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.