Monthly Archives: September 2009

Lessons from Sarah Susanka

Not So Big Ways To Personalize Your Home

Rope rail, window seat, stairway shelf: they sound like an architectural version of Rock, Scissors, Paper, but actually these Sarah Susanka-designed details help personalize a home.

454-3p3-2440 rope banister

The hefty nautical rope, for example (Plan 454-3), works well as a short and tactile banister with an eye-catching ornamental coil at its base. Or consider the window seat:  it’s a simple way to make a room feel less cluttered while accentuating the view.

454-7p5-2979 window seat

It’s a natural place (Plan 454-7) to curl up with a good book. Add to the usefulness by storing reading material or blankets below a lift-up bench seat. Or think about a stairway as a multi-tasker that can include space for sitting and display.

454-7alt3-2979 stair detail

The design (also Plan 454-7) makes transitions gracious and welcoming instead of abrupt.

These ideas are just part of what makes the home designs of award-winning architect and Not So Big House series author Sarah Susanka so appealing. They demonstrate that, as Sarah says, “a house doesn’t have to be bigger to be better.” In other words, details count more than square footage. So as you browse for house plans or simply ponder how to improve your existing home, think about how Sarah shapes her spaces. The layout of the house she designed for herself, Plan 454-3,  is worth analyzing:


See how open and spacious it seems, with kitchen, dining area, and living room all overlapping — and yet each of the three zones feels distinct.


The built-in corner banquette helps in this regard but mostly it’s all about the soffits. These soffits — some solid, some slatted — are lower than the ceiling and span the transitions between each zone, visually constricting the thresholds to wrap — and define —  each room without enclosing it.

Sarah is adapting ideas perfected by Frank Lloyd Wright. Look at his Prairie School style  Little house at Wayzata, Minnesota of 1914, on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (and not to be missed!)

hb_1972.60.1 Met museum Little house by FLW

where the soffit rings the room to create more intimate window seating and a dramatic entry. Or consider his more geometric modern Hanna Honeycomb house at Stanford University of 1937 (which you can tour by appointment)

3681886011_e3c6d8e964 Hanna house national register photo

where the ceiling descends over the edges of the living room and rises above open beams by the fireplace (photo from National Register via Flickr).

We’re excited to be the exclusive hosts of Sarah’s expanding architectural Not So Big House plan collection,

454-8p5-3062 elevation

and I encourage you to explore all eight of her designs (the one above is Plan 454-8), as well as her many books.

A Flooring Intro

Wood Flooring 101

Look down: what’s the floor for you? It’s a huge subject so I asked materials expert Rob Jones of Build Direct, an online warehouse, to give us an introduction to the most popular wood floor options he’s seeing at the moment (not including solid wood floors, which are defined as floors that are real wood throughout). I have edited his notes for space.

Strand-Woven Bamboo

Strand-woven bamboo is a subset of bamboo flooring made from the parings of conventional bamboo floors.The example below is by Yanchi.

ShowImage.aspx strand woven bamboo

The parings are the left-over strips of bamboo that result from the manufacturing process, when the rounded bamboo stalks are cut for flat flooring boards. The parings are then woven together, heated, put under pressure, and laminated into flooring boards. Because this flooring is made from a renewable resource and from post-industrial material, you could call it “super green.” The result is a very hard attractive flooring surface that takes stain easily and stands up to high traffic.

Laminate Flooring

The news in laminate flooring is that thicker options — 12 millimeters and up — are now available.

peru_gingerwood_room laminate

This example is Toklo laminate. Such a floor incorporates no real wood, but an image of a wood grain and colour on what is called a decor layer. The thicker the floor, the more like a real wood floor it becomes in terms of a walking experience. And laminates from 12mm to 14mm are still priced at less than a solid hardwood floor. Laminate floors with attached underpad are easier to install than typical laminate floors, adding to their popularity with do-it-yourselfers and contractors.

Engineered Wood

Engineered floors are considered “real” hardwood floors, with a top layer of real wood, which ranges in thickness from a fraction of a millimetre up to 4mm over a core of medium density fibreboard (MDF) and a backing layer, which allows greater resilience. A glue-less click-locking system eases installation. Here’s an example of Brazilian cherry

van-braz-cherry-2 engineered hardwood

by Vanier. Another choice is handscraped engineered hardwood flooring,

peppercorn-oak-floor-02 handscraped

shown here in a Peppercorn example from Burlington. Handscraped is popular because the contours in each board add texture and aesthetic versatility. These engineered versions are making the look more affordable.

Rob’s Notes on Retail Pricing

Bamboo. $2.50 – $8.00 per square foot. Factors that affect this pricing include grade, which accounts for more consistent and more vibrant natural colors, the cost of staining, and milling standards which affect how the boards fit together.

