Monthly Archives: July 2011

Round House Ruminations

Wheels Within Wheels

To me summer vacation means changing the daily routine and seeing new things, or old things in new ways, so here are some unusual home designs to act as springboards for the imagination.

For example, round or almost round houses – i.e. octagons, like the McElroy house in San Francisco of 1861, shown above (photo courtesy Wikipedia) — have always had a special allure. In the 19th century, health writer Orson Squire Fowler popularized the form in his book The Octagon House: A Lifestyle for All. Octagons were sometimes called “health houses” because of the way each angled room maximized natural light and ventilation.

Variations on the octagon have interested architects and designers ever since –  well, actually since Greece and Rome, not to mention the Middle East, if you consider all those round temples and domed mosques. Among the most famous examples is the 12-sided House of Tomorrow by architects George Fred Keck and William Keck at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, built of steel, aluminum, and glass. Here’s the conceptual sketch for it (courtesy projetoblog).

Note the airplane easing out of the ground floor hangar (every home should have one) on the left, while the automobile pulls away on the right, and Mom is left alone with the daughter in the center.

Here it is as built (though this view was taken after it was bought by a developer and moved to a residential subdivision overlooking Lake Michigan) where the handy hangar was replaced with living quarters (sigh…). As a popular exhibit at the world’s fair it promoted a romantic machine-age future as if to say: “Look, you can live in an airport control tower!” (Photo courtesy Wikimapia.) Sounds fun to me. It’s not so very far, conceptually, from Los Angeles architect John Lautner’s Chemosphere, of 1960, shown below, though most people compare the latter to a flying saucer tethered to the ground.

The faceted geometry is still there but now everything is flattening out and lifting off into space (photo courtesy the John Lautner Foundation). John Portman’s spinning cocktail lounges atop Hyatt hotels, and of course Seattle’s Space Needle, were not far behind.

Spin an octagon fast enough and you get a cylinder, like the round house for the Medici family in Ticino, Switzerland of 1980-82 by Italian modernist architect Mario Botta.

It’s called la Rotunda — which is also the informal name for the Pantheon in Rome, not a bad precedent (photo courtesy Maro Botto Architetto). The idea here, according Botta, was to create a design that was visually distinct from surrounding houses while making a strong visual connection to the distant landscape through the geometric window fissures in the monolithic round tower form. It’s a very evocative design: a drum that’s both closed and connected at the same time.

We have various round designs in our inventory, such as Plan 64-165.

It’s actually sixteen-sided — a doubled octagon; part of our Unique and Unusual Plans Collection. The one story pavilion (connecting to a round pool), contains the living-dining area and kitchen in one half; bedroom, bath, and laundry/utility space in the other.

It would make an elegant guest house or in-law unit as well as a pool pavilion. To me it’s a perfect vehicle — and a wheel, no less — for rolling into a late summer daydream about home, which is another way of saying that I’ll be on vacation for a week. Please keep the porch light on for me.

Water Jets and Floating Homes

The Fluid Life

Summer heat has driven me to the drink (not just to the pitcher of margaritas!) and to wondering about waterscapes where fevered souls might find summer solace. I’m thinking water canons, like the extraordinary plumbing devices by WET Design that send baroque patterns of spray hundreds of feet in the air at places like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the pool in front of the Burj al Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper.

These two views of the fountains at the Burj only hint at the remarkable spectacles that the fountains provide — there’s music too. The technology involved with throwing all this water around is fascinating. At a home builder show a while ago I saw a demonstration model of one of WET Design‘s smaller water cannons.


The valve pivots and swivels in multiple directions to create different spray patterns. The device looked to me like a jet engine with a nozzle. Very impressive. But perhaps a little large for my backyard sprinkler and you couldn’t run through it — it would run through you.

To continue the watery theme, but bring it a little closer to home, what about houseboats. Such compact designs are always worth a look for inspiration and ideas to adapt for landlocked abodes. This contemporary example, the Schwimmhaus by the intriguingly named German firm Confused Direction, caught my eye.

(This image courtesy Inhabitat.com.) I like the way the window wall tilts upward and forward for maximum light and view, making the deck appear to extend indoors, and creating the slope for the roof. Makes me want to sail away. And as it happens we have an exclusive plan that is very similar — by Mumbai architect Rinka d’Monte, Plan 467-3 — it’s part of our Exclusive Studio.

