Tagged: architecture

Smaller is Better. Really.

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There is an old saw in the mountain biking world. Attributed to Keith Bontrager it goes something like this: “Light, strong, cheap – Pick any two.” This is actually an expression of a much more universal law of design and it is nowhere more true than it in construction.

For instance, if the size of a building is determined by its function and the cost is determined by the available budget, then the quality of the construction is already established. Conversely, if a project is seen as being too expensive and the program can’t be reduced then it can only be brought into budget by reducing the quality.

There’s another arrangement of this rule that is often overlooked and it’s the one that a good architect will always try to encourage a client to pursue. So please: “Let’s make your project as small as we can make it so that we can make it as nice as we can make it.”

Oh, and the sketch is entirely unrelated to this post.

 

With a tip of the hat to Lebbeus

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I scratched this out in about 10 minutes yesterday morning before work. My son has been asking me if we could build a treehouse. Of course that sounds like a fantastic idea to me.

The first challenge is the tree. The backyard is wooded and we have several trees to choose from but none are really stout enough to support a really significant structure. My thought was to hug the tree with a lightweight construction that would be part chrysalis and part belly dancer. It’ll wrap and hug the tree close and be articulated to shimmy as the wind blows and the tree flexes.

P.S. – Sorry for phoning this one in. Look for more on it later. I’m taking my son to a chess tournament on Saturday. If this sounds like watching paint dry you’re right – even for a proud papa. I’ll take my sketchbook.

More of a mitten

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I’m beginning design work on a new house (Yay a house!) and I’ve been considering what makes for a good one. The internet is now full of everyone’s curated images of their “dream house” on Pinterest or Houzz to name two. Looking at these you might think that good houses all have idyllic locations or master bathrooms the size of handball courts with a walk-in shower AND a garden tub. These are really not so much about a person’s ideal house as they are about an ideal life – one that contains more idle time and a bit of luxury. Above all, one that is different from the real one of work and mundane concerns.

 

The truth is none of these things is required for a good house, at least not a real one for real people in the midst of regular lives. It doesn’t even have to be beautiful, even though making the world a bit more beautiful is something we should always strive for. To be good, a house really only has to do 1 thing and that’s allow the lifestyle of its inhabitants; and not so much the imaginary lifestyle as the real one. A good house will wrap itself around the daily activities of its occupants, supporting and enabling them without getting in their way. In short, it must fit the lives of its users… but not too closely.

 

People change. Aspirations change. Kids move away (or come back home!). And we all get older. So instead of a hand in glove fit, I think of it as a hand in mitten fit. A mitten will still fit if you smash your thumb and have it wrapped in gauze. A mitten will still fit even if you lose a finger. Some will even fit either hand. It’s easy to pull off and put back on again to dial a phone number or pick your nose. You can even bring a lucky rabbit’s foot or a handgun cartridge in there with you if you want something to play with.

 

In a similar way, a good house will allow for the occasional idle moment or small luxury but it will also make room for sewing Halloween costumes or writing school papers or organizing a charity drive. It will have rooms and spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate everything from formal dinner parties to quiet nights at home. It will have plenty of storage space for concealing all the junk of our (let’s face it) cluttered first world lives. It will have bathrooms that are efficient for getting a quick shower when you’re running late for work. And a good house may even have a garden tub. After all it makes a great place to wash the dog.

 

On reading Strange Details by Michael Cadwell

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4 architects, 4 buildings, 4 essays. I’m going to treat each one individually, not in order, and I may not cover them all. So, to start with we’ll look at Chapter 2: “The Jacobs House, Burning Fields.” In this chapter Cadwell considers one of the later Usonian houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house has survived well for almost 100 years due mostly to the care that its owners have lavished on it over the years. Cadwell theorizes that perhaps the house was never intended to.

Platform frame construction, originally balloon frame construction, is the norm for residential construction in the United States and has been since the turn of the last century. Houses built this way have, in some cases, lasted quite well though that fact has depended on continuous occupancy and a regimen of ongoing maintenance. My own house was designed by another local architect, now retired, and built in 1985. I can say with certainty that the service life of a platform frame single family house is approximately 25 years. I’m defining service life here as that point where major systems will begin to require replacement and the ensuing period of time will require an additional investment approaching the replacement cost of the building. In my case, I purchased a house with roof, siding, and windows all failing. The hot water heater did fail and the air conditioning is gasping its last breath. We are replacing each in turn and all the while keeping our fingers crossed. We knew what we were getting into when we purchased the house and expect to eventually have renewed and even improved the original construction.

At the Jacobs house, Wright specified a construction that consists of little more than two layers of wood screwed together cross grain with a layer of tar paper sandwiched in between. There is no siding, no cavity, and no lath and plaster. The painfully thin wood sandwich is both the structure and the finish. This tent-like partition is then wrapped around a series of spaces, themselves wrapped around a central masonry mass containing the building services and ever so important fireplace. The most durable components of the house were buried in the center while the least durable were pushed to the edges much as a body consists of a hard skeleton wrapped in soft flesh and draped in continuously renewing skin. Cadwell suggests that Wright, at this point well into his sixties, had come to see the Usonian house as partaking in a natural cycle of life. We’ll never know for sure because even if he did he could never have advertised the fact. “I designed your house to rot away and return to the earth in the span of a generation” is not something an architect can easily say to his or her client. It’s not an easy thing for an architect to accept even privately.

At heart we all harbor the desire to leave a legacy, to create something that will outlast us, and architect’s exemplify this trait even more than most; it is, in part, why we became architects. We see it everywhere though and, in fact, the perpetuation of historical styles comes from a desire to impart a sense of permanence – even if the brick is just a thin veneer and the “stone” a coat of latex stucco over glued together bits of foam.

The Jacobs house was possibly a critique of this false image of permanence. It predates today’s understanding of closed-loop manufacture, reuse, and sustainability but I think old Frank had it basically right. For each project it’s important to understand the place of that particular building in the culture before assigning it a place on the sliding scale of “more permanent vs. less permanent.” If the project is to be more permanent then design it for real durability, not just the appearance of durability. And if the project is to be less permanent then we have to consider how the materials that go into it will live after the project has come to the end of it’s life. Because whether in another building or product or in the landfill the stuff we work with will persist.

Photo credit: John S Turner [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons