Monday, March 2, 2015


One Sunday a while back, I dropped by an open house that had just been remodeled and put on the market. It was a speculative renovation, otherwise known as a “flip”. In keeping with the usual modus operandi of such projects, the builder had refitted the modest mid-Sixties Rancher with shiny granite counter tops, gridded plastic windows, glossy prefinished flooring, and so on. 

For obvious reasons, this isn't an actual photo
of the living room I'm describing.
In any case, this one has more windows.
This familiar slate of so-called upgrades, as painfully predictable as it was, wasn’t the real problem, though. The builder had also made some heavy-handed changes to the home’s original floor plan, evidently hell-bent on pumping it up to the overblown market standards of recent years. And here he made a classic amateur mistake: So busy was he swaddling the place in glitzy finishes that he completely overlooked a number of eye-popping flaws in his “improved” design.

The worst of these errors was the layout of the entry and living room--probably the very last place you want to screw up a house. The builder, convinced that a really huge living area would impress potential buyers, had combined the former living room and master bedroom into one gigantic rectangular space with--drum roll please--no windows at all. Oh, the front door (which led directly into the room, another no-no) did have some glass in it, but this only captured the feeble light from a shadowy, roofed-over porch. Rather than the effect of extravagant space the builder was after, his living area felt more like the rumpus room in a church basement. 

You don't have to go crazy with
glass, but for heaven's sake,
at least allow people to see outside.
(Image courtesy of
 Interior Gallery Design)
Compounding the error, he provided an elaborately-appointed kitchen completely open to both the living and dining rooms--but also lacking any windows. In fact, the only direct light in the whole vast space came from a single sliding glass door in the dining ell.

For the builder to presume that his open floor plan would miraculously allow him to make do with the light from a few distant windows was a blunder of epic proportions. For one, building codes have minimum requirements for window size in habitable rooms, and I doubt that he satisfied even those rock-bottom standards. 

More importantly, though, windows have a purpose beyond just providing adequate light--otherwise we could fit every home with artificial lighting and call it a day. When humans occupy an enclosed space, they have a very clear psychological need to see natural light, not to speak of some sense of the world outside. Hence, any purported living area that lacks windows inevitably feels oppressive and claustrophobic.

The lesson is simple: If you’re remodeling, don’t miss the forest for the trees. Lavish materials and fastidious detailing are fine, but by no stretch of the imagination can they compensate for a fundamentally defective floor plan. Therefore, approach any architectural problem from the broad-brush aspects that really matter--the things that will make the place livable, like solar orientation, circulation, and convenience--and satisfy these fundamentals before worrying over details of color and finish. Otherwise you may end up as this builder did: With a very fancy mess, but a mess nonetheless.

Monday, February 23, 2015

LE CORBUSIER: Order Above All Else

“Architecture,” pronounced the famed modern architect Le Corbusier, “is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” 

And what a preposterous statement that is, even coming from this supremely dogmatic thinker. Astonishingly, Le Corbusier’s definition manages to overlook the single operative purpose of every proper work of architecture in history--that of enclosing interior volume, or in plain words, providing shelter. The “learned game” Le Corbusier describes is much more akin to sculpture than to architecture, though no one seemed willing to call the great man’s bluff at the time.
Pessac worker housing: Le Corbusier
putting "function and objects in order."

If Le Corbusier’s bizarre definition managed to neglect architecture’s central purpose, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Of all the great modernists--and despite his many addled theoretical excursions, he was certainly that--his works have proven the most susceptible to the critical lens of retrospect. He was perhaps the greatest modernist to see architecture as a social tonic, and the architect as a social engineer who should be dispatched to change human behavior rather than accomodate it. 

Pessac today, after being personalized by its owners.
“To create architecture is to put in order,” Le Corbusier further proclaimed, betraying a notable nonchalance for the human variable. “Put what in order? Function and objects.” 

