Category Archives: Engineering

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!

 

Idea Collecting at Heath Ceramic’s New Tile Showroom

Beyond the Backsplash

I just toured the newly opened San Francisco showroom for Heath Ceramics — the famous mid-century modernist tile factory based in Sausalito — and found it full of suggestive ideas for storage and display, not to mention the vast array of products, from field tiles to tea pots, in colors and finishes that look positively edible. Husband-wife owners Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey have turned a former linen shop and laundry located in the city’s Mission

District into an airy design lab and gallery. The building layout and renovation was designed by San Francisco architect Charles Hemminger; the showroom interior was done by the Los Angeles firm Commune. The palette of unpainted wood, concrete, glass, and tile evokes a spare Japanesque/Scandinavian esthetic, which seems very appropriate for the strong simple shapes and nature-based hues of the company’s products. The retail showroom wraps around a

clerestoried atrium that will soon house tile-making operations and a Blue Bottle Coffee cafe (dishware manufacture will remain in Sausalito). So you

will be able to sip from a classic Heath “Coupe” line cup while watching the tile for your backsplash emerge from the primordial clay. But here

it’s not only the tile that’s alluring — as shown by sample panels that swivel so you can see the colorful glazes in different lights — but also the ideas for

flexible and built-in cabinetry. The kitchen island is especially suggestive, with butcher block counters flanking the range  for easy food prep before cooking,

and open shelving for convenient pot and pan storage. The floating wall shelving (bolted to the studs) against the vivid blue tile backsplash creates a spacious uncluttered look. The unpainted wood makes a perfect foil for the

tile, ensuring its starring role. Setting the tile perpendicular to the counter edge so that it connects with the tile running up the wall creates visual continuity for a very clean and unified design. The display tables are on rollers

so they can be used to reconfigure the space or combine with other tables for larger arrays. Heath has also begun a program of rotating exhibitions here and is currently showing work by Japanese Master Akio Nukaga. In sum,

the space deftly combines art and commerce. In effect, everything in the space

is carefully curated to feed the imagination…Say, wouldn’t these tiles look great in an outdoor shower on a house like this one by architects Braxton

Werner and Paul Field, Plan 491-2. I can see placing it around the corner to the left, not far from the pool. On that panel by the last window — a tall accent wall of blue-green classic field tile, don’t you think?

Ideas of Home at UCSD and MOMA

Foreclosing on the Familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/11 Memorial, Plus-Pool, and the Power of Design

Water Work

The power of design was made evident to me once again when I visited the recently completed National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York. First you must receive a free visitor pass from the Memorial website specifying the time for your visit.
Then, when you get to the site – which is surrounded by seven skyscrapers in various stages of construction – your visitor pass is inspected and you enter a long line of switchbacks that, after about half an hour, leads into a small lobby where you pass through x-ray machines – as if you are boarding a plane – and

then go out again down a blue walkway, around a corner, to the park itself,

which is a geometric expanse of granite pavers and lawn under a forest grid of swamp white oaks. (The Memorial museum is not yet finished.) Ahead are the two vast 200 feet-square, 30-feet deep pools — one tracing the footprint of the north, the other, the south tower of the World Trade Center. Wide balustrades — dark bronze waist-high, slightly tilted tablets inscribed with the names of those who died in the towers, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 — rim the top of each thundering cascade.

Architect Michael Arad had wanted the names to line walkways behind the falling water at the bottom of each pool, which would have turned the water into a veil of tears and would have given each visitor a more private experience, but security concerns made this impossible, hence the inscribed slabs at the top.

The sound of the rushing water and the sheer expanse of dropping space draws you ineluctably to the edge. It is the 21st century equivalent of Frederick

Church’s famous painting of Niagara Falls of 1857 (image courtesy The Corcoran Gallery of Art). The scale of the opening and the volume of the water is mesmerizing. But now it’s not just the power of nature we

are witnessing but the power of human nature we are enshrining. My first thought was that the design is too repetitive but then I realized that it isn’t — since the names are all different — and anyway the towers were twins in presence and must be twins in absence. And at the center of each dark pool is a further, darker chasm, where you can’t quite see the bottom and the water falls into emptiness. Thus the monumental scale and the depth-within-depth describe the collective loss itself, both literally and figuratively.

The ingenious weir at the top turns the water into a painterly element.

