Monday, June 26, 2017

FOILING THE BEST-LAID PLANS

The Faculty Glade at UC Berkeley, and the famous bollards:
Now, how did those kids get up there?
At the University of California in Berkeley, surrounded by a passel of important academic buildings, there’s a grassy little hillock known as the Faculty Glade. When it was laid out, the landscape architects intended students to stroll obediently around its perimeter on an asphalt path they'd provided. But of course, the harried students cut across it instead, making a crisscrossing cowpath that defined the shortest distance between classes.

Exasperated, the landscape architects finally resolved to install a set of bollards draped with heavy chains to block the mouth of each shortcut, probably chuckling evilly to themselves the whole time. When the imposing barriers were completed, the students nonchalantly jumped over them and continued on their way as before.

Le Corbusier's Pessac housing estate as designed in 1925:
People filling his apartments with antique armoires

and wrought-iron chandeliers drove the architect crazy.
And if he thought that was bad...
I’ve always been cheered by this small triumph over a seemingly pointless restriction on human nature. Sure, it was just some college kids, a hill and a bunch of barriers—but to me, it was a demonstration both of the steadfastness of the human spirit, and the unwitting penchant people have for screwing up the best-laid plans.  

In any case, a truly humane built environment should be able to absorb such trifling deviations from intended use. One problem with Modern architecture was that many of its proponents simply couldn’t live with this idea. They perceived their buildings as pristine works of art frozen in time and space, ones in which human occupants often seemed little more than a necessary annoyance.      

...here's the Pessac housing estate today,
with various modifications made by residents
desperate to make it feel more homey.
The architect Le Corbusier is said to have become apoplectic when he stopped by an ultramodern apartment house he’d just finished and found the new tenants installing Baroque armoires and wrought-iron chandeliers. Those unpredictable humans were messing up his big plan.

The legendary Mies van der Rohe was equally put out when he noticed that the occupants of one of his tony highrises all had their window shades set at different heights, ruining the gridded perfection of the building’s glass exterior. He decreed that henceforth, the shades would be adjusted to one of four standard positions, and just to make sure, he had stops installed on all the windows.

Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago,
circa 1948. Note the window shades, which are all
in one of the four positions approved by the architect.
This sort of fixation on planning and control seems unreasoned, not to say futile, considering how much humans resent being told what to do. More tellingly, having all the window shades line up, and the tenants’ furniture match, and the Faculty Glade remain pristine but unappreciated, wouldn’t really have made anyone happier.

We architects, and perhaps people in general, need to let go of our incessant mania for controlling the world around us, and learn to make peace with the uncontrollable. For no matter how carefully we may plan, there will always be some unexpected quirks that surprise us. Still, we ought to rest assured that things will work out in spite of them, and maybe even because of them. Apparently, even Le Corbusier eventually came to this conclusion when he observed

"You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong."


Monday, June 19, 2017

ARCH-ITECTURE

Sometime around 700 BC, the Assyrians began arranging sets of wedge-shaped stones to span drainage channels. From this humble beginning came one of the most momentous developments in architecture—the arch.   

The Romans really knew how to make use of the arch.
Before the arch hit town, ancient structures such as Stonehenge used enormous stone blocks called lintels to span openings. Unfortunately, this meant you couldn’t span any distance greater than the nearest giant monolith that was handy.  

The arch was different. Instead of spanning openings with a single block of stone, it used many smaller wedge-shaped blocks stacked into a half-circle, all pushing one against the other.  Since the width of the opening was no longer limited by the size of the individual stone blocks, it became possible to span much greater distances. 

Those nutty Romans are generally credited with using the arch to its full potential. Perhaps the most elegant of their works are the gracefully arched aqueducts, sections of which still stand today. And of course the Romans also invented that pompous monument of self-congratulation, the triumphal arch. 

Even after the Roman Empire packed it in, the Romanesque architecture of the Middle Ages retained the round arch as its hallmark. Later, in the thirteenth century, a pointed arch became the basis for the incredible structural feats that distinguished the Gothic cathedral.

After traveling in Europe, the American architect H. H. Richardson became positively smitten with arches. In Richardson’s monumental stone buildings of the early 1880s, the use of a single huge masonry arch over the entranceway became his trademark. 

Although today an arch is seldom used to actually hold anything up, its dramatic potential is quite undiminished. It can still turn an ordinary opening into a dramatic focal point. Here are a few tips on designing with arches:

Moorish arch, 10th century Spain.
•  Use an arch to call attention to an important passageway. The most common interior location is between the living and dining rooms, but there are many other possibilities.Echoing the same style of arch in other locations, such as niches, fireplaces, or important windows, can help unify the design theme. Don’t go overboard, however—placing arches at every turn can become cloyingly cute, as well as expensive. A few well-placed ones will carry more impact. 
Door with Tudor arch
(courtesy Tudor Artisans)

•  Choose an arch shape that’s appropriate to the style you’re designing in. For example, most Spanish-based styles use a simple semicircular arch, while French Provincial architecture often uses a segmental arch. Chinese, Moorish, Gothic and Tudor architecture each have their own distinctive arch shapes as well. A few minutes online will help you sort these out.  

•  Mind your proportions.  Don’t bring the top of the arch too close to the ceiling or roofline—the area above it will look visually weak if there’s only a sliver of wall left showing.  In designs having multiple arches, avoid crowding the arched openings too close together, so that only spindly little columns remain between them. A column width about one-third the width of the opening is usually about right.
Mission San Miguel Archangel, San Luis Obispo County,
California. Note that the wall between the arches
is exactly as thick as it is wide.

• Lastly, allow a generous depth for the arched opening as well. If necessary, make the wall thicker to prevent the archway from looking like a paper cutout.

Monday, June 12, 2017

SENSITIVE REMODELING: Don't Destroy the Spirit of the Style

It's practically never necessary to completely gut
the interior of a fine old building.
When I was growing up in a small California town, my best friend’s family lived in a charming French Provence-style cottage built around 1935.  It was beautifully constructed, with a steep roof of heavy shakes, tall multi-paned casement windows, and tiled porches. The chimney was surmounted by a handsome pair of clay chimney pots. Inside the house were pegged oak floors, coffered ceilings, mahogany trim, and a good number of arched passageways and niches.

My friend’s house stood in the way of a high-rise bank project, and was condemned under eminent domain laws.  Rather than being torn down, however, someone bought the house with the intention of moving it to another site and renovating it.

Totally gutting an interior makes it easy on contractors
who want to run plumbing, wiring, and ductwork—
but often to the home's permanent detriment.
Sadly, this seemingly happy resolution turned out to be a fate worse than demolition. Like a person, every house has a spirit, a personality imparted to it by the details and quirks of its design. Take those away, and you’ve got what amounts to a stylistic lobotomy. My friend’s house became a case in point.

The new owner wanted to modify the floor plan, so he stripped the interior of its plasterwork, obliterating the archways, coffered ceilings, and mahogany trim in one stroke.  The tile porches succumbed to an inept attempt at dry-rot repair, as did much of the exterior stucco.  As a coup de grace, the marvelously shaggy, moss-grown shake roof was stripped off and replaced with two-dimensional composition shingle.

It may look bad now, but it's perfectly feasible to repair
an interior in this condition without ripping down
the whole place...
By the time the new owner finished this “renovation”, not a scrap remained of the home’s original character. Nor did he manage to add any spirit of his own—the replacement materials he used were of the bargain-warehouse variety you might find in any modern tract house.  

I’m sure the owner didn’t do these things maliciously. He must have admired something about the house, or he wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place. But that only redoubles my wonderment at his remarkably careless renovation. He should have taken the time to learn about the house’s style, and what made it special.

The lesson here is that, as far as remodeling or renovation are concerned, there’s a definite point of no return. When too many charismatic features or idiosyncrasies are stripped away, a house loses the spirit that makes it special.

...and the result will be superior, because you simply can't
capture the feeling of an interior like this one
with modern-day materials.
There are some simple rules of thumb to help prevent such stylistic disasters. In almost no case should renovation require fundamental changes such as moving whole sections of bearing wall or eliminating major windows. Seldom should the interior ever need to be completely gutted. Both of these actions unavoidably obliterate interior finish and trim, which are always integral to the style of a house, and are more often than not impossible to replace in kind.

I’ve already expended thousands of words in prior essays arguing against changes to roofing materials and exterior finish. Often, such changes are made to keep up with some perceived idea of what’s “modern”, but usually, within a few years, they only succeed in making a house look even more dated.

Aside from their devastating esthetic damage, such drastic modifications simply don’t make economic sense. If you really want a brand-new house, it's better to just buy one in the first place.

Monday, June 5, 2017

ADDING A BUMPOUT: A More Spacious Look For Relatively Small Bucks


Sometimes a bay window is enough to give a room
 the illusion of more space. This is one of the
cheapest and simplest kinds of bumpout.
People often ask me how they can add just a few feet of space to small bedrooms and the like without spending the inheritance. Alas, adding on small areas usually isn’t cost effective, since enclosing a small volume costs more than enclosing a lot. In certain cases, however, there’s a simple way to do it:  It’s called a “popout” or “bumpout”.

