Monday, May 18, 2015


What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same old stuff you’ve always used, which some corporate PR firm has now managed to repackage as “green”?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest approach to construction is to adapt buildings that already exist--and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.
This building was demolished to make room for—
no kidding—a casino parking lot.
(Columbia Building, Pittsburgh, destroyed 2011;
courtesy of

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be in a constant state of upheaval. Here, it’s common for buildings to be demolished after fifty, thirty, or even ten years of use--and the expected life of buildings is getting shorter, not longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of fifty years. Compare this to Europe, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on the Continent is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two World Wars. 

San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square—
a repurposed chocolate factory—
was among the first great
examples of "adaptive reuse".
America’s obsession with change, however, leads us to build quickly and on the cheap, since it’s assumed that buildings will be obsolete in a few decades anyway. Such thinking naturally leads to a vicious cycle of wastefulness: Because permananence is considered irrelevant, buildings are worn out in a few decades whether they’re actually obsolete or not. These, in turn, are typically replaced by structures that are even shoddier and more temporary--whether theoretically green or otherwise. 

Preserving and reusing older, well-built existing structures, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of true green design, since it requires relatively little additional expenditure of energy when adaptation is required, and occasionally, none at all when it isn’t. 

The average old building represents a vast investment of energy--not only in the form of materials, but more importantly, in the form of labor (and by “old”, let’s assume we mean those built before World War II). It’s self evident that old buildings typically used more opulent finishes than their modern counterparts; they were, after all, built at a time when high quality materials had not been depleted and were still used generously. 
The crafts that built interiors like this one—
the Los Angeles Theater—are not coming back at
prices anyone can afford. 

What is less seldom appreciated, however, is that an old building also embodies an enormous storehouse of labor--much of it of a kind modern society can no longer afford. Many once-ubiquitous building trades have all but disappeared over the last century--from stonemasons to stained-glass makers, from plasterers to gilders--and the fruits of their labors remain in every extant building, essentially frozen in time. 

These skills won’t be coming back, except in their current status as boutique trades carrying astronomical costs. Hence, destroying an old building doesn’t just squander physical resources--it also negates forever a huge investment of skilled work that’s no longer affordable and sometimes no longer even obtainable. To my mind, this is a waste of nonrenewable resources more tragic than that of any precious material.

Monday, May 11, 2015


The "Psycho" house.
As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which still stands on the Universal Studios backlot, is probably the best known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others: For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s milestone 1941 film Citizen Kane. The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used both to open and close the film. 

More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the Addams Family’s eccentric television abode (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Kane’s Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting). 

Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel style haunting. Back in the 1960s, old Victorians houses of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily-colored gingerbread houses had a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood moved on to other archetypes.
Is this the world's creepiest Dutch Colonial?

A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character--the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’s house in Psycho, for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for The Amityville Horror, or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull. In this case, Hill House was not just a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon. To get the eye-socket effect, director Wise used a special high contrast film to make the house's window openings seem black and empty (Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel).

The Addams Family lived here—well, sort of.
It's only a painting, though based on a real
house in Los Angeles
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper. These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of slasher films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t see faces in the wallpaper? 

The fact that we never learn just what malevelent force stalks Hill House in The Haunting only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions--only more unnerving questions. 
Ettington Hall: Not so scary in the daytime.

As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Monday, May 4, 2015


Nipple: Not so sexy.

What do the words nipple, flashing, chase and butt have in common?
That’s right--they’re all parts of a building.

As someone who’s gotten used to casually tossing off the many quirky terms found in building construction, I’m sometimes caught short by the sidelong glances of my clients, who aren’t always sure exactly what kind of anatomy I’m invoking.

Since contractor humor has presumably changed little over the centuries, I suspect that most of these terms harken from Medieval builders who, like their modern counterprarts, delighted in coining colorful or even risque names for otherwise mundane bits and pieces of buildings. 

Having used such blatant tittilation to draw your attention, I’ll explain the above words before I move on to a couple of other favorites.

• A nipple, as any plumber can tell you, is a very short length of threaded pipe. Back in the days when water pipes were threaded, plumbers had to make up all the long lengths on the job, but a range of nipples--short pieces in one-inch increments up to one foot--were prethreaded and kept at hand to save time. 