Yet the Corbusian style, with its fastidious oranization and near-supernatural purity of form, proved to be an aesthetic ideal whose underpinnings seldom held up under the messy rigor of real-life use. The wealthy owners of his villas naturally deferred to his aesthetic no matter the cost, but the less heavily vested users of his buildings----the very bourgeoisie he hoped to educate and rescue from their traditional lifestyles--did not always react so favorably. Time after time, Le Corbusier’s public works were famously subverted by their users.

The Plan Voisin, which proposed razing a large
portion of downtown Paris and replacing it
with a more orderly grid of highrise buildings.
Note the Ile de la Cite at lower right. 
 In 1925, he built his first large-scale project at Pessac in France, a pristine and flawlessly proportioned low-cost housing development, only to find its residents chafing under his efforts to put their “function and objects” in order. Over the next forty years, Pessac residents variously grafted on traditional pitched roofs, turned terraces into extra bedrooms, and hung planter boxes from windows, all in an effort to personalize the project’s pointed anonymity.

If  Pessac’s shortcomings seem relatively innocuous, though, consider Le Corbusier’s contemporary Plan Voisin, in which he proposed to raze a good portion of Paris and replace it with a phalanx of identical concrete highrises. Nor did this brand of thinking change to any great extent later in his career. His Unite d’Habitation, completed at Marseilles in 1952, once again proffers the ideal of the gridded concrete tower, this time with a purported rooftop “garden” entirely paved over in concrete and relieved only by a number of abstract concrete sculptures. Almost thirty years after Pessac, the architect was still exasperated to find residents outfitting his pristine interiors with wrought-iron chandeliers and Louis XIV furniture.
Chandigarh, Palace of the Assembly. 

Also begun in 1952 was the crown jewel of Le Corbusier’s career, his complex of government buildings in Chandigarh, India. Here he once again utilized coarsely formed concrete buildings on a monstrous scale, seemingly oblivious to the physical and cultural context. And once again, he played his “learned game...of forms assembled in the light,” while neglecting the human beings whom it was created for.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly;” said the American Revolutionary Thomas Paine. “It is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Much of what America has accomplished in the last two centuries is indebted to that understanding--whether we’re talking about the cost of liberty, or the impetus for our celebrated Yankee thrift. Alas, as great a nation as we remain today, we’re clearly losing sight of Paine’s premise. 

In the face of better alternatives, the fossil fuel-
powered automobile is overdue for oblivion.
For much of its existence, America has been blessed with cheap and plentiful resources, many of which have come at the expense of our global neighbors. In the last hundred years, however, no single resource has shaped the nation as profoundly as our easy access to cheap oil. It’s led to the primacy of personal cars, which in turn has radically affected the design of American cities during the course of the twentieth century. 

Under the relentless growth of automobile ownership, America’s infrastructure geared itself almost exclusively to internal-combustion vehicles. Slowly but inexorably, we abandoned public transportation in favor of  building freeways to ever more distant suburbs. In response, businesses fled dense city centers for suburban sites where they could provide “cheap” parking. Meanwhile, American homes sprouted two, then three or even four garages, which became the dominant architectural emblem of postwar housing. 

An unintended consequence of cheap petroleum.
Somewhere along the line, though, automobiles became not so much desirable as simply indispensable. We now find ourselves trapped in this ironic cycle: Since virtually the whole nation has been built to suit cars, cars are now practically the only way we can get around. Our homes are strung along miles and miles of automobile-choked highways--sometimes so far from our jobs that we drive for hours just to get to work each day. Even our economic health is inextricably tied to the business of building more cars, giving a sclerotic government and a technologically moribund auto industry even less stomach for intelligent change.

Yet our world is now forever different from the one that came before--due in no small part to American ingenuity. Brought closer by the miracle of global connectivity, and simultaneously haunted by the specter of diminishing resources, it’s now a place in which all peoples feel entitled to participate. We can no longer ignore that what comes cheaply to us often exacts a heavy price from someone else.

