Sunday, November 16, 2014

House Refinements

What is the difference between architecture and building? For some, the difference is related to the structure's use, i.e: all public buildings are architecture whereas, all domestic or industrial buildings are simply places for people to take shelter from the weather. Yet there are beautiful pavilions, small buildings, and houses which are considered great works of architecture.  For others, the significance of the structure is what separates architecture from mere building. This would suggest that the Philadelphia Waterworks by Benjamin Latrobe is mere shelter for waterworks equipment, whereas Snow White's Castle (a very significant structure for many) is architecture - and we know that is not the case! Monticello is simply a house, albeit a beautifully crafted one. It is one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in America.  Its architect, Thomas Jefferson was not only the third President of the United States but also, a refined man who traveled Europe and learned from the best examples before embarking on his own architectural pursuits. We propose that what separates architecture from mere building is architectural refinement.
Monticello by Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia Waterworks by Benjamin Latrobe
In modernist architecture the idea of refinement is seen in buildings by Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan and Richard Meier, among many others.  Wright's materials and proportions, especially in houses like Robie House and Fallingwater, demonstrate refinement in proportion, scale, and in how different materials come together. Louis Khan's use of brick in his buildings at Chandigarh, his use of stainless steel and wood panels on the exterior of the Yale British Art Gallery, are very refined uses of those materials in architecture. Richard Meier's three dimensional geometrical essays in white painted wood, glass, and steel and their painstaking detailing is certainly among the best that any one architect could achieve in a lifetime.

Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Douglas House by Richard Meier
But what about traditional houses, are they architecture or simply building? We suggest that the same answer applies to traditional houses; what can make them transcend into architecture is their refinement. Houses must accommodate a program (i.e. rooms based on needs) into a predetermined area but only those that do so with refinement are considered excellent works of architecture. Our service as architects and designers of houses consists in creating beautifully proportioned buildings fitting in with their surroundings and beautifully proportioned rooms seamlessly integrated with the specific client requirements and decoration.

Gunston Hall, a Georgian house

A Dutch Colonial house
Most traditional houses today are a developement of a Colonial Revival type.  These vary by regional use which is influenced not only by climatic factors, but also by cultural ones: Victorian, Tudor, Georgian, Federal, Shingle, Dutch, Cape Cod, etc; the names vary according to region and local usage, but the idea is the same.  We decide which type is culturally relevant, depending on where we are designing.  One of my mentors, Jaque Robertson, who began his architectural career as a "moderninst" and later developed into a "traditionalist", talks about the type's "DNA" rather than referring to these as styles.  Conceptualized this way, the architecture regains its tradition and its freedom since one is not bound by rigid rules of "style" but, one is free to invent while keeping the "DNA" of the type.  Since there are many expressions within the language of traditional architecture, there are also many expressions of architectural refinements. What follows is a discussion of some of these refinements.
Graduated clapboard siding at the Mather House

Graduated roofing slates
While the massing of traditional houses is composed of simple volumes, the materials used on the roofs and walls vary as much as budgets will allow. Slate roof shingles would not be used on Cape Cod houses but they would be entirely appropriate for a brick or stone Georgian house. Slate roofs should be graduated so that the thicker shingles are used towards the bottom of the roof while the thinner ones are used towards the top.  There are also instances where the wall siding exposure is also graduated so that the wider pieces are used at the bottom, and the narrower ones at the top of the wall.  One such instance occurs at the Mather House in Connecticut (see photo above- courtesy of More commonly however, siding variances simply accommodate the sizes of windows so that the siding begins and ends on a whole board.
Larger windows on the lower floor

Colunmns with entasis
In most traditional houses windows are typically smaller on the upper floor and larger on the lower floor, not only in response to the uses (more public on the first, more private on the second) but also, because this makes the building look more elegant. Entry porticoes typically have columns with entasis which also renders them more elegant than simple tubes. In houses, entasis starts from the bottom of the columns instead of a third up the shaft to enhance the feeling of verticality. Also, instead of sitting the columns on a wood plinth, it is better to support them on bluestone plinths to avoid rot and give a greater sense of strength and stability. These columns will support an entablature which in turn can support a pediment. The entablature aligns with the upper necking of the columns which means that the porch footprint is slightly larger than the footprint of the roof covering the porch.

In shingle type houses, it is customary to use Alaskan yellow cedar shingles on the roofs and bleached western red cedar shingles on the walls. When the shingles weather to a gray color, the different wood makes the ensemble look more interesting because of the slightly different shades on the roof than on the wall. In many instances, the walls and roofs are built with an outward bend at the bottom edges; this makes the buildings look lively rather than staid.

