Monthly Archives: June 2012

PCBC, Kinship, Bucky, and Sir Ken

Connections and Creativity

At this year’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) in San Francisco, which ended yesterday, the home building industry seemed poised for change: still smarting from the downturn but trying new ways to innovate. Some observations:

Selectivity is gaining ground. For as Adrian Foley, president of Brookfield Homes Southland and Chair of PCBC 2012 said in his opening remarks: The conference “has evolved from a trade show to a curated business exchange” — or maybe this is a form of natural selection, given the economy. One “curated” area

was the Sustainable Living Showcase, which gathered a variety of eco-friendly products around a central garden patio lined with bubbling urn fountains. Most striking to me were the designs from the architectural metal systems fabricator

Bok Modern (rhymes with spoke; samples shown above), which are 100% recyclable, and laser-cut so there are no emissions from gas welding. Their

railings and screens definitely rise above the ordinary, with patterns derived from geometry and nature, as shown on the residence above.

Consolidation. Reclaimed fir was on display from Barnwood Industries,

whose recycled beams, flooring, siding, and cabinetry derive from deconstructed buildings across the Northwest. But now these products are being distributed by Weyerhauser, a major international forest products company. It seems about time that a company making new lumber would want to remake the old! Could be a trend.

American-made — a new idea! Some products are being manufactured in the US again. For example, GE is now making the GE GeoSpring 50-gallon water

heater at their headquarters plant in Louisville, Kentucky rather than in China. The hybrid appliance combines electricity with a heat pump to use 62% less energy than a standard 50 gallon water heater (image courtesy GE).

The Human Connection. Consumer research guru J. Walker Smith, president of The Futures Company, gave a compelling presentation on how today’s consumers are less interested in product brands than in relationships that are built with or connected to a product. Think of all the “Like” buttons, “friending,” and one-line Twitter reviews flooding the ether. He calls this “The Kinship Economy — “not the Big Net but the Tight Knit.” A powerful way of cutting through all the clutter is to knit together reactions and resources. If you’re building a new home you naturally want to learn from other people’s experiences so in effect, you’re looking for kinship. I suppose this could be a form of speed dating: “Enough about me and my door hardware. Let’s talk about you and your backsplash…”

The Kitchen Triangle Redefined. According to Carina Hathaway of Brookfield Homes, the kitchen triangle has evolved: now the three points aren’t just the sink, range, and refrigerator but the kitchen island, the flat screen TV beyond the island in the great room, and the outdoors beyond that. In other words, the house and the lot should be extensions of each other (something I have always believed). She calls this “the new lifestyle triangle.”

Creativity is where you find it. The keynote speaker at PCBC was British-born author and educator Sir Ken Robinson. Knighted by the Queen — he revealed that when you are speaking with her and she moves her handbag from one arm to the other it’s a sign that your time is up! — he advises governments on how to improve creativity. His TED talks have gone viral and his books Out of Our Minds and The Element are best sellers. An extremely engaging and funny as well as thoughtful speaker, Robinson said “life is not linear, it’s organic. We make sense of it retroactively…Most people settle for so little…most people never discover their natural aptitudes…you can be creative in absolutely anything…human life is inherently creative.” In other words, you never know what will spark creativity so you need to be open to possibility. Mistakes will happen. And you can’t really test for it. A good message for everyone, especially anyone interested in home design because even within the limits of a tight site there are an infinite number of ways to shape an effective house plan.

I found an echo to Sir Ken’s message nearby at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in a current exhibit on the futurist Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, who influenced design with inventions like the geodesic dome and the

Dymaxion prefab bathroom of 1937 (shown above; image courtesy UCLA.edu). Like Bucky Fuller, Sir Ken sees connections between art, science, and life; is not afraid of making mistakes; and gets people thinking outside the convention center.

 

Recycled Redwood and a New Cabin Plan

Red Zeppelin

Hangar wood is the latest must-have recycled material — at least for me. It’s  from the historic zeppelin terminal known as Hangar One (not a vodka!)

built by the US Navy at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California in 1931 to house the airship USS Macon, shown above. Covering 8 acres, it remains an impressive Bay Area landmark with its own Historic District, and is adjacent to the NASA Ames Research Lab. The seductive, cinnamon-hued, handsomely

grained old-growth redwood — “with occasional to frequent screw and fastener

holes” — was part of the hangar’s roof framework that was uncovered during a recent renovation and is being sold by innovative reclaimed woods specialist Terra Mai. It’s marketed as Terra Mai Moffett Field Redwood for lumber, paneling, siding, or for custom applications (photos courtesy Terra Mai). Meanwhile, the fate of the hangar remains in doubt, but according to Terra Mai: “Google founders Page and Brin, along with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have proposed funding the estimated $33 million cost of fully restoring the structure in exchange for private use of two-thirds of the floor space for their eight private jets.” I guess I would call this an extreme form of “parking karma.” And they could even sublease the air rights since the interior is so high (198 feet) that fog sometimes forms near the ceiling…

Terra Mai markets other reclaimed woods, which are used in distinctive projects

like this Sunset Idea House designed by Siegel & Strain Architects with interior

designer Chad Dewitt. The barn doors are reclaimed fir; the counter in the master bath is reclaimed teak (photos courtesy Terra Mai).

