Monthly Archives: March 2010

Wall Gardens, Deck Maintenance, Spring

Bubbles and the Biosphere: Micro Farms at Home

I just planted a row of sweet peas: a big deal for this green dumb (I mean thumb). Now I must remember to irrigate every day. Which makes me think: How can we use water more efficiently in the growth of plants and food? That happens to be a question posed by the inventors at a small San Francisco company called Inka Biospheric Systems. They have developed sculptural, free standing, self-contained  “micro-farms” that combine a fish tank and “vertical hydroponic grow structure” to provide protein, vegetables, and clean water in a “self powered environment.”

Shown at Curiodessey –a science museum in San Mateo, California —  Inka’s Sun Curve is an especially ingenious  and elegant contraption that uses an arching steel frame to support solar panels and the vertical garden. The water from the fish pond acts as a reservoir and a nutrient source. Inka’s patented “Bio-Quilt” (which holds the plants without any soil), the plant roots, and a film of micro-organisms act as a biological filter, cleaning the water for the fish. The closed loop system recycles the water. The solar panels produce enough  power — stored in a battery bank — to run a built-in water pump, ultra-violet filtration system, and a lap-top computer or cell phone. (Maybe that should be a salad-to-shore phone!)

Another variation,

shows how the basic elements can be adapted to a residential entry. With their bubbling tanks, pipes, hanging gardens, and brightly colored fish these inventions have a wonderful mad scientist quality, as if Dr. Frankenstein had studied agronomy and The Whole Earth Catalog instead of Hungarian anatomy and high voltage electrical charges.

Other Inka “micro farms” omit the tank, like this custom-designed planted flange.

The standard Inka Wall Garden measures 3- by 4- feet and has a 2 foot 7 inch-square growing area.

It circulates water and nutrients to the seedlings, which aids the plants’ vegetation production rather than root production — this usually increases the standard growth-rate of plants. The Wall Garden costs $349.

NOTE: a version of Inka’s micro farm is an important plant source

aboard the Plastiki, the boat (photo above courtesy Doug Millar) made of 12,000 plastic bottles that is now sailing to Australia from California to call attention to the perilous amount of plastic refuse now present in the oceans. You can see the tall plant cylinder and solar panels. The boat is a modern-day descendant of the famous Kon-Tiki raft that explorer Thor Heyerdahl used to cross the Pacific in 1947.

I’m eager to see Inka’s next green invention.

On Decks

Spring means getting outdoors more, so here are three designs to fuel your deck-building dreams.

This classic contemporary example by San Francisco architect/sculptor Olle Lundberg shows how the house, deck, and a wine tank pool form a seamless unit celebrating outdoor living. The Australian landscape design firm Eckersley Garden Architecture takes a similar approach for a more compact urban site

(photo courtesy  Or for something even smaller, where the wood deck alone shapes a quirky and appealing outdoor room, take a look at the aptly named Pork Chop Garden

by CMG Landscape Architecture (Conger Moss Guillard) of San Francisco.

If you already have a deck, now may be the time to do a little maintenance. I asked a contractor friend, Brian Garrison, for advice on getting a cedar or redwood deck back  in shape. Here’s his step-by-step guide:

  1. Repair. Replace any nails or screws that have popped. Use galvanized square head deck screws: they last longer than nails and don’t pop out as easily. Fix squeaks by adding screws.
  2. Clean. A power washer is quick but strips all of the softwood along with the dirt and grime, so use a deck wash or cleaner such as Behrs or a diluted bleach and water mixture of 10% bleach to 90% water. A broom or brush will help lift the dirt and tannins from the deck. Most of the deck wash systems recommend 2-3 rounds of applications. Do this early in the morning – don’t let the cleanser dry before you can rinse it off because it contains bleaching chemicals that will stain the wood.
  3. Rinse thoroughly. Allow 2-3 days drying time before applying finish.
  4. Apply a durable and long-lasting finish. An oil-based deck stain protects the wood longer than a water sealer, which must be applied at least once every 6 months to work properly. The finish should be water repellent or waterproof, not just water-resistant, provide UV (ultraviolet) protection, and contain a mildewcide if mildew is a problem. Brian used Preserva Wood® Pacific Redwood Penetrating Finish stain. Apply with a paint brush or sprayer — a roller will create a sticky mess. Don’t leave puddles or pools, which dry slowly and can become sticky. Allow a couple of days to dry thoroughly. Cost for finishing a 1,000 sq. ft. deck: about $75.


Flexa Studio

Extra Space Without Adding On

Meet the little building that can! Meet the Flexa Studio: a modern, versatile, 120 square-foot prefabricated room. It’s a way to add space without the expense and disruption of remodeling. Award-winning designer Casper Mork-Ulnes, who holds a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University and is creative director of Modern Cabana (now part of Blu Homes), developed Flexa Studio in collaboration with

The simple shed-roof and crisp horizontal rain-screen siding — with glass entry door and fixed and operable side windows — give the structure  a handsome contemporary presence to complement any garden setting. Place it in the backyard or side yard,

to use as a home office, media room, or teen pad:

or add a sleeper and turn it into an overflow guest room.

The 10- by 12-foot structure comes pre-assembled or as a panelized kit-of-parts that you put together yourself. In both cases you build the foundation, then bolt the Flexa Studio to it. It’s eco-friendly thanks to the use of  FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council)-certified lumber, recycled denim insulation, prefabricated elements for minimal waste, and a small footprint for less site impact. In most jurisdictions, permits are not required for structures that are 120 square feet or less — check with your building department to verify local permitting requirements. Flexa Studio starts at $8950 plus shipping, which varies based on distance and whether you order it pre-assembled or as the panelized kit.