The Chevrolet Volt: Better way too late
than never.
Thomas Paine could hardly have anticipated such a state of affairs, yet his observation is all the more trenchant today. Gasoline prices have sunk to record lows  in the past year, but in the long run, it’s no cause for celebration. It’s the availability of cheap fossil fuels that’s made us Yanks uncharacteristically slow to develop motive power more intelligent than the internal combustion engine. By any measure--whether of politics, depletion, pollution, or economics--it’s been clear for decades that our petroluem-based society is unsustainable. Yet only in the past decade have we made any real progress at finding better alternatives to vehicles powered by fossil fuels. 

While low oil prices may seem like a blessing, in the long run they serve only to reinforce our addiction to a dead-end fuel source. Perhaps, as Paine foresaw over two hundred years ago, the blessings we enjoy aren’t yet quite dear enough.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Talk about misplaced priorities: In the name of saving energy, many people think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on replacement windows. But at the same time, they’ll willingly limp along with an obsolete furnace whose replacement would have a far greater payoff, dollar for dollar, on both their their utility bills and their home’s comfort.

Still have an old "octopus" gravity furnace?
They look cool, but are disastrously inefficient
 (and often loaded with asbestos).
The bottom line is that, if improving your home’s energy efficiency is the main goal, replacing your windows is among the least cost effective ways to do it. Here’s why: 

Although glass radiates heat at a substantially higher rate than walls or ceilings do, it represents only a small fraction of a home’s exterior surface area. A typical 1800 square foot, one-story rancher, for example, will have a window area comprising something on the order of just 6 percent of the exterior envelope. 

In the same house, however, the ceilings represent a whopping one-third of the surface area. Therefore, the most cost effective way to improve energy efficiency in homes built before the 1980s is simply to increase attic insulation levels. 

Maybe your furnace has been upgraded to a
more modern forced-air unit like this one—
but don't feel too good about that either.
Its efficiency may still be awful.
So is replacing windows the next logical step for improving energy efficiency? Not by a long shot. Consider that many pre-World War II houses still have their original “octopus” gravity furnaces. If you have a basement, chances are that your house once had--or may even still have--this type of heating system. With their gas-squandering pilot lights and primitive heat exchanger designs, most gravity furnaces have dismal energy efficiencies of perhaps 60 percent (meaning the other forty percent of your energy dollar is wasted up the flue). What’s more, their thinly-insulated ductwork wastes yet more heat just getting it to the register grilles, quite possibly leaving you with a net efficiency of fifty percent or so.

Maybe your prewar house has already had its old gravity furnace replaced with a “modern” forced-air unit somewhere along the line. Or, maybe you’re not worried about your furnace at all because your house is only thirty years old. Alas, any forced air unit predating the 1980s is likely to have an efficiency of perhaps 75 percent--and that one-fourth of your energy dollar being wasted is nothing to celebrate.
A modern, high-efficiency furnace is
a much more cost-effective energy
investment than new windows.

Replacing your furnace with a modern high-efficiency unit (typically around 95 percent efficient or better) not only will yield big savings on your energy bills, but will markedly improve your home’s comfort as well. Most models have variable speed fans that are quieter and do a better job of maintaining a steady temperature. 

 Other improvements, such as automatic flue dampers and electronic ignition, finally do away with longstanding sources of energy waste that have hobbled furnace efficiency for over a century. Last but not least, the new electronic clock thermostat can be precisely tailored to your daily routine, conserving even more energy by turning off the heat at the times it’s not needed.

All in all, a new furnace and ductwork is likely to cost you less than new windows, and will probably have a much bigger impact on both your utility bills and your comfort. So why throw money out the window?

Monday, February 2, 2015


Is this the porch lamp
you've been looking for?
Last time we paid a visit to the architectural salvage yard--a place where, if you’re diligent, you can find quality building materials that are cheaper and greener to boot. Today we continue the shopping list with more potential bargains, though they may require some careful vetting first.

