Category Archives: Architectural Innovation

Ranch House Rides Again

From the Archives

We’re excited to present our new FLEXAHOUSE plan, commissioned from San Francisco architect Nick Noyes and inspired by his recent AIA-Sunset Western Home Award-winning ranch house in Healdsburg, California, shown below, photographed by Cesar Rubio.

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Below is a view of our  FLEXAHOUSE Great Room looking in the same direction, from the kitchen to the  living room.

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Note how Nick kept the vaulted ceiling, window wall, French doors, and general feeling of airiness, while adding  a brand new feature we call the “Flexawall,” which provides storage and display along one side of the Great Room. It’s a flexible feature because it can open toward the Great Room and to the entry hall behind it.

FLEXAHOUSE is  a “kit-of-parts plan”  because the key elements — Great Room, Master Suite, Bedroom and Bath Unit, Guest Suite, Garage, Flexawall, Entry, and Trellis — combine to form three different layouts (I-shape, L-shape, and T-shape) to suit various lot configurations.

Start with the core of  the plan, which is the Great Room,

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Then add the Master Suite,

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Bedroom-Bath Unit,

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and Garage

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and you have the basic house. Here’s the T-shape example in elevation (for a wider lot),

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and plan.

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FLEXAHOUSE comes in 3- and 4-bedroom variations for a total of 6 different plans, ranging from 2,254 sq. ft. to 2,580 sq. ft. You can change the orientation of the garage to enter from either side, instead of the front. Exterior siding options include stucco, shingle, and board-and-batten.

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Roof options are standing seam metal and composition shingle. The plan starts at $2,500. It has been engineered for seismic, snow, and hurricane zones.

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“The idea,” says architect Nick Noyes, shown above, “is to create a design that’s almost a custom home plan because of the many options you can select. All sites are different and require different design responses. The opportunity with FLEXAHOUSE was to create a design that was flexible enough — with three different arrangements of the basic elements — to conform to varying site conditions such as local solar orientation, views, and other particularities. By adding more bedrooms, changing the orientation of the garage, or choosing siding and roofing options you can create still more variations.” It’s also an eco-friendly house: Nick designed it on a 16-inch grid for maximum construction efficiency and minimum construction waste.

I think it’s an ingenious contemporary reinvention of the ranch house, bringing easy indoor-outdoor living ideas from the past into the 21st century. The design is informal and elegant at the same time, like Nick’s Healdsburg house,

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with it’s warmly inviting kitchen at one end of the Great Room (Cesar Rubio photo), which was our muse.  Let’s wrap a FLEXAHOUSE up for you!

Home As Idea Lab: David Baker

Adventures in Urbanity

Every home is a kind of idea laboratory, though its experimental nature may only develop gradually — as dry rot in the master bath makes you (I mean me…) think about upgrading the tile backsplash, or when the refrigerator dies and prompts you (me again) to start shopping for a more energy-efficient model. But time and the desire to experiment, or at least improve, speeds up for an innovative architect like David Baker. Known for his award-winning, sustainably conceived communities  in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s now in the fourth home he has designed for himself. He’s in good company: Frank Lloyd Wright designed at least three for himself (though Taliesin East and West probably count as more than two) and ranch house popularizer Cliff May did five. I just toured David’s

latest home, a compact urban row house that preserves historical details on the  Continue reading

Emergency Preparedness, Sandbags, Hope

FEMA has an App

Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. It is yet another reminder of the need for emergency

preparedness — my own kit is not complete — so I spent some time on the website of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration; photo is from the FEMA Media Library). It turns out that FEMA has a very helpful and Continue reading

The Flexible Home: Airstream Trailer to Rotating Villa

Wheels-Within-Wheels

What is flexibility in home design? Partly it’s about efficiency, as in the Airstream Sterling Concept Trailer designed by architect Christopher Deam (released late last year by the Airstream company), where multiple functions

are packed into every surface of the small interior. The cabinetry recalls the compact, every-inch-counts-ingenuity of yacht and jet plane interiors, as well as Fuller’s Dymaxion house (photo by Drew Kelly, courtesy The New York Times).

