The uncomfortable clothes. The uncomfortable crossroads. The flat screen TV.

April 20, 2010

There’s opportunities to design better than ever before (thank you AIG and HGTV), and a receptive public finally thinking those mcmansions might actually NOT make your life better.  But there’s a fork in the road and a professionally imposed box that’s stifling a lot of possibilities.  Architects are putting their little heads down and doing the same things they know how to do again and again and again.  Footing, foundation, sill, stud, top plate, joist, rafter, skin, plumb, wire, insulate, work triangle, toilet, tub, curtains.  They know all the ingredients- all the requirements- for designing a house that was perfect 60 years ago.

Some will say “we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with.”  “Change is slow.”  But we just can’t shake the feeling that the whole build-a-house design and process as we know it is wobbling under the weight of a new set of demands.  You’ll see we’re also hinting that there probably isn’t going to be a solution that involves someone (especially us) coming up with a widget that fixes everything.  We’ll be advocating a new WHAT and a new HOW.

The Clothes, the kitchen, the possibilities:

There are many weak points we can attack on the current house as we know it.  We’ll use the kitchen because it’s lessons can be applied to other areas of the home.  How many “unique” kitchens have been designed? Hundreds of millions? You’d think there would be a few solutions that worked and we’d stick to it and it’s variations.  How many man-hours have been consumed designing kitchens and then how much more has gone into fixing poorly conceived plans (yes we know the demands shift through time but that’s an unacknowledged problem in itself).  Ironically a lot of the fixing goes into trying to fit the same basic set of tools.  For all their “uniqueness” most everyone just wants their kitchen to do the same things.  They are a spectacualry expensive portion of  a house- which we think is OK because they are the center of modern life for most of us.  But don’t you feel like they are a little awkward?  Like they go a long way towards working well but don’t typically quite get it done?  We’re as guilty as any-  we say “let’s start with this blank sheet and make a kitchen that really works!”  Well- it’s a kitchen so it has blah blahblah- and guess what- Ta dah!  it looks like a kitchen.  If you really want to bore yourself go visit 10 kitchen showrooms.  I’ll wager pretty soon you won’t be able to tell what is what or who makes what or what tray pull out or divider or closer makes what special (they almost all use Hafele, Blum- or a knock off).

Some in their quest to stand out really punch themselves in the face or worse- a round kitchen- really? Really?  But there is one company that has started the right discussion-  Jorge Pensi and Poggenpohl started looking at how we should display our objects, how we should interact with the kitchen and how we might socialize.  It’s not the perfect kitchen- but it is a MASSIVE leap.  (of coursethen Poggenpohl followe dthis up by “joinig forces”(read: paying handsomely) for Porsche to slap their brand on a big turd but I digress)- A leap we should all be thinking about next time we set pen to paper because they are looking at how to make the kitchen work better and more beautifully- how to meet our needs- not just trying to make a kitchen that LOOKS different.

This will be our jump-in point in upcoming posts from this angle.

The crossroad:

Beasts are great farm tools.  Modern farming demanded better.  You could breed better animals but there came a point when men said.  This ox just isn’t going to get the job done.  Today we build a structure (insert your favorite: frame/ sip/ panel/ ICF/other). We cram it full of mechanical guts and we skin it in something “appropriate.”  In the last few years we might add sealants, tapes, membranes to manage air movement but really we’re doing the same assembling and skinning of the same things.  It’s a terrifically flexible beast- but just like boeing reached the end of the aluminum space frame- it’s time to really look hard at what and how we are building.  Designers are trapped in this game of  “limitless possibilities”  and get so caught trying to do everything that they forget to anything.  Architects have been trying to come up with “systems” for years but they always fall into the same common traps: too limited, too limitless, too imposing, too small, too expensive, too cheap.  There’s a real lack of meeting the needs of the market or the client which is a built-in flaw to many who would re-define a segment.

I know, I know- tough nut to crack- and a whole other book and discussion and yes yes many have tried and many have failed- but the Wright brothers got that thing flying eventually.  The point is that the traditional frame/systems/skin is wobbling and imposing more wraps and sealants isn’t going to drag it forward for another 100 years.