• Structural items. Many salvage yards stock a plethora of materials such as brick, wood and steel beams, sheet metal, structural hardware, and the like. If you happen to find exactly what you’re look for (or, more likely, something that’s close enough), you can save a lot of money--often fifty to seventy-five percent over lumberyard prices. Occasionally, you may have to massage your plans a little to make use of a real bargain, but that’s the nature of buying anything recycled.

• Lighting fixtures. In general, older lighting fixtures are of much higher quality than modern ones, with heavier parts and more durable finishes. However, you should expect to rewire all vintage lighting fixtures, since their old-style cloth insulation becomes brittle with age and can cause short circuits. Professional rewiring can add appreciable cost to a “bargain” salvaged fixture, but the added expense is still usually justified for a top-quality vintage fixture. If you’re reasonably handy with things electrical, you may also be able to do this work yourself.  

Or this window?
• Cabinetwork. It’s not uncommon to find very high quality cabinets at a salvage yard, since kitchens and baths are always being remodeled to keep up with current fads. However, beware of cabinets damaged during removal, or ones that are so heavily encrusted with paint that refinishing wouldn’t be cost effective. 

• Windows. Here’s a classic recycling dilemma: Currently, most state energy codes require new or replacement windows to be double-glazed, and at this time, only a small percentage of salvaged windows fill the bill. However, if you find a single-glazed window that you simply can’t pass up, you may be able to make tradeoffs, such as upgrading your insulation, that will keep you in compliance with the law. 
Or this pedestal sink?
They're all available
at architectural
salvage yards.
Modern building codes also require that windows in certain hazardous locations (and all glass doors) be glazed with safety glass, which is seldom found in salvaged items either. Since reglazing is expensive, make sure the code allows plain glass in the specific window locations you’re pondering.

• Plumbing fixtures. Like recycled windows, salvaged plumbing fixtures can be a real bargain, but they can also stick you with some insoluble code conflicts unless you’re careful. Most states, for example, require that newly installed toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Older toilets can use as much as six or even eight gallons per flush, and there is no practical retrofit to bring them into compliance. Likewise, older faucets may not include flow restrictors and hence cannot comply with water conservation requirements. Until conservation codes are rewritten to reflect total water use rather than attempting to micromanage individual fixtures, reusing old toilets and faucets will remain a problem.

• Lastly, note that two materials now considered health hazards--asbestos, and paint containing lead--are both common in vintage materials. Traces of asbestos insulation are often found clinging to old ductwork, register grilles, and heating appliances, while virtually any prewar woodwork that’s painted can contain lead. Be informed, gauge your own level of concern, and buy accordingly.

Monday, January 26, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION: Part One of Two Parts

Suppose there was a place you could buy high quality building products at fire sale prices, and do it in the greenest possible manner to boot? Well, there is such a place--it’s your local architectural salvage yard. If you can live with a few little nicks and scratches, you may be amazed at the bargains you come across. 

A good architectural salvage yard
will have doors like this aplenty.
What? Build your esteemed project with someone else’s castoffs? Well, yes. And there are three good reasons to do so. 

First, the quality of older building materials is often superior to what you’ll find at modern home improvement stores. 

Second, salvaged items typically sell at discounts of fifty to ninety percent off new prices (some items are in fact brand new products misordered by contractors, rejected by customers, or discontinued by their manufacturers--occasionally, they’re still in their original shipping containers). Lastly, salvaged items are infinitely greener than new, so-called “green” products, since they already exist and consume no additional resources. 

But be forewarned: Buying from an architectural salvage yard isn’t for everyone. Unlike shopping at your local building emporium, you can’t just grab all the generic, Made-In-China goodies you need and be on your way. You need patience. It can takes months, in fact, to find just the right items for your project. 

On a really good day, you might find a
brand new high-end entrance door like this,
perhaps still crated for delivery.
You also have to remain flexible and willing to change your mind. For example, you may be looking for a pair of double entrance doors, but come across an absolutely beautiful single door with sidelights that works just as well--perhaps better. Far from being a drawback, having to keep your design options open will often elicit more interesting, less off-the-shelf solutions.  

