Just for future reference, however, I could probably be bought off with a nice fresh rhubarb pie.  

Today’s building materials market is flooded with newcomer brands.  While choice and competition are generally a good thing, the current galaxy of choices in the building field is largely among a whole raft of Johnny-Come-Lately manufacturers, many based overseas, whose main objective is simply to cash in on America’s vast home-improvement market.  This unpleasant fact ought to make consumers think twice before purchasing brands they’ve never heard of before, no matter how slickly advertised.

Quite a few American brands, by comparison, have histories dating back a century or more. While a distinguished past doesn’t necessarily guarantee modern worth--as General Motors can amply attest--there’s nevertheless no substitute for long experience. And there are plenty of experienced old brands to go around.  

One well-known American plumbing fixture maker, for example, traces its lineage back to 1872, when John B. Pierce opened a tinware shop in Ware, Massachusetts. Pierce later founded one of three firms that merged in 1892 to form the American Radiator Company.  In 1929, American Radiator in turn merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. By the eve of World War II, products from this unwieldy new combine--it was not called American-Standard until 1948--could be found in about half the homes in the U.S.. 

Just as venerable a name in plumbing is the company founded by 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873 to produce cast iron and steel farm implements. In 1883 Kohler applied a baked enamel coating to one of his company’s horse trough/hog scalders, thus creating the first Kohler bathtub. 

Other old hands in the building industry include the window manufacturer Anderson, founded in 1903 by Danish immigrant Hans Andersen and his family in Hudson, Wisconsin.  In 1932, in the very depths of the Depression, Anderson introduced the first fully assembled window unit in the industry.  This was a revolutionary idea in a day when windows were either shipped in pieces, or else were locally built from scratch.  

Another familiar name in windows got its start in 1925, when Pete and Lucille Kuyper founded a small Des Moines company to manufacture a novel type of window screen that retracted onto a roller.  The Kuypers’s Rolscreen Company moved to Pella, Iowa, the following year, began manufacturing wood windows, and the rest is history.

Innovations, whether large or small, have been central to the rise of the companies recounted above.  Next time we’ll look at a few more such stalward American brands, some of whom essentially invented their own industries.  So take note, industry reps--there’s still time to get me that rhubarb pie.

Monday, December 3, 2012


People do lots of thinking when they remodel a bathroom.  They agonize over colors, countertop materials, and choosing the latest lavatory sink, but too often, they overlook the kind of improvements that would matter most. 

Simply upgrading your bathroom with fancy fixtures and materials won’t do a thing to improve its function.  You’ll just be trading a lousy old bathroom for a lousy new one.  So make sure you don’t miss these basics:

•  Don’t rule out relocating a toilet, a sink, or even a bathtub if doing so would definitely improve the room’s layout.  The old notion that moving plumbing fixtures will break the bank simply isn’t true in most cases--in a major bathroom remodel, the biggest expense is in finishes, not in rough plumbing. 

A common example:  Building codes allow a toilet to be centered in a space as little as thirty inches wide.  Yet many older bathrooms have much more space than that between the toilet and adjoining cabinets or walls.  In a case like this, moving the toilet to the modern minimum may gain you a nice chunk of counter space. 

•  Stay away from hard-to-clean fixtures, no matter how fashionable.  The usual suspects include topmount lavatory sinks, whose raised rims prevent puddled water from being wiped directly into the sink.  And the cleaning headaches inherent in those oh-so-trendy free-standing-bowl style sinks hardly need pointing out.

Likewise, while sparkling glass shower enclosures look great in designer magazines, in real life they’re a drudge to keep clean.  For my money, a shower curtain--which won’t obstruct the room when not in use, and which can be easily replaced--is a more practical choice.

•  In the shower, provide a niche for storing shampoo bottles and the like. Make sure the soap dish is high enough to avoid the need to stoop down, and provide a hook or bar for hanging a washcloth.  A small built-in bench or at least a ledge will be welcome, too.

•  Set aside some wall space for both 18-inch wide face towel bars and 24-inch bath towels. Ideally, the bath towels should be within arm’s length of the tub or shower, and the face towels should be right beside the lavatory sink.  If space is tight, either can be mounted on the inside of the bathroom door, or you can use towel rings instead.

•  Building codes require an exhaust fan only if the bathroom doesn’t have an openable window, but you should plan to include one regardless.  Insist on a top-quality, super-quiet model--not one of those howling bargain-basement jobs.  Better yet, consider a remote-mounted fan, which will be even quieter. 