A bumpout is really just an overgrown bay window that extends the full width of a room or nearly so. It’s less expensive than an ordinary addition because it’s tucked beneath the existing roof overhang. By sparing the high cost of roof modifications, a simple bumpout can often be built for less than $10,000.  

Cramped bedrooms are the simplest and most common candidates for a bumpout. Tight kitchens or breakfast rooms can also benefit, but beware: Adding a bumpout in these locations will probably cost more because of the additional plumbing and wiring that must be rerouted.

This bumpout probably doesn't
encroach on the building setback,
since it doesn't project any further
than the existing house.
But as for you, check your zoning.
Before you consider adding a bumpout, check your local zoning laws and make sure it won’t be encroaching on the “setback”, the area of your property you’re not allowed to build on. While the roof overhang is generally allowed to project into the setback, the rest of the house isn’t, so don’t assume that a projecting roof gives you carte blanche to add on beneath it.  

If your zoning checks out, and if you have a reasonably broad roof overhang, you may be able to push the room’s wall out and capture two or more feet of extra space beneath the eaves. Although the new wall can be bumped out all the way to the back side of the gutter or fascia, it’s better to leave a few inches of overhang to preserve a small shadowline.  It’ll also reduce the likelihood of leaks.

In some instances, you may not even need a new foundation beneath your bumpout.  If the floor joists in the room you want to expand run perpendicular to the outside wall, and if there’ll be at least 18” of clearance to the ground beneath them, you may be able to “sister” new joists onto the existing ones in order to cantilever the bumpout beyond the foundation wall.  

Top-quality materials make for a
beautifully-integrated bumpout.
The foundation, however, makes
for a very expensive one.
If the joists run parallel to the outside wall, or if there’s less than 18” clearance to the ground outside, you’ll probably need a conventional foundation beneath the bumpout. That means appreciable extra cost, so ask an architect or contractor if this route will be worthwhile.

Since the bumpout will usually be very conspicuous from outside, it should be carefully integrated into your home’s architecture. The exterior finish is especially important. Either repeat your home's existing finish on the bumpout, or use a high-quality accent material such as wood siding, shingle, or whatever best suits the style of your home. Don’t just slap some bargain-basement plywood; it’ll look tacked-on and will hurt your home’s resale value. Go rattle your architect’s cage if you need design help.
 Whoah—these wimpy brackets don't
look visually strong enough to
support this bumpout.
Think, man, think!
 
On the interior, the floor material should extend from the existing room into the bumpout without any obvious change in floor level.  The ceiling will have to be lower inside the bumped-out area because of the roof’s slope, and because a beam will usually be required to support the roof where the wall has been removed. If the room you're expanding has a flat ceiling, it’s generally best to soffit or “box in” the bumpout ceiling rather than following the sloping underside of the roof.  The soffit can also contain recessed lighting if appropriate.

Finally, because of structural reasons, the bumpout will cost less if it’s slightly narrower than the room, rather than full width.  Combined with the dropped ceiling, it may also look better—it’ll give more of an alcove effect.







Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BAD TRAD: Designing With Traditional Details

Traditional, or a grab-bag of cliches?
Ironically, one of the downfalls of modern architecture was its very simplicity.  The designs of brilliant architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were rational, austere, and carefully calculated down to the last detail. These deceptively simple works made it seem as if anyone could design a Modernist building.

As a result, just about every bozo tried. A lot of architects, contractors, and homeowners copied the superficial elements of Modernism—stark white walls,  flat roofs, and acres of glass—but flunked out on the rest.  The resulting phalanx of “Modern” designs, some merely mediocre and some exquisitely horrible, was largely to blame for Modernism’s decline during the 1970s.

No classical column in history was ever
piled up in this manner.
Unfortunately, much of today’s co-called “traditional architecture” is going the same route. People are propping some Roman columns here and there, tossing in a couple of arched windows, and calling the result “traditional”. But like good Modernism, authentic traditionalism can’t be randomly culled from a grab-bag of cliches. All the columns, arches and urns in Tuscany won’t ensure a successful design unless they’re arranged in a meaningful way.

And this, alas, demands a little homework. If you don’t want to hire an architect to sort out the fine points for you, try the next best thing: before you undertake your project, comb the internet, or even—gasp—look in a book, to find as many authentic examples of your favorite style as you can (by "authentic" I mean actual historic examples, not some real estate promoter's wet dream). Make a note of your special favorites.

Or proportioned like this.
Now comes the homework part. Rather than simply admiring the examples, be more analytical. Ask yourself exactly what you like about the style. Is it the building’s lightness or its mass?  Its width or its height?  The shape of the roof, or perhaps the breadth of its overhang?  

