Category Archives: Rustic architecture

Cabins Inspired by Railroad Depots and Fire lookouts

From Trains to Towers

I’m excited to report that two cabin plans by Montana architect Jeff Shelden of Prairie Wind Architecture (one of which I mentioned in a previous post) are now part of our Signature Studio. Both designs draw inspiration from what you might call “the short and the tall” of the architectural past. Late 19th century American railroad depots, like these

from Cornell, Wisconsin and Missoula, Montana provide a perfect point of departure (and an irresistible metaphor) for vacation house design because of

their crisp outlines and straightforward structure, not to mention their promise of escape (vintage postcard from collection of Duane Hall, courtesy Greg Meier, Bruce, Wisconsin; color photo by bdbrewer courtesy Virtual Tourist). Jeff

retained the depot details in Plan  547-2, as you see in his rendering, complete with large brackets supporting the roof’s shady overhang. However, inside,

the 1,040 square foot cottage is all about easy modern living. The great room at the center is flanked by the master suite on one end and a guest bedroom on the other. It could be expanded into a larger year-round home by connecting the entry to new rooms or a garage.

Jeff’s other cabin is inspired by US Forest Service fire lookouts

built during the 1930s, such as this one on Mt. Brown in Glacier National Park (photo courtesy HikingGlacier.com). Jeff’s interpretation — Plan 547-1 below, is

vividly romantic. The pyramid-roofed design is all about escaping into the wild. As Jeff tells it, the fire towers “were a place where life and relationships were condensed to their essential elements, where nature overwhelmed and embraced

those lives.” The 576 square-foot structure — it also resembles a rustic water tower — has a stone base containing the cooking/dining area, which

functions as an old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen. You’ll notice that the

  has no bathroom — the original design called for a composting toilet some distance away from the cabin. So you’ll need to modify the plan to suit your own requirements. The second floor is one room for living and sleeping and

opens to the wrap-around cantilevered deck, as shown above. The ribbon of 

windows and the scattered books let the gaze as well as the imagination wander. Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for prompting dreams of summer getaways!

Renting a Lookout

If you want to try bunking in a fire tower before actually building one, you are in luck: various historic lookouts are available for overnight stays now that new technologies perform similar functions. Just remember, it’s all about the view because the interiors are spartan. Visit Recreation Rentals of the Pacific Northwest (part of the US Forest Service) for more information. Here’s a sampling in Oregon:

Fivemile Butte Lookout.

Hager Mountain Lookout.

Bolan Mountain Lookout.

Drake Peak. Enjoy the panoramas!



Architecture Is Not a Luxury

Living With Ingenuity

Architecture is often considered a luxury but why should that be true? I think good design is a necessity; it’s about invention and making new things happen. Bad design ought to be the luxury we cannot afford. And what is the general definition of luxury anyway? It derives from the Latin words luxuria and luxus, meaning excess; in the 18th century it came to mean “something enjoyable or comfortable beyond life’s necessities,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Shelter is of course a necessity; but it’s the job of architecture to make shelter something more — and more can mean comfortable, expressive, ingenious, idea-rich, even memorable. If that’s a luxury then hold the foie gras — I’ll take design. I feel architecture can inspire our own sense of possibility and make us aware of nature and the world around us in fresh ways. Take a tiny “unbuildable” infill lot in Tokyo, for example. Architect Yasuhiro Yamashita,

of Atelier Tekuto (photos courtesy the firm) saw the size limitation as an opportunity to develop a sort of contempo-Gothic iceberg: towering translucence

above, expanding volume below. Walls of obscure glass soar to a point (the wall is the ceiling) over the entry and bedroom floor above ground and make it

possible to flood the underground living area with daylight. Also the plan of the house tapers toward the back door, creating a false perspective that gives an impression of spaciousness, which is accentuated by the white metal fittings and walls. It resembles the bridge of a ship. Or a lantern for living. (Though I admit there’s not a lot of room for Granny’s sleigh bed.)

Or what about this unusual house by architectural historian and architect

Terunobu Fujimori (photo by Adam Friedberg via Dwell) that ingeniously combines opposites, an anchoring cave and a high-in-the-sky tea house, within a charred cedar skin — which is a traditional Japanese method for


protecting wood from insects (photos, courtesy Materia Design, and Japanese Craft Construction on Flikr). The design may be a luxury for the inhabitants but for me it is essential because it beautifully illustrates what a home can be: sheltering cave as welcoming entry and foundation; tea house as flight of fancy, an imagination set free. And yet contradictions abound — as they do in many homes. For what is a tea house but a space for ritualized ceremony — so here is ritual lifting away and loosening up — literally. And the cave is not dark and carved from stone but open and full of light, like a breezeway. Not to mention the burnt exterior protected from decay. Architecture can tell a story by turning some ideas upside down and making them hard to forget. Louis Kahn once said we didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until we heard it; well it’s the same with great houses. Maybe architecture is the luxury we didn’t know we needed.