The walls become both moving partitions and storage containers, while the streamlined metal surfaces and overlapping spaces bring the Airstream’s classic, sleek, retro-mod exterior inside to accentuate the feeling of spaciousness (photo courtesy DesignMilk).

A more extreme example of flexibility might be the famous modern Italian villa

known as il Girasole (the Sunflower) near Verona, built in 1935 by civil and nautical engineer Angelo Invernizzi with architect Ettore Fagiuoli. It rotates to follow the sun (like a sunflower) and take in a 360-degree view  — a precursor to all those rotating cocktail lounges from the 1960s and 70s, only here the whole house turns, not just the top floor. It’s built on a massive three-story

stationary concrete drum that’s dug into a hill. Here you see the two story

L-shaped house on top of the drum after it has made a compete revolution: now the L faces the viewer, now it faces away. The house itself is supported on a chassis that runs on three circular rails, as  shown here in an aerial view.

According to architectural historian Colin Davies in his book Key Houses of the 20th Century: “Villa Girasole is more like a traveling crane or swing bridge than

a sunflower.” The great wheels are remarkable objects in themselves — like monumental kinetic sculpture. Electric motors can push the house through a complete rotation in about 9 hours. (OK — it’s 6 pm: that must be the vineyard! Time for another glass of grappa! Or is that the grappa and it’s time for another vineyard…) The house pivots around an axle connected to a large bearing at the

base of the drum through a tall cylinder containing a circular stairway wrapping

an elevator. It’s a surpassingly clever design and you can view a fascinating short film about it narrated by the engineer’s daughter at Flixxy, where she recalls: “Each time I lifted my eyes from the book I was reading I would see a different vista.” So –  il Girasole is quite literally flexible in the sense that it moves, but it takes a lot of effort to make that possible (images courtesy Loftenberg.com).

Flexibility can also refer to how a design, or elements of a design, accommodate different circumstances, which was the reasoning behind the development of our Flexahouse, by architect Nick Noyes. It combines the same great room, storage wall, entry, bedrooms, master suite, and garage in three different ways, from I-shape (Plan 445-3)

to L-shape (Plan 445-5 — this one doesn’t move!)

to  T-shape (Plan 445-5)

– to suit different lot sizes, from narrow to wide. In short, there are many ways to achieve flexibility. The trick is simply to plan for it!

 

House as Cave, Bridge, or Tank

Beyond the Basic Box

A house is always a storehouse for the imagination, but sometimes it can take surprising turns as a container. Here are several particularly evocative design approaches to stoke your own fires of invention.

Cave. Early houses were caves of course, but here’s an example of a modern house built into a hillside in the spa town of Vals, Switzerland, that gives cave dwelling a contemporary twist. Talk about

a seamless transition between house and site – here the house is the site! Designed by Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH, and Christian Muller Architects

to preserve the pristine alpine landscape, the house is primarily accessible

through a tunnel from a nearby wooden barn. The great cutaway oval is courtyard, light source, and connection to the hillside, framing views of the

valley below without blocking sight lines from above (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy ArchDaily). You can see the entry barn beyond the lip of the oval, above; and the entrance from the tunnel is behind the blue tub. And you can even experience the home yourself: it rents through the website Villa Vals — I’m adding it to my bucket list!

Bridge. A clever solution for a difficult site like a small ravine is to treat the house as a bridge. An early modern example is the famous Warner or “Bridge House” in New Canaan, Connecticut of 1956 by John Johansen, which

straddles the Rippowam River near Philip Johnson’s Glass House (photo by Robert Damora courtesy Philip Johnson Glass House). The H-shaped plan puts the living-dining room on the bridge at the center; the four corners

contain the kitchen and bedrooms (image courtesy Faustian urGe). According to Gwen North Reiss, who interviewed the architect in 2010 when he was 94, Johansen considered the bridge not just a site solution but an important metaphor of transition and renewal. She quotes him: “The bridge represents in mythical forms the leaving of one region familiar to you…Throw yourself on a bridge and you are separated from time and space and then you find your way down to another reality hitherto previously unknown to you.” The barrel vaults in the roof are also evocative and follow the line of the stream (rivulets, perhaps?). More recent versions of the bridge-as-house can be found in the

work of Cutler Anderson Architects in Washington State, as shown here, where spanning the site made it possible to avoid “culverting the stream” (photo courtesy Cutler Anderson). Another way to go is to use bridge

stanchions to allow for a longer span, as shown in this house by Adelaide, Australia architect Max Pritchard (photo courtesy Max Pritchard Architects).

