Tuesday, December 18, 2018

WASTED LIVING SPACE: The Modern Kaisersaal

Can't you just picture lolling all over the couches in this
 cozy living room?  What—you can't?
In upper-class German homes of the last century, it was common to have a chamber known as the Kaisersaal—an off-limits room containing all the owner’s best furniture and possessions, and kept spotless in case the Kaiser happened by for a visit. This, of course, was about as likely as Queen Elizabeth stopping by your place for Pop-Tarts.

Today we chuckle at the silly pretense of the Kaisersaal, but in fact many of us have the modern-day equivalent in our homes—formal, showy rooms that may contain our best furniture, but are seldom used except to impress visitors. Come on, admit it—do you spend more time in your so-called “living room”, or in your kitchen?

The formal dining room: It uses lots of space,
but it doesn't get much use.
That’s what I thought.

Following are some notorious modern-day Kaisersaals and their appurtenances, each with the trait of existing mainly for show:

•  The top Kaisersaal award goes to the living room. For the last fifty years, it’s been steadily declining in usefulness, finally becoming a sort of furniture showroom forbidden to family, friends, and pets. The only people who actually sit in most living rooms are guests you want to impress with your good housekeeping and impeccable taste—in other words, people you’re trying to fake out.

That pretentious tract house must-have,
 the soaking tub, is another space hog
that doesn't earn its keep.
There are two solutions to the living room dilemma. One: if you already have a living room, for heaven’s sake, do your family a favor and let them live in it. Two: if you have the luxury of starting from scratch, either design your new home with a living room that’s actually for living, or else forego it altogether in favor of a bigger family room and kitchen. Those are the rooms that actually get lived in.

•  The beloved “formal dining room” runs a close second in uselessness. Even the most devoted gourmands use their dining room but a few times a month. The rest of us just try to keep the dust off the woodwork. Why waste an entire room just so you can dine like Henry VIII once in a blue moon?  If you’re planning a new home, consider devoting the 150 square feet consumed by a formal dining room to a more functional purpose. And if you’re among the many already “blessed” with a formal dining room, why not resign yourself to a few spaghetti stains on the carpet, and actually eat there every day?

Here's a Kaisersaal two-for-one—a pompous
soaking tub and a fireplace. Hey lady,
watch out for that burning log!
•  The modern tract house master bath, with its space- and energy wasting whirlpool tub, is another Kaisersaal gimmick. Be honest now—do you actually use that big tub, or do you just want your friends to know you’ve got one? If my remodeling clients are any indication, the space consumed by a giant tub would be far more useful as extra storage. But closets just don’t have that Kaisersaal allure, which is why developers keep offering this white elephant, and why consumers keep buying into it.
If this guy stops by,
give him the good bedroom.

•  And speaking of pointless appurtenances, many new homes routinely feature two or even three fireplaces, despite the fact that hardly anyone uses them. If you’re serious about practical living, you can probably get away with one. Or none.             
And by the way—if an old German guy in a spiked helmet stops by, you might want to give him the big bedroom.

Monday, December 10, 2018

HOWDY, FOLKS: The California Rancher Rides In

Long, low, and simultaneously modest and chest-thumping:
The Rancher bespoke American values of the 1950s.
Author's note: This is another in Architext's occasional essays on American residential styles.

America was riding high in the 1950s. The country had recently returned from trouncing the Axis, despite a late entrance into a war whose odds were far from certain. The economy had been launched out of the Depression, first on the strength of wartime contracts, and then by a pent-up postwar demand for consumer goods. As a result, U.S. industry was now far and away the mightiest on earth.  And America’s faith in democracy, so shaken by the Depression years, had been restored to granitic solidity by its great triumphs both overseas and at home. 

What better time for a home style that managed to convey all this and more?

Extremely elaborate examples, nowadays
referred to as "Storybook Ranchers",
featured diamond-pane windows, knee
braces, and other over-the-top rustic details.
That style was the California Rancher, and it became the architectural emblem for a yet-unsurpassed time of prosperity in U.S. history. The Rancher’s design was emphatically native--a melange of homegrown vernaculars ranging from the Spanish Colonial-era hacienda with its full-width porch, to the functional ranch building with its shaggy simplicity, to the bungalow with its ground-hugging lines and low-pitched roof. 

Dutch front doors, shown here with the
ubiquitous crossbuck motif, were a red-hot
fad during the Rancher era.
Ranchers also reflected a classic paradox of the American character: On the one hand, it embodied Yankee modesty with its countrified, aw-shucks motifs;  on the other, it glorified power and consumption with its rambling street frontage and chest-thumping double garage. It simultaneously managed to proclaim:  We’re Americans—we’re real nice folks, but we kick butt when we have to.

The Rancher is a breeze to identify. It’s the first popular style to flaunt an attached double garage, for those two cars Herbert Hoover had promised us decades earlier. But the Rancher’s garage made up for its late showing by being impossible to overlook: it projected well forward of the house, with the huge door itself becoming a broad billboard often tricked out in moldings or x-shaped crossbuck motifs, all underlined by a vast swath of concrete driveway. 