On a somewhat more prosaic (certainly less melodic) level, to me the greatest luxury at the moment would be if my sweet peas climb up the grid of string I have tied to the backyard fence. Or maybe if we added an outdoor shower – like

the one here (courtesy Sunset Magazine). In any case, spring is here — and that’s a luxury I can live with.

Dream Cabins and Cabin Dreams

Getaway Architecture

Now, during the holiday week, is a good time to dream about rest and relaxation in your own rural getaway. So here’s a short list of architecturally suggestive cabins.

One. The prefab in the trees by Swedish firm Cyrén & Cyrén gives new meaning

to lodging, not to mention lodge-pole pines. It’s a bedroom unit in the Tree Hotel, located in Harrads, near Sweden’s Lule River, and looks like it came from a galaxy far far away (photo above courtesy Inhabitat, photo below courtesy Dezeen). A catwalk leads to the

rooftop entrance (one of the other suspended rooms is a mirror cube). Improbable and delightful — I want to go there! Presumably a gentle breeze will rock you to sleep, but if you hear a chain saw it may be time to check out.

Two. Continuing the rustic theme, here’s a cabin designed for Hans Liberg by Piet Hein Eek that uses tree trunks as a way of

playing with geometry: more of a log box than a log cabin. In full camouflage mode (the wood covers a prefab plastic and steel frame) with the shutters down, the

logs pile up and the hut disappears — well, almost. “Ceci n’est pas un woodpile,” as Duchamp might say. I like the way the design takes the idea of the duck blind and runs with it (quite far away!). Images courtesy Andrew Michler on Inhabitat and also Dornob. For more images see Thomas Mayer Archive.

Three. Architect David Coleman describes his Hill House in Winthrop, Washington as a “20 ‘ wide x 115′

long stepped platform… sited on a long, narrow, rocky hillside…it reads as a habitable landscape” (photos courtesy David Coleman). I like the way it culminates in the deck with the round fire

pit defined by gabion (rock filled cages) walls on the master suite end, and with another deck and more gabions on the living room end, as if the structure is growing out of or into the land itself (photo courtesy Mocoloco.) This simple serene progression from public to private and vice versa is evocative: home as a short architectural hike…

Four. This urbane floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union by Vandeventer & Carlander Architects puts the main entertaining spaces — organized as a series of framed openings within an elegant

box — on the upper level. The living room veranda is carved out of the rectangular volume to sharpen sight lines across the water. It also cantilevers over the lower floor to shelter the deck off the master bedroom. The design shows how to swim with geometry (photo courtesy Karmatrendz).

Five. “Packed But Never Shipped” might be a good name for this clever cabin by Olson Kundig Architects.

When the window flaps — resembling warehouse pallets — are down they form the surrounding deck platforms so the tiny structure can expand (images courtesy Olson Kundig). When the vacation ends, the platforms fold up for security and the house is effectively crated, to await the next weekend when it can be unpacked and played with again. Take care of your toys and they will last longer!

These design approaches appeal to me because they are all about serious play: taking inspiration from settings, structure, and materials to fashion something unique and memorable. Use them — along with the many serious and seriously playful schemes in our Cottage Plans Collection like 479-1 by architects Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso (below)

or 517-1 by architect Jonathan Feldman (below);

or 452-2 by architect David Wright (below)

to help you jump start your own getaway cabin dreams. (When you browse these collections sort by “newest plans” to see our latest designs.) Here’s to the comfort and joy of architectural invention.

 

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!


Home Ideas from Apple’s Architect

Slide To Unlock! A Linear Approach

I just saw a wonderful rustic-contemporary house by eminent architect Peter Bohlin, whose firm – Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson – is responsible for the design of the Apple stores including the marvelous glass cube on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as the headquarters for Pixar, in Emeryville, California (which I profiled in a previous post). The tour was sponsored by the California Council of the AIA, hence the populated spaces.

The house rides a gentle live oak-studded ridge and offers layout lessons as well as some innovative design details. You follow the long stone wall

to the entry, pass through the wall, and arrive on the deck between the pool and the house. Turn right and you enter the great room.

The stone-paved circulation spine (where everyone is standing) follows the inside of the wall you just paralleled, past the kitchen to the bedrooms at the rear. Turn the other way and you face the pool and the dramatic mountain view.

That familiar stone wall is now leading the eye into the distance even as its

increasingly irregular profile deftly echoes the line of the hills. Now this is architecture that resonates with its setting!

In one sense, and with the Apple connection in mind, it’s a sort of “I-house” (thank you Houseplans.com colleague Ting Lee for this observation!) so here are what I’d call the relevant “architectural apps.”

The cutting board/drain board that’s part of the kitchen island does double duty: it slides on tracks across the sink to form a handy cover for dirty dishes or when you need more

surface area for food preparation or a buffet.

This is a clever idea that I wish I had in my kitchen — the cutting board always needs to be washed off anyway so why not make it part of the sink in the first place. Another “take-away” idea is the way the fireplace forms part of a separate alcove while still warming the room at large, as shown in the overall photo of the great room, above. The generous hearth allows for sitting, wood storage, and display while acting as a focal point for the rest of the space.

