Category Archives: New Appliances

Fire Pits and Outdoor Fireplaces

Heating Up the Patio

Patios and decks are evolving fast thanks to a new generation of outdoor fire amenities. The Key West Coffee Table by Firegear, for example,  which was introduced in 2011, is actually a portable propane fire pit. The elegant contemporary table is 43 inches wide, 20.25 inches tall, and 20

inches deep,and has a 30 inch-long stainless steel burner running across the top.

According to the manufacturer the burner is covered first with a 1-inch (minimum) layer of cinders/lava rock and then you can add a layer of “fire glass,” or “fire stones” — also available from Firegear (the two units above, one with a stainless steel top and the other with a bronze powder-coated one, courtesy Firegear). Eco Smart Fire makes a wide range of outdoor fire features (some of which I have mentioned in previous posts). The Dish, shown here, is

one of their most classic designs and recalls both Frank Lloyd Wright’s urns  and an abstract campfire (image courtesy Eco Smart Fire). It’s made of steel, stands 9.2 inches high with a diameter of 23.6 inches, and burns bio-ethanol. For the old-fashioned wood burning aficionado there are legions of products based on versions of the old drum idea but one example stands out for originality and

and practicality: the Landmann Ball of Fire Outdoor Fireplace. The steel mesh sphere puts the flames on a pedestal while protecting you from the sparks; dimensions are 30.25 x 32.75 x  34.75 inches (image courtesy Best Barbecue Grills Reviews.com).

Architects and designers have always been interested in using outdoor fireplaces to shape a place, not to mention a patio or terrace. Julia Morgan — architect of Hearst Castle — designed one of the most evocative outdoor fireplaces ever, in the late 1920s — actually four-in-one — as a monument to commemorate the saving of an old-growth redwood forest. It’s called the California Federation of

Women’s Clubs Hearthstone, built as part of a picnic site near the South Fork of the Eel River in Northern California, and is made of stone and redwood (photo by Andy Bird courtesy 101 Things.com). There’s a bit of an irony here, since the fireplaces would presumably consume the occasional redwood log, but it is nonetheless a marvelously poetic expression of a partnership between man and nature. It’s a small, gabled, cruciform-shaped temple to the gods — as if the entire forest were one giant house and this was its hearth. For a more recent residential example, consider the outdoor fireplace at a house in Washington’s

San Juan Islands by Olson Kundig Architects. The house and the fireplace are set into a stone outcropping. The hearth is “carved out of existing stone; leveled on top…otherwise left raw” according to the architect, so the fireplace is in one sense hewn right out of the site (photo courtesy Olson Kundig Architects).

Outdoor fireplaces are even designed into some of our ready-made plans, like

this one in Plan 120-162, which is part of a lanai overlooking the backyard. So you can see, there many ways — from temporary to permanent — to add a little summer sizzle to your outdoor space.

Barn House, Backsplash, and a Cool Thermostat

 A Rustic Space-Time Continuum

For many homeowners – with apologies to Star Trekkers – it’s really interior space that’s the final frontier. The potential for improvement is infinite. Take this new house by innovative and edgy interior designer Erin Martin working with an adventurous Napa Valley client. It’s both rustic — as a barn-inspired ranch house — and highly refined.

The big timber structure, which supports a sleeping loft over the kitchen, is exposed and becomes a foil for a sophisticated black and white furniture palette. The loft itself is simple but eye-catching, and not a little galactic,

thanks to an art piece suspended on a rope and resembling a dusty comet — or a hay bale on a bad hair day. It’s wonderful, like a tiny hint of Halloween. The table on the dining porch reads as a vertical extension of the floor, thanks to

the continuity of material — the same kind of boards are used for both. It’s a clever idea and makes you wonder just for a moment which is which — porch or table — rather like an Escher print. Martin’s design of the galley kitchen is particularly effective at enlivening our perception of space through the use of contrast. Her backsplash, for example, does more than protect the wall above the sink from water damage — not to mention the occasional “wormhole.”  She used antiqued mirror to cover the wall behind the range.

The soft indistinct reflection adds surprise while visually expanding the space into a sort of parallel universe. In this view straight down the galley


see how the backsplash almost blends with the windows, adding a little reflective mystery to contrasts with the bunkhouse-like floorboards. The peninsula dividing the kitchen from the dining/living area


includes an integral sink that simplifies the line of the counter, further blurring boundaries.

