Monthly Archives: April 2011

Shaping Inspiration: Aqua Tower to Home Plans

New Waves in Nature vs. Nurture

I heard a fascinating lecture by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang recently. She talked about the unusual wave-like design of her soaring 82-story  Aqua Tower (including apartments, condos, and a hotel) built by McHugh Construction and Magellan Development Group in downtown Chicago. The compelling design derived in part from studies of view corridors and wind patterns — and was also partly inspired by images of limestone cliffs along the Great Lakes, as shown here and which were themselves created by water and wind (photo courtesy Immaterial/Supermaterial, Woodbury University).  The myriad shapes of the curvilinear concrete balconies “confuse the wind” (i.e. slow it down) and give each apartment a sense of individuality (Aqua Tower photos courtesy The International Coolhunting Magazine). In most cases the curving balconies shape views and shelter living spaces from heat and glare. Where balconies are not feasible a different glass — with higher insulation value — is used. The reduced overhangs and use of a different type of glass (which is tinted a greener color) make it appear that ponds have formed on each of the tower’s vertical surfaces. Reusable, flexible steel forms for the cantilevered concrete balcony sections made the construction possible.

The lesson I drew from Jeanne Gang’s talk was that a her firm does a great deal of research into site conditions and the natural and  cultural histories of an area before developing a particular design. The design is thus “drawn out of the site.” (A new book on their work titled Reveal from Princeton Architecture Press explains this process.) This is a good way to think about home design as well — the house plan and the lot should complement each other. Mentally place your plan on your site and check to see if any key outdoor spaces are easily accessible, or if you should replace a window with a door.  This Plan 64-166 by Dan Tyree uses balconies and window walls to maximize views on a steep slope. Plan 500-1 by Robert Swinburne has  a side-facing bay window, which means its lot should have  room for a side yard.  In Plan 498-5 by Matthew Coates glass folding doors could replace the conventional sliders as a way to open up more of the great room to the patio. Indeed, I think every ready made plan should be modified to suit its site.


I asked Jeanne Gang how she got such a remarkable tower commission and she said it was mostly serendipity. A client invited her to a party and she met a developer who said he was interested in her work and would she consider a project he was starting. Sure, she said, thinking nothing would come of it. A few days later she got a phone call asking for a meeting in a few days. She assumed it was a competition so she quickly prepared a Power Point on her firm’s deep experience and award-winning past projects.  But when she got to the meeting the developer said he already knew her work and already had hired her and how soon could she have a design ready? “It was the most unusual and easiest commission we’ve ever gotten!” she said. Another lesson: you never know who is watching your work — or if the next plan you click will throw a curve and strike your fancy and become your dream house!

Earth Day Ideas and the Fountains of Rome

Common Sense Conservation

Earth Day is Friday, April 22, 2011 — a good time to remember that building sustainably is the right thing to do (see the Earth Day website for events and activities.). Begin with a thoughtful design that suits the climate and the site and aims for longevity. The choices you make for the shell of your house — including the foundation, walls, windows, and roof — and in how you orient your house to the sun, will result in the greatest savings in energy, natural resources, and money over the long term. Health is another consideration — i.e. use formaldehyde free insulation and no- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint — such as Yolo Colorhouse, shown here. The U. S. Green Building Council’s Green Building Guide provides a good introduction to what’s possible. Here you’ll find information on a vast array of eco-oriented topics. The section on bathrooms  is 

especially useful in explaining what to look for in low flow-fixtures — since the bathroom is one of the most resource-intensive rooms in the house. The Green Building Council website is also where you’ll find the LEED rating system (an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the useful LEED for Homes Scoring Tool, where you can find out if your home qualifies for LEED certification.

Another important resource is the website for the Environmental Protection Agency’s  ENERGY STAR® program, which lists all the home products — from LED (light emitting diode) lights  to dishwashers to fans — that meet national environmental standards. This is the source for those appliance labels that say ENERGY STAR® and give you a quick calculation on, say, a particular refrigerator’s energy use and savings on energy bills. The EPA’s   WaterSense® programs is a similar labeling system for water-conserving appliances and fixtures.

More Efficient Building Shells

Structural insulated panels (SIPs) — like those manufactured by Premier (shown here) are an energy-efficient building system made from thick expanded polystyrene (EPS) sandwiched between oriented strand board (OSB). The high-insulation value is built-in and the panels allow for faster construction time. Many of the designs at can be converted from conventional 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 framing to SIPs by Premier. Another possibility is to use the Vitruvian system of panels made with EPS and light gauge steel (diagram shown above). We have a range of plans designed for Vitruvian panel construction. A sampling of SIPs plans can be found in our Energy-Efficient Plans Collection.