The long airfoil shape made of comb-like tines breaks the sheet of water into individual strands that then recombine in a thin curtain of silver to flash in the sunlight. The weir also spreads the flow evenly, maximizing its apparent volume while minimizing actual water and energy use.

Landscape architect Peter Walker — who worked with Michael Arad — spoke of the way the design is about filling and emptying at the same time (as I mentioned in a previous post about Walker’s talk at the Monterey Design Conference), and this seems especially apt, for a memorial is about filling a void that cannot be filled and holding memories that must not be forgotten. This is abstraction at its most elemental and powerful — like nature itself.

In the Swim

On a lighter note, one of my daughters made me aware of another approach to water in New York that is both wonderful and crazy: the cross-shaped multi-purpose Plus Pool (four pools in one) designed to float in the East River and that is being proposed by Dong-Ping Wong of Family Architects, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.

They got hot last summer – “So we proposed a pool. More specifically, we proposed a pool that uses and filters the very water that it floats in. A pool that makes it possible to swim off the shores of New York, in river water, that’s clean.”

The engineering firm Arup devised a filtering membrane that makes the clean water possible.

And the four-part configuration allows for a variety of swimming styles.

Through a Kickstarter campaign they have raised enough money to test the filtering system. Ingenious. Part of the power of design is thinking outside the pool.




News from Pacific Coast Builders Show (PCBC)

Looking Forward to Cargo Containers, Sliding Walls, Skylights, and LEDs

The tagline for this year’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC)was “The Beginning of Next,” which either sounds like a clever adaptation of the title of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, or the start of a talk by a Zen tea master. I guess the beginning of Next is really the end of Now – and for many builders and developers that would be a good thing. In any case, the conference was smaller and more intimate than previous ones. Here’s what caught my eye.

The most compelling display was the Cargotecture C Series by Hybrid Architecture, a fascinating design firm based in Seattle.

This clever living unit made from a steel cargo container appeared earlier in the month at Sunset magazine headquarters in Menlo Park as part of their Celebration Weekend — the following images are from there, courtesy Hybrid Architecture.

You can see how the container has been opened up on three sides — and how important a deck is in expanding the unit.

The view above is looking toward the kitchenette and the bathroom.

The living/sleeping end opens to the entry deck.  At PCBC there was a balcony on the other side.

The unit is basically three spaces: a living/dining/sleeping area, the tiny galley kitchen, and an equally small shower cabinet that includes the sink and toilet – like a bathroom on a motorboat. You can just make out the toilet and the sink — and the redwood boards covering the drain pan — in the photograph. This micro cottage would work well for a guest house or pool house. The HyBrid Architecture firm offers a variety of models; the base specifications include the recycled cargo container, soy-based spray insulation, aluminum clad wood windows and doors, Duravit bath fixtures, Summit appliances, and IKEA cabinets. Options include solar panels and retractable shade structures and modular foundation systems

Sliding glass door/walls continue to evolve. Marvin Windows and Doors has produced an impressive “lift and slide” example.

The four panels slide into a pocket at the side.


I also saw some very sleek electronic sliders that stop when they meet resistance – like elevator doors. They are manufactured by an Italian company called Apexfine; the US distributor is the Albertini Corporation.

Apexfine also makes what they call the “Guillotine” window – a large glass panel rises out of the floor.

The one shown above is positioned a little over halfway up, to create an instant balcony or glass half-wall – very cool!

Builders are beginning to take advantage of the Web in new ways. One impressive app that was introduced at PCBC is Imfuna’s Punch List.

This app makes it possible to manage the final stages of the home building process — when changes and updates are especially difficult to keep current — from your I-Phone. It avoids the need for paper-based, time consuming documentation; makes it easy to assign sub-contractors and immediately deliver tailored reports to them for completion; allows you to view, approve or reject updates on the punch list from your phone or laptop — and keeps files current so everyone sees the latest updated documents; makes it possible to edit the data collected in the field and add more details such as plans or schedules, without specialized hardware or training; and keeps records safe in a secure online environment (i.e. “the cloud”). This program is tailored for contractors but would also be useful for homeowners acting as their own contractors. Imfuna is an interesting company co-founded by Jax Kneppers, a forensic engineer. The Punch List grew out of the company’s experience inventing an app for building inspections that increased efficiency by 70%.

There is news in skylights. Velux introduced its ingenious “Lovegrove Chandelier” option for their “Sun Tunnel” skylights.