The barn has always been a good starting point for home design: a typical barn layout — which is similar to that of the Roman basilica — includes a high central portion and lower side aisles. One of our newest exclusive designs, Plan 530-2 below,

by Classic Colonial Homes, makes use of this arrangement for the garage; the living space is in the loft. Architect David Wright‘s Plan 452-1

glazes part of the roof to brighten the rear porch and the adjacent living room. Architect Francois Levy took took inspiration from gambrel-roof barns for his Plan 450-2.

Here the garage door is deceiving — it’s used not for a garage but as a way to open up an entire wall of the living space. Barns are always worth a look, if not a double take.

Heat Seeker

Finally, just in time for colder weather, a thermostat that turns up the heat through modern functional design: it’s the new Learning Thermostat from Nest, a company founded by Tony Fadell, formerly of Apple — so naturally it’s a sleekly appealing object in its own right. It’s also intuitive — just turn the dial the way you did with units of old but now there’s a new twist, not to mention a learning curve.

According to Tony: “Turns out you change the temperature in your house 1500 times a year. 1500! Our thermostat learns what temperatures you like so it can program itself. It senses when you’re out and turns itself down. And we started from scratch with design, so it’s beautiful.” I concur, though it reminds me a little of the lyric from Santa Claus is Coming to Town:  “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…” It has fully integrated software,  provides energy-saving tips, can be controlled from your smartphone, and installation is over most existing circuitry. If you’re good maybe you’ll get one!


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!

New Products at KBIS

Showtime

At the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Las Vegas last week I had the feeling I was watching a market in transition. Overall, I saw an emphasis on new ways to deliver products and product information such as  via Ipad aps  but  fewer new introductions and exhibitors. Here’s what caught my eye.

This  “Image-in Motif” tub from Wetstyle.CA , a Canadian firm, is seductive.The calligraphy pattern is part of the design. I like the Zen-like simplicity of the oval shape (also available without the lettering), which would be a nice upgrade for my bathroom!

For something a little different in the bathroom, especially for the younger set, how about turning your tub into a fire truck. Perhaps something Salvador Dali might appreciate…It’s possible with American Standard’s FunBath Temporary Bath Conversion. The solid molded acrylic tub deck and front panel apron fit over your conventional tub. They can easily be removed when the truck no longer appeals. Ingenious!

Turning the closet pole into a lighting system is a clever idea — and puts the light right where you need it most — along the bottom of the pole shining on the top of the hangers. I can see this Sempria Illumirod from Task Lighting becoming especially useful for smaller, darker, narrower closets.

Solid surface countertops with quartz crystals saw expanding color and pattern choices. Dupont Zodiaq introduced  five new colors

inspired by spices, bringing their total palette up to 59 hues. Korean solid surface producer Hanwha added a little “life” to their introduction of new Hanstone quartz colors by using people dressed in skin tight body suits to  call attention to several new designs including Indian Pearl (left),  Grigio (center), and Sabbia (right). Cambria also unveiled new colors.The trend in all these colors seems to be toward a little more veining and figuration in the pattern, approximating various granites and marbles. These materials are  smooth, non-porous, and exceptionally hard.

Italian design is always worth seeing and the Colombini Group presented its new City line of Kitchen cabinetry — a sleek minimalist dove gray/beige (like an Armani suit), with doors faced in melamine for easy cleaning. I like the way the table extends at right angles from the island: an alternative to the typical breakfast bar. Finally there seemed to be more toilets at this show than any other product: every possible size and flush ratio was represented as the Japanese brand Inax showed.Toto introduced their Aquia high efficiency toilet,which is an all-in-one fixture. Kohler’s big splash was the Numi, the sculptural modern rectangular fixture that does everything imaginableincluding greet you when you walk into the bathroom (motion sensors make this possible). It also provides music. Another novel feature is its flushing sensor: if you remain aboard for longer than a set period,a stronger flush ensues. This reminds me of an inscription on a public bench in Denver: “If you wish to rest, rest not too long.” The Numi took years and many engineers from various disciplines to produce and is an impressive technological achievement.

