Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Bungalow with a classic "six pack"
floor plan, from a 1922 plan book by
E. W. Stillwell and Co,—also the
authors of the quote at the opening.
“It is better to build a small house than to overburden the budget with debt for a larger one. A beautiful small house is just as expressive of character, aims, and aspirations as the large house. Mere size is a waste of money and human endeavor.”

This prescient advice, so apropos to the world we now live in, comes not from a modern-day tree hugger but rather from a California bungalow plan book of 1913. The humble little bungalow was a reply to the excesses of the Victorian era, and a very successful one: it went on to dominate the national housing market by the end of the 1920s. California bungalows are characterized by a simple, rectangular one-story floor plan, a prominent front porch, and a stucco exterior. 

Classic California bungalow of a type that was built across
the nation. Note the trademark tapered porch columns.
But the style’s most important distinction lies in its philosophy of simplicity, which was in calculated contrast to that of its bulked-up Victorian predecessors. Bungalow floor plans were extremely compact, sometimes having no hallways at all—in some bare-bones plans you can step directly from the living room into a bedroom. Exterior lines were emphatically horizontal rather than vertical, and plain stucco surfaces replaced the bombastic amalgam of siding, shingles, and ornament that typified Victorian architecture. 

Built-in sideboards and other cabinetry
are bungalow hallmarks.
The bungalow’s keep-it-simple credo seems especially timely in today’s era of vast, overblown houses. There’s a lot to be said for a home plan that doesn’t waste space just to impress the neighbors.

So popular did the bungalow style become that virtually any town in the country is likely to have a picturesque row of them on some street or other. They're particularly plentiful in cities whose populations exploded during the boom years of the 20s—most notably, in Los Angeles. 

The bungalow’s trademark is its massive front porch, which is carried on a pair of improbably stout “elephantine” columns. Ingenious builders came up with infinite variations on this porch design so that, despite the basic similarity of the bungalow plan, each home maintained its own personality.  They added further variety by varying such small details as window muntins and rafter tails.
Bungalow bathrooms often featured bathrooms with
extensive tile work in wild color schemes.
(Image courtesy Brad Dixon, The New York Times)

Bungalow interiors commonly feature built-in furniture such as  sideboards in the dining room and built-in bookcases flanking the fireplace. A precious few examples retain their original bathrooms, featuring pedestal sinks and ceramic tile work in vibrant color combinations such as yellow and black or maroon and pink. 

Bungalow drawbacks? A few. Privacy can be nil, since the basic "six pack" floor plan means that rooms often open directly onto one another rather than into a hallway. Bungalow kitchens are rudimentary at best, since they were designed to accommodate only a free-standing range, a small icebox and a sink and drainboard along with a few wall cupboards. These shortcomings have led most original kitchens to be remodeled several times over, with varying degrees of success. 

Historical photo of a "model" bungalow kitchen, which
was made intentionally small in reaction to the vast
and complicated kitchens found in Victorian homes.
Structurally, bungalows can suffer from settlement problems due to their minimal foundations. Many are built too close to the ground, so watch out for dry rot and termite damage as well. The old gravity  heating furnaces and galvanized-steel water piping used in these homes are also a frequent source of trouble, but the good news is that, in most cases, the home’s simple floor plan makes upgrades fairly straightforward.

Monday, March 18, 2019


The characteristic stepped-back profile of
New York City skyscrapers was the result
of zoning regulations meant to ensure
adequate light at street level.
A hundred years ago, our zoning regulations made sense. They undertook to protect public health by requiring such niceties as natural light and air—a godsend at a time when living conditions in many urban areas were truly squalid. Zoning also aimed to protect the public by separating incompatible uses—by forbidding, say, a dynamite works to be built in a residential area. U.S. cities were conspicuously shaped by these concerns:  the stepped-back profile of New York City skyscrapers, for example, was a direct result of zoning laws meant to ensure that sunlight could reach the streets below.  

Zoning Run Amuck: Corbusier's Plan Voisin of 1925,
in which the architect proposed to raze an entire district
of Paris and replace it with strictly zoned residential towers.
Over the years, however, zoning regulations became ever more restrictive of what could be built where. Eventually, even the time-honored tradition of combining housing, stores, and workshops in a single district was frowned upon. By the 1960s, zoning laws simply assumed that people would drive everywhere, and the idea of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods became practically extinct. And alas, even in this carbon-conscious era, automobiles remain the centerpiece of most city planning. 

