Tag Archives: Design

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.

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.


Cantilevers at Home

Hanging Tough

Brad Pitt has long been interested in landmark residential architecture, having co-authored a book on the Blacker house of 1907 designed by Greene & Greene, as well as having founded the Make It Right Foundation for housing in the Ninth Ward of post-Katrina New Orleans. According to Celebuzz, he’s also a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, at Bear Run, Pennsylvania,

which he visited in 2006 (photo of Brad and Angelina by Cara Armstrong, courtesy Celebuzz). All of which brings to mind the starring roles of architectural elements like the cantilever — which Wright made so famous in his waterfall -lunging design. This is evidently partly why Brad is interested — he’d like to build on a similar site some day. (Maybe we can provide a plan!) Indeed, the cantilever, defined as a projecting beam or member supported only at one end, is very seductive. Alvar Aalto’s cantilever chair for Artek of the early

1930s is a perfect example (photo courtesy Kissthedesign).  So

is one of Marcel Breuer’s famous metal chairs (photo courtesy Factoidz) designed in the late 1920s. The trick is to provide enough counterweight or balance to support the projection. The idea was quickly adopted by the most progressive architects of the 20th century for its expressive quality as a form of  abstract space-shaping sculpture, as Marcel Breauer did in the first

house he designed for his family in New Canaan, Connecticut of 1947 (photo courtesy Archives of American Art). Architect and Breuer biographer Robert F. Gatje, who worked in the Breuer office for many years, told me that the “floating” portion of this house worked well — no posts to get in the way of the carport below it — but that it always had a certain “bounce” to it, especially on the deck. No doubt it gave Mrs. Breuer an extra spring to her step. The cantilever is in fact a space-saver and architects often use it where there is a desire to minimize site disturbance or to take dramatic advantage of a view, as the architectural firm

Anderson Anderson did with this house in the Cascade Mountains north of Seattle (photos above and below courtesy Anderson Anderson).

The architects give a good rationale for this design: “The small ground floor building footprint/foundation reduces the cost of this expensive area of the house, and allows the points of attachment to adapt to varying slope and soil conditions with minimal disruption of the natural topography.” In other words they can use this or similar designs on a variety of rugged sites. With cantilevers, things can get dramatic very fast, as in the “Ribbon House” by the Perth, Australia firm H + AA.

Not only is the  glass-walled living room projecting into the landscape but the roof appears to be rippling into the sky as if caught by a sudden gust of wind.

I think a cantilever is most useful for a house if it can be used in a way to maximize the appreciation of a beautiful landscape feature, the way a great bridge does. So Brad, I hope you find a good site, first!

A Good Idea

With football bowl season upon us — not to mention the second series of Downton Abbey — it’s time to look around for the correct TV remote — now where did you see it last? So here’s an idea that my wife Mary dreamed up: the Multiple Pocket Remote Holster!

Straightforward sewing around a long dowel, from which it hangs. Fabric and pattern up to you. There. Now it’s easier to find the clicker so you can watch the latest Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie film!

Sod Roofs and Modern Plans

Green On Top

Our inventory of eco-friendly plans got a boost with the arrival of our newest design, Plan 525-1, which is by architect Karl Smith, the latest member of our Exclusive Studio. His idea was to design an 1,800 sq. ft. three-story, sod-roofed home to fit a tight lot.

The ground floor contains a covered patio, mud room, and guest suite-office;

the  living-dining area and kitchen are on the middle level,and the master bedroom suite is at the top. 

You can see how carefully thought each floor is, from the wood stove in the ground floor guest room to the walk-in pantry by the kitchen and the master closet with its own island on the top floor. A very elegant and urbane design. According to Karl the sod roof sits over a waterproof membrane of Bituthene (manufactured by Grace Company) and “provides an R-48 U value, and can be supplemented with a layer of rigid insulation in the roof sandwich.  The walls are minimum R-16, but that can also be increased, and with insulated glass in the windows, it will more than accomplish most environmental concerns.” I think his roof watering system is clever: it uses reclaimed water pumped from cisterns  below French drains.

Another only-at-Houseplans.com sod roof design — this one by Werner Field Architects, Plan 491-5 — takes an opposite tack and is long and low and the living is all on one level.


The green roof even extends over the carport. The plan is simplicity itself — with a bedroom at each end of the long bar-shape –

and blurs the distinction between the natural and the man-made as well as between inside and outside.

A dusk view adds to the  green roof although, as the architects explain, the design can work without this feature. We’ll keep adding more “green conception” plans — so instead of letting the grass grow under your feet, why let it grow over your roof!

Backyards, Borders, and Bedrooms

Lines in the Gravel

Our tiny backyard has a ragged patch of lawn that is bordered by a narrow brick mow strip. It’s supposed to form a nice crisp line between lawn and planting bed, and occasionally it does — when I’ve done the weeding. I appreciate the way such a simple device can makes the backyard feel almost like an outdoor room. But here are a few somewhat more inventive ways to shape outdoor space…I’d rather dream than weed anyway. I’m a fan of devices that have multiple functions or “do double duty” — as readers undoubtedly know by now — so the idea that a stair railing could also be a planter is appealing, as shown by this elegant modern installation by Surface Design.
The planter borders the upper terrace, which creates a nice green visual

connection to the lower strip of grass. The stair and the railing/planter divide the backyard into two distinct rooms: one for outdoor dining; the other for greenery (photos courtesy Surface Design). Or here’s a way to combine terrace, planter, and steps in one form,

as shown in a garden by Arterra (with architect Thomas Hunter; photo courtesy Arterra). The plants become a sort of green railing. Garden stairs have been combined with overflowing water since Moorish times, not to mention the Italian Renaissance, but what about with something a little warmer? Landscape artist Topher Delaney‘s “In the Line of Fire” garden does just that,

with ribbons of flame at the base of a central step in this unusual garden. If you miss a step you’re toast — but I guess you could say it keeps you on your toes! (Photo courtesy Apartment Therapy.) The line (back to my mowing strip) is the simplest design device but it can also be the most visually compelling,

as architect Jonathan Feldman demonstrates in the ingenious way he ties part of his Caterpillar House to the surrounding landscape with three stripes sliced into the concrete patio. They set up an almost rhythmic progression between structure and site while expanding the lateral view into a field of lupine.

The Patio Home

Architects Braxton Werner and Paul Field — who are part of our Exclusive Studio – have just updated the imagery for their designs, and several show just how important backyards are as extensions of the house. For example, in their Plan 491-2 the living room doesn’t stop at the sliding glass window wall –

it incorporates the pool patio on the other side of the glass. The layout is simple and shows how the overhang — the dotted line — also defines the outdoor space.

Here’s a view from the outside looking in, showing how the paving pattern forms a kind of rug. The same blending of inside and outside happens in the bedrooms

on the ground floor, though these are on the other side of the house. The Werner Field designs are new interpretations of the patio home idea popularized in the mid twentieth century by architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in Los Angeles. I guess I not only want a more visually ambitious backyard, I’d like one of these houses to go with it.