So how do you change it?  Patience, Persistence, Marketing- and oh yeah- a great product that meets the “checklist” and budget of the consumer without imposing new problems on them .  Did you know it takes ten years for a car company to gain a footing in the USA?  Did you know that Red Bull sells over $1 billion dollars in beverages each year (not because it’s delicious)?  We see a lot of “new” ideas fail and then blame the consumer instead of fessing up to the limitations of the solutions (houses make lousy trucks).  In an upcoming post we’re going to look at some new approaches and poke thorough the graveyard for some failures.  What’s clear is that any progress will take a sustained and focused push.  It’s also going to have to push outside the architecture circles and target the consumers.  Do you know why you see all those cialis ads?  Do you know why Anderson sells so many mediocre windows?  Do you think architects are the right market for Prefab homes (we always found the proliferation a few years ago of prefab architecture in trade magazines an odd duck).    We’re talking about a great team working with the backing of some major heavy weights to make the public expect better than the status quo.

And oh yeah-  Designers should probably start coming to terms with the fact that there maybe just maybe might not be 200,000 unique independent extraordinary designers.  Hurts huh?  There will still be a need for ALL the other tools architects have crammed in their quivers in the past 20 years.  Do you think the penmen at Pininfarina know ALL the ins and outs of the engine?  Where do you think Palladio would have located the wireless access points to provide a sufficient network of coverage with all that masonry?

So we’re going to start exploring with text.  Of course we sketch and dream and we also like to attack a problem with words because the words can sometimes get you outside the proverbial box.  And then we’re going to sketch and draw and model (because that’s what we do).

Who wants in?


The complexity of simplicity. Technology and Architecture.

January 4, 2010

Once upon a time everything was easier.  Or at least we think it was.

It probably never was.  (OK- it definitely never was- think of Pa Engels trying to get to Mankato and you’ll see my point)

We’re working on a project right now with a client with substantially more trips around the sun than me.  When confronted with the complexity of options in things like a phone system or selection of a refrigerator she likes to remind us… “when we built our first house we just called AT&T and they came and put in a perfectly good phone that never had a problem…”   Truth is if all you wanted was to rotary dial- that old phone would still work.  Problem is- we expect more.

The point of this post is to look at how we manage all these “conveniences” that poke their heads into our designed world and how to stuff them back in the box- or at least polish them into something that results in convenience and not aggravation.  Ideally we take the pile of complexity and reduce it to a few knobs and buttons (ok ok maybe some touch screens) that never need to be thought about again (or at least until the next cool convenience is needed).

In a house in 2010 you have ALL the traditional stuff to think about (like floor plans, structures, heating, cooling etc).  Most homeowners now demand a whole other host of “stuff.”  Lighting is not a floor lamp with a thumb switch-  we have scenes, and coves, and down-lights, and accents, and ambient sources to coordinate and control.  We don’t have TVs with two knobs-  we have cable boxes and receivers, and sound conditioners, 9-channels of sound, 3 kinds of radio, music libraries- all digital, all high def- and frequently portable (yes ipod I’m talking to you).  We have phone systems that are little cell networks and answering services, and we overlay a family worth of laptops, personal computers, blackberries, iphones.  You want to print? Open and close the blinds?  Raise and lower the temperature?  Set the alarm?  Sense fire or smoke of CO?

Great.  A set of buttons and a wall device for each one.  A 747 worth of controls for each room.  Now how do I change the volume?  Oh crap… the TV just changed channels… maybe this one? no the furnace just shut off…  OK this button here?  no the radio just turned on.  Now I have no heat, the lights turned off, the radio and the TV are both playing full blast!   Make it go away!!!!

We hear it all the time… ” I just want a switch on the wall!”  but quickly it gets out of control.  In my own kitchen I have three switches (pendants, recessed, and under cabinet).  After 5 years I flip all three wrong switches every time I enter or leave the room.  AND I have a big ugly three gang at all three entrances to the room.

So- we advocate two approaches-  Go ALL in.  Or don’t go in at all.  We’ve seen success with both- but going half-sies gets disastrous quick.

A) All in:  This mean all lighting, AV, security, shading is centrally coordinated and distributed.  It lets the machines do the thinking, it lets you endlessly upgrade- and you get rid of all the “wall acne.”  It needs one person as the coordinator so a singular logic is applied.  When done correctly these systems are intuitive, bulletproof, fuctional, and expandable.

