Monday, July 29, 2013


Someday, when the history of our Petroleum Age is written and the internal-combustion automobile is seen as a quaint and rather silly conveyance on par with the oxcart, scholars will have a field day examining the twisted aspects of our vanished autocentric society. And without a doubt the most moribund and farcical discipline connected with this era will turn out be that of the traffic engineers, whose automotive monomania helped turn the built environment into a playground planned almost exclusively around motor vehicles--to the detriment of pedestrians, other modes of transport, and Mother Nature herself.

It may not seem odd that traffic engineers should be preoccupied with cars. But the word “traffic”, it’s well to remember, doesn’t refer to automobiles by default--it refers to the movement of people and goods. You’d never guess as much judging by contemporary usage, because the central and practically sole concern of traffic engineers across America has to do with moving cars around at the expense of all else.

Most engineering disciplines pride themselves on creating progress in their respective fields. In a single century, for example, aircraft engineers went from building sputtering kites of wood and paper to designing planes that can fly by themselves at six hundred miles an hour. And in just fifty years, electronics engineers have made even more phenomenal strides: Consider the astonishing progress made in audio alone, not to speak of computing.

Yet until very recently, the traffic engineer’s only response to the demands of a changing world has been to bang out the same old two-note refrain: Wider roads, more traffic lights. This is basically the same so-called solution that’s been offered since the 1920s, even though neither strategy has ever shown any success in easing traffic congestion. Moreover, during the last two decades, while computers have been used to make virtually every two-bit consumer item smart, traffic controls remain determinedly brainless. Only recently has the consideration of “dynamic elements” even entered the realm of traffic engineering.  The radical idea here--are you sitting down?--is that traffic controls should actually respond to varying conditions using sensors that measure traffic flow. 

Hence, after eighty-odd years of stubbornly resorting to the same ham-fisted repertoire of road widening and signal planting, some nameless traffic engineer apparently had the wit to wonder, “Gee, should our designs actually relate to what’s going on? Should we try to make use of that wacky new computer technology everyone’s talking about? Should traffic signals actually recognize that no one is coming the other way, instead of stopping people just for the hell of it?”

To which his or her colleagues no doubt responded: “Nah, that’s crazy talk.“
Given the glacial progress traffic engineering has made in the past eight decades, don’t expect the introduction of dynamic elements, or anything else, to improve your neighborhood’s traffic situation for a long long time. By then, perhaps, our autocentric definition of “traffic” will have grown to reclaim those who walk, bicycle, or take public transportation, leaving traffic engineering as it’s currently practiced right up there with alchemy, bloodletting, and other things we used to think made perfect sense.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


We hear the terms “well proportioned” and “ill proportioned” all the time, but we seldom really think about what they mean. What exactly gives an object good proportions, or bad ones?

For instance, why do many people find a brick wall attractive, but a concrete block wall ugly? Color, texture, and historical associations all play a role, but the main reason is is more subtle: While the exposed face of a brick has proportions of about three to one, that of your typical 8x8x16 concrete block has proportions of two to one. It’s a coarse, clumsy ratio that’s simply less pleasing to the eye. 

Why should an object’s relative shape have such profound qualities? People have pondered this question for millenia. In ancient Greece, Plato, Pythagoras and Euclid all delved into the mystery of geometric proportions. Among other things, the Greeks were fascinated by the Golden Rectangle--a shape so proportioned that when a perfect square is removed from it, the result is another Golden Rectangle (this proportion turns out to be about 1.618 to one). It’s often said that the Parthenon, Greece’s architectural masterpiece, owes its celebrated beauty to the use of this geometry.

Much closer to our own time, the architect Le Corbusier was equally smitten by Golden Rectangle--one of the few concessions he made to ancient ideas. And who knows how many contemporary architects quietly apply tried-and-true proportional rules to their work without letting on, lest they diminish their own stature as compositional wizards.

There’s no doubt that the human eye, or more properly the human brain, finds some proportions more pleasing than others--but why? One reason could be that the brain likes to place every piece of information it receives into some kind of rational framework. A rectangle with certain geometric properties may be more satisfying on a subliminal level, even though these qualities may not be obvious to the conscious mind. 

