Monday, December 19, 2016


Concrete block has always been the neglected stepchild of architecture. Even today, the humble material most us call “cinder block” still conjures up dreary images of warehouses, barracks and roadside motels.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in Los Angeles
used his vaguely Mayan-looking "textile block" system.
(Courtesy Catherine M.  Austin, ASID)

A few architects have made noble attempts to change block’s image. In the 1920s, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a system he called “textile block”, in which custom-made blocks cast with various geometric designs were combined into a sort of tapestry in concrete, vaguely Mayan in appearance. A number of his better-known homes used the system, including the affordable-housing prototype “Usonian House”. Yet even Wright’s creative efforts failed to ignite the public’s interest in block.

Some years later, a lesser-known architect of the Prairie School, Alden Dow, devised a truly ingenious twist on the ubiquitous rectangular block: He designed it in the form of a parallelogram with equal sides—not just to be different, but so that he could build walls with perfect 45° angles as well as right angles. Dow built many intriguing homes using this method, but alas, the system passed away with him.

Back to the Sixties: An interesting use of screen block.
All right then, let’s face it: Outside of the Everglades, you won’t find many big fans of concrete block houses. Still, for do-yourself applications such as low garden walls, privacy screens, or foundations for outbuildings, block is unbeatable. It’s much less stressful to work with than poured concrete, since you can stop anytime you like—try that when you’ve got a dump trailer full of concrete starting to harden on you. And it’s actually lots of fun mixing and matching the umpteen patterns and colors of block that are available. Like Wright, you can weave a custom pattern of your own making. Here are a few concrete-block specifics:  

A split-face block, which is made by
extruding a single square block and literally
splitting it in half to produce a broken face.
•  Concrete block is technically referred to as CMU, for "concrete masonry unit". It isn’t cast, but is actually extruded through a die using a very dry concrete mix. The result is a masonry unit that’s relatively light, extremely strong and—let’s not forget—pretty darn cheap.

 Bond beam blocks used to strengthen a foundation.
• A standard concrete block is nominally 8” high by 8” wide by 16” long, so that when it’s laid up in a wall, the joints fall on the familiar 8” module.  However, 4” and 6” widths are also available, along with goodies such as end blocks, wall caps, and bond beams (special trough-shaped blocks that form a horizontal beam when filled with concrete, often used to strengthen walls or span openings).

Creativity makes a difference: This interesting combination
of block textures, colors, and sizes goes a long way
toward overcoming the usual concrete-block doldrums.
•  There are literally scores of different block types and colors available, so you needn’t load up on the usual dull gray variety. In addition to the familiar flat-faced block—available in a surprising range of colors—there are dozens of special types as well: Patterned block embossed with diamonds, triangles, or starbursts; screen block, which has variously shaped openings that form a pattern when laid up; and split-faced block, which imitates rustic quarried stone. Also available is slump block, a cousin of concrete block, whose bulges and irregularity are meant to imitate adobe.

•  Lastly, one caveat: Laying concrete block is a skill that’s not as easy as it looks, but can usually be picked up with a little perseverance. Before you go out and build that cinder-block Taj Mahal in your back yard, however, don’t forget that block walls must be reinforced with steel and then filled with a special thin mixture of concrete called grout. Leave out the rebar and grout, and you’re liable to end up with a lightweight pile of rubble.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Drywall makes it easy to produce massive-looking details
such as these arches. Note, however, that it's best not to mix
different styles of arches as has been done here.
Gypsum board—commonly known as "drywall" or "sheetrock"—has taken a lot of hits over the years, but despite its low-rent reputation, it's a marvelously adaptable interior finish. It’s relatively lightweight, easy to work, and lends itself to a variety of complex shapes.

With gypsum board, it's easy to create dramatic interior effects such as coffers, vaults and arches on even the tightest budget. All that’s required is furring (false framing) made from ordinary lumber, and a clear sense of the interior effect you’re after. To wit:

Wood furring or false framing is typically used to provide
a structure for attaching the gypsum board.
There are also many products that make it easier
to create arches and other details.
•  To make walls look more substantial, use furring and gypsum board to increase the “reveal” or thickness of the wall at openings such as archways. In many modern homes, the reveal is only about 4 1/2” (the thickness of a standard 2x4 partition)—one reason for the notoriously flimsy look of many postwar homes. Increasing this thickness to 8” or even 12” will produce a very dramatic effect of mass. Since your eye can only judge a wall’s thickness where it’s penetrated, you don’t necessarily have to furr the whole wall to achieve this illusion—just the area around the opening.

You can heighten the appearance of mass if you give openings a shape characteristic of masonry construction, such as flared sides or an arched top. Avoid designs using acute angles, since they’re seldom seen in masonry work. Also, to maintain the illusion of mass, be consistent—don’t have an archway passing through a supposedly massive wall that also has a skinny standard doorway in it.

