Monthly Archives: March 2009


Small Is Beautiful — Again

The great American architect William Turnbull (1935-1997) was a friend and mentor who made the complex art of architecture look simple and inevitable. So I am very excited to announce that has acquired the rights to sell copies of Bill’s iconic designs for employee housing at The Sea Ranch, an ecologically sensitive community on California’s northern coast. Built in the late 1980s, they’re what cabins should be: modest but memorable.


Shaker-simple, contemporary, and very small — 650 to 924 sq. ft. — they nevertheless have a powerful visual presence, as the image above by eminent architectural photographer Morley Baer shows (copyright 2009 by the Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe. All reproduction rights reserved).

Plan 447-1 (interior below in another Baer photo) illustrates how Bill made the most of limited space. The bedroom is an alcove off the living room, allowing each room to borrow space and light from the other. The exposed scissor truss and beautifully proportioned windows add character.


Thanks to strong outlines, rustic materials, and an efficient porch-oriented plan the vacation begins at the front door.

Plan 447-2, below, organizes rooms in a line like cars on a train, which is appropriate for long narrow sites:


Plan 447-3 is a two-story design for a duplex. Here’s the elevation, which recalls a Georgian townhouse in its classical simplicity:


Bill Turnbull first received international attention in the mid-1960s as a principal of Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker (MLTW), designers of the celebrated Condominium #1 at The Sea Ranch, shown below in a wonderful portrait by photographer Jim Alinder:


Left to right: Richard Whitaker, Donlyn Lyndon, Charles Moore, and William Turnbull. Bill collaborated with Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon throughout his life, but started his own firm, William Turnbull Associates, in 1970. Though Bill designed many large scale projects he relished house design as a way to explore three dimensional space and architectural connections to the land. Bill was also a gardener, vineyard owner, and wine maker: a true Jeffersonian who also knew how to carve a roast turkey to perfection. His vibrant successor firm — Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects — continues to do exemplary work.

A percentage of the price of each Willam Turnbull Sea Ranch plan supports the Environmental Design Archives at U. C. Berkeley, which preserves the drawings and papers of significant California architects and landscape architects.



New  Eco-Friendly Plans

Big news at this week is the debut of plans by award-winning solar environmental architect David Wright, AIA; they’re part of our Signature Collection. Check out his Minimalist Studio, Plan 452-2:


The modern 825 square-foot vacation cabin is supported on concrete columns, which make it adaptable to any site with minimum disturbance. The design is economical to build and efficient to heat and cool thanks to walls made of structural insulated panels (SIPs). It’s also easy to personalize because the panels can be clad in a variety of  finishes from corrugated metal to stucco.


The great room opens to a generous deck; windows on three sides balance the light and maximize the feeling of spaciousness. The only enclosed spaces are the bathroom and the laundry. Install a double bed at the living end of the great room and cover it with pillows so it can double as a couch and your retreat is ready to go. The rectangular design makes it easy to enlarge, or combine several units to create a compound.

Plan 452-1, below, David Wright’s contemporary farmhouse, is especially appealing because of its simple barn-like roof and generous rear living porch under a big overhang (porches may well be a subtheme of this blog!)


Note the roof-wide skylight brightening the large porch. The 1,920 square foot house also uses  SIPs construction for energy efficiency. David says: “The shape recalls the form of the tropical plantation house or traditional Japanese house.” To see what he means, here’s an image of Cherokee Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana:


(Photo from the plantation website.) And a Japanese folk house from the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum Nihon Minka-en at Kawasaki, Japan:


(Photo from the museum website.) See how David integrated the simple roof shape and porch ideas. I would add the Hawaiian lanai to the DNA of this design.

Inside David’s farmhouse the plan is modern and open:


I like the way major rooms occupy the corners for maximum daylight. It’s a flexible organization that allows for easy indoor-outdoor living.

David has designed over 500 passive solar and alternative construction buildings. His work combines a deep understanding of regional traditions with expertise in solar technology and has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Los Angeles Times Home, and Sunset magazine. He received the “Passive Solar Pioneer for 2007” Award from the American Solar Energy Society.

