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.