Monthly Archives: May 2012

Cabins Inspired by Railroad Depots and Fire lookouts

From Trains to Towers

I’m excited to report that two cabin plans by Montana architect Jeff Shelden (one of which I mentioned in a previous post) are now part of our Exclusive Studio. Both designs draw inspiration from what you might call “the short and the tall” of the architectural past. Late 19th century American railroad depots, like these

from Cornell, Wisconsin and Missoula, Montana provide a perfect point of departure (and an irresistible metaphor) for vacation house design because of

their crisp outlines and straightforward structure, not to mention their promise of escape (vintage postcard from collection of Duane Hall, courtesy Greg Meier, Bruce, Wisconsin; color photo by bdbrewer courtesy Virtual Tourist). Jeff

retained the depot details in Plan  547-2, as you see in his rendering, complete with large brackets supporting the roof’s shady overhang. However, inside,

the 1,040 square foot cottage is all about easy modern living. The great room at the center is flanked by the master suite on one end and a guest bedroom on the other. It could be expanded into a larger year-round home by connecting the entry to new rooms or a garage.

Jeff’s other cabin is inspired by US Forest Service fire lookouts

built during the 1930s, such as this one on Mt. Brown in Glacier National Park (photo courtesy HikingGlacier.com). Jeff’s interpretation — Plan 547-1 below, is

vividly romantic. The pyramid-roofed design is all about escaping into the wild. As Jeff tells it, the fire towers “were a place where life and relationships were condensed to their essential elements, where nature overwhelmed and embraced

those lives.” The 576 square-foot structure — it also resembles a rustic water tower — has a stone base containing the cooking/dining area, which

functions as an old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen. You’ll notice that the

  has no bathroom — the original design called for a composting toilet some distance away from the cabin. So you’ll need to modify the plan to suit your own requirements. The second floor is one room for living and sleeping and

opens to the wrap-around cantilevered deck, as shown above. The ribbon of 

windows and the scattered books let the gaze as well as the imagination wander. Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for prompting dreams of summer getaways!

Renting a Lookout

If you want to try bunking in a fire tower before actually building one, you are in luck: various historic lookouts are available for overnight stays now that new technologies perform similar functions. Just remember, it’s all about the view because the interiors are spartan. Visit Recreation Rentals of the Pacific Northwest (part of the US Forest Service) for more information. Here’s a sampling in Oregon:

Fivemile Butte Lookout.

Hager Mountain Lookout.

Bolan Mountain Lookout.

Drake Peak. Enjoy the panoramas!



Sarah Susanka, Hip Roofs, and Prairie Style DNA

Aloha Sarah — and Mahalo Frank

Let’s take a DNA strand out of Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating Finding Your Roots show currently running on PBS, and apply it to residential architecture and our latest design by architect Sarah Susanka, Plan 454-11. It was  originally

conceived for a dramatic view-oriented meadow on the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown here. The plan is a new addition to our Exclusive Studio and one of the descendants, if you will, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School houses (remember the recent film of the same name about a Hawaiian family, starring George Clooney — genealogy is everywhere at the moment!). I’m thinking of the

Ward Willits house in Highland Park,Illinois, of 1901, shown above (photo and plan, courtesy delmars.com). See how the hipped roofs and horizontal lines of the Willits house dominate, appearing to float over the deeply recessed eaves. Susanka’s roofs also float; her design resembles a series of interlocking pavilions shaped to capture views in every direction. In the Willits plan, below, the

rooms radiate from the hearth at the center of a pinwheel, further accentuating the horizontality of the design and thereby expressing the lines of the Prairie

itself, hence the style name. Sarah Susanka’s plan, above, does something similar but within the overall constraint of the rectangle. A generous central hearth also anchors her design while the island kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom wings reach toward terraces and the landscape beyond. A classic

Susanka touch is to craft a room-within-a room for a sense of intimacy in a larger space, as she does here in the breakfast alcove with its built in seating and

window walls. She uses dropped soffits — like abstract cornices — to support concealed lighting and vary ceiling heights, which is also something Wright did. Susanka’s use of wood to articulate structure also recalls Japanesque design and this resonates with Wright and his lifelong interest in Japanese prints, not to mention his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from the early 1920s. It turns out he traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905, with guess who — Mr. and Mrs. Willits.

But you may ask, how does Prairie style relate to Hawaii? Well actually, there’s a logical connection, and it has to do with the hipped roof. The Hawaiian architect Charles Dickey is credited with developing a regional Hawaiian style of architecture through his use of the broadly sheltering hip roof — as shown

on his own house of 1926 at Waikiki (photo courtesy Wikipedia). Bertram

Goodhue’s more elongated hip roof for the Honolulu Academy of Art of 1927 developed the form on a monumental scale (photo by Burl Burlingame courtesy Honolulu Star Bulletin). Though the Wrightian and Susankan roofs read more as separate geometric units that seem to levitate over their structures than the Hawaiian hips, I think you can see the visual DNA connection. I’d just call them calabash cousins — i.e. extended family — no saliva test required.

Fire Pits and Outdoor Fireplaces

Heating Up the Patio

Patios and decks are evolving fast thanks to a new generation of outdoor fire amenities. The Key West Coffee Table by Firegear, for example,  which was introduced in 2011, is actually a portable propane fire pit. The elegant contemporary table is 43 inches wide, 20.25 inches tall, and 20

inches deep,and has a 30 inch-long stainless steel burner running across the top.