His most recent book is The Passive Solar Primer: Sustainable Architecture.


David also designed an innovative solar cabin that was built at Sunset‘s headquarters to wide acclaim. We’ll showcase more of his plans in the future.


Spaces In-Between

A great porch is an airy and welcoming outdoor room that inspires relaxation and good conversation. It can be a sitting room, dining room, or outdoor kitchen.


And it can frame the view, as this marvelous photograph by Joe Fletcher –– like a modern “screen grab” of a desert painting by Maynard Dixon — illustrates. It shows the porch on a house designed by Marmol Radziner Architects, from the new ranch house book by David Weingarten and Lucia Howard mentioned last week.

Architect Greg La Vardera (portrait below), who has eleven plans in our Singature Collection, has thought a lot about porches. This week he is our Guest Blogger with an essay on The Front Porch. I’m illustrating his article primarily with images of his plans.


The Front Porch by Greg La Vardera

“The front porch is seeing a revival. But what happened to the front porch in the first place? Where did it come from, what makes it so great anyway, and why did it disappear?

The front porch creates a transition zone between the public realm of the street and the private realm of the home (as shown in plan 431-1, below). It’s a safe place, neither inside nor outside, where you are sheltered from the elements and can sit and watch your neighborhood. It’s a friendly place where neighbors and visitors can approach without invading the privacy of your home. It makes the street safer by providing “eyes on the street:” passive surveillance that drives away the type of trouble that wants to remain anonymous.

Let’s look back first. I’ll give my non-academic, observer-on–the-street history. Some of the oldest homes in the country can be found in our colonial cities on the East Coast. In my home town of Philadelphia you see a timeline of American building as you cross the city from east to west following the expansion of the original settlement. In the oldest sections there are no porches: town homes sit right on the sidewalk and there is no place for a porch.


It’s not until the late 1800s and early 1900s that we start seeing houses with porches, in West Philadelphia, or more northern neighborhoods. Twin houses — a new pattern — emerged. These houses are slightly set back from the street with a small green garden between house and sidewalk, and a front porch!  It’s hard to say why the porch emerged at this point. These houses were built in outlying neighborhoods — suburbs — at the time, and the urbanity of these places was less intense than in the historic core. A similar pattern of relatively dense suburban development with houses featuring porches was extending all over the country at this time.


Plan 431-1.

Fast forward another 50 years, and most of the houses being built still looked the about the same, but now they were really no longer of the times. Life had changed, the automobile was now the primary transport, suburbs had expanded and zoning had begun to separate business from dwelling in new communities. The writing was on the wall — the car was going to be necessary to go anywhere. Without foot traffic in the neighborhood, and with cars zipping by to get where they were going, the porch was now obsolete. It had become a vestige of traditional home styles, but was no longer a necessary social space of the home.


Around the same time a new house type emerged — the modern ranch house  — partially as a result of the Bauhaus school of designers that settled in US universities after the war. The ranch house often turned its porch inward to a courtyard or rearward toward the private yard, creating another in-between space. Other, European-inspired modern homes lacked porches in the American sense at all. And while these houses enjoyed a brief popularity they by no means became the dominant housing style. Yet much of the American housing that followed them also abandoned the porch. In the 50s and early 70s American suburbs were built out with thousands of split level homes, so called “raised ranches”, and other new house forms that were often finished with traditional details although their form was entirely modern, including their lack of front porches. I grew up in such a neighborhood, and lacking a front porch, people would roll up their garage doors and put folding chairs on the threshold. The porch persisted despite its absence!


Plan 431-9.

Another jump to today finds us with a radically different status quo. Houses are larger, most definitely inspired by traditional styles, but the style is often reduced to a front treatment, brick falling away to vinyl siding at the first corner. A porch on such a house is a similar shallow representation, often without space for even a rocker. What happened? In some circles the modern house takes the rap for the disappearance of the front porch. History shows that this is probably not so. Yet the break from tradition that the modern house represented, and the following loosening of the use of traditional styles is what led to its demise along with the changes to transportation and neighborhoods.