 Rancher loor plans—not to mention front elevations such as
this one—were stretched out to outlandish proportions.
Every Rancher worthy of the name also had a front porch, though few were really usable as such.  Rather, the point was to provide a showcase for all those down-home details:  Bandsawn knee braces sprouting from the tops of posts; crossbucks on the front door; and yet more crossbucks in the gawky wooden porch railings and on garage doors..

The classic Rancher exterior typically  had rough-sawn vertical board-and-batt siding (batts being narrow wood strips that covered the gap between boards), or else rustic horizontal lap siding. Later mass-produced versions used stucco on the majority of the house, reserving the more costly siding for accents on the facade and gables.

Eventually, things settled down to your basic stucco Rancher,
perhaps with a few features such as the wood wainscoting
and false dovecote in the gable of this tract-built example.
A genuine Rancher’s roof was invariably covered in shakes, a material that bespoke America as well: a little uncouth, perhaps, but tough and resilient as all get-out. In classic examples, a false dovecote topped by a weathervane might be found astride the roof ridge, while at each gable end, false beams jutted out to carry the rake boards with unshakable confidence. Rancher interiors emphasized the same plain-spoken, native materials as the exterior: used brick, copper, hammered iron, and coarse woods such as knotty pine.

Functionally, there's little to criticize in a Rancher. The floor plan is straightforward, with rooms methodically strung along each side of a long hall--much like a stretched-out bungalow turned crosswise. The style’s main structural problems stem from the fashion of making the houses ever longer, lower and closer to the ground. Often the effort was too successful--yielding a ranch-size meal for termites and dry rot.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Unlike Americans, Old Worlders don't mind a little
imperfection. The Bishop's House, Sheffield, England,
circa 1554. (Image courtesy Friends of Bishop's House)
A while back, a client of mine asked me to give the once-over to a house he was hoping to buy. It was a charming, well-kept little cottage with all the hallmarks of a history—some gouges here, some settlement there, perhaps a few cracks in the plasterwork. It wasn’t dilapidated by any means; rather,  it had a nice warm patina of long use.

Happily, he did end up buying it. But when I came back a few months later to see what improvements he’d wrought, I was dismayed. He’d systematically gone through the house and replaced anything that showed the slightest trace of wear with brand-new stuff from the local hardware emporium.  Hefty old doorknobs with the burnish of fifty years had been swapped in favor of tinny, glitzy brass ones; ditto the old lighting fixtures and bath fittings. The varnished wood trim (which had a few nicks and scratches, to be sure) had been smothered in a bland coat of bright white latex. And the wood floor—whose dents and imperfections bespoke the foibles of who knows how many sets of grandchildren—had been sanded glassy smooth and coated with a hi-tech sealer.
Lots of remodelers love to tear out
the old kitchen so they can
put in a fake old kitchen.
(Image courtesy jillianharris.com)

So much for a warm patina.

Still, I can hardly blame my client for wanting to make his little cottage sparkle. We Yanks always want everything to “look like new”.  Maybe it’s because the U.S. is a relatively young country, and newness is practically all we know. But just as likely, it’s because advertising relentlessly conditions us to believe that new things—whether cars, clothes, or trendy toys for the kids—are always better than old ones. That goes for houses, too. Those of us who can’t afford brand new ones opt for the next best thing: we buy old ones and then “renovate” them into oblivion.

Yes, it's old and beaten up. So what?
The point, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, is that new isn’t necessarily better. So here are a few thoughts to consider before you wield that screwdriver or paintbrush at your defenseless old house:

•  Think twice before consigning any part of your home to the junk heap.  The quality of the building materials in most pre-World War II homes—whether hardware, flooring, or lighting fixtures—is generally much better than the stuff that’s available today. In the long run, there’s little to be gained by exchanging quality materials that show some age for flimsy goods that will only briefly look brand-new. 

•  Use that paintbrush sparingly! The lesser durability of today’s paint formulas makes repainting an iffy improvement. Therefore, if your old house has a reasonably presentable coat of oil-based paint on the doors, for example, you’re probably better off living with it than covering it with a latex paint, which won't properly adhere to it in the first place, and won’t have the same shine or durability even if it does.
Too often, repainting over perfectly good
oil based paint will just get you this.

•  Learn to live with a few scratches here and there. Americans are obsessed with keeping their homes pristine; unfortunately, this is a battle that the universe will always win. Home ownership is a lot more fun when you learn to take the odd flaw in stride. That’s not to suggest that you neglect your home, but rather that you learn to accept a reasonable level of imperfection. Europeans, I’m loathe to admit, are way ahead of us on this count: they’re quite comfortable with buildings that are old and timeworn, because they regard age and imperfection as a badge of honor, not as a sign of decrepitude.

•  Finally, remember that any idiot can make a home look new, but only time can produce one with a history.