It’s a short-hand version of an inglenook, which was popular in Shingle Style and Craftsman homes at the turn of the 20th century. Bohlin’s multi-functional approach continues in the design of the niche for the flat screen television.

It’s hidden behind this sliding steel panel, which is shared with the adjacent deep-sill window — note the barn door track at the top. When you want to watch television you slide the panel to the left and it covers the window, thereby blocking the light. Then — to just slightly adjust  the phrase on every I-Phone — just slide to unblockA clever alternative to hiding the flat screen behind a painting.

The bathrooms in this house are also very cool and include a double vanity that’s one long concrete trough sink

and a bench that extends through the glass wall of the shower

to maximize the feeling of spaciousness.

The broader lesson of this house is in the simple linearity of its plan: really just one big room connected to bedrooms and bathrooms by a corridor like compartments on a train. And here the deck and pool continue the line, but as rooms that are open to the sky. This “single file arrangement” is a good conceptual starting point for anyone thinking about building a new house and will fit a variety of site conditions. For example, compare Greg La Vardera’s Plan 431-2

where every major room opens to the deck that runs the length of the house, with Plan 491-10 by Werner Field,

with the great room similarly bracketed by bedrooms, decks like running boards, and a breezeway near the center. This sort of linear plan is almost an archetype — Peter Bohlin simply put the great room at one end. So if hiring Apple’s architect is not an option, use these plans to start visualizing what you need for your situation, I mean your “I-Building-Pad.”


Waterside Home Design

Coastal Compositions, Modern and Rustic

A week’s vacation on the east coast got me thinking about houses by the water and what makes some of them successful, like the famous Clara Fargo Thomas house of 1937 on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, shown below (photo courtesy Portland Monthly).

It was built for a painter/muralist  and was designed by the great Philadelphia modernist architect George Howe (also responsible for the early modern PSFS skyscraper in that city with his partner William Lescaze). I remember architectural historian Vincent Scully showing this house in one of his Yale lectures as a landmark example of regional modernism. It was regional in its use of wood and stone, the shingle hipped roof, and the way the house capitalized on the dramatic natural setting; modern is its strong simple, almost abstracted shape, walls of glass, and concrete support beams cantilevered over the rocks and making the house appear to float over Somes Sound.

Inside, the view dominates and the elegant wood and glass doors slide away to unite the living room with the surrounding deck, as the descriptive page from an early article on the house shows (courtesy SaveWright.org). George Howe had a conversion of sorts in the late 1920s — he had been part of a very fine firm (Mellor Meigs & Howe) that produced elegant traditionally style homes around Philadelphia, but was starting to feel the need to express more of the Machine Age in his design. In 1930 he gave a famous speech to the AIA convention championing modernsim, which was a radical idea to a profession still steeped in Beaux Arts classical ideals. This house expressed a fine melding of past and future (as well as inside/outside) and became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The mid- and late 1930s saw a burgeoning interest in modernity and nature with the building of such landmarks as the Villa Malaparte (mentioned in a

previous post) on the island of Capri, shown above (courtesy Panoramio.com), where the geometry is even more abstract — think of the abstract planes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, of the same period.

More recently, in the early 1960s on the California coast near Big Sur, architectural photographer Morley Baer and his wife Frances built a house that is eloquently simple in the way it complements its rugged setting just below Highway 1 at Garrapata Beach.

The stone-clad rectangle (over steel reinforced concrete block) sits at the edge of a field by a rock outcrop — like a restored stone barn from the 19th century somewhere in the Scottish highlands.

Only the very thin roof plane and the monumental window wall with its grid of twelve large square panes  framing the romantic vista — turning the big living dining room into the inside of a big box camera — expresses the modernity of the design.

Indeed, this window wall is very compelling. Long ago I remember looking through it and being totally mesmerized and thinking how fitting this design was for a nature/architectural photographer. The house sold recently for many millions — naturally (images courtesy John Gaar Real Estate).

Perhaps the ultimate nature-oriented designs — at least in the US — were built in the late 19th century in New York’s lake-filled Adirondack region. These super-rustic “Great Camps” for wealthy families escaping from New York or Philadelphia for the summer boasted elaborate stone and timber or log veranda-wrapped compounds, grand stone boathouses, and extensive docks.

A splendid new book — just in time to enjoy with the waning days of summer — describes the key examples in detail. Adirondack Style: Great Camps and Rustic Lodges by f-Stop Fitzgerald (clever name) and Richard McCaffrey with text by Lynn Woods and Jane Mackintosh (Rizzoli 2011,) tells the history of camps owned by J. P. Morgan, various Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers among many others. The sumptuous photographs show how the builders reworked natural materials and forms into a form of Rustic Baroque. Something to peruse as you sit on your own porch! The book was developed in cooperation with Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

The lesson in these sorts of houses and this sort of design is how the site determines the shape and character of each project. Of course these are extreme examples of creative responses to distinctive natural settings. Most waterside sites today are not as distinctive — if they can be had at all — but the concept still holds true no matter what the site: nurture that nature and make it your own!