Monthly Archives: September 2008

EYE ON DESIGN: Ideas from West Coast Green

The Shipping News (apologies to Annie Proulx)

The West Coast Green eco-expo at the San Jose, California Convention Center brought enthusiastic crowds despite economic worries.The SG Blocks Harbinger house — designed by The Lawrence Group architectural firm and assembled by SG Blocks inside the hall in a miraculous three days — occupied center stage and was the largest draw.

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The 1,700 square foot home’s building system is the big story: it’s made of recycled and modified shipping containers — called SG Blocks (the SG stands for safe and green).The only real hint of the construction appears in the way the containers are stacked to overlap slightly. The contemporary two-story, two bedroom, two bath home opens to a large deck off the ground floor living-dining area and kitchen, and to two smaller decks off the upstairs bedrooms. It’s engineered to be hurricane and earthquake resistant. It gives the old phrase “ship-to-shore” new meaning…or is that Dwelling Ahoy!

According to The Lawrence Group, “More than 300,000 used shipping containers are sitting in port cities throughout the U.S. because they are too expensive to ship back to their point of origin.” They cost from $500 to $2,000 apiece, “making them a useful building material for affordable housing.” This completed house cost roughly $150 per square foot. It’s full of green materials and products, like counters made of recycled glass by Vetrazzo (below), with an elegant undermount sink by Caroma.

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Alongside the house is an intriguing water catchment system called the Rainwater Hog, below.

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The modular 47-gallon water tank (three are shown here) holds rainwater runoff from the roof for use in your garden or to flush toilets.The compact design allows it to fit under decks or against walls.Elsewhere at the Show I saw a variety of useful and attractive green products to interest builders and owners of new homes — some also appeared at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference and Dwell on Design. Here’s what stood out for me here, by category.

Counter Intelligence

Counters are an expanding green product category. In addition to Vetrazzo, three other counter materials were on display. EcoTop by Kliptech was used in the show house, though this photo is of the display in the booth.

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It uses a water-based resin as the binder for a blend of  bamboo fiber and recycled wood fiber from demolition sites. PaperStone has an expanding range of colors and is made from post-consumer waste, recycled paper, and petroleum free phenolic resins. The imaginatively named Squak Mountain Stone (shown below) combines recycled paper, recycled glass, coal fly ash, and cement.

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It has the rustic-elegant look of integrally colored concrete.

Bamboo and Beyond

Plyboo is a leader in bamboo and palm products for flooring, paneling, and counters. The news is their “woven” Durapalm paneling, which creates a very striking effect.

durapalm_palmwoven4_bigshot woven palm

I like the way it’s used as backsplash/accent wall (this images is from Plyboo’s website.)

Teragren is another important bamboo flooring, panels, and veneer manufacturer. Their butcher block countertops are especially appealing.

200_bb_countertop teragren

This example resembles a miniature parquet pattern (the photo is from the Teragren website).


Sustainably harvested wood is the basic standard for a green floor. EcoTimber provides a wide spectrum of wood flooring choices from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).


The example above (“Hand-scraped Hickory Spice”) is from the EcoTimber website.

Another approach is to recycle wood from vintage demolished buildings, which is what Restoration Timber does. The image below, from their website, shows the sculptural way some of their salvaged wood beams have been used — and what unusual old growth wood it is.

1187802950_4163 restoration timber

Restoration Timber is the hunter-gatherer of the wood world. They tend to work primarily with architects and interior designers.

Heating Up

West Coast Green also showcased Warmboard, which bills itself the only radiant heat panel that’s also a structural subfloor. Here’s an explanation of how their system works.

cutaway_web warmboard

Warmboard saves a construction step since the tubing is built into the subfloor.

Another “hot” product is the geometric modern EcoSmartFire “burner” from Australia that uses denatured ethanol, burns cleanly and vividly, and requires no flue.The example below is clad in bamboo.

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I’ve seen Ecosmart Fire units at other shows but am always drawn to the simple clarity of their designs.

As you would expect, photovoltaic solar panel companies were well represented at West Coast Green, including Akeena Solar and Premier Power. I’d like to see even more solar residential products. And come to think of it, I wonder if it’s possible to create a prefabricated solar canopy that might double as a porch or veranda roof. Premier Power’s solar roof tiles and Akeena’s flat solar “Andalay” panels come close. A solar porch roof application is not an easy design problem, I know, because of the need to be compatible with the traditional styles of many houses. Such a solar array should be integrated visually into the structure of the roof, not just attached to the top. Just a thought. Look for more WCG products in future posts.


Eye On Design: Baths, Books, and Other Vanities

Tub Time

This week, taking a bath isn’t necessarily a good thing, but here’s a way to soothe financially frayed nerves: a soak on the outdoor bathing platform designed by architect Mary Griffin, partner in the firm of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, for her rural California home.