It’s not a houseboat but it feels like one, at least to me, and freshens the breeze in my imagination.


Frank McGahon, Irish Modern Architect

Compound Interest

One of the great pleasures of my job is meeting and working with talented architects from around the world who are interested in making high quality home design available to everyone. And so I am especially excited to present house plans by Irish architect Frank McGahon who is the newest member of our Exclusive Studio.

His work is both regionally expressive in the use of traditional  features like stone walls and courtyard compounds, and very contemporary in the manipulation of open plans and strong indoor-outdoor connections, as you can see in a view of the living room window wall opening to the patio in Plan 520-6, above. Here’s a another view.

Each of the three key functional spaces — kitchen/dining area, living room/entry, bedroom wing –  is expressed as an independent gable.

One wing angles slightly away from the next to frame different views and allow a measure of privacy for each. The wide entrance hall binds them while bending them into a curve, like a bow-string pulled taut. Open the front door and you are effectively releasing the arrow and launching your gaze into the vistas ahead. Ingenious!

Frank (here he is) knows something about tradition. He has followed his great grandfather, grandfather, and father into practicing architecture in the town of Dundalk, equidistant between Dublin and Belfast. After graduating from the School of Architecture, University College Dublin in 1989 he worked in London and Dublin before returning to work for his father in Dundalk in 1992, eventually taking over the practice and establishing McGahon Architects in 2001. But he’s also a modernist as you can tell by the elegant abstraction of Plan 520-4, below.


 It’s an elemental nature-viewing pavilion; the ultimate getaway.

See how the living/dining area and master bedroom flank the flame-red kitchen/storage/plumbing core. It’s a modernist reduction to essentials and draws inspiration from great twentieth century architectural icons like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and more recently the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura (winner of the 2011 Pritzker Prize) such as his house in Cascais, Portugal, shown below.

(This image courtesy the Pritzker Prize website.) I like how Souto de Moura’s house and pool are essentially “the same only different:” one a rectangular solid, suspended; the other a rectangular liquid, grounded. The firm of Shift architecture urbanism in Rotterdam has designed a faculty club for Tilburg University that uses the same shape but with different solids and voids, as shown below.

(image courtesy Dezeen Design Magazine). Indeed, there’s a fine essay waiting to be written about how modern architects have adapted the simple flat box in a thousand different ways, proving yet again that limitation breeds invention…

But Frank McGahon has additional arrows in his architectural quiver. One that’s particularly compelling is his use of courtyards and patios to make the house and lot extensions of each other while forming a compound, as he does in Plan 520-9, below.

The entire lot is divided into a series of rooms, some roofed and some not, with a home office in a separate structure at one end. In effect, the house is surrounded by courtyards. In Plan 520-7, it’s the other way around.

Here the courtyard is at the center and the house is a square doughnut in plan — like an atrium house in Pompeii. Again a major space like the kitchen/dining area connects to the outdoors in a dramatic way,

in this case via one of Frank McGahon’s signature glass gables. Compounds aren’t the only way to go however. His L-shaped house in Blackrock, Plan 520-8, is really an L-inside a rectangle.

Conceptually, then, whether surrounded by outdoor rooms or surrounding them, house = lot. This is the architectural imagination at work. Welcome to the neighborhood, Frank!




Wild Architectural Rides

Working Vacations

Some architects are always looking, and adapting what they see for their designs. Take David Weingarten and Lucia Howard of Ace Architects, for example. Their “Rancho Diablo” is an extraordinary architectural travelogue or “ride” that incorporates references to the Wild West desert of Wile E. Coyote, Italy, and early Bay Region design history.  Here are some images of the house.

The marvelous ovoid openings that appear in all three images (photographs courtesy Ace Architects) are adaptations of a Gothicized window treatment developed by Berkeley, California architect Bernard Maybeck for some of his early 20th century houses like the one shown below.

You can see that David and Lucia enjoy their work! But there’s more. Rancho Diablo also houses one of the largest collections of miniature or souvenir buildings in the world (it may well be the largest), amassed by David Weingarten and Margaret Majua. These include coin banks, pencil sharpeners, lamps, thermometers, and salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of landmarks from across the planet — they are often in exhibitions at SFO, museums, and elsewhere.

