Monday, April 30, 2012


Some myths about bathroom design just don’t seem to die. People subscribe to them out of habit, if nothing else.  But don’t let your bathroom project be hobbled by a lot of obsolete thinking. Like this:

•  Myth: Bathrooms should be planned back to back, so that they can share piping and therefore save on plumbing costs.  Fact:  Bathrooms should be planned to produce good bathrooms. If they happen to end up being back-to-back, all the better, but there’s no sense constraining your design for the sake of a few extra feet of pipe.  If it makes more functional sense to separate your bathrooms, then go ahead, knock yourself out.

•  Myth:  Bathroom counters should be 32 inches high.  Fact:  Thirty-two inches is the perfect height if you’re the mayor of Munchkinland. For nearly everybody else, it’s much too low for comfortable washing, brushing, or anything else. Ignore this silly so-called standard, and feel free to make your counters any height that suits you. If you’re comfortable working at your kitchen counter, for example (typically 36 about inches high), there’s no law against using the same height for your bathroom vanity. You’ll eliminate a lot of stooping and backaches if you do.

•  Myth:  A ceiling-mounted exhaust fan is the best way to ventilate your bathroom.  Fact: It may be the cheapest way, but it’s far from the best.  The vast majority of exhaust fans on the market are droning, incefficient pieces of dreck that are just barely better than no fan at all.  If you want good ventilation without the ear-splitting whine, consider using a small remote-mounted axial unit that installs in the attic or on the rooftop and is ducted down to the ceiling. It’ll be quieter, more accessible, and more powerful than the cruddy plastic variety. 

•  Myth:  A pedestal sink is the best choice for a small bathroom.  Fact: Current design fads notwithstanding, a sink in a well-designed vanity cabinet will not only provide far more usable countertop area, but also a good bit of storage below--a feature that’s even more important in a small bathroom than in a large one.

•  Myth:  The best time to figure out where toilet paper holders and towel bars go is when you’re almost done, and you can see what you’ve got to work with. Fact: This is why pencil and paper were invented--to figure out such things ahead of time. You should know exactly where every towel bar, toilet paper holder, and robe hook is going to be installed long before you ever pick up a hammer.  Fail to do so, and you may end up with a toilet paper holder screwed to the side of your bathtub.

•  Myth:  The best place for a bathroom lighting fixture is directly over the sink.  Fact: This is another silly architectural custom that simply won’t die, though it sure deserves to. Having a single light source centered over the sink guarantees that no matter how you turn your head, some part of your face will always be exasperatingly in shadow.  Take a tip from from the arrangement Hollywood makeup pros have used since the 1920s--place the lighting on either side of the sink, roughly level with your face, and not above it.  It’s the only way to get even, shadow-free lighting and banish the Boris Karloff effect. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


After struggling for years to convey the untidiness of the design process, whether carried out by amateurs or architects, I recently came across a few sentences that captured it perfectly.  I wish I’d written them:

“What usually happens is that you are first led to wrong conclusions by some wild ideas, inspired by something you came across somewhere.  Or you may be guided by rigid rules, instilled by “correct” high school reports.  Everybody falls in love with silly ideas, and everybody lugs around the baggage of unquestioned assumptions...It is only after ruthless self-editing and brutal cutting that the worthwhile ideas remain.”

Ironically, these thoughts weren’t written by an architect, nor even written about architecture.  The author was Jan V. White, in a book called “Graphic Design for the Electronic Age”, written in the late 1980s.  Though the topic is only loosely related to architecture, White’s few short sentences capture the seemingly aimless and largely internal process of design--a process we architects are so terrible at explaining that most people doubt that what we do takes time and effort, just like anything else that’s worth doing.  

The usual image of the architect has been that of someone sitting at a drawing table, or more lately a computer monitor, drafting up elaborate plans as if they were simply pouring out of him or her.  Nothing could be further from reality.

To begin with, architects don’t pull lovely, fully-formed designs out of nowhere, fairy tales about Frank Lloyd Wright notwithstanding.  Nor is the drafting that everyone pictures architects doing an especially crucial facet of design; it’s just a mechanical necessity, roughly analogous to putting a finished pizza in the oven.  

What architects actually do is carry on a largely internal dialogue that, over the course of many days or weeks which may or may not result in any kind of tangible output.  That this is so surprising to people--and sometimes distressing as well--has always puzzled me.  Few people would dare think of asking an artist why it took him so long to finish a painting--and architecture is very much like painting, except in three dimensions, and with vast amounts of technical complications thrown in.   