Tank. The water storage tank is especially compelling as a container. A quick Google search produces a variety of tanks that have been converted to houses,

like this very vivid one in Thorpness, England with its tall red storybook gable and long white chimney — like something out of a Dr. Suess book (photo courtesy Armchair Travelogue). This round concrete tank in an industrial

section of London is being converted to living quarters by the designer Tom Dixon, who added the windows and the wood siding and has plans to construct an elevator (good idea! photo courtesy Daily Mail).

The talented Max Pritchard used a 50 year-old concrete water tank as the base for this delightful house overlooking Adelaide. According to the Pritchard firm

the basement and a bedroom level (with windows punched into it) were built within the tank, while a new upper level containing the main living areas and

master bedroom follows the shape of the tank with a semicircular wall of glass — like a large bay window — to capture the sweeping views of city and sea.

As these structures demonstrate: design is about turning limitations into possibilities.

 

An Olympic Salute to the Inventive British Home

Vaults, Jumps, and Other Leaps of Faith

Cheers to the organizers of the London Olympics for using the games to highlight some of Britain’s most famous architectural landmarks. Take the

equestrian events, where you could see riders jumping over clever architectural models of Number 10 Downing Street (photo courtesy

The Guardian), and the Tower of London (the latter is shown above, photo courtesy Hussavelos) — all within sight of the Queen’s House by Inigo

Jones (ca. 1635, just behind the jumps) and the Naval Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren (ca. 1695, twin domes behind the Queen’s House)  at Greenwich. Horse Guards Parade — the grounds in front of the

the symmetrical Horse Guards by William Kent  (1753) in central London made a very theatrical backdrop for beach volleyball (photo courtesy Eurosport.com). Indeed it became a marvelously improbable stage set — like an urban, open-air

version of Palladios’s Teatro Olimpico (a serendipitous name) of 1585 in Vicenza, above, no less (photo courtesy wikipedia). Kent would have known a lot about Palladio and his theater but probably not much about volleyball, not to mention

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings (photo courtesy London2012). Horse Guards Parade Ground was an inspired choice of venue because it was designed as a ceremonial setting in the first place. One good parade — or should I say, ace serve – deserves another.

London definitely had a starring role, which made me think about how British design in general has contributed to the shape and character of the home. It’s a huge subject but here are three especially influential figures.

1. In the late 1800s print maker, textile designer, and author William Morris helped found the English Arts & Crafts

Movement and gave us wallpaper designs like this one, called “Vine.” The movement’s hand-crafted, nature-oriented approach lead to the development of the Craftsman style (image courtesy Historicstyle.com).

2. Early twentieth century Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh designed his iconic ladder- and oval-backed  chairs, which remain popular today (image

courtesy Makedesignedobjects.com).

3. London-based designer/author/impresario Terence Conran has been influential through his modern design shops (Conrans) and books promoting an eclectic functionalism. In the kitchen and living room of Conran’s own house

you can see how he deftly combines spare modern lines, open planning

and abundant daylight with subtle colors and the warmth of wood (photos by Paul Massey courtesy HousetoHome.com). A good place to toast a British accent in design.

