Category Archives: Cabins

Cool Cabins, Hot Rooms

Let It Snow — Or Not

After all the feasting it’s time for a change of pace and some fresh air for the new year, so here are two innovative and unusual mountain cabins by Seattle architect Tom Lenchek and his firm Balance Associates, to whet your appetite for an architectural escape. Let’s start with Tom’s own retreat near the

Methow Valley in eastern Washington. The strong shed roof profile matches the slope of the site. Inside, a dramatic double height great room rises from a glass Continue reading

Andrew Blum’s New Book Digs Up the Internet

The Cloud is Underground (and at the Bottom of the Ocean)

Here’s an important new book for anyone who surfs the Web: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (Harper Collins, 2012) by

geographer/journalist Andrew Blum. It’s important because Andrew describes in fascinating detail the physical, earthbound structure of the Net, reminding us that though “the Cloud” may comprise the pulses of light produced by powerful lasers, the ganglion of fiber-optic cables carrying that light are crowded together in predominantly unmarked buildings, rooms, and vaults all around us, and in the ocean too. It is a “tangled web,” to be sure, with elements of secrecy, but Andrew deftly unravels the key developments, from the first non-academic hub known as MAE-East (Metropolitan Area Exchange) in Tysons Corner, Virginia near Washington, D. C. to Facebook’s huge new data center in Prineville, Oregon.

I had breakfast with Andrew recently and he told me that a high point of his journey was seeing the cables inside Fiber Vault 1 on the Equinix campus in Ashburn, Virginia. In the book he writes that this was among the biggest places “where Internet networks connect… the nexus of nexus. Hot and still. I could smell it: it smelled like dirt.” But then he realized there were many such vaults — that the Internet was there and everywhere.

He toured the London Internet Exchange where a refrigerator-sized machine with blinking lights carried 300 gigabits of data per second (300 billion!); followed a fiber-optic cable-laying crew under the streets of Manhattan; and visited places where undersea fiber-optic cables come ashore, as at Porthcurno on England’s Cornwall coast.

The book explains a complex world that is hidden in plain sight — a true parallel universe. Indeed, reading Andrew’s book is like dipping into a somewhat more technical Harry Potter sequel where you find yourself on a real Diagon Alley face to face with a Fiber Mux Magnum Machine (it changes signals for a router). Pressing “Enter” will never be the same.

An article adapted from Andrew’s book appears in the current Fortune, with the

addition of these fascinating maps charting the Internet highways across the globe. The one below shows average Internet speeds and an important hub like the exchange building at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan (images by

Nicolas Rapp; Data Geotel Communications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, courtesy Fortune magazine).

Francois Levy and BIM

Talk of data centers and server farms makes me think of architect Francois Levy‘s cool Barn Plan 450-2, which he describes  as “an efficient modern

agrarian home.” It’s suitable for a vacation or weekend house, or as a secondary structure. Barn doors on two sides of the kitchen-living area make it possible to

turn this space into an outdoor room in good weather. There’s a loft above the bedroom. The plan is part of the Exclusive Studio Collection. Francois Levy teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and his new book BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design (Wiley 2012) explains how to use digital models

for the design and documentation of houses and other buildings. BIM stands for building information modeling — with tools like ArchiCAD. Using case studies, he explains how these tools make it easier to produce sustainable architecture. These may be the machines that designed the vaults that hold the cables that hold the Internet — sounds like we’re playing that memory game about packing grandmother’s trunk.

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!



Contemporary House Plans from Estonia

Talent — and Modern Living — from Tallinn

I am excited to introduce house plans by Andrus Elm and Oliver Kangro of Concept Home, a company from Estonia on the Gulf of Finland with wide engineering, architecture, and development experience across Southern Europe and Scandinavia. Concept Home is the newest member of our International Exclusive Studio, which also includes plans by architects from Australia, Brazil, India, Ireland , and Italy. I’m drawn to Concept Home’s open and adaptable layouts, wide range of plan types, and warm contemporary style. Plan 537-9, for

example, which has 1,487 sq. ft., would work well for a ski chalet or a country getaway, with its strong

indoor-outdoor connections (terraces on two sides) and upstairs balcony leading

to two bedrooms, which lets the upper level share views out the tall living room window wall. Plan 357-13, below, has 4 bedrooms, three baths in 2,300 sq. ft.

