Monday, June 26, 2017


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.'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


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.