A former Portland, Oregon candy factory converted to living
units. Many zoning regulations still discourage the reuse of
industrial building for living space, leading to the construction
of new "fake" industrial lofts at great cost to the environment.
Many of the excesses of today’s zoning policies are the legacy of overzealous Modernist city planners, who considered mixed-use planning an untidy relic of the nineteenth century—one that was best wiped off the map.  They in turn were influenced by the likes of zoning fanatics such as the architect Le Corbusier, a man who in all seriousness proposed to raze the northern half of Paris and replace it with antiseptic, sharply defined districts arranged to suit his own mania for order (he did grudgingly relent to save a few historic buildings that met his impeccable standards).  

Zoning regulations typically require vast quantities of parking
for retail centers, leading to the usual "sea of asphalt"
in front of suburban strip malls.
Mercifully, Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris came to nothing, along with most of his other monstrous schemes. Still, a half century later, his spirit survives in the form of retentive, hyper-organized zoning regulations that routinely isolate commercial uses from residential ones and vice versa.  

Technology has transformed our culture during the past two decades, and will change it even faster in the coming ones. Electronic commuting has already made the concept of “going to work” a quaint memory for many people, and has further blurred the distinction between residence and workplace. In our cities, the decline of smokestack industry has left a wealth of superb commercial and industrial buildings begging for residential use; meanwhile, we squander more and more unspoiled land on the environmental idiocy of conventionally-zoned suburbs. 
Last but not least, the outdated setback
requirements typical of most cities lead to
wasted and useless strips of setback land
surrounding houses—maybe including yours.

Despite the clear need for more innovative thinking, most zoning regulations remain mired in the past. In large part, they are the reason our suburbs are bereft of basic neighborhood amenities such as shops and eateries, compelling us to drive to a “shopping center” for a quart of milk instead of walking to the corner.  They are also the reason many of our cities are filled with derelict commercial and industrial buildings that could long ago have been converted to housing.  And they are the reason single-family homes must still be separated by narrow, useless strips of side yard—the zoner's beloved "side yard setback"—when courtyard housing or zero-lot-line planning could make far better use of our precious land.

The original public safety aims of our zoning regulations remain admirable, but in this era of climate change and the need for conservation, their means are obsolete. The way we work, live, and communicate is changing profoundly; and the way we’re allowed to build ought to change along with it.  

Monday, March 11, 2019


Is using gobs and gobs of fossil-fueled
PVC the way to avoid maintenance?
Well, maybe for a little while. . .
I recently read about a new home that boasted of nearly zero maintenance. The architect says he accomplished this by using materials such as synthetic stone set in plasticized mortar, vinyl-clad aluminum trim, and a PVC-plastic fence. I gather that all this fossil fuel-based stuff is considered low maintenance because it’ll all fall to pieces before you have to paint it.

The mantra of relying on high-tech materials to cut maintenance is one that was dear to Modernist architects for half a century. They were convinced that futuristic products such as stainless steel, neoprene roofing, and Plexiglas could make their buildings look brand new forever. One need only look at an aging Bauhaus design to see that, sadly, it just ain’t so.

Stucco is virtually maintenance free, and
can even be colored integrally.
But the Romans already knew that.
We Americans are obsessed with keeping everything “looking like new”. But designing a low-maintenance home doesn’t require cutting-edge technology or—heaven help us— PVC plastic trim. Just the opposite: it demands durable, low-tech materials that can take the ravages of time with predictable results. Here are a few proven winners:

•  Exterior walls. Stucco—a proven material that dates back to Roman times—is still the hands-down champion for ease of maintenance. It’s basically sand and cement, so it’s much tougher than any wood-based product. Moreover,  if you have the stucco's final or “skim” coat integrally colored, you’ll never need to paint it again.  Stucco’s durability trounces trounces organic finishes such as solid wood, plywood, hardboard and shingle. To top it off, it’s also quite economical. Stucco’s main drawback: its undeserved crackerbox-tract reputation which, fortunately, can easily be overcome by good designer.

If you love wood windows, hate maintenance,
and have money to burn, consider clad wood
windows—they're protected by fiberglass
or aluminum on the outside, but still
look like wood on the inside.
•  Windows. Although wood windows are still considered the ultimate in quality, they’re also the ultimate in maintenance—they’ll quickly deteriorate if not kept in top condition. For better or worse, aluminum windows remain the most trouble-free window choice, as well as one of the most economical. Aluminum windows don’t warp or shrink like wood, nor do they rust like the steel windows of the 1940s. However, unprotected aluminum will oxidize in damp climates, so it’s not invulnerable either.

