Monthly Archives: October 2010

Home Design Diary

Decision Time for Porch, Pump House, Tank

The story of our house building adventure (using Long House Plan 508-1 designed by architect Nicholas Lee) continues: we made some key decisions this week. You may remember that we were looking at where to place the water storage tank, and then it turned out we needed a small shed to house the pool equipment and the pump for the well.

Architect Nick Lee and Petaluma, CA builder Ryan Eames settled on the southwest corner of the lot, adjacent to the well itself, which seemed the most practical and cost-effective location.  I liked the suggestions from Facebook viewer Tobe that we should either bury the tank or use the pool as the storage system. Both excellent ideas — however, we had already purchased a tank that was designed for above- ground use only, and regulations in the area don’t allow using the pool for auxiliary water storage. You can see from the  view below that the tank and shed will dominate the view from the master bedroom and porch.

On the other hand they will help define an outdoor room near the pool. The current thought for the pump house, which will be 10- by 16-feet, is to make it the simplest sort of gabled structure. One idea — not yet agreed upon — is to cover one wall with a metal trellis system, like this one from Greenscreen.

Covered with honeysuckle, for example, the shed could provide a leafy backdrop to the pool. I’ll let you know the final decision here.

Other decisions this week focused on the house-long porch or gallery. What about cross bracing for the porch roof, which engineering seemed to require. It might look like this.

That struck me as a little too Western frontier town-ish — like a movie set. Others seemed to agree. If we aimed for greater simplicity, then, what size posts? First thought was to use 4-by-4 steel posts, but they proved too expensive. Then 6-by-6 wood posts seemed appropriate for the scale of the house. However engineering required that there be nineteen posts, set at intervals of 9 feet, like this:

So many posts set quite close together began to make the porch look more like a cage, so after conferring once again with the engineer, architect Nick Lee looked at somewhat beefier 8-by-8 posts, shown below.

The simpler profile with 9 posts instead of 19 seemed much less cluttered. And it turns out that using fewer, though larger, posts is actually the less expensive way to go. That made the decision even easier. As Goldilocks might have said (actually she would have made a pretty good client): this version feels just right!  With regard to the roof we’ll save ca. $8000 by switching from metal to composition shingle. Done. We think we have already saved roughly $30,000 by switching to conventional wood frame construction (for the walls) from a form of structural insulated panels (SIPs). Also, we need to decide the character of  the exterior walls: to batten or not to batten? Stay tuned.

Stieg Larsson, Tray Tables, Swedish Modern

Novel Approaches to the Scandinavian Interior

I just finished the hard-to-put-down Stieg Larsson trilogy about the brilliant, quirky, but severely wronged Swedish computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and the books’ Stockholm setting made me want to  learn more about Swedish design. Lisbeth and her fellow protagonist, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, seem to make themselves coffee and sandwiches quite a lot so I started thinking about furniture — what might they use for such impromptu meals? (Besides IKEA, that is, which we’ll get to in a moment.) A little computer sleuthing of my own and there you are!

Or — Där är du! in Swedish. Enter the tray table, like this one from Svenskt Tenn, a famous Stockholm interior design store. It’s a clever design — the top is a metal tray (there are two sizes: 65 cm diameter or 49 cm diameter) that can be changed. Trays are as varied as the plot twists in the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the other two Larsson  novels.

They’re based on fabric patterns by the Viennese architect Joseph Frank, who settled in Stockholm in 1933 and became the principal designer for Svenskt Tenn. In fact Frank is considered one of the founders of Swedish modern design and much of his work, including pendant lamps, chairs, and mirrors (examples shown below) is still being produced today by Svenskt Tenn.

But Lisbeth’s taste in furniture is all IKEA. According to the second book in the series — The Girl Who Played With Fire —  Lisbeth buys an expensive view-oriented apartment in the  elegant building shown above (The photo is courtesy the Stockholm Museum, which now offers tours of key locations mentioned in the books) and selects a huge array of items from IKEA to fill it. All the items she buys are  neatly listed in this ingenious graphic created by Apartment Therapy.

Though Lisbeth is gonzo with computers it doesn’t sound like she had any interest in putting the furniture together herself — everything seems to arrive fully assembled. (I’m with her there…). IKEA is perfect for Lisbeth — contemporary, adaptable, instant — just the way she is with the Internet. Another way to go, in addition to Joseph Frank, would have been via the famous late 19th and early 20th century Arts & Crafts Swedish painter and interior designer Carl Larsson. His home is a museum you can visit — here’s an image of the dining room, courtesy the official Carl Larsson website.