Flashing: Ooh la la...
• Flashing--which is a noun, not a verb--is a kind of sheet metal fabrication that’s used for waterproofing, typically where walls and roofs intersect. This word is just a shortened version of the original term, “flashing metal”, which better explains its origin--on a slate or tile roof, these pieces of metal were literally the only part that flashed in the sun.

• A chase is a vertical shaft, usually continuous through storeys, in which pipes, ducts, and the like are run. This kind of chase isn’t rooted in the more common word meaning “hunt”; rather, it comes from an Old French word meaning groove or enclosure.

Now that's a NICE butt.
• Butt—a shortened form of “butt hinge”--is builder’s lingo for the type of hinge typically used on a residential door. Curiously, butts are always counted like pants--in pairs. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while one with three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs.
And while we’re on some of the more arcane building terms, here are a few more:

Woodworkers go chasing this kind of rabbet.
• A rabbet is a groove or recess running the length of a piece of lumber. It has nothing to do with the name of the like-sounding animal, but rather is just the woodworker’s corruption of “rebate”, an old architectural term with nearly the same meaning. The exact same groove made perpendicular to the grain rather than parallel to it, however, is inexplicably called a “dado”.

• In construction, to “furr”--yes, it really has two Rs--means to apply false framing over a wall or ceiling, usually to hide something unsightly beneath. The word comes from the Old French “fourrer”, which has the delightful meaning of “to trim or line with fur”.

• A “sleeper” is one of a series of wooden strips laid down over subflooring in order to increase its height. Since this piece of lumber doesn’t have to do much of anything but lay there, its thirteenth-century meaning seems wryly appropriate: “One who is inclined to sleep much.” Zzzzzzz.

Monday, April 27, 2015

U.S. VERSUS CHINA: Who's Really Greener?

Look familiar? The "new"
dual-flush toilet has been
common in China for
almost two decades.
The other day, a radio program on green technology once again reminded me how out of touch we Americans are with the green movement across the globe. The announcer was talking--with the usual condescension--about “bringing a waterless toilet to China,” as if the Chinese were primitives incapable of figuring out how to save water, let alone build their own toilets.

This ignorance with respect to China’s environmental policies explains much about why the United States is falling behind as other nations strive to develop their green technologies. We arrogantly assume that we lead the world in this regard, when in fact we’re rapidly becoming third-rate.

Americans are scarcely aware of this state of affairs because both our government and our media seldom miss a chance to bash the Chinese over their environmental record. Yet this serves mainly to divert attention from the lagging state of our own green technology and the sclerotic legislators who are to blame for it. The truth is that, despite relentlessly negative press, China is already well positioned to overtake us in environmentally progressive policies. 

Electric bikes: A fixture on Chinese streets
for the last fifteen years.
Seen any of them in the U.S. yet?
Nor is this a recent development. When I first visited Shanghai in 1994, for example, solar hot water heaters were already a prominent feature of virtually every apartment block on the skyline. Electric bicycles, which remain all but unknown in the U.S. to this day, have long been a fixture in China’s city streets. And, oh yes--water-conserving dual-flush toilets were common in China many years before they were introduced in our own country.
The Chinese enthusiastically adopted high-efficiency lighting two decades ago, not only in commercial applications but also in their homes. This should come as no surprise, since China is among the world’s leading manufacturers of lighting. 

The Nanjing subway: Clean, quiet,
and with stops announced in English.
Moreover, the more modern technology of light emitting diodes or LEDs, which is only slowly making headway in the U.S., is already widely used in China for freeway and street lighting, traffic signals, and countless other applications. The LED is an American invention, but once again it’s the Chinese who are making the most of it.

As for gaining independence from foreign oil, many Chinese cities are busily upgrading their public transportation systems or even building new ones from scratch. Not long ago, for example, I had the pleasure of riding the Nanjing subway, and the sad truth is that no existing American subway system can approach it. The trains and stations are both attractive and immaculate. Electronic displays in each car show the train’s progress in real time, and stops are automatically (and intelligibly) announced in both Chinese and English.

Shanghai freeways are lit by LEDs—
an American invention. Why aren't ours?
In another eye-opening experience last year, I rode the new high-speed rail line from downtown Shanghai to my sometime-home in Suzhou. The formerly two-hour-plus trip clocked in at twenty-five minutes portal to portal, and cost me about seven dollars.  
This is the nation we’re supposed to impress with waterless toilets?

