Monthly Archives: May 2013

Micro-Cottage by Architect Cathy Schwabe

Building on a Regional Modernism

Our Signature Plans Collection is expanding dramatically, most recently with work by Berkeley architect Cathy Schwabe. Before launching her own practice Cathy worked with well known Bay Area architect Joe Esherick at his firm EHDD. She says:  “For me, Joe’s often-quoted question ‘How would a farmer do it?’ means designing buildings that make sense on their sites, whose practical approach to materials and construction details ensures that they will last and whose design

891-1 lead image

has a straightforward, simple beauty.” You can see this principle deftly demonstrated in her 864 sq. ft. modern, shed-roofed, board-and-batten studio, shown here opening to a flagstone terrace. It’s our Plan 891-1 (all photos by Continue reading

The High Line and Other Gardens

Line Dancing in the Landscape

aerial view with people by Iwan Baan from

Revisiting the great public parkway in New York City known as The High Line recently made me appreciate once again the power of design to make you see the world in fresh ways or as if for the first time. Created by James Corner Field Operations (Project Lead), Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf for the City of New York, it occupies the tracks of a defunct elevated freight rail line snaking through the West Side of Manhattan from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. Maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line, it opened in 2009 and another section was completed in 2011. I joined crowds of Continue reading

New Cabin and Backyard Cottage Plans

Nir Pearlson Rethinks the Simple Home

I’m excited to welcome Oregon architect Nir Pearlson to —  his designs are the latest additions to our Signature Collection. With experience as both craftsman/builder and architect, Nir has brought new energy to compact and sustainable home design. In fact, he just won Fine Homebuilding magazine’s 2013 Small Home of the Year Award for an 800 sq. ft., two bedroom one bath garden cottage. The magazine recognized the design “for its shared spaces and connections to the outdoors that make it seem larger than its physical boundaries…” And guess what?! It’s our new Plan 890-1! The layout is

890-1 elev

mostly one open space containing kitchen and living-dining area connecting to a

890-1 floor plan

large wrap-around deck, as shown here (all photos in this post by Mike Dean, courtesy Nir Pearlson). Nir explains that he designed the house as a series of roughly 12 foot-square modules — they overlap to comprise the main living area. Key elements define individual “rooms” without separating one from another,

River road window seat

effectively making the main space feel larger than it is, like this window seat with storage drawers. The built-in platform and overhead beam frame the seat as a separate unit without cutting it off from the larger space. The kitchen peninsula

River road kitchen to living room

(a warm-toned granite) performs a similar function — see the window alcove in the distance — as does the central wood stove on its slate pad. Naturally dyed

River road living kitchen

plaster wall finish, and red oak floor and Douglas fir and hemlock trim add visual warmth. Nir designed the house to be as energy-wise as possible, with rigid foam insulation in walls and roof, and separate photo-voltaic arrays — a larger one

890-1  front elev

for generating electricity and a smaller one for hot water — which are visible on the roof in the photo. It’s definitely the little award-winning cottage that could!

Nir designed this 800 sq. foot two story home — Plan 890-3 — to function as a

890-3 front

backyard cottage. Two bedrooms are on the lower level; kitchen and living space are on the floor above and open to the charming porch you see here. While this version of the cottage tucks into the toe of a slope, it could easily be adapted for other site conditions. Stay tuned as we add more Pearlson plans.

Welcome Nir!

Camping as a Form of House Building

Building on the Bivouac

If you’re planning to build a house on a rural site it’s a good idea to try to camp there first, to get a sense of the site’s key features and best orientations. In my case — having just returned from an overnight stay in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara in a sleeping bag that must have been rated for indoor use only — camping only made me appreciate beds and bedrooms all the more.  But while lying awake in the cold — the moon is beautiful but really, really slow — I started to think about ways to include aspects of camping without actually leaving home. Seattle architect Tom Kundig, of the firm Olson Kundig, is especially adept at what I would call “civilized rustication,” that is, heightening an outdoor experience indoors. I have mentioned some of his projects before —


he gives new meaning to the nurture in nature. For example, consider this plywood bedroom with the round Rais wood stove: I’d call it architectural Continue reading

Louis Kahn’s Last Commission

Rooms of Requirement

I recently visited the new (38 years in the making) Four Freedoms Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Louis Kahn, on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan’s East River across from the United Nations. The name comes from a famous Roosevelt speech where he listed the four basic human freedoms worth fighting for: Freedom of Speech and Expression, of Worship, from Want, and from Fear. The memorial exemplifies the power of architecture to celebrate locations and

Roosevelt-Island-Tram2 from Eldridge

ideas. You get there by tram, which sets the experience apart, like an architectural palate cleanser, as you soar above the river and see the landscape below (photo courtesy The memorial forms the tip of the


island like the prow of a ship, which is fitting, since Roosevelt was a yachtsman and Assistant Secretary of the Navy before becoming president. This view is looking back toward the tramway, which is hidden on the far side of the bridge (photo by courtesy Business Insider). But it’s also a dazzling geometric abstraction made of huge precisely cut blocks of granite set extremely close together but not touching. The triangular wedge of lawn, linden trees, and gravel paths lead into a grand rectangular open-air room like an arrow piercing its target. After a brief walk from the tram station you come to a grand stairway which forms the ceremonial entrance to the park. At the top of the staireverything unfolds, drawing you inexorably across and down and into the view. It recalls the axiality of Kahn’s famous Salk Institute at La Jolla, where the plaza between the two main wings frames and magnifies the view to the sea. As The New York Times put it, when advocating for the memorial’s island site when it was first proposed: “It would face the sea he loved, the Atlantic he bridged, the Europe he helped to save, and the United Nations he inspired.” See the elegant UN slab on the right. But here the tree-lined paths (four rows — four freedoms?) at the side are as important as the central greensward: all roads lead to the man, the city, and the seascape. Visitors

Roosevelt bust by Jo Davidson

eddy around the bust of FDR by Jo Davidson (photo courtesy FDR Four Freedoms Park) and enter the roofless room at the island’s tip where they can sit at the water’s edge. The close-up and colossal granite blocks literally anchor

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the space (the famous speech excerpt is engraved on the central block),

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contrasting vividly with the long panoramas across the river.

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Everyone gathers on the stone steps at far end. In a sense the memorial leads us back to ourselves and our own contemplative horizons.

It’s a monumental room that’s also poignant and personal, and prompted other thoughts about the meaning of interior and exterior space. I think a well designed room should be a little like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts, which, as Dobby explains to Harry Potter,  “is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not, but when it appears it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.” A domestic


example might be Frank Ghery’s famous Norton house in Venice, California, where the architect gave his client, a former lifeguard, a lookout tower he could call home whenever he wanted to savor — if not save — some personal space (photo courtesy A somewhat broader interpretation of “requirement” might be a multi-functional space like a great room where some


functions lie dormant until a particular activity is called for, as illustrated by Plan 65-142, shown here, which is essentially a contemporary one-room cottage. (Despite all the Medievalisms in the Harry Potter books, maybe there’s also a modernist streak!) In any case, whether in public environments or private spaces, I think the best architectural designs fill many roles.