Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GUESSING YOUR HOME'S AGE: Just Use The Simple Clues

I’ve always been amazed at the way archaeologists can date an ancient site based on, say, the remains of a fossilized bratwurst.  
If your walls look like this beneath the finish,
your house predates World War II.

Compared to what most archaeologists have to work with, determining a house’s age is a cinch.  Assuming that you’re judging original materials that haven’t been replaced somewhere along the line, you can usually come within five years of when your house was built—not bad compared to carbon dating. Here are a few places to look for archeological clues:  

•  Interior finish.  Does your house have a lath and plaster interior finish?  If so, it’s almost certainly a pre-World War II house.  If it has gypsum board (adopted during the war years to speed construction of military housing), it’s postwar. Ah, but if it has "buttonboard"—a transitional substitute for lath consisting of 2' x 4' gypsum board sheets with holes in them—it dates from a few years to either side of World War II. 
Steel windows like these are a giveaway that your house
was built between 1935 and 1955.

•  Windows.  Are your windows steel, with the glass set in putty?   If so, your house was probably built between 1935 and 1955. If they’re bright aluminum, figure roughly 1955-1975, or even later if it’s an inexpensive house.  If the windows are bronze-anodized (brown) aluminum, think 1975 to 1985. If they’re white-coated aluminum, think 1985 to 1995. If they're plastic ("vinyl", as the industry prefers to call them), think 1995 to the present.  

If you have double-hung wood windows, check whether they’re counterweighted by springs (post World War II) or by a weight-and-pulley arrangement (pre World War II).  If you have some other type of wood window, you may be out of luck.  Although proportions and muntin patterns can provide excellent clues, it takes a lot of experience to date a house based on them.  

The butt-jointed casing (trim) surrounding
this door is telling you,  "I'm Craftsman."
So is the door, which is transitional between
the narrow designs of Victorian days
and the horizontal ones of the early
Twentieth century.
 •  Door panels. Notice the arrangement of the recessed panels in the interior doors of your house (fancy exterior doors don’t count).  Wood doors with pairs of tall, narrow vertical panels usually indicate a house that predates the turn of the century. Doors with a stack of four to six horizontal panels (a product of the backlash against Victorian verticality) generally harken from about 1900-1925.  Doors with a large single panel were popular all the way from 1925 to 1955.  After that, builders began switching to flush hollow core doors, and they became the standard until about 1980, when molded plastic panels once again made ornate door styles extremely affordable.
The big rectangular plate tells you
this is a mortise lock, which
typically means your house predate 1925.

•  Door casings. Take a look at the cross-sectional profile of the casings (the moulded trim that frames the doors). Very wide, ornately moulded casings were popular prior to 1905. Plain, four- to six-inch-wide casings with butt-jointed corners largely took over from 1905 to 1925. Narrower molded casings—about three and a quarter inches wide—came back for a brief encore from about 1925 to 1935.   Linear, geometric casing profiles with flutes, steps, or even radiused corners would point toward an Art-Deco-influenced home built between 1935 and World War II. Rounded or streamlined casing profiles were common from about 1945 to 1960, when airplane forms were influencing everything from cars to typewriters.  
Finally, if you have molded casings paired with plastic- or Masonite- faced panel doors, your house dates from the Eighties or later.

• Doorknobs.  If your interior doors have mortise locks (evidenced by doorknobs attached to a square shaft with a setscrew, often with a large rectangular back plate), your house probably predates 1925; if the knobs are of white, black, or brown porcelain, you can move that date back to at least 1915. Faceted glass knobs in the form of jewels are another easily-recognized style, popular from about 1925 until just before the war.  And those knobs with uncomfortable, sharp-edged cylindrical shapes arose in the Sixties and suggest a construction date between 1960-1975.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

HOW TO CHOOSE A ROOF: Don't Do It In A Panic

Few people are inclined to fret about aesthetics when their roof is leaking all over the kitchen table. So, in their haste to get roof problems fixed, they also make a hasty choice of roofing material.  

Is this all you really need to fix your leaking roof?

Your roof has an enormous impact on the appearance of your house, and a poor choice can easily damage its resale value.  

But let’s begin at the beginning: Before you even worry about re-roofing, make sure your house actually requires it. The majority of roof leaks can be easily and cheaply repaired with a few tubes of calk. So even if your roofing contractor recommends a new roof, get a second opinion from a home inspection service or an independent roofing consultant before proceeding.  
"Dimensional" composition shingles do their best to look
like wood, and also have the advantage of being more
fire resistant and less expensive than the real thing.