Monday, November 26, 2018

BROWN SHINGLE: The Anti-Victorian

Victorian houses eventually became the
aesthetic equivalent of three banana splits
piled on top of each other.
Suppose you ate a huge banana split, and you loved it so much that you ordered another one and ate that as well. And then another.  You’d probably be eating dry bread for a few days thereafter.

That, in so many words, is what happened to people’s tastes after fifty years of ornate Victorian architecture. When builders and architects first started putting gingerbread on new homes in the 1850s, people loved it. So naturally, they added more. People loved that even better, so what was there to do but add yet more gingerbread? This cycle went on for three decades until, sometime during the late 1890s, people realized they were thoroughly sick of multicolored, gewgaw-covered houses. 

It was this overdose of ornament that brought on a great counter-reaction to the Victorian era, and ushered in the residential style known simply as Brown Shingle.
The William Berryman Scott House in Princeton, New Jersey,
by architect A Page Brown (1888) was an early harbinger
of dissatisfaction with Victorian gewgaws.
(Photo courtesy djkeddie CC BY-SA)

The Brown Shingle was everything the Victorian wasn’t. Whereas Victorian architects delighted in using artifice—imitating marble with wood, leather with linoleum, and gemstone with glass—the Brown Shingle used natural materials honestly employed. Its namesake exterior finish was pointedly plain—cedar shingles left to weather in the sun or, at most, sealed with a light stain. Window trim was broad, plain, and stained rather than painted. Chimneys were built of rustic stone, or of “clinkers”—purplish, mishapen bricks that had been rejected due to overfiring.  

Nature figured prominently in Brown Shingle designs. Porches were often roofed with heavily beamed pergolas that were meant to carry vines. Pairs of French doors often led outdoors to give occupants direct access to the garden, which was ideally laid out in a rambling, informal manner. 
On the opposite coast, architect Bernard Maybeck used
redwood pergolas to bring nature into the design.
Guy Hyde Chick House, Oakland, 1914.
(Photo courtesy Daniella Thompson)

Fundamentally, however, the Brown Shingle was still similar to its Victorian predecessors—only the philosophy and the finishes had changed. In its verticality and bulk, it’s really just a late Victorian house with most of the gingerbread scraped off and a shingle siding put in its place. It would remain for the Craftsman Bungalow style of the Teens to make the final break from Victorian proportions.

Brown Shingles win kudos for their understatement and resistance to the vagaries of fashion. They’re not susceptible to color fads, for example, because they don’t really have a color—just a natural patina. For the same reason, maintenance is less of a headache than it is for houses with fussy, complex color schemes.  

Interiors are big and airy, just like those of their Victorian predecessors, but without the encrustations of moldings and their associated maintenance. Despite this basic simplicity, there’s still generous use of stained wood in floors, doors, trim, and staircases, as well as in built-in furniture such as sideboards, bookcases, and linen cabinets.
Brown Shingle interiors were still air like those of Victorians,
but used much simplified detailing of flat lumber in place of
elaborate moldings.
(Photo courtesy Sinnott and Co.)

The style's shortcomings are largely technical, not functional. These are big, bulky houses, so seismically, they’re just as susceptible to earthquake damage as their Victorian kin.  Foundations are generally on the iffy side by modern standards, so retrofitting of foundation bolts and crawlspace shearwalls is a must. And of course, those aging heating and plumbing systems often beg for modernization.

While the shingled exterior is remarkably durable—fifty years is not an uncommon lifespan for good quality shingles—when the time comes it’s a much more costly proposition than repainting. So it’s to your advantage to find a house that’s already been re-Brown Shingled.  

Monday, November 19, 2018


Ford's Nucleon: Just don't get rear ended.
In 1958, the Ford Motor Company built a prototype “car of the future” called the Nucleon. What looked like a spare tire on the trunk lid was actually a nuclear reactor, with fuel rods that could be adjusted to suit the driver’s appetite for horsepower. Ford didn’t mention what would happen to this rolling Chernobyl in a wreck, but I’m sure the results would have been spectacular.   

Like the unlamented Nucleon, predictions about the future of domestic design have also been way off the mark. From the strange ideals of the Italian Futurists—architects who waxed rhapsodic over high voltage transmission towers, the smell of engine exhaust, and ditches filled with factory waste—to today's techies ceaselessly extolling "the internet of things", the future is often a place we’d rather laugh about than live in. Want a few examples?  Here ya go:

Fillippo Marinetti, the leader of the
Futurist movement of the early 19th
Century, liked the smell of exhaust,
but was less keen on wood and fabrics.
•  In 1911, Fillipo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, predicted that 21st century Italy would be controlled by a technocracy of engineers who “live in high tension chambers. . . between walls of iron and crystal. . .free at last from the examples of fragility and softness offered by wood and fabrics with their rural ornaments. . .” Marinetti would die twice if he could see what the future has actually brought us from Italy: the inspiration for countless ersatz Tuscan villas.

