Monthly Archives: June 2011

News from Pacific Coast Builders Show (PCBC)

Looking Forward to Cargo Containers, Sliding Walls, Skylights, and LEDs

The tagline for this year’s Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) was “The Beginning of Next,” which either sounds like a clever adaptation of the title of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, or the start of a talk by a Zen tea master. I guess the beginning of Next is really the end of Now – and for many builders and developers that would be a good thing. In any case, the conference was smaller and more intimate than previous ones. Here’s what caught my eye.

The most compelling display was the Cargotecture C Series by Hybrid Architecture, a fascinating design firm based in Seattle.

This clever living unit made from a steel cargo container appeared earlier in the month at Sunset magazine headquarters in Menlo Park as part of their Celebration Weekend — the following images are from there, courtesy Hybrid Architecture.

You can see how the container has been opened up on three sides — and how important a deck is in expanding the unit.

The view above is looking toward the kitchenette and the bathroom.

The living/sleeping end opens to the entry deck.  At PCBC there was a balcony on the other side.

The unit is basically three spaces: a living/dining/sleeping area, the tiny galley kitchen, and an equally small shower cabinet that includes the sink and toilet – like a bathroom on a motorboat. You can just make out the toilet and the sink — and the redwood boards covering the drain pan — in the photograph. This micro cottage would work well for a guest house or pool house. The HyBrid Architecture firm offers a variety of models; the base specifications include the recycled cargo container, soy-based spray insulation, aluminum clad wood windows and doors, Duravit bath fixtures, Summit appliances, and IKEA cabinets. Options include solar panels and retractable shade structures and modular foundation systems

Sliding glass door/walls continue to evolve. Marvin Windows and Doors has produced an impressive “lift and slide” example.

The four panels slide into a pocket at the side.

I also saw some very sleek electronic sliders that stop when they meet resistance – like elevator doors. They are manufactured by an Italian company called Apexfine; the US distributor is the Albertini Corporation.

Apexfine also makes what they call the “Guillotine” window – a large glass panel rises out of the floor.

The one shown above is positioned a little over halfway up, to create an instant balcony or glass half-wall – very cool!

Builders are beginning to take advantage of the Web in new ways. One impressive app that was introduced at PCBC is Imfuna’s Punch List.

This app makes it possible to manage the final stages of the home building process — when changes and updates are especially difficult to keep current — from your I-Phone. It avoids the need for paper-based, time consuming documentation; makes it easy to assign sub-contractors and immediately deliver tailored reports to them for completion; allows you to view, approve or reject updates on the punch list from your phone or laptop — and keeps files current so everyone sees the latest updated documents; makes it possible to edit the data collected in the field and add more details such as plans or schedules, without specialized hardware or training; and keeps records safe in a secure online environment (i.e. “the cloud”). This program is tailored for contractors but would also be useful for homeowners acting as their own contractors. Imfuna is an interesting company co-founded by Jax Kneppers, a forensic engineer. The Punch List grew out of the company’s experience inventing an app for building inspections that increased efficiency by 70%.

There is news in skylights. Velux introduced its ingenious “Lovegrove Chandelier” option for their “Sun Tunnel” skylights.

This ingenious device is a reflective globe that suspends from the bottom of the skylight funnel and “uses the sun as the bulb.” The top of the globe bounces sunlight light up, washing the ceiling with a natural glow.

LED lights (light emitting diodes) are competing more strongly with compact fluorescents.

I saw these LED examples from Viribright – the bulbs last up to 25,000 hours, use 80% less energy than typical incandescent bulbs, and are available in warm, natural, and cool light. They also switch on instantly – just like conventional light bulbs. Even the most advanced fluorescents have a slight delay before reaching full brightness, so these lighting products are a compelling alternative. I guess the beginning of Next really starts with a light switch!

Outdoor Furniture, Outdoor Rooms

Pumping at the Playground, Backyard Versions

In the US it’s time to swing into summer.  Loll Designs makes that possible — literally — with an update on the classic rope swing.

This one has a brightly colored seat made from 100 % recycled plastic resin (the material used in plastic milk jugs and detergent bottles) — perhaps something for that big tree in your backyard. Or what about sprucing up the patio or deck with Loll’s new outdoor furniture collection.

Designed by Eric Pfeiffer with Loll, the “Racer” series includes a chair, a rocker, and a table – also in recycled plastic. Loll makes a wide variety of outdoor furniture, including planters, all from recycled plastic.

I like the red rocker and the idea of racing along while staying in one place — perfect for a lazy weekend afternoon. A built-in handle at the top, a storage pocket behind the back – even a bottle opener – add to the furniture’s utility. These are relaxation machines!

Outdoor Ruminations

The late great landscape architect Thomas Church — whose career ran from the late 1920s through the 1970s — was the master of the outdoor room. As a longtime editor for Sunset magazine once told me: “Before Tommy Church, you could walk for miles in a garden and not find a place to sit down.” He helped popularize what we now take for granted: that a garden should be a place to work, play, dine, and entertain — not just observe. His landscapes were true extensions of the indoor rooms adjacent to them so that living areas could flow smoothly across thresholds. And he helped popularize the deck. I recall his work every time I think about where I would add a deck — off our dining room and overlooking the backyard one floor below. But we have space constraints so it would need to be fairly compact; nevertheless here are some iconic Thomas Church features we would need. A built-in sitting area like the splendid abstract zig-zag bench he designed for the Martin beach house  in the 1948: want it!

