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.