Monday, January 28, 2013


Traveling the United States has, among other things, gently tutored me that the residents of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania pronounce their town’s name WILKS-bree, not Wilks-BAR; that the good citizens of Vermont call their capital MontPEELyer, not MontepeLEER, and that that lovely town in southern California is called LaHOYA even though it’s spelled La Jolla. These are nuggets of everyday wisdom that book learning can seldom impart, but that being on the spot can teach one in a hurry.

Alas, traveling the U.S. also reveals a dismaying transformation that’s more obvious year by year:  What was once a nation of kaleidoscopic architectural variety is slowly being turned into a homogeneous landscape stretching from coast to coast--one in which freeways and boulevards, suburbs and downtowns all look more or less like their counterparts everywhere else.

As a nation founded on individualism, it’s a sad trend, especially since it’s being furthered by a number of forces we usually think of as positive.

One is our ever-increasing speed of travel and communication.  Among the earliest such milestones was rail travel, whose speed and convenience profoundly shrank the nation during the latter half of the nineteenth century, linking city, farm, and suburb.  Our familiar standard time zones--an attempt to rationalize train schedules nationwide--are one enduring legacy of this period, 

A generation later, the rise of the automobile set off even more dramatic changes, culminating in the construction of the interstate highway system after World War II.  And as American cities were brought closer, regional distinctions became more blurred.  The interstates also hastened the rise of standardized architecture, beginning with off-the-shelf designs of gasoline stations, hamburger joints, and motels.  Suburban shopping centers were next, anchored first by large chain department stores and later by the ubiquitous big-box outlets. 

Now the last bastions of regional distinction, the downtown cores, are succumbing to the same brand of monotony.  In city after city, shopping streets are lined almost exclusively with the usual suspects--the Gaps, Barnes & Nobles, Banana Republics, and the other overfamiliar retail chains--bringing on a rather queasy sense of deja vu. Is this Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine?  

Civic design review boards, who fancy themselves the guardians of the built environment, have only helped increase urban banality by promoting the idea that there are “right” and “wrong” styles of architecture for such settings. At the moment, traditionalism is the reflexively “right” style, and those eerily similar shopping streets with their happy applique storefronts are as much a product of modern planning ideals as they are of chain-store commercialism.   

Lastly, for all its positive effects in networking America, the very universality of the Internet is ironically helping dissolve what few traces of regional idiosyncrasy remain.  What a loss it will be if the brilliantly uneven patchwork quilt that is America is allowed to fade into a monotone devoid of the offbeat or the unexpected--a  nation whose cities have been Wal-Marted, Old Navied and Starbucked, networked and new-urbanized into lookalike places, set apart by little more than signposts reading “Welcome to Wilkes-Barre”, or Montpelier, or La Jolla, or your town.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


A while back, in the midst of a remodel that left lots of holes in our kitchen walls, we had an uninvited guest--a dark-brown Norway rat who, on the first night alone, helped himself to a pretty impressive chunk of watermelon and also carried off the rubberized lids of my toddler’s sippy cups.

Taking the easy way out, we decided to move all the edibles into the dining room for the duration of the project. That worked for a while, until one day we noticed some big holes gnawed in a bunch of bananas.  Somehow, our friend had invited himself in.

On double checking the room, I found a rat-worthy opening high on one wall, and confidently covered it over with plywood, Still, the next morning my wife found that her tote bag had been rifled, with her stash of crackers and an apple carried away whole to who knows where.

Reluctantly, I went to the drugstore and bought a rat trap and--in case all else failed--a box of rat poison. I baited the trap with cheese as I learned to do from cartoons, and then set it in the dining room.  The next morning, it was sprung but empty, the cheese lying beside it.  The following night I tried again with some raisin bread.  Again I found the trap sprung but empty, though this time the raisin bread was gone. A third try brought similar non-results.

Defeated, I finally reached for the rat poison, setting out the little tray of deadly kibble where the rat would find it most tempting. Poisoning a rat, mind you, is not a speedy proposition. Rodenticides now use an active ingredient called brodifacoum which, without getting into the unpleasant details, works by interfering with the body’s production of vitamin K. This slowly prevents the blood from clotting and eventually makes the capillary walls permeable, with ghastly results I’ll leave to your imagination.