Laminate. $0.75 to $2.00/square foot. Some important factors affecting price are thickness, locking systems, and AC rating. The last factor is an international test that determines how much wear a laminate flooring product has been proven to take, with the results applied to where it is recommended it be installed. For instance, an AC3 rated floor is recommended in general residential usage. Under AC3 are to be installed only in low-traffic residential settings (bedrooms for instance, rather than front halls). Above AC3 laminates can be applied to commercial settings of varying degrees of traffic. It’s hugely important to take these things into account when shopping, which is why the tests are done. There are prices listed for $0.50, but these are usually ‘bait and switch’ deals on shopping engines. There are equivalent ‘bait and switch’ products in every category of flooring.

Engineered. About $2.50 – $7.00 per square foot. Species is a huge factor, plus the thickness of the real wood layer, overall thickness, and locking system.

Hardwood. $4.00 – $10. There are loads of factors which affect this pricing, all of which are named above in the prices for engineered flooring, but finished, unfinished, and hand-scraped and brushed effects are also big factors.

Final notes: Rob says two recent forces are affecting the wood flooring industry. One is the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, which places limits on formaldehyde emissions in flooring. The other is the Lacey Act , which is concerned with the harvesting and importation of wood products, among other natural resources, into the United States. Thanks for all the helpful info, Rob!

Water in the Landscape

Wall Fountains and Water Tables

Water is always a compelling visual and aural feature in a landscape. When a small garden needs a focal point, consider the wall fountain. It can mask street noise or draw the eye and is especially useful as a way to lend character to narrow side yards.  Prefabricated examples abound, like this X3 trough unit from Garden Fountains

cm-FT-125-375 X3 fountain

or the slim Echo fountain shown below, also from Garden Fountains.

cm-FT-119-375 echo fountain from gardenfountain

This contemporary example from W Studio, below, bends a wall-like water feature into a piece of sculpture.

copper1 water studio

If there is more space or an existing pool, a built-in wall fountain can add a dramatic effect. Dallas landscape architect David Rolston specializes in the design of gardens with water features as focal points. Several of his projects show how inventive the simple wall fountain can be.

Closeup_of_fountain_wall_portfolio_spillway by Davild Ralston

The small spillway in the low wall turns an entire swimming pool into a fountain.

Rolston_water_wall_SMALL_portfolio_detail fishpond by david ralston

Or here’s a more rustic feature spilling into a small fishpond from a masonry wall.

Spa_chute_portfolio_detail david rolston

This playful chute makes me want to float toy boats down it.

If a more contemplative feel is what you want, a reflecting pool might work — for moonrises and cloudscapes. Here’s a London roof deck that uses the simplest palette of materials — a raised sheet of water, decking, horizontal wood fence, grasses, and a brick chimney — to create a serene outdoor room.

London roof terrace by Jinny Blom

The pool is literally a water — er coffee — table as reflecting pool. The design and the photograph are by garden designer Jinny Blom. In a way it’s a descendant of the original water table idea from the Renaissance,

Villa Lante cardinal's water table by leogiordani

like the one at the Villa Lante near Viterbo in Italy, built for a cardinal, as part of a grand terraced water garden (photographed by leogiordani).  It’s more table than pool; the cardinal liked to cool his wine bottles in the trough at the center (still a good idea!) and the small stream ran through the table and down to the next terrace.

Something a little jazzier, perhaps, with overtones of ancient rituals via Las Vegas, not Rome,

matt basalt fire reflecting pool by archt Korn randolph, water studio

is the fire and water reflecting pool made of basalt by architect Korn Randolph from Water Studio for a Hollywood residence.

Nature and Nurture

Since we’re speaking of water in the landscape, I have to mention a particularly wonderful public example that I just revisited in Portland, Oregon while attending a family wedding. It’s the largest wall fountain around, on par with the Trevi in Rome.

Portland fountain and wedding 009

The Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain was designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in 1970. Halprin’s work includes the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D. C., Freeway Park in Seattle,  and the master plan for Sea Ranch.

Portland fountain and wedding 007

The fountain impressed me anew with its power as an interactive  art piece.  The park covers a small sloping city block. At the top, water streams out of the earth in widening channels that stair-step down to deep polygonal pools before roaring over chiseled 30-foot-high concrete cliffs and into the swirl below.  In the roiling pool at the base of the escarpment overlapping concrete platforms appear to float above the water. It’s like a flooding stone quarry — abstract and “super” natural at the same time.

Portland fountain and wedding 012

Larry’s wife is the dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin and you can see her influence: the fountain is an irresistible stage play: call it “Total Immersion In Nature.” When I was there several children and at least one adult waded into and around every part of it, galvanized by such a thundering castle of confluence. It  made me think about how the water and the structure work on each each other to create something different, new, and compelling. This is the power of landscape on a public scale. And while most private landscapes can’t include such grand gestures, the best residential gardens help us find refreshment in the natural world in much the same way.