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
• 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.