Furring make these elliptical arches look massive.
Compare this example to the no-no at the bottom of the page.
•  If a streamlined or Modernistic look is more to your taste, capitalize on gypsum board’s ability to form curves. Curves are created either by slitting the back of the board, or by wetting it to make it more flexible.  Really tight curves usually require two layers of 1/4” gypsum board instead of a single layer of 1/2” board. Special rounded or “bullnose” corner beads are also available to complement the streamlined look.

•  Other effects such as tray ceilings, vaulted ceilings, niches, and complex archways are easy to achieve at modest expense. However, avoid fussy, overcomplicated details; bold, generous proportions usually produce the best results. If you’re unsure of your design, build a mock-up out of white cardboard before committing yourself.

A groin-vaulted ceiling using prefabricated furring
proves that almost anything is possible in gypsum board.
(Courtesy NH Drywall)
When combined with a smooth finish or veneer plastering (a thin plaster coat that yields an extremely flat surface), it’s not that expensive to get really impressive results.

Good results also depend on the accuracy of the furring underneath. Arches and the like must be carefully built up of wood to provide a solid backing for the gypsum board. Prefabricated furring pieces for creating arches and curves are available to simplify the job. Once the furring is complete, the gypsum board should be attached with drywall screws rather than nails—they’re less likely to disturb the position of the furring, and won’t pull out as easily.

Unless you’re experienced in gypsum board installation and tape-and-texture work, leave the creation of curves and special shapes to a professional.  A good tape-and-texture contractor can also help you figure out the most economical way of achieving the effect you’re after.  
To avoid a crackerbox look, don't put arched openings
in standard-thickness stud walls like this one.
Furr the walls out to make the arches more convincing.

Monday, December 5, 2016


The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum
has been replaced by a lot of clinical tapping.
Architecture, that most hidebound of professions, was long ago won over by the computer. CAD (Computer Aided Design), once the exclusive domain of huge architecture firms, is now virtually the rule in one person offices as well. 

In the main, CAD has been a blessing to the architectural profession. Having begun my practice in pre-computer days, I can testify that CAD has taken much of the now medieval-seeming drudgery out of architecture. By replacing paper and pencil with a computer screen, architects are no longer smudged with graphite by day’s end. Likewise, the hours of messy erasure once required to revise drawings is now a neat and simple matter of point and click. Powerful capabilities such as virtual reality are soon to come. 
Would architecture such as that of
William R. Yelland ever have
arisen on CAD....?
(Normandy Village,
Berkeley, California, begun 1926)

However, there's no denying that CAD has taken some of the romance out of architecture as well.   The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum, leaving a crisp and charismatic hand-drawn line, has been replaced by the clinical tapping of keys and mouse buttons.               

Neither can the computer compensate for a lack of creativity. An architect who’s incompetent on paper is just as dangerous on a computer—his lines are straighter, that’s all. In fact, by concealing sloppy thinking in a tidy-looking presentation, computer drafting sometimes legitimizes a caliber of work that would otherwise not be passable. 

CAD contains booby traps even for accomplished architects. Too many are seduced by the easy flashiness of computer drawings, sometimes to the point where the process supersedes the product. For one thing, the tempting ability to copy and paste details with a computer can make an architect lazy, and it shows in some CAD-produced work. Details, and sometimes whole sections of buildings, become repetitive and rigid. 
...or Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps (1954)?

Operations that are difficult on a computer can influence designs as well. For example, drawing complex curves is quick and natural with a pencil, but relatively cumbersome with CAD. Hence, an architect may relent—consciously or not—to the simpler option of using straight lines instead. The idiom of the computer begins to dictate the idiom of the architect.  

In fact, it’s inconceivable that the fantastical, free-form Hansel-and-Gretel cottages of an architect like William R. Yelland—or even the sinuous carved details of Bernard Maybeck—could ever have arisen on CAD. The process is just too rational. Ditto for highly sculptural masterpieces like LeCorbusier’s soaring chapel at Ronchamps, which has scarcely a straight line or simple curve in it. This very shortcoming is, ironically, why an architect such as Frank Gehry requires a whole army of drafters using massive computing power to even approach the freedom of a hand-drawn design.
Ironically, it now takes a whole army of CAD technicians
to create a building that aims to look hand-drawn.
(Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003)

Progress always brings tradeoffs, however. And as CAD programs continue to become more intuitive, designing on a computer may one day one day become almost as natural as drawing with a pencil.  

At the same time, though, we should recognize that architecture is closer to social science than rocket science. Architects must satisfy human beings, not just sets of numerical parameters. While computers can can help us sort out the cold-blooded logistics of door sizes and floor heights, they’re less useful in the creation of passionate architecture. They can never equal the power of a pencil in a sympathetic hand.

