Monthly Archives: June 2008


Talking Points

At this week’s Pacific Coast Builder’s Conference in San Francisco the glass was half empty and half full: in other words there was an understandable air of worry about economic realities but also a sense that this is an exciting time of reinvention with its own set of opportunities. Two speakers made me think about a key aspect of my job — editing our universe of 28,000+ plans down to manageable collections.

Consumer research guru J. Walker Smith, author of Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Live Today…And They’re Just Getting Started) spoke about how our lifestyle aspirations are changing dramatically. The super-abundance of choice has paradoxically created numerous scarcities. For example, if you Google something and get hundreds of thousands of results, that’s not very useful — there’s a scarcity of truly relevant information despite all the abundance. We need ways to smarten or personalize the search for what we want. And that’s what I hope I’m doing when I assemble groupings of plans out of our huge inventory. I want to be your “Smart Plan Searcher.”

Take this delightful house.


It’s Plan 64-168 in our Unique and Unusual Plan Collection. I included it in the collection because to me it immediately says seashore vacation. I think it’s romantic and wonderful. And here’s one in the Porch Time Collection:


I can imagine enjoying an evening meal outside on that covered terrace (Plan 410-123). My goal is to help you think about what you want in a home by gathering houses that illustrate particular ideas or design approaches. So if you’re interested in the concept of summer living — which is all about a relaxed outdoor-oriented lifestyle that’s not confined to cabins — I hope this collection helps you clarify what you want in a house.

Also at PCBC, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the mechanics of good judgement; how the process of making accurate assessments of the world around us is fragile and easy to undermine. He was elaborating on themes in his recent book titled Blink (a fascinating read). I think looking for the right house is a good example of what he’s talking about: while you’re judging what plan is best for you it’s easy to be distracted by insignificant details. This “tail wagging the dog” or “woolgathering” syndrome happens to me sometimes as I organize plans around a theme or feature. (It also happens when I’m driving and take a wrong turn because I’ve been admiring a building instead of concentrating on where I’m going…). I always need to remind myself to concentrate on the clarity of the plan or elevation and how it relates to the subject of the collection. It’s no wonder that coaches are always yelling “Focus!” at their team members.

Home Show Hit Parade

Several new products at PCBC caught my attention.

Wireless Light Wizard. I was impressed by a new wireless, radio frequency-based lighting control system that reduces the amount of wiring needed in a new home. It’s called the Whole House Lighting System from Verve Living Systems. Once it’s installed you can change where you want to put your light switches. In effect each switch becomes a remote. You can even keep one in the car so when you get home in the dark you can click all the lights on as you enter the garage.

Flexible Faucet. Kohler has introduced a cool new articulating kitchen faucet called Karbon. The segmented neck can move in any direction for aiming the spray, even upwards to create an instant drinking fountain.


And the gear-shift like handle is seductive too.

Canopy Kit. Many new houses don’t have weather protection over entries. Here’s a fine solution: the LightLine canopy kit from Feeney Architectural Products. It’s a sturdy ultraviolet light-resistant acrylic (clear or tinted) panel supported on stainless steel brackets. It comes in a kit you assemble and then screw to the wall.

canopy kit overview1

The same company makes handsome handsome railings out of stainless steel cables that almost disappear.

Skylight Power. Velux, the people who bring you a huge range of versatile skylights have now created a skylight lookalike that’s actually a solar powered hot water heating mechanism.


It looks just like a skylight. Pretty cool.The hot water tank is separate from the solar panel. Stay tuned for more product news.

EYE ON DESIGN: Miles of Tile

All Fired Up

Decorative ceramic tile is way cool: there’s an almost infinite array of colors, textures, styles, and motifs. Using it is one of the simplest ways to inject a little personality into your new house. Consider it for a kitchen backsplash, a shower, or even as a permanent rug in your front hall floor, like this historic example from the Adamson House in Malibu, photo courtesy

Here are more examples to get you thinking. Bet you can’t look at just one.

Cal Pottery DecorativesCE102

The latter example is from California Pottery and Tile Works, which continues a long tradition of ornamental tile manufacture going back to the early 20th century in places like Malibu, California. In fact you can still see examples of the original tile made by Malibu Potteries, which was a precursor to California Pottery, at the Adamson House in Malibu. The handsome Spanish Colonial Revival style house was built for the daughter and son-in-law of Malibu Potteries’ owners, Frederick and May Rindge, in 1929 and is a veritable tile showcase. It’s now a state park so you can tour it. My favorite features in the house are the tile rug shown above and the dog-washing tub outside the kitchen, shown below.


Even without the tile this is a good idea for dogs — and humans too! — on hot summer days.

