Category Archives: Building Materials

Sliding Glass Doors and Other Openings

Long Division

A quiet revolution has been taking place in the world of the sliding glass door. The first examples were usually custom-designed and became key features of modern houses, capturing the new machine age spirit of the early 20th century. One of the most famous examples is the large moveable window wall connecting

the living room to the terrace at the Villa Savoye near Paris by le Corbusier, of 1931  — you can see how one panel has slid partly to the left past the round  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

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!

Architectural Recycling, Then and Now

Flights of the Phoenix

Earth Day is April 22, so let’s talk recycling. It’s not a new idea: remember the Romans! In 10 B. C. Emperor Augustus removed the obelisk from the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis in Egypt and placed it in the Circus Maximus; then in 1589 Pope Sixtus V had it erected in the Piazza del Popolo topped with a cross. More recent power players have adapted this collect-and-conquer approach to a residential scale and architecturally re-purposed everything from antique ceilings to airplanes and automobiles. Take this new residence by architect

David Hertz, which is a 2012 Record House (drawing in an earlier post; photo courtesy David Hertz). It shows how to recycle a Boeing 747. Hertz turned the

wings into roofs on two levels (in this house wings are really wings; photo by Sara Jane Boyers). And by the way, a jet engine cowling makes a great reflecting pool. Part of the exterior fuselage forms the kitchen backsplash,

conveying the delightful impression that a plane has just landed beside the sink — or maybe this is simply another form of Mileage Plus. One little caveat about  re-purposing a 747 — if it’s visible from the air you need to notify the FAA so they don’t think it’s a crash site (photo by Sara Jane Boyers).

Leger Wanaselja Architects is known for their eco-friendly approach to design, 

most recently for their infill house with roofs “sawed out of grey cars left for parts in local junk yards,” and glass awnings “fabricated from junked Dodge

Caravan side windows.”  They used salvaged automobile roofs for upper walls, and poplar bark (waste product from the furniture industry of North Carolina)

for the lower walls. Inside, all the finish wood for cabinetry and trim is salvage, lending the main living and dining areas a warmly inviting glow (photos courtesy Leger Wanaselja).

Recycling isn’t just about one-off custom design — it’s built into many

contemporary materials, including solid surface counters like Vetrazzo, which is recycled glass in a base of concrete and comes in a wide variety of colors,

or wall tiles made from recycled glass like this example from Bedrock Industries, also produced in a broad spectrum of styles and hues.

Which Reminds Me

Ready-made plans are all about recycling, too! Sea Ranch Cottage Plan 447-2 

by William Turnbull is a good example — use it as the base with which to shape

a weekend getaway. Just adapt it to your site, add whatever upgrades are

required, and you’re done…and no need to contact the FAA.

Architecture Is Not a Luxury

Living With Ingenuity

Architecture is often considered a luxury but why should that be true? I think good design is a necessity; it’s about invention and making new things happen. Bad design ought to be the luxury we cannot afford. And what is the general definition of luxury anyway? It derives from the Latin words luxuria and luxus, meaning excess; in the 18th century it came to mean “something enjoyable or comfortable beyond life’s necessities,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Shelter is of course a necessity; but it’s the job of architecture to make shelter something more — and more can mean comfortable, expressive, ingenious, idea-rich, even memorable. If that’s a luxury then hold the foie gras — I’ll take design. I feel architecture can inspire our own sense of possibility and make us aware of nature and the world around us in fresh ways. Take a tiny “unbuildable” infill lot in Tokyo, for example. Architect Yasuhiro Yamashita,

of Atelier Tekuto (photos courtesy the firm) saw the size limitation as an opportunity to develop a sort of contempo-Gothic iceberg: towering translucence

above, expanding volume below. Walls of obscure glass soar to a point (the wall is the ceiling) over the entry and bedroom floor above ground and make it

possible to flood the underground living area with daylight. Also the plan of the house tapers toward the back door, creating a false perspective that gives an impression of spaciousness, which is accentuated by the white metal fittings and walls. It resembles the bridge of a ship. Or a lantern for living. (Though I admit there’s not a lot of room for Granny’s sleigh bed.)

Or what about this unusual house by architectural historian and architect

Terunobu Fujimori (photo by Adam Friedberg via Dwell) that ingeniously combines opposites, an anchoring cave and a high-in-the-sky tea house, within a charred cedar skin — which is a traditional Japanese method for


protecting wood from insects (photos, courtesy Materia Design, and Japanese Craft Construction on Flikr). The design may be a luxury for the inhabitants but for me it is essential because it beautifully illustrates what a home can be: sheltering cave as welcoming entry and foundation; tea house as flight of fancy, an imagination set free. And yet contradictions abound — as they do in many homes. For what is a tea house but a space for ritualized ceremony — so here is ritual lifting away and loosening up — literally. And the cave is not dark and carved from stone but open and full of light, like a breezeway. Not to mention the burnt exterior protected from decay. Architecture can tell a story by turning some ideas upside down and making them hard to forget. Louis Kahn once said we didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until we heard it; well it’s the same with great houses. Maybe architecture is the luxury we didn’t know we needed.