Monday, November 28, 2016


The typical Western architect's way of dealing with a view:
Beat people over the head with it.
Western architects of the Modernist era customarily addressed exterior views with huge walls of glass.  This method of framing a view, known as a panorama, relied on the vastness and breadth of the view for impact. 

Western architects loved the panorama because it created a near-invisible transition between indoors and out.  The ultimate example of this concept is the house that architect Philip Johnson built for himself in New Canaan, Connecticutt in 1950: A rectangular box with walls made entirely of glass. Only the bathroom was concealed by solid walls. 

Architect Philip Johnson's famous—or infamous,
as you prefer—"Glass Box". The cylinder
inside contains the bathroom.
In recent decades, however, the traditionally Western concept of the panoramic view has been severely constrained by energy-efficiency regulations that limit glass area to a fraction of that commonly used in Modernist architecture. In effect, we’re no longer able to build glass walls to bring in the scenery.  

Fortunately, there’s another way to wring drama out of a view.

In the Orient, and particularly in Japanese architecture, a beautiful view has traditionally been treated as something to be savored in small quantities, not gorged upon. This concept, known as the vista (or, if you like, the “Zen view”) treats a beautiful view like a jewel, placing it in a carefully framed window that can be best appreciated from a particular spot, rather than from anywhere in the room. The designer thereby controls the exact viewing angle, allowing him to compose the view seen through the window exactly as an artist might compose a landscape painting.  

The controlled "Zen view" directs the eye
toward an intentionally composed scene.
Deliberately framing a beautiful view by concealing it from portions of the room has the effect of renewing our appreciation for it.  We’re not constantly exposed to the same scene, so we don’t become desensitized to it. It’s a more subtle way of treating a thing of beauty, just as a painting is more subtle than a wall mural.

Better yet, the vista concept dovetails nicely with today’s attitudes on energy conservation. Because windows lose heat about ten times faster than walls do, reducing their size reduces heat loss and cuts down fuel consumption.  Smaller windows help to conserve energy while still showcasing a good view.

In all, you have nothing to lose in aesthetics and much to gain in efficiency by designing with vistas rather than panoramas. Here are a few hints for capitalizing on vistas:
A comprehensive "view inventory" should be made
before you even begin planning.

•  Before committing a design to plans, make a careful “view inventory” of the site. Figure out the exact angles at which views are visible; don’t leave it to chance or count on moving windows later during construction.  There’s no reason that the location of a view window can’t be determined within a few inches of its final position before any plans are drawn. 

•  Conversely, determine the location of unattractive views (telephone poles, the neighbor’s garage roof, and the like) and arrange the windows so that these views are screened off by walls.  Or, if it’s imperative to have windows in areas with unattractive views, provide them with opaque glass, or hang translucent art-glass pieces in them.

•  Consider the “station point” or position from which people will most often glimpse the view.  The scene framed by the window should ideally be composed from this point in the room, so that it has an intentional impact on the viewer.    

Monday, November 21, 2016


Glass block used in a Streamline Moderne home, circa 1930:
As a residential style, it didn't catch on with Americans.
Glass block had its heyday in the Streamline Moderne architecture of the late 1930s, when architects were enchanted by its sleek lines and ability to form curves. After World War II, though, glass block suffered a steep decline in popularity—so much so that the big U.S. glass manufacturers such as Corning and PPG quit producing it altogether.  The last remaining dribble of glass block sales was given away to European glassmakers.

During the Eighties, however, glass block made a huge comeback. Hardly a month went by that some architecture magazine didn’t have a house with acres of glass block on the cover, and the U.S. glass companies once again cranked up their glass block production lines.

Glass block varieties. Note that many are special-order items.
Why did glass block disappear after the war? And why is it back?

Glass block first gained widespread popularity in Europe during the early 1900s. Originally used for factory windows, it was soon adopted in commercial and residential architecture as well. Its appeal among European architects only grew during the postwar rebuilding of Europe. In America, however, glass block didn’t really appear until well into the Art Deco period, and even then, it remained more popular in commercial rather than residential architecture.

Interesting glass block window
breaks out of the usual grid design.
One reason for this is that glass block didn’t really fit comfortably into any but the most radically modern U.S. home styles. It seemed jarringly foreign even in the most current homes styles of the era, such as the California Rancher.  Moreover, its unusual installation procedure was unfamiliar to most U.S. tract builders, who seemed to scrupulously avoid it.  Lastly, glass block’s effectiveness at diffusing light also turned out to be its biggest drawback: most U.S. homebuyers seemed to prefer windows they could see out of.

What brought glass block back to popularity almost fifty years later was, more than anything else, the huge self-indulgent master baths that came into vogue during the Eighties. With their giant whirlpool spas and showers, these rooms simultaneously demanded privacy and plenty of light, and glass block filled the bill perfectly. Of course, bathrooms have only gotten more pompous since then, so glass block is still very much a part of the luxury bathroom scene.