Look a bit closer yet.  Do the walls of your favorite examples look thick or thin? Are the windows deep-set, or flush with the surface of the wall? Are the railings open or solid? Is the chimney tapered or straight? Are the stucco corners sharp or softly rounded?  Is the color uniform or mottled?  Such characteristics are can be crucial to recreating an authentic traditional design. If it’s authenticity you’re after, these little details are the key to re an authentic traditional design.

This is what happens to "traditional" design
when you skimp on the details.
Pay special attention to design features such as columns, brackets, quoins and the like—they’re notorious boobytraps for casual designers. Note where they’re used and, just as importantly, where they aren’t. Note the spacing and relative proportion of such elements too—if you cut corners on these elements, your design may look "watered down".

Isn’t this just copycat architecture?  In a word, yes. And there are legions of architects out there anxious to provide more innovative design solutions. But if hiring an architect or other design professional is out of the question, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by authentic examples of traditional architecture.  Being guided by the past is, after all, what tradition is all about.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BRICK: One Solid Subject

Today, a nice solid subject:  Brick. A professor of mine called it the Sara Lee of building materials.  “Nobody doesn’t like it,” he said.

Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the long, low proportions
of Roman brick, as famously found in his Robie House
in Chicago (1909).
Brick goes back a long, long way. One reason for brick’s popularity is its timelessness.  It was used as early as 3000 BC in settlements of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, although back then it was simply baked in the sun rather than fired in a kiln.

Later, the Romans kept their brickworks running overtime to supply materials for their burgeoning empire. They preferred an unusually long, flat brick which, two thousand years later,  Frank Lloyd Wright decided was the cat’s meow for his Prairie houses. We still refer to that shape as Roman brick.

Victorian era polychrome brickwork in England.
(Courtesy @tuckpointer)
In the sixth century AD, those fun-lovin’ Byzantines got really creative, using brick laid in decorative patterns to form their charismatic architecture. And during the late nineteenth century, the Victorians used both elaborate patterning and color in their brickwork. They were the undisputed Brickmeisters.

Brick is still available in a huge range of colors, and quite a few shapes as well. It’s also more durable than ever—properly fired, brick will actually outlast many kinds of stone, because its surface is harder and less porous.

That’s all dandy.  But in many parts of the country—like mine—there's that nasty earthquake thing, right? Not necessarily. Brick is too fine a material to be ruled out by seismic worries alone. In residential design, the trick is to avoid using it for structural walls, which require costly reinforcement, and to use it as a nonstructural veneer instead.

Veneer brick: some looks real, some not so real. This project
looks pretty promising.
There are two ways to go here. A veneer wall of full-sized brick can be secured to the structural wall behind it using ties. Or, special thin-brick veneer units can be adhered over structural wood framing. The latter is simpler, cheaper, and much lighter. Most of the big brick manufacturers make thin-brick veneer units in the same range of colors they make full-sized brick. A number of companies that make artificial stone veneers also produce thin-brick products of varying authenticity.

Four basic kinds of brick bond.
Brick’s greatest design property is its modularity.  It’s a small unit, so it can be used to produce arches, curved walls, and all kinds of unusual shapes. And because it’s produced in so many colors and types, it has limitless potential for creating decorative patterns. Speaking of which, here’s some bricklaying terminology you can bore your friends with:

Flemish bond utilizing two colors of
brick (John W. Bush House,
Buffalo, New York.
Architects: Lansing & Beierl, 1903)
In a brick wall, each layer of brick is called a “course”. A brick laid with its long side exposed is called a “stretcher.  When the short side is exposed, it’s called a “header”.  The arrangement of headers and stretchers is called “bond”.  There are a number of traditional bonds, to wit:
     
A wall of stretchers staggered in the normal fashion is called “running bond”.  When there’s a row of headers in every sixth course, it’s called “common bond”. Alternating courses of headers and stretchers are called “English bond”.  Staggered courses of alternating headers and stretchers are called Flemish bond, and when used in combination with two or more colors, can produce various lovely patterns.

The strangest of all bonds is called “stack bond”, and predictably, it’s a Moderrnist invention: it has all the bricks stacked one above the other rather than staggered, so the wall has an ultra-rational gridded look, but much less strength than running bond. Even in 3000 BC, bricklayers knew better than that.  






Monday, May 15, 2017

ARCHITECT SHOP TALK: Here's What Your Architect Is Trying to Say

A while back I wrote a piece about the colorful and often impolite terms used by building contractors. Well, architects have some strange jargon of their own. Ours is duller, but it does have more syllables.  


Sydney Opera House: It's extremely architectonic.
It also cost $102 million, rather than the $7 million
first projected—a factor of fourteen.
(Architect: Jorn Utzon; completed 1973)
Like most people, architects use jargon for two reasons: One, it’s the most precise expression of what we want to say, and two, it makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about. As someone who not only practices architecture, but is twisted enough to write about it as well, I’m probably guiltier than most people of using such arcane language.  