Ancient Aqua

Talk of conservation, especially water, brings to mind the role of water in defining the shape and character of our life. In Rome, for example, it has been a powerful design force for more than 2,000 years. A fascinating and important book by Katherine Wentworth Rinne — The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City (Yale Press, 2011) — explores this  subject in depth and I recommend it highly. Here you’ll learn how the city’s aqueducts got built, how the waterworks work,  and why, and how each major fountain became an expression of power by emperors, popes, and the most powerful Roman families.  It’s a waterwise whodunnit by a true scholar. This where resource cultivation and conservation began in earnest!

Avant Garde Rentals and Granny Flats

Cutting Edges

Spring fever is upon me and I am distracted by thoughts of traveling the world — so the New Yorker article by architecture critic Paul Goldberger about modern holiday houses in England captured my imagination immediately. He describes spending the night in an unusual new house called The Balancing Barn, designed by the Dutch firm MVRD. Situated on the Suffolk coast, it is, in his words:  “a shiny metal structure that sticks out over a hill, less a barn than a covered bridge that stops in mid-air.” The  image below shows just how startling it is, with a child nonchalantly swinging from the underside of the cantilever — as if an updated Alice has stopped to play while the Mad Hatter — now an avant-garde architect — is up in the kitchen putting the kettle on.  Paul recounts how surprisingly comfortable and even conventional the house is inside, despite the startling appearance of being suspended over nothingness. There is however, a window in the floor of the living room that connects guests to the ground even as it reminds them that they are lolling over a void. Talk about a new perspective! I think a weekend here would be very refreshing. This structure is part of a not-for-profit organization called Living Architecture, the brainchild of writer/philosopher Alain de Botton whose insightful and beautifully written 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness explores how architecture affects and even defines us.  The idea of  balance in building design, which is the subject of one chapter, appears to have been taken quite literally in this particular commission! The house sleeps eight people and rentals are for four nights. (Cantilever photo and interior view from Designboom; aerial shot courtesy Living Architecture.)

De Botton founded Living Architecture as a way to help people experience modern design first hand. A cool idea. There are several other rentals in the collection. Shingle house, by the Scottish firm  NORD Architecture, situated near Romney Marsh in Kent (the shingle name refers to the pebbly site, not the siding material) is a series of simple gables — almost like an arrangement of toy blocks. The interior is all white with a handsome U-shaped kitchen that opens toward the beach. Deftly placed windows here and in the dining area frame the views like paintings. The handsome banquette saves room and with the white-painted vertical board walls makes the small space seem larger than it is. Dune House in Suffolk, by the Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects, resembles a Rubik’s cube that has been pulled slightly apart and set on a glass base. The living room includes a sunken area in front of the fireplace — the return of the “conversation pit” from mid-century modern design. The master bedroom includes a sculptural freestanding tub with its own view of the sea beside the door to the water closet and shower — truly this gives new meaning to the phrase “bed, bath, and beyond.” (Previous six photos courtesy Living Architecture.) Three more holiday houses are in the works and are slated to open by 2012. The Living Architecture website provides comprehensive photo tours of every rental — excellent homework for anyone thinking of building a new house. Meanwhile I need to start saving up for a fact-finding trip…

Essential New Books on Granny Flats and Cottage Style

Two excellent books recently came across my desk. The cleverly titled In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats (Taunton Press, 2011) by Michael Litchfield, a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, is a comprehensively illustrated guide to the design and building of backyard cottages and additions for aging in place. Interviews with families who have completed this process  show that the trend is well under way. A thoughtfully designed in-law unit or granny flat makes it possible for seniors to live near family members without losing their independence. Communities  across the country are changing their zoning laws to allow the greater density that backyard cottages produce. The changes are long overdue. Chapters range from basement remodels and garage conversions to stand-alone structures — with a wide variety of case studies for each type of dwelling unit. For more ideas take a look at our own Granny Units Collection, including the Inspired In-Law Cottage by Larson Shores Architects, which comes in four different styles and plans. The L-shaped version, Plan 507-3,  is 500 square feet, includes a kitchenette that’s part of  the  living area, and has decks on two sides.