At Rancho Diablo there is a special gallery that holds a selection of the miniatures. Here you can tour the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids without leaving home.

As the architects themselves might say, their work, like their collecting, is “vigorously eclectic.”

Not to be outdone completely, Houseplans.com has a growing collection of plans that exhibit a travel-history (travelicity?!) quality, which seems especially appropriate for summer.We have a version of the White House, for example, Plan 119-189.

Or if the burden of history is a bit heavy, why not lighten the load with a lighthouse, Plan 64-204.

You can see more such designs in our Unique and Unusual House Plans Collection.

Another friend of mine, artist Keith Wilson, never stops working when he’s on a holiday trip. His eye is architectural and whimsical at the same time: color and shape recombine in almost childlike ways, recalling the work of Paul Klee. His drawn buildings are recognizable but novel, like the vibrant sketch of St. Peters in Rome, shown below.


Just a few elements – curves, columns, pediment, dome – capture an impression of the landmark, while the bright colors and grid change it into something new. I think this process of “capture/change” is what many people go through as they visit a new place. Vacations are the times to refresh your image banks! So use your camera or I-phone to record your surroundings — you may see ideas you can adapt for your new home. Bright colors for an accent wall? Or maybe you’ll see a Gothic window you can reinterpret. I think this is what summer is all about — looking for ideas wherever your travels may take you.


News from the 2011 Dwell On Design Expo

From Hobo Lanterns to Infinity Drains

The yearly Dwell On Design expo in Los Angeles took place last week: it’s an important venue for innovation in home design and always has surprises in store. We asked architect Sarah Sobel to scout it and give us a report. Here are her top new product picks.

Nature Nurtured. These eye-catching pendant lights inspired by brain coral are the “brainstorms” of David Trubridge. They’re available through Ford & Ching in a variety of colors — like a modern version of the classic lightbulb-as-idea metaphor (this is Dan talking).

Trubridge calls them“kitset lightshades” and they’re made of painted bamboo and plywood with nylon clips. Something for the dining room or the lanai, as shown here in a photograph by David himself.

Fencing that Fans the Imagination. Harwell Fencing and Gates shows how a fence can be more than just a barrier. 

It can be a backdrop that draws the eye and creates a dramatic frame for outdoor living space and plants. Precise horizontal spacing makes all the difference — these fences are built like furniture and carefully sealed against the elements.

Simpler Sinks. Undermount sinks are easier to clean because there is is no rim where dirt can build up along the seam. Duravit’s vanity basin is a simple clean design that works well.

Flexibility and the Disappearing Drain. A traditional center drain — for a shower, say — requires that the floor be pitched in four directions, which limits tile size or slab material. Enter the Infinity Drain making it possible to pitch the surface in just one direction so there’s no  limit on tile size or slab.

The drain comes in a variety of lengths to suit different shower sizes.

One version can even be camouflaged with the shower floor material for a sleek seamless look. Can you see it along the edge of the shower above the sprayer?

Everyday Objects Transformed. Molo Designs is an exceptionally creative industrial design firm specializing in re-imagining furniture and lighting. Sarah says: “The studio of 18 from Vancouver makes beautiful, ingenious, flexible furniture /walls from paper, Tyvek, felt, and LED’s.” I could not agree more! I am especially taken with their “Softwall and Softblock” space partitions, which turn the screen into a form of animation.

The partition is made of pleated kraft paper — like a giant accordion/paper slinky — and expands in serpentine arrangements. According to Molo, it’s a modular system that connects flexible honeycomb elements of various heights, colours, and material to one another simply and seamlessly with concealed magnets to create continuous lengths of wall.

When compressed for storage it takes up little space. The material can also be stacked vertically “like stretchy lego blocks.” The “Softwall” suits a loft or great room  — say, to create intimacy within a larger space for Plan 64-183, below.


Molo’s Hobo Lanterns use an LED light in a felt bag.

It’s both a tote and a lantern — or is that a lote or a tanturn? Thanks, Sarah for lighting our way to all these innovative home products.