In New York's 1939 World's Fair Kitchen of the Future,
appliances operated by themselves, leaving the homemaker
more time to wear low-cut gowns.
•  The New York World’s Fair of 1939, with its renowned Futurama exhibit, also put tremendous faith in technology, though to a less terrifying extent than Marinetti. The Fair’s Kitchen of the Future was an antiseptic-looking cooking laboratory with white floors, white walls, and white steel cabinets. At the wave of a hand, various automatic appliances would miraculously descend from hidden places, eliciting a beatific smile from the pearl-clad housewife.

Today’s actual kitchens are a long way from this gee-whiz gadget worship. In fact, they’re so retrograde they’d make a ‘39 Fairgoer shiver: wooden cabinets remain the steadfast favorite of consumers, just as they always have been. And American appliance makers are now producing nostalgically-styled ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines that would look very much at home in the average prewar kitchen. In other words, back to the future.

Disneyland's House of Tomorrow. To its sponsor,
Monsanto, the home of the future would be 100% plastic.
And you thought their genetically modified foods were scary.
•  In 1957, M.I.T. and Monsanto Corp. jointly unveiled their House of Tomorrow at Disneyland. Its claim to the future? It was built entirely of plastic—walls, floors, chairs, dishes, everything. This was a time, remember, when man-made materials symbolized a whole new era, what with Bakelite radios, Nylon stockings, and Vinyl upholstery. So what could be more futuristic than a house that was 100% plastic?  Still, this was probably not the place for folks with environmental illness.

Facebook may still exist in the future,
but will you still like it?
Clearly, most of the predicted revolutions in America’s lifestyle have amounted to diddly. There’s nothing sad about that—it simply reassures us that the future will look pretty much like the present.  Sure, we’ll have electric cars, space travel, and a social media up the wazoo. But it’s a good bet those cars will still have old tortilla chip crumbs under the seats, the bus to Mars will run late, and there’ll still be nothing worth seeing on Facebook.

Because even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


When all the senses are at ease. . .
(Image courtesy bookbub.com)
In all the works I’ve read by Modernist architects—and mind you, they had plenty to say—I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “comfort” mentioned even once. Most Modernist writing attempted to distill architecture down to some kind of academic essence, with the human part of the equation boiled away completely. Whether ordinary people could understand such Modernist architecture, let alone feel comfortable in it, didn’t seem to matter a wit.  

But exactly how do we define "comfort"? Can we? Or do architects ignore it precisely because it’s too subjective? Clearly, comfort is founded on a few basic needs which must be satisfied before all others: We must be warm, dry, secure from danger, and adequately fed to feel any higher degree of comfort. But there’s more to it than that.

A contemporary Modernist interior:
Aesthetically stunning, but cozy, it isn't.
(Image courtesy of Web Urbanist)
For me, comfort is that state of being in which all the senses are at ease, not just one or two of them. If you ask people where they feel most comfortable, many will tell you, “In bed”—no, not making love, just physically in bed, perhaps reading on a rainy night, with a good lamp and a hot cup of tea on the nightstand. This squares fairly well with my personal definition of the senses being satisfied: In bed, we’re warm, dry, secure, and presumably well-fed; but our senses are also at ease. We have a well-lit book to read, the sound of rain drumming overhead, a soft blanket against our skin, and even the aroma and taste of tea to soothe the palate.

Of course, psychologists would have a field day here drawing analogies to the womb. But the fact remains that the sentient among us are not in the womb—we’re out here being battered in an often-harsh world, and as humans we quite naturally long to make our lives as comfortable as possible.      

The Barcelona chair, designed by Mies van der Rohe
and beloved by architect Philip Johson, who had them
prominently displayed in his famed "Glass Box" house.
So why do twentieth century architects have such a dismal record designing buildings that are comfortable for people? Many a medieval cottage feels more snug than the typical Modernist glass box.  In fact, “vernacular architecture”—a condescending term we architects use for anything not designed by us—often does a better job of providing comfort than our own esteemed efforts. Has architecture regressed?  Or have architects just gotten so wrapped up in theory that they’ve lost sight of what really matters to the human being? 

The Modernists, who were obsessed with the look of things to the exclusion of most everything else, never seemed to give comfort any thought whatever.  A few moments in any textbook-Modernist building makes this abundantly clear, not to mention sitting in a Modernist-designed chair. But the problem didn’t die with Modernism.  Even today, the architectural works most adored by critics are often just tolerated good-naturedly by the people who have to occupy them.  

Philip Johnson: Ow, my butt.
Architecture doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way.  Theoretical palaver won’t make your home a better place to live, not by itself, anyway. You have a right to comfort, whatever your personal definition of it, and a good architect should support that aim, not hinder it. 

By the way, I take back what I said about “comfort” not being mentioned in Modernist writing:  The late Philip Johnson once defended Barcelona chairs, those slippery Modernist slabs of leather, by asserting: “I think comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.”

