Category Archives: Outdoor Living

We Built This Modern Ranch House

Learn By Doing

When it comes to home building, experience matters — and so does an artful simplicity. Houseplans.com chairman Stephen Williamson (our fearless leader) built Ranch House Plan 508-2 designed by Nicholas Lee, AIA (our fearless design director) as a kind of case study. It’s at the end of this minimalist

“running fence” of a driveway, beyond the Neutra-designed numbers that hint at rustic elegance to come. Just as with Plan 508-1 completed last year and also Continue reading

Living Beside the Pool

 Taking the Plunge

It’s a compelling dream to live poolside – especially during the hot, waning days of summer. So let’s dive in! Think of the Alhambra in Spain with its

shallow pools and long water courses — though maybe no diving there (photo courtesy Viva-Spain). Here are some examples of more recent houses — if not palaces — with seamless indoor-outdoor poolscapes.

It was natural for the swimming pool to become an emblem of the suburban dream in sunny Southern California, with its culture of experimentation and cinematic glamor, but architects took it a step farther in the 1950s and 1960s, when they incorporated it into the house and treated it as a room in its own right (naturally the air could get a little thick). Los Angeles-based ranch house popularizer Cliff May, for example, made the pool part of the living

room in some houses, like this one in Rolling Hills from 1963. (That planter by the pool was important — you wouldn’t want your LazyBoy to roll into the drink during cocktails by the fire.) In a house May designed for Tucson the

pool is shaded by an extended gable made of ocotillo branches and has a stone table/island at the center — it’s a marvelous shimmering and shady mirage of a desert isle made real (both photos by Rochelle Kramer, courtesy RanchoStyle).

Los Angeles architect John Lautner turned the pool into abstract architectural sculpture, especially in his great Sheats-Goldstein house on a steep hillside, of 1963, where the pool resembles a solid block of glass inserted flush with the

patio, which is itself an extension of the living room under its concrete roof-riff on the triangle (photo by ARTJOCKS courtesy James Goldstein). This remarkable design is all about contrasting solids and voids, enclosure and exposure, and geometric shape expanding into space toward Downtown LA.

(photo courtesy Arcspace). Originally only a curtain of air separated inside from outside, but this was later replaced with glass. The pool also functions as a sort of aquarium for swimmers because windows look into it from the master suite on the lower level.

Today, architects around the world have put pools everywhere, even on the

roof, as this famous house in Paris by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) of 1991 shows (photo courtesy OMA). A recent design by the inventive

Singapore firm of Guz Architects keeps the pool on the ground but lifts the house over it in a dramatic acrobatic gesture. The structure floats while the pool supports — a wonderful reversal of roles.

Italian architect Lorenzo Spano, who is part of our Signature Studio, has

developed this idea in his Plan 473-2, shown here, where the bedroom floor

is above the pool. The living-dining-kitchen is at pool level. Part of the hallway

floor is glass, so you can see through to the swimmers below. Perhaps Lorenzo was thinking of the Blue Grotto on Capri! Swimming pools just seem to encourage “freestyle” home design.

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…

Recycled Redwood and a New Cabin Plan

Red Zeppelin

Hangar wood is the latest must-have recycled material — at least for me. It’s  from the historic zeppelin terminal known as Hangar One (not a vodka!)

built by the US Navy at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California in 1931 to house the airship USS Macon, shown above. Covering 8 acres, it remains an impressive Bay Area landmark with its own Historic District, and is adjacent to the NASA Ames Research Lab. The seductive, cinnamon-hued, handsomely

grained old-growth redwood — “with occasional to frequent screw and fastener

holes” — was part of the hangar’s roof framework that was uncovered during a recent renovation and is being sold by innovative reclaimed woods specialist Terra Mai. It’s marketed as Terra Mai Moffett Field Redwood for lumber, paneling, siding, or for custom applications (photos courtesy Terra Mai). Meanwhile, the fate of the hangar remains in doubt, but according to Terra Mai: “Google founders Page and Brin, along with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have proposed funding the estimated $33 million cost of fully restoring the structure in exchange for private use of two-thirds of the floor space for their eight private jets.” I guess I would call this an extreme form of “parking karma.” And they could even sublease the air rights since the interior is so high (198 feet) that fog sometimes forms near the ceiling…

Terra Mai markets other reclaimed woods, which are used in distinctive projects

like this Sunset Idea House designed by Siegel & Strain Architects with interior

designer Chad Dewitt. The barn doors are reclaimed fir; the counter in the master bath is reclaimed teak (photos courtesy Terra Mai).