boasts a handsome extended hearth in the living area and a generous covered

dining terrace off the kitchen. With its shed roof, vertical board siding, and

window wall, Plan 537-17 recalls classic modern designs like the Sugar Bowl Ski

Lodge of 1939 designed by architect William Wurster (photo courtesy 2729

Hyperion.com) and a mid 1960s house like this one at Sea Ranch by Joseph Esherick (photo courtesy Sea Ranch Escape).The layout of Plan 537-17 is

carefully thought out with a multi-functional island — for cooking and dining –

separating the kitchen from the living area, a large storage closet near the kitchen, and terraces at front and rear on the ground floor and deck above. The aim of Concept Home is to design houses that are flexible, functional, full of

natural light (this is Plan 537-4), and inexpensive to build. They feel natural and warm. And, according to Concept Home: “Most of our houses can be adjusted to passive house principles in a great variety of geographical locations. We believe that a modern house must be energy-efficient.” Bravo.

So welcome home, Andrus and Oliver — or should I say it in Estonian: Tere tulemast kodu!!


Dream Cabins and Cabin Dreams

Getaway Architecture

Now, during the holiday week, is a good time to dream about rest and relaxation in your own rural getaway. So here’s a short list of architecturally suggestive cabins.

One. The prefab in the trees by Swedish firm Cyrén & Cyrén gives new meaning

to lodging, not to mention lodge-pole pines. It’s a bedroom unit in the Tree Hotel, located in Harrads, near Sweden’s Lule River, and looks like it came from a galaxy far far away (photo above courtesy Inhabitat, photo below courtesy Dezeen). A catwalk leads to the

rooftop entrance (one of the other suspended rooms is a mirror cube). Improbable and delightful — I want to go there! Presumably a gentle breeze will rock you to sleep, but if you hear a chain saw it may be time to check out.

Two. Continuing the rustic theme, here’s a cabin designed for Hans Liberg by Piet Hein Eek that uses tree trunks as a way of

playing with geometry: more of a log box than a log cabin. In full camouflage mode (the wood covers a prefab plastic and steel frame) with the shutters down, the

logs pile up and the hut disappears — well, almost. “Ceci n’est pas un woodpile,” as Duchamp might say. I like the way the design takes the idea of the duck blind and runs with it (quite far away!). Images courtesy Andrew Michler on Inhabitat and also Dornob. For more images see Thomas Mayer Archive.

Three. Architect David Coleman describes his Hill House in Winthrop, Washington as a “20 ‘ wide x 115′

long stepped platform… sited on a long, narrow, rocky hillside…it reads as a habitable landscape” (photos courtesy David Coleman). I like the way it culminates in the deck with the round fire

pit defined by gabion (rock filled cages) walls on the master suite end, and with another deck and more gabions on the living room end, as if the structure is growing out of or into the land itself (photo courtesy Mocoloco.) This simple serene progression from public to private and vice versa is evocative: home as a short architectural hike…

Four. This urbane floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union by Vandeventer & Carlander Architects puts the main entertaining spaces — organized as a series of framed openings within an elegant

box — on the upper level. The living room veranda is carved out of the rectangular volume to sharpen sight lines across the water. It also cantilevers over the lower floor to shelter the deck off the master bedroom. The design shows how to swim with geometry (photo courtesy Karmatrendz).

Five. “Packed But Never Shipped” might be a good name for this clever cabin by Olson Kundig Architects.

When the window flaps — resembling warehouse pallets — are down they form the surrounding deck platforms so the tiny structure can expand (images courtesy Olson Kundig). When the vacation ends, the platforms fold up for security and the house is effectively crated, to await the next weekend when it can be unpacked and played with again. Take care of your toys and they will last longer!

These design approaches appeal to me because they are all about serious play: taking inspiration from settings, structure, and materials to fashion something unique and memorable. Use them — along with the many serious and seriously playful schemes in our Cottage Plans Collection and One Bedroom Plans Collection, like 479-1 by architects Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso (below)

or 517-1 by architect Jonathan Feldman (below);

or 452-2 by architect David Wright (below)

to help you jump start your own getaway cabin dreams. (When you browse these collections sort by “newest plans” to see our latest designs.) Here’s to the comfort and joy of architectural invention.