Truth be told, most architectural jargon masks fairly simple-minded concepts. I’ll let you in on a few favorites below, but don’t tell my colleagues you heard it here:

•  Architectonic.  This term always perplexed me when I heard it with numbing frequency in architecture school. Well, guess what?  It means something that's done in an architectural manner.  

Yup.  That’s it. Ergo, a building that’s architectonic has the sort of features only an architect could bring to it—a highly articulated (oops, see next entry) roofline, or an imaginative window. A massive cost overrun would probably qualify too.


This skyscraper architect has been having fun
with fenestration.
•  Articulated.  A rather grammatical-sounding word that actually refers to the way the parts of a building relate. If the exterior of a building is highly articulated, for example, it has lots of distinct parts. So, is a building that’s just one big clumsy block known as “inarticulate”?  No. Architects call that “tightly organized”.

•  Contextual. The environment surrounding a building is known as the context. An architect who feels his or her work must blend into that environment is known as a contextualist. So when a strict contextualist designs a house in a neighborhood full of mediocre claptrap, at least the result is predictable: It will be diluted mediocre claptrap. 


Enfilade. French royalty loved it.
The peasantry was less impressed.
City planning departments love contextualists, since hardly anyone bothers objecting to good, old-fashioned mediocrity. On occasion, however, city planners will run into an architect who’s not a contextualist, and who wants his building to look like, let's say, a whale. They don’t mind this at all as long as the architect is already famous.

•  Enfilade. Although it sounds like something you spread on toast, enfilade refers to a linear arrangement of rooms whose doorways are aligned to allow an unobstructed line of sight through the interior.  Ten points for drama; zero for privacy. 

Blame this concept on seventeenth-century French architects, who were obsessed with enfilade’s dramatic effect and were only too happy to dazzle their royal clients with it. While their clients still had heads, that is.  


Architect Richard Norman Shaw
1831-1912:
Don't call my stuff Shawish.
•  Fenestration. This word refers to the arrangement, proportion, and design of openings in a wall. It comes from the Latin fenestra, which means window. So when your architect says, “I’d like to continue exploring the fenestration,” it means he wants to move the windows around some more. This is probably the only fun he has all day, so go ahead and let him. 

• -ian, -esque.  Academic architects love to classify buildings by their resemblance to the styles of famous dead architects—e.g., Miesian, Wrightian, Corbusian—you get the idea. Except for Louis Sullivan, whose style is inexplicably not Sullivanian, but Sullivanesque, and Richard Norman Shaw, whose style isn’t Shawesque nor even Shawish, but Shavian. 

No, I’m not making this up.

Monday, May 8, 2017

VICTORIAN DESIGN WAS FAR FROM HAND-CRAFTED

Forerunner of the punch card, Jacquard looms were the
first machines to be automatically controlled
to produce complex patterns. Automated woodworking
machines were not far behind.
I always hear people waxing nostalgic about the hand craftsmanship found in Victorian houses. But the truth is practically the opposite: Victorians, with their incredibly ornate detailing, were largely made possible by technical advances that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Far from being showcases of hand craftsmanship, they represented the stylistic leading edge of the machine age.   

By the mid-1800s, steam-powered machines, some controlled by rudimentary punch-card systems much like those found in player-pianos, were already being used to mass-produce many consumer items cheaply. Among those products was what we nowadays call “gingerbread”—architectural ornament such as moldings, brackets, and balusters.  


"Hand-carved" Victorian ornament?
Not likely. Everything on this
Victorian millwork catalog
was cranked out by machine.
In the past, only the very wealthy had been able to afford such ornament, since its manufacture demanded a great deal of skill and hand craftsmanship. Mass production suddenly put ornament within reach of the middle class as well, spurring the Victorian mania for decorated surfaces. 
  
We’re entering a similar architectural zeitgeist today.  A number of manufacturing innovations, both high-tech and otherwise, are making ornament both more available and more affordable than it has been for decades.  

Not coincidentally, these developments dovetail with the current trend toward traditional architecture.  As a result, we’re seeing a lot more ornament both outside and inside buildings. Here are a few examples:

•  Architectural features such as columns, balusters, and urns are now widely available again, not only in traditional cast-stone form but also in high-tech materials such as glass-fiber reinforced concrete and fiber glass. The latter are often used to replace original cast-stone detailing where seismic considerations make the weight of the real thing impractical.     
Victorian gable ornament.
After 1840 or so, you could
buy them by the boxful.
•  New kinds of wood-based composite materials are replacing expensive exterior trim materials such as redwood and cedar.  Most of these new materials are more stable than solid wood, and are free of defects such as knots and warpage. And because they’re cheaper than high-quality solid wood, builders often use them more generously for cornices and the like. 