B) Not at all:  This means simple simple simple.  Single scene lighting, lamps with manual controls, shade and drapery with no motors, no phone system, a thermostat for each zone.  A cable box at each TV.  MAYBE a simple surround system for one main TV.

It’s an easy formula.

When you try to mix a little A and a little B- you limit you’re future options and you add complexity to you’re complexity.   We’ve seen the results and the results are frustrating for everyone.

So the lesson is put you’re complex technologies in one box-  or keep them out of your house entirely!

Minutiae and Tiger Woods

October 8, 2009

“All I am thinking about is winning the tournament. Winning takes care of everything else.” -Tiger Woods

It applies to design, architecture, politics, life and love.

We often encounter people, trades, and life decisions that get derailed and distracted by the bits and pieces- so caught up in the little messy details- that they lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish.  This never ever means that you don’t need to clean up the messy details- you absolutely NEED to be mindful of the minutae-  But the focus needs to be the goal.  When you  focus on the goals it helps organize everything nice and neat.

Now in tigers case- he practices and practices and trains and plans and strategizes.  It’s not like he shows up at the tournament- takes the wrappers off some new clubs and lets her rip.  He actually has a big team of people scouting and planning, and moving his boat, and getting his clothes and more of a monster machine that would be hard to conceive-  but his and his team’s focus is on winning the tournament.  Everything he and his team do is about winning.

The concept takes a big murky blob of minutiae and reorients it into a black and white.  It’s a little like a magnet orienting a pile of iron filings.  Win= success.  Lose = failure.  Define clearly where you are going- and the little  things happen.

Our projects always have a skin of simplicity- but under the skin there is a terrific mast of planning, structure, technical coordination, material specifying, ordering, delivery, integration and interplay and on and on-  It’s a very complex road of careful arduous work to make something very simple.  Sometimes we run into contractors that THOUGHT at the outset they had a very simple task- and then they get up to their necks- and go “wohhhhh! You’re asking me to do so much! and this and that and blahhhh!!!” And we say- one step- you mr contractor do your one step.  Here is the result- the goal.  Here is the team working with you. Each person does his part and the machine will spit out the result.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s work.

So to sum it up- When things might look hopeless- return to what your goal is.  When you focus on the goal- everything else is easy.

Made in China

August 11, 2009

How many times do we have to say ” they don’t make them like they used to” before we go and ask ourselves- “Why don’t they make them like they used to?”

And To get all biblical on you- the root to the erosion of quality could probably be viewed through the glass of ye’ ole’ deadley sins ( – if you need a refresher).

To get more real as designers we often are faced with balancing the many things the client wants, the many facets of quality, and a fixed budget.  We’ve all been there-  I want the Porsche 911- My budget is more like a Volkswagen GTI- venerable, but different.

So where does China come in here?

There was a time where when you wanted a hammer, you went to the hardware store and bought a hammer.  In modern times with the advent of the internet, global shipping, and Home Depot- you decide you want a hammer, you research price- from artisan to cheap steel, you weigh the pros and cons and what it’s worth to you and you make your purchase.

But a Hammer is simple.  Design is not.

In design we sit down and we identify what we want to do.  An old GC way to help clients understand the complexity is a simple three pointed triangle- like a math equation you can pick two of the three and they will set the third:




You can pick the size and the budget- and that will limit your material choices.  You can pick your materials and budget- that will determine how much you can do. Or you can pick your scope and materials and that will fix the budget.

But in 2009 the picture is murkier.  The internet is powerful.  But power can’t replace experience and hands on “feel” or “quality.”  In the old days if we picked our scope and materials- we got our budget and if we could afford it we did it-  if it was too much, we either modified our plans or saved up the money to do it right.

With the surge of a global economy and a consumer soaked in internet (and HGTV)  gleaned knowledge we have more to consider in the previously tidy three factor equation.  And there are two major players: 1] Cheap semi-skilled labor and the “guy with a truck” that promises to “do the same thing for half the price.”  2]China and the supertankers full of products that promise “the same thing for half the price.”

When presented with a “want” that is more costly than what someone can afford there is a shady character hanging around the corner- “pssst- over here kid!”

