Category Archives: Open plans

What Makes a Great Outdoor Room?

Fresh Air Fantasies

Spring fever is upon me so what makes a great outdoor room? In Baroque Italy it might have included finely clipped box hedges, stone benches, a bubbling fountain, the odd grotto, and perhaps a running stream for keeping wine bottles cool (those thirsty cardinals and popes!). In the late 1920s the famous modern architect Le Corbusier designed a roof garden for an eccentric client in Paris that was a surrealist living room: an ornate fireplace, a rug-like lawn, and the

Arc de Triomphe peeking over one wall like the fragment of a floating cornice (photo courtesy Studio International). More recently architects and designers have continued to push boundaries, literally, and they have shown how almost every room in the house can move outdoors. Here’s a quick round-up of indoor functions that migrate.

Living. Of course a patio sitting area becomes a secondary living room, as

landscape architect Bernard Trainor shows in this arrangement around a fire pit, where the gravel floor and perimeter plantings neatly define the space (photo courtesy Bernard Trainor). Crisp edges, smooth ground, two chairs and perhaps a shade umbrella are really all you need. A built-in bench protected from the sun

by a retractable canopy is another way to go as shown in this example by architect Buzz Yudell, of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, and architectural colorist Tina Beebe, where the pillows seem to embody the weight and color of shade itself — lighter to darker green.

Cooking. Outdoor kitchens have grown in popularity and run the gamut from simple built-in barbecues with an adjacent counter to grand food preparation

zones with a full complement of appliances designed for outdoor use, not to mention pizza ovens and flat screen televisions. (The example above is from Plan 496-14, by Leon Meyer.) The arrival of versatile folding wall systems — pioneered by Nanawall from the US, with other companies like Centor from Australia adding to the mix — have made it possible to turn any kitchen with an outside wall into an outdoor kitchen. (This Nanawall example is courtesy

Shannon, Scarlett, Taylor Architects).

Dining. In good weather everyone wants to be outside, especially at mealtime,

and here’s an especially serene space for alfresco dining by Aidlin Darling Design. I hope that after this compelling image was made the owners added a little more seating — otherwise the fire seems to be entertaining itself (photo courtesy Aidlin Darling via Custom Home). Architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen is known for supremely elegant houses where outdoor rooms are proportioned

like interior ones, as this hip-roofed patio dining pavilion demonstrates (courtesy Architectural Digest).

Bathing. Where the climate is temperate and there’s enough privacy even bathrooms can move outside, as this dramatic example by the firm of

Backen Gillam Kroeger Architects demonstrates. When the walls slide away you can really soak in the sunset! (Photo courtesy BGK Architects.)

Sleeping. It’s a summertime pleasure to sleep in the open air. Certainly it can be done with a sleeping bag, but there are other ways to go. The Mexican modern architects Legoretta and Legoretta turned an entire bedroom

at a house in Hawaii into a breezeway. The corner disappears — no sleepwalking allowed (photo courtesy Architectural Digest). But simply installing a hammock

on the porch (visible in the distance, house design by and photo courtesy of Walker Warner Architects) might be enough. Or why not hang your bed from the

rafters for the ultimate relaxation room, and let your house rock you to sleep (photo courtesy Chomec.com).


New Katrina Cottages and Bungalows

Shotguns and Survival

Hurricane Katrina blew away or seriously damaged a lot of Gulf Coast architectural history — like the classic mid 19nth century “shotgun house”

at Bay St. Louis shown here (courtesy Mississippi Heritage Trust) and so-called because you could shoot a bullet front to back without hitting an interior wall, but Mississippi architect Bruce Tolar has fought back, helping communities overcome the devastation and even renew their roots. Like Marianne Cusato and others he developed a variety of innovative, easy-to-construct, small houses — including Katrina Cottages  — that add character, even a sense of history, to a neighborhood. Now these plans are part of our Exclusive Studio.

His two bedroom, one bath, 672 sq. ft. Plan 536-4 deftly brings the shotgun idea into the 21st century by including hurricane-resistant construction

and a contemporary layout. (You can still enjoy some target practice down the hall though you’ll need to be okay with blasting through the bedroom closet.) The house is tiny but lives large thanks to the generous front porch and the combined kitchen/living space. The three bedroom, three bath, 1,413 sq. ft.

Plan 536-1 takes a more expansive approach while keeping the neighborly

 front. The cross-axial dormers brighten the upstairs bunk room and bath.

Plan 536-3 is a simplified version of Plan 536-1, with no upper floor and

   a shortened front porch. I can see this plan built as a vacation cabin

or a starter home. But these houses are really designed to shape a

 community, as Bruce shows in his walkable Cottage Square development at

Ocean Springs, Mississippi, pictured in the two photos above, where his designs complement those by Marianne Cusato and others in a pleasing example of countryside urbanity.