•  Highly ornate hardwood floor inlays are now manufactured using lasers, making inlaid borders and decorations—once astronomically expensive—much more affordable.  They’re available as stock items, and can simply be integrated with standard hardwood flooring for a custom look. 

•  Victorian interior moldings such as cornices, medallions, and brackets are now being reproduced in plastics and other composite materials.  They’re cheaper than plaster, and also much lighter and hence more earthquake-safe. They can frequently pass for the real thing once they’re painted.  


Nowadays, we use automation to create incredibly intricate
ornament., such as the laser-cut  inlay in this hardwood floor.
 But is more ornament necessarily better?
•  Molded plastic or Masonite panel doors can be cheaply produced in virtually any pattern.  The 6-panel molded door, for example, had already supplanted the flush doors of the Modernist era decades ago; it’s only a matter of time before even more elaborate styles come into favor.

Just as in Victorian times, there’s a potential danger in all these ornamental products: You may be tempted to use them simply because they’re available, not because they make for better architecture. As always, you should rely on your own taste—not trend-watchers such as design magazines—to decide how much is too much. The Victorians had a hard time knowing when to stop.  We’ll see how our own generation fares in a decade or two.

Monday, May 1, 2017

WHAT NOT TO PAINT

Ask anyone who’s restored an old house to name the most miserable part of the job, and they’re likely to tell you, “Stripping paint.” Countless hours of labor have been spent undoing the work of paintbrush-wielding maniacs from earlier eras. Those of a certain age may remember the psychedelic interiors college kids favored during the Sixties, many of them blithely painted over gorgeous old woodwork.  


If you're not old enough to remember interiors  like this,
count yourself lucky.
Sadly, a lot of us are still doing this sort of thing today. We may be using trendier colors, but the damage is just as permanent. So out of kindness to posterity, please—think twice before you paint over stained wood, brick, stone, or tile.

Older stained woodwork is probably the most frequent victim of arbitrary painting. That’s a pity, because it’s almost always integral to the style of the house. Craftsman-era homes, for example, are known for their abundance of dark-stained beams, wainscoting, and cabinets—a feature people once again appreciate today. Yet a few decades ago, many such stately interiors were permanently ruined by coats of paint to keep up with the “all-white” fad of the Eighties.


Undoing a few hours worth of ill-advised painting can take weeks.
Think twice before you paint natural finishes.
(Image courtesy doityourself.com)
The magnificent oak, mahogany and teak woodwork of many Victorian houses was likewise damaged during the Postwar years, when dark wood happened to be out of fashion and paint was an easy way to obscure it. Suffice it to say that most of the glowing woodwork you see in restored Victorian interiors required hundreds of hours of painstaking stripping to remove layer upon layer of glopped-on paint.

With environmental concerns justifiably making many species of woods costlier and harder to get, it’s unlikely that we’ll see natural wood used in home interiors as profusely as it once was. So it makes sense to preserve what woodwork you already have.
Somebody thought this was a good idea at the time.

A problem that’s thankfully less common but even harder to rectify is the practice of painting over brick, stone, and tile. Short of sandblasting, it’s almost immmm impossible to get painted brick entirely clean again. You can forget about stripping painted stone altogether. And while tiles will let go of paint fairly easily, their intervening grout lines won’t.  

The best rule of thumb for painting over originally unpainted surfaces is simple: Don’t.  

Moreover, if your house still has oil-based paint on the interior trim, there are some fair reasons to avoid painting over that too, unless it’s absolutely necessary. One is that prep work entails its own hazards—many older paints contained lead, and therefore create lead dust when scraped or sanded and lead fumes when heat-gunned. The alternative, using chemical paint strippers, is also toxic and even messier. The waste  from these procedures must also be disposed of carefully.  


Latex paint doesn't like to stick to
oil base paint, and this is
the usual result.
An even more compelling reason to avoid unnecessary repainting is that today's water-based paints, while easier on the environment, simply don’t hold up as well as their oil-based predecessors. Old oil-based finishes are generally more durable and have a higher gloss. So you may go to all the trouble of repainting, only to end up with a finish that's inferior to the one you started with.

So—if you must paint, don’t paint over surfaces that weren't painted originally.  If you already have a marginally presentable oil-based paint job on your interior trim, think twice before repainting it.
And save this column till the next time your spouse nags you about painting.