Or here’s an example of Arts and Crafts tile from Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, Michigan, which was founded in 1903 and also has a museum you can visit.

pewabic layout4

The tiles have a handcrafted look.

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I use this spiral one — it’s three inches square — as a coaster on my desk. Maybe some day it’ll go into a backsplash.

If modern is more your taste, then consider Heath Ceramics, which was founded in the 1950s in Sausalito, California and has been beautifully revived and reinvigorated in the last few years. Heath’s elegant minimalist architectural shapes and subtly layered colors add depth and character to any space. I’ll have more to say about Heath in a future posting.



EYE ON DESIGN: New Perspectives and Products

Be the Change

I’ve heard Ghandi’s famous phrase often recently with regard to green building. But last Friday at the Dwell On Design Conference and Expo in Los Angeles it seemed relevant in more general terms. Take the panel on evolving modes of architectural practice moderated by the multi-talented Frances Anderton, Dwell’s LA editor and the producer of the design and architecture program “DNA” for KCRW Radio (I was the mystery guest). The architects talked about how they weren’t just designers but also builders, branders, fabricators, and even developers. It struck me once again that the best architects are trained imaginations, adept at seeing problems as opportunities, especially as they spoke about looking for new materials, new uses for old materials, and new ways to make good design available to more people. That’s where I came in, because like Dwell and Sunset, is also about changing the architectural paradigm so that better home design becomes accessible to a wider audience. The idea of changing perception was visible throughout the expo. For example, here’s a raised bed that rolls. It’s called the Food Map Container, from Food Map Design, founded by a landscape architect.

Food map cntr cropped%204

The tub is made of 100% recycled post-consumer plastic. Its comes in short and tall sizes and is perfect for small patios or decks where you want to grow something quickly and move it around easily. It brings new meaning to the phrase “garden variety.”

More for Outside and In

Some other products caught my eye, like these long narrow modular concrete pavers.

Stepstone pic108

They’re from Stepstone Inc. and create a deck-like pattern on the ground.

Or, getting back to Ghandi — I mean green — here’s a company that makes bamboo cabinets.

bamboo cabinets

They’re from Bamboo Hardwoods in Seattle. They’re durable, sustainable (bamboo is a grass and grows very fast), and the cabinetry radiates a honey-warmth.

Kirei Board is getting more attention. Here it’s used for a vanity.

kirei board vanity r2l

Manufactured in Japan from reclaimed sorghum straw in a nontoxic adhesive, Kirei Board is a strong, lightweight substitute for wood. My friend and former colleague at Sunset, Peter Whiteley, has even used Kirei in his woodworking projects.

These products complement many of our plans, like Plan 48-254.


When you start looking, new possibilities abound. See the change!



Door Jam

A good front door does two things: it protects the person and projects the personality. Here’s one that says solidity, security, sophistication, and wealth.

Charnley front door

It’s the front entrance to the Charnely-Perskey house of 1892 in Chicago, designed by Louis Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper and the great teacher of Frank Lloyd Wright. The organic-geometric metalwork is characteristic of Sullivan and gives the door its vivid presence — there’s plenty to admire as you wait for it to open. Fittingly, the house is the headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians and is open for tours.

Another approach, equally sophisticated but now all about openness as well as security in a deft biomorphic balance of opposites, is the entrance to the Casa Mila apartment house (also known as La Pedrera) of 1910  in Barcelona, by the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi.

casa mila cid_aj1080_b

The view is looking out toward the street, as if you are inside a cage that’s mellting before your eyes.

Lightness and transparency are taken to another extreme in the front entrance to the Farnsworth house of 1951, not far from Chicago in Plano, Illinois (which you can also tour). It’s hard to tell there’s a door there at all — you can just make out the double doors in the middle of the glass wall.


The great International Style architect Mies Van Der Rohe designed this house for a doctor who wound up hating it. So maybe it didn’t fully express her personality. Plus, privacy ultimately became and issue. But the house has influenced modern architects ever since — the idea of openness is very powerful.

Probably most of us would be happy with a good solid front door that’s not quite as closed, cage-like, or open as those three examples. The following sampling of doors made from reclaimed wood might help you think about just how open or closed you want your front door to be. They’re from La Puerta Originals, a remarkable establishment in Santa Fe, New Mexico that specializes in creating doors from a vast collection of antique wood and salvaged door sections from around the world.


Reproduced from reclaimed Douglas fir and recycled iron, it’s welcoming  and secure at the same time.

Or here’s one with shutters so you can open a small section of the door for air circulation or to see who’s there.


And finally here’s one that’s really a Dutch door; the top half opens so you can make guests feel welcome without opening the whole room.


Most front doors should complement the style of the house. But it’s really up to you and your taste and pocketbook and how you want the portal to function. So as you look for the perfect new house plan, don’t forget to open a few doors.