Plan 536-5 takes a different tack and draws inspiration from Caribbean

architecture with stucco or plaster walls and high balconies as well as 

wrap-around porches to maximize cross ventilation in a hot climate.

With their connections to a larger historical context  these plans are all about creating — or in some cases re-creating — a strong sense of place. These houses remind me of Mark Twain’s famous line that history might not repeat it self, but it rhymes. Welcome Bruce!

Small Home Survey Results

Less Is Not Little

Last week I was on a panel about small home design at the Builder Show in Orlando organized by Gale Steves, author of Right-Sizing Your Home and former editor-in-chief of Home magazine. I talked about how our understanding of what is small — and what a small house should contain — has changed, from Gothic Revival cottages of the 19th century — like the

one in Eldon, Iowa (photo courtesy State Historical Society of Iowa) made famous by the painter Grant Wood — when clients had pitchforks and a small

house meant two or maybe three bed chambers and no bathroom in well under 1,000 square feet (painting image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago) to Craftsman style bungalows of the early 1900s, when middle class commuter suburbs burgeoned and pitchforks gave way to briefcases, and one bathroom per house became the general rule. Larger small houses of the 1920s might have had three or four bedrooms but only one bathroom and perhaps a powder room in roughly 1,600 sq. ft. A profusion of plan books like

this one by Los Angeles architect Paul Williams targeting the small home appeared right after World War II. In the early 1950s popular designer/developer Cliff May compressed the sprawling ranch house concept into his Low-Cost Ranch House idea, which was typically 3 bedrooms and 2

bathrooms in 1,675 sq. ft. See how the carport storage wall and the planter define the entry, and how living room and breakfast area open to the courtyard. The galley kitchen is still somewhat removed from the main living space but opens easily to the breakfast area. The master bath is minimal, with just one vanity. The design was simple, contemporary, and incorporated outdoor space to create a feeling of spaciousness. These and similar modern ranch house plans took off, helping to shape post war suburban America. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rising land costs and higher expectations – i.e. more bathrooms, double vanities, three car garages — led to smaller lot sizes and the need to maximize space by building two story plans packed with amenities. A burgeoning interest in luxury amenities, fueled by expanding credit, led to the over-built McMansion phenomenon we all know. Lots shrank and houses grew. According to census data the average American home grew from 1,660 sq. ft. in 1973 to 2,392 sq. ft. in 2010.

We surveyed a targeted group of our customers earlier this year and asked what they considered small. More than 1,000 prospective plan purchasers responded. Seventy percent of them defined small as 2,000 sq. ft. or less.

They want their largest spaces to be the Great Room, Kitchen, and Master Bedroom. The Dining Room is essentially extinct as a separate room. Most respondents feel they can minimize space in Other Bedrooms and Baths.

Other spaces that are important to them are Useable Rear Porches or Decks, Laundry/Mudrooms, Open Floor Plans, and Energy Efficiency. Surprisingly, nearly half are interested in One-Story Plans.

So, have we come very far from the early 1950s, when industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames first put into practice their famous phrase “to make the best for the most for the least” ? Yes, I think so. Because we are re-appreciating  and re-learning that concept. Today’s small house has improved. It’s a little larger but also more flexible, energy-efficient, and comfortable, like Plan 537-3

by Concept Home, with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths in 1,636 sq. ft. But now the pitchfork and the briefcase are accompanied by an i-Pad!

One last note: real estate columnist Katherine Salant reported on the panel  in The Washington Post. I hope you can check it out.

Retro Modern Showhouse in Orlando

Water Tables, Flame Throwers, and Other Novelties

Splash and Sizzle seemed to be the watchwords of the latest show house sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders and Builder magazine. Designed to be a “reinterpretation of the classic white box of the 1960s and ’70s,” this so-called “New American Home” (the program, now in its 29th year, is a design and new product showcase for manufacturers) occupies an infill lot in Winter Park, just north of Orlando, Florida. I toured it earlier this week while I attended the International Builders Convention in Orlando.  The modern two story, 4,183 square-foot home wraps around three sides of a square

pool flanked by decks, effectively turning the water — and outdoor living — into  glamorous sculptural features. The pool sharply edges the lanai, shown above, which means you better not have that second martini unless you fancy a dip. Probably not a space for toddlers, either, come to think of it. Electrically controlled screens by Phantom Screens glide down from the ceiling (where they are hidden) to keep

insects away. (Photos above courtesy James F. Wilson.) There’s no denying the resort-style theatricality: in one corner of the deck there’s a riff — or is it a ripple — on the Renaissance idea of the “water

table” — though here the water runs under a glass top to form a cascade at one end. It looks wildly impractical  and is pretty noisy but would be a great spot to sip a margarita on a hot and humid summer day. Or is this where you check in! Fire is the other element that gets a lot of play, from the stainless steel “Bellagio

Patio Torch” by Napoleon Fireplaces on the deck, to the glass flame cube placed on the outdoor kitchen counter. Australian fireplace manufacturer Eco Smart is especially

inventive — their other designs beside the Mini T, above, include the Cyl,

the Bulb,

and Styx. All of the Eco Smart products use bio-fuel.