According to the product label, dead rats “will begin appearing” four or five days after eating the pellets. Sure enough, we didn’t hear from our unwelcome lodger again until midnight on the fifth day, when I was awakened by thumping noises coming from the dining room. As I approached, I heard little rat-feet padding away quickly in retreat. Creeping inside and switching on the light, I found a scarlet bloodstain at each doorway where the rat had tried to escape despite his failing body. Now he was hiding beneath a cabinet, making quiet gurgling and whimpering noises so pitiable I couldn’t stand to hear them. I went back to bed, feeling a little bit poisoned myself.

The next morning, I was prepared for the revolting sight you’d expect when you consign such an unloved creature to a slow death by hemorrhage.  But I wasn’t prepared for what I actually found.  In his last long miserable hours, the rat had sought out the most comforting thing he could find--a small stuffed bear my son had left lying under the table, with fur a color close to his own.  Now he lay still on his side pressed against it, looking not revolting as a rat is supposed to, but as silent, soft, and harmless as the little toy he clung to.

As for me, the nominal victor in this lopsided battle, I felt not triumph, but only burning shame for having made a fellow creature suffer so horribly, simply for being too good at the things Mother Nature designed him for.  

We humans like to think that we control our built environment, and perhaps we do--briefly.  Brodifacoum is now widely used in rat poison because rats have become resistant to the previous common rodenticide, called warfarin. No doubt they'll still be nimbly adapting to their world, long after we’ve destroyed our own.

Monday, January 14, 2013


“Let every house be the middle of its plat,” said one of America’s best-known city planners, “ there may be ground on each side for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country town, which will never be burnt and always wholesome.”

It’s a tribute to the framer of this dictum that modern city planners still fervently adhere to it.  The trouble is, it was made by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, around the time he laid out Philadelphia in 1682.  A lot has changed since then, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our planning codes.

Even though residential building lots have shrunken from acres in Penn’s time to a few thousand square feet in our own, most suburban planning codes hardly acknowledge the difference.  They still doggedly insist on strips of setback land surrounding houses, no matter how narrow or useless.  

Essentially, setbacks are reserved areas on each edge of your property, like margins on a page, that you’re not allowed to build upon.  The idea is to help ensure William Penn’s ideal of houses spaced well apart, with usable land on all sides.  Given the long historic trend toward higher land prices, smaller lots, and bulkier houses, however, many suburban setback requirements no longer make sense.  

Today’s typical five-foot side yard setbacks, for example, serve mainly to mandate sunless, useless slivers of land between houses. Yet rather than doing away with these vestigial separations altogether, moribund planning codes stubbornly cling to them, stymieing the growth of more intelligent arrangements.

Among these alternatives is zero lot-line development, a way of laying out houses so that one long side--ideally the north side--lies directly on the property line.  The strip of setback land normally required on that side can then be compounded with the setback on the opposite side of the house, yielding one larger and more useful outdoor court, while leaving the actual distance between houses unchanged.  

Typically, to comply with fire codes, houses in zero lot-line arrangements have a solid, windowless wall on the north.  While this feature draws moans of horror from design-review zombies who demand lots of happy-happy windows, it actually enhances both privacy and energy efficiency.  What’s more, it allows proportionately more glass to open onto the south-facing outdoor space.  

Another land-friendly alternative is the courtyard house, which takes the zero lot-line format and bends it into a U-shape or a rectangle.  In this case, all of the outside walls lie on the property line, much like an urban commercial building. Completely enclosing the court in this way gives additional space and privacy without squandering a single square inch to unusable setback land. 

If these sound like radical new ideas, they’re not.  Cities in Asia and the Middle East have benefitted from such arrangements for thousands of years.  Nevertheless, Americans who’d like to develop their own land more intelligently still face an almost insurmountable setback battle in most planning jurisdictions.  After three hundred-some-odd years, even William Penn might find that pretty silly.


Monday, January 7, 2013


In the early 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad hired the famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to restyle its exceedingly ugly electric locomotives.  True to form, the Parisian-born Loewy came up with the GG-1, a stunningly fluid design sheathed in streamlined steel.  The railroad gamely built a prototype, stitching it together with thousands of rivets in the usual manner of the time.  When Loewy was first presented this real-life embodiment of his concept, he demanded in his strong French accent:  “What are all those buttons?”