Bullnose end blocks provide a sleek edge.
It can be a standout material for countless other applications, though, including interior partitions, half-walls, columns, and of course windows of all shapes and sizes. Its modularity makes for almost limitless design potential—curves, stepped forms, and combinations of various block types and sizes are only a few possibilities.

Glass block’s ability to diffract light can be used to create spectacular effects. It's offered in 6x6, 4x8, 8x8, and 12x12-inch sizes and in a large range of face textures, from smooth to fluted to prismatic. Colored glass block is also available, although it usually must be special ordered. There's also a range of special blocks for creating square, chamfered, or bullnosed wall ends, as well as for forming curves of various radii.
 Radius blocks are available for tight curves:
larger radii can be accomplished with regular blocks.
(Courtesy Cincinnati Glass Block Co.)

Glass blocks are installed with mortar just like brick, and while they're very strong, they can’t be used to carry structural loads. Various accessories are available to provide uniform alignment, making installation a lot easer than in the past. However, like most masonry work, glass block is not a leading candidate for
DIY. I don't say this often, but this might be one job best left to a professional.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


In Victorian era homes, a "borrowed light"—
basically, a  normal window placed in an
interior wall—brought natural light
into landlocked rooms.
In the nineteenth century, before the coming of the gasolier and the incandescent lamp, natural light was a valuable commodity indeed. Victorian architects used great ingenuity to ensure that windowless interior spaces such as halls and service areas would be at least habitably lit. 

There were a number of ways to obtain natural light beside windows. Skylights and roof windows were used in many types of buildings, although they weren’t common in homes because of their expense and proclivity to leak.

Transoms were used to light hallways
and provide cross ventilation.
In Victorian factories, where good visibility was critical, ranks of north-facing clearstories were set in sawtooth roofs, or else monitors (narrow, glass-walled penthouses running along the roof ridges) were provided to admit light and air to work areas below. And in multistoried Victorian apartment and hotel buildings, central air shafts were used for both light and ventilation.  

In homes, however, the interior window or “borrowed light” was the most popular device for lighting deep interior areas. Some borrowed lights were simply standard windows installed in interior walls to transmit or “borrow” light from a bright room to one in which there were no windows—for example, between a kitchen and an interior pantry.  

Transom hardware
allowed the sash to be
opened without reaching.
Another form of borrowed light was the transom, an openable window installed above a doorway. Before the advent of electric light and mechanical ventilation, the transom served both to light and ventilate windowless interior spaces. Transoms were frequently installed above bedroom doors, where they could conveniently light an otherwise dark central hall while simultaneously providing cross ventilation in bedrooms. They were generally preferred over skylights, since they were less expensive and couldn’t leak.

Edison and the
incandescent lamp.
An even simpler and cheaper way to borrow light was to use French doors with opaque glass in bedrooms and baths. They allowed plenty of light into halls without compromising privacy.

In the late nineteenth century, multistory office buildings took the transom to its most extreme form: Many office partitions were built entirely of glass to allow light to penetrate into “landlocked’ interior spaces. Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp in 1878 eventually reduced the need for  borrowed light. Nevertheless, natural light from openable windows remained more desirable—and less expensive—than artificial light.      

LED lighting: Efficient—but not
more efficient than natural light.
During the 1940s, however, the widespread introduction of the fluorescent lamp, which was three times more efficient Edison's incandescent bulb, made artificial light remarkably cheap. At the same time, the arrival of air conditioning eliminated the need for openable windows. This one-two punch made artificial lighting king for many decades. And although fluorescents had the greatest impact on commercial buildings, by the Sixties even home kitchens were awash in the glare of “luminous ceilings”.  
Borrowed lights: The idea is simple,
and the light is free.
Today's LED lighting technology is about twice as energy-efficient as the fluorescent lamps that preceded it, and about six times more efficient than incandescent bulbs—a phenomenal improvement, for sure. Yet it's important to recognize that, no matter how efficient artificial lighting becomes, it’s still cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to use natural light whenever possible.  

All of the natural lighting devices that worked for the Victorians—skylights, roof windows, clearstories, monitors, and especially borrowed lights—are still excellent ways of bringing sunlight deep into interiors spaces. Try one of them at your house.  The idea is simple, and the light is free.  

Monday, November 7, 2016


With the possible exception of sailors, building contractors have the most colorful jargon around. Like Navy expressions, many of their gems can’t be repeated in polite company such as yourself. However, should you ever need to translate jobsite jargon, here are a few excerpts from the contractor’s lexicon:

A big mess of #4 bars.
Almost nothing on a construction site is called by its technical name, probably because no contractor has time to use such unwieldy terms. Instead, technical jargon is boiled down to monosyllables: reinforcing steel is “bar”; gypsum wallboard is “rock”; joint taping compound is “mud”.