It’s not hard to believe that the mind’s preference for some proportions over others comes about through  some kind of instant internal calculus. Over the years I’ve experienced hints of such a thing in my own line of work. Often, at the very outset of designing a project--long before I’m forced to deal with nitty gritty details--I’ll toss off a little thumbnail sketch that pleases me, put it aside, and forget about it. Then I’ll go on to the practical realities of making the thing work: planning, revising, and wrestling with details and dimensions, until I think I’ve finally gotten it just right. 

Yet when I happen to come across that little thumbnail sketch and compare it to my final design--the product of months of cogitation--I often find that they’re virtually identical, right down to the roof slopes and window proportions. In other words, my instincts have beaten my intellect to the punch.

To me, this suggests that, as useful as design rules can be, we don’t really need geometric formulas to come up with beauty. On the contrary: Sometimes, we just need to let our rational minds step back, and let our instincts tell us what looks right.

Monday, July 15, 2013


There are two ways to build. One is to strive for absolute visual perfection, and then wage a desperate and invariably losing battle to preserve it. The other is to accept that perfection is not just unattainable, but also unnecessary, thereby making time’s passage an ally instead of an enemy.

Much of modern architecture, and especially the work of International Style architects, was predicated upon the former approach.  Worshipping at the altar of the machine, modernist architects strove for flawless surfaces and absolute precision of detail. Alas, in the case of many modernist works--including some of the most renowned examples--any state of perfection that may have existed began to decay the moment the buildings were completed. 

After a few short years of sullying by weather and the ordination wear and tear of human habitation, those the sparkling white walls and razor-sharp corners came to look more than a little tatty. It’s been the good fortune of many modernist icons--say, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, or Corbusier’s Villa Savoye--to be known mainly through old documentary photographs in which, frozen in time, they can remain forever crisp, clean, and stunning. 

Which brings us to the other approach--the idea of building timelessly. If it really can be done, why do we architects manage to do it so seldom? Perhaps it’s because building in sympathy with time’s effects, rather than being eternally at war with them, requires us to give up the cherished ideal of visual perfection, and to accept the disturbing fact that no matter how hard we try to forestall it, Mother Nature eventually has the last word over everything we build. 

Despite such rather daunting opposition, however, many architects still seem hell bent on flouting time and nature. With expectations bordering on delusion, they specify glossy paint over steel that’s ineludibly doomed to rust, demand great swaths of flawless stucco that’s bound to become laced with cracks, and devise complicated color schemes whose maintenance will soon be neglected by generations with differing taste. 

The modernist faith seems to die hard, however. Many architects continue to subscribe to the idea that buildings can and should feature flawless, mechanistic finishes. This may help explain why so many relatively new buildings seem to have weathered their brief years so badly. 

Ironically, it’s been the very buildings that were held in contempt by “serious” modernist architects--the revivalist designs of the early twentieth century--that have aged most gracefully. Some of these were painstakingly authentic copies of historic styles, while others were carried out with a theatrical flourish bordering on caricature. However, in no case did their architects regard perfection as an ideal, or natural aging as an enemy to be overcome. 

Today, despite the passage of so many decades--many of them spent in neglect--these buildings have lost none of their original vitality. On the contrary, time has been very kind to them, burnishing many into a state of venerable grace that even their architects could never have imagined. 

Or could they?

Monday, July 8, 2013

MONEY MISSPENT Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we talked about the worst places to save money when you’re remodeling. Windows, roofs, and exterior finishes came out on top as lousy places to cut corners. So how and where can you save some money without sabotaging your project for the long term?

The strategy is simple: Save money on items that can be easily removed and upgraded later on, not on items that have to last the life of the house. This may mean you won’t get some things on your wish list until later--but at least you’ll have made sure it’s possible to get them. Here are some good candidates for cost cutting that will still allow for relatively painless upgrades later on:

• Built-in appliances. Buying less costly kitchen appliances is one of the simplest yet least exercised ways to save money--probably because we’ve been conditioned to demand kitchens with huge built-in refrigerators, restaurant-style stoves, and all the other bells and whistles so beloved of appliance marketers. When you’re building on a tight budget, though, mid-grade appliances will serve perfectly well--in fact, they’re often just the same high-priced units with the extraneous gimmicks deleted. What’s more, since the dimensions of built-in appliances are standardized, the old units can be easily removed and replaced with fancier stuff when money becomes available.

