Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Integrally-colored (not painted) concrete is an old-timey
material whose color mellows with age. Don't try to
"freshen up" the color by ruining it with paint.
Color is enormously important to architecture.  Unfortunately, many architects and designers achieve it in the most literally superficial way:  by applying a coat of paint. 

Relying on paint for design impact is asking for failure. For one thing, paint is among the most transient of all building finishes. Unlike materials that patinate—such as wood, stone, and copper—paint’s durability is measured in years, not decades. 

Despite this, many architects cavalierly specify complicated paint schemes that look great for a year or two, and then become a nightmare to maintain forever after. It’s a shortsighted design approach, with the built-in likelihood of owner neglect.

The beautiful shade of verdigris on this copper roof will last
literally centuries. It's about as close to permanent color
as you can get.
What’s more, colors that are fashionable when applied (like today's mania for gloomy gray tones, for example) inevitably fall out of favor in a few short years when the next color fad rolls around. The result is usually a hasty coat of some other color that’s more popular at the moment—and more often than not, a complete negation of the architect’s original design intent as well. 

If color is important to your sense of design—as it ought to be—consider including it in ways that are either permanent, or at least are more easily maintained than coatings such as paint or stain. Some materials that hold their natural colors well, starting with the most low-key: 

•  Woods such as pine, cedar and redwood exhibit nice bright colors when freshly cut. Unfortunately, these colors won't last—all woods eventually weather to some shade between silver-gray and black, depending on species and climate. Embalming wood with preservatives or varnishes to maintain its fresh-sawn color isn’t the answer; it’ll only result in an ugly, mottled weathering pattern after the coating begins to wear off.

Still think brick is a dull material? This architect—
William Butterfield—didn't. The building is London's
All Saints Church, Margaret Street, c. 1852).
•  Concrete can be integrally colored in a range of subdued tones, from beiges to deep greens, reds and browns. Since the pigment is mixed in when the concrete is wet, the color is permanently fused to the surface. The modest additional cost of coloring is well worth it for highly visible design features such as paths or walls. However, applying paint superficially onto concrete (like the typical red "porch paint") is a losing proposition; it will quickly chip off at the wear points, and will look worse than no color at all.

•  Copper slowly weathers from an orange-brown to the blue-green shade known as verdegris, and will hold its color for centuries thereafter. Talk about a permanent coating.

Stucco can be integrally colored
in a whole rainbow of shades.
And you'll never paint your house
•  Brick comes in a vast palette of natural colors ranging from creams through peaches, buffs, and ochres, all the way to flashed brick that’s nearly black. If you’ve always thought of brick as a monotone building material, take a look at some of the dazzling pattern and color in Victorian brickwork of the late 19th century. You'll never think of brick as drab again.

The color in fired ceramic tile will last for centuries.
And, there's an incredible range of tile to choose from.
•  Stucco can be integrally tinted in a surprisingly broad range of shades. Over time, the color will soften and mellow, rather than just peeling off like paint.  Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is that you’ll never again need to repaint the body of your house.  (Incidentally, if you’re lucky enough to have a house with this kind of finish, don’t even consider repainting it to get a more “contemporary” look. You’ll be trading a maintenance-free finish for a few years of trendiness; after that, you'll be needlessly stuck with repainting for the life of the house.)

•  Ceramic tile, glazed brick, and glazed terra-cotta were very popular exterior finishes during the color-mad Art Deco era and are still available today, though to a lesser extent. The vivid colors of these materials are fired on much like the glaze on pottery, and are equally permanent. Tiles, in particular, make an inexpensive yet permanently colorfast decoration when set in stucco or concrete.

Monday, May 21, 2018


There are worse things than getting paid
in abalone.
I once completed a project for a young fellow who supported himself by diving for shellfish.  When it came time to pay my bill, he confessed that he didn’t really have any money.  Instead, he went to his freezer, pulled out two cartons bulging with abalone steak, and handed them over to me. 

Actually, being compensated with gourmet seafood is at least as good an approach as the way architects are usually paid. For generations, it’s been customary for architects to work on a commission fee, which nowadays ranges between 10-15 percent of the project budget. 

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the problems with this system. The first is that you can’t really know the budget until you’ve got plans; but you can’t get plans until you pay the commission; and you can’t figure out the commission until you know the budget. To circumvent this breathtaking bit of pretzel logic, the architect usually ends up guesstimating a budget figure, based both on his experience and a pinch of voodoo economics.   

