Monthly Archives: September 2010

Inspired In-Law Cottage Opens

Backyard Living, Part Deux

The Inspired In-Law Cottage designed by Larson Shores Architects opened for touring today as part of the West Coast Green expo and conference at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, which runs September 30 — October 2. After the expo, the show home will remain open daily through October 6 from 10 am to 4pm.  The cottage took only eight days for Eco Offsite, the green modular builder, to construct, and a day to install on the Bay-side site. The modules arrived yesterday at sunrise.


The crane hoists the first module into place beside the pier. See the three foundation outlines ready to receive their units on the right.

Later in the morning, the three modules have been connected to form the cottage, and the furniture is piled up in the parking lot, ready to be installed.

By sunset the buttoning up work is almost complete; The Inka Wall Garden by Inka Biospheric Systems is by the front door; Two Rainwater Hog vertical cisterns are against the house at the far right.

Just after dusk Room & Board has completed the installation of all the furnishings and the home is ready for its close-up. A ten-foot high ceiling, and deftly placed windows make the living room feel spacious.


The kitchenette side has room for a small table and two chairs beside the under- counter refrigerator and storage cabinet.

The  shower is surfaced in elegant Hakatai mosaic tile made from recycled glass. The floor tile (from The Tile Shop) also uses recycled material. Thanks to the Kaldewei shower tray it’s a roll-in shower.


The bedroom has room for twin side tables,

and a built-in desk with a roll-up counter and an artfully placed  window to preserve privacy.

In addition to those manufacturers already mentioned, many others contributed to the success of the project, including: Cree LED LightingKelly-Moore Enviro Coat paint; kitchen cabinets from Studio Marler; Swanstone eco-friendly counters; shelving: Rev-A-Shelf; solar energy: Sol-Solutions; Trex decking; cork flooring by Wicanders.

Early comments by the crowds who toured the home today were not limited to observations about aging in place. They ranged from”I’d like to put one on my warehouse roof” to “I want it for my backyard studio.”

I think several could be put together to form a compound or a small neighborhood, as this sketch showing the four different cottage styles begins to suggest.

Anything is possible when you start with thoughtful design: it’s not just aging in place, it’s architecture in place! For more on the architects who designed the Inspired In-Law Cottage see this entertaining video by  Peter Headington, of the encyclopedic website Housing.com.


Prefab Micro-Cottage at West Coast Green

Reinventing the Granny Unit

Big news! We’re launching a modern, modular, sustainable, factory-built, one-bedroom backyard cottage that supports senior independence and makes it possible for multiple generations to live together comfortably.

It’s called the Inspired In-Law™ Cottage and was the brainchild of and designed by Larson Shores Architects, who are aging-in-place specialists certified in green design. The prototype is being constructed by Eco Offsite (modular builders), with the help of Modular Source (construction management and sourcing) and will debut at West Coast Green (conference and expo on innovation in green building and product design) in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center September 30-October 2. Houseplans.com is the sales agent.

Here’s the plan, which is comprised of three modules containing living area/kitchenette; bathroom/hallway; and bedroom.

There’s a small sheltered entry deck at the front.

I saw the cottage under construction at the factory yesterday — the three modules are all framed in.

This one will be the living area and kitchenette.

The section with the porch overhang is the hallway and bathroom. Eco Offsite owner Kathleen Lipton (shown here) and her team have been doing an amazing job in a very short time. And here’s the bedroom module.

The interior view below shows what the bedroom will look like.

When completed the modules will be trucked to San Francisco in the wee hours of the morning and assembled on site.

The Inspired In-Law Cottage is basically a green strategy for multi-generational living. What could be more eco-friendly than making it possible for seniors to live independently while staying connected to family and community. Green features include: energy-efficient reflective roof coatings; cork flooring, FSC-certified structural lumber; high efficiency plumbing fixtures; recycled glass tile;  energy-efficient windows; and Zero-VOC paint. Accessibility features include zero-step entrances; day lighting; wide hallway; curb-less shower; roll-under sink; pull-out and pull-down storage; and a handrail that doubles as a picture rail and therefore does not look like an age-in-place feature.

It’s a timely alternative to institutional solutions now that communities like Seattle and Denver have recently passed ordinances allowing  so-called accessory dwelling units in many areas. The prototype at West Coast Green, called the Bungalow plan,  is one of four layouts that will ultimately be offered. Here are the other three. The range of plans allows for a variety of needs and lot conditions.