(This image courtesy Eco Vida International.) Of course our house is somewhat farther from the beach (like about two miles…) I like the way the benches create a room along the walkway, raise the basket-weave deck pattern into the third dimension, and lead your eye to the vista all while allowing you to sit. Maybe we could add a sandbox too! There’s a small tree off our dining room that I’d like to incorporate. Church often did this; for example at the Donnell garden

shown above, also of 1948 (photo courtesy The Cultural landscape Foundation). Building around the trees not only preserves them but also makes them an architectural feature. Church’s seminal book Gardens Are For People, originally published in 1954 and reprinted many times, is full of such ideas and remains relevant today.

But maybe we need to blast open the entire rear facade and create a two story indoor-outdoor space. For this I might look to a Brazilian modern example like the Olga Baeta house in Sao Paolo, of 1957 by Joao Vilanova Artigas.

Here the interior stair complements the exterior one and the room and the garden are a meeting of opposites (photo courtesy Domus.) Well maybe we need to sell a few more plans before this happens. And my wife might have a few other ideas…

Buildings and Balance

Acrobatics in the Architecture

At a recent performance by the graduating class at the San Francisco Circus Center I watched an acrobat lift himself above a stack of chairs to defy gravity by remaining suspended in mid-air. It made me think about the role of balance in architecture.

Buildings are usually stacks of something piled high. Sometimes they illustrate a kind of balance that is symmetrical, as illustrated by a Renaissance icon like Brunellesci’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence, shown below

(photos from Wikipedia). See how the facade is divided into equal halves along the central axis: three columns on the right, three on the left; arch in the middle. Above the columns the symmetrical geometry continues with four squares, each divided into four smaller squares. At the top is the round roof or dome, which centers the entire composition. But look again and you see variations within the symmetry: arches over the windows in the porch behind the flat lintels between the columns and a triangular pediment over the doorway behind the tall central arch. In other words there is movement within the seemingly static and balanced facade.

Inside, the exploration of symmetry continues. Pilasters (flat columns seemingly embedded in the wall), round medallions, cornices, coffers, and arches divide each wall into geometric patterns that echo the organization of the front facade. Brunelleschi has designed a building that is a diagram of itself: each part carefully delineated and then calibrated to be in proportion to each other part. This is what gives the building balance, richness, and a sense of completeness — such that adding or subtracting any element would destroy it.

In some buildings the notion of balance is purposefully contradicted as a way to make you reconsider the very notion of perception itself, as at the new Nanjing-Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl Architects in Nanjing, China (photos courtesy

Here the building is both pedestal and tray; the cantilevered rooms are as acrobatic as the man balanced on his hand above the stack of chairs. They lead you on a choreographed journey to a carefully framed view of the landscape; a suspension —  not just in space — but of belief in gravity.

The vertiginous stairway functions visually as both an anchor and an exaggeration of the sheer drop to the ground. The building appears to be about changing points of view — literally — which seems appropriate for a museum of paintings that do not incorporate western notions of perspective. In architecture there are many ways to achieve equilibrium.

Summer Sipping

Warmer days (and perhaps all this talk of acrobatics and perspective) make me thirst for something frosty to enjoy on lazy weekend evenings in the backyard — or is this just another sort of equilibrium-enhancer… I also just saw Woody Allen’s delightful new film Midnight in Paris, where the hero, Owen Wilson, time travels back to the 1930s and meets Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, among others. So I looked for a recipe for one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks – the mojito, which he is said to have quaffed at La Bodeguita del Midi in Havana.  I found a version of it on a website called Caribbean Pot. The trick is to muddle a sprig of mint in a tall glass, add ice, the juice of a lime, sugar to taste, 1 /2 ounce light rum, and club soda. Cheers! Now just don’t try to navigate that museum stairway…

Conversation Pits and Refugee Home Design

Modernism With Individuality

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Julie Iovine, perceptively describes the mid-century modern J. Irwin  and Xenia Miller residence in Columbus, Indiana, which is now open to the public (photo courtesy Wall Street Journal). Built in 1953 for the chairman of Cummins Engine and his wife —  who put their town near Indianapolis on the map by paying the design fees for every new public building as long as nationally recognized architects were hired to design it — this remarkable house is both abstract and highly personal. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, architect of the St. Louis Arch and Dulles Airport; influential modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley did the garden. Organized on a grid with a flat roof that almost floats, with walls of marble and glass that draw the eye into a similarly abstract landscape, the house has anumber of surprises, including a splendid conversation pit, shown here, with colorful patterned fabric and pillows by industrial designer and folk art collector Alexander Girard. (The International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico devotes an entire wing to the extraordinary collections Girard amassed, which became the inspiration for his own designs.) That sunken square sitting area is a classic example of functionalist thinking: both open and constrained at the same time. According to Iovine it was often used for slumber parties.Nearby in the same wide open space is the cylinder-shaped fireplace suspended from the ceiling (you can also make it out at the rear of the previous photograph, though because it’s white like the surroundings, it almost disappears). A long storage and display wall and ribbon skylights are the other key elements animating this space. What a classic and marvelous example of Modernist design thinking: Saarinen has reduced architecture to the manipulation of form and function. He used structural geometry — the square, circle, and straight line — instead of conventional furniture and walls to define each functional area within a larger space (three interior photos courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art). Without these finely worked materials and vivid accents such an abstract approach could result in a cold, anonymous, corporate lobby-like design — but here it has immense personality and power. Contact the Indianapolis Museum of Art/Miller House for tours.