Alaskan yellow cedar shingles on roofs and bleached western red cedar shingles on walls
In stone houses, even when rubble is used, all the openings should have a properly proportioned lintel and sill.  In some cases, coursed stone walls can also be graduated so that the coursing varies slightly from wider stones at the bottom to narrower ones at the top; this enhances the feeling of height in smaller buildings.  This effect can be observed at the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. Charles Platt designed the Freer in 1916; by then, he had successfully completed about 30 houses.
Details on a house by Charles Platt

Freer Gallery by Charles Platt
Carefully coordinating the proportions of all these elements and in turn coordinating them with the particular "DNA" of the architectural type is the job of the architect.  When done well, it is a continual source of joy and discovery for both the owner and the architect.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Townhouses for better living

Most townhouses in New York City were built between the 1860's and the the 1930's and vary greatly in architectural expression. Some townhouses are also called brownstones; this term refers to those that were constructed with sandstone of reddish-brownish color which was commonly used as a building material at the turn of the 20th Century on the East Coast. As a typology, New York City townhouses are usually narrow buildings with three to four stories and a basement or garden floor. The floor plan's organization is dictated by window placement. Since the sidewall of the buildings abut, windows are only possible on the front and back walls. 
Typical townhouse plan
 That is the reason for locating the main public rooms such as the living or dining, fronting the street and the more private rooms such as the bedrooms, facing the garden or back of the building.  Service rooms such as kitchens, bathrooms, closets, and stair halls end up in the middle of the building. These rooms can have lower ceilings, allowing space for mechanical systems and transfer of the plumbing pipes above them. The central stair hall usually has a skylight at the top of the stairs to bring light to the center of the floor plan.

Townhouse front stoop

Brownstones typically have a front stoop which connects the street to the parlor or main floor, thereby becoming a nexus between the public and the private realms. Stoops are your first impression as you walk by the building and they set the character for the architecture. There is no substitute for a properly scaled stone banister with stone balusters and properly proportioned columns to greet you as you pass the threshold into the front hall. 
Front hall
The front hall leads to the stair, which can be an arresting design element; it also opens unto the parlor room via a pair of tall double doors. With ceilings as tall as 12 feet or more, the parlor floor can easily accommodate the main rooms of the house such as living, dining, library, or other entertaining rooms. In fact, tall ceilings is one of the reasons townhouses are a popular residential building type.

A few steps down from the sidewalk, the basement or the garden floor, has access to the garden which can be a landscaped sanctuary in the midst of the bustling city. Though this floor has the lowest ceiling heights, between 8 and 9 feet, it can be the best location for certain recreation rooms of the house such as the gym, billiard room, or media room, as well as the kitchen, laundry room and other less visible rooms of the house.
Townhouse interiors tend to be chockfull of columns, wainscoting, paneling, bookcases, as well as beautiful floors and ceilings; this millwork is what gives townhouses their character. In many instances, the central staircase has beautifully turned balusters and handrails running to the top floors. 
Central staircase
The millwork is hierarchically organized so that the more public rooms have the most intricate and elaborate window and door casings, crown and base moldings. The millwork in the parlor room is the grandest and most intricate of the house. Moldings get progressively simpler and less ornate as one moves through the corridors to reach the bedrooms and baths. Millwork character cannot be appropriately understood without reference to scale. Scale is a measurement of the size of something relative to the size of something else and ultimately relative to the size of a person.
Parlor's elaborate millwork
Bathroom's simpler millwork
When a room is appropriately scaled you feel good in it, when it is not, you feel less good. So, if you have a room with very tall windows (as usually happens on the exterior rooms of a townhouse) the doors on the opposite interior wall should be commensurately tall, sometimes with a transom above them. Making bigger doors that relate to the building’s exterior windows is a choice that triggers another choice: the relative size of the casing around the doors. This “calibration” of the architecture is what makes townhouse architectural design a three dimensional symphony which is fun to compose; when done appropriately, it is deeply satisfying for both the architect and the occupants.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Houses for Better Living (Part Two)

             Part Two continues the list of residential design principles started on part one.