Another surprise to many people is that the design process is subtractive, not additive. It has much less to do with compiling than with stripping away, leaving--ideally--an end result that seems simple, inevitable, and right.  

The curse of every creative person is that such simplicity, which is the hallmark of good design, is not at all simple to achieve.  A simple solution usually represents more effort than a complex one, not less effort--just as the few exquisite words in a piece of haiku demand more skill and struggle than a three-page rant to the gas company.  The haiku poet strips away words in order to get to a kernel of meaning from which nothing can be added and nothing more can be subtracted.  The architect begins with a labyryinthine tangle of requirements and then slowly begins to strip away everything extraneous to the problem, leaving the irreducible kernel of a solution.

Still, thanks to our own confounded inability to communicate what we do, we architects still routinely hear uncomprehending comments along the lines of, “Gee, why will it take so long? It’s just a kitchen,” or “Two months? You’re kidding!  My brother-in-law designed HIS addition in one afternoon.”

Well, I can’t explain it any better than I have.  Maybe that guy should just hire his brother-in-law.

Monday, April 16, 2012


If you think fake finishes only go back to Z-brick and Formica, think again.  Architectural fakery has been around as long as architecture itself.  When the Egyptians began building with stone instead of plant stalks, they nevertheless carved their walls to look like reed matting and shaped their columns to mimic bundled papyrus.  Likewise, many of the details found on classical Greek temples are traditional wooden details merely copied in stone. And even after those fun-loving Romans started making walls out of concrete, they contrived to embed special slabs of fired clay in them so they’d look more like the brick walls they were used to.  

While these ancient cultures usually imitated older materials for the sake of tradition, economics soon became a more compelling force.  Craftsmen of the Middle Ages were already using plaster as a cheap stand-in for carved stone, and gossamer-thin gilding to masquerade as gold.  In the mid-eighteenth century, the Italians invented an imitation marble consisting of gypsum mixed with glue that was good enough to earn its own name--scagliola, or “little chip”.  

The Victorians were even bigger fans of fakery.  Many Victorian “marble” mantelpieces, for example, aren’t even scagliola, but merely cleverly-painted wood.  Another favorite fake of the period was Lincrusta, an embossed linoleum-like wall covering that was originally varnished in brown tones to resemble tooled leather.  Likewise, stamped metal ceilings--that ornate staple of Victorian store interiors--were simply a cheaper, faster, and lighter substitute for cast plaster.

The revivalist architecture of the 1920s used a whole host of cheaper stand-ins for the opulent originals.  Among these was cast stone, a fine cement that was cast in molds, which could imitate carved stone detail with stunning fidelity.  When more deeply modeled forms were required, architects turned to terra cotta, which could be glazed and fired to produce a spot-on imitation of granite and other stone finishes.  Building interiors of the 1920s also made spectacular use of painting techniques like graining and stencilling to mimic expensive woods and inlaid detail.  Even the humble bungalow homes of the era used graining to make cheap cabinets look like fine hardwood.

After World War II, architectural fakery relied more on advanced technology than artistry.  Various newfangled exterior finishes, from asbestos-cement shingles to aluminum, vinyl, and pressboard siding, sought to displace solid wood--though only with middling success.  Inside postwar homes, a new technique of laminating plastic sheets with photographic reproductions of wood or marble (as well as a number of weird patterns not found in nature) gave us materials like Formica and Micarta.  Later on came Corian and its successors, all of which sought to give a more convincing imitation of marble and other types of stone.

Among today’s most popular fakes are flooring materials such as Pergo (a variation on plastic laminates), as well as yet another generation of granite and marble imitations such as Silastone.  And of course, vinyl windows, with their hokey two-dimensional muntins, do their darndest to look like the pricey wooden kind.  

Ironically, some of the materials once used as cheap substitutes are now themselves being flattered by imitation:  For instance, various plastics are now commonly used to mimic cast stone or cast plaster details.  And no doubt it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing imitations of “genuine” plastic ornament. 

Monday, April 9, 2012


Positive space, negative space. They sound like some kind of flaky New Age terms. But actually, they’re one of the oldest and most basic concepts in design. Nothing could be more deeply-rooted in the human psyche--yet both amateurs and architects routinely ignore their implications.

Simply put, positive space represents space that we want, while negative space is what’s left over. To draw a simple analogy, imagine cutting out cookies from dough. The cookies represent the positive space, and the pointy scraps left over are the negative space. In architecture as in baking, the idea is to maximize the number of cookies and minimize the leftover scraps.  