Cabin Fever

I would use some of that beautiful Hangar One redwood to build our newest exclusive design: Cabin Plan 546-1 by Maine architect Bruce Butler. The

1,194 sq. ft. shingle style, gable-roofed home is designed for relaxation and easy

indoor-outdoor living. There are two covered outdoor spaces for fresh-air living

at different times of day: a generous porch off the living room and a screened porch off the kitchen/dining area. The master bedroom is beside the living room

on the ground floor; two bunk rooms and the half bath are upstairs. It’s a simple and rustic design and suits a rural site in the mountains or near water. Add a place to tether your airship and you’re there! Welcome Bruce!

Pitching Perfection in Baseball, Homes, and Gardens

Matt Cain, the Villa Rotunda, and a Perfect Barbecue Garden

I learned a new definition of perfection the other night when I witnessed the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Cain pitch a “perfect game” against the Houston Astros: 27 batters up; 27 batters down — the first such milestone in the 129-year

history of the Giants franchise. The sell-out crowd — and the water cannons (at right in photo) — erupted. And naturally this made me think about the nature of perfection in other fields of dreams. In his wonderful book The Perfect House, architectural historian Witold Rybczynski explores the concept as it applies to the Italian villas by Renaissance luminary Andrea Palladio. Take the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, for example, with its four identical temple fronts,

central cross-axis, and dome (photo courtesy The Culture Concept). It’s an exemplar of perfection, at least according to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, quoted by Rybczynski: “…in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme.” The simple

geometric clarity of the plan (image courtesy Wikipedia) — as well as the way each temple front frames a different vista across the landscape — creates an impression of wholeness within the hilltop setting. It’s hard to see how anything can be added or subtracted; i. e. the equivalent of 27 up and 27 down!

Geometric order often contributes to an idea of perfection, as in “perfect circle,”

illustrated here by Plan 64-165 (though it’s actually a hexadecagon), or

“perfect rectangle” as illustrated by Plan 491-10.

Perfection also depends on context — does it fit the site, the culture, the needs, the dreams? And though I subscribe to the Vitruvian principles of function, strength, and beauty (aka commodity, firmness, and delight), perfection for me often combines usefulness and practicality with artfulness and surprise. An example is this small rear garden by landscape architect Robert Sabbatini, FASLA. It’s multifunctional, with a dining patio, built-in barbecue, espaliered

pears and rows of lettuce, peas, and herbs. The deck, steps, and tapered path into the vegetable garden all revolve around a marvelous central stone cairn — a cone-shaped barbecue. It’s a well-head that cleverly functions as its opposite:

a fire pit. Robert bought the crank-up grill from an ironmonger and designed the fire pit around it.  I admire this garden’s multiple roles, elegant lines, and innovative practicality. And I like that it’s also a little rough around the edges because, as the late landscape architect Thomas Church once said: “Don’t fret if your garden is never quite perfect. Absolute perfection, like complete consistency, can be dull.” I think almost perfect is true perfection because you can actually live with it. So what’s your idea of the perfect home? Maybe it’s somewhere between the Villa Rotunda and Giardino Sabbatini. It turns out there are many ways to pitch perfection — and by the way, grilled prosciutto-wrapped shrimp is delicious!

Ideas of Home at UCSD and MOMA

Foreclosing on the Familiar

“Fallen Star,”  by the Korean born artist Do Ho Suh, is the newest sculpture installation at the Stuart Collection on the campus of the University of California at San Diego and debuted this week with more than a thousand visitors on opening day. It’s a small gabled cottage that has somehow crashed into the

roof of a seven story engineering building and now teeters over the edge… perhaps the Wizard of Oz was aiming for an advanced degree. It’s definitely a mortarboard mash-up. According to Mary Beebe, the collection director, “It was his idea and we produced it.” From the rooftop the house appears only a little off

kilter, but then as you peer over the railing you see that only engineering — i. e. the cantilever — is holding it up. It may be an art piece but it’s also a strong advertisement for structural daring. (“Go forth ye graduates, and engineer!”) The work explores Suh’s “on-going exploration of themes around the idea of home, cultural displacement, the perception of our surroundings, and how one constructs a memory of a space.” When he arrived in the U.S. from Seoul, Korea in 1991 to study, Suh understandably felt un-moored, which “led him to measure spaces in order to establish relationships with his new surroundings. He had to physically and mentally readjust.” The permanent installation is clever in the way it literally and figuratively readjusts — indeed, upends — the romantic notion of home, acknowledging that in today’s reality it remains both fixed and floating — or fleeting — for many.