According to the manufacturer the burner is covered first with a 1-inch (minimum) layer of cinders/lava rock and then you can add a layer of “fire glass,” or “fire stones” — also available from Firegear (the two units above, one with a stainless steel top and the other with a bronze powder-coated one, courtesy Firegear). Eco Smart Fire makes a wide range of outdoor fire features (some of which I have mentioned in previous posts). The Dish, shown here, is

one of their most classic designs and recalls both Frank Lloyd Wright’s urns  and an abstract campfire (image courtesy Eco Smart Fire). It’s made of steel, stands 9.2 inches high with a diameter of 23.6 inches, and burns bio-ethanol. For the old-fashioned wood burning aficionado there are legions of products based on versions of the old drum idea but one example stands out for originality and

and practicality: the Landmann Ball of Fire Outdoor Fireplace. The steel mesh sphere puts the flames on a pedestal while protecting you from the sparks; dimensions are 30.25 x 32.75 x  34.75 inches (image courtesy Best Barbecue Grills Reviews.com).

Architects and designers have always been interested in using outdoor fireplaces to shape a place, not to mention a patio or terrace. Julia Morgan — architect of Hearst Castle — designed one of the most evocative outdoor fireplaces ever, in the late 1920s — actually four-in-one — as a monument to commemorate the saving of an old-growth redwood forest. It’s called the California Federation of

Women’s Clubs Hearthstone, built as part of a picnic site near the South Fork of the Eel River in Northern California, and is made of stone and redwood (photo by Andy Bird courtesy 101 Things.com). There’s a bit of an irony here, since the fireplaces would presumably consume the occasional redwood log, but it is nonetheless a marvelously poetic expression of a partnership between man and nature. It’s a small, gabled, cruciform-shaped temple to the gods — as if the entire forest were one giant house and this was its hearth. For a more recent residential example, consider the outdoor fireplace at a house in Washington’s

San Juan Islands by Olson Kundig Architects. The house and the fireplace are set into a stone outcropping. The hearth is “carved out of existing stone; leveled on top…otherwise left raw” according to the architect, so the fireplace is in one sense hewn right out of the site (photo courtesy Olson Kundig Architects).

Outdoor fireplaces are even designed into some of our ready-made plans, like

this one in Plan 120-162, which is part of a lanai overlooking the backyard. So you can see, there many ways — from temporary to permanent — to add a little summer sizzle to your outdoor space.

What Makes a Great Outdoor Room?

Fresh Air Fantasies

Spring fever is upon me so what makes a great outdoor room? In Baroque Italy it might have included finely clipped box hedges, stone benches, a bubbling fountain, the odd grotto, and perhaps a running stream for keeping wine bottles cool (those thirsty cardinals and popes!). In the late 1920s the famous modern architect Le Corbusier designed a roof garden for an eccentric client in Paris that was a surrealist living room: an ornate fireplace, a rug-like lawn, and the

Arc de Triomphe peeking over one wall like the fragment of a floating cornice (photo courtesy Studio International). More recently architects and designers have continued to push boundaries, literally, and they have shown how almost every room in the house can move outdoors. Here’s a quick round-up of indoor functions that migrate.

Living. Of course a patio sitting area becomes a secondary living room, as

landscape architect Bernard Trainor shows in this arrangement around a fire pit, where the gravel floor and perimeter plantings neatly define the space (photo courtesy Bernard Trainor). Crisp edges, smooth ground, two chairs and perhaps a shade umbrella are really all you need. A built-in bench protected from the sun

by a retractable canopy is another way to go as shown in this example by architect Buzz Yudell, of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, and architectural colorist Tina Beebe, where the pillows seem to embody the weight and color of shade itself — lighter to darker green.

Cooking. Outdoor kitchens have grown in popularity and run the gamut from simple built-in barbecues with an adjacent counter to grand food preparation

zones with a full complement of appliances designed for outdoor use, not to mention pizza ovens and flat screen televisions. (The example above is from Plan 496-14, by Leon Meyer.) The arrival of versatile folding wall systems — pioneered by Nanawall from the US, with other companies like Centor from Australia adding to the mix — have made it possible to turn any kitchen with an outside wall into an outdoor kitchen. (This Nanawall example is courtesy

Shannon, Scarlett, Taylor Architects).

Dining. In good weather everyone wants to be outside, especially at mealtime,

and here’s an especially serene space for alfresco dining by Aidlin Darling Design. I hope that after this compelling image was made the owners added a little more seating — otherwise the fire seems to be entertaining itself (photo courtesy Aidlin Darling via Custom Home). Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen is known for supremely elegant houses where outdoor rooms are proportioned

like interior ones, as this hip-roofed patio dining pavilion demonstrates (courtesy Architectural Digest).

Bathing. Where the climate is temperate and there’s enough privacy even bathrooms can move outside, as this dramatic example by the firm of

Backen Gillam Kroeger Architects demonstrates. When the walls slide away you can really soak in the sunset! (Photo courtesy BGK Architects.)

Sleeping. It’s a summertime pleasure to sleep in the open air. Certainly it can be done with a sleeping bag, but there are other ways to go. The Mexican modern architects Legoretta and Legoretta turned an entire bedroom

at a house in Hawaii into a breezeway. The corner disappears — no sleepwalking allowed (photo courtesy Architectural Digest). But simply installing a hammock

on the porch (visible in the distance, house design by and photo courtesy of Walker Warner Architects) might be enough. Or why not hang your bed from the

rafters for the ultimate relaxation room, and let your house rock you to sleep (photo courtesy Chomec.com).