Monthly Archives: February 2009

Surf’s Up: Home Ideas from the Blogosphere

Three Websites Worth Your Time

1. The Slow Food movement has gained momentum as people turn toward more satisfying home-grown meals that allow families and friends to reconnect as well as eat. John Brown, Architect and Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary started the Slow Home Movement and its website, based on similar goals embodied by the words Close (living in a walkable neighborhood that’s near where you work), Simple (living in a home that fits your life), and Light (living in a home that has less impact on the environment).  Here’s an elegant contemporary house from one of his recent postings:


It’s designed by Raleigh, North Carolina architect Frank Harmon. I like it because it’s so site-responsive: the house becomes a nature-viewing platform somewhat closed to the road on the upper or entry side and mostly open to the forest on the downsloping side. It’s like a treehouse on the ground. And the butterfly roof allows for a soaring volume over the living area and a more intimate feeling in the bedroom zone.


Yes this is a custom design, but the principle of responding to the site should be part of any home construction. After all, a stock plan is really just a way to jump start the design; you still need to customize it your own requirements and make it take full advantage of your lot.

A fascinating and very useful feature of the Slow Home website is the section called Design Exercises, where Brown offers brief critiques of floor plans submitted by readers. You follow his red pen and listen to his voice as he draws over the submitted plan and describes what works and what doesn’t. I found his comments full of practical advice  — for example on room organization, daylighting, and space allocation. The critiques are particularly relevant for because they’re basically recommendations for how to improve, even customize, a stock plan. Things to think about as you modify your stock plan to suite your site.


2. On the Web you can also explore the Mar Vista Tract of 1948, near Venice Beach in Southern California, designed by architect Gregory Ain, and shown above. One of the U. S.’s first modern housing developments, this neighborhood of 52 mostly well-preserved so-called “Modernique” homes, which are comparable to the “Low-Cost Ranch House” plans by Cliff May and the architect-designed communities developed by Joseph Eichler, is worth studying for the way the compact designs connect to the outdoors, reach for natural light, and make the most of limited interior space. My friend Don Anderson of Color Design Art brought this site to my attention.


The plans offer lessons for anyone interested in how to maximize living on a 65- by 100-foot lot. For more about the architect and his designs, read the recent and excellent Gregory Ain: The Modern Home As Social Commentary, by Anthony Denzer (Rizzoli 2008), which expertly chronicles Ain’s important contributions to American architecture.

3. One of my favorite websites about modern design is Remodelista, founded by Julie Carlson and three friends: Janet Hall, Francesca Connolly, and Sarah Lonsdale.  The site presents a constantly evolving and always beautifully edited range of contemporary products for the home (organized generally by room, with price and manufacturer information) along with images of great current residential architecture. Their “10 Easy Pieces” is an especially compelling feature expressing the philosophy, as Julie told me, that “there  are no more than ten good products in any one product category.” One posting rounds up “Classic Modern Reading Sconces,” including these two:



I think the entire website sheds a lot of light on strong, clean, simple contemporary design.

These same principles are visible in some of our latest plans, like this one:


It’s Plan 449-2. Onward and upward!

Desert Dreams: New American Home Ideas

The so-called New American Home is part of a long-running annual program sponsored by the National Council of the Housing Industry and Builder Magazine. It always opens during the National Association of Homebuilders Show. This year’s version in Las Vegas near Wayne Newton’s 50-acre spread and built by Blue Heron, Inc. was a lot of fun to tour. I would call it tastefully over-the-top. The modern, outdoor-oriented, 8,800 sq. ft.  house is essentially a product showcase. In fact, though it’s tempting to ask how much a home like this would cost — think Bailout —  that’s really irrelevant to the purpose of the New American Home program, which is to present the latest manufacturer products in a residential setting. Here’s an alluring long view from the Great Room across the courtyard, by photographer James F. Wilson courtesy of Builder Magazine:


It’s crazy wonderful:  Dubai on a half -acre lot. A  “Rejuvenation Room” complete with Buddha floats over the pool while flames dance though a trough of glass pebbles in the distance. And the water is exactly at the level of the terrace — a sort of “finity edge” like a large sheet of mirror glass — to create a startling desert mirage, only it’s real. The architect, Art Danielian (Danielian Associates), told me that when you want to swim, you push a button and a hidden pump draws the the water level down nine inches so you can dive in without flooding the ground floor. It all seems surreal and serene at the same time, a floor show you can live in (or dive into!). An aerial view by Wilson shows a few of the features that keep the design on the real side: Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs by Arxx Building Products) for the walls and roof-top photovoltaic panels make it a “near net-zero energy home.”