This ingenious device is a reflective globe that suspends from the bottom of the skylight funnel and “uses the sun as the bulb.” The top of the globe bounces sunlight light up, washing the ceiling with a natural glow.

LED lights (light emitting diodes) are competing more strongly with compact fluorescents.

I saw these LED examples from Viribright – the bulbs last up to 25,000 hours, use 80% less energy than typical incandescent bulbs, and are available in warm, natural, and cool light. They also switch on instantly – just like conventional light bulbs. Even the most advanced fluorescents have a slight delay before reaching full brightness, so these lighting products are a compelling alternative. I guess the beginning of Next really starts with a light switch!

Historic Modern Houses to Tour, Garage Storage

The Architect’s Imagination

I recently attended a private benefit for U. C. Berkeley’s  Environmental Design Archives at an extraordinary Mid-Century Modern house. Designed by architect Ernest Born for himself and his wife Esther in 1951, the simple board and batten exterior (shown at left, photo by Morley Baer, courtesy EDA) literally draws a redwood curtain across the front of the house. See how the top rail reaches across the driveway to complete the geometric composition — like a curtain rack itself. The house is in a windy location near the ocean so the wall functions as a wind break as well as privacy fence. But what a surprise inside! You pass a galley kitchen under a balcony (that’s part upstairs hall, part study) and enter a sensational loft-like two story living room overlooking an expansive rear garden — this view is from the balcony. The monumental two-story square window wall functions as a gigantic lens for looking out and looking in and effectively doubles the size of the indoor world. The fireplace is treated as a geometric sculpture –  — the brick firebox resting on a cantilevered hearth and fronted with vertical wood strips below the cylindrical chimney. It’s clear that Born was influenced by Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City of 1948 with its iconic square window, mentioned in earlier posts, but there’s also a strong resemblance to the loft-like living room of the Charles and Ray Eames house near Santa Monica of 1949, shown at left  — though in the Eames house the window wall is treated as a more complex grid, steel ceiling ribs extend outside to form a canopy, and a wall of books extends along one side (image courtesy Gabriel Ross Blog, which covers modern furniture, lighting, and home accessories). Experiencing the Born house – which also has a beautiful and deftly composed contemporary addition by Aidlin Darling Design — see the three-story addition on the left in the photo above (by Dwight Eshliman, courtesy the architects) — made me look for significant modern houses that you can tour by appointment. Spring is the best time to explore — here are my current top five (not including the Eames house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, discussed in previous posts).

Los Angeles, California. The Schindler House (part of the MAK Center) by Rudolph Schindler of 1921 is really two living units and was built for Schindler and his wife, and his engineer colleague Clyde Chase and his wife. The tilt-slab  concrete-and-glass construction was both forward-thinking and historically minded, with outdoor fireplaces and roof decks. The entry fee includes a visit to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house of 1936 also designed by Schindler (however, only on the first Friday of every month — photo courtesy MAK Center).

Dearborn, Michigan. Futurist-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous round steel Dymaxion House of 1947 (though initially conceived in the late 1920s) is one of the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The name was invented by a publicist who followed Bucky Fuller around and eventually combined parts of words that he seemed to use a lot as he was speaking about his inventions: “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” The shiny metal structure — a sort of cross between a spaceship and a souffle — was meant to be a prototype for efficient modern living, though only one was built. Two prefab bathroom units and a kitchen pod are at the center, ringed by living areas and the two bedrooms.

Norman, Oklahoma. An organic original. The Bavinger House of 1950 by the brilliant and eccentric Bruce Goff, who studied for a short time with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed new versions of the quonset hut during World War II, is one of the most unusual modern houses in the U. S. In concept it’s a spiraling stairway under what feels like a tall tent. A series of living and sleeping platforms are suspended on cables along the stair like giant candy dishes. The modernity is in the openness of the interior, the free-form structural conception, and the novel use of materials. Tours — usually led by family members — are by appointment with the Bavinger House Conservancy.

Plano, Illinois. The levitating, mirage-like, glass and white steel Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, takes modernity to an extreme. As Marc Myers wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece: it’s “part fishbowl, part tree house, and part transparent time capsule.” It was built for doctor Edith Farnsworth as a country retreat; only the bathrooms are enclosed. Now through July 31 you also get to tour the Lumenhaus Solar Decathlon winner, temporarily installed nearby on the same property.