Vinyl windows are now the default standard for the lower price ranges, and their manufacturers love to wave lab tests “proving” their durability in front of anyone who’ll listen. For my money, however, vinyl windows haven’t yet passed the acid test:  a generation or so of exposure in actual installations.  We’ll see how they fare in another ten years or so.

Another ancient material whose durability is hard to beat—
clay barrel tile. The less you maintain them, the happier
they are—so stay the heck off of the roof.
For those of you who can’t give up on wood windows—and who have money to burn—check out the aluminum-clad or fiberglass-clad wood windows, which are more resistant to extremes of weather.

•  Roofing.  In this case, ease of maintenance translates into the number of years between new roofs, and it’s directly related to first cost. Materials with a relatively low first cost, such as tar and gravel, composition shingle, wood shingle, and wood shake will usually need to be replaced several times during the life of the house. The only roof materials that can be expected to last as long as your home are concrete tile (including artificial shingle, shake and slate), clay tile, slate, and metal roofs such as copper. 

Alas, most people are unwilling or unable to pay the up-front premium for this kind of durability. 
So where are those plastic-coated aluminum shingles when you need them?

Monday, March 4, 2019

EICHLER HOMES: The Ultimate In Mid-Century Modern

The height of Mid Century Modern: Compared to today's
typical tract house,  the homes of developer
Joseph Eichler look about as old as tomorrow
(Image courtesy of MCM Daily)
Back in 1963, a reporter asked developer Joseph Eichler, "What do you call your homes, contemporary or modern or what?”

“I call them Eichler homes,” he responded. “There’s nothing else like them.”

With their dramatic facades, breezy interiors and Californian focus on patio living, Eichlers are still standouts today, a half-century after their inception. 

Joseph Eichler, dairy executive turned
developer and architectural visionary.
Between 1949 and 1967, over ten thousand Eichler homes were built in San Francisco Bay Area suburbs such as Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, along with 900 or so more in Southern California. They were the brainchild of Joseph Eichler, a wealthy dairy executive with no background in design. However, Eichler had briefly lived in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and wondered why such houses couldn’t be made affordable to everyone. He was finally inspired to take on the task himself. He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple Robert Anshen of the Los Angeles firm of Jones & Emmons to design the initial Eichlers, and the first prototypes were built in 1949. During the next eighteen years, a whole range of uncommon Eichler designs emerged, including later versions designed by the San Francisco firm of Claude Oakland & Associates and the

In Eichler homes, acres of full-height glass
reflect a time when energy was dirt cheap.
(Image courtesy of eichlerhometour.org)
Eichler homes had a host of unorthodox features, including post-and-beam construction, slab floors with integral radiant heating, and a standard second bathroom. Later models introduced the unforgettable Eichler atrium, an entrance foyer that daringly straddled the line between indoors and out. Exteriors featured vertical siding, flat or very low-sloped roofs, and shockingly blank street facades. At the side and rear walls, however, great sweeps of glass brought the outdoors in, without so much as a step to interrupt it. 

The daring Eichler atrium straddled
the line between indoors and out.
Everything about Eichlers seemed light, fresh and modern in comparison to the dowdy postwar homes that glutted the market, and the houses quickly became a sales success. Yet they never garnered more than modest profits for their developer, due mainly to their unusual design. Although his associates urged him to make the houses more conventional, Eichler refused. Sadly, the realities of the housing market eventually caught up with him, and Eichler Homes filed for bankruptcy in 1967.  Joseph Eichler continued building custom homes for another five years until the 1973 recession made that, too, untenable. He died in 1974.

Eichler's modular post and beam system
looked spectacular, but could make adding on
a real challenge.
Since then, time has brought a number of Eichler shortcomings to light. Bedrooms are cramped by modern standards, and the thin, mahogany-paneled walls, hollow doors, and free-standing partitions make the interiors unusually noisy. The innovative radiant heating system proved troublesome, and the modular post-and-beam framing can make sensitive remodeling a challenge.

However, the home’s single greatest shortcoming couldn’t have been anticipated by Eichler or by his architects: Designed during an era of dirt-cheap energy, Eichlers made extravagant use of glass and were poorly insulated. As energy costs soared during the 70s, Eichlers proved disastrously inefficient—and unlike homes with attics and conventional windows, there was no quick retrofit available.

For these reasons, as well as Modernism’s fall from favor, the Eichler will forever remain emblematic of the 1950s and 60s. But what an emblem! Though Joseph Eichler’s uncompromising vision may have brought him financial ruin, his legacy has proved more permanent.