The Sanyo HIT Double bifacial solar panels, which generate power from both sides of the panel, provide most of the electricity for the house, while the thick walls, carefully calculated solar orientation, and ample shading provide important passive solar elements. A separate solar blanket of Suntrek photovoltaic panels helps heat the pool (The outdoor kitchen with it’s swim-up bar jutting into the middle of the pool is something else entirely… I’ll have the house mai-tai, please…but seems perfectly normal in a show house that’s only a few miles from the Strip.)

I found the top floor outdoor room especially appealing, with a good idea to steal.


Its Equinox Louvered Roof can open to let light in or close to keep out sun or rain —  a clever invention that could be adapted to almost any patio.

The various roof decks  showcase another useful product:  an innovative paving system called StoneDeck West, a natural stone surface laminated to a high strength fiber-reinforced composite.



It’s a mortarless, free draining system that allows you to create elevated stone terraces easily and efficiently.

Other NAHB News

One realization hit me as I walked the exhibit floor and attended various press functions: there were fewer journalists than I remember. All the more reason to fire up the blogging machine early and often! Certainly this year more than ever, the talk is about a more environmentally friendly future, with many products heading this way. For example, GE’s new prototype Hybrid Electric Water Heater is “designed to absorb heat in ambient air and transfer it into the water. Since it requires much less energy to absorb and transfer heat than it does to generate it – as a standard electric water heater would – the GE Hybrid Electric Water Heater provides the same amount of hot water while using less energy.”


Even sources of reclaimed wood are on the rise. A company called Barnwood Industries carefully dismantles old barns from the Pacific Northwest and salvages the wood for custom framing materials, flooring, cabinetry, furniture, doors, interior/exterior trim, and siding, as in the photo above. And Overhead Door Company now has an EcoBuiltTM garage door made of recycled Douglas fir fused with exterior grade resins, like this one:


Kohler has been consistently improving water efficiency in toilets even as it provides new plumbing  fixtures for the dedicated sybarite. I found their low-flow toilet display especially effective.


It compares the nearly five gallons used in an old toilet with their new Cimarron ComfortHeight 1.28 gallon per flush model — the white one, on the right.

While we’re in the bathroom, Colosanitary, a Chinese company new to the US market, seems to be taking things in artful directions with wall-hung WCs and these elegantly shaped sinks:


Meet Eric (above), a single unit, with just enough room for a water glass and a soap dish at the side.


And here is Malvern, with a little more room at the rear.

One last observation. I toured the NextGen modular  “Urban Living” Home, built in the NAHB convention parking lot by Genesis Homes. It’s a simple 1,915 square foot row house plan and I was impressed not with the esthetics, but with the efficiency of the layout. Two simple design moves made all the difference.

The first is a roughly four- by 10-foot pop-out bay that included the small foyer, a closet and a built-in bench on the ground floor and a balcony above it. The bench creates extra seating near the kitchen and could easily become a built-in desk. Such a well placed, multi-tasking bay acts as an architectural decompression valve, relieving the long narrow rectilinearity of the row house plan.


The second is a similar but shallower bay in the great room at the front of the house. It can become a built-in window seat and makes a relatively small space feel much larger. It could be cantilevered to save foundation work.

Adding one or two small pop-out bays is an excellent way to bring spaciousness to a plan without adding much square footage — it can even create a cozy room-within-a-room.

No wonder so many 19th century rowhouses  from New York to San Francisco sport just such amenities.