Monday, May 25, 2015


Thoreau: Cool your jets, man.

“Simplify, simplify!”

Today, more than ever, there’s wisdom in Henry David Thoreau’s well-known exhortation. And it applies to our domestic lives as much as anywhere else. Here’s Thoreau’s quote in its entirety:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”  

Alas, the unstoppable wheels of marketing and mercantilism that subtly direct so much of our America lives make it damnably hard to heed Thoreau’s advice. But once we recognize that there’s only thing absolutely crucial to a contented life--namely, your good health and that of the ones you love--and all that attendant bric-a-brac of materialism quickly falls away. 

What you really, really need is a refrigerator with
an internet connection—at least,
Korean appliance giant LG hopes so.
Architects are as much a captive to rampant materialism as anyone else. After all, much of an architect’s time is spent divining and assembling collections of people’s material wants into tidy packages, whether they take the from of a kitchen, a bathroom, or a whole house. And since we’re the gatekeepers for some of the biggest expenditures most people ever make, marketers are hell-bent on trying to influence us. We’re treated to a ceaseless array of products brochures, samples, and telemarketing. As a matter of fact, in the midst of writing this, yet another sales representative telephoned to draw my attention to his product--let’s see, was it a home elevator, whole-house automation, or a fridge with an Internet connection? 

The truth is, I’m more likely to steer people clear of such products than to specify them, all the more so in this dismal economy. Yet while it’s easy to blame the marketers for creating such a cult of materialism, we Americans are far from blameless: Our overbearing sense of self-entitlement is central to the economic problems we’re now mired in: We want all that fancy stuff they try to sell us whether we can afford it or not, and we’re willing to be in hock up to our eyebrows in order to get it. Having so fully bought into the marketers siren song conflating possessions with happiness, we’ve lost perspective of how little it really takes to be happy. Or as the sage blogger Charles Hugh Smith recently pointed out regarding the relativity of our expectations: “If you’re used to living in a tent, a plywood shack seems like a luxury.”
 See that little bitty sink next to the real one?
That's the "toothbrushing sink" plumbing fixture
makers tried to convince Americans they needed.
Kohler hawked this one in 1939.

Getting people to buy things they don’t need isn’t a new idea. Back in the 1930s, one plumbing fixture manufacturer—Standard Sanitary, today’s American Standard—declared that “Cleaning the teeth in the regular lavatory is a very unsanitary practice,” and suggested that every bathroom have a separate “dental lavatory” just for tooth brushing. Sensing a new market, a few other manufacturers followed suit, but the idea didn’t fly, probably due more to the Great Depression than anything else. Yet the same clever sales strategy did eventually break through in the form of his-and-hers master bath lavatories.

Next time, we’ll look at some more recent examples of selling people things they don’t need, even though, in many cases, they cost more and don’t work as well.

Monday, May 18, 2015


What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same old stuff you’ve always used, which some corporate PR firm has now managed to repackage as “green”?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest approach to construction is to adapt buildings that already exist--and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.
This building was demolished to make room for—
no kidding—a casino parking lot.
(Columbia Building, Pittsburgh, destroyed 2011;
courtesy of

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be in a constant state of upheaval. Here, it’s common for buildings to be demolished after fifty, thirty, or even ten years of use--and the expected life of buildings is getting shorter, not longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of fifty years. Compare this to Europe, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on the Continent is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two World Wars. 

San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square—
a repurposed chocolate factory—
was among the first great
examples of "adaptive reuse".
America’s obsession with change, however, leads us to build quickly and on the cheap, since it’s assumed that buildings will be obsolete in a few decades anyway. Such thinking naturally leads to a vicious cycle of wastefulness: Because permananence is considered irrelevant, buildings are worn out in a few decades whether they’re actually obsolete or not. These, in turn, are typically replaced by structures that are even shoddier and more temporary--whether theoretically green or otherwise. 

Preserving and reusing older, well-built existing structures, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of true green design, since it requires relatively little additional expenditure of energy when adaptation is required, and occasionally, none at all when it isn’t. 

The average old building represents a vast investment of energy--not only in the form of materials, but more importantly, in the form of labor (and by “old”, let’s assume we mean those built before World War II). It’s self evident that old buildings typically used more opulent finishes than their modern counterparts; they were, after all, built at a time when high quality materials had not been depleted and were still used generously. 
The crafts that built interiors like this one—
the Los Angeles Theater—are not coming back at
prices anyone can afford. 

