Category Archives: Traditional design

Farmhouse/Barnhouse Modern

Dreams of Fields

While in Chicago last week at the Reinvention Design Conference — a stimulating confab of architects who specialize in residential work — I toured a remarkable house with lessons for anyone interested in home design. Designed by Vinci/Hamp Architects, it’s a recent addition to the

historic Crab Tree Farm (a dairy farm) built in 1911. The crisp white gabled Continue reading

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.

Welcome, Katrina Cottage Plans

Finessing the FEMA Trailer

Big news! We are very excited to welcome the Katrina Cottage plans — from a team of designers and architects led by Marianne Cusato — to our Exclusive Studio. Prices start at $850. Years ago I saw one of the first examples, at the Home Builder Show in Orlando (shown below, courtesy James Hardie), and was very impressed. Here was an innovative solution to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina that could apply to housing needs in general.


I especially liked the efficient layout (this example is only 300 square feet), well proportioned double-hung windows, and front porch with built-in benches. I thought then, and now even more so, that this little house would dignify any neighborhood. To my mind it is a highly evolved descendant of the charming wood-framed “earthquake cottages” built for San Francisco’s homeless

after the disaster of 1906 (photo courtesy National Park Service, Presidio). Fast forward to today and our expanding collection of Katrina Cottage designs, like Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-5, shown below.


The 544 square-foot, two bedroom, one bath house includes a galley kitchen

and a front porch that’s 8-feet deep so it can be used as an outdoor room to expand the house in good weather. Here it is as built.

(Photo courtesy Cusato Cottages.) The house is only sixteen feet wide but has a strong presence thanks to the welcoming front porch. Marianne calls this “vernacular Gulf Coast” architecture but I can see it working in places like the Northeast and Midwest as well.

Envisioned as a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer, Katrina Cottages have been hailed for their design, durability, versatility and, affordability in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, on CNN and in all major news outlets nationwide. The Katrina Cottage concept is the vision of architect Andres Duany, partner in Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism and designers of hundreds of pedestrian-oriented communities including Seaside, Florida. The cottage idea was first developed at the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005. The goal was to create a safe, affordable, livable home that can be built quickly and that ultimately becomes an enduring contribution to the neighborhood — not a temporary, often stigmatized, and possibly unhealthy solution like a FEMA trailer.

Plan 514-10 by Eric Moser, of Moser Design Group, is 20 feet wide and includes a buffet bar/peninsula in

the kitchen.

 

A shed dormer brightens the loft. Plan 514-11 by W. A. Lawrence of

Period Style Homes is 25 feet wide and includes an option for adding a third bedroom. Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-18 is the largest so far,

at two stories and 1,200 square feet. Two bedrooms and a second bathroom are 

on the upper floor. Here’s a built version of it in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (photo courtesy Cusato Cottages).

The shutters, clapboard siding, and gable profile give it a handsome Colonial Revival look.

Marianne Cusato is the author of Get Your House Right, Architectural Elements to Use and Avoid, with Ben Pentreath, Richard Sammons and Leon Krier, foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales (2008, Sterling Publishing). In 2006, her Katrina Cottage won the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s “People’s Design Award.” W. A. Lawrence and Eric Moser have long been involved in neighborhood and residential design. These houses can be family homes, vacation cabins, even granny units, and it’s easy to imagine combining them into vibrant communities. To mix a few metaphors — an architectural phoenix has risen from the floods. Welcome, Katrina Cottage plans!

Shaping Inspiration: Aqua Tower to Home Plans

New Waves in Nature vs. Nurture

I heard a fascinating lecture by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang recently. She talked about the unusual wave-like design of her soaring 82-story  Aqua Tower (including apartments, condos, and a hotel) built by McHugh Construction and Magellan Development Group in downtown Chicago. The compelling design derived in part from studies of view corridors and wind patterns — and was also partly inspired by images of limestone cliffs along the Great Lakes, as shown here and which were themselves created by water and wind (photo courtesy Immaterial/Supermaterial, Woodbury University).  The myriad shapes of the curvilinear concrete balconies “confuse the wind” (i.e. slow it down) and give each apartment a sense of individuality (Aqua Tower photos courtesy The International Coolhunting Magazine). In most cases the curving balconies shape views and shelter living spaces from heat and glare. Where balconies are not feasible a different glass — with higher insulation value — is used. The reduced overhangs and use of a different type of glass (which is tinted a greener color) make it appear that ponds have formed on each of the tower’s vertical surfaces. Reusable, flexible steel forms for the cantilevered concrete balcony sections made the construction possible.

The lesson I drew from Jeanne Gang’s talk was that a her firm does a great deal of research into site conditions and the natural and  cultural histories of an area before developing a particular design. The design is thus “drawn out of the site.” (A new book on their work titled Reveal from Princeton Architecture Press explains this process.) This is a good way to think about home design as well — the house plan and the lot should complement each other. Mentally place your plan on your site and check to see if any key outdoor spaces are easily accessible, or if you should replace a window with a door.  This plan 64-166 by Dan Tyree uses balconies and window walls to maximize views on a steep slope. Plan 500-1 by Robert Swinburne has  a side-facing bay window, which means its lot should have  room for a side yard.  In Plan 498-5 by Matthew Coates glass folding doors could replace the conventional sliders as a way to open up more of the great room to the patio. Indeed, I think every ready made plan should be modified to suit its site. By the way, these three plans are part of a selection of Exclusive Plans Temporarily On Sale for the spring building season.

Footnote

I asked Jeanne Gang how she got such a remarkable tower commission and she said it was mostly serendipity. A client invited her to a party and she met a developer who said he was interested in her work and would she consider a project he was starting. Sure, she said, thinking nothing would come of it. A few days later she got a phone call asking for a meeting in a few days. She assumed it was a competition so she quickly prepared a Power Point on her firm’s deep experience and award-winning past projects.  But when she got to the meeting the developer said he already knew her work and already had hired her and how soon could she have a design ready? “It was the most unusual and easiest commission we’ve ever gotten!” she said. Another lesson: you never know who is watching your work — or if the next plan you click will throw a curve and strike your fancy and become your dream house!