Monday, October 26, 2015


Tired of people asking how he came up with his brilliant designs, Frank Lloyd Wright once famously explained,

“Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeve.”

Wright liked to say he just
shook designs out of his sleeve.
Not likely.
It was mostly Wright’s puckish sense of humor talking when he claimed to conjure fully-formed concepts out of thin air. Yet today there’s still a widespread misperception that architects design by invoking some kind of arcane creative voodoo, and that ideas just flow onto the paper without effort.

Alas, there’s a lot more hard work than magic involved in designing a building. This is a great advantage to non-architects, though you might not realize it. It means that if you’re methodical and willing to carry out what is often a tedious process, you, too, could shake a decent design out of your sleeve.

Suppose, for example, that you want to build an addition onto your house. Long before you ever put pencil to paper or finger to iPad, here’s what you need to do:

• Come up with what architects call the “program”--basically, a wish list for your project. As a minimum, it should describe what kind of rooms and spaces you want to add, roughly how many square feet each will require, and which rooms will have to adjoin each other. The program can also include more abstract requirements, from general atmosphere (sunny, restful, dramatic, or whatever) or any other qualities you have in mind. In general, the more complete your program, the smoother your design process will be.

A survey such as this one
will show where your
property lines are—and they
may surprise you.
• Obtain a survey from a licensed civil engineer or surveyor showing where your home sits on your property, as well as major artificial and natural features such as outbuildings, utilities, rock outcroppings, sloping land, large trees, drainage swales, and so on. It should also show any rights-of-way, reserves, or easements that could prevent you from building on the land.

• Add up the total square footage of the addition as dictated by your program and, if it seems that there’s enough room on your property to accommodate it, proceed to the next step (if not, downsize your plans accordingly). Armed with your survey, set up an appointment with a planner at your local building department to discuss your proposed addition. Begin by requesting the property setbacks--the minimum distance you must keep structures from the front, side, and rear property lines. Next, ask for the maximum allowable building height in your neighborhood. 

Your local planning department
will tell you your zoning,
which in turn will tell you
where you can build,
and where you can't.
As obvious as these steps may seem, they’re commonly overlooked by do-it-yourself designers, who typically rush directly into drawing detailed plans only to find out that their ideas don’t comply with one or more of these restrictions. Far from being an antagonist, a good planner will be a great help early on, pointing out such potential booby traps, and perhaps even suggesting alternatives that’ll help you circumvent them. 

What you’ll take away from this meeting are the following crucial bits of information: How many square feet of addition you can build, where and how high you can build them, and whether or not you need to notify your neighbors in order to do so. Next time, we’ll use that information to begin--finally--designing your addition.

Monday, October 19, 2015


"It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don't paint badly like other people."

The same might be said for architects, whose professional success is just as dependent on novelty the commercial success of artists is.  To achieve even a small measure of recognition, architects, like artists, have to stand out from their colleagues. Some do so naturally, others with strained intent. One thing for sure, though: it’s a rare architect who hopes to remain anonymous.
Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall,
at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
A really cool building—except in summer.

As another sage observer—New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—once put it, “Architecture is not immune to the lure of celebrity and shock value in a society that cultivates the new and novel at any cost.” 

A quality of novelty, or even visual offense, is often inseparable from any progressive work of architecture. It took Americans decades to appreciate the hovering, solids-and-voids compositions of Frank Lloyd Wright. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that, however unfamiliar such works may seem at first, there’s some very deliberate thinking behind them.  

Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project,
St. Louis:  It seemed like a good idea
at the time.
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of buildings that were at the leading edge of their time, yet whose novelty nevertheless fell mildly or even disastrously short of their users’ needs. High-profile examples spring easily to mind: Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose occupants routinely plastered the windows with aluminum foil to avoid being roasted by the summer sun; Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where patrons were obliged to view art while countering the gravitational pull of the building’s celebrated spiral ramp underfoot; and Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a carefully calculated social engineering experiment that failed on virtually every level before the buildings were imploded in 1972.  

And these, mind you, are works by the best and brightest of their day. In the absence of such genius, less skilled architects secure novelty by simply borrowing from current fashion. In the modernist era, this entailed stripping already formulaic buildings down to barren, antiseptic blocks. Today’s architectural hacks employ the opposite strategy, taking otherwise mundane work and hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. This, after all, is also an easy way to make something mundane look novel—as Victorian architects, 1950s auto stylists, and even Liberace might attest. 

This explains why more and more new buildings sprout arrays of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac, their architects in hot pursuit of some hey-look-at-me status. In contrast to the textural poverty of modernism, disconcerted clutter is now the crutch for uninspired design. 

Recycled brick and wood
in a Carr Jones-designed residence in
Piedmont, California:
Green architecture from 1932.
How ironic, then, that some of the most truly novel architectural works of the past hundred years have been carried out by architects who remained barely known in their own eras. The Arizona Spanish Revival master Josias Joesler, the industrial architect Albert Kahn, California’s green design pioneer Carr Jones—all were virtually overlooked by their more celebrated contemporaries. 

And all of them, alas, reaped the perverse reward of such a career: their truly novel ways of thinking did come to be fully appreciated, but only long after they’d left us. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


Back when Americans had to do this to get hot water,
we didn't waste a drop.