Monday, April 24, 2017

DESIGNING IN OLD TIME AMENITIES

What could be more convenient
than a laundry chute in the bathroom?
Some quaint features from yesteryear’s homes are being revived, thanks to the current trend toward traditional home designs.  Aside from major retro-spaces such as breakfast nooks and pantries, many new houses are also including old-timey conveniences that haven’t been seen since before World War II.  Some of these are useful, while others (such as built-in flour drawers) remain impractical gimmicks. Here are a sampling of the more practical retro features:

•  The laundry chute, a domestic must from Victorian times through the twenties, disappeared as multi-story homes lost favor.  However, the resurgent popularity of traditional two-story home styles has revived the step-saving laundry chute as well. While the cost of a chute is minor (most are made from twelve-inch diameter sheet metal duct), its planning does demand a bit of ingenuity.  The chute must be in a convenient central location on the upper floor, while still aligning with the laundry room beneath. 


 With the arrival of
permanent press fabrics,
most built-in ironing boards
ended up looking like this.
•  Built-in ironing boards, a common feature in many homes from the 1920s and 30s, are once again growing in popularity.  The reason: a resurgence in the popularity of cotton clothing has also revived the drudgery of ironing. While a well-located built-in board can be a useful convenience, a badly located one is worse than none at all.  (The house I grew up in, for instance, had a built-in ironing board that barred the back door when lowered). Locate the board so that when it's lowered there’s at least three feet of clear aisle space on one side—better yet on both sides—and make sure it doesn’t block circulation paths when extended.

•  The “cool closet”—a tall, built-in kitchen cabinet designed for storing fruits and vegetables—was a very popular home feature from the turn of the century until mechanical refrigeration caught on big in the 1930s. The cabinet was located on an outside wall and fitted with a set of louvers near the top and bottom to admit outside air, creating a natural draft that pulled cool air over the food inside.


The two stacked louvers seen on this Berkeley, California
bungalow are the telltale sign of a "California Cooler" 
or convective cooling closet. No electricity required.
(Photo courtesy of diginstructable)
The energy conservation movement and rising concern over ozone-depleting refrigerants such as Freon have created renewed interest in the cool closet, which works without electricity (and also doesn’t impart a “refrigerator smell”).  It’s still a useful feature today, especially as part of a pantry. However, to comply with modern energy-efficiency codes, note that it does have to be carefully insulated to increase its efficiency and to prevent heat loss from the kitchen.


A long, long hose is just about the only drawback to
central vacuum systems—other than their initial cost.
(Photo courtesy of DTV Installations)
•  Built-in vacuum systems, which were popular during the 1920s and 30s (though mainly in commercial buildings), are also appearing in homes again. Today’s domestic systems have a powerful, remotely-located central motor and canister and a network of ducts leading to wall-mounted vacuum ports. A lightweight hose and suction head are attached to the ports for vacuuming; no other equipment is required. 

Central vacuum units are quieter, and their large capacity also requires less emptying. Neither is there a power cord to get tangled up, nor a heavy unit to lug up and down stairs. There is, however, a hose up to thirty feet long to contend with. The systems are most useful in large homes or those with multiple stories or levels.


Monday, April 17, 2017

FRONT PORCH TALES

Now that's a porch you could spend summer nights on—
(Rayne Mansion, New Orleans.
Thomas Sully, architect. 1890)
When I was a kid, I lived next door to an old lady who actually used to sit on her creaky front porch in a rocking chair. No kidding. She’d spend a good part of the day there, chain-smoking Salems and chatting about flowers, floor wax, or the weather with anyone strolling past.  Her porch got more use than her living room.

It’s no wonder that the front porch has been an American fixture since Colonial times. Before the advent of air conditioning, it was a natural place to sit on breezy summer days and watch the world go by. By the Victorian era, porches had grown so popular that many large homes were completely encircled by elaborate “verandas” that created varied outdoor living areas for morning or evening gatherings, and that could be used for sunning in winter and shade in summer.


Porches were a big visual feature of the
California Bungalow style, but they couldn't hold a
candle to the earlier porches of Victorian days.
Even after after homes were significantly downsized following the turn of the century, the porch retained it importance. In fact, it became the single most prominent feature of the new, smaller homes known as Bungalows.

After World War II, however, the newly-requisite double garage literally crowded the porch out of prominence. In ensuing years, it slowly withered away to a bleak little patch of concrete, with a tiny scrap of roof overhead carried on spindly 4x4 columns.

Today, after years of neglect, the porch is back. With traditional architectural features in high demand, many developers are now offering spacious front porches again, sometimes even including upper-floor terraces on their roofs. 