Storybook Cottages: America’s Carpenter Gothic Style by Gladys Montgomery (Rizzoli, 2011) explores in detail the mid-nineteenth century houses that were built from pattern books like Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850. Originally from the British Isles, the Gothic Revival flourished in New York and New England but the best known example is the farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa, famously painted by Grant Wood as “American Gothic.” Now I wonder what the farmer and his wife would think of sleeping in Alain de Botton’s Balancing Barn? The pitchfork makes me a little nervous but I’m sure they would make sure to stow it tines-down before turning out the light.

Architects’ Own Houses and Regional Ideas

Homework for Professionals

What houses do designers design for themselves? A fascinating exhibition at the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley titled “All Their Own” begins to answer this question by showcasing architects’ and landscape architects’ own homes in drawings and other documents. All the work on display is drawn from the extensive collections of the Environmental Design Archives. Here is  Earl Nisbet’s compelling rendering of a romantic modern stone and glass mountain cabin. He studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and you can see this in the strongly geometric house form, the characteristic fine-line drawing style, and the nature-derived color palette with the patch below the window wall that’s highlighted a favorite Wrightian shade of orange-red. This sort of presentation rendering is unusual because there is no need to”sell the client” when you are designing your own house. The preliminary sketch by William Wurster (one of the founders of the College) for his U-shaped weekend house at Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, seems almost child-like: just a bare outline, a few scribbled dimensions and notations — like “SAND” for the courtyard. The house he actually built wasn’t very different — a kind of stable for people, with concrete floors, each bedroom opening directly to the sand courtyard though Dutch doors, and a main living/dining/cooking space — the very essence of simplicity. So in a way, the minimal drawing expressed the esthetic perfectly.

Often a designer’s own house becomes a kind of advertising for her or his work. This was especially true for folks like Frank Lloyd Wright, who never stopped adding to or tinkering with Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; or ranch house popularizer Cliff May who took things to an extreme by designing five houses for himself and his family over the course of his career.

Some of the plans in the CED exhibit vividly show the designer’s mind at work. Here’s the first house that architect Jerry Veverka designed for himself on a steep leftover lot in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Jerry documented his thought process. His notes on the yellow graph paper indicate he tried out several different schemes to analyze flat roofs vs. gables, and a central vs. an off-center garage. The upper 3-D drawing shows a later, more fully worked out elevation. See how the “full height sun porch” from the yellow trace has morphed into the big window on the colored sketch and how he has settled on gable roofs and an off-center garage. The cutaway view below shows how he has conceived of the house as a loft with the master bedroom overlooking the main living space so both rooms can share the big window wall. See the stair-stepping fireplace and the broad steps leading down to the living area from the dining space: in fact the drawing shows how the whole design is about taking advantage of stair forms and large windows to make such a steep site habitable: the architectural imagination at work!

Another image captured my attention —  a 3-D drawing by Charles Moore for his own house in Orinda. This image shows the concept: treat the small house as a series of four-poster pavilions under one roof, like nested boxes. The bigger four-poster was for living; the smaller for sleeping and bathing. The idea probably came from Moore’s time as a teaching assistant for Louis Kahn — Kahn’s Trenton Bathhouse, shown below in a model (courtesy Wikipedia and not in the CED exhibition) is a famous example of pavilion design. Moore made the idea his own by miniaturizing it and packing everything into a single volume: a sort of architectural wardrobe.

One of the most revealing items in the CED exhibit is this letter from Moore to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin while both were working on the plans for The Sea Ranch community on California’s North Coast. Note the hourly rate in 1965 that Moore charges for his own time: $4! So…What will you have: a decaf latte or the services of an eminent architect for an hour?! (I guess coffee then must have been about a nickel a cup…) Though we cannot match that rate at we can be very reasonable; and we even offer the plans for historic Sea Ranch Cottages designed by Charles Moore’s partner Bill Turnbull. Hold the java and hire us!

Be Regional

One of my periodic rants is about regionalism in design — that is, the need for a connection to a place, culture, or time. Though I am a fan of Modernism in all its variations I also want to see a little regional relationship to help me know where I am. That’s partly why I’m so enamored of porches you can really live on — they allow outdoor living on balmy days and shelter from the weather on stormy days; they respond to the climate. Think of the houses along the Florida Panhandle, for example, like our Plan 443-10, with its expressive screen porches and sun shades over the windows. The outdoor spaces are designed to catch the breezes in a humid climate. To me it evokes a Florida style of building, while the interior layout is open and contemporary. Regionalism also has to do with materials — building traditions grew up around whatever materials were easiest to come by: bricks or concrete block in some places, wood in others. One of the exciting things about observing how home design is evolving is to see the ways modern and regional ideas can be combined. Look for more reporting on this topic. Welcome spring!