•  If the bathroom feels cramped but there’s no way to physically enlarge it, try an optical illusion:  Use a large sheet mirror on the wall behind the lavatory, extending from corner to corner and from countertop to ceiling, to visually double the room’s volume.  Although it takes a little extra effort to incorporate a mirror this big, the result is far more dramatic than the usual scrap of mirror screwed to the wall.

•  Lastly, don’t forget storage for bulky items like toilet paper.  To this end, a vanity cabinet is more practical than a pedestal sink, though it may not necessarily suit the style of your house.  Here again, you might wish to trade fashion for function.

Monday, November 26, 2012


In China, single-family homes are rare, and the vast majority of people live in what Americans would charitably call highrise apartment blocks or, put less delicately, projects.  As dismal as these may sound (and as dismal as they sometimes appear), the neighborhoods that form around these Chinese projects really work.  They’re far from tidy and seldom beautiful, but on the whole they’re livelier, safer, and more inviting at all hours of the day than any American equivalent.  They are as successful as most American housing projects have been catastrophic.  

Why?  For one, the Chinese are not hamstrung by the sort of fanatically segregated zoning that has made so much of America a vacant no man’s land after hours. In China, the street levels of residential buildings (not to mention office buildings and sometimes even factories) are customarily lined with a whole panoply of stores and workshops, a tradition handed down from millenia of mercantile culture.  

A few minutes walk from my Chinese home-away-from-home in Suzhou, for example, a road leads right through the heart of several large housing projects. Under American single-use zoning, this would likely be a desolate--perhaps even threatening--place. Yet in China, it’s a bustling social center.  Jammed into the span of a few short blocks are grocery and dry goods stores, at least five bakeries, a fresh meat and vegetable market, three or four fruit vendors, a couple of  pharmacies, two banks, a custom tailor, eight or nine barber shops, and perhaps sixty other shops variously selling toys, shoes, dresses, hardware, paint, baby clothes, and what have you, along with a couple of dozen eateries ranging from street vendors to large sit-down venues.  

Improbably mixed in among these are also three metal fabricators, a bicycle repair shop, a motorcycle repair shop, and two shops that build windows.  The range of goods and services is so comprehensive that it’s easier to list what the street doesn’t have:  There’s no cafe, and no Japanese restaurant--they’re a few blocks away on another street.

Many of these shops are no bigger than a one-car garage, so nearly all of them borrow a chunk of real estate from the great swath of sidewalk that runs from one end of the project to the other.  Perhaps thirty feet wide, it flanks a gratifyingly narrow street that discourages through traffic.  And although China can hardly be described as a pedestrian-friendly nation, neighborhoods like this one are clearly meant for people and cyclists, and not for cars.  The result is that neighborhood life, day or night, takes place outdoors, in front of the shops.  People eat, nap, bake, cook, cobble, weld, grind, build, and dismantle things on the sidewalk--a prospect that would horrify American planners--and wonder of wonders, no one seems the worse for it. 

This kind of sidewalk city, which is utterly typical of urban China, is already bustling at sunrise, and it’s still crowded late into the evening, when the restaurants and karaoke bars are going full tilt.  Yet there’s never a compulsion to look nervously over your shoulder, no matter how late the hour.  There are just too many people around living normal lives to feel unsafe.

“Chaotic” is a word many order-loving westerners have used to describe Chinese cities, whether the twisting old longtangs or back alleys of yore, or today’s less romantic but equally ebullient neighborhoods.  If this is chaos, it’s the kind that American cities could use more of.

Monday, November 19, 2012


A while back, I stopped at a locally-owned burger emporium for one of my periodic hits of cholesterol. The giant cheeseburger was stupendous, but the decor was something else again.  

In architecture, there are few things as tawdry as yesterday’s red-hot fashion.  Judging by its unsettling paint job, this restaurant had apparently been redone during the 1980s, when a television series called Miami Vice, of all things, inspired any number of hack architects and decorators to run around purportedly “updating” buildings with appliques of glass block, neon, and stucco, lastly topping them off with the color scheme then approvingly known as dusty rose and teal.   