The promise is “we can provide what you can’t afford at a price that you can afford.”  “We can give you a 911 for the price of a GTI.”  But it rarely comes to fruition.  Most of the time it ends up looking like a GTI with some 911 wheels and some tacky fender flares glued to an otherwise competent product.

So the truth is YOU CAN MAKE THEM LIKE THEY USED TO!  But you have to invest in the quality-  quality is intangible but really the most important thing that endures after the contractors have gone home.  You’re eye quickly goes blind to the marble or nickel finishes but you will continually be bothered by crooked, creaky, wiggly things or finishes that wear too soon.

I’m not saying that everything from china is bad- or every guy with a truck is unskilled- but you have to fight the urge to jump on things that promise what’s likely too good to be true.  If you can’t afford something done the right way-  maybe Seriously consider waiting until you can- or rethinking your scope, or being more creative with simpler materials.  The long term return will be much more satisfying.

So HOW do you build it like they used to?

1-Be realistic about your budget, scope and materials- carefully weigh what’s important

2- If someone offers the same thing for less- make them show you-  if it’s a product that “is the same thing”- get a sample, hold it in your hand, look at it installed.  If it’s the craftsman? go look in person at something you can verify he has done.

3- Remember- If you want what you want it is going to cost what it costs.  Chasing the same for less means someone somewhere is getting the short end of it.  Make sure that YOU aren’t the one getting the short end.

Lessons from DeBeers- And the stainless steel range.

July 6, 2009

The other day I heard a discussion about whether we “like” things because we like them or because we are taught to “like” them.   This is especially interesting as a residential architect that is frequently confronted with the question of why it costs so damn much to build anything.  I break that down into 3 reasons- 1) Building codes that require more and more, and nationalize what used to be regional preferences  2) A bloating of the “needs” list 3) people have accepted the idea that they should spend the maximum they can afford- and builders/designers are happy to comply.

I like to point out that one of my favorite rooms is my living room where I have two lamps on my mantel that put out 50 watts each.  There’s not even a wall switch- you walk up to the lamp and turn the thumb screw.  The light is warm and cozy-  it’s bright enough to read, there’s no glare on the TV.   This lighting setup is a great example of how the codes and the “must have” balloon have conspired to run up construction costs without any real benefit.  Building code would dictate that we have at a minimum a wall switch to turn on the lights-  the receptacle concealed face up in the top of the mantel would be considered a fire hazard.  “Convention” would also most likely require 4 or more recessed fixtures- some sconces over the mantle wouldn’t be out of place, and you would certainly need a dimmer- these days it wouldn’t be unusual to have some grazing lights or wall washers to provide some drama.  No big deal right?   In new construction in our market it would easily add $3,000 in material,  and labor-  for a lighting scene that would arguably not be an improvement over my lamps.  Repeat throughout the rest of the house and you’ll see the impact of the “new” way of thinking.

And guess what?

I don’t have a tub in my master bathroom.


Ask people with jet engine powered tubs how often they use their tub and 95% will tell you they used it when they moved in- and maybe once a year (they take too long to fill and make so much noise that it’s not especially relaxing).  We’re told “you need it for resale.”   I agree- most buyers have that big jacuzzi tub on their checklist too.  But me- I’m betting $10k that there will be another person like me who likes the bigger window and luxurious open floor space more than the unused acrylic bucket that “should” be there.  It’s a bet I was willing to loose.

I bring up DeBeers because they’ve fought a splendidly coordinated multi decade battle to ensure that: A) A diamond is the only proof of love B) Any apeman suitor knows the “4Cs” C) They control the supply chain to maintain exclusivity – oh and lets not forget D) the really preposterous “3 month salary” guideline.   They’ve indelibly ingrained the necessity of diamond purchases into the conciousnous of lovers around the world (which would mostly be everybody).  In most circles the mere suggestion of eschewing the diamond engagement ring will at best be greeted with polite sympathetic nodding by others that know better.

So what’s DeBeers have to do with our houses?  There are a lot of parallells that have organically crept into housing design without even a coordinated effort like the one by DeBeers.

As designers we usually start by talking with our clients about what they would like and what they will need.  Back in the cave man days I imagine that the conversation was pretty short.

Designer:  What would you like in your new cave?

Client:  Maybe something like a cave?  A Dry cave would be really nice!