              Houses should have a “narrow”footprint.The idea is that the proper amount
              of light and air get to all the rooms; any wall that is farther than 25 feet
              from a window is too far.
             All “rooms for living” such as living and dining rooms should have two
              ways in and out of them. This will ensure proper circulation when you
              have a party. 
              Grand stairs belong in “Gone with the Wind” Southern mansions. Most
houses do
              not need to express the stair this way; in point of fact, it is fitting to keep it tucked to
              the side since it leads to the private areas of the house. 
Plan of a house designed by David Adler (note stair hall).
Stair hall with stair "tucked to the side"
 Whenever possible, avoid long corridors but, if they cannot be avoided then
              create stopping places along the way for a bench or a “phone table”. In
              tropical climates these corridors used to be on the exterior of the house, so
              they would overlook the lush exterior gardens or patios.  
Visual relief in interior corridor
Exterior corridor provides access to house's rooms
          The “focal point”of a living room or dining room is usually the fireplace;
               whenever possible, the preferred position for a fireplace is on the long walls.
               Where there is no fireplace, the focal point may simply be a view.
               The “focal point” of the kitchen is typically the stove so, make it the center
               The “focal point” of the bathroom is typically the vanity so, make it
Kitchen focused on range
Living room focused on fireplace
    Avoid entering bedrooms on the side of the bed. Enter the bedroom
    facing the room so that you can see the totality of the room instead of
    immediately bumping into the biggest piece of furniture right under your
    nose as you walk in.  
Enter the bedroom facing the whole room
Some people compare our present “post-recession” time with the “post-depression” time of the late 1903’s and early 1940’s.  At that time, architecture in the US was beginning to feel the impact of European Modernism but, there were several architects who kept traditional residential architecture alive such as Royal Barry Wills, Dwight James Baum, Cameron Clark, James Robert Cerny, John Straub, Paul R. Williams, and H. Roy Kelley. In1938, the editors of Life magazine sponsored a competition in which they paired four traditional architects with four modernist architects and four real clients.  Royal Barry Wills was paired with Frank Lloyd Wright; Wills won the competition. In a 1946 article on Wills, published in Life magazine, the editors noted (against their own editorial preference) that colonial designs were "excellent utilitarian objects" and were therefore no less rational than any other modernist design of their time.

House floor plan by Royal Barry Wills

House floor plan by Dwight James Baum
Today as before, the “tension” between traditional and modernist design preferences is still very much in the air. The architectural establishment has virtually ignored any recent contribution of traditional architects.  Still, houses, cultural, public, and commercial structures are being built following traditional architectural principles. There are many contemporary designers who claim that innovative designs will contribute to solve our financial woes. There is no doubt that innovation should play a significant role in the solution, but given our human nature to dwell comfortably in rooms, we must also pay attention to time proven principles that focus on the person who occupies the room.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Houses for Better Living (Part One)

As architects, we may sometimes get involved in “controversial” conversations about the latest architectural design article in the NY Times, taste, or modern versus traditional design.  My friends know that I have been involved in designing houses for high net worth individuals and they think that my taste has developed to the point where whatever I say will be colored by that experience.  Some of them, those who know me better, freely ask my opinions on how they could improve their living room, bathroom, or kitchen. They are taken by surprise when I tell them that the principles to find the “solution” for their particular problem are the same ones that we use to guide our decisions with all of our clients. These principles are simply based on human comfort and on how people dwell comfortably in the rooms they occupy. They apply to houses in all income brackets because they are based on people, not wealth. In fact these principles are found in almost all houses designed before World War II. In Puerto Rico, where I grew up, pre- World War II houses were designed following these basic principles, the only difference between the houses for the wealthy and those for the rest was their size, materials, and the surface treatment of the rooms. So in deference to all my friends who live in Cape Cods and Colonial Revival houses which pepper our American landscape, here’s a list of principles to help guide any house design project.  At the end of the day, I think you will agree, these simply make common sense. Some of these principles engage the overall design of the house; others refer to the individual rooms.

Elements of the rooms scaled to the room's proportions
Houses are basically a collection of rooms, not undefined spaces. People occupy these rooms and therefore the scale of the room defines how comfortable a person feels in it. If the room is too big, too narrow, too short, or too tall people will not feel comfortable. Scale is a measurement of an element in the room relative to the overall size of the room and ultimately relative to an average sized person; the individual elements of the room should be scaled appropriately. Everything starts with the human condition.

The openings in a room (windows and doors) should be properly proportioned to the room.  The building code requires openings to be a certain minimum size to provide adequate light and air. Beyond the code requirements, if the openings are too big or too small, too tall or too short, people will not feel comfortable. 
Modest window openings scaled to a modestly sized room
 Besides enclosing and separating rooms, walls are used to display pictures and other memorabilia and to define and give character to the room. The room’s character is typically expressed by its moldings which divide the walls into: top (crown molding), middle (wainscoting or simply the wall proper), and bottom (base molding). These moldings should be properly proportioned to the room so that people feel comfortable in it. They are also designed more or less elaborately depending on the character of the architecture and the room. Georgian houses have more elaborate moldings than beach houses; living rooms, dining rooms, and entry halls have more elaborate moldings than kitchens, bathrooms, or bedrooms.
Colonial entry with elaborate moldings

Lake house bedroom with simple moldings