It’s clear enough why fashion trends exist.  For marketers, it’s a diabolically clever way to ensure that people never remain satisfied with what they have, and instead will eternally crave a newer car, a different cut of clothing, or what have you.  What’s harder to understand is exactly what makes the rest of us--including design professionals--so willing to be swept up in the fashion industry’s calculated tidal pull.

Would any architect or decorator, for example, sincerely believe that a color scheme inspired by a momentary television series would be just the thing to make a lasting contribution to their client’s project?  And for that matter, could any reasonably intelligent client really overlook the stunning shortsightedness of such a concept?

Apparently, they could, and they did.   There are countless moldering examples of this particular fashion cliche still hanging on across the country, ranging from relatively forgiveable examples like my hamburger joint, all the way to egregious revamps of entire hotels, shopping centers, hospitals and even banks--all of them still ridiculously decked out in fading shades of turquoise and pink, and looking more like colossal ice cream parlors than serious institutions.

But of course it’s not fair to pick on weak-willed architects of the Eighties for such dismaying transgressions. Every decade, every era has its equivalent of glass block and neon, and of teal and dusty rose.  Today’s faddish architecture--those buildings bristling with nonfunctional sunshades and outriggers, short-lived varnished wood exteriors, and harlequin paint schemes of olive drab, dried blood, and mustard--are destined to look just as embarassingly dated in a few years. 

The saving grace here, however, is that qualifier “new”.  However trendoid they may be, these buildings were at least conceived with details, finishes, and color schemes that were integral to the whole.  On the other hand, cosmetic updates superficially pasted onto buildings for the sake of chasing one fad or another are by definition dis-integrations.  These kinds of “improvements” are invariably short-lived, and just as invariably diminish any building that is subjected to them.  

Practically every historic structure we cherish today, from New York’s Grand Central Station to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, has had to be rescued from at least one and sometimes multiple “modernizations” perpetrated by architects and decorators, who most assuredly touted them as improvements in their day.  With friends like these, old buildings don’t need enemies.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


There are three project ideas I hear from homeowners again and again--probably because, at first glance, they seem like dirt cheap ways to add space.  Alas, all three are far from being the slam-dunks people think they are.  They go something like this:

•  “We just want to move this wall out a couple feet.”  This idea usually reflects the hope that a modest addition will translate into modest cost.  Actually, the opposite is true.  Expanding a room by two feet or ten feet hardly changes the labor involved, since all the complications found in the larger addition--tying into existing roofs, extending utilities, matching existing finishes, and the like--are found in the small one as well.  The actual savings due to the reduced area of floor, walls, and roof is trivial.  What’s more, since you gain only a pitiful number of square feet for all this trouble, your cost per square foot goes sky high.  

Moral:  If you’re going to bother adding on, add the maximum area that circumstances, budget and reason will allow.  Small additions do not make for small costs.

•  “We want to go up a story.”  On the face of it, adding upward instead of outward seems to make sense.  The foundation is already done, right?
Not necessarily.  In most cases, foundations built to support a one story house are not adequate to support two stories.  In the past, building departments have let this problem slide--which is why you see so many older additions of this kind--but not anymore.  Nowadays, adding a second story often requires foundation reinforcement or even total replacement, neither of which are minor propositions.  

Adding a story also means you’ll need to carve out an area of at least three feet by eleven feet (but probably more) for a staircase, hopefully in a spot that makes sense in terms of circulation.  Often, this requires sacrificing a downstairs bedroom, which instantly wipes out the gain of one of the bedrooms you’re presumably adding upstairs.  Lastly, depending on the character (and the characters) of your neighborhood, you may risk riling up your neighbors by adding a looming second floor and potentially cutting off their views or sunlight or both.  In the past, this was their tough luck, but today, it’s more likely to be yours.  

The upshot:  If you’ve got nowhere else to go but up, so be it, but adding outward is generally an easier, cheaper, and less disruptive way to gain space.

•  “We want to raise the house and put a story underneath.”  Usually, folks with this idea are already planning to replace their foundation for one reason or another, so they figure it’s a great chance to double the size of their house in one fell swoop.  As you might guess, though, this project has all the headaches of adding a second story and then some.  The same staircase problem applies, but now there’s also the additional yet frequently overlooked challenge of getting from the sidewalk up to your front door--which, you’ll recall, is now way, way up in the air.  If you’re concerned about resale value, it’s also worth noting that houses with bedrooms beneath the main living area are less popular with buyers than those with more conventional arrangements.