Welcome, Katrina Cottage Plans

Finessing the FEMA Trailer

Big news! We are very excited to welcome the Katrina Cottage plans — from a team of designers and architects led by Marianne Cusato — to our Exclusive Studio. Prices start at $850. Years ago I saw one of the first examples, at the Home Builder Show in Orlando (shown below, courtesy James Hardie), and was very impressed. Here was an innovative solution to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina that could apply to housing needs in general.


I especially liked the efficient layout (this example is only 300 square feet), well proportioned double-hung windows, and front porch with built-in benches. I thought then, and now even more so, that this little house would dignify any neighborhood. To my mind it is a highly evolved descendant of the charming wood-framed “earthquake cottages” built for San Francisco’s homeless

after the disaster of 1906 (photo courtesy National Park Service, Presidio). Fast forward to today and our expanding collection of Katrina Cottage designs, like Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-5, shown below.


The 544 square-foot, two bedroom, one bath house includes a galley kitchen

and a front porch that’s 8-feet deep so it can be used as an outdoor room to expand the house in good weather. Here it is as built.

(Photo courtesy Cusato Cottages.) The house is only sixteen feet wide but has a strong presence thanks to the welcoming front porch. Marianne calls this “vernacular Gulf Coast” architecture but I can see it working in places like the Northeast and Midwest as well.

Envisioned as a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer, Katrina Cottages have been hailed for their design, durability, versatility and, affordability in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, on CNN and in all major news outlets nationwide. The Katrina Cottage concept is the vision of architect Andres Duany, partner in Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism and designers of hundreds of pedestrian-oriented communities including Seaside, Florida. The cottage idea was first developed at the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005. The goal was to create a safe, affordable, livable home that can be built quickly and that ultimately becomes an enduring contribution to the neighborhood — not a temporary, often stigmatized, and possibly unhealthy solution like a FEMA trailer.

Plan 514-10 by Eric Moser, of Moser Design Group, is 20 feet wide and includes a buffet bar/peninsula in

the kitchen.

 

A shed dormer brightens the loft. Plan 514-11 by W. A. Lawrence of

Period Style Homes is 25 feet wide and includes an option for adding a third bedroom. Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-18 is the largest so far,

at two stories and 1,200 square feet. Two bedrooms and a second bathroom are 

on the upper floor. Here’s a built version of it in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (photo courtesy Cusato Cottages).

The shutters, clapboard siding, and gable profile give it a handsome Colonial Revival look.

Marianne Cusato is the author of Get Your House Right, Architectural Elements to Use and Avoid, with Ben Pentreath, Richard Sammons and Leon Krier, foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales (2008, Sterling Publishing). In 2006, her Katrina Cottage won the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s “People’s Design Award.” W. A. Lawrence and Eric Moser have long been involved in neighborhood and residential design. These houses can be family homes, vacation cabins, even granny units, and it’s easy to imagine combining them into vibrant communities. To mix a few metaphors — an architectural phoenix has risen from the floods. Welcome, Katrina Cottage plans!

Iconic House Design plus New Kirei Wood Paneling

Start With Simple

Let’s talk about how using an iconic shape can help you conceptualize the modern design of your new home — architects start here all the time. Take the simplest architectural outline, such as four walls topped with a gable roof, as shown in this archetypal Scottish stone barn.


(Image courtesy gairloch.org) What can you do with it? How can you pack it, expand it, open it, raise it, give it a sense of history or modernity? Here’s a sampling of houses that all began with a similar profile,

starting with architect Rick Joy‘s design for a barn-inspired house in Vermont.

(Images courtesy Architectural Record.) Inside you can see how the shape is simply hollowed out for the main living space, with minimal but strong posts and rafters providing support. The design feels modern and historical at the same time. One side opens to a terrace while other has high windows for balanced light. Architects William Turnbull and Mary Griffin began with the long barn idea and then

divided it into two spaces (kitchen/living area and a bedroom/bathroom) separated by a breezeway-dining room, creating a contemporary dogtrot cabin (itself an historical house type) for the wine country.The outdoor dining room can be closed off from the prevailing wind with a sliding barn door  (which is in the open position, in kitchen on drawing).

The house is the width of a vine row (drawing and photo courtesy TGH Architects). Architect Stephen Atkinson took a similar tack with corrugated aluminum siding

and pulled the fireplace away to mark the edge of the deck in his Zachary vacation house.