I want to thank Room & Board and R & B Design Associate Joe Darling for expertly furnishing our model to illustrate the Live, Work, and Play possibilities. The warm contemporary pieces in the photographs are listed below:

1. Gallery leaning media shelf in natural steel: $749

2. Eames molded plywood lounge chair in walnut by Herman Miller: $679

3. Fuller 7′ x 7′ felted rug in grey: $1715

This is a cool fool-the-eye rug: the design resembles a shadow pattern on the floor and made me look around to see where the light was coming from.

4. Tiffany arm chair in red: $249

5. Portica desk in stainless steel with solid walnut top (48 x 24 x 29h): $959

6. Pierce 69″ two-cushion full comfort sleeper in Delamont charcoal: $2299

7. Outdoor Sunbrella pillow in orange: $59

8. Hive pillow in Ink: $109

9. Sasha table lamps with silver shades: $229 each

10. Link table lamp in orange: $380

11. Nelson medium cigar pendant lamp: $329

12. Framed print, Study for Homage To the Square – 1954, Albers: $419

13. Framed poster, Rothko Blue, Green and Brown poster: $199

14. Laguna outdoor chair (and ottoman, not shown) in Sunbrella taupe: $599 (2)

15. Montego outdoor side table (18 inches square): $449

The Flexa Studio Photography is by Joe Fletcher, who shot the unit at San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Gardens (which provided the plants and pots). The Flexa Studio is a cousin of our Flexahouse modern ranch house plan by architect Nick Noyes — someday I hope we’ll have a whole family of Flexas!

More About Casper Mork-Ulnes

In addition to founding Modern Cabana with builder Nick Damner (last year they showcased other Modern Cabana products at Sunset‘s Celebration Weekend where I first spoke to them about working with us), Casper has produced a variety of sleek contemporary houses and remodels through Mork-Ulnes Architects. Here, for example, he

reshaped a San Francisco Victorian into a dramatic light-box-cum-stair-tower.

On the top floor he reinvented a dormer window into an elegant sitting, viewing, and storage alcove (photos courtesy These are great ideas worth remembering as you think about ways to customize any of our home plans.

Mind of an Architect

A Certain Sweep of  Space

Last week in Melbourne I was lucky enough to see the Walsh Street home of the late Robin Boyd (1917-1971), one of Australia’s most famous modern architects and critics. He ran Australia’s Small Homes Service (stock plans by architects) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, designed a wide variety of structures, and wrote several influential books including Australia’s Home: Its Origins, Builders, and Occupiers (1952), The Australian Ugliness (1960), and The Puzzle of Architecture (1965). He was what I would call a “flexible modernist,” especially adept at finding innovative solutions for particular site conditions. The home, built in 1957 and now owned by the Robin Boyd Foundation, is one of his most ingenious — maximizing indoor-outdoor living space on a narrow urban lot — with many lessons for today.

The model, from Museum Victoria (by Paul Couch, Carter Couch Architects, 1989) shows how the house is divided into two sections book-ending a central glass-walled courtyard: entry, living-dining area, kitchen, and master bedroom at one end; childrens’ bedrooms and Robin’s office above the garage at the other. The courtyard is the leafy, sun-filled heart of the house: a private, spacious, wind-protected outdoor living room.

This view is toward the living room. The wings are tied together by an upswept roof of planks supported on cables, like a suspension bridge, as shown in this section view, below,

(courtesy Robin Boyd: A Life by Geoffrey Serle, 1995). Famous examples like the Menai Straits Bridge (1825)  in North Wales (courtesy Wales Directory)

with its cables slung over stone towers, or Kane’s Bridge (1929) over the Yarra River in Melbourne’s own Studley Park

(courtesy spring to mind — Boyd would have known many such prototypes. The following ceiling detail

shows the cables supporting the boards of the roof.

At the top of Boyd’s catenary curve is the master bedroom (shown below)  over the living-dining area and kitchen. One of the clever twists here is that the main entrance from the street is through this space (called a bed-sitting room on the plan), which is treated as a floating indoor-outdoor platform overlooking the courtyard.

That’s why it doesn’t look like a master bedroom. Boyd Foundation executive director Tony Lee, who gave my wife Mary and me the insightful and inspirational tour, said that the Boyds always entertained guests in this space and then took everyone downstairs for dinner. (I guess they were very fastidious and always made their bed — it certainly sounds like something only an architect would do). Also the railings are mostly metaphorical (except  for the couch) so as not to interrupt views and spatial flow…or gravity, for that matter. Architects just love to levitate!

The living-dining area on the lower level extends into the courtyard through a wall of glass.

The kitchen is behind the stair and partially open to the living area — also note how the lighting is deftly tucked between the overhead beams. The plan (also from Serle’s book) shows how courtyard and house are extensions of each other,

making structure and site one supremely efficient unit. The key lesson here is that house is not a separate block plopped onto the lot; it becomes the lot. Every inch of the site is part of the plan; this is still an excellent way to design for tight urban sites. Precedents for such a patio-centric layout go all the way back to the Roman atrium

as in the plan for the so-called House of the Surgeon at Pompeii (courtesy AD 79). As a worldly modernist — who knew Walter Gropius, and in 1956 held a visiting professorship at MIT during which he met Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Eero Saarinen, among others  — Boyd might also have known the Eames House and Studio at Pacific Palisades near Los Angeles, of 1949.

It also brackets a courtyard (house on left, studio on right, plan courtesy Key Houses of the Twentieth Century by Colin Davies, 2006) though the site is very different and the structure faces a meadow across the long boardwalk. Robin Boyd seemed to absorb ideas like a sponge while addressing each architectural problem from a fresh point of view. His was a highly cultured yet agile imagination, firmly grounded and flexible at the same time. It was a delight to meet that mind at home.