Monday, April 27, 2015

U.S. VERSUS CHINA: Who's Really Greener?

Look familiar? The "new"
dual-flush toilet has been
common in China for
almost two decades.
The other day, a radio program on green technology once again reminded me how out of touch we Americans are with the green movement across the globe. The announcer was talking--with the usual condescension--about “bringing a waterless toilet to China,” as if the Chinese were primitives incapable of figuring out how to save water, let alone build their own toilets.

This ignorance with respect to China’s environmental policies explains much about why the United States is falling behind as other nations strive to develop their green technologies. We arrogantly assume that we lead the world in this regard, when in fact we’re rapidly becoming third-rate.

Americans are scarcely aware of this state of affairs because both our government and our media seldom miss a chance to bash the Chinese over their environmental record. Yet this serves mainly to divert attention from the lagging state of our own green technology and the sclerotic legislators who are to blame for it. The truth is that, despite relentlessly negative press, China is already well positioned to overtake us in environmentally progressive policies. 

Electric bikes: A fixture on Chinese streets
for the last fifteen years.
Seen any of them in the U.S. yet?
Nor is this a recent development. When I first visited Shanghai in 1994, for example, solar hot water heaters were already a prominent feature of virtually every apartment block on the skyline. Electric bicycles, which remain all but unknown in the U.S. to this day, have long been a fixture in China’s city streets. And, oh yes--water-conserving dual-flush toilets were common in China many years before they were introduced in our own country.
The Chinese enthusiastically adopted high-efficiency lighting two decades ago, not only in commercial applications but also in their homes. This should come as no surprise, since China is among the world’s leading manufacturers of lighting. 

The Nanjing subway: Clean, quiet,
and with stops announced in English.
Moreover, the more modern technology of light emitting diodes or LEDs, which is only slowly making headway in the U.S., is already widely used in China for freeway and street lighting, traffic signals, and countless other applications. The LED is an American invention, but once again it’s the Chinese who are making the most of it.

As for gaining independence from foreign oil, many Chinese cities are busily upgrading their public transportation systems or even building new ones from scratch. Not long ago, for example, I had the pleasure of riding the Nanjing subway, and the sad truth is that no existing American subway system can approach it. The trains and stations are both attractive and immaculate. Electronic displays in each car show the train’s progress in real time, and stops are automatically (and intelligibly) announced in both Chinese and English.

Shanghai freeways are lit by LEDs—
an American invention. Why aren't ours?
In another eye-opening experience last year, I rode the new high-speed rail line from downtown Shanghai to my sometime-home in Suzhou. The formerly two-hour-plus trip clocked in at twenty-five minutes portal to portal, and cost me about seven dollars.  
This is the nation we’re supposed to impress with waterless toilets?

In the last thirty years, the United States has become ever more arrogant and complacent regarding its role in a changing world. And so very ironically like the Communist systems of old, our government seems more interested in deriding the progress of other nations than in taking positive steps of its own. Perhaps America really does need another Sputnik moment to regain its vast potential. China is liable provide it.

Monday, April 20, 2015


The town I live in--Berkeley, California--is the capital of shaggy wooden houses. Around here, you could get stoned for saying you don’t like natural wood exteriors. So I won’t say that. But what thirty years of practicing architecture have taught me is this: Natural wood is a fabulous finish inside a house, where it’s protected. But as an exterior wall finish, left to the elements--forget it.

Brand-new natural wood is gorgeous—
no question about it.  But check back in ten years
and see how it's doing.
The reason exposed wood--whether left natural or given a transparent finish--is still so popular on building exteriors is that it looks absolutely stunning when it’s brand new. That’s exactly how most people see it in tony design magazine photos, and so that’s how they think it will look on their own homes. Alas, the reality is that, after a few years, wood is on a one-way trip to Shabbyville. 

I can paraphrase the lumber industry’s stock reply to this assertion, and it goes something like this:: 

“A premium material such as wood needs proper maintenance to keep its beauty, and anyone willing to invest in genuine wood should also be prepared to keep it maintained in top condition.” 

The trouble is, over time--after the initial ten-year honeymoon, let’s say--very few people continue to provide the kind of painstaking maintenance that’s required to protect natural wood subjected to the weather. And once that maintenance level has slipped even a little, a wood exterior is already on track to inevitable decline. 
Thanks to the depletion of old-growth forests,
the quality of natural wood products
 such as shingles and siding isn't getting any better—
but neither are they getting any cheaper.

 Compounding the problem,, the quality of solid lumber in general has declined during the last few decades. Therefore, unless you’re prepared to pay astronomical prices for carriage-trade grades of lumber, a new wood installation will have an even shorter life span than in the past.

Contrast the ongoing maintenance headache of natural wood with the nominal attention required by that longtime bad boy of building finishes, stucco. Over the last sixty years, stucco’s good reputation has been sullied by lookalike mid-century housing tracts such a Levittown, not to mention Malvina Reynolds singing about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Yet stucco is both cheaper and far more durable than wood. It’s also “plastic” in the best architectural sense--it can assume just about any form you can imagine. It can also be permanently colored, doing away with the need to repaint every few years. An exterior finish that can hold up for a century or so with practically no maintenance--not even painting--is about as good as it gets. 

Natural wood siding with flawless modernist joinery.
It's a beautiful house—but man, are you asking for it.
As an architect, I’ve learned that it’s pure folly to specify fragile finishes and then expect people to maintain them forever after. Nor should a homeowner be condemned to this kind of maintenance schedule, no matter how beautiful the finish. So I almost never use natural wood on exteriors any more. There are exceptions--if the timbers are substantial enough, for example, wood can’t be beat for outdoor structures such as pergolas and the like. But for an architecturally interesting finish that’ll last pretty much forever, I’ll take ticky-tacky anytime.