This isn’t to say that these three approaches aren’t worth considering.  If the inherent problems are anticipated and properly dealt with, any one of them can yield a perfectly good project.  Still, if there’s space available, building a right-sized addition at ground level is usually cheaper and easier.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Over a century ago, American builders began using a remarkable mineral product.  Mined from a type of serpentine rock, it was natural, abundant and easy to produce, yet its unique properties made it almost limitlessly useful.  It was resistant to chemicals and intense heat. It was an excellent electrical and thermal insulator.  Out of its fibers, you could weave a cloth that wouldn’t burn.  You could even mix it with other materials to make them stronger and more fireproof. 

Over the course of the twentieth century, American industry--with the government’s blessing--found thousands of uses for this miraculous mineral.  Woven into a cloth, it was used to insulate electrical wires.  Mixed with a binder, it made a fireproof insulation for pipes and ducts.  Mixed with cement, it made a host of practically indestructible building materials such as corrugated siding, shingles, and flue pipe. Mixed with vinyl, it made an incredibly durable floor tile.  

Nor was its usefulness limited to construction. This same amazing mineral allowed the brakes on your car to survive blistering temperatures. Inside your home, you could find it in stoves, heaters, ovens, toasters, hair dryers, and ironing board covers--pretty much any product that had to resist high heat.  And if you happen to have an older example of any of these items--or perhaps an old furnace down in your basement--that miraculous mineral may still be there, silently doing its job.

The miraculous mineral is asbestos, a substance whose modern reputation is considerably more sinister than when it was found in countless industrial products.  Long-term occupational exposure to asbestos is now known to cause a number of terrible lung diseases, one more ghastly than the next.  The risk of exposure to the amounts of asbestos found in a typical older home is less clear, but on the premise of being better safe than sorry, asbestos is no longer manufactured in the United States.  Nevertheless, since it was used in thousands of long-lived domestic products, and because its peak period of use stretched from World War II well into the 1970s--in fact, the last U.S. asbestos mine closed only in 2002--its complete removal from the environment is a virtual impossibility.  

Millions of older American homes contain significant amounts of asbestos, found mostly in the form of insulation on steam pipes or heating ducts, in resilient floor tiles, acoustic ceiling tiles, and sprayed acoustic ceilings, and in asbestos-cement shingles, building panels and flue pipes.  Although removal was once widely considered the preferred remedy, today many authorities believe that the safest approach is to leave asbestos-containing building materials in place so long as they’re in good condition and not subject to disturbance. For the official policy in your own area, contact your local hazardous materials authority.

So it is that, after a century of vast commercial use, the miraculous mineral has now become the malevolent mineral.  If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it’s that sometimes, things that seem too good to be true--whether X-rays, atomic power, DDT or asbestos--are in fact exactly that. 

Monday, October 29, 2012


Cars can’t help but affect the built environment, since they constrain so much of how we design and how we live.  We devote a big chunk of our homes to them, and build shopping centers in which a quarter of the space is for people, and the rest is for parked cars.  Add up all this area given over to cars, whether moving or standing still, and you’ll find that around forty percent of our cities belong to our four-wheeled friends.  

Of more pressing concern to humankind, however, is the fact that cars consume vast amounts of petroleum while pumping out vast amounts of pollution.  Here, at least, there’s a ray of hope:  Americans can now buy not only hybrid vehicles (which use small, efficient gasoline engines to produce electricity onboard), but straight electric vehicles as well.  

Hybrids are far more efficient than the gas-guzzling, mechanical-drive dinosaurs most of us still drive, not to mention being being quieter and more powerful to boot. Straight electric vehicles are an even greater advance, as they do away completely with the inherently inefficient internal-combustion engine.

Still, industry analysts, bureaucrats, and other fonts of conventional wisdom would have us believe that, because hybrids and electrics still account for only a small fraction of vehicles sold, old-style cars will be with us for a long, long time. 

They may be in for a big surprise, and steam locomotives, of all things, can help us see why.

For over a hundred years after U.S. railroad service began in 1831, steam locomotives ruled the American rails.  What’s more, by the 1920s, only three companies were building all of the nation’s locomotives.  Sound familiar?  The largest of these was the mighty Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, whose vast Eddystone Works once ranked among the world’s largest industrial complexes.  Baldwin was, in many ways, the General Motors of its field. 

