Monday, September 28, 2015


It’s a familiar sort of news item these days: A huge and vastly expensive bridge being proposed in California will forever alter one of the Golden State’s most spectacular marine panoramas. It will be the largest of its type ever built, stretching over a mile and a half between landfalls, towering nearly 700 feet above the water, and carrying six lanes of traffic into a once-isolated area containing some of the state’s most unspoiled stretches of coastline.

The Golden Gate Bridge
under construction, circa 1936.
Here come years of political acrimony, debate over cost and viability, interference by special interests, uproar over environmental impact, and all the rest, right?

Wrong. You won’t hear any of this, because the bridge in question was completed across San Francisco’s incomparable Golden Gate seventy-five years ago—in an era when ambitious engineering projects were met with unity of purpose rather than fractious bickering. This may explain why the Golden Gate Bridge could be built in the incredibly short span of 51 months, and at a final cost that was $1.3 million below budget.

Granted, the bridge’s road to completion wasn’t a smooth one. The idea of bridging the Golden Gate had long been pondered, but only in 1916 was any real action taken toward this goal. In the interim came the Great Depression and a series of financial setbacks to the project. Still, construction on one of the most inhospitable sites in history began on January 5, 1933. Four years and four months later, on May 28, 1937, the bridge was opened to traffic. Total cost: $35 million (about  $1.2 billion in current dollars).

The Bay Bridge Replacement Span,
under construction from 2002 until 2013.
Contrast these statistics with those of another project that’s finally been completed just a few miles inland from the Golden Gate, on a shallow and far less challenging site. It’s a new, purportedly earthquake-safe bridge intended to replace the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a portion of which collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Since the old bridge carried some 270,000 vehicles per day, the prospect of another collapse forced a decision to replace it with a safer span before an even bigger quake came along. 

A fairly urgent undertaking, no? Yet instead of unity of purpose, there ensued more than a decade of political wrangling over economic, aesthetic, engineering and environmental issues. Construction finally began a dozen years later, in 2002, attended by the first of many subsequent sticker shocks: The lone construction bidder came in at $1.4 billion--almost twice the State’s projected cost of $780 million. 

The completed span is still mired in controversy.
The old bridge, on the right, is currently
being dismantled.
Today, more than twenty-six years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the intended replacement bridge is finally open, at an estimated total construction cost of $6.3 billion—over eight times the original estimate. Yet the bridge is still embroiled in controversy, this time having to do with some critical construction members that are failing. The arguments about whether the new bridge is truly safe or not continue. 

On the one hand, then, we have a truly daunting engineering challenge, undertaken in difficult economic times on a site that many declared unbuildable, that was nevertheless completed in record time and under budget. On the other, we have an urgent and relatively straightforward project that’s been mired in red tape and controversy for over a quarter of a century. 

As the Golden Gate Bridge approaches its eightieth year, one has to lament the disparate outcomes in this tale of two bridges, and what they say about America today. Here’s to you, Golden Gate Bridge—it’s a shame we can’t seem to build ‘em like you anymore.
Makes you really appreciate
how they pulled off this miracle
all those years ago.

Monday, September 21, 2015


I’ve seen homeowners spend weeks agonizing over which shingle color and texture is best for their new roof. Then, after going to all this effort, they simply leave it to the roofing company to install any old crappy gutter.

Oh, no, a leak! Do you need
new gutters? Probably not.
Since rain gutters and downspouts are often even more conspicuous than the roof itself, you should choose new ones with at least as much care as you do roofing. But first, make sure they actually need replacement. Too often, they don’t.

In the course of bidding on a reroofing job, many a roofing contractor will often say something like, “You know, as long as we’re at it, this would be the time to replace your gutters.” This is a bit like your barber saying, “As long as I’m cutting your hair, I should give you a nose job as well.” 

To be blunt, installing new gutters in conjunction with reroofing is simply a way for roofing contractors to make a little extra profit, while freeing their workers from having to protect the existing gutters from damage during the job. These are both perfectly valid reasons to replace your existing gutters. Unfortunately, they're only valid from the contractor’s perspective, not yours.

Yes, I've seen some clueless folks let their roofer
rip out old gutters such as these and
replace them with aluminum dreck.
What’s more, the quality of most replacement gutters and downspouts is typically worse than that of original gutters in sound condition. Hence, homeowners who agree to lump in gutter replacement with their new roof often wind up with a flimsier, less attractive, and quite unnecessary “improvement”. I’ve even come across some clueless homeowners who allowed a roofer to rip out superb old custom-made gutters and ornamental downspouts and replace them with utterly inferior prepainted aluminum dreck.

The rules of thumb regarding gutter replacement are simple: 

• If your original gutters are straight, solid, and don’t leak, they don’t need replacement, period. 

The ubiquitous "K Style" gutter.
• If they do leak, there’s a fair chance they can be repaired. In the case of steel or copper gutters, contact your local sheet metal shop. For redwood gutters, have a good handyman determine if they can be calked or patched. 

• If you do decide on replacement, demand gutters that are at least equal to the originals in quality. Ask a knowledgeable but disinterested party (not the roofer doing the work) to recommend the best material. 

• Lastly, put at least as much thought into choosing the gutter profile (the cross-sectional shape) as you do into choosing the roofing material. Don’t let the contractor make this choice for you; many will simply fall back on the style of gutter that’s the least trouble to install. 

Half-round gutter are suited to Spanish Revival
and many other traditional home styles.
If you’re replacing your home’s original gutters, simply choose the profile that’s closest to the original. Traditional home styles typically have more ornate profiles; for example, the familiar ogee gutter (or “K-style” as it’s known to the trade) looks more or less like a fancy molding when installed. Another common traditional profile—often found in Spanish and English Revival homes—is the beaded half-round gutter, which has an almost medieval appearance and is typically installed with round downspouts. All of these styles are commonly available, so don’t let anyone tell you that what you want is obsolete. That just doesn’t hold water.