Ouch! Who threw that rock?

Monday, April 13, 2015


In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger ain’t always better--at least not when it comes to our houses. 

My friend's dot-com millions bought him
a home much like this one. 
This truth became even more obvious to me than after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower middle class suddenly became a dotcom millionaire in the late Nineties. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community just outside Silicon Valley. Now, you’d think this would be the proverbial dream come true for most people. But like Citizen Kane at Xanadu, my friend always seemed uncomfortable shuffling around all those echoey formal rooms in his so-called “home”. 
Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed, or to a tiny storage room that had the size and feel of a normal tract house bedroom—probably much like the one he'd grown up in

Not surprisingly, this made me wonder anew about the use or value of all the rest of all the huge spaces that made up the bulk of the place. The problem with really big rooms is that we human beings are naturally ill at ease inhabiting them. Our primitive brains still feel more secure, and hence more comfortable, in spaces we can traverse in a few steps. 
In the past, the huge public rooms of mansions served mainly to flaunt their owner’s wealth and good taste--though these attributes don’t necessarily go together. Yet even the wealthiest masters of such houses carried on day-to-day life in a much more modest suite of rooms elsewhere in the place. Living in some huge, drafty hall, regardless of how sumptuous the decoration, was no more comfortable then than it is now.

I grew up in an old, 900 square foot Colonial Bungalow.
The real one was demolished long ago, but this house is
 pretty close. Although we were a family of five,
it never occurred to us to feel crowded.
Even now, in the wake of the Great Recession, Americans are only grudgingly relinquishing our thirty-year obsession with bloated house, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before. Around the mid-nineteenth century, houses of every class, from mansions to worker’s cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from under eight feet during Colonial times to twelve feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated. Victorian kitchens alone grew into complex warrens of three or four rooms. Yet, rather than making their owners happier, these vast houses instead provoked a backlash—especially among women, who typically got stuck with the job of keeping them up. This disenchantment with bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early twentieth century, with their credo of smaller-and-simpler-is-better.

I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in such a house—a 900 square foot Colonial bungalow—and it never crossed our minds that we were crowded or deprived in any way. In fact, my family remembers this little house more fondly than any other, regardless of size. 

We could learn a great deal from these downsized bungalows of a century ago, if only we found the wisdom to Think Small once in awhile. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

WHICH WINDOW? Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we talked about choosing replacement windows that suit the style of your house—whether the type is casement, double hung, slider, or something more exotic. This time, we’ll look at the different window materials available, and which choice is best for your project.

First, however, comes the fundamental question about window replacement: Does it really make sense for you? The answer, in many cases, is no. If you’re replacing your windows solely to lower your utility bills, for example, forget it. Energy loss through windows comprises only a small fraction of overall energy loss throughout the house, and you’ll be far better off investing your money in additional attic insulation or even, in many cases, a more efficient furnace.
Low initial cost has made vinyl (PVC) windows
 the default standard for most new home construction.
However, they're not always the best aesthetic choice.

Even if you think your current windows are in terrible shape, you may wish to get an estimate on repairing rather than replacing them. This is especially advisable if you’re lucky enough to have a prewar home with original wood windows--in this case, replacement windows will almost certainly detract from its market value. Bear in mind that window replacement is generally an iffy investment, since it has a very long payback period. It’s also one that can radically change your home’s appearance--often for the worse.

If you’ve determined that replacement is for you, however, here’s a rundown of the different window materials commonly available. Remember, we’re not talking about the window type--double hung, slider, and so forth--but actual material.
The slender proportions of high-quality aluminum
windows has long made them the favorite choice
 for Modernist home designs, including
mid-century designs such as Ranchers.
(Photo: Benjamin Benschneider, The Seattle Times)

• Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride plastic, to be specific) is currently the ubiquitous material for replacement windows, but that alone doesn’t make it an obvious choice. The moderate price can be attractive, but the jury is still out on vinyl’s durability over the long haul. What’s more, the thick, doughy frames typical of these windows are inappropriate to many home styles, and the slim choice of colors makes them easy to spot as replacements. 

• Aluminum windows are still available, but no longer carry the bargain-bargain price you may remember from years past. There’s a good reason for this, however: They’re now better built and far more efficient than the cheapie units of the 1960s. If your house was originally built with aluminum windows--most postwar houses from the mid-1950s through the 1980s were--there’s no question that new-generation aluminum windows will be your best aesthetic choice for replacement.

Wood windows remain the best replacement
choice for pre-World War II traditional homes.
Vinyl windows are a good second option.
• Wood windows, whether standard or clad, remain the premium choice for replacement. Clad windows, which variously have an external shell of aluminum or fiber glass to protect the wood elements from weathering, are represented as doing away with maintenance headaches. However, unlike plain wood windows, they can’t be easily repaired or refinished if they’re damaged. You’re also permanently stuck with the color of cladding you choose. Hence, you should weigh the premium you’ll pay for clad windows against the occasional headache of repainting the standard wood version. Be prepared for sticker shock with either product, however--these windows are truly a lifetime investment. 

As long as your budget allows it, the simplest rule of thumb for choosing window material is to replace like for like--aluminum with aluminum, wood with wood. In ten years, after the latest window fad has come and gone, you’ll be glad you did.