In my mind this work is really a last minute West Coast entry in the current exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which I saw last month. The purpose of the show, organized by MOMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and which runs through August 13, is to explore new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis. Five teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers were asked to produce proposals for housing in five different suburban communities, from Temple Terrace, Florida to Rialto, California. The result is a series of essentially utopian schemes. I was most drawn to the solution called Nature City, for Keizer, Oregon by WORKac, a design firm in Manhattan. Inspired by the Garden City concept

espoused by influential late 19th century British urbanist Ebenezer Howard, (detail of part of a garden city plan shown above, courtesy Our Letchworth), they proposed developing a 225 acre parcel (already slated for big box stores and the like) in a way that is  “five times denser than the adjacent suburban blocks but

has three times the amount of public open space, including a 158-acre nature preserve.” The idea is to create a symbiotic relationship between structure and site with a wide variety of housing types, from attached town homes to towers to

courtyard houses and long blocks like this “Cavern Building” with huge park-like pass-throughs and lake-like pools; the latter, glass-walled and three stories deep, is especially ambitious! (Model image courtesy MOMA). The most arresting

feature is a series of parks and pools that spiral around a great dome (shown above) that collects methane from a mound of solid waste and produces compost, while waste heat warms public pools at the rooftop. It’s an architectural circle of life — a rose is a rose is a Compost Hill. The show’s other four schemes offered equally suggestive architectural solutions for new construction (one, by Studio Gang, even inserted new housing into the shell of a derelict factory) but none addressed how to deal with existing neighborhoods where foreclosures are rampant — the house on the brink, as it were, to steal Suh’s metaphor. In the end that is the harder question.

Window Walls and Rooms-Within-Rooms

Every Solid Loves a Void — and Space is a Wrap

Let’s explore two strong architectural ideas — the window wall and the room-within-a-room — and how they can enhance house design. Both have long histories. In one sense the glass wall goes all the way back to the tall banks of windows at the Tudor estate known as Hardwick Hall in England, built by Bess

of Hardwick in the late 1500s, shown here (photo courtesy Anglotopia.net). At that time glass was an important emblem of power and wealth because it was so rare — thus it was a fitting material for the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. You didn’t mess with Bess. A more recent example is the glass

living room wall to the right of the tree courtyard, at the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau designed by Le Corbusier and built as a demonstration house or “machine for living” for the Paris Exposition of 1925 (photo courtesy 4rts.wordpress.com). As we have seen in previous posts, the window wall became a signature feature of Modernism, especially in mid-twentieth century works like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house and Philip Johnson’s Glass

House. Our Plan 520-4, by Irish architect Frank McGahon, shown here with its flanking window walls, is a recent version. The great appeal of the window wall is to unite inside and outside while framing both. The trick is to beware of exposures — even insulated glass can transmit heat and cold.

The room-within-a-room idea is vividly illustrated by a piece of furniture, also from England of centuries ago: the Great Bed of Ware, ca. 1580, with its large

post and beam frame and heavy curtains closing it off for privacy and warmth (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Thomas Jefferson’s bed alcove at Monticello, shown above, is a sort of built-in version, minus the curtains (photo courtesy Colonial Williamsburg). Architect Charles Moore was fascinated with this idea and referred to it as an aedicula, which is Latin for a small shrine. (The most famous example of an aedicula

is the baldacchino with twisting columns over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome, by Bernini, photo courtesy Saintpetersbasilica.org.) Moore used a much simplified version of it in his own house at Orinda from the early 1960s, where the larger

living and smaller bathing spaces are defined by columns and skylights, like separate domestic temples clustered under one roof (image courtesy Eleanor Weinel’s Arch4443). Moore’s design partner, William Turnbull, used an even more spare — and more Jeffersonian — version in his Sea Ranch cottage of the early 1980s, which is our historical Plan 447-1, where the bed is an alcove

in the corner. A flexible contemporary take on this idea is “The Cube” designed by architect Toshi Kasa of Spaceflavor for Feng Shui expert Liu Ming in his live/work loft in Oakland, California (photo by Joe Fletcher via The New York

 Times). The 8 foot-square cube-on-wheels is a bedroom on one side and an office on the other, allowing Mr. Ming to use the rest of his loft for his classes. I trust the brakes are on in case there’s an earthquake.

An outdoor room within a garden is yet another way to go, as architect Ross

Anderson shows in our Plan 433-2, above. See the outdoor fireplace opposite the built-in bench forming a small living area at the edge of the courtyard in this partial view.

But where might the window wall and the room-in-a-room work together? How about Hojo House by Akira Yoneda of Architecton in Japan. The glass house is

behind an elegant scrim of steel tubes, creating a modified screen porch that distracts from the very tight infill site (thoughts of cages inevitably spring to mind; photo courtesy infoteli.com). But I think today’s most famous example of the two ideas working together might be the marvelous glass cube entrance to the Apple store

on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where the novelty of a structure that is there-and-not-there makes you see everything around it — like the Plaza Hotel across the street — more clearly. The simple contrast between solid and void is visually refreshing and builds a larger whole. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple’s magic container makes you realize it is a room within the much larger room that is the terrace on which it sits, the street, and the edge of Central Park itself. Some ideas just expand!