Monthly Archives: January 2010

Stock Plans Old and New

Building Patterns

Plan books  go way back, as the exhibit Stock Options: Houses for Everyone,

which just opened at U. C. Berkeley, vividly demonstrates. Curator Elizabeth Byrne traces the history of the western home through the profusion of pattern books and brochures published by building companies since the nineteenth century.

This is where most of the designs for the houses that shape our cities and towns come from.

The New York firm of Palliser & Palliser was one of the early plan companies. As the economy and the middle class expanded, home building grew apace, especially in the early 20th century, when

bungalows, promoted by builders and magazines alike, took the country by storm and became identified with California and the good life. Truly the model T of home design in that era, the bungalow — like the automobile — overran towns like Pasadena, California, where there’s even a neighborhood

called “Bungalow Heaven.” And by the way, garage plans suddenly became important. The pent-up demand for housing produced by the Depression and then World War II resulted in a huge building boom at mid century

when plan books flooded the market. For example,  prominent Los Angeles architect Paul Williams published two books of plans in 1945 and 1946.  Plans like “The Ulster” shown below, with its efficient central courtyard arrangement

appeared in The Book of Small Houses, also in 1946. (The books themselves are shown in a photo at the top of this post). Ranch houses became the post-war equivalent of the bungalow, only more open to the yard, as this Cliff May plan from Sunset Western Ranch Houses of 1946

shows. Note the headline, which rings even more true today, when scarce land for building makes every inch count. To continue the auto metaphor, you could say the ranch house became the Ford Mustang of home design in the 1960s, especially as it metamorphosed into Eichler tract houses and other contemporary designs. The exhibit brings us down to the present by showing recent prefab work by Michelle Kaufmann and online home plans like our very own Flexahouse by architect Nick Noyes. For an  exhaustive scholarly history of the pattern book see Houses From Books: Treatises, Pattern Books, and Catalogs in American Architecture: 1738-1950: A History and Guide, by Daniel D. Reiff (Penn State Press, 2000).

Our Newest Exclusive

I’m excited to present work by our latest exclusive architect, Bud Dietrich. It vividly continues the stock plan story into the future.

This elegant house — Plan 481-1 — combines a traditional outline with modern indoor-outdoor living in a crisp orderly plan.

Spatial surprises abound, from the home office/den in its own window bay to the

barrel vault in the living room and the daylit basement

play room opening to a broad stair up to the garden. I like Bud’s design philosophy: “We should create right-sized homes that are gentle on us and our resources. Rather than getting distracted by questions of architectural style let’s use our own wisdom and common sense to create homes that are appropriate for their time and place.” His beautiful multifunctional design shows just how far the stock plan has come.

Talking Fixtures: 2010 Home Builder Show

Plumb Lines

At the International Home Builder Show in Las Vegas last week — as I toured kitchen and bath-oriented booths — it occurred to me that plumbing fixtures have come a long way in both design and description. Three companies caught my eye and ear with innovative and appealing products. Take Danze’s 3-inch, Parma Three-Function Showerhead.

Sleek and versatile, it combines regular shower flow, massage (pulsating spray) and what’s called “aerated drench.” It seems to me that an aerated drench is just what is required before or after long hours of walking the show floor with 60,000 other visitors. (And one day everyone received an aerated drench, otherwise known as a torrential downpour/gullywasher, as we returned to our hotels.) Danze is known for its innovative modern — even sculptural — showerheads, like the 8-inch Sunray,

with its radiating arms, or the Danze 305 Low Flow,

resembling a flying saucer, that uses only 1.5 gallons per minute.

High tech and high touch are united in Delta’s new Pilar™ Pull-Down Kitchen Faucet with Touch2O™ Technology, which won various industry awards in 2009.

Touch anywhere on the faucet and water turns on or off, which is pretty cool; they call it “Proximity Sensing Technology” which could be another way of saying “Let’s shake hands” or simply, “skin.” I also like how Delta describes the unit’s pull down sprayer as a “wand” with “MagnaTite™ Docking” to keep it securely in place. Harry Potter, time to climb off the broom and wash the Dementors’ dishes! Another Delta product of interest is their Zero Threshold Shower Base, consisting of a grill over a “trench grate” (drain grill) instead of a lip, allowing barrier-free

entry that’s also wheelchair accessible. Its prosaic and rather plainly described — though I like the use of  “trench” — but very useful.