The house is clearly designed for a very specific client in mind — an art lover who enjoys taking advantage of the balmy Florida climate. The plan shows how

everything opens to the outdoors; in fact the front entry is actually into the lanai, which seems appropriate in Orlando. The restricted palette of white stone,

white solid surface, glass, and chocolate brown cabinetry (as here in the kitchen) is too slick and boardroom/penthouse for my taste, but it was fun to explore. I

think my favorite spot is the upstairs lounge with its deck and partial street view, shown above. (Two previous photos courtesy James F. Wilson.) I was encouraged to see a modern design approach instead of yet another reworking of a Mediterranean style. And anyway, the house showed off the products very well, which is what it was designed to do. The house was designed and built by Phil Kean, LLC/Phil Kean Designs.


Ice Cube’s Take on the Eames House, etc.

Architectural Raps and Other Design Gifts

It’s not every day that you hear a rapper talk about architecture, let alone a mid-century modern design icon like the Eames house in Pacific Palisades, California of 1949. But that’s what Ice Cube does, deftly and with precision, in a brief new online video (see The Daily Beast and The New York Times) about husband-and-wife industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames (image below, courtesy NYTimes).

A replica of the living room, shown below courtesy F8daily, is in the current “Living In A Modern Way”exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — part of the huge cultural collaboration across LA called Pacific Standard Time — and prompted the rapper’s review.

In the video, Ice Cube, who studied architectural drafting before becoming a rapper, says that growing up in South Central LA you learned to “use what you’ve got and make the most of it” then walks into Charles’ and Ray’s famous house made of prefabricated parts, sits down in their iconic lounge chair and praises their resourcefulness with everyday materials, how “they were doing mash-up before mash-up even existed,” and the way their house “made structure and nature one.” That’s one of the best descriptions of the Eames approach that I have heard.

A longer but equally interesting discussion of Eamesian design and how they created a studio full of talented designers who worked around the clock in order “to make the best for the most for the least” can be found in the fascinating new documentary film Eames: The Architect and The Painter by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey. Charles was trained as an architect; Ray as a painter. The film makes one realize that with their omniverous curiosity about the world and how to represent it — especially in a film like Powers of Ten explaining the notion of scale — Charles and Ray were much more than chair designers: they were Googlers before Google.

If 20th century modernism is your gift-giving sweet spot, browse the Eames Gallery for a variety of design-oriented stocking stuffers,

from reproductions of the folk art black bird that resided in their living room

to coffee mugs patterned after some of their fabric designs.

The Eames House was part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine, which expressed an avant-garde modernist esthetic in its layouts and covers as well as subject matter. The magazine is no longer in print but you can purchase cover prints like these –

the one on the left shows biomorphic paintings by Ray Eames — and other so-called “retro-edge” items like graphic tees from the Arts & Architecture Collection during their holiday sale.

For your holiday bookshelf: a new volume on a glass and steel house by architect Thomas Phifer that has a distinctive Case Study feel, though built recently by former museum director Tom Armstrong (who ran several institutions including the Whitney in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh),

is unusual in that it describes the design and building process in the client’s own words (image courtesy The Quantuck Lane Press). The previous house on the site had burned, which gave Armstrong the opportunity to realize a long-held dream to create a way to live in a garden surrounded by modern art.

(photo courtesy Thomas Phifer and Partners). He wanted landscape, house, furniture, paintings, and sculpture to be part of a single architectural composition — like a latter day reinterpretation of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, shown below.

(The Glass House was built at the same time as the Eames house, but on the other side of the continent; photo by Paul Warchol, courtesy The Glass House).

The program for the Armstrong house seems a little self centered to me — with only one bedroom there is no room for the Armstrong’s children or grandchildren but but lots of space for modern paintings and sculpture — yet the story is fascinating because Armstrong tells how he was able to achieve  his vision. He died earlier this year so this book is a poignant record of an architectural dream: his home was his last museum.

If books aren’t enough, you can browse historic modern layouts like our Plan 529-1, which is Case Study House #3 by Wurster & Bernardi, 

with it’s rear elevation opening to a private outdoor world; or Eames-inspired designs by architect Gregory La Vardera, such as Plan 431-5

with it’s bright, loft-like two-story living room. As Ice Cube says in his Eames video: “You always gotta have a plan.”

Ice Cube’s Video Celebrating the Eames