New Canaan, Connecticut. Architect Philip Johnson’s justly famous Glass House of 1949 was heavily influenced by the Farnsworth house, but here, instead of floating over the landscape the structure is firmly grounded in it — in fact becoming an artful rearrangement of it. Again, only the bathroom (the cylinder) is enclosed. Johnson told the story of a visit by Frank Lloyd Wright: Philip met Frank at the front door. “Well, Philip” said Frank. “Am I inside or am I outside? Do I keep my hat on or do I take if off?” Johnson kept the building/landscape dichotomy front and center by prominently displaying an important 17th century landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin in the living room. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is open for tours by appointment from May through November. The house is one small part of Johnson’s large estate, with many other buildings by him, including an underground art gallery and a lake pavilion, which can also be toured. (Photo courtesy The Glass House.)

Spring Cleaning

It’s interesting to note that few of these landmark modern houses have garages — apparently architects didn’t like dealing with the automobile (some still don’t). But spring is a good time to think about reorganizing. I saw these garage storage systems by Gladiator Garageworks in KBHome’s Greenhouse at the Home Builder Show and was envious. The units free up the floor space so there’s room for all kinds of tools and sports gear as well as cars. Brackets supporting the shelving click into horizontally grooved wall panels. Cabinets on casters add flexibility. Gladiator also has a new 66.5 inch bamboo-topped modular workbench with leveler legs for uneven floors.

So maybe this is how a modern architect would at least organize a garage, if not design one from scratch!

FLW Anniversary and Spring Plan Sale

75 Years Young

It’s incredible to think that the most famous modern house in America — Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania by Frank Lloyd Wright — turns 75 this year. I have toured it twice and it still looks contemporary and forward-thinking today. Thanks to Fallingwater (Rizzoli 2011) a new book of essays and sumptuous photographs edited by Fallingwater’s director, Lynda Waggoner, you can take an engrossing armchair tour. Those cantilevered decks still inspire — though they have been strengthened over the years — but after three quarters of a century suspended over a waterfall anyone could use a little help!  In fact, the chapter by the engineer Robert Silman, who did the artful and seamless strengthening job with post-tensioned concrete (he was part of the team that helped first responders to the World Trade Center analyze the stability of surrounding structures)  is especially fascinating reading. (Wright photo courtesy Water history.org) Silman even quotes a letter from Frank to his client Edgar Kaufman, who had hired an engineer to second guess Wright’s own calculations: “You seem not to know how to treat a decent one [architect]. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven’t your confidence — to hell with the whole thing.” Don’t mess with Texas, er Taliesin! Spring is a glorious time to tour the house — to do so contact the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Spring Plan Sale and More Siting Advice

Though Fallingwater raises residential architecture to a high art, the principle of uniting structure and site should be an important part of every home design. One of the common refrains of this blog — and of Houseplans.com — is that every ready-made house plan should suit its lot or be adapted to it. Here’s an example, from our Spring Sale of Selected  Exclusive Plans (up to 40% off through May 31, 2011): the two-story Garage/Studio Plan 498-3 by architect Matthew Coates, which could easily become an in-law suite or backyard cottage. It’s a simple gabled box with a shed dormer but see how it is dug about four feet into the hill on the entry side so the car has a level pad. As you walk around it you see how each side responds to a different context, from the far side, where it’s not dug into the slope and it’s possible to have a straight path back to the entrance for the studio stairs. At the rear you can see how the stair takes advantage of the corner to bring  light not only to the stair itself but also down to the garage and up to the studio. The shed dormer takes it from there offering a private view into the forest. Our Flexahouse Plans 445-1 through 6, (also on sale through the end of May), make a similar point. Architect Nick Noyes designed the Flexahouse , which is a type of ranch house, in three configurations so it can suit different lot conditions, from long and narrow to short and wide. (Click Spring Sale Plans to see all our exclusive home plans on sale this month.)

Orientation to the sun is key; in the northern hemisphere a southern exposure is usually best for warmth in winter and cool breezes in summer; west-facing glass needs to compensate for hot afternoon sun with insulation or shading of some sort. A northern exposure offers cooler indirect light and is the classic orientation for an artist’s space. A breakfast area often faces east to catch the morning sun. In a way you can think of the house as a sundial: analyze each room — where will the sun be coming from when you think you’ll be occupying it most often? It’s easy to modify a plan by replacing a window with a door for more convenient outdoor access, say, or by adding a window to capture a view. And our Modification Department is happy to help! A good house plan is only good if it takes advantage of its site.