The typical “needs” list of our clients has been ballooning at a steady pace.  Since the dawn of printing there have been design books filling clients heads with new ideas- but I target the real acceleration with a point in the 1980s when the commercial range became the must have domestic appliance.  From this point on the race has been on to one-up the Joneses- or maybe Martha Stewarts.  At some point people started asking for things they don’t need or even necessarily want-  they started asking for things that they think they are supposed to need.

Now don’t get me wrong-  This stuff is cool.  Diamonds are cool-  They appeal to our lowest level of [homer simpson voice] “Shiinneeey.”  Our family?  We cook.  We like our fancy kitchen.  Big tub?  Great Idea.  Stone Counters?  Great.  Wood floors? Home theater? Integrated lighting/AV/HVAC?  stainless steel?  Frameless shower glass?  Screwless faceplates?  Flangeless recess lights?  Green? Zero VOC paints?  Solar thermal?  Radiant flooring?  No problem!  And the flood of chinese “stuff” has made it all tantalizingly attainable.

All the latest “must haves”  are great.  But do you need them? Will you enjoy them?  Will you even notice them after the first couple weeks of living with them?

So when you build your next “need” list-  who is informing the needs? You’re realtor? Home Depot? Martha Stewart (or Dwell)?  Extreme Home Makeover?  Your Neighbors?  Are you starting with a big list and trying to edit down or are you starting with a blank sheet and trying to add up.  If you stop and think about what each item really means and what it really costs-  what is the real world joy you will get from that thing? –  you can get to a much better focused list.

You don’t have to be a monk- but you don’t need to be a glutton either.

Architectures “Big Night”

June 1, 2009

Architects are often accused of being elitist and the recent departure of Michelle Kaufman Design scratched up some of the stinkiest elitist attitudes that will always keep the custom home market from engaging a broader audience.  The closure of MKD is poignant because her designs are good (if not great) her business model and “open door” were some of the most approachable yet and the press (both AP and trade) adored MKD.  How could MKD fail?

I could do ten arguments but I’ll do two. One half I’ll call- “Big Night” Syndrome.  One half I’ll call “Everybody is dumb but me.”

“Big Night” Syndrome:

In the movie “Big Night” two brothers struggle to open a “true” Italian restaurant in post war america.  It’s a beautiful movie and a wonderful lesson.  Faced with serving the food the customers want or the food the brothers know is “correct”- they choose the “correct” path (and go out of business).  To enhance the architectural parallel- down the street is a typical american-italian red sauce pasta palace that is packed to the gills nightly (Spec builders hmmm?).

Architects for centuries have yearned for mass acceptance and accolades- like lonely children that just need to be hugged-  the history books are littered with examples of beautiful- yet unloved “masterpieces.”  In architecture school a favorite professor would tell us what most architects refuse to hear.  “Give them what they want- not what they asked for.”  But too often in architecture you see architects dishing out “Give them what they don’t want and didn’t ask for.”  You don’t have to do disneyfied repro mcmansions-  but if the market doesn’t appreciate your latest and greatest fete that you think is so brilliant you have three choices: A) Find a niche that does appreciate it  (Even Pontiac sold a few Aztecs) B) Educate your client base (remember how long Rem Koolhaas WROTE before he BUILT?)  C)  Close the doors.  Sulking is not option D.  Nobody wants to hear it.

“Everybody is dumb but me.”

Here I’ll run through the top 3 excuses that always float to the surface when architecture fails.

Myth 1- The GC is stupid:  In our office we help select the GC.  It’s our job to make sure the GC is qualified, experienced, and understands our goals.  You can get (and pay for) a highly qualified professional builder or you can try to educate, hand hold, and prop up a less qualified GC- but either way it’s up to the architect to COMMUNICATE all the goals, materials, techniques, and expectations.  If the GC fails we share in the failure.  All architects should do this.  I would even say the VAST MAJORITY of GCs really WANT to do the best work possible. 

Myth 2- The bank is stupid:  Somehow it’s been lost in the details that you don’t own your house until you make that last payment.  I know it’s not polite to say but you effectively rent your house from the bank 360 months.  If you want to build what YOU want you can either work with the bank or pay for it with your own cash.  With the rate of foreclosure lately it’s easy to see why lenders don’t want to fund your latest fantasy.

