Monthly Archives: July 2008

EYE ON DESIGN: Our Exclusive New Modern Plans

Modern Architecture 2.0

From minimalist lofts to warmly contemporary ranch houses and timeless vacation retreats, choices in modern home design for the 21st Century just increased dramatically, thanks to our new Exclusive Signature Collection of plans by an invited panel of award-winning architects and designers from across the country. Unique to, these plans express modern living elegantly and efficiently while celebrating nature. Multiple exterior and interior elevations are included in each plan set, making these designs among the most detailed in our inventory. Here’s a sampling, and it’s just the beginning!

Steel Case House by architect Gregory La Vardera, draws inspiration from the Eames Case Study House of 1949.


The loft-like steel frame allows two story spaces for living room and family room at opposite ends of the long rectangular volume — where they open to the outdoors. Greg has also designed variations using SIPs (Structurally Insulated Panels) and timber frame construction. The Palo Alto, also by La Vardera, refers to the Northern California city where mid-century modern tract houses by the developer Joseph Eichler became famous.

La Vardera Eichler 0738_01[1]

This outdoor-oriented courtyard plan makes the most of a suburban lot. As I’ve mentioned in earlier postings, Cliff May was the most influential popularizer of the modern ranch house during the post World War II era. His work helped inspire several of our exclusive plans. In the Suburban Ranch House, designer Rick Faust extended the eave to shelter outdoor space at the front and back of this house.

436-1mf-2599 floor plan

Taking a leaf (an eave?) from Cliff’s playbook, Faust exposed the roof beams outside the living room to create a vine-covered trellis for dappled shade.


And he did the same off the master suite at the rear to create an attractive outdoor sitting area. In The Proximity designer Dan Tyree adapted another favorite Cliff May motif — the big glass gable. You can see it at the front: the glass opens a view through the house to the rear.

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Then the gable opens to a house-wide porch facing the backyard.

Proximity rear 64-172re-2517

There’s an outdoor kitchen at the left, so the rear of the house becomes a private outdoor living and dining room. 


Boardwalk 1.0 is architect Ross Anderson’s house for a long narrow lot. It celebrates easy indoor-outdoor living on two floors.

Anderson elev 433-1e-2220

Every major space opens to boardwalk, deck, or screened porch.



Its brand of classic simplicity — evoking timeless images of summer cottages and camps — suits informal living wherever the climate draws you into the fresh air. Look for more about our Signature Plans Collection in future postings.

EYE ON DESIGN: Innovative Roofs

Sustainability Gets a Lift

The ability to see new uses for obsolete things is an important part of a sustainable approach to design. It’s what architects do especially well. Here’s a great, over-the-top — literally! — example of creative recycling from a friend, Santa Monica, California architect David Hertz. He’s designing a house for a client in the mountains behind Malibu that uses one wing of a decomissioned Boeing 747 for its roof.


The main “wing” of the house overlooks the pool. Now this is what I call recycling! Here’s what David says: “The wing of a 747, at over 2,500 sq. ft., became an ideal configuration to maximize the views and provide a self supporting roof with minimal additional structural support needed.” He’s using the 747’s other components for other structures on the property, which is, as he says, “like how the Native American Indians used every part of the buffalo.” Such a project also takes a remarkable client: one who’s willing to provide a runway for the architectural imagination. Bravo and Welcome Aboard to both! The expected completion date is next spring.

Other Eco-oriented Roofs

The new glass canopy surrounding the planted roofscape of the San Francisco Academy of Sciences contains 60,000 photovoltaic cells producing 213,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity resulting in a 5% to 10% savings of electricity, according to the Academy’s website. You’ve probably seen this now famous image of the entire roof with the planted hills in the middle and the glass around the edge, like a vast magic eco-tablecloth. I was just given an early tour and it is a genuinely thrilling design visually, structurally, and functionally. Every element — from upswept living roof to carved-out coral reef, from glass walls facing the Park to lens-like windows into the deep — serves to teach and enthrall.


The building was designed by the renowned architect Renzo Piano, whose ladder-like new New York Times Building in Manhattan is giving new meaning to the term “social climbers.” The Academy opens in September (the image is from Wired magazine).


EYE ON DESIGN: Fifties Modern, Green Building, & More

Stamps of Approval

First class seating acquires new meaning with the debut of 42-cent stamps commemorating design visionaries Charles and Ray Eames, shown here.