As it happens, maximizing positive space is even more important in architecture than in baking, since you can’t ball up the leftover scraps and roll more dough out of them. You’ve pretty much got to cut things out right the first time. To stretch the analogy even further, it also happens that architectural forms that are roughly circular--like cookies--provide a much stronger sense of comforting enclosure than do those nasty angular scraps left over from cutting them out.

As basic as this principle seems, you’d be surprised how often architects violate it. Acute angles, with their jagged, knife-like shape, are inherently dramatic, and we architects are nothing if not suckers for drama.  But there’s a price to pay for this kind of cheap effect. Acute angles inside buildings can’t be comfortably inhabited by anything other than gnats and spiders, and it’s not too much to say that they also have an unsettling effect on the human psyche.  Deep in our primitive brains, converging angles still give us an uneasy sense of walls closing in, of entrapment--not exactly the ambience you want for your living room.  

The Chinese design principles known as Feng Shui have long warned against acute angles--”secret daggers”--which are thought to generate malevolent forces.  It’s just another way of saying that sharp angles creep people out.

For their part, Western psychologists might allude to the womb to explain why humans gravitate toward rounded spaces and shun angular ones.  To be sure, more-or-less circular shapes are one of nature’s favorite forms, appearing in practically every living thing from the cell on up.  

Now, none of this implies that rooms should be literally round--a pretty impractical idea, what with all our relentlessly linear building materials.  But it does suggest that rooms shouldn’t contain wall or ceiling angles sharper than ninety degrees, and that they shouldn’t be more than half again as long as they are wide.  Nor should they have sharp angles intruding into them, or far-flung, dead corners with no through traffic.  This applies to outdoor rooms as well, except that here, you can use landscaping to produce a pleasingly positive space for people to inhabit.  

In short, the closer you come to approximating a circular shape--whether using architectural features, furniture arrangements, or planting--the more comfortable your rooms will be.  Whether we call the result intimate, auspicious, secure, or just plain cozy--we all know positive space when we feel it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


According to urban legend, if you put a frog into a pot of hot water, he’ll have the good sense to jump out of it immediately. On the other hand, if you put him in cold water and then gradually turn up the heat, he’ll obligingly stay in the pot until he cooks himself to death.

Whether fact or myth, this observation applies to humans as well, as we stubbornly cling to our routines under ever more stressful circumstances.

For hundreds of thousands of people living in metropolitan areas, daily commute times have gradually crept up from a half hour to an hour, to one-and-a-half hours and beyond.  For those who’ve retreated to the far-flung suburbs, where homes are more affordable, a two-hour drive to work is nothing unusual.  

Even a relatively painless one-hour commute will have you spending a full twenty days of each year--about 480 hours--crawling along in a sea of brake lights and carbon monoxide.  And that doesn’t even include the time you spend in the now all-but-routine weekend traffic jams.

While no one seems thrilled with this situation, neither do we seem much inclined to challenge it.  Despite all the grumbling, these ever-increasing commutes engender a kind of stalwart tolerance.  In other words, though the heat has already risen quite a bit, we’re still sitting in our pot of water, oblivious.

What has put us in this situation?  A booming population is one obvious reason. But our own ideals are just as much to blame. Prior to the real estate bust of a few years back, we Americans had developed a near obsession with owning huge houses.  On average, these recent new homes were about twice as big as the average home of the prewar era, despite a clear trend toward smaller families and a growing awareness of environmental issues.  

What’s more, even in these financially troubled times, many of us still seem willing to make any sacrifice to secure the holy grail of square footage. And since nowadays the only big houses that are remotely affordable are far from the city, that’s where we go to get our fix. An epic commute is just the price we pay for the privelege.

In the face of a purported economic recovery, developers will be only too happy to resume this trend, once again gobbling up acre after acre of open land to make sure we never run out of the big houses we crave. Planning officials, mired as they are in the concept of old-style, low-density subdivisions, will continue to make things even worse by still doggedly insisting on useless “setback” land between houses. 

The Great Recession has, among other things, offered us a chance to think through the things we’ve been doing wrong, including the way we build. It’s given us a chance to break the vicious triangle of forces--buyers, builders, and bureaucrats--that have until now pointed us to a future of unstoppable sprawl and ever-increasing congestion on our roads.

What can any one of us do to change this dead-end paradigm?  To begin with, we should remember that any historic trend gains currency one person at a time--and also dies out by the same mechanism.  It’s not easy to convince a whole society that it’s on the wrong track.  But a society is made of individuals, and it’s not nearly so hard to look inside yourself and ask:  Is this really the lifestyle I bargained for?  Would I have been willing to put up with these daily headaches ten or twenty years ago?  In short, is it just me, or is this pot getting hotter?