During the 1930s, a seemingly puny threat to this dynasty appeared.  It was the diesel-electric locomotive, an innovative product built by a complete outsider to the world of steam. The sleek, clean-running diesel-electrics cost a lot more than steam locomotives, but they were also about three times as efficient.  

The Big Three locomotive builders hardly took notice of this innovation.  They devoted trifling resources to developing their own versions, and instead kept right on doing what they’d always done--building bigger and more powerful steam locomotives.  After all, steam had been king for over a century, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

But it did change, and fast.  The railroads quickly saw the potential savings in this new technology. To the astonishment of Baldwin and its brethren, they began rapidly replacing their huge fleets of steam locomotives with diesel-electrics.  How rapidly?  In 1936, steam locomotives still outsold diesel-electrics by about four to one. In 1948, by contrast, the railroads bought 2,800 diesel-electrics--and exactly thirteen steam locomotives. 

The last American steam locomotive chuffed out of Baldwin’s Eddystone Works the following year.  While the steam engine builders had been snoring at the throttle, demand for their once-invincible product had vanished.   

Not surprisingly, all of the Big Three locomotive builders quickly succumbed in the diesel-electric era, since they’d done next to nothing to prepare for it.

The moral of the story is that the gasoline-engined, mechanical-drive automobile--the kind we’ve driven for over a century now--is far from invincible.  No one should know this better than General Motors. Why? Because they were the upstart firm whose shiny, efficient diesel-electric locomotives put the steam engine out of business.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Every so often, there’s a brief span of years in which innovation comes thick and fast.  In the area of building technology, the Roaring Twenties was such an age.  The houses of this decade were chock full of new ideas that, quaint as they seem to us now, let Americans live more comfortably than ever before.

The homes of the 1920s were, for one, the first to truly integrate electricity.  In prior years, clumsy surface installations of switches and wiring were still common, along with lighting fixtures that often consisted of little more than a naked bulb at the end of a cord.  The Twenties brought the wide use of two-button switches flush-mounted in brass plates, with the  “on” button elegantly marked by a circle of mother-of-pearl.  Electric wall sconces became the lighting fashion of the day, while electrical outlets moved from jury-rigged affairs screwed to the wall to being inconspicuously flush-mounted in the baseboard.  Granted, few rooms had more than one or two receptacles, but then this was an era of few electrical gadgets besides floor lamps and radios.

Another high-tech feature unique to the era was a built-in aerial serving that entertainment mainstay of the day, the console radio.  Rather than mounting an ugly mast on the roof as was later done for television, builders of the Twenties cleverly looped wire through the attic to form a giant hidden antenna. 

A simpler but equally useful convenience was the pass-through mailbox, in which letters dropped through a slot beside the front door slid into a small inside compartment behind a grillework door.  Alas, this charming device could never accomodate today’s huge quantities of junk mail. 

The 1920s also brought the wide use of speaking tubes, the low-tech ancestor of those garbled intercoms we’ve all learned to hate. Used mainly in upscale apartment buildings, speaking tubes were simply a network of tin pipes leading from a central panel at the front door into each apartment. Each end of the tube had a trumpet-like opening, allowing visitor and occupant to communicate without need for electronics. 

Also found in better apartment houses was central electric refrigeration, the forerunner of today’s home refrigerators.  In this system, a compressor in the basement furnished the cooling power for a small refrigerated cabinet in the kitchen of each apartment.  Cumbersome as it sounds, this was still a big advance over the standard cooling device of the era: A block of ice.  

No doubt the most technically sophisticated building innovation to take hold during the Twenties was air conditioning, a luxury so expensive that it was initially found only in movie palaces and in the best class of public buildings.  In those days, the machinery required to air-condition a building took up roughly the space of a four-car garage, and was deemed so impressive that at least one theater installed plate glass show windows to let passersby admire their mechanical wonder from the sidewalk.  

One innovation of the Twenties that never did catch on was a patented radio speaker hidden in a chandelier--a device that probably had more than a few startled dinner guests choking on their dumplings.  Then again, even this curiosity might have succeeded if the Great Depression hadn’t stopped it cold, along with all the other hijinks of this exuberant era. Thankfully, the greatest legacy of the Roaring Twenties--some of the most charming and livable houses in America--still largely survives.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Not long ago, in a pleasant, Sixties-era neighborhood of California ranchers, I came across a renovated house that looked all too familiar.  The owner had replaced the original front doors, all the windows, and the garage door in a style that could most kindly be described as Home Depot Eclectic.  To begin with, there was a huge, modernistic vinyl picture window.  A few feet away were a pair of casement windows bordered with those now-inescapable Craftsman style “simulated divided lites”.  The garage door, meanwhile, was topped with a row of little Colonial sunburst windows, while the front doors boasted an elaborate Frank Lloyd Wright pattern done in beveled glass.  Just about the only style that was absent, in fact, was that of the original California rancher.