In the last thirty years, the United States has become ever more arrogant and complacent regarding its role in a changing world. And so very ironically like the Communist systems of old, our government seems more interested in deriding the progress of other nations than in taking positive steps of its own. Perhaps America really does need another Sputnik moment to regain its vast potential. China is liable provide it.

Monday, April 20, 2015


The town I live in--Berkeley, California--is the capital of shaggy wooden houses. Around here, you could get stoned for saying you don’t like natural wood exteriors. So I won’t say that. But what thirty years of practicing architecture have taught me is this: Natural wood is a fabulous finish inside a house, where it’s protected. But as an exterior wall finish, left to the elements--forget it.

Brand-new natural wood is gorgeous—
no question about it.  But check back in ten years
and see how it's doing.
The reason exposed wood--whether left natural or given a transparent finish--is still so popular on building exteriors is that it looks absolutely stunning when it’s brand new. That’s exactly how most people see it in tony design magazine photos, and so that’s how they think it will look on their own homes. Alas, the reality is that, after a few years, wood is on a one-way trip to Shabbyville. 

I can paraphrase the lumber industry’s stock reply to this assertion, and it goes something like this:: 

“A premium material such as wood needs proper maintenance to keep its beauty, and anyone willing to invest in genuine wood should also be prepared to keep it maintained in top condition.” 

The trouble is, over time--after the initial ten-year honeymoon, let’s say--very few people continue to provide the kind of painstaking maintenance that’s required to protect natural wood subjected to the weather. And once that maintenance level has slipped even a little, a wood exterior is already on track to inevitable decline. 
Thanks to the depletion of old-growth forests,
the quality of natural wood products
 such as shingles and siding isn't getting any better—
but neither are they getting any cheaper.

 Compounding the problem,, the quality of solid lumber in general has declined during the last few decades. Therefore, unless you’re prepared to pay astronomical prices for carriage-trade grades of lumber, a new wood installation will have an even shorter life span than in the past.

Contrast the ongoing maintenance headache of natural wood with the nominal attention required by that longtime bad boy of building finishes, stucco. Over the last sixty years, stucco’s good reputation has been sullied by lookalike mid-century housing tracts such a Levittown, not to mention Malvina Reynolds singing about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Yet stucco is both cheaper and far more durable than wood. It’s also “plastic” in the best architectural sense--it can assume just about any form you can imagine. It can also be permanently colored, doing away with the need to repaint every few years. An exterior finish that can hold up for a century or so with practically no maintenance--not even painting--is about as good as it gets. 

Natural wood siding with flawless modernist joinery.
It's a beautiful house—but man, are you asking for it.
As an architect, I’ve learned that it’s pure folly to specify fragile finishes and then expect people to maintain them forever after. Nor should a homeowner be condemned to this kind of maintenance schedule, no matter how beautiful the finish. So I almost never use natural wood on exteriors any more. There are exceptions--if the timbers are substantial enough, for example, wood can’t be beat for outdoor structures such as pergolas and the like. But for an architecturally interesting finish that’ll last pretty much forever, I’ll take ticky-tacky anytime.

Ouch! Who threw that rock?

Monday, April 13, 2015


In America, bigger is always better, right? Our cars, our accomplishments, even our personalities have always been outsized. But the fact is that bigger ain’t always better--at least not when it comes to our houses. 

My friend's dot-com millions bought him
a home much like this one. 
This truth became even more obvious to me than after an acquaintance of mine who’d grown up lower middle class suddenly became a dotcom millionaire in the late Nineties. He got so rich, in fact, that he was able to buy himself a gigantic, fresh-built mansion in a gated community just outside Silicon Valley. Now, you’d think this would be the proverbial dream come true for most people. But like Citizen Kane at Xanadu, my friend always seemed uncomfortable shuffling around all those echoey formal rooms in his so-called “home”. 
Whenever I visited, he’d withdraw either to the garage, where all his guy stuff was stashed, or to a tiny storage room that had the size and feel of a normal tract house bedroom—probably much like the one he'd grown up in

Not surprisingly, this made me wonder anew about the use or value of all the rest of all the huge spaces that made up the bulk of the place. The problem with really big rooms is that we human beings are naturally ill at ease inhabiting them. Our primitive brains still feel more secure, and hence more comfortable, in spaces we can traverse in a few steps. 
In the past, the huge public rooms of mansions served mainly to flaunt their owner’s wealth and good taste--though these attributes don’t necessarily go together. Yet even the wealthiest masters of such houses carried on day-to-day life in a much more modest suite of rooms elsewhere in the place. Living in some huge, drafty hall, regardless of how sumptuous the decoration, was no more comfortable then than it is now.