Cabin Fever

I would use some of that beautiful Hangar One redwood to build our newest exclusive design: Cabin Plan 546-1 by Maine architect Bruce Butler. The

1,194 sq. ft. shingle style, gable-roofed home is designed for relaxation and easy

indoor-outdoor living. There are two covered outdoor spaces for fresh-air living

at different times of day: a generous porch off the living room and a screened porch off the kitchen/dining area. The master bedroom is beside the living room

on the ground floor; two bunk rooms and the half bath are upstairs. It’s a simple and rustic design and suits a rural site in the mountains or near water. Add a place to tether your airship and you’re there! Welcome Bruce!

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!

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.

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).


“Mad Men” and Mid-Century Modernity at LACMA

Stereos and Studebakers

The start of Mad Men‘s fifth season this week on cable TV is fortuitous. Though the series spawned a new appreciation for slick Madison Avenue Modernism of the early 1960s — not to mention accompanying cocktails — it wasn’t easy to see

where part of that esthetic came from (photo courtesy shinyshiny.tv). But now you can, thanks to the exhibition running through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 curated by Wendy Kaplan. In fact, the advertising firm that the character Don Draper runs, seen above at his desk with drink in hand, ought to be developing campaigns for many of the products in the exhibition, like the Studebaker Avanti of 1961-2 by Raymond Loewy, below.

California — and especially Los Angeles — became a remarkable incubator of modern design during the middle of the 20th century. The benign climate, burgeoning post World War II economy and population, and movie mystique attracted imaginative designers and take-a-chance clients. I toured the exhibit recently and was impressed with the way it explores connections between popular and high style design, from furniture and clothing to houses and cars while bringing the Left Coast side of the Mad Men era to life.

Time here begins in the 1930s, quite literally, with one of the first digital clocks,

the Zephyr clock by Lawson Time, from around 1938 (photo courtesy LACMA blog). My uncle had one of these and I always admired it — when the numbers turned over they bounced slightly before resting in place (perhaps a metaphor for hanging fire?). Time did appear to be hustling as new tracts developed across

the LA basin. Modern architects were designing houses and filling them with furniture like this 1931 bent plywood chair by Richard Neutra or this squared off

corner grouping by A. Quincy Jones from 1961 and Mondrian-esque glass coffee table of c. 1950 by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California  — which look like they belong in one corner of Don Draper’s office. Living In A Modern Way shows how California designers celebrated the casual indoor-outdoor living that

the California climate made possible, as in this promotional image for a development called Monarch Bay Homes at Laguna Niguel by delineator Carlos Dini, from 1961 (image courtesy LACMA).  My favorite part of the exhibit juxtaposes two elegant designs from 1961 by LA’s most minimalist architect,

Craig Ellwood: a superb elevation of his Rosen house and the Rosen’s custom stereo cabinet. Now this takes Machine Age abstraction to its logical extreme: house and stereo are extensions of each other, if not virtually indistinguishable —  do I live in the stereo or does the stereo live in me? Talk about surround sound! The only real difference, besides scale and some plumbing, is that the stereo has four bays while the house has only three. Clearly the sort of house where you would expect to hear Frank Sinatra, not to mention the architect, crooning My Way — and sotto voce “or the highway.” (Images courtesy LACMA.)

Even Barbie went modern, and her Dream House of 1962, shown below, is fun to

to see. The largest element in the show is a replica of the loft-like living room of  the Charles and Ray Eames house of 1949, the most famous structure in the

Case Study House Program of the late 1940s and early 1950s sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine (photo courtesy NY Times). It functions both as a frame for nature and an elegant specimen box for the Eames’ collection (1,869 items in this space alone!). Which reminds me: Case Study House #3 shown below, by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi is not in the exhibit but is in the

Houseplans.com Signature Studio and is Plan 529-1. See how it too blends indoor and outdoor space into a seamless whole: the house is the lot. Our Eichler Plans offer further variations on the modern living theme. They’re all part of the Mid-Century Modern design history you can own.

So, Don Draper — time to put down that highball and get back to work. You have a lot of selling to do!

 

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.