On a somewhat more prosaic (certainly less melodic) level, to me the greatest luxury at the moment would be if my sweet peas climb up the grid of string I have tied to the backyard fence. Or maybe if we added an outdoor shower – like

the one here (courtesy Sunset Magazine). In any case, spring is here — and that’s a luxury I can live with.

Ranch House Roofs and other Restoratives

Shake, Rattle, & Research

At the UCSB exhibition on ranch houses  last week I met the owner of a 1960s Cliff May-designed house who impressed me with the care he has taken in replacing the original shake roof on his 60+ year old home. Restoration projects can be problematic. His modern lightweight cement tile solution,

shown here, is successful because it remains true to the roof’s original architectural character while accommodating today’s fire codes. (Even if new wood shakes could be made non-combustible they would be prohibitively expensive.) I think Greg’s experience is useful for anyone thinking about roof replacement.

He used a Boral roofing product called Cedarlite 600 — which is designed to mimic heavy wood shakes — in a color called Silverwood (originally from Monier Lifetile). The 600 refers to weight: a 100 foot-square of Cedarlite 600 tiles weighs 600 pounds and there are 120 pieces to a square. According to Greg: “It’s a lower-density concrete tile with the primary disadvantage that it’s not as strong and walkable as the heavier concrete products.” Using heavier tiles might have meant beefing up structural support. Here are some Cedarlite examples.

Greg likes the texture and  says “It looks reasonably like shake but all the tiles are the same size — although there is variation in the molds and colors of the tiles. They can be slightly staggered but that makes it really easy for the corners to be broken off. Looking at the roof at a certain angle you can see diagonal patterns going up the roof. Most people don’t notice that but once you’re familiar with it that becomes the signature in verifying that Cedarlite 600 or it’s slightly denser cousin Madera 700 is what you’re actually looking at. I felt it was the best shake alternative available.”

Greg was worried about walking on the roof — for maintenance , clearing leaves and such. I spoke with Boral representative Altie Winters about this and she said that if you need to walk on a Cedarlite roof you should wear sticky shoes like sneakers and step where the tiles overlap and avoid the center of the tile itself. Greg used a polyurethane expanding adhesive  in lieu of nails. “The idea,” says Greg, “is that it provides a cushion in the air gap under the tiles which enhances the support when walking on it. It does seem to help quite a bit but you still need to be as careful as possible. At least when the tiles do crack they tend not to move since the adhesive is applied to much of the bottom. Supposedly this material also provides an R-4 insulation value as well. The polyset product was originally designed as a hurricane solution to eliminate the pitfalls of nails coming loose. In the West they market it as a walkability solution. So knock on wood that it will stand the test of time. We’ll see.”

SIDE NOTE: Boral recently introduced an intriguing product called the Boral Pure Smog-Eating Tile. According to Boral, the concrete roof tile’s coating contains a photocatalyst activated by daylight, which helps convert harmful nitrogen oxides into calcium nitrates. A 2,000 square foot roof of these tiles can oxidize the same amount of nitrogen oxide that a car produces from being driven up to 10,800 miles. So far the tiles only come in Mediterranean profiles that 

resemble terra cotta, as shown above.  Maybe they will produce a smog-eating shake look-alike too, some day.

Shakes weren’t the only roofing material in Cliff May’s repertoire; he also used terra-cotta  — on some of his larger custom houses he aimed for a rough hand-crafted look — and occasionally even standing seam metal. Perhaps his

most exotic choice was ocatillo branches, as shown above, to create a shade canopy over the pool at a marvelous oasis-like house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. According to the owner the branches need to be replaced about every ten years.

The wide glassed-in or open gable, sometimes with a ridge skylight running

down the middle — as shown here at the splendidly expansive house that’s part of Bronzewing Farm, two hours north of Sydney, Australia — became a signature feature of Cliff May’s work. Incidentally, this roof retrofit used a composite tile (not concrete) and works very well.  (Photograph by Joe Fletcher for my ranch house book — shameless self-promotion department!) Such features have

inspired contemporary designers like Dan Tyree in Plan 64- 172. As Greg Friedman might say: such roofs are worth preserving with a little research and a light step.