Broad steps create a welcoming look,
and are always a welcome place sit.
If an old-fashioned porch is a part of your design agenda, here are some ways to get the most out of it:  

•  First and foremost: be generous with size. In order to be useful, a porch must be at least eight feet deep—otherwise, furniture, planters, and the like will make it too crowded to negotiate. If you intend to have an outdoor dining table on the porch, make it even bigger—twelve feet deep at least. Consider it an inexpensive way to add living space to your house.

•  Make sure the porch will receive ample sun. A dark porch will always be drafty and uncomfortable. On the other hand, a sunny porch will be livable in winter, yet can easily be shaded from excess sun during the summer sun if necessary. If you expect to use the porch mostly in the morning, favor an easterly orientation. If it’ll be used most during the afternoon, face it west.
If you're on a tight budget, scored concrete
can work wonders, but brick paving
is hard to beat for a welcoming warmth.

•  If possible, raise the porch floor even with the interior of the house. Besides making a smoother transition from indoors to out, a raised porch has a more comfortable, sheltered feel. It also gives you a nifty excuse to have a broad set of steps leading up to it—always a welcome place to sit on summer days. 

Carefully consider the floor material. If your budget will only allow a concrete floor, consider scoring the concrete to give it a finer scale. If you have a little more to spend, stone, clay tile or brick paving will create a more inviting effect. Choose the material that's most appropriate for the style of your house.

For raised porches, wood decking or tongue-and-groove flooring may be a better choice. Remember to provide plenty of ventilation below the floor, however, or your old-fashioned porch will also be subject to old-fashioned dry rot.


Monday, April 10, 2017

CHOOSING FINISHES: NO SUBSTITUTIONS, PLEASE

The hell I can't...
For years I argued with health-nut friends about eating butter versus margarine.  I always insisted that if I wanted the taste of butter, I’d eat butter, not some yellow-tinted glop that claimed to “taste just like butter.” Like most health nuts, they usually became apoplectic at this, and veins popped out on their low-cholesterol foreheads.

“Butter is BAAAD for you!” they would chide with a certain tone of superiority. "It has too much cholesterol!"

Does this look like wood to you?
Then along came a medical study saying margarine wasn’t healthier after all—that it's a so-called "trans fat" and is actually BAAAD for you, and butter is actually a lot healthier. Well, what do you know?  All this time I’ve been enjoying my butter, and they’ve been choking down the bright yellow grease and getting heart disease.

As you might’ve guessed by now, there’s an architectural connection here. Like margarine, there are a whole host of building materials that claim to be “just like” something else. Some are good substitutes; many are not. The simple reason for this is that any product basing its appeal on a resemblance to something else is, by definition, inferior. So if you like the look of the products for themselves, great. But if you’re hoping to fool someone, forget it. Let’s take a look at some of the margarine materials:

Ahem—not that believable as shakes.
 •  Wood-look sidings made of aluminum or vinyl are ubiquitous pretenders. Frankly, both kinds can be easier to maintain than real wood—a definite plus. But alas, few actually look like wood. Some brands, in an attempt to outdo the real thing, are embossed with egregiously overdone woodgrain patterns that look like they were pulled from the set of A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond their surface shortcomings, these sidings also give themselves away with flimsy window and corner trim that reveals the ersatz nature of the product.

If easy maintenance is of prime concern, vinyl or aluminum siding are fine choices. But if you’re serious about your siding looking like wood, buy wood.

"The Look of True Divided Lites"?
Come on, who are these guys fooling?
 •  “Shake-look” composition shingles were developed to counter the floppy, colored-paper look of standard "comp" shingles. They have irregularly-spaced notching, thicker butts, and variegated colors meant to resemble weathered wood. But while they’re an admirable attempt to improve on comp shingles, these products still don’t look anything like real shingles, let alone shakes. If you really want the look of shakes, buy shakes. If you need fire resistance (a requirement in some jurisdictions), look to fire-resistant treated shakes or to medium weight cement shingles or shakes, which have the three-dimensionality comp shingles lack.

Not all imitations are as bad as those above.
Take this stone urn, for example.
(It's fiber glass).
•  Windows with “divided lite” grids sandwiched between the panes of glass really do look like divided wood muntins.  In your dreams. In reality, the obviously two-dimensional look such windows present from the street don't fool anybody.  So why bother?

To end on a positive note, however, there are a lot of substitute materials that work just great. Many stone and brick veneers, for example, are just about indistinguishable from the real thing when properly installed. I’ve even seen some “stone” urns mounted high on a building that fooled me for years:  they were actually fiber glass, and hence were infinitely more earthquake-safe than the genuine product.

Likewise, lots of plastic laminates look so much like granite or marble that I’ve had to touch them (they’re warmer than the real thing) to be sure they're not the real deal. So there really are good reasons to use a “fake” product on occasion. But as the cola ad used to say, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.”