Monday, September 14, 2015


Philip Johnson's AT&T Building
(now the Sony Building):
Socks are in the bottom drawer.
Way back in 1978, at the dawn of Postmodernism, the architect and social critic Charles Jencks noted how bad most architects are at gauging public reaction to their work. Unlike most architects, Jencks recognized that lay people, rather than perceiving sly aesthetic references to history or some other arcane theoretical underpinning, associate unusual architectural forms with mundane things that are close to their experience.

To cite a common example, while modern architects considered the monotonous window grids of their highrise buildings to be the apotheosis of form following function, critics and cartoonists routinely lampooned them as grid-paper charts or huge filing cabinets.

Architects often despair over such misinterpretations of their work by less high-minded observers. While Frank Lloyd Wright saw the circular, outward-leaning shell of his Guggenheim Museum (1959) as an organic spiral for the display of art, others saw it as a gigantic beige toilet. Likewise, when Philip Johnson fielded ironic allusions to Georgian architecture in his postmodern, broken-pedimented AT&T Building in Manhattan (1984), many lay persons instead perceived a towering Chippendale wardrobe.

San Francisco's St. Mary of the Assumption:
A giant washing machine isn't
what the architects had in mind. 
It’s natural for people to associate an unusual shape with something more familiar, and this is one reason that popular nicknames for famous buildings stick so easily. Hence, when famed architects Pietro Belluschi and Luigi Nervi designed San Francisco’s ultramodern Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (1970)--topped by a towering white cruciform roof resembling a giant washing machine agitator--locals lost no time in christening the church Our Lady of Maytag.

Then again, there are designs so unusual that they stand as a sort of Rorschach test not merely for the beholder, but for the architect as well. Jorn Utzon’s celebrated Sydney Opera House, finally completed in 1973 after years of controversy, provides a renowned example. It has perhaps invited more interpretations than any other building in history, having been been compared to everything from seashells and sails to angry alligators or trios of copulating turtles. 

Frank Gehry's EMP Museum in Seattle:
Anything than can be said, has been said.
In the case of the Sydney Opera House, however, it’s not really clear that Utzon himself understood the singularly evocative form he’d created. He’d unexpectedly won the competition for the building’s design in 1957--notably, with a set of drawings that was conceptual at best--and one can only presume that the design bubbled up from some intuitive place deep in his subconscious. Utzon later coined the term “Additive Architecture” to describe a design approach based on the growth patterns of nature, and no doubt he already had such a paradigm in mind when he created the opera house’s unforgettable form. It may be this very ambiguity in the architect’s intentions that has led to such a rich variety of interpretations--an architectural Rorschach for everyone who beholds it.

Then we have the even less conventional work of architects such as Frank Gehry, whose later buildings are commonly described as having exploded, collapsed, or been wrecked by a tornado. What these descriptions say about the architect’s mind probably remain beyond our reach, but what they say about us is no less interesting.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Last time, we saw that designing a small remodeling project doesn’t always require the comprehensive services you typically get from an architect working on commission. And we also noted how hiring an architect on an hourly consulting basis can be less expensive while maintaining the benefit of professional expertise in the areas that really matter. 

One small town's Design Review process—
something you might want to
let your architect wrestle with.
At first glance, paying an architect in the realm of $100-$150 an hour may seem not seem very economical. Yet when this time is delegated wisely, hourly consulting is typically cheaper than hiring an architect on commission. What’s more, the design process remains in your control for the duration—if you don’t like the way things are shaping up, you can part company with the architect and look elsewhere.

Naturally, the trick is to use the architect’s expertise where it matters most--and exactly which areas of the design process this entails may surprise you. It’s not well understood by most people, for instance, that the work of drafting construction drawings (or “blueprints”, as they’re still commonly known) is merely the culmination of the architect’s real work, which entails sorting out the whole three-dimensional puzzle of how a building or addition should be arranged. The ability to solve this spatial puzzle in a way that’s both functional and artistic is what sets an architect apart from a drafter.  Hence, this early phase—known as “preliminary design” in the trade—turns out to be the most critical time to invest in the architect’s skill. 

Working drawings: Maybe you draw them,
maybe you don't.
Once the architect has produced a preliminary design that suits you, it’ll probably also be worth your while to have him thread the project through the ever-increasing maze of bureaucratic approvals. Time was, people simply built whatever they pleased as long as it conformed with zoning laws (and often even when it didn’t), but those days are long gone. In many towns, even the tiniest projects are closely reviewed by the city staff or by a special design review board. Often, you have to notify your neighbors that you intend to build, and almost inevitably, one or another of them will raise some objection. Having jumped through these hoops many times before, an experienced architect will be able to head off these potential problems, while quite literally presenting your project in the best possible light. 

Once the architect has shepherded the preliminary design through the approvals labyrinth, you’ll need to decide how to proceed with the actual construction drawings or “blueprints”. If there’s not much left in your architectural piggy bank, and you’re a decent drafter—or if you don’t mind entrusting the job to an unlicensed designer—this may be the time for your architect to graciously bow out. 

Okay—now choosing from among 35 pinks
is YOUR problem.

On the other hand, having saved a good chunk of money by avoiding the commission fee—and hopefully, having gained an appreciation of your architect’s abilities—maybe you’ll decide to have him or her complete the construction drawings as well, albeit with the least information necessary to obtain a building permit. 

In the meantime, you can busy yourself with the time-consuming chores you’ve so kindly taken off the architect's hands: Choosing all those paint chips, toilets, baseboards and doorknobs.