The name-change game isn’t always logical, either.  For instance, I knew several contractors who were fond of replacing the names of objects with the word “puppy”.  Thus, a well-braced post might elicit a comment such as, “That puppy ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Another contractor liked to describe framing of dubious strength as “flappin’ in the breeze”.  Such terms could also be combined in rather original ways. I once arrived at a job site to be told by a worried foreman:  “Check out the ridge beam.  That puppy is flappin’ in the breeze.”
A bucket of mud for taping rock.

Tools also possess unique names. A framer who needs to correct a misaligned wall does so by getting out the “persuader” or “micro adjuster”—that is, a sledge hammer.  If the wall refuses to respond despite vigorous micro adjustment, some wag will inevitably deadpan, “Don’t force it it—use a bigger hammer.”

Another type of framing hammer with a special knurled face is fondly known as a “meat tenderizer” in deference to its superior thumb-smashing ability. Then there’s the “blood blister”, a cast iron nail puller with a sliding weight notorious for pinching the web between your thumb and index finger.
There are even names for tools that don’t exist, most of them used to initiate naive young hires. Suppose, for example, that a young carpenter cuts an expensive piece of lumber a half-inch too short.
A room all rocked and mudded.

“No problem,” the foreman will tell him with dead earnestness.  “Just take it over to the board stretcher.”  The newcomer will ask at least a half-dozen sniggering coworkers for directions to the board stretcher before he gets the joke.  

In the contractor's lexicon, architects earn special nomenclature as well. I once overheard a foreman direct his carpenter to the blueprints with this phrase: “Go look in the Funny Papers.” And many a job foreman has this notice on his wall:

A "blood blister"—technically known as a
slide hammer. The handle portion at upper right
comes rocketing down the shank, usually onto
the web between your thumb and forefinger.
“An engineer is a person who knows a great deal about very little. An architect is a person who knows very little about a great deal. A contractor is a person who starts out knowing a great deal about almost everything, but through his contact with architects and engineers, ends up knowing almost nothing about anything.”

Finally, although both architects and contractors are often thought to be notoriously dull-witted businessmen, I once learned an invaluable estimating term from a contractor friend. We were reviewing a bid for a very indecisive and capricious client. The items were carefully tabulated— “Windows, $9,850, Countertops, $6,370” and so on.  However, below the subtotal was a cryptic entry that read: “I.F.—add 20%”

“What’s 'I.F.'?” I asked him.

“Irritation Factor,” he replied.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Few materials express the beauty of hand craftsmanship as directly as wrought iron. The hammer blows of the artisan who created it are always evident on the material, frozen in time.

 Genuine wrought iron, with the craftsman's hammer blows
forever frozen in time.
The wrought iron crafts flourished in California during the 1920s, when Spanish Revival architecture was at its peak.  Traditional wrought iron work was made by hand-forging a special kind of malleable iron. After the various-shaped elements had been formed, they were joined by welding, riveting, or collaring. The material was widely used for gates, window grilles, railings, and even entire balconies. Some of the more exotic Romantic Revival styles featured exquisitely delicate wrought iron designs, such as architect W. R. Yelland’s sinuous strap hinges and hardware.

In the 1930s, the rise of Art Deco architecture, with its sleek, highly polished surfaces and geometric ornament, helped bring wrought iron’s golden age to a close. Iron’s appearance was far too crude to compete with the gleaming stainless steel and vitreous tile of this era.

 Small quantities of wrought iron are still produced for
restoration. The crafter is hammering a white-hot
wrought iron "bloom" under a modern power hammer.
(Courtesy Chris Topp and Co.)
And although Spanish Revival-style residences were still common during the 1930s, their use of wrought iron ornament declined as well.  By the postwar era, wrought iron had largely been relegated to utilitarian back-porch railings and the like.

The production of wrought iron itself declined after World War II due to its high cost, which was about twice that of steel. The last U.S. supplier of wrought iron bars closed in 1969, and the last wrought-iron plant in the world, in Bolton, U.K. closed four years later. A minuscule quantity of wrought iron is still produced for restoration purposes, though only from existing wrought iron scrap.

Spanish Revival window grill,
circa 1920s.
Today, a resurgence of interest in craftsmanship and ornament bodes a revival of wrought-iron-style work, whose real beauty lies in its irregular, hand-worked appearance. Since it's no longer made with wrought iron bars, however, this craft is more properly referred to as "ornamental ironwork", though the term "wrought iron" remains in common use.

Alas, most of today's ornamental ironwork is cold-formed from very flimsy tubular metal, and sometimes even from extruded aluminum. While economical, such work has far less character than hammered wrought iron. Fortunately, there are a growing number of metal crafters who do traditional wrought iron-style work using solid steel bars.