Setting aside the wisdom of trying to transform one architectural style into another, any one of these motifs might have worked had it been used consistently and alone. Combining them all together, however, simply yielded a stylistic hodgepodge.

It’s amazing how a single motif can call up a whole architectural style. Motifs act as a kind of visual shorthand--when we see fishscale shingles, we think Victorian.  When we see zigzags, we think Deco. When we see curlicues, we think Spanish, and so on.  But this same evocative power can cause a lot of trouble when it’s not used carefully.  Few motifs, for example, could be more at odds than those New Englandish sunbursts being played against the jagged lines of Prairie School glass just a few feet away.

Probably the most clear-cut dividing line between irreconcilable motifs is the one between traditional and modern architecture.  There are always exceptions, but in general, traditional and modern styles spring from diametrically opposed philosophies, and seldom the twain shall meet.  This realization might have discouraged our exemplary renovator from mixing in a little Ben Franklin with his Frank Lloyd Wright.

Is all this just stylistic nitpicking?  Sure--but nitpicking is what makes for good design.  Nor are such clashing motifs something that would only bother an architect.  Lately, more and more homeowners come primed with an impressive grasp of architectural styles--due, no doubt, to This Old House-style TV shows and instant Google searches.  Lots of people are able to sense when things don’t seem to fit together right.

So unless you aim to be eclectic, try to limit yourself to a few favorite motifs, and apply them consistently.  If you use segmental arches, for example, don’t mix them with round ones--the first speaks Italian, while the second screams in Spanish.  For similar reasons, don’t mix double-hung windows with sliders, Art Nouveau with Art Deco, divided lites with glass block, and so on.  All of these pairings come from very different eras and sources, and they’ll get along none too happily in one facade.

If you’re not sure which motif goes with which style, consult some books on the style or period you’re interested in.  Find five or six examples of buildings you really like, and take note of the motifs they have in common.  Then, pay equally close attention to the things you don’t find, and you won’t be bedeviled by those mixed-up motifs.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Some years back, the FBI raided San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection and arrested an official for allegedly taking bribes from a contractor.  It was yet another embarassment for an organization that, rightly or wrongly, has long suffered from a reputation for favoritism and improprieties.  At the time of the arrest, the department had been under FBI investigation for five years.  

This event got me to thinking about the nature of corruption in building and planning departments--not just in San Francisco, but across the country.  It would be easy to blame a few bad apples for this not-uncommon problem, but in fact the process may deserve as much  blame as the personnel.  

Bribery is, of course, one way of circumventing normal channels that don’t function adequately. In the days of the old U.S.S.R., for example, staple foods like chicken, beef, and pork were often very scarce. Not surprisingly, corruption flourished under these conditions. While ordinary Russians routinely stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a few scraps of meat, people with money and influence could easily obtain fine wine, caviar, chocolate, or anything else they fancied. 

Thankfully, in the United States, we don’t have to bribe the butcher to score a few pork chops--we can just pick up a package, pay for it, and leave. If only getting a building permit were so simple.  Instead, it’s become one of the most exasperating processes in all of government.  Despite the best efforts of officials in many cities, obtaining a permit often still takes more time than constructing the actual project.  

Now, generally, we Americans are a very patient people.  We don’t mind jumping through our fair share of hoops to get what we’re after.  Yet there’s a point at which a process become so onerous and complex that even reasonable people try to circumvent it--not because they have criminal minds, but because each and every one of us has a limit of tolerance for unreasonable red tape.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.  After all, the American Revolution grew out of what normally law-abiding people saw as unfair taxation by the Crown. This kind of rebellion against unfairness is, if anything, a classic American trait.

The unfairness inherent in many big-city building permit processes is this:  Thanks to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, homeowners with ordinary resources must struggle for permission to build simple and innocuous home additions, while big-league applicants who are savvy, well-connected, and able to afford elaborate lobbying measures (whether legal or otherwise) can typically prevail with projects of far greater impact on the public.

