Category Archives: Patio Living

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.

Contemporary European House Plans

The World At Home

Our collection of plans by invited designers from around the globe is growing. The latest international members include Italian architect Lucia Strona and Lithuanian architect Skirmantas Slamas. Lucia’s small modern 1,636 sq. ft.,

house, Plan 542-2,  above, emphasizes outdoor connections. At the center of the 2 bedroom 2 bath home is the living-dining area, adjacent to the

generous sheltered patio, which functions as an entertaining space. In Plan 542-3, below –  with 3 bedrooms 3.5 baths in  1,989 sq. ft. — she uses

geometry to break up the box: the living room and bedrooms occupy a

long rectangle that intersects with a square containing the kitchen-dining area. Each geometric unit distorts and expands the other, which produces distinctive overlapping spaces such as the cozy corner sitting area in the living room

and the trapezoidal bathroom on the second floor. Lucia specializes in green design, paying particular attention to a house’s orientation on the site and the use of eco-friendly materials. She’s also an expert in historic preservation and

recently completed the restoration of this 16th century stone castle (now that ‘s a hefty barrel vault!).

Skirmantas Slamas has focused on urban design, as with this compact row

house complex Plan 538-1, below (each unit is 1,000 sq. ft.). The living-dining

area opens to a rear terrace, allowing the house to expand in good weather. If the garage is not needed it’s possible to combine it with the living area.

Skirmantas has also worked outside the box, with distinctive vacation houses

inspired by nautical design. Benvenuti Lucia; and Pasveikinti Skirmantas! To keep “traveling” and see plans from Australia, Brazil, Estonia, India, and Ireland as well as Italy and Lithuania, browse our entire Signature Studio.

Meet the New Ranch House — and its DNA

A Plan for All Reasons

I’m delighted to welcome designer Steven Murphy to our Signature Studio. Steven’s work is inspired by some of Southern California’s most famous modern architects, including A. Quincy Jones and Cliff May. His Solatrium Garden

House Plan 544-1 is a contemporary steel-framed ranch house that celebrates indoor-outdoor living. The view above shows how the main house and adjacent guest room/garage, open to the private pool terrace. The uncluttered shallow

gable is a signature of mid-century modern design and became increasingly abstracted in the work of May, Jones and other architects of the era. For example, here’s an image of Cliff May’s own house in Brentwood from 1953

the fourth house for his family), which was recently restored and updated with finesse by Marmol Radziner Architects. The surprise is the large skylight that

runs along part of the roof ridge to bring light deep into the interior (these two photographs by Joe Fletcher, courtesy Marmol Radziner). In Murphy’s plan the

skylight is narrower but runs almost the length of the roof to brighten every major room. The Murphy design also recalls the dramatic gable-fronted tract houses that A. Quincy Jones and his design partner Frederick Emmons

designed for developer Joseph Eichler in the Balboa Highlands section of Granada Hills, from around 1964, as shown here, with openings in parts of the gable to bring in light and air (photograph courtesy LA Curbed). 

Steven Murphy’s floor plan is essentially an H under a wide roof: you enter at the

crossbar; ahead is a small outdoor reflecting pool. The house is carefully zoned: public areas to the left in great room and kitchen facing the pool terrace; private

areas to the right in bedrooms and study. Window walls and sliding doors open each end to private patios. Thanks to Steven Murphy, our collection of Mid-Century Modern, Courtyard-Oriented, and Cliff May-and-Eichler-Inspired ranch houses plans is expanding.

Speaking of A. Quincy Jones: one of his most sumptuous estates, Sunnylands, built for publishing magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore in Palm

Springs in the mid 1960s, has just opened for public tours after an extensive restoration. Appearing to float beside its reflecting lake, it resembles a mirage of modernism (the hallucinatory pink of roof and foundation was meant to capture the color of a desert sunset, as requested by Mrs. Annenberg). It was here that the Annenbergs entertained presidents and British royals, not to mention Hollywood royalty. The Annenberg Foundation has also added the extremely elegant and contexturally deft Sunnylands Center (for approved retreats) by architect Frederick Fisher and Partners.


Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.


Top New Products at 2012 Home Builder Show

Winds of Change in Kitchens, Bathrooms & More

The current economy has certainly made the annual product showcase that is the International Home Builder Show smaller but it has not dampened the spirit of invention — in fact it may have had the opposite effect. Take the range hood, a fairly prosaic appliance. That is, until the Italian designers for Best S. p. A. blew

cooking odors into a galaxy far far away with models like their space ship-shaped Fusion, above, which is wall-mounted and made of stainless steel and glass. Or

how about their racetrack-curved Shelf, or their ceiling-mounted Sphera,

 which is camouflaged as a pendant globe light from the 1950s. The website for another Best line, the Sorpresa collection, offers a “Visualizer” that shows how different models look in the same kitchen, which is very useful. All these products dominated the Broan-Nutone booth (Broan, Nutone, and Best are subsidiaries of Broan-Nutone, and produce their own lines of range hoods.)

The Vault drop-in apron front stainless steel sink from Kohler caught my eye.

I like the way it updates the farmhouse sink with a crisp modern outline. Kohler is also expanding its array of enameled cast iron sinks with the Bellegrove

Double-Equal” version, which includes two reversible racks and a sponge caddy that fits over the saddle. For the bathroom, Kohler introduced the Hydrorail

shower column (two versions are shown above). It includes an integral two-way diverter, and allows you to convert your existing fixed shower head to a spa-like shower. Also the column, which is insulated, functions as a grab bar. Sterling, a

Kohler subsidiary, introduced its Accord 60-inch Seated Shower, a very practical solution for aging in place since it can replace a typical bathtub for an easy retrofit.  The seat can change position and there’s ample shelving.

Mainstream manufacturers are improving their website functions. Lumber Liquidators, a large flooring supplier, has a new Room Designer tool that lets you see how various flooring choices might look in typical rooms — such as a cork floor in a kitchen

or a bamboo floor in the living room. You see the floor choices in each setting.

There are three versions or decorating styles for each room, which limits you to Lumber Liquidator’ taste, but it’s a good start. I wish you could upload pictures of your own kitchen or family room and see how they look with different floors. Maybe that’s next.

You’ve heard of key-less entry for your car – how about for your front door: it’s

the Simplicikey remote control door lock. If you prefer the digital lock, lift up the

escutcheon and type in your code; or you can still use a key! A clever idea, and they are working on a wider range of hardware styles.

Leviton, a major manufacturer of electrical devices, debuted its new universal

dimmer. The switch is unremarkable looking but does a lot: it includes a microprocessor that allows it to regulate current and emerging incandescent, dimmable compact flourescent (CFLs), and dimmable light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs). According to Leviton, the device can properly dim next-generation lighting sources “while remaining backwards compatible with current bulbs.” I love that phrase “backwards compatible” — it could be another term for an architectural historian like me. 

While at the show I toured three forward-thinking Builder Concept Homes sponsored by Builder Magazine and built by Centerline Homes, which cleverly target three demographic groups: Gen X (1966-1985), Gen Y (1986-2005), and Gen B — Baby Boomers (1946-1964).

Interestingly, they occupy a decidedly retro subdivision layout — a cul de sac — perhaps another example of “backwards compatible.” But each house aimed for flexibility with guest suites for in-laws or other relatives. The Gen X house by designer Tony Weremeichek of Canin Associates even has a full-fledged “Granny Suite” complete with kitchenette. I was struck by how the Gen X house, and Gen Y and B, designed by architect Mike Woodley of the Woodley Architectural Group, all made use of 90-degree corners defined by telescoping sliding glass patio doors (by WinDoor) to allow spaces to expand

or contract depending on needs and weather. Above is the corner of the Gen Y great room when opened up so that it blends with the pool patio. And here is a

corner of the great room at the Gen B. house. Woodley used sliding barn doors in

a similar way to open up or close off the study in Gen Y. The same idea was also used in The New American Home, mentioned in a previous post. I guess one good corner slider deserves another! 


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.

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 “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.”