If you're a fan of traditional ornamental ironwork and want to incorporate it in your own designs, here are some ways to capitalize on its decorative qualities:

•  Be generous with the size of elements.  After World War II, wrought iron designs withered to extremely flimsy proportions because Modernist aesthetics favored the lightest possible appearance. In railings, for example, 1/2” square balusters became the norm. However, traditional styles demand heavier sizes.  3/4” square balusters are visually more satisfying, as well as more substantial. Bottom and top rails, too, benefit from heavier steel stock.  In any case, the completed railing should feel very solid and not bend under pressure as many contemporary railings do.

Modern forged gate.
(Courtesy Scottsdale Art Factory)
•  Take advantage of ornamental iron’s plastic qualities.  Curves are easily executed, and bars can be fully or partially spiraled, hammered, chisel-decorated, or even woven lattice-style. To appreciate the vast range of techniques available, take a close look at the wrought iron work on older Spanish Revival buildings (or refer to Red Tile Style, the book on Spanish Revival architecture I coauthored with Doug Keister). Such techniques require a skilled blacksmith, however, so don’t expect them from your local security grille fabricator.

•  Remember that ornamental ironwork is susceptible to corrosion and must be protected by paint. If this seems burdensome, there are a few alternatives. Ironwork can be galvanized after fabrication, resulting in a silvery color that will resist rust for a number of years. Or it can be fabricated from a weathering steel such as Cor-Ten—a special alloy containing copper—which forms a protective brownish oxide skin and doesn’t require painting. It will, however, cause rust streaks on adjacent surfaces—just like wrought iron work of old. Avoid using powder coating on ornamental ironwork; it doesn't hold up well in sunlight, and cannot be easily refinished. What's more, it will leave your lovingly-crafted ironwork looking like it was dipped in plastic.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Look at any of the world’s most famous gardens—the Alhambra, Versailles, Stourhead—and you’ll find they have one thing in common: water.  Without water, a garden is a static composition.  Add it, and the garden becomes a banquet for the senses.
Wang Shi Yuan in Suzhou, China—a twelfth century
courtyard house surrounding a water-filled garden.

Water has always been part of the garden.  The Babylonians, who conceived of their gardens as representations of paradise, included channels and ponds in them not only for irrigation, but for the simple, sensuous enjoyment of cool water in a dry and unforgiving land.

The Chinese, too, made water an integral part of their garden designs, which reach back at least to the eleventh century BC.  In fact, the Chinese word for landscape, shanshui, means "mountains and water". Wang Shi Yuan (“the garden of the master of the fishing nets”), built in Suzhou in the twelfth century, was an informally arranged courtyard house constructed around a meandering pond, with small streams crossed by stone bridges.  Here, as in all Chinese design, water was essential as the balance to land—the yin to the land’s yang.

Louis XIV didn't mess around when it came to
adding water to the garden. He figured that if
one fountain was good, then 14,000 would be better.
And after all, he could afford it.
The rigidly symmetrical design sensibilities of Louis XIV France could hardly differ more from those of the Chinese. Yet at Versailles, in a garden designed to represent man’s dominance over nature, the Sun King installed a staggering 14,000 fountains and pools for the pleasure of his court. They remain among the palace’s most famous attractions.

Why does water figure so prominently in garden design?  Because it’s one of the simplest yet most effective ways of involving all of the senses—which, after all, is exactly what a garden is supposed to do.    

•  Sound.  The calming sound of water immediately adds ambience to a garden, as well as helping mask out objectionable sounds such as traffic. Again, it doesn’t take Niagara Falls to make a garden come alive—a mere trickle splashing into a wood basin will do.

Still, it doesn't take much water—or Louis XIV's
budget—to get a huge impact. A little
fountain like this one is enough.
•  Smell.  The splashing and dampening effect of a small fountain adds cooling moisture to the air as well as activating the fragrances of the garden. Plants, wood, and even concrete take on a more pleasant and evocative smell when damp.

•  Touch.  What child can resist splashing his hands in a pool or fountain? And what forthright adult can either, for that matter?  On a hot day, a cool water source to dip into is one of life’s simple pleasures.

•  Taste.  I’ll never forget the little public fountain at Bressanone in the Italian Alps, with its gargoyle spouting water, where villagers came to fill their water jugs or have a cool drink. Even if you don’t actually drink from a garden fountain, the soothing psychological effect of having water at hand is probably enough.

•  Sight.  Psychologically, the very presence of water provides a calming, cooling effect. But water also creates ever-changing highlights and reflections in the garden, especially when it's moving. Even a small pool or pond fed by a spout will have enough surface movement to create sun-dappled highlights on trees and nearby surfaces.

Monday, October 17, 2016

PLAN BOOKS: A Long Lineage

Grant Wood's painting American Gothic
features a "Carpenter's Gothic" cottage
of the kind that was built across the nation
during the 1850s, when Andrew Jackson
Downing's plan books were popular.
Stock building plans have helped shape America’s domestic architecture since the early 1800s, when Asher Benjamin’s The American Builder’s Companion helped popularize the Federal style.  It was among the first American plan books to find widespread popularity.