It’s evident that if the approval process weren’t so convoluted, fewer ordinary citizens would be tempted onto the dangerous path of foregoing permits altogether.  Neither would well-connected applicants look for special treatment, nor would building officials be tempted to grant such favors in return for compensation. 

If we’re still shocked--shocked!--to find bribery in some of our building departments, we shouldn’t be. When a process becomes as byzantine as this one has, attempts to circumvent it are inevitable. And as we already know, people with means can always get their caviar, while the rest of us wait in line for scraps.

Monday, October 1, 2012


It’s been almost forty years since the architectural and decorative style known as High-Tech hit the American scene. Arising during the mid-1970s, and legitimized by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin’s eponymous book of 1978, High-Tech had every hipster architecture student of my generation designing facades with chain-link fencing and corrugated culverts.

Among High-Tech’s most celebrated paradigms was Paris’s Pompidou Center, completed by the architects Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano in 1976.  The Pompidou was essentially a building turned inside out, unabashedly wearing its guts on the outside. Color-keyed networks of piping, ducting, escalators, and other service systems were carried in a scaffold-like framework surrounding the building, essentially becoming the decorative elements.  The Pompidou predictably caused an uproar among Parisians and worldwide, with many detractors comparing it to an oil refinery.

The idea that structure was innately beautiful had been a longtime modernist tenet, but the Pompidou took this thinking a good bit further, showcasing technical features that had previously been considered ugly. 

Controversial as it was, the Pompidou spurred an entire generation of avant-garde architects and designers to feature utilitarian materials such as industrial lighting fixtures, subway gratings, galvanized and perforated metal, commercial rubber flooring, and non-skid steel plate in residential and commercial design.  This new functional aesthetic, theoretically unfettered by the tides of domestic fashion, soon acquired the only marginally accurate appellation High-Tech.  

Besides having great visual impact, the frankly functional items used in High-Tech design were sometimes--though by no means always--less costly than their more refined domestic equivalents.  More portentiously, High-Tech also afforded architects and designers a perfect opportunity to use prefabricated structures, commercial curtain wall systems, and similar modular parts in residential work, a breakthrough that had long eluded the housing industry.

“In the future, all buildings will be built like this,” said the German architect Helmut Schulitz of his steel-framed, largely modular High-Tech home in Coldwater Canyon, California, built in 1977.  Yet the future Schulitz predicted didn’t materialize. 

Rather, High-Tech went the way of most other aesthetic movements, devolving into a sort of decorative subset of minimalism that, ironically, often relied on expensive custom fabrication to achieve its spartan industrial look.  Along the way, the style’s real promise--the idea of building houses using off-the-shelf industrial products that were cheap, simple, and immune from the vagaries of architectural fashion--was largely forgotten. 

Instead, the legacies of High-Tech include such dubiously practical trends as using commercial kitchen equipment in private homes, which in turn inspired the commercial-wannabe styling so typical of today’s appliances.  But the style also gave us such now ubiquitous domestic furnishings as factory lamps, ergonomic swivel chairs, and wire closet shelving.

Of course, High-Tech architecture is still very much with us, too--though in a slightly less edgy form--as the standard interior style of countless coffee bars and twenty-something clothing boutiques.  It’s also the de rigeur interior style for those pricey loft developments that copy genuine industrial live-work spaces.  Perhaps it’s appropriate that the fake factory style ultimately came home to the fake factory.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Thanks to the old stereotype of the architect hunched over a drafting board, tee square in hand, many people still think that an architect’s main purpose is to draw “blueprints” (nowadays more properly called working drawings).  The trouble with this romantic notion is that it suggests that architects are paid to draw, when in fact they’re paid to think.

In truth, producing working drawings is a tedious but relatively incidental aspect of the architect’s charge.  It’s roughly analogous to taking a novel that’s been written in shorthand and typing it into a computer.  The essential creative work--if it’s been done properly--is all but finished, and only the mechanics of formatting remain. 

Alas, this preliminary thinking, which is the real kernel of the design process, takes a lot of time and effort and yet may not yield much of a tangible product until much later.  Considering this dearth of physical results, it’s gratifying that many people nevertheless perceive why spending fifteen percent or so of their building budget on architecture might be a worthwhile investment.  