431-7alt1-1066-porch-housePlan 431-7.

So what is driving the revival of front porches today? Part is the renewed interest in traditional town planning patterns for new suburban developments. And the recognition of the social value of the front porch as the home’s interface with the neighborhood. While this New Urbanism is fairly recent, the research and ground work for the ideas started with Jane Jacob’s treaties on cities and city life. In any case the front porch is back and its appeal is confirmed and value verified. People recognize it as a symbol of home, and it grants the neighborhood and the homes an authenticity that is glaringly missing from the suburban status quo.


Plan 431-8.

What of the houses, and the styles? With today’s freestyle traditionalism a front porch can be designed to work on nearly any style home. Now it still makes more sense on a street, with neighbors and sidewalk within eyesight. But it can still be a great asset in other situations too. Imagine that great site for a vacation home, but the view is from the front of the house? A porch is the perfect solution. And what of the modern house? Well there is no reason that a modern style house cannot enjoy the benefits of a porch as well. A porch on the modern house has to find its own form, and its own modern materials, as it really does not want to borrow the traditional details. But it can do the job with the same essential ingredients: a deck above the ground, some posts, and a roof over your head.” Thanks, Greg. 

Where Does Design Come From?

Design DNA


The eminent Yale English professor Harold Bloom wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence that talked about a poet’s fear of being derivative (and thus inferior) because of precursor poets’ influence on his or her work. Well, in architecture, the influence of previous architecture on an architect’s new work may not be so anxious-making. And some, like Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t admit it anyway — remember his famous comment when asked if he was influenced by Gustav Klimt: “I was refreshed by Gustav Klimt.”

In many cases design precedents can provide architectural inspiration. For example, the firm of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop was asked to design a house  to replace one by the late Bay Region modernist William Wurster that had burned down. (All color photos in this posting courtesy TGH Architects.) They sought inspiration in previous  Wurster designs, like this Aptos, California, beach house, below, from the 1930s (Photo courtesy Environmental Design Archives.)


See how flanking wings cleverly create sun traps and windbreaks facing the ocean while the ramp leads down to the sand. Barn doors open the living room at the center. It’s a simple and brilliant design. Now see how the TGH firm adapted and reinvented it.


Coastal building regulations mandate “breakaway construction” so the main living areas are raised on concrete columns one level above the lot. Now the whole house is on the second floor, not just the bedrooms, which was the case in the Wurster example.


The flanking wings for sitting room and dining room are enclosed for year-round use and become vivid nature-viewing pavilions overlooking the ocean. The ramp has evolved into a kind of amphitheater-stair.


The ingenious flexibility of the Wurster design has been adapted to very different site conditions.

The lead image at the top of this posting shows the new living room looking toward one of the pavilion wings. To quote a famous headline from Sunset magazine: “It’s the same only different.”

Similarly, our FLEXAHOUSE plan introduced in the previous posting shares DNA with Wurster and other Bay Region touchstones. The trick is not to be bound by precedent but to bounce upon it.

Two New Books for More Inspiration

Ranch Houses: Living the California Dream, by architects David Weingarten and Lucia Howard (who have never shied away from history in their own design work),  with eloquently sumptuous photography by Joe Fletcher, has just been published by Rizzoli.


It shows what a remarkably diverse form the ranch house can be, from rustic and romantic Spanish California ranchos to the crisp sculptural geometries of modernists like John Lautner (whose design is on the cover) and Marmol Radziner. The book made me realize that we have a lot of ranch house designs at, with our FLEXAHOUSE being the latest example.

Prefab Green, by Michelle Kaufmann and Catherine Remick chronicles the rise of the firm that did so much to make eco-friendly prefabricated modern houses a reality.


Michelle shows who and what inspired her work — from Michael Graves and Frank Gehry to Joe Eichler and Cliff May —  and outlines her principles of green design. (Disclosure: yours truly wrote the preface.) There’s no anxiety of influence here, just the exercise of a disciplined imagination!