What is less seldom appreciated, however, is that an old building also embodies an enormous storehouse of labor--much of it of a kind modern society can no longer afford. Many once-ubiquitous building trades have all but disappeared over the last century--from stonemasons to stained-glass makers, from plasterers to gilders--and the fruits of their labors remain in every extant building, essentially frozen in time. 

These skills won’t be coming back, except in their current status as boutique trades carrying astronomical costs. Hence, destroying an old building doesn’t just squander physical resources--it also negates forever a huge investment of skilled work that’s no longer affordable and sometimes no longer even obtainable. To my mind, this is a waste of nonrenewable resources more tragic than that of any precious material.

Monday, May 11, 2015


The "Psycho" house.
As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which still stands on the Universal Studios backlot, is probably the best known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others: For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s milestone 1941 film Citizen Kane. The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used both to open and close the film. 

More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the Addams Family’s eccentric television abode (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Kane’s Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting). 

Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel style haunting. Back in the 1960s, old Victorian houses of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily-colored gingerbread houses had a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood moved on to other archetypes.
Is this the world's creepiest Dutch Colonial?

A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character--the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’s house in Psycho, for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for The Amityville Horror, or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull. In this case, Hill House was not just a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon. To get the eye-socket effect, director Wise used a special high contrast film to make the house's window openings seem black and empty (Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel).

The Addams Family lived here—well, sort of.
It's only a painting, though based on a real
house in Los Angeles
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper. These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of slasher films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t see faces in the wallpaper? 

The fact that we never learn just what malevelent force stalks Hill House in The Haunting only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions--only more unnerving questions. 
Ettington Hall: Not so scary in the daytime.

As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Monday, May 4, 2015


Nipple: Not so sexy.

What do the words nipple, flashing, chase and butt have in common?
That’s right--they’re all parts of a building.

As someone who’s gotten used to casually tossing off the many quirky terms found in building construction, I’m sometimes caught short by the sidelong glances of my clients, who aren’t always sure exactly what kind of anatomy I’m invoking.

Since contractor humor has presumably changed little over the centuries, I suspect that most of these terms harken from Medieval builders who, like their modern counterprarts, delighted in coining colorful or even risque names for otherwise mundane bits and pieces of buildings. 

Having used such blatant tittilation to draw your attention, I’ll explain the above words before I move on to a couple of other favorites.

• A nipple, as any plumber can tell you, is a very short length of threaded pipe. Back in the days when water pipes were threaded, plumbers had to make up all the long lengths on the job, but a range of nipples--short pieces in one-inch increments up to one foot--were prethreaded and kept at hand to save time. 

Flashing: Ooh la la...
• Flashing--which is a noun, not a verb--is a kind of sheet metal fabrication that’s used for waterproofing, typically where walls and roofs intersect. This word is just a shortened version of the original term, “flashing metal”, which better explains its origin--on a slate or tile roof, these pieces of metal were literally the only part that flashed in the sun.

• A chase is a vertical shaft, usually continuous through storeys, in which pipes, ducts, and the like are run. This kind of chase isn’t rooted in the more common word meaning “hunt”; rather, it comes from an Old French word meaning groove or enclosure.

Now that's a NICE butt.
• Butt—a shortened form of “butt hinge”--is builder’s lingo for the type of hinge typically used on a residential door. Curiously, butts are always counted like pants--in pairs. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while one with three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs.
And while we’re on some of the more arcane building terms, here are a few more:

Woodworkers go chasing this kind of rabbet.
• A rabbet is a groove or recess running the length of a piece of lumber. It has nothing to do with the name of the like-sounding animal, but rather is just the woodworker’s corruption of “rebate”, an old architectural term with nearly the same meaning. The exact same groove made perpendicular to the grain rather than parallel to it, however, is inexplicably called a “dado”.

• In construction, to “furr”--yes, it really has two Rs--means to apply false framing over a wall or ceiling, usually to hide something unsightly beneath. The word comes from the Old French “fourrer”, which has the delightful meaning of “to trim or line with fur”.

• A “sleeper” is one of a series of wooden strips laid down over subflooring in order to increase its height. Since this piece of lumber doesn’t have to do much of anything but lay there, its thirteenth-century meaning seems wryly appropriate: “One who is inclined to sleep much.” Zzzzzzz.