• Kitchen and bath cabinets and countertops. Cabinets may seem very permanent, but they’re actually fairly simple to remove and replace. This makes using budget cabinetry for the short term a fairly open-ended way to save money. When it’s finally time to go for that fancier kitchen, the old cabinets needn’t go to waste--they can live out a second life in the garage.

As for countertops, pricey materials such as granite and its artificial knockoffs have insinuated themselves into even modest kitchens and baths of late, but there are some perfectly serviceable alternatives for the budget conscious. Ceramic tile and--dare I say it--plastic laminates are two time-honored standbys that can cost you thousands less than slabs. When it comes time to upgrade a kitchen or bath, the countertops and cabinets can be replaced together.

• Plumbing fixtures (except showers and tubs, which are more or less permanent) are also a good place to save a few bucks in the short term. While the price of items such as kitchen sinks, lavatories and toilets can vary by a factor of ten, for the most part they all do the job adequately. Later on, when you find that you absolutely must have that designer toilet with the hand-painted flowers on it, it’ll be no problem to swap out the old one.

• Floor finishes such as carpeting and sheet vinyl, and hardware such as interior door locksets and cabinet latches are all easily replaced, allowing you to buy less expensive products in the interim while still being able to upgrade when money becomes available. 
As hard as it is to put off those goodies you’ve had your heart set on, it helps to know that, when the time is right, you can still get exactly what you want. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

MONEY MISSPENT Part One of Two Parts

As anyone who’s remodeled will know, there’s practically no limit to how much you can spend on a building project. Now, for people with money to burn--and judging by the traffic in high-end design showrooms, there are plenty of them--it may seem perfectly reasonable to blow a few thousand dollars on a Scandinavian dishwasher or a hand-painted Majolica toilet with gold hardware. For the rest of us, though, there are more cost-effective places to invest remodeling dollars. 

This makes it all the more puzzling when I come across projects in which budget-conscious homeowners pinched pennies on basic building materials, yet happily shelled out serious money for the latest fluff in countertops or exotic appliances. While this approach my provide instant gratification, it makes little sense in the long run. 

If you’re portioning out a tight budget, work that’s permanent and integral to the quality of the house should take precedence over superficial features that can easily be upgraded later on. Some examples:

• Windows are among the most conspicuous features of any project, and the standard of quality they set--whether for good or bad--carries over to everything else.  Therefore, regardless of what kind you choose--wood, metal, or plastic, sliding, casement, or whatever--buy the very best quality you can afford. Your windows ought to last the life of your house, and given their paramount importance to style, function, and energy efficiency, they’re a lousy place to cut corners.

• Roofs are another in-your-face indicator of quality, not to mention that little matter of keeping out the rain. Despite this, Americans--unlike almost everyone else on the planet--still tend to think of roofs as disposable. We choose relatively shoddy roofing materials and then resign ourselves to replacing them every fifteen years or so at substantial cost. That’s a pity, because in addition to the usual suspects of shingle, shake or tar-and-gravel, there are many kinds of roofing--concrete tile, clay tile, metal, and natural and artificial stone--that will last the life of the building. Only you can determine which roofing type will be most appropriate for your project, but don’t base your choice on cost alone. 

• Exterior finishes, like windows, make a very conspicuous statement about your home’s style and quality. You can guess the rest of the story: If you’re using stucco, invest in a first-rate plastering contractor--there’s a huge range of quality among them. If you’ve chosen to use siding, invest in genuine wood rather than plastic or composition wannabes. For wood shingle exteriors, choose the best grade available. 

Likewise, use top quality lumber at exterior window and door trim, bargeboards and fascias. These areas take a real beating from the weather, and economy grades just won’t hold up. If you feel guilty about using natural resources such as redwood, as I often do, remember that a quality product installed once is a far better use of resources than a cheap one that has to be replaced again and again. 
Now--having blown a big chunk of your budget on top-notch windows, roofing, and exterior finishes, where can you save some money without permanently ruining your house? We’ll look into that next time.