There’s a lesson here for people designing buildings as well:  Even a great design can be done in by the sort of unavoidable, nuts-and-bolts infrastructure items every building requires--visible pipes, wires, vents, flues, meters, and what have you.  As unsexy as they are, don’t fail to think through these kinds of details, don’t put them off to the last minute, and never, ever leave them up to installers to figure out as they go along.  Here are some notorious examples:

•  Gas meters, electric meters, and electrical entrance panels--none of which are very lovely to look at--should be assigned to a spot that’s completely invisible from the street, ideally in a recessed or screened area.  Never place these items on the front of the building.  Since meters are increasingly read remotely, access is less of an issue than it used to be, but you should still check with your local utility for any restrictions on placement. 

•  Figure out where each and every downspout will go.  Unless you’re using them as outright ornaments--a rare strategy--then the less visible they are, the better.  Never put downspouts on the front of the house if the sides will serve just as well. Don’t snake them all over the walls to avoid obstructions--figure out the most direct and least conspicuous route ahead of time.  Lastly, don’t use more downspouts than you need.  Contrary to usual practice, it’s seldom necessary to have more than one downspout for every forty or so feet of gutter. 

•  Don’t let plumbing vents sprout like acne on an otherwise pristine roof.  First off, have your plumber combine nearby vents together at attic level, leaving the fewest possible pipes penetrating the roof.  If necessary, run the remaining vents laterally so that they exit the roof in a reasonably inconspicuous place. This extra effort will be doubly worthwhile, since in addition to looking bad, plumbing vents are among the most likely spots for leaks to develop . 

•  Water heater and furnace flues should also be barred from conspicuous roof surfaces whenever possible. In modernist designs, flues can sometimes be used as a design feature, but that trick won’t wash with traditional styles.  Instead, you can usually run multiple flues into a single false chimney, which both reduces the rooftop clutter and offers potential for an interesting design feature.

Oh, and about that streamlined locomotive:  At Raymond Loewy’s insistence, all the subsequent examples of the GG-1 were built with a smooth, welded skins instead of being “buttoned” together with rivets.  Today, it’s considered among the great industrial designs of all time.

Raymond Loewy posed in front of his GG-1 locomotive, this one sans "buttons"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Nowadays, it’s routine to pay bills, transfer funds, or buy stock solely by electronic media.  Both faxed and electronic signatures are widely accepted as valid. Yet in the midst of such digital expedients, submitting plans for a building permit remains a process right out of the Middle Ages.  

Granted, the architectural profession is known for embracing change with all the urgency of dripping molasses--but architects are not to blame in this case. Rather, the trouble lies in the bureaucratic inertia of civic building departments, most of which still insist on the sort of paper plans that have been used for centuries. 

Since the vast majority of architects now use computers to design and draft, and since their work is already in a digital format, you might suppose that plans could be submitted to building departments electronically, and be reviewed, revised, and resubmitted without ever leaving the digital domain.  

That’s not how it works, though: Most building departments will only accept plans submitted in hard copy. Paradoxically, this involves taking electoronic files and printing them out onto huge unwieldy sheets, curling them into rolls, and hand carrying mulitple copies to the building official. For large projects, mind you, this kind of submittal can run into hundreds of pounds of paper. What’s more, the entire package is usually discarded in a matter of weeks, only to be completely reprinted again with whatever amendments the building official deems necessary. 

The continuing demand for hard copies rather than digital ones isn’t the only outmoded aspect of submitting building plans, though.  In an age in which electronic signatures are deemed adequate for all kinds of weighty transactions, architects and engineers are still required to physically validate every single sheet of their work by the Dickensian means of a rubber-stamp seal undersigned in ink.  This so-called “wet stamp and signature” remains the standard in building departments across the country.

The glacial pace of change among bureaucracies is nothing new, of course. As little as a dozen years ago, I submitted a set of Xeroxed building plans to a major metropolitan building department only to have them flat out rejected. When I asked the building official why, he handed me a sheet of submittal requirements that forbade plans from being submitted in any form other than the customary diazo whiteprint. This was a slow and noxious method of reproduction--even then well on its way to oblivion--that required a special chemical-coated paper to be first exposed to strong ultraviolet light and then to ammonia vapor. The end product was, at best, a drawing with fuzzy blue lines on a white background. When I pointed out that my plans were easier to read, more durable, and not least didn’t reek of ammonia, the building official just shrugged and handed my plans back to me. The rules were the rules.  

Today, photocopied plans are the standard of the industry, though it took some moribund building departments years to accept them. Hopefully, the inevitable switch to paperless plans won’t get snared in the same old red tape.