Don't throw away Franklins needlessly—
consider paying your architect by the hour
rather than on a commission fee.
The second problem with architectural fees is that a percentage-based commission fee rewards the architect for spending the client’s money: the more expensive the project, the bigger the commission. Some say that basing an architect’s payment on the budget makes sense because costly projects are generally more complex. True enough; unfortunately, architects have a penchant for making simple projects complex as well—a trait which the commission fee only encourages.

When you meet with an architect, figure out
what you want to ask beforehand,
not while the meter is running.
Is there a better way? Often, there is. Here are a few suggestions:

•  Consider working with your architect on an hourly basis rather than on commission. Most architects charge somewhere between $100 and $150 per hour. While this may sound pricey, it’ll frequently save money over a lump-sum commission, because you won't be paying for a lot of services you may not need—choosing paint colors, for example. Hourly payment is especially wise if your project is still at an exploratory stage, because it allows you to advance the project in manageable increments, and to stop the work at any time without taking a big monetary hit.

If you don't mind doing some of your own
design homework, you can save your architect
a lot of time, and also save yourself a lot of money.
•  If you do choose to hire your architect on an hourly basis, keep your consultations with the architect brief and to the point.  Don’t engage in lengthy pie-in-the-sky dream sessions while the meter is running at $100 an hour. Also, make sure you and your spouse have reached at least a fundamental accord on your project goals. I can’t tell you how often I've sat in on initial conferences in which one spouse was raring to go while the other was dragging the brakes, or meetings in which both wanted to proceed but had wildly differing ideas of how to get there. 

What's in your freezer?
•  Take on certain portions of the design process yourself. Often, there are architectural tasks that don’t necessarily require your architect’s attention. For example, you can do the legwork involved in applying for building permits—a tedious job that most architects will gladly relinquish. You could also choose your own appliances, lighting fixtures and the like.  Relieving the architect of these responsibilities can save a substantial chunk of high-priced professional time.  

•  Lastly, don’t dismiss the idea of paying your architect with goods or services rather than money. Occasionally, such an arrangement can be mutually beneficial (but mind that you stay on the right side of the IRS). So. . .got anything interesting in your freezer?

Monday, May 14, 2018


Think of a ramp as an integral landscape element, not as
an ugly afterthought. 
For most of us, a disability is something that afflicts strangers, not people we care about. Yet, much as we hate to consider it, we’ll all have to deal with disability in one way or another as the years pass. And nothing humanizes the term  “disabled” like suddenly finding that person to be your father, your friend, yourself.

Fortunately, we’ve gotten a good start at making the built environment friendlier to the disabled—an aim which, incidentally, makes life easier for the able-bodied as well. For example, who would object to lever-handle door hardware (a boon when you’re holding two armfuls of groceries), or to national park trails with ramps instead of steps?

Doorways should be a minimum of 32" wide
to safely accommodate a person in a wheelchair.
(Image courtesy of 1800wheelchair.ca)
True, some of the earlier efforts at barrier-free design weren’t much to look at. To be blunt, there have been some horrific retrofits done in the name of accessibility. But as architects become more attuned to barrier-free design, we’ll see less and less of those hastily-added wheelchair ramps snaking across the front of buildings.

We should remember, too, that “disabled” doesn’t just mean “wheelchair-bound”. Conditions such as vision or hearing impairment, arthritis, and other ailments simply due to growing older are disabilities as well.

What can be done at home to better accommodate the disabled? Since few of us really plan for such eventualities, we usually end up hastily retrofitting a house built for an able-bodied person—a much bigger challenge than starting from a clean slate.

Lever handle door hardware makes life easier
on everybody, not just the disabled.
•  Stairs and steps present the biggest physical barriers to the disabled (they’re often a nuisance for the rest of us too). To make an existing house more accessible from the street, consider building a ramp from the sidewalk up to the floor level, eliminating the front steps entirely. Make sure you have enough distance between the sidewalk and the front door since, ideally, the slope should be no steeper than one inch for every foot of length. The ramp needn’t be ugly—approach it as a permanent landscaping element, not just a tacked-on afterthought. 

•  Doorways throughout the house should have a clear width of at least 32” to allow a wheelchair through, and thresholds should be no higher than 1/2” to make it easier for a wheelchair to roll over them. Doors should have lever handles rather than knobs—usually an easy retrofit. Ideally, the pull side of doors should also have some “parking” space beside them so the wheelchair won’t block the door as it’s opened.