If  your roof really does need replacement, take time to choose an appropriate material. Don’t let anxiety leave you at the mercy of roofing contractors who try to talk you into something “better” which they prefer to sell in lieu of other materials.  Most have their eye on the bottom line, not on your roof line. 

Since your home’s original roof material was deliberately chosen to complement its style, it’s often the best choice for the new roof as well. Moreover, many roofs don’t easily lend themselves to the installation of non-original roofing materials. For example, switching from wood shake to composition shingle generally requires re-sheathing the entire roof with plywood—adding needless cost, weight, and complexity, while yielding an inferior appearance.  
 Built-up roofs were a favorite of mid-century architects,
though their propensity to leak has made them less
popular these days.

 Here are some of the more popular roofing choices, roughly in ascending order of cost: 

•  Composition shingles, which are basically tarpaper with a layer of colored ceramic granules embedded on top, are among the least expensive roof materials. If your previous roof was “comp”, replacing it with the same thing will generally be the most economical. If you don’t like the papery look of standard comp, high-end brands feature random-thickness, thick-butted designs—known as "dimensional"— that try to emulate the look of wood shake. I use the word emulate advisedly, however. These roofs have a bit more texture, but their look is easily distinguishable from actual wood shingle or shake. 
There's no mistaking a heavy shake roof for
anything else. On the downside, though, this roof
wood go up in a hurry in the event of fire.

• Built-up (often called "tar and gravel") roofs consist of alternating layers of bitumen and roofing felt. Their appearance depends mainly on the quantity and color of ballast (gravel) applied to the final layer of roofing, and again, matching the original roof is the simplest choice.  Since built-up roofs are generally flat or nearly so, however, they’re much less visible than pitched roofs, and and aesthetics is of less concern. 
A copper roof: If you have one, why are you  even
reading this?

•  Wood shingles (which are machine-made) and wood shakes (which are hand-split from cedar blocks) feature an inimitable rustic look that’s integral to ranch-style homes, as well as many traditional styles. Therefore, if your home currently has a wood shingle or shake roof, don’t replace it with comp shingles—they’ll look papery and two-dimensional, and will detract from your home’s resale value. If fire resistance is a concern, consider using medium-weight cement-based shingles, which carry a Class-A fire rating and will generally last for the life of the building. While they’re not a dead ringer for shingle or shake, they come about as close as you can get. Before deciding, however, make sure your roof structure can support the extra weight.    

•  Concrete tile, clay tile, slate, and sheet copper are premium roofing materials that will   generally last for the life of the building. If your roof is one of these—what are you even reading this for? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

HOLLYWOOD ARCHITECTURE: Design Inspiration From Dreamland

Many years ago, a client of mine sent me to see a film called Memoirs Of An Invisible Man. “The movie was lousy,” he said, “but I really liked the house in it.”  

He’s not the first person to get hooked on Hollywood architecture—lots of us admire the spectacular homes we see in movies.    

Gone With The Wind's Tara consisted of the two walls
facing the camera, and a great deal of matte painting
 to either side. Yet how many fans of antebellum
architecture have been inspired by this image?
Unfortunately, many of these famous Hollywood houses are almost entirely imaginary.  An artist simply creates a painting or  “matte” of a house to save the studio the expense of constructing an entire real one. For example, the exterior of Tara, the grand Southern mansion of Gone With The Wind, actually consisted only of a few sections of wall;  the rest of the house—columns, chimneys, trees, everything—was matted into the shots afterward.  

As for the imposing staircase that Scarlett O’ Hara descended so dramatically, it was just that—an isolated stairway built on a soundstage. Much of the imposing architecture was simply matted in later.

Just because Hollywood architecture is make-believe, however, doesn’t mean it can’t provide design inspiration. In fact, sets are often excellent inspirations precisely because they’re make believe. Set designers aren’t encumbered by mundane requirements like bearing walls and watertight roofs the way we architects are. They can concentrate on the essence of the thing. The result, in visual terms at least, is a remarkably pure form of architecture.  

The post-war Tara staircase, a stand-alone set built at the
Selznick International Studio in Culver City. Note
the obvious matte painted background
of the ruined countryside beyond the carriage.
Hollywood has already helped start some architectural trends of its own. The breakfast nook, for example, caught on after a number of films of the Twenties showed romantic couples having their morning toast and coffee in lovely little sun-filled spaces (in these movies, of course, the cheerful "sunlight' came courtesy of a high-intensity arc lamp shining through the set's windows).