This remarkable husband-wife team of industrial designers re-imagined modern living in the Fifties with their Eames Molded Plywood Chair, Eames Lounge and Ottoman, and Eames Storage Units (manufactured by Herman Miller and also available from Design Within Reach). The Los Angeles area house they designed for themselves in 1949 became one of the most enduring and influential architectural icons of the 20th century. lt’s visible on the stamp in the upper right hand corner. Charles and Ray’s interest in the nature of materials, new manufacturing processes, and “disciplined play” revolutionized how we sit down, how we store our possessions, and how we view the world.

I remember meeting Ray once in her loft-like and sunlit living room with its adjacent terrace overlooking a meadow — a fine balance between the urban and the rural — and being struck at how the room seemed both expansive and compact at the same time. The high ceiling, balcony, and tall glass made it spacious and universal; the built-in conversation area tucked under the balcony, the precise arrangement of small artifacts beside a vase of flowers on the floor, and the bowl of bright red strawberries on a low coffee table made the space intimate and personal. This seemingly effortless juxtaposition of opposites is an art in itself, making me realize once again that simplicity ain’t all that simple. You can learn more about the Eames legacy and find out how to tour the house at the Eames Foundation. Soon we’ll have a very Eames-inspired design to offer you at Here’s a sneak peak (look for it in late July):


Design is a Game

Games are often about solving problems in a playful or fun way and that’s what design is about, too. Here are some recent objects that express a similar creative spirit.

Eric Pfeiffer’s new Rolo Lounge draws inspiration from architect Alvar Aalto’s bent wood furniture as well as from the Eames’ work.

Rolo Lounge by Pfeiffer

But he takes the cantilever chair concept into new territory — I mean into a literary landscape — by making it double as a book storage unit. In this chair you’re never just lounging around, you’re being supported by an active imagination. For info contact Pfeifferlab.

And here’s something a little different: an outdoor shower that’s treated as a sculptural interpretation of a splash of water.


A summer dreamscape! This very modern European example is by Designerzeit.

Or how about this useful portable battery-powered lantern for the patio. It’s rechargeable and dimmable.

lg_luau_e battery lantern

It’s called the Oxo Candela Luau. The spare teardrop shape and built-in handle make it easy to use on a table or beside a walkway — and though it’s very simple it brings to mind milk jugs and carriage lanterns as if in a hazy midsummer dream. Or is that just my fevered brain…

Green Update: The Best Green-Building Book

But before I get carried away: Al Gore’s recent challenge to reduce carbon emissions reminds me that an extremely helpful new book on eco-friendly design has just been published: Green From the Gound Up: Sustainable, Healthy, and Energy Efficient Home Construction, by David Johnston and Scott Gibson (Taunton). I recommend it highly.


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This comprehensive book presents short step-by-step advice on every aspect of building an energy-efficient home. Carefully targeted color photographs illustrate each idea or action. For customers there’s a particularly useful series of sections on orienting your house for energy savings. This book is simply essential for anyone building a house.

EYE ON DESIGN: Stealing Home

The (Home) Bases Are Loaded

This week I applaud what I call “Enlightened Pragmatism” in home design. Here are two examples.

An Extreme Case. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan (Ballantine, 2007) is a book about architecture that you can take to the beach. Superbly written, the novel builds upon the true story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous and ultimately tragic love affair with Mamah Cheney, who was the wife of one of his clients. Perhaps the ultimate enlightened pragmatist — often more enlightened than pragmatic — Wright designed Taliesin East, his famous hillside heath at Spring Green, Wisconsin, shown below, partly for her.


Here’s a more recent view.

Taliesin east today

(You can visit Taliesin East and support its ongoing preservation.)

The book contains a marvelous moment — wholly invented by Horan — during the construction of the house when Mamah puts the vastly talented and serenely egotistical Frank in his place, calling him a hypocrite for buying beautiful and costly objects like grand pianos instead of paying off his creditors. Almost everyone — surely most of his clients — has always wanted to do just that! Of course, he always said honest arrogance was better than false modesty but sometimes he was… just a naughty little boy. And that’s a big part of his charm, from a distance. His imagination was truly enlightened — he took the cantilever, the window wall, and built-in furniture to new heights — and deserved to be treated royally. But occasionally he had to be brought down to earth in order to get the job done. The wonderful thing is that coming to grips with reality often drove him to new feats of invention, such as when he created the Usonian house — his version of the suburban ranch house — during the depths of the Depression. The poetic was often at war with the practical in Wright’s mind, but that struggle made his imagination soar.