IMG_0215Think of it as a toast to the last day of summer: serenity on a shady slope, with a nod to the Wild West of boardwalks and buckboards. This is a sophisticated simplicity that’s about paring down to essentials — platform, tub, chair — as a way to appreciate and celebrate fresh air and nature. With apologies to Virginia Woolf, everyone should have “an outdoor tub of one’s own.”

All is Vanity

Though unique, Mary’s design illustrates a key point about home building: amenities are important. If you’re paying a lot of money to build a new house you naturally want convenience and a touch of luxury as a reward for all the saving, planning, and just plain hard work that goes into bringing such a project to completion. A quick review of our most popular plans proves the point: almost all include amenities like double vanities in the master bathroom and a utility room or laundry off the garage, as Plan 17-174, below, illustrates.

17-174mf-2096 master bath

This “divide and conquer” example gives each sink its own private zone. I for one would love to have two vanities — in a similar arrangement  — and I’m sure my wife would too because I’ve noticed that after I’ve been shaving the one sink in our bathroom looks like a California Condor has been showering in it (though I try to remember to clean it up before she comes in).

137-188mf-2151 master bath

Or here’s Plan 137-188, above, showing a more traditional arrangement that also works well. Another way to go is to treat the vanity as piece of furniture or sculpture. This trend has been expanding fast, as you can see in the following examples.

This sleek floating double vanity, the Fellino from Modern Bathroom, creates an uncluttered look:

Fellino55-H-Front double vanity

Cool New Books About Design

Two recent arrivals are worth your reading time. One is the catalog for a major architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

m_733 Home Delivery catalog

Home Delivery, by MOMA Architecture & Design Chief Curator Barry Bergdoll and Curatorial Assistant Peter Christensen chronicles the many ways the 20th century dwelling has been fabricated. Brief essays tell the story of Thomas Edison’s early “single pour” concrete prototypes of 1917, Sear’s catalog homes of the 1920s and 1930s, and many other developments all the way to Adam Kalkin’s recent “Quik House” made from shipping containers and prefabricated sheds. Several works commissioned by the museum and built on a lot nearby are included in the book and seem more theoretical than practical (and thus less interesting to me), but the book as a whole stimulates thinking about how to streamline the complicated process of shaping and building a home, a subject that is of the greatest interest to

usamodernarchinhist usa by Gwen Wright

USA: Modern Architectures in History (Reaktion Press) by Columbia professor Gwendolyn Wright (one of television’s “History Detectives”) is a refreshing change from the usual monument by monument domino-theory of American architectural history. I recommend it highly. She follows a compelling range of themes that she sees expressed in our built environment, such as hybridization, environmentalism, and the influence of the media. And she includes a lot about the evolution of our home design. She says: “Less than 5 percent of new home-buyers have any direct communication with a professional designer.(Fees for custom residences run up to fifteen times the cost for stock plans for the same-area house).” Exactly: I’d like to become the general public’s professional designer — offering superior plans and design advice so that we all can afford better homes.

EYE ON DESIGN: How To Read Floor Plans

Ten Tips for Finding the Best House Plan

Floor plans can be confusing at first glance so here are ten pointers to help you understand what you’re seeing. This “study aid” should help you identify features of a design that are important for the way you want to live. All the layouts shown are taken from our inventory.

64-170mf-2521 floor plan

1. Find The Front Door. It’s often marked with “Entry” or “Foyer” (as in Plan 64-170 above) but sometimes the front door opens directly to the living or dining space so there’s no notation, just a door swing marked on the plan. Some plans, like this one, use a perspective view — as if the roof has been lifted off and you’re looking down into the house. Door swings trace the swing of the door in and out — good to keep in mind as you think about furniture placement. Sliding doors are noted not as swings but as thin lines parallel to — but thinner than — the line of the wall.

23-791mf-1197colorful plan

2. Mentally Walk Through The Plan. From the front door (Plan 23-791 above) go to the kitchen, living room or great room and then to the bedrooms. Imagine opening all the doors on the plan. Is there a graceful easy, and efficient flow between rooms and spaces? Furniture on the plan helps give scale to each space. Amenities are important but if the traffic flow is awkward the house will not live comfortably. Think about how the kitchen connects to the dining room or family room, where most people live.

51-345mf-1598 mud room

3. Gauge The Garage Entry. Follow the path from garage to kitchen. Often you’ll pass a utility area, mud room, or laundry (as you do here in Plan 51-345). This is the way most people enter a house; circulation should be clear and easy without tight corners so coming in with groceries or other items is as convenient as possible.

4. Note Room Dimensions. These are usually included in the floor plan but sometimes the measurements are listed on the Plan Detail Page under the tab “More Plan Information.” Compare the listed dimensions to your own experience of comfortable room sizes. Do this by measuring the width, length, and height of one or two of the rooms you’re living in now, or of rooms you like. Note: according to International Code Council R304 “Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet in any horizontal dimension.” This is very small for a room — or large for a cage…After having participated in the design of many idea houses for Sunset magazine I think a 10-by-12-foot bedroom is too small. But you may disagree.