Earth Day Ideas and the Fountains of Rome

Common Sense Conservation

Earth Day is this coming Friday, April 22, 2011 — a good time to remember that building sustainably is the right thing to do (see the Earth Day website for events and activities.). Begin with a thoughtful design that suits the climate and the site and aims for longevity. The choices you make for the shell of your house — including the foundation, walls, windows, and roof — and in how you orient your house to the sun, will result in the greatest savings in energy, natural resources, and money over the long term. Health is another consideration — i.e. use formaldehyde free insulation and no- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint — such as Yolo Colorhouse, shown above, available from Ecohaus. The U. S. Green Building Council’s Green Building Guide provides a good introduction to what’s possible. Here you’ll find information on a vast array of eco-oriented topics. The section on bathrooms  is 

especially useful in explaining what to look for in low flow-fixtures — since the bathroom is one of the most resource-intensive rooms in the house. The Green Building Council website is also where you’ll find the LEED rating system (an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the useful LEED for Homes Scoring tool, where you can find out if your home qualifies for LEED certification.

Another important resource is the website for the Environmental Protection Agency’s  ENERGY STAR® program, which lists all the home products — from LED (light emitting diode) lights  to dishwashers to fans — that meet national environmental standards. This is the source for those appliance labels that say ENERGY STAR® and give you a quick calculation on, say, a particular refrigerator’s energy use and savings on energy bills. The EPA’s   WaterSense® programs is a similar labeling system for water-conserving appliances and fixtures.

More Efficient Building Shells

Structural insulated panels (SIPs) — like those manufactured by Premier (shown here) are an energy-efficient building system made from thick expanded polystyrene (EPS) sandwiched between oriented strand board (OSB). The high-insulation value is built-in and the panels allow for faster construction time. Many of the designs at Houseplans.com can be converted from conventional 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 framing to SIPs by Premier. Another possibility is to use the Vitruvian system of panels made with EPS and light gauge steel (diagram shown above). We have a range of plans designed for Vitruvian panel construction. A sampling of SIPs plans can be found in our Alternative Building Collection.

Ancient Aqua

Talk of conservation, especially water, brings to mind the role of water in defining the shape and character of our life. In Rome, for example, it has been a powerful design force for more than 2,000 years. A fascinating and important book by Katherine Wentworth Rinne — The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City (Yale Press, 2011) — explores this  subject in depth and I recommend it highly. Here you’ll learn how the city’s aqueducts got built, how the waterworks work,  and why, and how each major fountain became an expression of power by emperors, popes, and the most powerful Roman families.  It’s a waterwise whodunnit by a true scholar. This where resource cultivation and conservation began in earnest!





Sleek Grills, Cool Concrete, Small House Plans

Coolest Hot Products

Last week on a design awards jury I met Robert Brunner, founder of Ammunition Group, a fascinating product design and branding firm. He described some of his latest products and I think they are way cool, especially — just in time to fuel dreams of warmer weather — the Fuego Element gas grill,

a sleek metal cylinder topped with a concave cooking vessel. The perforated metal sides hide the propane tank.

It’s a textbook example of how a fine designer reinvents an everyday object in terms that are at once functional and formal (in this case, geometric) — here supporting cylinder and supported sphere combine in a way that really elevates barbecuing to an art. Here aspects of the wok and the patio heater have been combined — this must be DNA By Design — to produce an appealing  genetic manipulation of modernism.

The grilling surface is wide for maximum cooking space while the slender pedestal is just wide enough for the propane container: each section has a different function that is fully expressed in its shape. Brilliant. Brunner’s firm is also responsible for the just-released Portable Element.

It weighs under 15 lbs and

the legs do double duty by forming the handle.

Brunner designed the original much larger rectangular Fuego Grill of a  few years ago but I think these more recent streamlined Elements are the fires to follow.

The Ammunition Group has designed a wide range of other products, most notably partnering with Lady Gaga to develop a line of fashion-forward HeartBeat earphones

sunglasses, and instant cameras for Polaroid’s Grey Label — and now I’m a little out of my element.

