Category Archives: International House Plans

Window Walls and Rooms-Within-Rooms

Every Solid Loves a Void — and Space is a Wrap

Let’s explore two strong architectural ideas — the window wall and the room-within-a-room — and how they can enhance house design. Both have long histories. In one sense the glass wall goes all the way back to the tall banks of windows at the Tudor estate known as Hardwick Hall in England, built by Bess

of Hardwick in the late 1500s, shown here (photo courtesy Anglotopia.net). At that time glass was an important emblem of power and wealth because it was so rare — thus it was a fitting material for the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. You didn’t mess with Bess. A more recent example is the glass

living room wall to the right of the tree courtyard, at the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau designed by Le Corbusier and built as a demonstration house or “machine for living” for the Paris Exposition of 1925 (photo courtesy 4rts.wordpress.com). As we have seen in previous posts, the window wall became a signature feature of Modernism, especially in mid-twentieth century works like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house and Philip Johnson’s Glass

House. Our Plan 520-4, by Irish architect Frank McGahon, shown here with its flanking window walls, is a recent version. The great appeal of the window wall is to unite inside and outside while framing both. The trick is to beware of exposures — even insulated glass can transmit heat and cold.

The room-within-a-room idea is vividly illustrated by a piece of furniture, also from England of centuries ago: the Great Bed of Ware, ca. 1580, with its large

post and beam frame and heavy curtains closing it off for privacy and warmth (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Thomas Jefferson’s bed alcove at Monticello, shown above, is a sort of built-in version, minus the curtains (photo courtesy Colonial Williamsburg). Architect Charles Moore was fascinated with this idea and referred to it as an aedicula, which is Latin for a small shrine. (The most famous example of an aedicula

is the baldacchino with twisting columns over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome, by Bernini, photo courtesy Saintpetersbasilica.org.) Moore used a much simplified version of it in his own house at Orinda from the early 1960s, where the larger

living and smaller bathing spaces are defined by columns and skylights, like separate domestic temples clustered under one roof (image courtesy Eleanor Weinel’s Arch4443). Moore’s design partner, William Turnbull, used an even more spare — and more Jeffersonian — version in his Sea Ranch cottage of the early 1980s, which is our historical Plan 447-1, where the bed is an alcove

in the corner. A flexible contemporary take on this idea is “The Cube” designed by architect Toshi Kasa of Spaceflavor for Feng Shui expert Liu Ming in his live/work loft in Oakland, California (photo by Joe Fletcher via The New York

 Times). The 8 foot-square cube-on-wheels is a bedroom on one side and an office on the other, allowing Mr. Ming to use the rest of his loft for his classes. I trust the brakes are on in case there’s an earthquake.

An outdoor room within a garden is yet another way to go, as architect Ross

Anderson shows in our Plan 433-2, above. See the outdoor fireplace opposite the built-in bench forming a small living area at the edge of the courtyard in this partial view.

But where might the window wall and the room-in-a-room work together? How about Hojo House by Akira Yoneda of Architecton in Japan. The glass house is

behind an elegant scrim of steel tubes, creating a modified screen porch that distracts from the very tight infill site (thoughts of cages inevitably spring to mind; photo courtesy infoteli.com). But I think today’s most famous example of the two ideas working together might be the marvelous glass cube entrance to the Apple store

on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where the novelty of a structure that is there-and-not-there makes you see everything around it — like the Plaza Hotel across the street — more clearly. The simple contrast between solid and void is visually refreshing and builds a larger whole. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple’s magic container makes you realize it is a room within the much larger room that is the terrace on which it sits, the street, and the edge of Central Park itself. Some ideas just expand!

Round House Ruminations

Wheels Within Wheels

To me summer vacation means changing the daily routine and seeing new things, or old things in new ways, so here are some unusual home designs to act as springboards for the imagination.

For example, round or almost round houses – i.e. octagons, like the McElroy house in San Francisco of 1861, shown above (photo courtesy Wikipedia) — have always had a special allure. In the 19th century, health writer Orson Squire Fowler popularized the form in his book The Octagon House: A Lifestyle for All. Octagons were sometimes called “health houses” because of the way each angled room maximized natural light and ventilation.

Variations on the octagon have interested architects and designers ever since –  well, actually since Greece and Rome, not to mention the Middle East, if you consider all those round temples and domed mosques. Among the most famous examples is the 12-sided House of Tomorrow by architects George Fred Keck and William Keck at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, built of steel, aluminum, and glass. Here’s the conceptual sketch for it (courtesy projetoblog).

Note the airplane easing out of the ground floor hangar (every home should have one) on the left, while the automobile pulls away on the right, and Mom is left alone with the daughter in the center.