It’s a very beautiful icon of Swedish culture, and I would love to visit someday.  But I can see how the storybook country style of such rooms might not fit the fast-paced urbanism that Stieg had in mind — though a Carl Larsson painting could well have been in the home of the magazine editor Erika Berger, who figures strongly in a subplot in the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Too much Carl Larrson might have been a distraction from the Stieg Larsson plot.

Now if  a Stieg Larsson character built a new house, what would it be? I think  Mikael Blomkvist, after retiring on the proceeds of his journalistic triumphs, might hire the innovative young Swedish architecture firm Widjedal, Racki, Bergerhoff to build something like this:

with its own writing studio down by the water:

Design begins with a dream — and perhaps a novel or two, not to mention an autobiography and some financing — and Där är du! (These images are courtesy the architecture firm by way of Gradient Magazine.)

House/Site Planning 101

Ranch House Diary:  The Lot As Chessboard

Guess what? Building a house is a complicated process. You’re constantly juggling design ideas, needs, essential functions, construction details, esthetics, and affordability. And remember one of my mantras, or what some might call my “daily rants” — house and lot/site should complete each other like any strong partnership. So the juggling process continues outdoors as well.  Why am I always surprised…Take today’s meeting at our ranch house construction site, for example. Architect Nicholas Lee’s plan carefully situates the house on a north-south axis to preserve as much of the lot for outdoor living as possible.

The driveway is at the left or north end. The site plan, unlike the house layout itself,  forces us to consider the functions of the sections of the site. The late great landscape architect Thomas Church always attempted to make his outdoor spaces compatible functionally with the rooms adjacent to them. And that’s what we want to do here — i.e. have a more public sitting and entertaining area off the Great Room beside the pool, and a more private area off the bedrooms. To refresh your memory, here’s the Long House plan again (508-1) showing the Great Room and the entrance off the porch beside the kitchen.

You can see in the plan below how we haven’t quite fixed the placement of the pool — moving it a few yards south would give more room for the outdoor entertaining area.

The big diagonal line at the left of the plan marks the required area for the septic system — in fact the septic system essentially determines where the house itself can go on this lot. A water storage tank is also required, along with a small pump house for the pool. These latter elements present new challenges and possibilities. Should the tank be at the front of the house as a kind of agricultural exclamation point to the front facade?

Or should it be close to the pump house, or somewhere else.

It turns out that for practicality sake, the tank needs to be near the well (we decided that today so the tank is not yet in the drawing) which is at the southwest corner of the lot. This  is where it also seems most logical for the pump house to go and provides the opportunity for a handsome architectural grouping marking the southern boundary of the garden. So in the end the lot is a kind of chessboard, or more precisely —  since budget is always involved — a game of Chutes & Ladders. Every move has a consequence affecting nearly every other decision.

Case Study Ranch House

Farmhouse Modern

In the beginning was the lot. has decided to design and build a house on a rural half-acre site in Sonoma County about 25 minutes from our offices. This is how the lot looked today. The idea is to use our experience to demystify the building process and create a searchable construction journal that will be useful for anyone building a house.

A small existing cement block cabin was removed and architect Nicholas Lee —’s very own Director of Design — developed a new plan called the Long House (508-1 ), which is now part of our Signature Plan Collection. Here it is.

Our criteria were that the plan had to be simple, functional, and affordable;  take advantage of its site; and have a sense of place — all within a three bedroom two bath weekend or vacation home for a family with two children. The somewhat narrow site runs north-south and the best view is west across a field to tree-covered hills, so Nick  ran a porch the length of western facade to frame the view and provide shelter from the strong afternoon sun.

Inspiration for the Long House came from  regional works like William Wurster’s Gregory farmhouse of 1928, shown below.  A brick-paved gallery runs along the entrance side.

(don’t worry, the bed frame gets a mattress in summer…). Recent ranch houses by the firm of Turnbull, Griffin, Haesloop were another important influence, especially their designs sporting porches that double as outdoor rooms, like this one.

The floor of the porch above is wood, while ours will be even simpler — concrete — as an extension of concrete floors throughout the house.

So…we have begun.

Stay tuned — I’ll talk about siting in a future post.