The horizontal bar-shaped Cabin plan could form one edge of a rear yard; the generous deck adds a feeling of spaciousness.

The Carriage plan provides a generous living/dining space.

The Courtyard plan opens to the garden on two sides for maximum outdoor living space.

Stay tuned for photographs of the completed unit, which will be furnished by Room & Board.

It will remain open for touring though October 6.

Come and explore!

John Lautner and How To Design the Client

Reach for the Sky!

Some artists create a new physical language. That’s what Los Angeles architect John Lautner did every time he designed a new house. Each project was a unique  exploration of structure, form, and material. The marvelous 2009 documentary Infinite Space by director Murray Grigor and editor/producer Sara Sackner deftly captures this remarkable restless spirit of invention. One of the film’s most powerful sequences  is the presentation of Lautner’s Mar Brisas house in Acapulco,

with its extraordinary sweeping swirl of suspended moat-as-railing beside a vast shoreline view (here are stills). This is where the film gets its title.

The heavy concrete structure appears weightless here, framing the wide vista, floating between earth and sky.The camera allows the viewer to float through the space as well.

Yes it’s an unusual design. When I interviewed the maverick Mr. Lautner many years ago he said something I have always remembered: “You not only need to design the house; you also have to design the site — and you have to design the client!” Many of Lautner’s clients were innovators themselves, enthusiastically embarking on journeys of discovery with their architect. Though such an approach might seem rarified, it really isn’t. In other words, the client and architect — or plan –  need to complement each other (and the site needs to be part of the house plan) in order for the project to be successful. That means doing your homework before you settle on a plan — knowing what exactly you are looking for and using the search process to establish your true  needs, wants, and taste — all  filtered through what you can afford. The plan purchaser (or client) needs to use the drawings (including layouts, sections, 3-D elevations, and photographs) to envision the completed house.

It’s both simple and complicated because you need to walk through each plan in your mind. In a sense you become the director of your own architectural documentary.

Here’s an image of the director Murray Grigor, far left; director of photography Hamid Shams, (middle); and Jack Hodges, operating the crane. According to editor/producer Sara Sackner: “That is how we made the movie — it’s called a Jimmy Jib and it’s a portable crane that is moved by the crane operator and has preset computerized moves for the camera, as well. It’s how we floated through the homes giving the viewer that feeling of moving through the space.”

I think we all need a Jimmy Jib — but until that happens it’s possible to use Houseplans.com in a similar way, to fly over and through a great many plans all at once. The best clients have explored all possibilities and systematically narrowed a project down to key design elements. We can’t all be artists or artist clients but we can all use the available resources to educate ourselves as to what is possible. Of course not everyone can visualize 3-dimensional space from a set of drawings so if the movie metaphor doesn’t work for you try staking out a few rooms on your empty lot in order to get a better sense of a particular plan. In any case, before hiring the architect — I mean stock plan — you need to design the client that is you. Lights, camera, action! (Images courtesy Sara Sackner.)

Powers of Ten for Rooms and Furniture

Looking Up, Down, and All Around

Charles and Ray Eames were influential not just for the iconic modern house they built out of standardized parts (illustrated here by the set of blocks you can now

purchase from House Industries),  or for their Eames Lounge chair and other furniture, but for their films, especially Powers of Ten. This short movie is about seeing and understanding scale by adding another zero to a number (a larger power of ten) or taking a zero away (a smaller power of ten). As their grandson Eames Demetrios, also a filmmaker and author, explains on the Eames Office website: “Starting with a sleeping man at a picnic, the film takes the viewer on a journey out to the edge of space and then back into a carbon atom in the hand of the man at the picnic, all in a single shot. It is an unforgettable experience.”

(Image courtesy Eames Office)

One month from now — Friday, October 10 — is thus an important number sequence for Eamesians: 10/10/10, or 10 to the nth power. Numbers are not my strong suit but I am interested in how Charles and Ray help us see the world in fresh ways. Their single vertical tracking shot is essentially a Google map magnifier view (more than forty years before Google was founded) taken to extremes — from outer space to inner space.  You learn how small we are as humans in relation to the universe and how big we are in relation to our atoms and DNA.

