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"

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