Stanford Students Design For Haiti

Architecture has many roles: inventing inspirational one-of-a-kind custom homes is one; solving urgent housing needs for refugee populations is another. I was privileged to watch architecture, engineering, and product design students addressing the latter problem recently when I served on a design jury for a class at Stanford University taught by architect Charles Debbas and engineering lecturer Glenn Katz. The assignment was to develop housing prototypes for Haiti earthquake refugees that would be climate appropriate, economically feasible, well engineered, sustainable, and require no skilled labor to build. A monumental task! During the term experts gave informational talks. Kate Stohr from Architecture for Humanity (one of their projects is shown above) spoke about reconstruction efforts for refugees and dealing with corruption and political obstacles. Kristel Younes from Refugees International described human conditions in refugee camps throughout the world, infrastructure of camps, safety, sanitation. Monica Underwood from America USAid Projustice discussed rebuilding the legal system from scratch when all records, birth certificates and criminal records are lost.

I think the students’ resulting projects are highly imaginative — and very inspirational, too. Many teams used easy-to-grow and harvest timber bamboo as  the key building material. One combined the bamboo with gabion baskets containing decontaminated rubble from the ruins (top, right above) for the walls.Another devised a clever cruciform plan (see upper left on the board above) to ensure cross ventilation and private outdoor space. Another studied regional building traditions and adapted them (left, above) to contemporary needs. Each team combined a wide variety of disciplines to come up with feasible real-world solutions. I was impressed by the esprit de corps and ingenuity demonstrated by each project and I toast all six teams. They are already helping to make a brighter future — and the conversation has just begun. Bravo!

How To Read Buildings; Plan Sale Trends

Before Kindle: Buildings as Books

The built environment is actually part of a vast architectural textbook waiting to be read — some structures are more biographical, some more novelistic, and some even approach the poetic. Buildings express the aspirations of individuals and communities as well as social and economic realities. By reading buildings you begin to see how a setting evolved and what it says about the culture that produced it. That’s what a new pocket paperback, Cityscapes by S. F. Chronicle urban design writer John King (Heyday Books 2011) demonstrates. It’s a compendium of quick “readings” of a wide range of old and new buildings in San Francisco, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s mini-Guggenheim on Maiden Lane to the vernacular houseboats on Mission Creek, all part of what he calls “shared touchstones of reference and recall, shaping our sense of place.” I recommend it.

House Plan Sales Trends

The way to read a house plan is to study it as closely as possible, from how it looks to how it lives. To that end I thought I would review what plans have been selling lately and do a little “reading” of my own. Naturally, I think the best houses give their occupants a sense of individuality as well as comfort while maximizing the potential of the lot — and many of our most recently sold plans do this. And I’m beginning to see a trend or two…like greater privacy for master suites and stronger indoor-outdoor connections.

Modern Plan 484-3 was sold to a customer in Atlanta. It’s designed to take advantage of a narrow sloping lot. It’s a row house with a garage at the bottom level, living-dining area in the middle, and bedrooms at the top. Strong outdoor connections make the home seem larger than it is. See how the great room opens to the barbecue/pool patio.

The main living spaces are compact but because  they overlap and can borrow light from each other on three sides they have a feeling of spaciousness. The island helps separate the kitchen from the rest of the main space without visually cutting it off.

Generous balconies off the master and secondary bedrooms on the top floor add to the airiness.

Plan 477-4, a stately classical design, sold to a customer in Alberta, Canada. It would fit an infill site in an urban neighborhood — though it could also work on larger lots as a kind of villa.  The porch arcade shelters the front door while providing a welcoming face to the street. Inside, the layout is

not large but has an air of elegance and formality thanks to the small vestibule and stairhall between living room and dining room. A pocket door allows the vestibule to open directly to the kitchen when needed, adding to the plan’s flexibility. Upstairs, the master suite is somewhat removed from the other bedrooms for greater privacy.

Modern barn-inspired Plan 450-2 sold to a homeowner moving from Oklahoma to Kansas.  It would work as a vacation cabin on a rural site, as a starter home, or artist’s studio. It could also be a guest house or the first stage of a larger compound. The plan is small but very efficient– with  back-to-back kitchen and bathroom set between living area and bedroom. And yet thanks to the openings on three sides of the two main rooms — including the large glass garage door used as a moving window wall in the living space – this little house feels bright and spacious. Read-on, MacDuff!