The Kohler booth is usually the largest at the show and this year was no exception, with seemingly hundreds of products on display; gushing, spraying, bubbling water everywhere; and enthusiastic and knowing descriptions of flushing efficiency. Though, no doubt in deference to the economy, this year there were no acrobatic or singing acts. Kohler is extremely good at what they do and has been doing it as a private company for 130 years. They pretty much reinvented the modern vanity. I like their newest versions — part of the Persuade line (a very effective, not so subliminal message!)

with its simple lines, space for soap and a water glass on the rim, and drawers that flank and hide the drainpipe or trap. A simpler model in the same line

turns the trap into a handsome object in its own right. For smaller bathrooms where creating an airy feel is especially important, this unit would be ideal. The full Persuade line

includes three vanities and a dual flush toilet.

House Calls

Big news at the show was the fact that for the first time in the 27-year history of The New American Home program, the annual idea house was not completed in time for touring. The builder’s financing fell through. (Frankly, knowing how complicated such projects are, I’m surprised something like this hasn’t happened before.) However I attended a useful press conference showcasing the house’s key sponsors and suppliers. New to me was the eco-friendly building system using Apex Blocks from Lacuna Inc. The blocks are made of 100% post-industrial/consumer expanded polystyrene (EPS) and cement and do not contain formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), or known carcinogens. Here’s how the block system works:

Foundation with rebar.


Form the corners; frame window and door openings.

Place horizontal rebar, then attach roof ledgers.

Pump in the concrete.  Cut grooves for electrical and plumbing. Smooth the surface and add stucco or other siding material. It’s a fascinating building system that resembles RASTRA block.

Window Watch

There appears to be more choice in sliding and accordion doors — a market that Nanawall revolutionized some years ago. Marvin’s new Lift and Slide examples

virtually disappear into the wall.  The new S1E Eco Screen by Centor

offers retractable insect screening and solar control.

I attended Sarah Susanka’s informative seminar on remodeling where she talked about features that bring value and personality to a home without adding a lot of cost, like varied ceiling heights to make a room seem more spacious, and window seats to create cozy retreats within a small space — which are good things to look for as you explore new home plans as well. I also saw her elegant round-within-a-square window

designed for Marvin Windows and Doors. It recalls features of her Not So Big House designs, like our Plan 454-3,

with its rounded window

in the master bathroom.

The parking lot at the show usually has a range of model homes to tour and I thought the prefabricated Osprey,

by Eco Cottages was newsworthy: 513 square feet

with living area, galley kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, for a basic house price of $60,000 — though the example shown here had Gaggenau kitchen appliances

(including a sexy floating Lift Oven with trays that rise and fall at the push of a button) worth $35,000.  In short, the show was worth a trip through the storm.

Haiti and Architecture For Humanity

Looking to the Future

The next step after disaster relief for earthquake-devastated Haiti will be help with rebuilding and that’s where an organization like Architecture for Humanity — co-founded by visionary architect Cameron Sinclair — comes in. Here’s a landing page from their website:

Founded in 1999, Architecture for Humanity aims to build a better future through the power of sustainable design. I toured their office in San Francisco recently and was very impressed with what they’re doing.  As their website states: “By tapping a network of more than 40,000 professionals willing to lend time and expertise to help those who would not otherwise be able to afford their services, we bring design, construction and development services where they are most critically needed.” It’s like Doctors Without Borders, only with architects, engineers, designers etc. instead of medical professionals. You can donate to the Haiti earthquake relief effort on the Architecture for Humanity website.

For background on what the organization aims to do, see their influential book Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises (Metropolis, 2006, edited by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr). It describes 80 innovative projects around the world that demonstrate the power of design to improve lives.