Somehow I doubt that his butt would've agreed.

Monday, November 5, 2018


"Real power is through respect. Real power is,
I don't even want to use the word, fear."
—Donald J. Trump

Yes, I’m an architect, and this is a blog about architecture and the built environment. Over the past two years, I’ve done my best to exclude my feelings about the nation’s current political situation. Today’s blog is different, however, and here’s why: I’m quite certain that tomorrow’s midterm election will be the most consequential in my lifetime. I was born in 1959, so that’s really saying something.

Tomorrow we will either reaffirm a coarse, hateful, and divisive President, or refute him and all he stands for. But there’s more at stake than rejecting the actions of one self-absorbed, money-obsessed billionaire. This election will also decide whether we continue to abide a Congress intent on methodically dismantling our democracy and selling it off piece by piece to corporate boards and the One Percent.

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina
 or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation
does not have to be cruel to be tough.'
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Since I fit the demographic of “old white male”, I feel fully entitled to likewise describe the current majority in Congress. They are a fading cadre of privileged men desperately clinging to power in the face of a changing United States of America. These are men long accustomed to having power. They feel entitled to it, and they seem willing to do anything to retain it, even to the detriment of our democracy. So desperate are they, in fact, that they now routinely put the good of their party before the good of our country.

However, nothing these men do can change the fact that we are an increasingly diverse nation—no longer one in which wealthy white men can run the show and expect everyone else to tag along—but one in which every person deserves a chance to take part. This is, after all, the meaning of democracy, despite our President's evident confusion in this regard.

What does this flag mean
to you and your children?
The news media speaks of the “polarization” of America as a struggle between Democrat and Republican. But I don’t see tomorrow’s vote as a competition between the Red team and the Blue team. Rather, it's a struggle between those desperately clinging to fading power—who invoke democracy only when it suits their purposes—and those who believe democracy really is for all of us.

This United States is a nation founded and then populated by dissatisfied immigrants, and we are a nation made infinitely greater by them over the past 242 years. We remain a place of imperfect equality and imperfect justice, but one which at least has always had the courage and decency to grapple with these shortcomings. No such tendency, however, has been apparent during this administration.

Tomorrow’s vote will determine whether we accept the idea of America as a gerontocracy run by billionaires and corporate boards, or whether we actually believe in that Pledge of Allegiance line I had to memorize in grade school:

“With liberty and justice for all.”

Whatever else you do tomorrow, please VOTE.

Monday, October 29, 2018


The metaphorical equivalent to how we build buildings,
even today.
Incredibly, amid the dazzling advances of so many other technologies, the way we build houses remains essentially medieval.  If transportation progressed at the same pace, you’d still be riding in an oxcart.  

One reason construction methods haven’t changed much in a thousand years is plain old fear:  Architects and contractors are slow to adopt new ideas because the consequences of failure are expensive. While a flaw in a car or even a computer are easily rectified, a mistake made on the scale of a whole building can be catastrophic. Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “The sins of the architect are permanent sins.”  

Frank Lloyd Wright's S.C. Johnson Administration Building
in Racine, Wisconsin (1948): Brilliant, but those spectacular
skylights leaked like a sieve. (Image: S.C. Johnson)
Because of the high stakes involved in trying out new technologies, most architects and contractors prefer to stay well clear of the cutting edge. Time pressure, and the fear of litigation, usually make the known product more expedient than the gamble. So, perhaps understandably, they play a game of you-go-first with new technology. They’re not willing to have their buildings, and hence their reputations, serve as guinea pigs for untried building methods or products.    

The Catch-22 of this situation is obvious, however:  New products can never become proven if people are afraid to use them.    

Modernist architects were among the notable few who were truly gung-ho on cutting-edge materials, but unfortunately, their trust in the emerging miracles of modern technology usually wasn’t repaid: their flat roofs and skylights inevitably leaked; their glued-laminated beams rotted; their steel sash rusted. 

Hot and cold water supply system using
PEX high-density polyethylene tubing.
which features a central manifold for
shutting off plumbing fixtures. A great
idea, but it sure had a rough start.
But it’s not just the failure of new products that makes architects and builders cling to the tried and true. Even products with decades-long track records can develop unexpected shortcomings. Who, for example, could have predicted that problems with outgassing would affect a longtime staple of construction such as particle board? Or that health concerns would banish that longtime standard of fireproofing materials, asbestos?  

It took almost a hundred years—
and the Second World War—to get
builders to switch from lath and
plaster to gypsum board ("drywall").
Today, as ever, there are a host of new products trying to shoulder their way into the hidebound building industry. But it’s an uphill battle. One example: flexible polyethylene tubing, which was designed to replace rigid copper water pipe and its fittings. Cheaper and simpler to install than copper, it had just started catching on during the 80s when leaky fittings brought a spate of lawsuits and a hasty retreat from the market.  