Still, there are also lots of perfectly intelligent people who are mystified, annoyed, or even angered that a few sheets of drawings should take months to complete, cost them many thousands of dollars, and further delay them from getting their project under construction.  These people quite reasonably reckon that all that money spent on mere paper could buy them a bigger Jacuzzi or a fancier front door.  

I can only counter such reasoning by pointing out that architects provide a service, not a commodity.  To say that your architectural investment only buys you a few sheets of paper is like saying that the cost of a Harvard education only gets you a lousy little diploma.

There are plenty of familiar arguments for hiring a licensed architect, most of them having to do with the technical side of the process. For one thing, the high level of detail found in a good set of working drawings--far from scaring off contractors as some people fear--actually makes the bidding and construction process easier and more accurate.  For another, an experienced architect can help circumvent building code booby traps that can make for nasty (and costly) surprises during construction.  These services alone can save thousands of dollars in lost time and change orders.  Hence, that seemingly extravagant fifteen percent fee can repay itself quite rapidly.

Beyond these cut-and-dry reasons for hiring a professional, however, there’s one more--perhaps the only one that architects care passionately about--and that is the pursuit of good design for its own sake.  Obviously, there are cheaper ways to get plans drawn than by hiring an architect, and no doubt there are times when a design that’s merely “good enough” would probably suffice.  But from this architect’s perspective, at least, there can’t be much magic in this kind of undertaking.  After all, humanity’s rise over the millenia has come, not from doing things well enough, but from doing them as well as we knew how. 

Monday, September 17, 2012


We Americans are a puzzling bunch.  We travel to Italy, France or Spain and come back smitten with the charmingly walkable streets, close-knit houses, and humanly-scaled public spaces we find there.  Yet we seldom stop to wonder why our own built environment is so utterly lacking in those traits.  

It’s no mystery:  In spite of rising population and dwindling resources, America remains saddled with long outdated planning ideals that are the furthest thing from the European examples we admire so much.

America is a vast nation, and perhaps in consequence, our planners and engineers have historically been trained to think big.  This tendency has produced some magnificent civil engineering projects such as railways, dams and bridges.  Yet it hasn’t  been nearly so successful at the scale of human habitation.  

Thanks to the megalomania of our traffic engineers, for example, American cities are among the least pedestrian-friendly in the world. Each year, larger and larger swaths of urban and suburban land are paved over with ubiquitous six-lane thoroughfares bristling with redundant arrays of traffic signals.  Aside from creating barren, monotonous and alienating cityscapes, such roads are also daunting barriers to people on foot, no matter how many kinds of whizbang pedestrian signals we install.  Rather than drawing our cities together, our roads tear them apart, providing one more incentive for Americans to drive instead of walking.    

Ironically, in the dwindling number of places where human-scaled roads still remain, city engineers are even now scrambling to widen them, always with the specious objective of easing congestion.  Yet as both traffic studies and common sense can easily confirm, this so-called improvement is pure bunk.  The only thing America’s incessant street widening programs really do--aside from keeping paving contractors in clover--is to invite even more automobile traffic.    

Europeans are notably less obsessed with road widening.  Unlike us, they recognize that the difficulty of negotiating their picturesque streets in a car is a blessing in disguise: It makes people prefer to take public transit, or to simply live within walking distance of their jobs. In short, Europeans design their cars to suit their cities, whereas we design our cities to suit our cars. 

As for our homes, the much-adored human scale of European villages is all but unheard of in suburban America.  This is no accident, either--our neighborhoods can’t help but be coarsely scaled, since our moribund zoning regulations typcially still insist that houses be surrounded by useless strips of setback land. 

The custom of spacing buildings far apart may have made sense a hundred years ago, when America was an agricultural nation and land was cheap and plentiful.  Yet that day is long past.  With today’s usual practice of shoehorning huge tract homes into postage-stamp building lots, the resulting sunless, ten-foot-wide gap left between houses has only one function: to let developers fetch higher prices by continuing to sell their units as “single-family detached”.

In older European towns, by contrast, even houses in wide-open rural areas are often clustered together in villages, their walls adjoining.  The cumulative savings in otherwise useless setback land can then be devoted to public space that actually has some purpose.  

The need to prize every little scrap of land has been central to Europe’s way of building for centuries. But it’s a lesson we Americans have yet to learn.  When it comes to our professed admiration for Europe’s charms, we talk the talk, but we sure don’t walk the walk.