The film is a useful way to think about home design: in other words, room size is always relative — both to other rooms in the home and to the elements within the room itself. As you explore our floor plans at Houseplans.com note each room’s overall dimensions. See how key elements like windows, doors, and the fireplace, for example, will affect your perception of scale and comfort — their sizes help you judge the size — and thus scale –  of the room. In Sea Ranch Cottage Plan 447-2 by William Turnbull,

the living area (13′ by 12.6′) and dining space (8.8′ by 9′)  are small in dimension but feel larger than expected because they overlap and because the windows

are tall and slender, accentuating height, and set low in the wall to allow sightlines to the ground, helping blur the edges of the room. Wainscoting, molding, paneling — even paint — can help establish a room’s proportion. The so-called “Double Cube Room” at Wilton House in England, designed by Inigo Jones ca. 1653, is vast at 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 30 feet high

but because of the equally large fireplace and portraits (around which the room was designed) it does not feel overwhelming (image courtesy RIBA). Everything is in proportion.

Furniture is a quick way to adjust a room’s sense of scale up or down. Use a lot of large heavy pieces and a room will feel stuffed and cramped; use fewer lighter pieces and it will feel more spacious.  Resource Furniture carries a particularly ingenious line of space-saving tables, sofas, and beds. For example,

here’s an unassuming coffee table

that morphs easily

into a desk. Or here’s a new twist on the Murphy bed, where even a small space can make room for both a bed and a  sofa.

See how the shelf remains level

all the way down to the floor. So cool! Although I would still add a little museum wax or something sticky to the bottoms of the vases (images courtesy Resource Furniture). Pull down to fill the room and make it feel smaller; push up to empty it and make it feel larger: Behold the Powers of Design!

Working at Home

Back to Basics, from Shaw to Chareau

Where do you work when you’re at home?  In my case, it’s either in the basement or at a counter in our small TV room. I need more space — room for a real desk maybe — storage compartments — a window seat would be nice. This daydreaming is sparked by a novel retro-solution just launched by Restoration Hardware: the home office as steamer trunk.

When open for business — that is, unpacked — it forms an L, with storage drawers, counter, and shelving all immediately accessible.

When closed up it conveniently rolls out of the way (which could make it dangerously procrastination-friendly). Where there is more space, the Seattle company henrybuilt, best known for modern eco-friendly kitchen cabinetry, offers a variety of elegant home office components.

The sleek shelving, cantilevered wall cabinet, and file drawer on wheels  would make me at least feel organized. Industrial designer Karim Rashid takes the uncluttered approach to a logical extreme in his seductive “BasiK” desk, from Council Design.

I like the way the drawers are indistinguishable from the writing surface (the line between them is barely visible), which rests on the simplest of steel legs. It’s the desk as an image of abstract thought: the support and the supported.

Cord control — or is that crowd control, no, I mean the wisdom of cords (apologies to James Surowicki!) –  is at the rear. This is truly a desk for the orderly mind. My mind probably veers more toward alluvial clutter with periodic tidal surges.

A more iconographic approach is shown in the “home office” that Albrecht Durer

envisioned for St. Jerome (I guess it’s high tide):  inspirational natural light, window seat, Ipad stand, room for dogs and lions…

Or what about the Writing Hut built by playwright George Bernard Shaw in his garden. Allowing for a short commute from the house is not a bad idea.

The shed  swivels around on wheels and a metal pin, following the sun (sign photo courtesy Shedworking).

You could say it is the forebear of our very own Flexa Studio prefab room by Modern Cabana.

But instead of a turning radius there’s space for the occasional catnap.

To my mind the ultimate home office is actually a home: the famous early modern Maison de Verre in Paris by Pierre Chareau, Bernard Bijvoet, and Louis Dalbet, built for a doctor and completed in 1932. A rotating screen directs you either to the doctor’s ground floor medical suite or upstairs to the living quarters.

The crystalline design — formed with ice cube-like glass blocks and exposed steel frames — has inspired architecture students around the world. The library living room is especially iconic and alluring for its artful collage of books, glass, and steel:  the life of a mind structurally expressed.

I think of it as a Durer for today — only with a grand piano instead of a lion curled in the corner. I guess the Maison de Verre is really two home offices — one for work and one for life. So perhaps that means thinking about how to make  every room flexible enough to function as a work space. I guess that’s what I’m already doing — I just want to be able to swing the cat now and then.