In 1850, the self-taught architect Andrew Jackson Downing published a plan book of Gothic Revival cottages decorated with brackets, finials, and gingerbread.  These designs, derisively nicknamed “Carpenter Gothic” due to their rather two-dimensional detailing,  nevertheless became enormously popular.  Soon Gothic Revival cottages were springing up from coast to coast, particularly in rural areas. The painter Grant Wood later immortalized them in his most famous work, American Gothic (1930), which features a very Downingesque farmhouse behind the pitchfork-wielding farmer and his dour wife.
Victorian-era plan book houses were by no means
small; elaborate examples such as this one
could range up to twenty rooms or more.

Victorian era plan books offered a huge range of architectural styles, from Italianate to Mansard to Stick to Queen Anne, as well as quite a few that defied categorization.  Floor plans ranged from one story cottages all the way to three story confections with twenty rooms or more.  When Victorian home styles fell out of favor in the late Nineties, the sedate Colonial Revival and shingled designs of such East Coast firms as McKim, Mead & White were quickly copied by plan book publishers. The national availability of plan books during this time also helped disseminate the latest architectural trends from the East Coast, which traditionally set the architectural pace for the nation.

During the 1920s, plan books helped
spread the popularity of the so-called
California Bungalow across the nation,
and made the West the trend setter
for residential design thereafter.
After the beginning of the twentieth century, however, plan books began to create the opposite effect. They played a major role in popularizing the bungalow, a humble little house that, unlike its Victorian predecessors, emphasized economy and space efficiency. In 1915, E. W. Stillwell & Co. of Los Angeles published a plan book entitled “Little Bungalows” which featured a whole range of charming and inexpensive bungalow homes. Furthermore, it sagely advised:

“It is better to build a small house than to overburden the budget with a large one.  A beautiful small house is just as expressive of character, aims, and aspirations as the large house. Mere size is a waste of money and human endeavor.”

These post-Victorian arguments for simplicity and economy apparently hit home. The little plan books were extremely popular, and the Stillwell firm quickly followed up with others, as did its competitors. The so-called California Bungalow style gained enormous popularity throughout the state, and in short order began appearing across the nation as well. For the first time, a new residential style had originated in the west and spread eastward—a development due in large part to the widespread availability of plan books.

Yup, these 'Contemporaries"
were plan book houses too—this one is a
Lindal Cedar Homes plan book dating from 1990.
Following World War II, stock plans gained another forum through mass-marketed home magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens.  The frequency of these publications made them even better suited to respond to rapidly changing tastes. During the Fifties and Sixties, for example, such magazines helped popularize the California Rancher and other West Coast styles nationwide; more recently, they’ve helped spur a renewed national interest in Colonial and other traditional styles.

Today, with the Internet's vast collection of architectural plans available in seconds rather weeks, stock plans will likely be more influential than ever.

Monday, October 10, 2016


About this time of year I start getting calls from homeowners who inform me, with grim resignation, “My roof needs to be replaced.”

Yup, it may look ugly, but that doesn't mean it will leak.
On many types of roofs, the roofing felt
keeps out the water, not the shingles.
“Does it leak?” I ask.  

“No,”  they respond.

Remember that old saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?  It applies nicely to roofs, too.    
Many people confuse a roof’s appearance with its ability to keep out water. But many types of roofing—wood shingles and shakes, in particular—can look positively awful and still function perfectly well.  So don’t automatically assume that a shabby roof is a leaky roof.

Vents and other roof penetrations are notorious spot
for leaks to develop. Look there first. You may
save yourself a ton of money.
Moreover, even if an isolated leak does develop, you may be able to repair it with a five dollar tube of caulk rather than a twenty-thousand dollar reroof. That’s because the majority of roof leaks occur at pipe or vent penetrations, or at intersections with other roofs or walls—in short, wherever the roof material is discontinuous. Leaks are less common out in the “field” or middle of the roof surface, so re-roofing these areas to fix a single small leak is often a waste of money.  

What’s the answer? Find a roofing contractor willing to determine the cause of your leak rather than shotgunning the problem with a costly new roof. This may not be easy—understandably, most contractors would rather sell a big-ticket item like a complete re-roof—but there are a few out there who are still willing to hunt down a leak.  

The stain is here—does that mean the leak is
right above it? Not necessarily.
A sharp-eyed contractor may find something as simple as a seam that’s opened up or a vent with its storm collar missing.  Flashing (the sheet metal installed at roof intersections and penetrations) is another common leak point, especially at skylights, chimneys, and areas where roofs abut vertical walls. Even building movement due to ground settlement or earthquakes can sometimes open up junctures between roofs and walls or chimneys, creating leaks where there were none before.  