Porches and the Primitive Hut

Dream Time

The idea of escape to a simpler more relaxing way of living is especially appealing right now. In my case that would mean lounging on a porch — like this

elegant screened version by In Situ Studio — my head buried in a good spy novel

(photos courtesy In Situ Studio). The Roman architect Vitruvius believed that all architecture began with the primitive hut, which I think you could say is in the DNA of most great porches. Later philosophers, like the former Jesuit priest Abbe Laugier in his Essay On Architecture of 1753, adopted this idea and visualized the first buildings as simple — but classical — lean-tos made from tree trunks. You can see the

roots — literally! — of the classical pediment in that triangle of twigs at the top. The big idea was that architecture evolved as a refinement of elemental nature, meaning that the tree is simply a column in its primitive state. Or, put another way — in the beginning there was a gazebo! (Remember that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is talking about man’s natural state at this time as well.) This elemental and romantic nature-based concept remains powerful — think of Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature shack on Walden Pond or the evolution of the camping tent  — especially among architects and designers and almost

anyone looking for rest or relaxation, as this wonderful recent example designed and built by Alan Brown on the Big Island of Hawaii — out of mostly recycled materials — shows. Note to Thoreau: Why build in the cold-climate east when you can enjoy balmy evenings with scents of  plumeria and ginger on the slopes of Mauna Kea?! (Photo courtesy Alan Brown)

Moscow architects Kerimov Prishin designed their Arbor 15 project as a

performance platform containing a dining area, fireplace, and sink. Panels in the slatted front unfold to reveal that everything is on stage. Curtains at the sides

reinforce the idea that the act of dining is itself a theatrical event — which seems

very logical when you think that conversation in the dining room is the subject of so many plays and film scripts (photos courtesy the architects via designboom). It’s the outdoor dining room as dacha…Chekov, anyone?

Perhaps the most extreme form of the porch as primitive hut is a unit at the famous Swedish Treehotel (another room was mentioned in an earlier post) in

the shape of a giant nest, as shown here — or is it a condorminium…(image courtesy Treehotel).

Though most porches are attached to houses, it’s also true that many rooms can grow up to become porches; it just takes a little education and the addition of a

folding window wall or two. Which is what happens in the kitchen of Plan 48-46,

shown here. The breakfast area opens up to turn the entire space into a dining porch. Trees and triangles have come a long way since Vitruvius.

Clever Getaway Cabins and the New Photo Circle App

Dream Machines

It’s hot. The workload is unending. Time to escape! A bathtub-on-wheels might

be just the ticket. Who needs soap when your soul can be cleansed by the view across New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula into azure sea and sky. But the

rolling fixture is only part of the story (here it is back in place by the shower:  “Hey Honey, where did you park the tub this time?!”) It’s in a very seductive modern vacation cabin designed by innovative Auckland/Queenstown architects Crosson Clarke Carnachan (photos by Patrick Reynolds via Trendir) for the

Crosson family. Hinged wall sections drop to the ground like portcullises to form

spacious decks beside the central breezeway, which functions as an indoor-

outdoor living room facing the sea view; bunk rooms, bathroom at the side. The

decks fold back up (and shutters cover windows) to secure the house when the owners are away.

Another clever design for a seaside location by the same firm takes escape to a delightful extreme: holiday house as kinetic sculpture and vacation transport. It’s

called The Sled and, according to the architects, was designed as a “response to the ever-changing landscape that lines the beachfront in this coastal erosion zone.” It’s built on big wooden skids so a tractor can tow it to a new section of the

dune as needed. When closed up it resembles a contraption for a Star Wars film (Jabba the Hutt’s cabana, er, hut??). Then when the family arrives, the big

shutter winches open to form an awning over the two-story glass and steel doors

in the living/dining/cooking space. The sleeping loft is accessible by a ladder up the

side wall. Every inch of space is utilized for storage, seating, or other functions (photos of this house by Jackie Meiring, courtesy Crosson Clarke Carnachan).

More ideas for cabins and retreats can be found in our Micro Cottages and Tiny Houses Collection, such as Studio Tower Plan 479-6 by Peter Brachvogel

and Stella Carosso, which could be incorporated into a larger design, as shown above, when time and resources allow.

Sharing Photos in a New Way

Because this is prime camera season I thought it appropriate to mention a useful new free photo app for smartphones called Photo Circle (full disclosure: it was developed by a young cousin). It creates a private shared album for friends and

family — you simply put your phones together to create a Photo Circle and start taking pictures. The technical description is “proximity pairing of smartphones with ultra-high frequency sound waves.” You can share comments on the pictures, bring new people into your circle via email, and create as many circles as you want. My pictures are mostly of houses, needless to say…

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.

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!