Images courtesy Stephen Atkinson Architecture.) His plan is also a dogtrot but includes a galley kitchen that parallels the long axis; the breezeway stretches beyond the house to include the fireplace and deck. Australian architect Glenn Murcutt has often explored the use of simple house forms and distilled them to an essence,

as in the elegant curve of the gable on his Marie Short house (images courtesy Architectural Record), which also seems to be channeling a fluid line from Alvar Aalto. In this case the walls are really a series of operable layers that filter light, air, and view. So the iconic form creates a structure that allows for change depending on needs and circumstances. The two story gable is equally iconic, especially in the Rudin

house, made of concrete by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (image courtesy Apartment Therapy), which in turn has influenced designs by others,

like this memorable little shelter by Ultra Architects of Poland (image courtesy Mocoloco).

The most famous riff on such shapes is probably Robert Venturi’s design for his mother’s house from 1964 in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

Venturi used the gable as the centering device for the facade and then broke it to bring in high light and shape the entrance (image from The American House, courtesy curatedmag.com). This house became an icon in its own right as a herald of “Post Modernism.”

Archetypal house forms are also at the heart of designs by architects in our Exclusive Studio, such as Bud Dietrich’s wide gable that encompasses

greenhouse windows and a garage, Plan 481-1; Ross Anderson’s Plan 433-1

for a coastal getaway, with saddlebag-like attachments like the rustic staircases and the screen porch; Braxton Werner and Paul Field

and their version of a long barn house, Plan 491-10; Gregory La Vardera’s Plan 431-14

even recalls the Herzon & de Meuron example in its cubist quality, only in shingles this time, not concrete,  and Frank McGahon’s Plan 520-7,

which combines a series of long gables into a courtyard layout. And we’re back to the stone barn — not from Scotland now but from Ireland!


Recycled Wood News

Kirei is a sustainable wood manufacturer known for handsome bamboo, wheatboard, and Kirei board products (the latter is made of reclaimed sorgum straw) and has just launched the new Windfall line of paneling.

It uses reclaimed wood from deconstructed buildings in the Pacific Northwest to create engineered wood panels for wall coverings and casework (image from Kirei). Solid panels come in Clear, Ivory, Anthracite, and Mocha finishes; 3-ply panels come in Clear finish. Solid and 3 ply panels also come in an end-grain style.




Monterey Design Conference 2011, Part One

Nature, Machines, and Robotics, Oh My!

The 20th Monterey Design Conference, sponsored by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects, took place last weekend. The two days of lectures and seminars by architects and landscape architects from across the country, Canada, and Spain offered up a superb architectural feast. There was the usual architectural jargon — overuse of words like “aperture,” meaning window or opening, and “iteration,” meaning version — and sometimes you just want a clear declarative sentence explaining the purpose of a  particular design — but all in all this was a wonderfully stimulating experience.

Of course the setting at the Asilomar Conference Grounds – a California state park on the ocean at Pacific Grove near Carmel — sets a high design standard. The marvelous serpentine boardwalks that wind through the dunes (to protect them) aren’t just useful as a kind of palette cleanser between the high intensity talks,

but  also act as a powerful metaphor for the journey of discovery that a good conference makes possible.

In addition the original Asilomar buildings designed by California’s most famous woman architect, Julia Morgan (who also designed Hearst Castle), like “The Lodge” shown above from 1917, set a high architectural standard by deftly using natural materials to make buildings that seem indigenous.

And inside, the cinnamon-hued, redwood board and batten walls and stairway have a visual and tactile power that is unforgettable.

All the large lectures took place in another Julia Morgan building, called Merrill Hall (above), a rustic-elegant barn on a hill. In other words, at a place like this, any design talk better be good!

This conference succeeded because it offered  a strong cross section of contemporary work. Here are first impressions –  more reporting on the conference will follow in a subsequent post.

Newly anointed MacArthur Genius Grantee Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang — whose most famous building is the Aqua skyscraper in Chicago, shown below and described in an earlier Eye On Design post

spoke about how nature, context, and materials research inform her work in the US and India. How appropriate for a lecture in a sand dune by ocean waves!