I grew up in an old, 900 square foot Colonial Bungalow.
The real one was demolished long ago, but this house is
 pretty close. Although we were a family of five,
it never occurred to us to feel crowded.
Even now, in the wake of the Great Recession, Americans are only grudgingly relinquishing our thirty-year obsession with bloated house, despite the fact that we’ve already learned this lesson once before. Around the mid-nineteenth century, houses of every class, from mansions to worker’s cottages, began to get bigger and bigger. Ceiling heights swelled from under eight feet during Colonial times to twelve feet in the Victorian era, while floor plans got more and more complicated. Victorian kitchens alone grew into complex warrens of three or four rooms. Yet, rather than making their owners happier, these vast houses instead provoked a backlash—especially among women, who typically got stuck with the job of keeping them up. This disenchantment with bloated Victorian design ushered in the bungalow homes of the early twentieth century, with their credo of smaller-and-simpler-is-better.

I happen to have grown up with two older brothers in such a house—a 900 square foot Colonial bungalow—and it never crossed our minds that we were crowded or deprived in any way. In fact, my family remembers this little house more fondly than any other, regardless of size. 

We could learn a great deal from these downsized bungalows of a century ago, if only we found the wisdom to Think Small once in awhile. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

WHICH WINDOW? Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we talked about choosing replacement windows that suit the style of your house—whether the type is casement, double hung, slider, or something more exotic. This time, we’ll look at the different window materials available, and which choice is best for your project.

First, however, comes the fundamental question about window replacement: Does it really make sense for you? The answer, in many cases, is no. If you’re replacing your windows solely to lower your utility bills, for example, forget it. Energy loss through windows comprises only a small fraction of overall energy loss throughout the house, and you’ll be far better off investing your money in additional attic insulation or even, in many cases, a more efficient furnace.
Low initial cost has made vinyl (PVC) windows
 the default standard for most new home construction.
However, they're not always the best aesthetic choice.

Even if you think your current windows are in terrible shape, you may wish to get an estimate on repairing rather than replacing them. This is especially advisable if you’re lucky enough to have a prewar home with original wood windows--in this case, replacement windows will almost certainly detract from its market value. Bear in mind that window replacement is generally an iffy investment, since it has a very long payback period. It’s also one that can radically change your home’s appearance--often for the worse.

If you’ve determined that replacement is for you, however, here’s a rundown of the different window materials commonly available. Remember, we’re not talking about the window type--double hung, slider, and so forth--but actual material.
The slender proportions of high-quality aluminum
windows has long made them the favorite choice
 for Modernist home designs, including
mid-century designs such as Ranchers.
(Photo: Benjamin Benschneider, The Seattle Times)

• Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride plastic, to be specific) is currently the ubiquitous material for replacement windows, but that alone doesn’t make it an obvious choice. The moderate price can be attractive, but the jury is still out on vinyl’s durability over the long haul. What’s more, the thick, doughy frames typical of these windows are inappropriate to many home styles, and the slim choice of colors makes them easy to spot as replacements. 

• Aluminum windows are still available, but no longer carry the bargain-bargain price you may remember from years past. There’s a good reason for this, however: They’re now better built and far more efficient than the cheapie units of the 1960s. If your house was originally built with aluminum windows--most postwar houses from the mid-1950s through the 1980s were--there’s no question that new-generation aluminum windows will be your best aesthetic choice for replacement.

Wood windows remain the best replacement
choice for pre-World War II traditional homes.
Vinyl windows are a good second option.
• Wood windows, whether standard or clad, remain the premium choice for replacement. Clad windows, which variously have an external shell of aluminum or fiber glass to protect the wood elements from weathering, are represented as doing away with maintenance headaches. However, unlike plain wood windows, they can’t be easily repaired or refinished if they’re damaged. You’re also permanently stuck with the color of cladding you choose. Hence, you should weigh the premium you’ll pay for clad windows against the occasional headache of repainting the standard wood version. Be prepared for sticker shock with either product, however--these windows are truly a lifetime investment. 

As long as your budget allows it, the simplest rule of thumb for choosing window material is to replace like for like--aluminum with aluminum, wood with wood. In ten years, after the latest window fad has come and gone, you’ll be glad you did.