48-255mf-4882 outdoor connections

5. Smoke Out The Fireplace. Is there room for furniture around it? I like the way the great room fireplace in Plan 48-255 is part of a wall with built-in storage for media and books. A fireplace too close to a doorway is not very useful.

64-111mf-3207 floor plan

6. Search for Storage. Are the closets adequate and where they need to be? Ideally, storage areas should suit the type of object being stored: coats and boots in a mudroom; large shelves for CostCo supplies, etc. etc. In Plan 64-111, above, you’ll find a closet under the foyer stair, an ample pantry in the kitchen, and a storage area in the utility/laundry room.

48-247mf-3692 main floor plan

48-247uf-3692 second floor plan

7. Study The Stairway(s). Is there full height over it — creating an open feel — or does it just disappear into the ceiling, which makes a room feel small and cramped. The ground floor and upper floor plans illustrated above are from the same house, Plan 48-247, and show how the stair rises beside a two story space for a gracious and airy effect.

890-1 plan

8. Watch Window Placement. Windows on two sides of a room balance daylight and create a spacious feeling; windows on just one side of a room create a cave-like feeling and promote glare. Note how each of the main rooms in Plan 890-1 has windows on two sides. Windows set high in a wall can provide daylight while preserving privacy; however a room with these high windows, often called clerestories, will feel tight and boxy if it does not also have lower windows on another wall for views.

17-2017mf-1472 floor plan

9. Patrol The Porch. Is it wide enough to really use? You need at least a six foot depth for sitting and 8 feet is preferable. For outdoor dining you need even more. Plan 17-2017 includes a useful front veranda and a “Grilling Porch” at the rear off the kitchen. A well designed porch helps a house expand in good weather.

433-1mf-2220 floor plan

10. Connect House And Lot. This is extremely important. Think about your site and how the plan should be oriented on it to make the best use of outdoor space and sunshine/shade, which is what Plan 433-1 does extremely well. It shows how the house and garage wrap around the fenced yard. You can see how the main living spaces and porches connect to this yard. At we believe every stock plan should be customized to fit you and your lot. For example, it’s easy to add doors for access to the yard —  and windows for a visual connection to the site — these are the simplest ways to make a small house live large.

Big News About Our Man Greg La Vardera

Writing in the October Met Home, just out, Karrie Jacobs (founding editor of Dwell and author of the useful The Perfect $100,000 House), praises our man, architect Greg La Vardera, and his interest in making modern house designs affordable. She also mentions Greg’s exclusive relationship with Bravo Greg! We feel lucky to have you on our team as part of  the Exclusive Studio Collection. Look for more exclusive designs to debut at in the near future.

EYE ON DESIGN: New Plans for New Towns

Dateline: Daybreak, Utah

I just returned from Utah where I attended a fascinating community planning brainstorm and then toured the state’s newest new town: Daybreak, at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. Views across the valley to jagged peaks promote blue sky thinking: no wonder that famous early settler said “This is the Place.”

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The planning session, called a “Vision Charette” (shown above) brought together planners, engineers, landscape architects, sustainability experts, real estate consultants, and company managers to discuss the shape and character of the places we call home. Led by real estate marketing guru Sandra Kulli — whose omnivorous intellect, organizational skill, and major league whistle turned twenty disparate individuals into a focused, passionate, and cohesive working team — the charette explored the relationship between building and nature, past and future.

So, what makes a great place?

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A strong identity certainly. Where there are easy ways to meet or wave to each other and keep eyes on the street. Where nature flourishes. Where there are spaces for “safe unsupervised play.” Where the imagination can run away with itself. Where there’s a sense of history combined with a vision of the future. Where there are layers of complexity, detail, and living. Can a brand new place embody these qualities? I think it can — all our favorite neighborhoods were new once. And the house you build is a key ingredient.

Daybreak (entrance shown above) developed by Kennecott Land and now in its fourth year, is approaching this town planning ideal. It’s ambitious: an eventual 20,000+ homes on 4,157 acres with valley-wide vistas to the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountains, and is the largest planned community in Utah to be fully Energy Star- certified. Indeed, the houses I toured all listed a wide array of green features, from Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and state-of-the-art solar panels to low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint.

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Spacious front porches — wide enough for rockers, or swing seats or  tables and chairs — dominate the streetscapes. Neighborhoods cluster around pocket parks and small green squares. Most garages are at the side or rear so sidewalks and streets are more friendly. The mix of apartments and small, medium, and large houses promotes a diversity of ages and incomes. I spoke with two residents. The first said the favorite part of her day was returning home to sit on the front porch.

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The second said that from her front porch she sees her neighbors on the way to or from the mailboxes, which are organized in hubs within a block or two of every house. (What about weather protection?)

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Community recreation centers are another meeting place — the one I saw is an especially appealing example of rustic contemporary design that celebrates its Wasatch-orented setting.

One final word of praise: the developers of Daybreak actually live there.