Tom Kundig, of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle, designs seductive modern buildings with vividly expressed mechanical systems and hot rod elements like super scaled cranks and rollers, as in his famous Chicken Point Cabin (photo by Benjamin Benschneider, courtesy Olson Kundig Architects)

or his Rolling Huts — guest cabins on giant steel wheels (photograph by Tim Bies, courtesy Olson Kundig Architects).

Tom has been influenced by the painter and kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, whose most famous work, titled “Homage To New York” and shown below,

(image courtesy New York Times) was a machine that was designed to self destruct. It was easy to see how Tom’s fascination/obsession with machines has lead to an architecture that becomes kinetic sculpture.

Part of the conference was devoted to “Emerging Talents” and one of these talks showed how architects are embracing new tools and techniques, like Andreas Froech of Machineous, who is adapting industrial automotive robotic systems to fabricate not buildings, but polymorphic structures that might be used in buildings, like this screen

or this extraordinary table (both images courtesy Machineous).

I wondered about the practical application of some of this work but now thinking back on the talk I see how “natural” it is — though a nature that has been rethought through the computer. The table is a table unless it is a tree — sounds like Gertrude Stein! More about MDC in my next post.

Drawing from Frank 

The latest book from the vast and ever expanding publishing engine that runs on a fuel known as the imagination of Frank Lloyd Wright is a splendid collection of his conceptual sketches and presentation drawings, just published by Rizzoli. They are selected and explained – with some fascinating anecdotes — by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, longtime director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  For anyone interested in Wright it is a must-have because it lets you follow his mind at work.  The cover image

is for an unbuilt project in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood – it’s the house as sculpted cliff and monumental exclamation point. The book shows just how lucky Wright was to have such super-natural sites to work with but also how brilliantly he rose to each topographic occasion. It would have been fun to see what he could do next to Julia Morgan at Asilomar — then again maybe that wouldn’t have worked…

Garden Spas and Tower Houses

Bubbles and Bromeliads

Summer’s end prompts one last grasp for outdoor recreation, say for this seductive, round stainless steel spa deftly set into a boulder-strewn backyard slope.

Thanks to the simple clarity of the design — a smoothly turned curve set into upper and lower decks that stair-step down the hill — it becomes an integral part of the landscape (unlike so many prefabricated spas that resemble huge plastic tub toys full of bubbling hot water). Rectangular versions can also become focal points instead of eyesores.
This one edges a patio close to the house and doubles as a garden seat.

Here the clear green-blue water stands out against the burnished steel of the spa and the red-brown of the wood deck, to make a serene reflecting pool when not in use (examples and photos courtesy Diamond Spas). Though custom-designed, these modern spas are less expensive than adding a pool, fit smaller spaces, and allow for year-round use. 

Rapunzel was a Ranger — and More

Small towers — with a room at the top for reading, sleeping, or just looking out – have been seductive since well before Rapunzel was asked to let down her hair. There’s just something very appealing about having your own retreat at least one story up with a commanding view across the landscape — especially to architects. Of course it helps to have a way in and out that doesn’t involve a lot of “product.” Montana architect Jeff Shelden of Prairie Wind Architecture designed a tower as a weekend getaway, and patterned it after fire lookouts in national forests, complete with a walk-around balcony.

I visited it with Jeff  during the winter a number of years ago and I was entranced. It has everything: the lower floor is a country kitchen

complete with an old-fashioned range, and a dining nook. Upstairs is the living

area and the wrap-around balcony sheltered by the pyramid roof.

San Francisco Architect Lewis Butler (Butler/Armsden Architects) has designed a getaway for his parents in California’s Central Valley that harks back to 19th and early 20th century water towers, as well as early  work by William Wurster.

A lookout is where the water tank would have been.

The view across fertile fields is majestic: “Good Morning, Yolo County!”

Much of the interior of the tower is occupied by the soaring master bedroom (a circular stair in one corner winds up to the lookout). The kitchen/living space is in the shed roofed section at the base.

An equally seductive tower house by Andersson-Wise Architects overlooks Lake Travis near Austin, Texas. 

Each of the lower two floors has a bedroom with a dramatic corner window. At the top is a kitchenette and dining terrace where I think every meal must

begin with a toast to Lake Travis (images courtesy Andersson Wise Architects). Arthur Andersson was a design partner of the late Charles Moore, who was one of the architects of Sea Ranch and other modern regionally evocative designs and founder of distinguished firms across the country. Moore’s Quarry Road House,  also in Austin, is a magic cabinet of design ideas in its own right and can be visited by appointment.