I-Joists are extremely strong and always straight and true,
but only the skyrocketing price of solid lumber has
convinced builders use them in place of good old sawn joists.
Today, flexible tubing is back, apparently leak-free, but it’s a brave contractor or architect who’ll stake his reputation on it a second time. And more’s the pity: the idea, in theory, is an excellent one. Instead of soldering dozens of copper fittings, one simply snakes a single flexible hose to each fixture—one of the first real plumbing advances in centuries. Still, as is usually the case with new building materials, it will take decades for the building industry to adopt it wholeheartedly.  

When new products do manage to prevail, it’s usually due to inescapable  economic pressures. This is what led to the adoption of drywall in place of plaster after World War II, for example. More recently, skyrocketing lumber prices have finally brought engineered wood products such as I-joists and laminated beams—at the fringes of the market for decades now—into mainstream use for home construction. I’m happy to report that they’re rapidly gaining the trust of architects and builders.

And it only took fifty years.

Monday, October 22, 2018

PROPER SOLAR ORIENTATION: It's More Than Just Facing Mecca

Developers just want to cram the most houses possible
on their sites—they don't give a damn about solar orientation.
Years ago, when I used to design the occasional tract house, I was always at odds with developers over solar orientation. Those guys are used to plopping down houses any which way that they’ll fit on a site—the more the merrier—and they don’t give a hoot about where and when the sun comes in. I went round and round with one developer in particular, trying to make his houses more livable. Forever after, when I mentioned the term “orientation”, he would roll his eyes.

“Here we go again,” he would complain. “Arrol’s houses always have to face Mecca.”

 The ancient Persian city of Yazd reaches temperatures
well over 100 degrees in summer—yet the tall structures
known as "badgirs" (windcatchers) in the background
have helped keep people cool for one and a half millenia.
Well, the idea of facing Mecca isn’t really that far off. Islamic cultures have long had well-established guidelines about which way buildings should face, and not just for religious reasons. In a climate often far more severe than our own, they used well-placed openings for warmth and light and mass walls to store the sun’s energy. And because cooling was at least as big a problem as heating in Islam, builders used decorative window grilles for shading, wind scoops to provide natural ventilation, and the earth itself to help stabilize interior temperatures. Even today, most of these millenia-old features are still considered radical solar devices by some folks here in the States.

By contrast, the Engineering 1 Building at IIT,  built in 1968,
still shows the western architect's total indifference
to proper solar orientation. Note the ragtag collection of
window shades hastily installed behind its glass facade.
Architect: Myron Goldsmith
(Image courtesy of Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
The Chinese developed an even more elaborate set of guidelines for good orientation known as the feng shui—literally, “wind and water”.  While its precepts have become shrouded in mysticism over the centuries, its basis lies in common sense. For one, the feng shui favors houses exposed to the south and sheltered from the north as being most auspicious—in other words, the most comfortable. Nothing could be more basic; yet western architects have managed to bungle these obvious principles for more than a century—in fact, ever since they’ve had access to artificial light and mechanical heat.

Only the gas crisis of the late 1970s
finally woke Americans up to
the need for resource conservation.
Ancient cultures didn’t have the options of turning a thermostat up or down or switching on a light, however.  They necessarily understood the principles of solar orientation far better than many modern architects:  If they hadn’t, they’d have all been either roasted or frozen to death. Our own so-called “energy-efficient homes”, while certainly more comfortable than ancient ones, are at base hardly more sophisticated.  We’re just recycling what ancient builders have known for thousands of years.

Good solar orientation doesn't just save money—
it makes a home worth living in.
Even at that, it was only the oil shortages of the late 1970s that finally roused Americans from utter indifference to orientation. In a sense, it was the best thing that could have happened: tremendous strides have been made in residential energy efficiency in the past forty years as a result. For the most part, these improvements have been in mechanical heating systems and the related area of insulation—probably a good thing, since under the current administration, it seems unlikely that we’ll wean ourselves from oil dependence anytime soon.

But while it’s commendable that newer furnaces and water heaters can squeeze more heat from your petrodollar, and that better insulation now helps conserve that heat, the real foundation of energy efficiency is still what it was 2000 years ago: solar orientation. A well-designed house with south-facing windows, proper shading, and good ventilation will require less energy and be more livable than one without—end of story. Of all the things you choose to fret over in your own designs, the very first should be sunlight, and how it's going to get in.

Take it from a tract-house veteran:  You don’t have to face Mecca.  Just plain south will do.

Monday, October 15, 2018


Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House of 1909, the best-known
and most spectacular example of what became known
as his "Prairie School" houses. Still, it took years for
builders to catch up with the style, and only superficially.
By 1909, the greatest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Houses” were already behind him. He capped this early phase of his career with a prodigal work, the Frederick C. Robie House, built in a suburb of Chicago that year. With its dynamic horizontal lines and spectacular hovering hip roofs, it made traditional homes seem impossibly dowdy. 