Concrete design guru Fu Tung Cheng, founder of Cheng Design,  sponsored the jury as a way to encourage concrete fabricators and designer/builders in the US and around the world. His own work is always an inspiration, like this two-toned kitchen island

with one  corner cantilevered for ease of movement at the breakfast bar; or this

super slick bathroom where the counter and the slanting slot sink are practically indistinguishable (images courtesy Cheng Design). Fu Tung has also invented a lightweight concrete — using fiber in the mix — that can be used for small scale furniture. I lifted one of thehandsome prototype stools in his office shown above and found them easy to carry. I could use one as a side table.

Meaningful Minimalism

My day spent reviewing projects with Fu Tung and Bob  made me think about house plans that express a sleeker sensibility. Plan 460-7 by Daniel Eric Bush is for an in-law unit or guest suite behind the garage.

It’s a solution for homes with garages set back from the street.

You walk past the garage door (the path is partially hidden by a vine-covered privacy screen in the view above) to the entry terrace off the living area. The design is simple and effective. The street facade of Plan 496-12 by Leon Meyer

speaks another spare but strong design language: garage, front door, picture window; each distinct but related to a larger whole. The path to the front leads all the way through the house to the dining area and family room at the rear. Again, here is a design that’s simple, clear, compelling. Note how the small bump-outs at the living room and dining room create corner views, giving those rooms a greater sense of spaciousness. The rooms engage with each other and with the site in a kind of dialog. I guess I’m always interested in what a design — whether plan or product — is trying to say. Speak up!

Appliance and Fixture News from IBS

Fire and Ice, Tub Gates, & More

At the recent Home Builder Show in Orlando many new product introductions seemed to contradict the current state of the economy. In fact, the power of invention seemed to be energized, as if companies have decided that now is the time to rethink for allure, efficiency, and flexibility. Here’s a quick round-up of appliances and fixtures that caught my attention.

The Solaris 36 MR from Heat & Glo is a see-through direct-vent gas  fireplace. I saw it installed in Professional Builder magazine’s  “Sea Breeze” Idea House, which was erected in the parking lot beside the convention center.

The two-sided fireplace is circular — it was set at eye level in a partition between the upstairs family room and sitting room.

It can have different surrounds and mounts to a typical 2 by 6 interior stud wall. The “razor burner” creates a single flame in a line across the face for a very sculptural effect. Fireplace as moongate? Washer-Dryer as art piece? The hottest new digital camera??!! It definitely “ignites conversation,” as the press material says. Perhaps something to consider for your media or play room — Fire it up when you want to watch a dvd of The Lord of the Rings to set an appropriate “Eye of Mordor” mood.

Or, for something colder, how about the new GE Monogram 30-Inch Fully Integrated Refrigerator.

Fully integrated here means that the refrigerator doors are equipped with an articulating hinge, “enabling them to be completely out of sight behind surrounding cabinetry.” There are three compartments: upper for fresh food; shallow middle drawer for frozen foods and ice; and a lower tall drawer with a uniquely flexible function: its temperature can be set from 5 degrees below zero to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, if you don’t need a lot of freezer space you can use the lower drawer as your mini-wine cellar. Ingenious — and a good solution for smaller kitchens.  Glass doors are also available for top and bottom compartments.

GE was also demonstrating their “Home Energy Display” (part of their “Nucleus energy manager with Brillion technology”), which will be available later this year.

When connected to a smart meter it can show consumers how much energy they are using in real time. A very good idea.

For aging gracefully in place, Kohler is now offering its “Elevance Rising Wall Bath.” (The names of these new products are becoming more and more linguistically and subliminally inventive — “elevance” cleverly makes you think of elegance and lifting at the same time and yet is totally made-up and GE’s “Brillion technology” makes you think of “brilliant” without actually spelling it…).

The ADA-approved bath has a chair-height seat and a foot well. You sit on the seat and then swing your legs into the bath.

Then lift the lightweight wall until it latches — that’s when the seal inflates to make the wall watertight. It also comes with a hand-held shower arm and optional bubble massage.

Squeaky floors are a common problem in new construction and so I was interested in attending the debut press conference on Paslode’s new TetraGrip fastening system.

It’s basically an 8-penny nail with a “barbed helix design.” It is driven with a spiral movement like a screw — with a special pneumatic nailer, also invented by Paslode.

According to Paslode the system has been tested on 200 new houses so far and there have been no call-backs to fix squeaky floors. Someday these hybrid nails might be just the thing to silence our own ancient and reverberating stair. Next week: more product and idea house reviews.