At Houseplans.com we have several tower plans, including Plan 64-202,

which includes two bedrooms on the ground floor, kitchen-dining in the middle, and living room at the top. Tower Studio Plan 479-6, by Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso, mentioned previously, is shown here included in a larger house.


Using a small tower element to define some aspect of a larger house or compound is a clever idea. It can help define an entry or organize a composition. I have even seen a very elegant modern house that included two towers diagonally opposite each other, designed for an artist and an architect — a sort of Romeo and Juliet approach but with a happy ending. Maybe Rapunzel can find a compatible Prince architect someday.


Waterside Home Design

Coastal Compositions, Modern and Rustic

A week’s vacation on the east coast got me thinking about houses by the water and what makes some of them successful, like the famous Clara Fargo Thomas house of 1937 on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, shown below (photo courtesy Portland Monthly).

It was built for a painter/muralist  and was designed by the great Philadelphia modernist architect George Howe (also responsible for the early modern PSFS skyscraper in that city with his partner William Lescaze). I remember architectural historian Vincent Scully showing this house in one of his Yale lectures as a landmark example of regional modernism. It was regional in its use of wood and stone, the shingle hipped roof, and the way the house capitalized on the dramatic natural setting; modern is its strong simple, almost abstracted shape, walls of glass, and concrete support beams cantilevered over the rocks and making the house appear to float over Somes Sound.

Inside, the view dominates and the elegant wood and glass doors slide away to unite the living room with the surrounding deck, as the descriptive page from an early article on the house shows (courtesy SaveWright.org). George Howe had a conversion of sorts in the late 1920s — he had been part of a very fine firm (Mellor Meigs & Howe) that produced elegant traditionally style homes around Philadelphia, but was starting to feel the need to express more of the Machine Age in his design. In 1930 he gave a famous speech to the AIA convention championing modernsim, which was a radical idea to a profession still steeped in Beaux Arts classical ideals. This house expressed a fine melding of past and future (as well as inside/outside) and became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The mid- and late 1930s saw a burgeoning interest in modernity and nature with the building of such landmarks as the Villa Malaparte (mentioned in a

previous post) on the island of Capri, shown above (courtesy Panoramio.com), where the geometry is even more abstract — think of the abstract planes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, of the same period.

More recently, in the early 1960s on the California coast near Big Sur, architectural photographer Morley Baer and his wife Frances built a house that is eloquently simple in the way it complements its rugged setting just below Highway 1 at Garrapata Beach.

The stone-clad rectangle (over steel reinforced concrete block) sits at the edge of a field by a rock outcrop — like a restored stone barn from the 19th century somewhere in the Scottish highlands.

Only the very thin roof plane and the monumental window wall with its grid of twelve large square panes  framing the romantic vista — turning the big living dining room into the inside of a big box camera — expresses the modernity of the design.

Indeed, this window wall is very compelling. Long ago I remember looking through it and being totally mesmerized and thinking how fitting this design was for a nature/architectural photographer. The house sold recently for many millions — naturally (images courtesy John Gaar Real Estate).

Perhaps the ultimate nature-oriented designs — at least in the US — were built in the late 19th century in New York’s lake-filled Adirondack region. These super-rustic “Great Camps” for wealthy families escaping from New York or Philadelphia for the summer boasted elaborate stone and timber or log veranda-wrapped compounds, grand stone boathouses, and extensive docks.

A splendid new book — just in time to enjoy with the waning days of summer — describes the key examples in detail. Adirondack Style: Great Camps and Rustic Lodges by f-Stop Fitgerald (clever name) and Richard McCaffrey with text by Lynn Woods and Jane Mackintosh (Rizzoli 2011,) tells the history of camps owned by J. P. Morgan, various Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers among many others. The sumptuous photographs show how the builders reworked natural materials and forms into a form of Rustic Baroque. Something to peruse as you sit on your own porch! The book was developed in cooperation with Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

The lesson in these sorts of houses and this sort of design is how the site determines the shape and character of each project. Of course these are extreme examples of creative responses to distinctive natural settings. Most waterside sites today are not as distinctive — if they can be had at all — but the concept still holds true no matter what the site: nurture that nature and make it your own!