Myth 3- The customers buying the mcmansions are stupid:  Architects and designers are more guilty than any other field of thinking that if they designed it- it must be good.  If you design something that nobody wants to buy- did you ever consider that maybe the design isn’t very good?  Or maybe the fact that a custom design has limited appeal is OK!  Heresy!!!  I don’t care for Mcmansions- but the Mcmansions meet the needs of the people buying them.  The Spec Builders are providing what architects either refuse to, or are incapable of providing.  That doesn’t make the customer stupid.  There’s room for Ford and there’s room for Ferrari- but the folks in Modena don’t look down on Ford drivers- they probably don’t even think of them (unless you consider the GT or the latest European Focus designed by Pininfarina).

But what does it LOOK like?

May 18, 2009

There’s a lesson to learn in the failures of architects efforts to “revolutionize” housing.  The failure comes when each good idea is accompanied by an additional subset of impositions that the designer feels entitled to impose on the theoretical owners.

Where we depart in our search for the new ideas is that we don’t care what the innovations LOOK like.  We’re evaluating the success on how well they work.  Architects are trained to worry about how things look.  But looks are subjective, timely, fickle, and pursuit of a universally accepted aesthetic is fruitless.

Henry Ford was not a genius.  He actually gathered a bunch of great ideas and wrapped them in a package that was easy for everyman to afford, to appreciate, and to see themselves achieving.   He didn’t offer options or the latest or greatest of anything- he wrapped competent technology is a package that someone with a horse and carriage could get their head around.

In the search for what the new house means we accept as a starting point that we don’t care what it looks like.  If it’s going to be a success it’s got to look “good.” 

But the housing has to work. 

So what works?  What does it WORK like?

Time to look at the Case Study Houses

May 16, 2009

Following WWII a small magazine in California quietly but boldly started rethinking what the meaning of what a house meant to post war America.  See here:

For 20 years we’ve watched an explosion of technology and ideas and construction- some good, some bad- but the results are a bloated stew. 

It’s time to purge the system- take a hard look at what’s working and what isn’t. 

The Case Study Homes have been beaten to death (but still stand up)- but most all the re-visitors get hung up on the aesthetics or the novelty of their technology or systems, or get all weak in the knees at the big names.  What we’re going to do is to look at the recent “advances” and come away with a clear, focused understanding of what it means to be a modern residential architect.  What we’ll be seeking is to dig up the new people or firms or technologies that close the loop to clarify where we stand and where we’re going.

You’ve got to make a mess before you can clean it up- so get ready to get dirty.


March 24, 2009

A great cookbook not only has nice pictures so you know what you’re shooting for, but it also has ingredients, and instructions telling you how to put it all together.
The drawings are only a small part of what the professional architect does. Many projects go awry when a builder is left to fill in blanks left by the designer
A great architect provides the ingredients and the instructions to assemble attractive and trouble free homes. It’s the hands-on knowledge of materials, fixtures, lighting, hardware and design details that separate the so-so home from spectacular custom homes worthy of the glossy magazines

Blue Jeans and Black Suits

February 6, 2009

I used to think there were two classes of architect- But I was wrong:
There are three classes of architect. They all have a place (and they don’t necessarily dress like their category).

1: Blue Jeans:
We like this guy- he’s the closest to who we model our approach after.
We think this is the best kind of designer for the greatest number of people.
When you meet him he will really listen and probably ask some surprising questions to get at the heart of what you are looking for. He’ll help you to arrive at what you want- not necessarily what you were asking for. He’s less likely to scream at your GC and more likely to show up on site and solve a problem. That’s because to him his line on paper isn’t abstract- It’s a piece of wood, a sheet of finish material, or the shape of a blade needed to cut a molding. His custom design will cost you more than what we provide but you’ll get the peace of mind from working with a partner as opposed to financing a “vision.”

2: Black Suits:
A Black suit will build you his latest building du jour. Not your home- his. Behind schedule and over budget he’ll produce a wonderful piece of art for you. You’ll fund this step in his stairway to greatness and for some clients it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Sadly we’ve seen more than a few people who thought they were building their dream house, and ended up building their architects dream house.

3: There’s a third type of architect. He’s an engineer, or business man, hiding in an architect’s costume. You’ve seen their awkward ugly products squatting around your town. You know what it looks like so beware!