Yet it took almost two decades for Wright’s ideas to filter into the architectural mainstream. Only in the mid-1920s, long after Wright had moved on to newer ideas, did tract builders attempt to adapt his so-called “Prairie School” style to middle-class homes. They gamely tried to capture the spirit of the Prairie House by copying the well-known Wright trademarks: bands of casement windows; hipped or flat roofs with broad, sheltering overhangs; and cubical stucco masses contrasted with broad uninterrupted sweeps of glass.  

"The Spokane" was a Prairie School-style
plan book house that featured Wright's
use of a hipped roof with broad overhanging
eaves, and large areas of window.
But while Wright’s style seemed easy enough to summarize, capturing the spirit of the master’s work on a tract-house budget turned out to be no mean feat. The results were imitations of the most superficial sort; but fortunately for homebuyers, even a pale imitation of Wright can maintain the strengths of the genuine article.  Among them:

•  Large rooms with generous circulation.  Wright detested the old idea of a house as a series of separate, boxy rooms. Even in his earliest designs, he deleted whole swaths of dividing wall, fusing major living areas together in what has since come to be called “open planning”.  Prairie School homes follow this idea, though to a less dramatic extent. Openings between rooms are wide and circulation is generous, but the arrangements seldom qualify as true open planning. It may be just as well that Prairie School builders didn’t follow Wright’s concepts to the letter, since for the average family, open planning translates to a commensurate lack of privacy.
Built-in cabinetwork, another Wright favorite,
also found its way into Prairie School
tract homes.

•  Plentiful light. Prairie School builders immediately latched onto one easily-cribbed feature of Wright’s homes—the bands of casement windows which often ran uninterrupted from corner to corner. Hence, compared to the average Bungalow home of this period, Prairie School homes seem positively awash in sunlight. Builders also copied Wright’s rectilinear muntin designs for these windows, though usually without his lavish (and costly) use of leaded glass.

•  Built-in furnishings. Wright’s homes contained built-ins of all kinds, from bookcases to sideboards to inglenooks; in his own studio at Oak Park, he even built in a piano. While Prairie School knock-offs didn’t go to that extreme, bookcases and china cabinets—often with Wright-inspired glass doors—are common.

Wright's Prairie School influence remains to this day:
Here's a current stock house plan offered by houseplans.com
• Access to the outdoors. Wright was fond of providing whole ranks of glass doors leading onto terraces or into gardens, blurring the distinction between indoors and out. Prairie School builders often gave a nod to this feature by including at least one pairs of doors leading to the garden.  

 On the downside, Prairie School homes suffer one major shortcoming that also plagued Wright during his entire career: leaky roofs. And if a genius like Wright couldn’t get his roofs to hold water, what chance did local builder Joe Bagodonutz have? 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

WHY ROOFS LEAK—And How To Avoid It

Frank Lloyd Wright's 1935 masterpiece: Spectacular,
but they didn't call it Fallingwater for nothing.
The root purpose of every dwelling—one that dates back millennia—is to provide shelter from the elements. Hence, an architect’s most fundamental charge is to design a weathertight building.  

Alas, it doesn’t always work out that way. One of the most common complaints I hear is, “Why can’t architects design buildings that don’t leak?"     

The embarrassing fact is that leaky roofs are endemic to architecture, whether modern or traditional, and the caliber of the architect makes little difference. The occupants of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated houses have been obliged to drag out buckets, bowls, and soup cans in many a rainstorm. Or as a colleague of mine once put it: “They don’t call it ‘Fallingwater’ for nothing”.    

Le Corbusier: He didn't do us any
favors by making flat roofs popular. 
For their part, architects are notoriously adept at brushing off the leak problem. Wright once received a call from an irate client who complained that the roof was leaking all over her dinner guest, to which, legend has it, he responded: “Tell him to move his chair." 

To the complaint of another waterlogged client, he shot back:  “If it didn’t leak, it wouldn’t be a roof.”

At least Wright fessed up to these shortcomings, if nonchalantly; the same can’t be said for the famed International Style architect Le Corbusier. Early in his career, he designed a building with a conventional pitched roof. At the first snowfall, it leaked like a sieve—due, it seems likely, to his own inexperience. In a dazzling piece of Modernist logic, however, Corbusier concluded that the whole concept of pitched roofs must be flawed, and thereafter espoused flat roofs instead.

Now that's an impressive collection of roof junctures, which, in a few
years, will yield the widest possible selection of roof leaks.
Ah, poor posterity!

Given that architects have such a hard time designing watertight roofs, what chance does a lay person have? You’d be surprised. Here are a few simple, common-sense suggestions that can help minimize the likelihood of leaks:

•  Keep the roof design as simple as possible. Leaks seldom occur out in the middle of a roof’s flat surfaces—known as the "field" in roofing parlance. Rather, they tend to develop in the many nooks and crannies formed where roof planes intersect. Hence, the simpler the design, the fewer the intersections, and the less the likelihood of leaks. Be especially wary of those craggy alpine roofscapes favored by current architectural fashion.  All those cute little peaks and dormers can become a major leakage headache a few years down the road. 

If your roof leaks, look at the
penetrations and junctures,
You might well be able to fix it
with a three-dollar tube of sealant.
•  Minimize “penetrations”. In rooferspeak, this term refers to pipes, vents, chimneys, skylights, and any other openings that interrupt the roof’s membrane. Like intersections, penetrations are far more likely to develop leaks than the field of the roof. Minimize the number of vents and flues penetrating the roof surface, and use a few large skylights rather than a lot of little ones. And don’t locate skylights in roof valleys, where it’s difficult to seal or “flash” them properly.   

•  Avoid built-up (“flat”) roofs whenever possible. Granted, built-up roofs are cheap, easy to construct, and great for covering oddly-shaped floor plans. However, without conscientious maintenance—which they seldom get—built-up roofs simply won’t stay watertight. A century of painful experience has borne this fact out, suggesting that our gable-roof loving forebears were probably right after all. 

Sorry, Le Corbusier.

Monday, October 1, 2018


Goodhue's temporary Exposition buildings of 1915 were so
popular that they were eventually rebuilt in permanent
materials. They remain a beloved feature of San Diego's
Balboa Park to this day. (Image courtesy of TripSavvy)

Author's note: If you're a fan of Spanish Revival architecture and would like to read more about it, check out my book Red Tile Style, with a detailed text and hundreds of beautiful photos by my co-author Douglas Keister.

In 1915, visitors to the Panama-California exhibition in San Diego’s Balboa Park were dazzled by architect Bertram Goodhue’s Spanish Baroque fair buildings. His romantic stucco confections, with their ranges of shady arcades, tiled fountains, and graceful wrought-iron ornament, were a smash hit with fairgoers long used to the to the fussy artifice of the Victorian era. And while the fair buildings were temporary, their effect was permanent: They ignited a love affair with Spanish Revival architecture—first in California, and later across the nation—that continues to this day.

Bertram Goodhue, architect.
Although various tortured derivations of Spanish Revival architecture are still offered by tract developers down to the present, the style's real heyday began with the Exposition and only lasted until the eve of World War II. Yet the homes of this period remain among the most charming, well-crafted and l livable ever built, and are especially suited to areas of the country whose climate can take advantage of their close communion with the outdoors.  

In California, the early generation of Hollywood movie stars were among the first to fall for the Spanish Revival; in Florida it was a class of moneyed industrialists and financial barons.  Throughout the 1920s, they commissioned huge haciendas whose construction required legions of craftsman to produce roof tiles, ironwork, and hewn and carved beams.

Mar-a-Lago, the monumental 1927
Spanish Revival mansion built for
cereal heiress Marjorie Post—
now a National Historic Landmark,
and famous in its own right long before
You-Know-Who moved in.
By 1925, the style had reached the mainstream, and variations of the style were appearing throughout California, Florida, and the Southwest. Although such houses were never built in the same quantities as the contemporary Bungalow style, they stood out by dint of their charming design. Their red tile roofs didn’t hurt, either.

Those half-round clay roof tiles, whose shape originally came from the raw clay being formed over the tilemaker's thigh, are the most obvious hallmark of Spanish Revival homes, and are found not merely on roofs, but also on chimney tops. Others traits include rough stucco walls imitating adobe, and round arches used in porches and windows.  And of course, there’s that beloved detail of Spanish Revival architects—bits of clay pipe used as attic vents. More elaborate houses may also feature clay tile porch pavers, hand-painted ceramic tile accents, and occasionally, lovely little tiled fountains a la Goodhue’s Exhibition. 

Clay tile floors, dark woodwork, arches, and plenty of
doors to the garden characterize the best
Spannish Revival interiors.
Inside, you’ll find the same palette of materials, plus lots of dark, heavily-scaled woodwork. Spanish Revival interiors were quite innovative compared to earlier styles. They were among the first homes with vaulted or beamed ceilings (usually confined to the living room), and also frequently featured dramatic changes of level. Rusticity was the keynote, along with an exotic Mediterranean charm that no other style could lay claim to.  

Spanish Revival homes featured a close communion with
the outdoors that remains unmatched by other home styles
to this day. (Image courtesy of Homedit)
The floor plans also featured a refreshing connection to the garden that’s rarely been matched since. Paired French doors in the major rooms often lead onto inviting little patios, and in larger examples, stuccoed garden walls are used to create private courtyards.

Shortcomings? Only a few worth mentioning. In order to emulate the look of adobe construction, Spanish Revival windows tend to be on the smallish side, sometimes resulting in unusually dark interiors. The dark-stained floors and woodwork accentuate the effect.  But please, oh please—don’t whip out the ol’ paint brush to lighten things up per the usual design magazine' advice—these shadowy interiors are an integral part of the Spanish Revival style.  

Lastly, less expensive Spanish Revival tract houses often have false roof tiles cleverly concealing an often leak-prone flat roof. And that, as the Spanish say, can be mui problemo.