Category Archives: Design Ideas and Inspiration

Compelling Ideas for the New Presidio Parklands

Hit Parade

I just attended a marvelous presentation by five internationally renowned landscape and architecture teams offering ideas for shaping a 13 acre parkland site in San Francisco’s historic Presidio National Park. The site — virtually new land — extends from the edge of the Parade Ground at the Main Post over Doyle Drive (Highway 101) and down to the Bay at Crissy Field. In this photo you can see part of the Main Post lawn at the upper left and the hillside-hugging tunnels under construction with the temporary roadway looping around them.Tunnels cropped Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.07.10 AM (2)The drop is 35 feet, with dazzling views over the tunnel tops to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz, and back to the city itself. Tunnel tops Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.52.52 AM (2)The goal, according to project organizers, which include the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service, is not only to integrate the waterfront with the historic core of the Presidio and celebrate the extraordinary views but also to create “a welcoming place – inspired by history and contemporary needs – that embraces cultural diversity, creativity, learning, fitness, and fun.” The intention behind asking for proposals was to simulate our collective imagination. That process has certainly succeeded: the standing-room-only-crowd was very enthusiastic. As the moderator, architect and educator David Meckel said, “Don’t think of these schemes as finished designs, look at them as a way to understand how each of these design teams think.” In other words, here are ways to start imagining what could happen here — use these ideas to jumpstart your own vision of what might be possible. Here’s what I found especially evocative.

The Power of Simplicity

West 8, a Dutch urban design and landscape firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York, thought about ways to make the site not simply an extension of the Main Post grid or a connector to the water but something in its own right, while at the same time making the slope accessible. They hit upon a descending oval that’s at once a gently sloping pathway, a central lawn, and a view oriented building arching out of the ground. Here’s their overall plan as it relates to the Main Parade Ground.

West 8 Presidio plan 2014-09-05 at 9.13.16 AM (2)The oval is positioned between three key elements — the Visitor Center, the Youth Campus, and the Water Discovery/Wet Lab — and cleverly unites them.

West 8 Presido OvalIn this aerial view you can see how the oval acts as a focal point for framing the vistas, as a pivot from upper to lower levels, and as a sheltered bowl for picnics and other events.

West 8 oval edge view at 9.03.46 AM (2)The building is the landscape, as the rendering of the upper path shows.West 8 oval alt

The design effectively illustrates West 8′s philosophy to “actively create new ecologies.” This is an ingeniously layered simplicity. I love it!

Edges That Unite

Olin, a landscape design firm based in Philadelphia and working with Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, developed a scheme that revels in multiplicity. It extends the grid while transforming it into a series of U-shaped “Pods” to frame views and focus different activities. It adds a strong cross axis “Runway” leading from the Visitor Center to what looks like the prow of a great ship rising out of the sand. Olin Presidio  aerial 2014-09-05 at 9.19.02 AM (2)

Olin calls this the “Arc” and indicates that it might rise and fall with the tide — and that’s definitely imaginative! You can see how it forms a red arc in the photo but it’s easy to free-associate with another ark — floating the floating concept, so to speak.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.25.07 PM (2)Here’s a view of one side: a path below the prow cleaves it into two sections, while another leads through the marsh — I love how the marsh walk literally puts you in the water.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 5.42.05 PM (2)

Architect Tom Kundig is known for designing buildings in a wonderfully seductive “contraption esthetic,” often with key parts that move, like the sunshades at the Arc’s event space shown above, though I wonder how the rest of the Arc would actually work. But it makes me think: Yes, why not make a seaside park that expresses tidal movement! And I think it would be a very beautiful building.