Despite all this artifice, however, you shouldn’t hesitate to find inspiration in Hollywood's  papier-mache monuments. Next time you see a good film (or even a bad one), make a mental note of any architectural spaces that strike your fancy—perhaps a particular room shape, or a style of furniture, or a dramatic lighting technique. You may well be able to adapt that feature to your own use someday.  

More than once, I’ve cribbed an archway or a flight of steps from some old Boris Karloff movie. And why not?  The film industry routinely spends millions to create a charismatic “look” for sets, often employing exceptionally talented designers. Hence, movie sets are the furthest thing from fluff. They’re carefully calculated to evoke a certain mood or to reflect a character’s personality—which is exactly what good architecture does.    

The gargantuan "stone" portal built for Cecil B. DeMille's
epic The Ten Commandments (1927). Bits and pieces
 of these structures still occasionally surface
sat the film's Guadalupe Dunes location.
Incidentally, Hollywood sets aren’t just limited to buildings alone: for his 1927 epic The Ten Commandments, director Cecil B. DeMille once constructed an entire Egyptian city in the desert-like Guadalupe Dunes near Santa Barbara.  The main set consisted of a ten-story-high stone portal flanked by colossal Pharaohic statues. The whole thing was approached via a vast avenue lined by sphinxes.  

Of course,  DeMille’s towering "stone" structures were really just flimsy, hollow sets built of wood and plaster. After shooting finished, his Egyptian city was pulled down by a few men with cables and buried beneath the dunes, where you can  find fragments of them to this day.

That’s the big difference between Hollywood’s monuments and your own.  Yours will last a lot longer.

Monday, March 6, 2017

DESIGN WITH GLASS: After All These Years, It Still Has An Edge

Glass, one of man’s oldest and simplest products, has been around for thousands of years. Paradoxically, though, glass has always been a symbol of modernity to architects. For centuries, they’ve endeavored to incorporate more of it into their buildings. The ingenious flying buttresses  of the Gothic cathedrals, for example, served one major purpose:  to free up more wall area for windows.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, England—the
sixteenth-century's most celebrated glass house.
In Elizabethan England, window glass remained a very expensive commodity, and the size of a home’s windows was a fair indicator of its owner’s wealth. One ostentatious example, Bess of Hardwick’s manor house of 1590, had so many huge windows that awestruck commoners dubbed it “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.”

Centuries later, glass remained a favorite material of Modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. To them, a house swathed entirely in glass was the ultimate expression of Modernism. In 1950, the architect Philip Johnson built himself exactly such a house, and legions of less talented architects regrettably followed suit.

Another era's most celebrated glass house—
that of Modernist architect Philip Johnson,
in New Canaan, Connecticut.
In recent years, rising energy costs and a related concern for energy efficiency have made glass-walled homes more difficult to design. Yet glass still presents a remarkable palette to the creative designer.  The trick is to concentrate on quality, not size. So next time you’re ready to settle for a plain old clear glass window, consider one of these alternatives instead:

•  Patterned glass offers a range of surface textures ranging from fluting, grids, or circles to that good old “cracked ice” effect. Patterning diffuses the light passing through, cutting down on glare and creating an even level of daylighting. Because patterned glass is translucent rather than transparent, it’s especially useful in situations where privacy is desirable, such as in bathroom windows, interior glazed doors or glass partitions.

•  Colored glass, used sparingly in combination with plain glass, can produce dazzling highlights created by the sun shining through the glass. During late Victorian times, colored glass was often was used as a decorative border surrounding clear glass window panes, creating interiors awash with a kaleidoscope of colored light. While such uses may still be a bit too flamboyant for contemporary taste, the current traditionalist trend makes colored glass a likely candidate for future window designs.

Leaded and beveled glass can add lovely
highlights to a room, though only
only if it's placed where it will
get direct sun.
•  Leaded glass (which isn’t necessarily “stained glass”) has clear, colored, painted, or beveled glass pieces set in metal “cames” or channels that create an image or geometric pattern. In addition to looking great, the various colors, textures, and surface angles of leaded glass can create spectacular reflections on interior surfaces (just remember to locate the glass where the sun can reach it). A large selection of leaded glass is once again available in stock patterns. There are also many talented leaded glass artists who’ll design custom pieces for windows and doors. Don’t go overboard, however;  elaborate works can range into the hundreds of dollars per square foot.

•  Finally, while you’re thinking about looks, don’t forget safety. The Uniform Building Code requires tempered glass—a special heat-treated glass many times stronger than standard window glass—in windows whose sills are within 18” of the floor, as well as in glass doors and sidelights and in many areas of stairwells. Why? You remember that time Aunt Hulga tried to walk through the sliding door. . .