Here it is as built (though this view was taken after it was bought by a developer and moved to a residential subdivision overlooking Lake Michigan) where the handy hangar was replaced with living quarters (sigh…). As a popular exhibit at the world’s fair it promoted a romantic machine-age future as if to say: “Look, you can live in an airport control tower!” (Photo courtesy Wikimapia.) Sounds fun to me. It’s not so very far, conceptually, from Los Angeles architect John Lautner’s Chemosphere, of 1960, shown below, though most people compare the latter to a flying saucer tethered to the ground.

The faceted geometry is still there but now everything is flattening out and lifting off into space (photo courtesy the John Lautner Foundation). John Portman’s spinning cocktail lounges atop Hyatt hotels, and of course Seattle’s Space Needle, were not far behind.

Spin an octagon fast enough and you get a cylinder, like the round house for the Medici family in Ticino, Switzerland of 1980-82 by Italian modernist architect Mario Botta.

It’s called la Rotunda — which is also the informal name for the Pantheon in Rome, not a bad precedent (photo courtesy Maro Botto Architetto). The idea here, according Botta, was to create a design that was visually distinct from surrounding houses while making a strong visual connection to the distant landscape through the geometric window fissures in the monolithic round tower form. It’s a very evocative design: a drum that’s both closed and connected at the same time.

We have various round designs in our inventory, such as Plan 64-165.

It’s actually sixteen-sided — a doubled octagon; part of our Unique and Unusual Plans Collection. The one story pavilion (connecting to a round pool), contains the living-dining area and kitchen in one half; bedroom, bath, and laundry/utility space in the other.

It would make an elegant guest house or in-law unit as well as a pool pavilion. To me it’s a perfect vehicle — and a wheel, no less — for rolling into a late summer daydream about home, which is another way of saying that I’ll be on vacation for a week. Please keep the porch light on for me.

Frank McGahon, Irish Modern Architect

Compound Interest

One of the great pleasures of my job is meeting and working with talented architects from around the world who are interested in making high quality home design available to everyone. And so I am especially excited to present house plans by Irish architect Frank McGahon who is the newest member of our Exclusive Studio.

His work is both regionally expressive in the use of traditional  features like stone walls and courtyard compounds, and very contemporary in the manipulation of open plans and strong indoor-outdoor connections, as you can see in a view of the living room window wall opening to the patio in Plan 520-6, above. Here’s a another view.

Each of the three key functional spaces — kitchen/dining area, living room/entry, bedroom wing –  is expressed as an independent gable.

One wing angles slightly away from the next to frame different views and allow a measure of privacy for each. The wide entrance hall binds them while bending them into a curve, like a bow-string pulled taut. Open the front door and you are effectively releasing the arrow and launching your gaze into the vistas ahead. Ingenious!

Frank (here he is) knows something about tradition. He has followed his great grandfather, grandfather, and father into practicing architecture in the town of Dundalk, equidistant between Dublin and Belfast. After graduating from the School of Architecture, University College Dublin in 1989 he worked in London and Dublin before returning to work for his father in Dundalk in 1992, eventually taking over the practice and establishing McGahon Architects in 2001. But he’s also a modernist as you can tell by the elegant abstraction of Plan 520-4, below.


 It’s an elemental nature-viewing pavilion; the ultimate getaway.

See how the living/dining area and master bedroom flank the flame-red kitchen/storage/plumbing core. It’s a modernist reduction to essentials and draws inspiration from great twentieth century architectural icons like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and more recently the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura (winner of the 2011 Pritzker Prize) such as his house in Cascais, Portugal, shown below.

(This image courtesy the Pritzker Prize website.) I like how Souto de Moura’s house and pool are essentially “the same only different:” one a rectangular solid, suspended; the other a rectangular liquid, grounded. The firm of Shift architecture urbanism in Rotterdam has designed a faculty club for Tilburg University that uses the same shape but with different solids and voids, as shown below.

(image courtesy Dezeen Design Magazine). Indeed, there’s a fine essay waiting to be written about how modern architects have adapted the simple flat box in a thousand different ways, proving yet again that limitation breeds invention…

But Frank McGahon has additional arrows in his architectural quiver. One that’s particularly compelling is his use of courtyards and patios to make the house and lot extensions of each other while forming a compound, as he does in Plan 520-9, below.

The entire lot is divided into a series of rooms, some roofed and some not, with a home office in a separate structure at one end. In effect, the house is surrounded by courtyards. In Plan 520-7, it’s the other way around.

Here the courtyard is at the center and the house is a square doughnut in plan — like an atrium house in Pompeii. Again a major space like the kitchen/dining area connects to the outdoors in a dramatic way,

in this case via one of Frank McGahon’s signature glass gables. Compounds aren’t the only way to go however. His L-shaped house in Blackrock, Plan 520-8, is really an L-inside a rectangle.

Conceptually, then, whether surrounded by outdoor rooms or surrounding them, house = lot. This is the architectural imagination at work. Welcome to the neighborhood, Frank!