Knit Large

SNØHETTA, a design firm with offices in Norway, New York, and San Francisco, headed a team that developed a series of so called “arcs and strands” to knit the upper and lower sections of the site together and to views and cultural activities.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.54.10 PM (2)

What captured my attention was their willingness to remove an existing building like the Visitor Center and create a new one in a more advantageous place at the edge of the hill. It’s the triangular sod-topped structure at the center of the plan above. The new location would serve as a true introduction to the site and the Presidio at large by framing the great vista. Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.51.16 PM (2)

This view shows the approach to the new Visitor Center — an abstracted hill rising before you that partially hides your objective and then, once you’re inside or on top, reveals everything — bridge, bay, islands, mountains — at your feet.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.48.45 PM (2)Another element is also suggestive: a grand partially planted stairway-street. It could be a great meeting place as well as exercise avenue. I can see tai chi happening on alternate platforms in the early morning.

Explorers’ Club

The team led by San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture, which included representatives of the Exploratorium (the famous science museum), presented a design that turned the hillside and marsh into an indoor-outdoor exhibition concourse centered on a new building called The Observation Post.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 3.39.06 PM (2)

The brow of the hill morphs into this glass-walled structure — it’s like a softened and humanized version of the concrete bunkers leftover from World War II that are scattered about the bluffs above the Golden Gate Bridge.

CMG Presidio Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 3.37.10 PM (2)The Observation Post becomes an amphitheater for events and for enjoying views out toward the water and in toward the Main Post itself — effectively turning the Presidio into its own theatrical event.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.07.25 PM (2)

The scheme retains much of the original Crissy Field character will adding overlooks, way stations, and bridges that provide multiple ways to experience — and learn from — the landscape.

Power Point

The team led by James Corner Field Operations, of New York City, one of the designers of the famous High Line there, emphasized the curvilinear nature of the site — as if the grid just above it had started to melt and then spill over into the contours of the land below.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.24.39 PM (2)

Fanning out and over the brow of the hill, in the large concave curve shown above, is the long observation walk, part of what the scheme refers to as “The Point.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.39.42 PM (2)This sweeping promenade has long runs of stair-stepped seating and a sunken railing – so it doesn’t interrupt sight lines.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 5.07.06 PM (2)In some areas the walk projects over the hill to vary the processional experience and dramatize important vistas.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.38.36 PM (2)This sinuous promenade reminds me — in a much abstracted form — of the wonderful serpentine bench railing at the Parc Guell by Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, which James Corner alluded to in this talk.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.54.34 PM (2)And as at the Parc Guell, there is a building under the walkway. In Corner’s case, however, the views are the ornamentation. The curvilinear Corner proposal strikes me as a kind of alluvial echo of — or call-and-response to — the long straight line of the existing, and very successful Crissy Field Promenade on the beach below. (Photo courtesy Parc Guell).

Now, with so many ideas in each scheme to ponder, as well as the new ideas and refinements that these ideas are designed to stimulate, the task of deciding where to go from here will be difficult but hugely enriching. Bravo Presidio!

All the images in this post except for the photograph of Parc Guell are courtesy New Presidio Parklands Project. The Parklands website offers many ways to learn more and add your own suggestions.

 

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.

nick-noyes-great-room-healdsburg-house-photo-by1
Below is a view of our  FLEXAHOUSE Great Room looking in the same direction, from the kitchen to the  living room.

vaulted20ceiling20for20drawing20board2

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,

flex_gr-kit-of-parts2
Then add the Master Suite,

flex_mbr2

Bedroom-Bath Unit,

flex_2-bed-bath-unit1

and Garage

flex_gar1

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

445-6e-2580-t-shape-elev-from-website

and plan.

t4-plan-from-website

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.

flexa-exterior_options

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.

nnoyes20face20crop-nick-noyes-portrait

“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,

nick-noyes-kitchen-healdsburg-photo

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!

Staying Cool in the Garden

Splashdown

There are myriad ways to beat — or at least distract yourself — from the heat of a mid-summer day. Some take planning and building, like this wonderful “water rail” for a terrace in Arizona, by Phoenix landscape architect Greg Trutza. The

railing-spillway-mescaleraAgua-generalife-1 from alhambradegranad.orgstream of recirculating water follows the curve of the deck and spills into a small spa at one end (photo courtesy Sunset Magazine). It’s inspired by Continue reading

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!