Disaster Plans and Kits

The Haiti earthquake is another reminder that we all need to have a plan (personal phone tree, rendezvous point, etc., etc.) and an emergency supply kit in case of fire, flood, earthquake, or other disaster. Our household supply kit is stored in a watertight plastic garbage can in one corner of the garden — but I need to get a smaller version for my car, like this backpack example

from The Southern California Earthquake Center. According to the website every disaster kit should contain the following:

  • Medications, prescription list, copies of medical cards, doctor’s name and contact information
  • Medical consent forms for dependents
  • First aid kit and handbook
  • Examination gloves (non-latex)
  • Dust mask
  • Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses and cleaning solution
  • Bottled water
  • Whistle (to alert rescuers to your location)
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Emergency cash
  • Road maps
  • List of emergency out-of-area contact phone numbers
  • Snack foods, high in water and calories
  • Working flashlight with extra batteries and light bulbs, or light sticks
  • Personal hygiene supplies
  • Comfort items such as games, crayons, writing materials, teddy bears
  • Toiletries and special provisions you need for yourself and others in your family including elderly, disabled, small children, and animals.
  • Copies of personal identification (drivers license, work ID card, etc.)

It’s also important to identify potential hazards in your home and start to fix them. We recently reinforced the supporting cross wall in our basement. It required extra money and time and wasn’t edible or fun but it was the right thing to do.

Home as Avatar — and Other Movie Musings

Machines in the Garden

On the surface, Avatar, the blockbuster bailout of a movie by James Cameron, has nothing to do with home design but everything to do with a fevered and fertile visual imagination.

You probably know the sci-fi plot (see the excellent Wikipedia summation) about colonists mining “unobtanium,” an elusive rock to be sure, on the planet Pandora (diagram of the miners’ control room above), who have created avatars that let them mingle with the indigenous Na ‘ve population in order to get them out of the way.  It’s not so much a movie as a fabulous computerized “dark ride” through a lush jungle world

where nature is nurtured into a frenzied confrontation (image courtesy avatarplanet)

between Pocahontas and the Air Force (image courtesy Wired).

When I saw it with my younger daughter, who contributed the Pocohontas analogy, we could only get seats in the second  row and thanks to our 3-D glasses I kept swatting at or dodging the ferns, branches, flying beasts, and other hyper-realistic computer-captured characters that whipped or whizzed past. Exhausting but fun. 

So my point is? Home is the ultimate avatar, whether machine or forest. It represents us to the world and is our refuge and second skin. Architectural sociologist Clare Cooper-Marcus’ groundbreaking book House As A Mirror of Self (Nicolas-Hays, 2006) details this phenomenon through her case study research with more than 60 individuals. As she states: “At the base of this study is a very simple yet frequently overlooked premise. As we change and grow throughout our lives, our psychological development is punctuated not only by meaningful emotional relationships with people, but also by close, affective ties with a number of physical environments, beginning in childhood.”

This is true in my own experience: when I was teaching architectural history at Carnegie-Mellon University, I asked my students to write a short essay about their college living environments. Some described their dorm rooms as a kind of refuge; others as a public meeting place. In effect, each room became a reflection of psychological need, an avatar if you will. The trick is to understand your “inner home” (the Na ‘ve people’s Hometree and Tree of Souls? Unobtainium?) without launching rockets at it — or getting a divorce.

Associations Are Important

Another film actually uses a house to tell part of the story. In Nancy Myers’ It’s Complicated the home of amicably divorced baker and restaurant owner Jane Adler, played by Meryl Steep, is a beautiful tile-roofed adobe, supposedly in Santa Barbara

It's Complicated house via Traditional Home

though actually in Thousand Oaks (photo courtesy Traditional Home) a spiffed up version of classic adobe style houses

from the 1920s and early 1930s, like the Donald Dickey guest house in Ojai by architect Palmer Sabin, or

the E. L. Doheny Ranch at Santa Paula Canyon by architect Wallace Neff. And because the owner is a chef

It's complicated kitchen set via Trad Home

it has a great kitchen with dazzling light and a seductive Carrara marble-topped island (photo courtesy Traditional Home). The house as presented by set decorator Beth Rubino is warm, comfortably contemporary, and richly historical all at the same time. In other words, it’s a house with a past and an air of contentment about the present. And it represents an ideal of modern-day, food-and-garden-centric Southern California. It’s like living inside a large tile-roofed croissant. Adobe bricks and terra cotta tiles, are, after all — baked.

The Adler character’s momentary fling with her ex-husband drives the movie but in the end doesn’t affect the character of the home. In fact, it seems fitting that she ultimately falls in love with the architect who is designing her new kitchen addition. The home and the character are “moving on” to the next stage of their lives. For more on the rationale behind the set design see the film’s Production Notes and a brief interview with the director at Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau. Our homes — whether sci-fi trees or adobe ranch houses — are yeasty metaphors indeed.