Monday, October 27, 2014


A while back, I had a chance to walk through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, carefully integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens, and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era. 

I’m being coy about names and dates (and omitting actual photos) only because, when I was there, the place was in the midst of a sweeeping “renovation” that I don’t have many kind words for.

Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a “designer”--that is, a person not legally qualified to use the term architect-- to carry out their project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect, especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.

How some folks remodel a beautiful old home.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the meticulously-detailed old mansion right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas. In the “improved” kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom built from acres of This Year’s Trendy Wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.

In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.

In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Saying ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’” 

All the latest gadgets.  For this year, anyway.
Of course, neither of these viewpoints are necessarily the right answer--they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement. 

On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets, and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accomodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid. In a few years, after the momentary sugar rush of “modernization”  wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished. 

As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgement on how--and how much--we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to “improve” somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.

Monday, October 20, 2014


According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999.  Between 1982 to 2004 alone, new single-family homes grew some forty percent larger--from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet.  In the meantime, the size of the average American household shrank from 3.3 to 2.6 people.  What’s going on?

Only in America.
The answer is, I think, that we Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for the  Big Marketing Lie. For decades we’ve been pummeled by advertising urging us to buy more, more, more--a relentless drumbeat that carefully reinforces the idea that our happiness is directly proportional to the size, cost, and number of things we own. This mind-numbing message grew exponentially more shrill with the advent of television, and it’s being further amplified by the Internet, which makes it possible for us to shop our duffs off even while we’re still sitting on them. And not even the Great Big Ol’ Recession has put a serious damper on our mania for consumption.

Inevitably, the dual mantras of marketing--More is More, and Bigger is Better--have worked their way clear up to the single biggest purchase most consumers ever make: their homes. This is one reason why today’s smaller families still feel compelled to purchase ever-larger houses, even if they have to commute an extra fifty miles to afford them.
Yet whether we’re talking about televisions, cars, or houses, a moment’s reflection will quickly reveal who really benefits from rampant materialism--not those who buy consumer products, but rather those who make them. The reason is so obvious it’s almost funny: Owning two wide-screen TVs certainly doesn’t make us twice as happy, but it does quite plainly bring the seller twice the profit. Likewise, home buyers quickly learn that owning a gigantic house can be more of a headache than a pleasure, but by then the developer's profits are safely in the bank.

Like I was saying.

Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much.  We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” It’s a testament to the thoroughness with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed consumers into equating material goods with happiness. Yet few intelligent Americans would profess that owning a huge house, a boat and a couple of Escalades has made their lives any happier. Some might even confess to the opposite effect. Still, we seem unable to shake off the siren song of materialism and see it for the profiteering sham it is.

There was a time, long ago, when Americans were frugal, inventive, and could do a lot with very little. But years of prosperity, coupled with the relentless urging to buy more, more, more, have made too many of us complacent, over-entitled, and obsessed by material goods beyond all else. 

Frank Lloyd Wright once observed:  “Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.”  Today, it’s not just the top 1 percent who are so afflicted.  Rich and poor, left and right, in good times and bad--we Americans are fast becoming little more than serfs to our limitless craving for stuff.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”

Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?

Monday, October 6, 2014


I always cringe at those real estate listings for older homes that read, “Completely renovated,” “freshly modernized,” or even “restored from top to bottom”.  What this usually means is that the seller has slapped up a truckload of flimsy crap from the local home improvement emporium--maybe some vinyl windows, a kitchen full of particleboard cabinets, and a quick coat of paint--and walked away whistling. This, for some people, constitutes a “complete renovation”.

While it’s sometimes hard to distinguish faddish design choices from timeless ones in the context of one’s own time, it’s easy enough to pick out the future offenders that are disfiguring perfectly good houses right now. Leading the pack are vinyl replacement windows--those bright-white, clumsily proportioned abominations that afflict so many houses these days, whether modern or traditional. 

Anyone who’s ever groaned at the sight of a fine old Victorian house refitted with shiny aluminum windows can well understand how these vinyl units will be regarded in a decade or two. They’re an especially ill-suited replacement for the intentionally slender and delicate aluminum windows found in most Ranch-style and modernist houses from the postwar years through the Eighties.

Clumsy, doughy, and white--vinyl is a far cry
from the slim-lined windows Rancher architects
had in mind.
It may sound strange to lament the loss of aluminum windows in an old Rancher, but then again, during the 1950s and 60s, it seemed inconceivable that someone might want to preserve the old wooden windows in a Victorian houses. This was, after all, a style of architecture then just barely above contempt, and nothing about it seemed to warrant the slightest effort toward preservation. Today, save for a minority of mid-century design aficionados, many people ironically hold postwar houses in the same regard. 

If energy conservation is the motivation for replacing original windows (and note that it’s practically never cost-effective to do so for energy reasons alone), it’s still better to replace window types like for like--double-glazed aluminum for single glazed aluminum, and so on. Better yet, put a fraction of this money into insulating your attic, and you’ll get a much bigger payback.

Vinyl windows aren’t the only glaring anachronism being foisted on older postwar homes these days, though. It’s just as shortsighted to “upgrade” older, modernist-era homes with molded six-panel doors, elaborate door casing, crown molding, ornate kitchen cabinetry, or rustic Italian tile. All of these materials have a proper place, but seldom will that place be found in a mid-century home, whose very aesthetic was based on clean-lined simplicity. 

Yes, this used to be a Rancher.
In any house, from any era, it’s all the disparate original bits and pieces--doors, windows, moldings, lighting fixtures, finishes--that add up to the integral whole which we call a period style. And experience proves beyond a doubt that an older house whose original style remains intact ultimately retains more value than one that’s been “renovated”, “modernized”, “upgraded”, or otherwise molested.

 Is all this just academic nitpicking? These days, a reasonably well-informed consumer won’t think so. Thanks to the vast wealth of design knowledge only seconds away on the Internet, home buyers are becoming ever more sophisticated about what constitutes a quality improvement, and what’s just trendoid rubbish.