Because water often travels sideways along rafters or runs down inside walls before appearing inside your house, water stains in ceilings or walls aren’t always a good indicator of a leak’s location. A discoloration in the middle of a ceiling might well be caused by a leaking vent ten feet away. That’s why it’s a good idea to leave leak-finding to a pro. Besides, a lot of careless stomping around on a roof can create more leaks than it fixes.  
You just spent $20,000 on a new roof.
But was a tube of this stuff all you really needed?

Hunting down roof leaks can be frustrating, but in some cases it may put off the need to re-roof for many  years. Once the leak is found, it’s just a matter of repairing it as recommended by your roofing contractor—sometimes, a tube of caulk or roofing mastic will be all that's called for. 

If the leak can’t be easily repaired, or if the field of the roof leaks—or if you just can’t stand the way your roof looks anymore—then it really may be time to reroof. But until then, repairing isolated leaks can save you a great deal of money. 

So don’t drive tacks with a sledgehammer. Before you resort to the expense of a whole new roof, try the simple solutions first.  

Monday, October 3, 2016


Count Rumford:
Fired up over efficiency.
Would you believe that a conventional masonry fireplace actually wastes up to 95% of the heat  it produces? It’s true. A burning fire creates a very strong draft of air up the chimney. All that air being sucked out of your house is then replaced with cold air that infiltrates through cracks and crevices. The warmth you feel from the fire is mostly radiant heat—essentially, infrared heat from the firelight. So a roaring fire that seems to be warming your home is actually contributing a pitifully small amount of heat.

Few things in the home have evolved as slowly as the fireplace. In 1798, the English scientist Count Rumford developed the first theories for fireplace efficiency. In the subsequent 150 years, very little changed in fireplace design.
The tall, narrow proportions of the
Rumford fireplace (this is a modern day
example) didn't suit Modernist architects,
no matter how efficient it was.
(Contractor: Monterey Masonry,
Sheffield, Massachusetts.)

In fact, many fireplaces actually regressed in efficiency—modern architects didn’t like Rumford’s high, narrow, and shallow fireboxes, which didn’t fit in with postwar home styles. So they modified them to look more modern.  The results were fireplaces even less efficient than those of Rumford's day.

Still, there were some improvements during the twentieth century.  One of the earliest refinements was a metal jacket installed around the firebox that took in cold air near the floor, warmed it, and exhausted it through vents above the fireplace.  Although it was a simple idea, it made a big difference in efficiency.

In 1927, Heatilator introduced the manufactured steel
fireplace unit, now the standard of the housing industry.
This more contemporary Heatilator advertising image
shows how the units distributed warm air into the room.
Eventually, prefabricated metal fireplaces were developed that completely eliminated the use of masonry. In the late 1920s, Heatilator introduced the first "manufactured" fireplace built of steel; in later years the company pioneered a system that could be supplemented by fans and ductwork to distribute warmed air to other rooms. In 1954 one of Heatilator’s competitors, Majestic, patented an all-steel fireplace that could be installed directly against wood framing, making installation much simpler and cheaper.  The unit could be positioned anywhere in a room and didn’t require any special reinforcement or fireproofing.

In the last thirty years, improvements in fireplace efficiency have been even more dramatic, thanks in part to nationwide energy efficiency mandates based on those pioneered by California in 1978 under Governor Jerry Brown.

Modern fireplaces are required to have glass doors
and to take in combustion air from outside. Hence,
while efficiency is way up, sitting in front of a fireplace
nowadays is more like watching television.
Today, prefabricated metal fireplaces are the rule rather than the exception. One reason is that they can be installed for about one-third the cost of a masonry fireplace. They’ve also been continually refined for efficiency and good draft, properties that in masonry fireplaces had depended largely on the mason’s skill. Here are a sampling of the choices available in prefabricated fireplaces:

•  Standard single-sided fireplaces are available in a large range of sizes, from a firebox opening of about 30” wide all the way up to 48”.  When equipped with optional electric fans and ductwork, they’re about four times as efficient as a conventional, open-fronted masonry fireplace.  Because the glass doors somewhat restrict the view of the fire, the smaller-sized units are often raised off the floor for better visibility.

Down on the Corner: A popular type of
corner fireplace suited to modern interiors.
This one is by Majestic.
•  Corner units, which are open at the front and on one side, are often used in a modern setting.  However, these fireplaces, and the types that follow, generally will look out of place in a traditional style home.

•  Two-sided (see-through) fireplaces can be used as room dividers between  living/dining or bedroom/sitting areas.  In recent years they’ve also been used directly next to whirlpool baths, although the practicality of this location seems doubtful.

•  Cove or peninsula type units have glass on the two broad faces and one narrow face, and are also very useful as room dividers.   Bay-type units are open at the front and on both sides.

•  Island fireplaces have glass on all four sides and are entirely freestanding.  Of course, they’re still enclosed on top to hide the flue.  Don’t confuse these with the rocket-shaped fireplaces of the 1960s, though. They’re much more low-key.