Since the late nineteenth century, Americans have been blessed with a whole series of domestic conveniences, from central heating, to electric lighting, to hot and cold water at the turn of a tap. Alas, on the down side, these marvels have also played havoc with our longstanding national trait of Yankee thrift—for at the same time they've made our lives immeasurably easier, they’ve also made us immeasurably more wasteful. 

Take the simple case of hot water. Back when Americans were obliged to chop wood, stoke a fire, and lug buckets of scalding water around just to prepare a warm bath, we still appreciated what a luxury hot water is, and how difficult it is to obtain. Yet as soon as that same warm bath involved nothing more than opening a tap, we fell headlong into the pattern of oblivious and wasteful use that’s still with us. Even in this increasingly green-centered era, many of us still treat hot water as if it were a gift from heaven.

Turn a dial, and the house gets warmer.
We don't see where the energy
comes from, or how much it takes.
It’s ironic that the very ease of turning on a light, turning up the heat, or leaving the car idling in the driveway has made Americans oblivious to the rate at which we use energy and natural resources. As well-meaning and as nice a bunch of folks as we are—and I mean that quite sincerely—we nevertheless manage to consume far more energy per capita than any other nation on earth. Our thrifty Yank forefathers would no doubt be ashamed of statistics such as these:

•The United States makes up about one-twentieth of the world’s population, yet we gobble up about one-fifth of the world’s energy.

• Every day, Americans consume over 18 million barrels of oil—enough to fill about a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools. Per capita, this is over twice as much oil as our British cousins use daily, and over ten times the amount used by the average Chinese in spite of that nation’s phenomenal industrialization. (<>)

• Americans use an average of 1,363 watts of electricity per person—again, about double the electrical energy used by the average Brit, despite our relatively similar standards of living, and well over three times the energy used by the average Chinese.

• And at the other end of this orgy of consumption, we throw away some 250 million tons of trash, only about a third of which—contrary to popular myth—is recycled (<>).
If we're serious about leading the green movement,
we can't be the world's biggest pigs.

There is, it seems, such a thing as being too comfortable. None of us like to think of ourselves as wasteful, and yet the above statistics irrefutably tell us otherwise. 

Of all the peoples on the globe, we Americans still remain best equipped to invent, to innovate, and to attract new ideas in the responsible and sustainable use of the world’s resources. We also purport to have a social conscience and the will to exercise it. If we really mean to set an example to the world without being hounded for our hypocrisy, we can’t afford to be the biggest pigs on the block.

Monday, October 5, 2015


If you set out to create the worst window you could, you might go about it like this:
First, you’d design it to oppose the pull of gravity, and therefore require a Rube Goldberg contraption of weights and ropes, cables, or springs just to keep it from falling shut. You’d also make sure you could never open more than half of it at a time. Of course you’d arrange the sash so that your view would be blocked by a big dividing bar. And naturally, you’d also make it hard to maintain and a headache to paint. Lastly, you’d  conceal the operating mechanism to make it fiendishly difficult to repair. 

Is this the world's worst window?
If you managed to fulfill every one of these none-too-admirable goals, the result of your design would probably be a double hung window.

So much for my hypothetical bad-design contest. In reality, the origin of the double hung window is British. Its invention is often attributed to Robert Hooke (1635-1703), surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. Hooke assisted Wren during the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666. 

Since this catastrophe left most of the city in ashes, it was probably a perfect opportunity to pioneer a new type of window. And indeed, the oldest surviving double hungs date back to English manor houses of the 1670s, such as London’s Ham House. As old as these windows are, their appearance hardly differs from modern examples--they feature the same six-over-six muntin arrangement that’s still popular today.

Double-hung windows were ubiquitous in
Georgian and Federal architecture.
Naturally, when the English came to the New World, double hung windows came with them. Although very early American Colonial houses used simple-to-build casement windows, the homes of well-to-do colonists began boasting double hungs as soon as they became available. They remained an architectural staple throughout the Georgian and  Federal periods (the White House, you may recall, has double hung windows). 

The emphatically vertical architecture of the later Gothic Revival and Victorian eras--which demanded windows with tall, skinny proportions--meant their popularity only increased.
It was the multitudes of these strangely pinched-looking double hung windows that the young Frank Lloyd Wright noted with dismay on his walks through Chicago, and which he later dubbed “guillotine windows” in his prose. 

Victorian-era houses, too, are known for their
double-hung windows—this example
even features curved ones in the corner tower.
(Charles Copeland Morse house,
Santa Clara, California, 1892)
The Romantic Revival home styles of the early 20th century briefly challenged the primacy of the double hung, since their architects preferred the more Medieval-looking casement window. But by the time large-scale home building resumed after World War II, double hung windows made a huge comeback in mass produced, Colonial-Revival-esque tracts such as Levittown. Only the widespread introduction of horizontal sliding aluminum windows during the 1950s finally made a substantial (and lasting) dent in their popularity.

In fairness, there’s no doubt that today’s double hung windows, while still looking pretty much like their ancestors of the 1670s, have been greatly improved. For one, they use spring counterweights instead of that quasi-comical arrangement of ropes, pulleys and counterweights. They’re also far more energy efficient and easier to maintain than their predecessors. 

Still and all, they don’t make a whole lot of sense as windows. Robert Hooke was a brilliant man, but the double-hung window is one thing he got wrong.