Now, some salvaged items that can be especially good values:

• Front entrances are one of the most commonly replaced items in home improvement, so salvage yards are usually well stocked with them. Often, these are very fine old doors that have been changed out merely to keep up with some new design fad. If you’re willing to live with the patina that accompanies a previous life, you can get  a high quality front entrance for dimes on the dollar. Your best bet is to look for units complete with the original jamb and hinges, since fitting a new door into an existing opening can be very labor intensive. 

One of my local architectural salvage yards—
Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, California.
• Interior doors can also be a good buy, as long as you know exactly what to look for. Again, if you’re building from scratch (rather than just replacing an existing door), it’s better to buy the doors complete with jambs and hinges--”prehung”, in building parlance. Make sure each door has the  proper “hand”--the direction it swings--because it’s not cost effective to rehinge a door later. Avoid doors that are glopped with multiple layers of old paint, which is usually more trouble to remove than the door is worth. 

• If you’re restoring an older home, the salvage yard is also a good source of hard-to-find vintage hardware items such as lock sets, brass switch cover plates, ornamental heat registers, and the like. They may require some TLC to be put back in use, but their quality is generally superior to that of new reproductions--often including the stuff available from those ostensible “restoration” catalog houses.

Next time, some more salvage yard bargains, along with a few items to approach with caution.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Oh no— these steps are imperfect!

Sociologists like to complain about all the beautiful people that populate advertising and the media. Presenting all those Ken-and-Barbie types as role models, they say, sets an unrealistic standard for the rest of us. Home improvement shows have, in their own way, much the same effect: In their alternate universe, contractors are all pillars of Yankee virtue, project snafus are always resolved in the nick of time, and 45 degree miter joints always fit perfectly. What a disappointment, then, when our own homes are so often far from perfect. 

It’s just as well, however. Perfection is overrated--not to mention impossible--and we’d all be happier if we’d learn to settle for “near-perfect” instead. I couldn’t count the number of past clients I’ve known, for example, who suffered untold anguish over a tiny scratch in a countertop or a microscopic dent in a new hardwood floor.   

This dread of perceived imperfection is partly the fault of our materialistic, newness-obsessed culture, which conditions us to regard anything that’s less than flawless as worn out and needing replacement. It’s no accident that this cult of newness is also what keeps new home improvement goods flying out of stores and old ones pouring into landfills--good news for people who want to sell things, but not such good news for the planet.  

There was a time in the middle of the twentieth century when some modern architects tried to convince us that flawlessness was in fact a requisite quality of fine architecture. Holding up the perfection of machine-made objects as a paragon, they designed buildings that were utterly reliant on the perfection of their surfaces, as if they alone would somehow be magically immune to the ravages of time. We need only look back at the many moldering and decrepit Modernist works still extant to see how abysmally wrong this thinking was. Predicating architecture on the notion of aesthetic perfection is as fruitless as predicating one’s life on eternal youth. 
Ah, now that's perfection—but only thanks to
vast sums spent in maintenance each year.
(Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House,
Plano, Illinois 1951)

All things--not least human beings--inevitably wear and show age, and once we accept this fact, we’re all the better for it. Yet Americans are strangely ambivalent about this process of aging, whether in themselves or in their environments. On the one hand, we profess to adore the sort of well-worn antiquity we find in places like Europe--a continent that’s notably old and beat up. But that quality doesn’t fare so well when we’re talking about our own homes. There, every tiny flaw becomes a cause for hand wringing.

 That’s a pity, because the inevitable dents and dings that arise through human habitation can just as well be viewed as a record of life’s events, forever frozen in time. See that scratch in the door jamb? That’s where Uncle Clem fell out of his chair on New Year’s Eve. Those scrape marks in the driveway? That’s where the bumper of our old Mercury used to drag. Rather than being cause for embarrassment or annoyance, such marks tell the colorful tale of time’s passage. How much more interesting that is than a flawless surface, and how much more human.

Oh no—she's imperfect!