Grand Theft Home. I just toured Sunset magazine’s latest Idea House (their 22nd!). Part of a Menlo Park, California development called Lane Woods — named for the family who owned the magazine for many years — by Summerhill Homes, it’s full of what the magazine calls “Ideas to Steal.” And they are. Interior designer Kelly Barthelemy explains: “We wanted to explore the idea of “mixing” at every level: paint colors, materials, textures, furniture styles, art styles, display ideas, high end and low end. People rarely have a house composed of a single style. Life — combining households, changing tastes, starting a family — inevitably leaves us all with an eclectic combination of things. Our idea was to show how to create harmony from what might othewrise seem to be a mismatched collection.” In other words, it’s all in the Remix! This is enlightened pragmatism of the most useful sort. Here’s some of what I took away:

Caster Aisle

Sunset Menlo Idea House 012

The kitchen table, fabricated by So Real Ironworks with a bamboo top from Teragren, is on rollers so it can move where you need it. The different sets of chairs add interest and still work with the warm hue of the tabletop.

Compare and Contrast

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With bold wallpaper (from California Paint Company) and an imposing headboard, one accent wall can set the tone for the room. The headboard, designed and built by Sunset Contributing Editor Peter O. Whiteley out of Fypon lightweight foam molding, cleverly resembles an heirloom mantelpiece at a fraction of the price of the real thing.

PVC-Pipe “Gazebo”

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This simple and ingenious outdoor room (also designed by Whiteley) uses a frame of pvc pipe set into pvc sleeves pounded into the ground to define a sitting area. The curtain fabric is weather-resistant Sunbrella fabric. Garden by Shades of Green Landscape Architecture.

Handling Your Hang Ups

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Recycled faucet handles turn a coat and bag rack into something memorable. One good turn deserves another!

EYE ON DESIGN: First Family Rooms

Presidential Story Lines

In time for Independence Day, Janet Maslin’s insightful review of a new book about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s relationship in today’s New York Times is the perfect springboard for a topic: Presidential homes. She likes Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (Ballantine) because it describes in detail how the couple lived, providing as she says, “an exacting evocation of the 19th century household.” This comment made me think of presidential houses and their influence on home builders and new home buyers. For example, the architectural power of The White House, designed by James Hoban in 1792, is strong even today: you can build your own updated version with one of our plans, and here it is.


It’s Plan 119-189 (part of our Unusual and Unique House Plans Collection), and comes with a two-car garage on each side of the portico (camouflaged by the tall pedimented ground floor windows) and an expansive great room. Fun to think of John and Abigail Adams hangin’ out and sippin’ mojitos by the kitchen island…It’s a house that clearly makes every occasion a state occasion.

Or think of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon with its famous flat pediment on the entrance side and the two-story portico running the width of the house on the river side, shown in views from the collection of the Alexandria, Virginia Library, below.

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Mt. Vernon postcard portico

You’ll find versions of these features on houses in leafy suburban enclaves from New York to Hollywood. Our Plan 72-184, offers a handsome adaption, with a pediment that’s actually more in scale with its facade (No offense to George — I like the innocent way his pediment just seems to hover at the top of the house, barely keeping the adjacent row of windows under control, like an unruly clutch of chicks.)

A more modest presidential icon is the Lincoln Cabin, where Abe spent a little time. Here’s an early view from the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitation Project and the Chicago Historical Society.

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Early American frontier cabins like this one later prompted nostalgic views of log building as Americans began rediscovering their history. Modern versions, usually much expanded and used as getaways or vacation cabins, remain popular — like our Plan 17-462, and show that the form has come a long way.

log house 17-462e-1449

Note the porch and all that glass. The Presidential log cabin also influenced the development of another American architectural invention: Lincoln Logs building blocks created by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architect son John Lloyd Wright and still made today.

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These blocks may be toys but they’re still a good way to get a feel for the character, simplicity — and limitations — of strict log building. And they feed the imagination. I have a set and my children and I continue to play with them, though I tend to add other elements in order to make miniature urban environments — but that’s a story for another posting. Happy Fourth of July!