Grab bars should be in every shower and bathtub—
they are among the most dangerous places in the house,
whether you're disabled or not.
•  Kitchens and bathrooms often present a host of barriers to the disabled. Faucets should be easy to operate, with large lever handles rather than slippery knobs. For wheelchair users, sinks and lavatories should have clear space underneath to provide maneuvering room; the hot water and drain pipes should be insulated to prevent those with no feeling in their legs from burning themselves. Shower stalls and toilets should have enough space beside them to allow the user to transfer from the wheelchair to a shower seat or toilet. Showers and tubs should have grab bars, which are a boon to safety for all ages. Plumbing manufacturers offer specially-designed products for such needs, and can provide excellent planning help as well.

These basic measures will go a long way toward making a one-story home more user-friendly to a disabled person. Unfortunately, making a multistory home accessible presents a bigger challenge and much higher cost; moving to a single-level home may be a simpler solution. If that isn’t an option, consider installing a stairlift—a moving platform attached to one side of the staircase—or a residential elevator to reach other levels.

Monday, May 7, 2018


When this house was designed, the architect agonized over
which kind of roofing to use (like the wonderful heavy
textured shake on this example). Why second guess him
(or her) all these years later?
Most people wouldn’t dream of walking around in striped pants and a plaid jacket. 
Yet when it comes to choosing a new roof, that’s just how many folks dress up their houses. If there’s one error most commonly made in home improvement, it’s choosing the wrong roof. I’d guess that perhaps half of all reroofing jobs use materials that are contrary to the style of the house.

The are two major reasons for this: First, many people allow their roofer to suggest the best material.  That’s like asking the wolf to guard the henhouse. Most roofers will tend to recommend materials—such as composition shingle—that are quick and easy to install, and hence more profitable.  Aesthetics are hardly their first concern. 

Composition roofing is inexpensive, but its ultra-flat texture
doesn't have enough visual "oomph" for many home styles—
such as this one. If you home doesn't have composition
shingle now, think twice before switching to it without
good reason. . .
Which brings us to the second reason: Uninformed consumers. You can’t really blame roofers for looking after their own interests. It’s up to you, the homeowner, to inform yourself as to what roofing material is most appropriate for the style of your house. The rationale is simple, and that’s why it pains me to see all those stripes-and-plaid houses out there. Here are a few rules of thumb:

•  First and foremost: If you’re replacing your home’s original roof, use the same material.  Somewhere out there is an architect who agonized over the type and color of roof to put on your house. Honest. That choice was based on the material’s style, cost, and durability, and represented the best compromise of the three. Unless your own requirements have changed—due to your budget or to local ordinances—there’s very little reason to switch to another material. It’s especially risky to downgrade from a quality product, such as shake, to a low-end one, such as composition roofing.  The stylitic unity of your house will be compromised, and so will your resale value.
. . .or without at least considering an unpgraded
composition shingle with texture, such as this one.

•  If your roof has already been remuddled a few times and you have no idea what the original roofing material was, make an educated guess and try to return to that material if it’s at all possible. 
For example, suppose you own a California Rancher with a composition shingle roof. A good style guide will tell you that Ranchers almost invariably featured a heavy shake roof. Since the roof’s rustic texture is integral to the style, consider going back to shake. Or, if there’s a high fire danger in your area, switch to fire-treated shakes, or as a last resort, to a textured composition shake look-alike; some come reasonably close to the shaggy appearance of real shake—at any rate, much closer than ordinary composition shingle ever will.

And most of all, don't re-roof if you don't need to.
If your house doesn't leak, it doesn't need a new roof.
Even if it does leak, it might just need a tube of roofing
mastic. And no, I don't own stock in Henry Company.
•  On the other hand, don’t assume that a more costly roofing material will automatically yield an aesthetic improvement. It ain’t necessarily so. For example, upgrading a California Bungalow from the original composition shingle to a more expensive concrete tile will simply look weird, because bungalows designs seldom employed that material. The roof will call much more attention to itself than the architect intended, and again, the design’s unity will be compromised.

•  Finally, make VERY SURE your house actually needs a new roof in the first place. Many DON'T.  If your roof doesn’t leak, you don’t need a new roof—it’s that simple. And even if your roof does leak, it may only need a few simple spot repairs. If so, your only dilemma will be where to spend all the money you’ve saved.